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Beyond “I Regret to Inform You”

This is the third in a series of blog posts related to correspondence in Veterans History Project collections.

Black and white photo of man standing outside building.  Man is in full military uniform and leaning on post.

Jose Mares, Fort Lewis, WA, c. 1950. Jose Mares Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/6059.

Not long after I started working at the Veterans History Project (VHP), I came across a collection that immediately mesmerized me. Pertaining to Army Corporal Jose Mares, who became a prisoner of war during the Korean War, it includes five telegrams that were sent to his parents by the Army. These telegrams frame Mares’ experience from the time he went missing in action until his return to the United States, and I find them profoundly moving. I can’t get over how these five small sheets of paper, with their pasted-on words and standardized language, would have affected their recipients. In the progression of these telegrams, I envision the anguish his parents must have felt upon reading that their son was missing in action, and then nearly a year later, receiving the message that he was considered a prisoner of war. Then, I picture them reading the telegram announcing his liberation, and I imagine their joy after enduring nearly three years of the unknown.

With Mares’ collection in mind, it seems that no discussion of VHP correspondence would be complete without a look at the telegram. In this era of texts, instant messages, and email, it is hard to imagine a time in which the humble telegram–with words painstakingly typed, cut out, and then pasted by hand to a sheet of paper– could be the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable way to communicate.

During World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, the military employed Western Union to communicate official notifications to the families of servicemembers. This included letting loved ones know that their relative was missing in action, or had been taken prisoner, wounded, or killed in action. With limits on how many words a telegram could accommodate, the military adopted distinct standardized phrasing to convey the news; hence, the common chilling phrase “I regret to inform you…”

Typed out telegram.

Telegram reporting that Larry Jordan is presumed to have been killed in action, 11/20/1973. Larry Michael Jordan Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/36001.

VHP has numerous examples of these official notifications in our collections. During the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Commander Larry Michael Jordan‘s wife received this telegram notifying her that her husband was presumed to be killed in action. It was sent to her nearly six years after a previous telegram had declared him missing in action. One intriguing telegram in Technical Sergeant Aben Caplan‘s collection is an official notification with an embedded personal message from Caplan, then a prisoner of war in Germany. In it, Caplan sends his greetings to his “precious twosome,” his standard name for his wife and son. Chief Petty Officer Auborn Jerome McFarland, Jr.‘s collection includes copies of telegrams sent to his parents in December 1941, stating that he was killed in action during the attack on Pearl Harbor while serving aboard the USS West Virginia, and then four days later, stating that he had in fact survived, and apologizing for the “great unnecessary anxiety.”

In addition to being employed for official purposes by the military, servicemen and women used telegrams to communicate with their families–to wish them happy holidays, to let them know they had returned to the United States, or simply to send their love. While the messages still needed to be concise, these telegrams allowed members of the military to quickly send personalized greetings without the hassle and potential delay involved in mailing a letter. Captain Robert Barnes Ware‘s collection includes telegrams that he sent to his wife on the occasion of both Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. They stand in stark contrast to the official telegram that Ware’s wife would receive in August 1944, informing her that Ware had been killed in action during the Normandy invasion. In December 1945, on her way home from service with the Army Nurse Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II, First Lieutenant Sally Hitchock Pullman telegrammed her family: “LEAVING PEARL HARBOR FOR HOME TOMORROW DON’T EXPECT ME FOR CHRISTMAS KEEP THE TREE AND SNOW LOVE SALLY.”

Valentines Greeting Telegram by Western Union. Telegram has color sketch of woman and man in old fashioned attire.

Valentine’s Day telegram, 2/14/1942. Robert Barnes Ware Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/41351.

Whether they were official notifications or personalized messages, telegrams played a unique role in how servicemen and women communicated with folks back home. Telegrams were also part of a very specific point in time: use of them as official notification was phased out toward the end of the Vietnam War, and Western Union discontinued offering them altogether in 2006. Though their format may not have allowed for the length or flowery language that often characterized wartime correspondence, during their heyday, they still delivered relief, solace, or heartache to their recipients.

Have you ever received a telegram? Tell us about it in the comments below!

 

10 Comments

  1. Kim M.
    February 24, 2015 at 7:47 am

    The telegram for Lt. Cmdr Jordan is interesting in that it is addressed to his 3 children in care of his wife. Does anyone know why that would be? //blogs.loc.gov/folklife/files/2015/02/Jordan-telegram-255×300.jpg

    • Megan Harris
      February 24, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      Yes, that is an intriguing detail, Kim–thanks for pointing it out. Unfortunately, the rest of the collection materials do not provide a conclusive answer to this question. Situations such as this are why we ask donors to provide as many details as possible when submitting materials to us, in order to fill in gaps that might exist in the written or oral record.

  2. Charlotte cunningham
    March 2, 2016 at 11:20 am

    I don’t know if it’s possible I’m trying to find a western union letter notice from the navy that a friend who was killed in vietnam. Is there an arcive for this.

  3. JHamrick
    April 17, 2018 at 7:36 pm

    What insurance/cash payment would have been made to the widow of a service member KIA at Anzio in 1945?

    • Megan Harris
      April 18, 2018 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks for reading and for your question! Without knowing the specifics of an individual’s circumstance (such as a life insurance policy or benefits from a civilian job), it’s hard to give a standard answer. This website provides general info that might be helpful: http://www.usmm.org/wsa/rights.html. If you have any additional questions, you can direct them to [email protected]. Thanks again!

  4. Chris
    December 2, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    I was given an original copy of the telegram sent to my grandparents letting them know my uncle was lost at sea in Pearl Harbor. I have since lost this. Do you know if the Western Union telegrams are archived somewhere and could zI get a copy?

    • Megan Harris
      December 3, 2018 at 12:15 pm

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comment and for reading. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the history of telegrams and thus can’t offer a definitive answer to your question. Given the sheer volume of telegrams sent during WWII and during the 20th century, and my understanding of how a telegram was constructed, I would be surprised if copies of telegrams were kept and archived by Western Union. It looks like the company’s records are archived at the Smithsonian; here is a link to the collection finding aid: http://amhistory.si.edu/archives/ac0205.pdf. Perhaps the archivists there can assist? Best of luck in your search for information!

  5. Chris
    December 2, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    I was given an original copy of the telegram sent to my grandparents letting them know my uncle was lost at sea in Pearl Harbor. I have since lost this. Do you know if the Western Union telegrams are archived somewhere and could I get a copy?

  6. BRUCE FEHN
    March 28, 2021 at 11:27 am

    The image I have of a wife or parents learning of a loved one’s death is that a couple of soldiers come to a home to deliver the tragic news. Was this the case in WWII or did most parents or spouses receive the news via telegram and letter? Lastly, I wondered if African Americans received the tragic news in the same way as white Americans? Thanks very much for your kind attention.

    • Megan Harris
      March 29, 2021 at 4:04 pm

      Dear Bruce Fehn, thanks for reading and for your question. As a subject matter specialist for VHP collections, I’m not certain of the answer. A little bit of online digging seems to indicate that prior to Vietnam, telegrams were the official mode for military death notification, and that in-person notifications only happened under extraordinary circumstances. I would guess this to have been the case for all military casualties, regardless of race, but again, I’m not certain. It’s an interesting question, certainly! Thanks again for reading.

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