Letter in a Battle

Rediscovered cache of castoff communiqués captures World War II and 1940s Phoenix

I wasn't able to reach the Creasmans by phone. But the next morning, back at the trash pile in the alley, my luck improved.


When Jimmy Creasman stepped into the alley through a narrow gateway from his shaded yard that morning in December 1998, he seemed smaller than the man I'd imagined in the letters. Slightly stooped, and in his 80s, he wore khaki pants and a thin white tee shirt. He looked chagrined. But I couldn't tell whether that was due to having been caught discarding his life, or to having to shake the hand of a stranger who had rummaged through it.

Jimmy Creasman, far left, and then-professor John R. Murdoch, far right, at the 50th anniversary of Arizona State College
courtesy of Dorothy Creasman
Jimmy Creasman, far left, and then-professor John R. Murdoch, far right, at the 50th anniversary of Arizona State College
Congressman John Murdock and his wife, Myrtle, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
courtesy of Rachael Ellis
Congressman John Murdock and his wife, Myrtle, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

He was glad to get the letters back. His voice still had a hint of the "golden throat" he was known for during his radio career. He said he had boxed the letters in storage years ago and didn't know they were among the things he was throwing away. We talked a while about the war. He jotted down his phone number on an old business card he picked out of the dirt, and invited me back another time.

But he became ill before that second visit could occur. He died last August at age 85.

Several months ago, the Creasman family invited me to revisit the letters and the story I'd gleaned from them. It is a story about how one war can be so different for two families, and how the loyalties in Creasman's circle of friends made the small world of Phoenix seem even smaller. It is a story about how one man's fate can alter the course of others.

The story begins not with Jimmy Creasman, but with David Murdock, son of the congressman. Creasman's letters contained numerous references to the Murdocks, and to David, who also served in the war. They hinted at a fateful link between the two men's wartime experiences, and between the Murdocks and Howard Pyle -- historical tidbits that seemed worth pursuing.

David Murdock felt the full brunt of America's early fighting in the war in North Africa and Europe. Jimmy Creasman witnessed the war's conclusion in Germany. This week, New Times looks at Murdock's experience.

I'd met the Murdock family several years earlier, and knew something of their family's history. But I didn't know that they, too, had kept many of their family's war letters -- bundles of them. David Murdock's sister, Rachael Ellis, and niece, Janie, pulled them from drawers and closets in their Scottsdale home. David's brother -- John Ben Murdock, whom the family called Ben to distinguish him from his father -- sent more letters from his home in Pennsylvania.


Murdock and Creasman were both born in 1914. They were older than the average recruit when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in December 1941. By then, Murdock had been in the Army for four months. Creasman's work as a broadcaster had earned him a temporary deferment from duty.

Both men knew each other from a distance. Creasman had grown up in Mesa, where his father ran the Gate City Ice Company. Yet he became prominent as president of the student body at Tempe while Murdock's father was still teaching there.

Like Creasman, David Murdock had also notched some local prominence. He was one of Arizona's champion divers in the early 1930s, when just about all of the state's large swimming events were held at the Olympic pool in Tempe Beach Park.

For a time, he belonged to a trio of tumblers -- including Forest Stroup and Bert Goodrich, who later became Mr. America -- who performed in parks around the Valley.

In his early 20s, he had established himself as a talented musician and composer, and wrote a suite of music based on life in the desert, called "Scenes From the Southwest."

Instead of studying at Tempe, he went off to the University of Arizona in Tucson to continue studying music with Madame Elenore Altman, a pianist from Poland, who had begun tutoring him as a child. He played football for the university.

"Madame Altman was always telling David to quit the football team down there," his sister Rachael, now 90, recalls, "because he was constantly injuring his hands. But every Saturday she'd be there in the stands, rooting him on."

Back in Phoenix in the late 1930s, with a master's degree in music, Murdock taught music at Glendale and Tolleson high schools, directed choirs and led the Orpheus Club, a local men's choral society.

In those days before the war, says Rachael, Murdock would sometimes wander the strip of desert that the Ellises had on Cattle Track in Scottsdale, playing what he called "growing tunes" on a flute. Like millions of others in the civilian army, fighting a war was about the last thing he wanted to do.

When he was drafted into the Army on August 11, 1941, he hoped that his musical experience would land him a spot in the Army band. But he wound up in basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas.

Midway through the training, he wrote to his mother in Washington that he didn't mind the miles and miles of maneuvers "thru brush and hills and sand. No gripe, I can take it as well as any and better than most, but it all seems so pointless, a muddled up mess & no [one] knew where we were going nor what they were supposed to do . . .

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