The following is a guest post by VHP Liaison Specialist Christy Chason, and is the first in a three-part series.
There’s No Place Like…
Home. That sweet, safe place your heart resides. Where your family connects and memories are made. The place you long to return to when away for too long, lest the pang of homesickness takes its firm grasp.
Throughout history, war has ripped families apart and separated loved ones. Uprooting men and women from the familiar and the comfortable, it has transplanted them into unknown and often scary locations. For many, it was their first time away from home. Shared in many of the Veterans History Project‘s (VHP) collections is the pain of homesickness, but also the resiliency and determination veterans used to find joy and purpose during their service. Throughout December, VHP will highlight collections that reflect the unique nostalgia experienced by veterans, and ask you to share your own memories of home.
Today, the word nostalgia is used to describe the longing for a lost time or place, but the word originally signified “acute homesickness, a medical condition widely regarded as a dangerous and often deadly illness.” During the American Civil War, a surgeon in the Fifth Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteers described the first death in his regiment: not from battle, but from homesickness: “The poor fellow died of Nostalgia, raving to the last breath about wife and children,” he wrote.  To combat homesickness, service men and women frequently wrote letters home; communicating with friends and family ameliorated the pain of longing for home, if only for a short time.
For Marine Corps Lance Corporal Mark Ryan Black, writing home was a way to feel normal again. Upon departing for training in 1966, he told his family “don’t expect me to write much.” On the contrary, he composed 93 handwritten and 26 tape-recorded letters, communicating the details of what he was seeing, feeling, and experiencing. He re-created “home” as best he could by requesting such items as Sports Illustrated magazines, Lipton instant iced tea with lemon, canned orange juice, canned fruit, soup, apples, hot chocolate, potato chips and Hostess cupcakes. For his 22nd birthday his mother sent him a cake, and his grandmother sent peanuts and raisins. To freshen the sense of “home,” Black requested “a little box” of goodies every ten days to two weeks.
Stationed in Quang Tri Province with a Combined Action Company (CAC) unit, Black was killed by enemy fire during an attack on his compound on August 14, 1967. His letters, transcribed by his mother after his death and donated to VHP, along with 341 photos, eloquently document one Marine’s service in Vietnam.
One bleak reality of war is that, unfortunately, not everyone makes it home. Army veteran Alexander Standish was one of the fortunate ones.
A quick glance at a photo of two smiling young girls with fresh faces from the Alexander Standish collection might initially provide a sense of joy and calm. However, the reality behind the photograph is anything but. At age 42, businessman Alexander Standish joined the war effort, recruited by the Army Air Corps to interview pilots just returned from missions for intelligence information. Standish was assigned to London, where D-Day preparations were underway. Nearby, in Bletchley Park, British intelligence was cracking the Enigma code used by the Germans. Standish followed General Omar Bradley across Europe, relaying to him the latest inside information.
In a letter written to home from Luxembourg on Christmas Day, Standish recalls his time with his landlady’s family – a German-born woman who married a local man who was “held for forced labor in Germany.” The woman struggled to survive with her two young girls, “Edie aged about seven or eight and Yvonne about five.” About that particular Christmas Eve, Standish writes:
“Last night I was homesick. Homesick also for the times gone by. I was again ‘pop’ but in a strange setting…It was completely real, yet completely strange.”
As Standish stood in as a proxy “pop,” doling out presents to the young girls, he recounts the girls’ excitement and “squeals of delight.” However, the loud blasts of nearby guns, the “drone of a plane overhead,” and the “wail of the siren” quickly replaced the joyous moments with fear and crying; in an instant, holiday laughter and cheer were eclipsed by the reality of war.
Thinking of home can evoke powerful emotions and memories, particularly for service men and women who wonder if they will ever have a chance to see it again. Join us next week for part two of the “Making It Home” series, as we explore the journey home–veterans’ often daunting task of physically trying to get there. In the meantime, think about a time that you were far away from home, missing and desperately longing to be with your loved ones. Share that memory in the comments section below.
Did images from this blog post resonate with you? Please post wherever you share compelling information–Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram or Pinterest–using the hashtag #VHPatHome.
Visit the Veterans History Project’s website, //www.loc.gov/vets/, to access the nearly 95,000 veterans’ collections in the VHP archive, download a how-to field kit or watch a 15-minute instructional video.
 Matt, Susan J. (2012, April 19). Home, Sweet Home. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.
What a very well written blog. I was reminded of conversations with my grandparents. My grandmother was a nurse stateside during World War II while my grandfather was serving in the European Theatre in the US Army. They were newlyweds when he was sent overseas and she didn’t see him again for three years. She would go for months and months without hearing from him and treasured every letter she received.
Although the homesickness and longing is the same we are fortunate in this day and time that we have more instant communication ie: email, facetime, social media, texting etc….however even seeing your loved ones face on a screen cannot take away that homesick feeling and isn’t the same as having them sitting right beside you.
Debbie, what a lovely memory. We agree, there is nothing quite like having your loved one sitting beside you. If your grandparents are still living, we would encourage you to interview them for the Veterans History Project; if not, perhaps consider donating the letters they exchanged. You can find detailed instructions for participation on our website: //www.loc.gov/vets/. Thank you for your comment!