Writing from Normandy on June 13th, 1944–a week after D-Day–Navy Lieutenant Tracy Sugarman explained his thoughts and emotions during the invasion to his wife, June:
I thought a lot about you, Junie dear – and I was so grateful to you and for you that it seemed to encompass my entire feelings. Above all else I prayed that I live to make you happy. That alone was yet to be done. I wanted to live, darling… and I wanted to live for you and with you. The promise of our tomorrows stretched ahead and were delicious just to contemplate.
As a lifelong hopeless romantic, the words “love letter” have always seemed to me like a magical turn of phrase, conjuring up thoughts of dramatic declarations of everlasting passion. In other words, something pretty much exactly like Sugarman’s letters. In addition to oral histories, Veterans History Project (VHP) collections contain a vast array of correspondence. During World War I, World War II, Korea, and to some extent the Vietnam War, letters and telegrams existed as virtually the only means of communication between those in the service and civilians, who were often separated (by oceans and continents) for months and years at a time.
For servicemembers coping with loneliness, harsh conditions, and the stark realities of combat, letters provided critical sustenance. Receiving news from home–or the lack of it–could drastically affect morale. Writing to his future wife, Ann, during World War II, Corporal Arnold Robbins explained, “Our mail is the only thing that keeps our hearts and our chins way up there” (Arnold Robbins, November 7, 1943). So important was the need to communicate with folks back home that soldiers used whatever paper material they could find: VHP collections contain letters written on toilet paper, an air sickness bag, and discarded packaging. Letters were often self-referential, filled with discussions of correspondence: the rate and frequency of letters from home, apologies for not writing more frequently, and above all, pleas for more letters. Writing to June on March 6, 1944, Sugarman describes his excitement in receiving a new set of correspondence:
There in all their beauty were THREE LETTERS – imagine!! So help me for a whole minute – I just stared – then I yelled and buried my nose in them and just couldn’t calm down enough to open them! Finally I tore them open and was like a guy drugged – I read and reread every line – and when the third letter was through I lay back on my bunk in absolute bliss and reread them!
VHP collections contain a plethora of letters exchanged between sweethearts: couples engaged, married, or newly dating. For these correspondents, letters provided the only method of easing the unique pain and acute loneliness of years spent apart. As Sugarman’s collection indicates, many of these epitomize the traditional notion of a love letter: they seem to overflow with terms of endearment, pet names, and florid statements of love. Day in and day out, sweethearts described their longing to be together, and their plans for when the war was over and they could be reunited. In a letter written to his wife on October 24, 1944, a day into his journey overseas, Lieutenant William Heckenkamp poured out his emotions: “Gosh! My darling, how I miss you already… I get so lonely when I think of how long it will be until I can hold you in my arms again. Being with you is all I want in this world but it always seems to be in the future.” Correspondents were acutely aware of the fragility of life during wartime. “I love you” bears repeating when written minutes or hours before heading into battle.
The act of writing letters, as well as receiving them, could bring about a feeling of closeness. In a May 29, 1943 letter to his wife, Edwin Bowden narrated his evening activities: “A cold bath, dinner, and now I am back at the office for some moments with you.” The letters themselves became precious talismans of love, saved and carried around by the recipients. To know that your sweetheart had touched–or perhaps kissed!–the very same paper that you now held in your hand was powerful indeed.
Though distance and circumstances could encourage declarations of love, they could also tear them down; sweethearts poured not only their hearts into their letters, but also their frustrations and resentments. Sending letters through the mail, particularly during wartime, could be a wholly unsatisfying form of communication. Mail delays meant that the epistolary dialogue was often fractured and stuttering, with questions posed but never answered. Clare Crane‘s husband, Herbert Johns, explained some angry words in his April 3, 1943 letter:
Honey I never felt so foolish in all my life. I’m sorry about the letter I wrote yesterday bawling you out for not writing. As I received three letters right after I sent the letter. I should have known better. I know you love me too much to let me down. But if you only knew how I wait and long for letters from you darling I guess you’d forgive me for getting excited.
In addition to being compelling first-hand accounts of the experience of war, letters in VHP collections are also extremely personal and intimate documents. In many cases, they were written for one person’s eyes only–and not to be viewed by the veteran’s descendants, and definitely not by those outside the family. In donating their letters to the Veterans History Project, veterans (and their families) have chosen to part with these treasured documents, so that they will be preserved and the individual history will become part of the larger narrative of war. As with all of our collections, we are so grateful to have them as part of our archive.
Want to know more about letters in VHP collections? Keep reading Folklife Today for more correspondence-related posts in the weeks to come, leading up to an online exhibit, “Please Write Often: Wartime Correspondence,” that will debut in March 2015 on the VHP website.