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