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Letter Writing in America

by Kathryn Burke







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Example of V-mail, dated August 28, 1944
Above:
Example of V-mail, dated August 28, 1944



World War II Letters

Eventually, President Roosevelt’s relief efforts began to have some effect, and conditions improved in the United States. The event that really pulled America from the grip of the Depression, however, was the advent of World War II. All manner of weapons and vehicles were necessary for the war overseas, and American factories were kept busy making them long before the country became involved in the fighting. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, however, circumstances changed yet again. Now American weapons and supplies were not the only things traveling overseas to war—the nation’s sons and daughters signed up and shipped out, determined to defend the home front to the best of their abilities.

As had been the case during the First World War, letters quickly became the most important means of communication between families at home and their loved ones serving overseas. So many letters were written, in fact, that the military post began to have a problem. As important as regular mail was to the morale of American troops, military supply ships were often swamped with bags and bags of letters needing to be delivered. Cargo space taken up by the mail was desperately needed for war materials. To combat this difficulty, the American military post popularized an imaging technique that originated in England. Called “V-mail” by the Americans, the process consisted of microfilming letters sent to and from military personnel, transporting them by ship in microfilm form, and blowing them up again at specified locations before delivering them to their addressees. Sending the letters as thumb-sized images on microfilm allowed the military to conserve precious space in their cargo ships while still arranging for the delivery of morale-boosting letters. Though specially designed sheets of writing paper were needed to send V-mail, soldiers in all branches of the armed forces were provided with these sheets free of charge. It was also free for soldiers to send V-mail, though Americans at home had to pay to use the service.

Soldiers writing letters home not only had to confine their words to a single sheet if planning to send them by V-mail, but they also had to be careful about the sensitivity of the information they included in their letters. Censors carefully removed any sections of stateside-bound letters that might give away the position or plans of the troops. Despite the enforced restrictions, however, letters from soldiers far from home became cherished objects once they reached their recipients. Soldiers were often gone from home so long that the correspondence they exchanged with their families and friends became the only way of maintaining those relationships. Many young couples, married or about to be, found it impossible to maintain the intimacy they had once shared. The number of “Dear John” letters received by soldiers whose place in a girl’s affections had been taken by the guy who stayed at home is heartbreaking.

Sometimes, however, letters exchanged during the war served to bring couples even closer together. The letters that served as a bridge between them can provide endless insight into their individual characters as well as their relationship, and today many Americans are able to learn the unspoken thoughts of their young parents or grandparents by reading romantic correspondence written during the war. 2 nd Lt. Sidney Diamond and his fianc ée, Estelle Spero, wrote extensively to each other over the course of Sidney’s three years in the South Pacific. Their letters range from funny to sad, from sweet to lonely and back again, but the love they shared was the correspondence’s overarching theme. In a letter from May of 1943, Sidney addresses the couple’s future: “Here’s the story and let’s settle it once and for all time—and by heaven’s let’s not continue discussing this matter—I want to marry you—to spend the rest of my life with your telling me to stop biting my fingernails—when?—tomorrow, if it were possible—the day after the ‘duration plus six months’ definitely!” Shortly after this letter reached Estelle, Sidney got a temporary pass to go home, and the couple became engaged.

But even Sidney’s Diamond’s cheerful spirit couldn’t always withstand the despair of war. On Christmas Day, 1944, he wrote to Estelle, “Yes, today we had a community of thought. All the men—together—in a community of homesickness—Do not think harshly—or scoff at our childishness—We have so little—so little else but dreams—.” He ends the same letter with a fervent protestation: “I love you darling.—whatever happens—be happy—that’s my only request . . . . Stelle, it’s not weakness, it’s not softness—it’s a fact—I need you!!” Sadly, the promise of a sweet life together, captured so beautifully in these letters, was never to be fulfilled. On March 5, 1945, Estelle returned to the boarding house where she was living during graduate school to discover a plain white envelope addressed to her. Inside it there was no letter, nothing to explain or soothe or even distract her from what the envelope did contain: a small newspaper clipping informing her of Sidney’s death more than a month before.

Letters written during wars can also be seen as significant historical documents, especially if they describe events that later become famous. Twenty-eight-year-old Staff Sgt. Eugene Lawton was one of the thousands of Allied soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy, and several months after the invasion he wrote a letter to his parents in Pennsylvania describing the experience. “Long before we landed on enemy soil, [I] saw that here was what my years in [the] Army had come to,” wrote Lawton, aware that he and his fellow soldiers were actively shaping the course of world events. “You can readily see why no one slept that night. For right here was history in the making. Events taking place that kids will be reading about in future at school. Yes, I for one was proud that I had the honor of helping in my small way in this present conflict.”

Lawton’s detailed description of the Normandy invasion culminates with the moment when German aircraft began to approach the beaches, intending to rain fire from the sky upon the Allied invaders below. Suddenly, a tremendous amount of anti-aircraft fire burst forth from the Allied ships in the harbor. Lawson wrote, “The amazing sight of these tracers going up into the sky left it a complete mass of red death to any plane within this protection circle of anti-aircraft fire. It was a beautiful sight from our point of view but to the Jerry it was something beyond his own imagination . . . . Yes, it was beautiful, but a kind of beauty only a soldier can understand.” This letter, received and preserved by Lawton’s parents, was one of his last letters home. He was killed several months later in Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. Letters like Lawton’s, however, continue to draw readers into one of the most famous battles of all time, and into the minds and hearts of the soldiers who fought there.

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