The official day of commemorating our war dead was this past Monday, but something this important is never untimely. It was in the wake of Memorial Day this year that a friend and I were discussing his father’s death during World War II. He told me that his mother had saved all of his dad’s letters to her, which he inherited when she died. I made a comment like “It must be nice to read the actual words of your real father, in his own handwriting.” When my friend asked whether I would like to see them — knowing of my intense interest in history — I jumped at the chance to read a first person account.
Those of you who’ve watched Band of Brothers and other war dramas may find nothing remarkable in the letters, but it’s one thing to see a dramatic rendition on a screen and another to hold these heart-felt missives in my hand, knowing that once they had been in his and sent off with such high hopes of following them home someday soon. His longing for home and his sense of disconnection from the life he had led moved me more than I could have imagined. I realized, in short, how much I take for granted in my own life, like knowing I would never endure the winter cold of northern Europe while waiting for war to end — or to kill or be killed.
With his son’s permission, I’m sharing one of the letters of this young soldier as my way of honoring all of our fallen warriors in this week of Memorial Day 2012. The following was written by a 23-year-old lieutenant to his wife on October 3, 1944, from Luxembourg:
Here I sit in my pup tent trying my best to keep warm so my pen won’t shake too much. Boy, you can tell winter is coming cause you can’t tell the difference between cigarette smoke and your breath. Must be a lot of moisture around here. Early in the morning the clouds are as low as the tree tops. Luckily they issued us another blanket–that brings me up to 4 and G (tent mate) has 5 so with a total of 9 we’re not doin’ too bad. The one big trouble we find is keeping our feet warm. Your damn shoes get wet and never get a chance to dry. Other than this, life isn’t too bad – we’re getting so damn many smokes in this area, it would take 1 every 5 minutes to burn them up. I’ve still got the carton of Luckies I bought on the boat. We’re getting plenty of roll candy from 10 in 1 rations – so you know with smokes for the habit and candy for my sweet tooth, I’m plenty happy.
They showed another movie yesterday, but I had seen it – The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The guys went for it in a big way. The only trouble with movies is it makes a guy think too much of home after it’s over. Boy, when I get home, you are going to be the one to go up the street for the ice cream and beer – I ain’t setting a foot away from the kitchen, the fire-place, and the bedroom (just so you know you are still married to the same ole guy) – all I want is my wife and that little boy of ours – nothing more ever – (so, okay, we’ll have two or three brothers or sisters for Junior).
Speaking of Junior, guess he’s giving his mommy a royal bootin’ by now. Give him a good talking to if he gets too frisky. Tell him he’ll have to settle with his old man if he goes hurting his mom.
Hon, those hankies I asked you for back in France would come in handy. It’s about impossible to wash anything so when you send any, just get cheap ones because when they get too dirty, we just throw them away. If you haven’t sent those candles or flashlight, don’t bother with them – we can’t use any lights after dark. As for presents, here’s a couple of Christmas items you could send: scarf and wool gloves. We’re getting overcoats and galoshes so it look as if we’re going to spend the winter out here at the front. They’re going to be mighty welcome, by gun!
This damn mail situation is really getting me down. There are so many questions that remain unanswered. A million and one things about you and the family . . . even down to how your mother’s hay fever is doing. But one of these days Uncle Sam will fix me up with a whole bunch of mail.
Well darling, it’s lunch time and I want to get this letter out. So for now and always, I love you, dearest, and miss you more than ever before. Kisses to you and Junior, ME
About five weeks later, this 23-year-old man would be killed on Germany’s western front. He would never come home to kiss his wife and get warm by the fireplace. He would never get to meet Junior, born almost a month after his death.
I’ll be thinking of this young father who sacrificed everything for many Memorial Days to come. The saddest fact of all is that my friend’s father is far from unique. War after war, thousands of other young men (and now women) continue to die for this country, with so many hopes and dreams falling prey to bullets and bombs . . . all blown to pieces.