During February and March 2015, the Veterans History Project will be running a series of blog posts discussing correspondence collections. The following is a guest post by Digital Conversion Specialist Matt McCrady.
Many of the young men drafted into service in World War II arrived at boot camp at the height of physical fitness, fresh from a school sports career, or from years of labor on a farm. One such Army Airman was even a former Olympic athlete.
Ralph Jaffe was not that young man. At age 37, he was almost 20 years married and the father of two teenagers when his draft notice came in the mail one day in late 1944. He owned a successful hardware store in Newport, Rhode Island. His life had long ago settled into routine or, as he puts it in a letter to his wife,
To my shame I must admit to you now, that for a long time I had taken you, our love and our life together, as a matter of fact and very much for granted. [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 9/20/1945].
Yet by his own admission, “I didn’t try too hard to stay out” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty 9/20/1945]. Just like men 15 or 20 years his junior, Jaffe wanted to see what war was all about. What followed was a grueling year of physical and emotional hardship intimately recorded in nearly 600 letters Jaffe and his wife and children wrote to each other. While a handful of the letters were sent by his daughter, Rita, and son, Stanley, the bulk of the letters are between Ralph and Betty Jaffe.
Jaffe’s first letters were written during basic training at Fort Bragg, a time when he was not at all certain he would survive the rigors of PT or the ridicule of the younger men. Once, ordered to double-time it from barracks to mess, a distance of about “two blocks,” Jaffe straggled in after everyone else. “The boys (18) were kidding me. ‘What’s the matter, Gramps–tired?'” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 12/21/1944]. Jaffe was often punished for his inability to keep up by being ordered to do push-ups.
At the same time, he faced another challenge of Army life for a middle-aged guy: loneliness. Jaffe didn’t fit in. For one thing, at the request of his wife, he had agreed to forswear drinking, smoking, gambling, and women. This left him alone, much of the time, as the other men socialized. Writing to Betty on the eve of his first Christmas away from her and the kids, Jaffe complained, “The fellows think of only two things–liquor & women & that applies to the 18 year olds & the married ones, too” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 12/21/1944].
While her husband, with his arthritic knees and bald spot, was doing somersaults and five mile runs, Betty was managing the family hardware store back in Newport. Betty’s letters are practical-minded, and much of her correspondence is consumed with the day-to-day management of the store. She often wrote or typed her letters on the store’s stationery.
Occasionally, Betty’s emotions cut through the mundane account of sales made and bills to pay and questions to be asked of her husband–“Should I order some qts. [of Venetian Red paint] or are ½ pints enough in that color?” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 1/12/1945]–and one does get a sense of her own loneliness. The store keeps her busy, which takes her mind off things, but she wrote, “I go to bed early & sleep makes time pass more quickly” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 12/27 – 12/28/1944].
Betty also displayed an occasional flash of anger at her husband. When she thought that he “can’t hold on to money” because the younger guys are tricking him into giving it to them, she gave him what she calls a “pep talk” about being too “soft.” A few letters later, she apologized for her pique, saying that he doesn’t have to account for his money to her: “I must have made you feel pretty miserable, and that was not my idea at all” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 1/9/1945].
Another subject of Betty’s pep talks was Jaffe’s morals. She did not want her husband to come home changed for the worse. Several times, she took him to task for swearing in his letters. Jaffe admitted he swears “just a little–I’m a man” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 1/13/1945], but Betty’s admonition about cursing mostly served to make him abbreviate. He writes, for example, “S— details” and “Well the G.D. party is over and I’m pooped!” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 1/19/1945].
Overall, this vast collection of letters between the Jaffes is the correspondence of a long-time married couple unused to separation. Betty did not expect to be managing the family business at that stage of her life, and Ralph Jaffe was unprepared for the rigors and monotony of Army life. They knew each other so well, they did not have to tiptoe around issues of health, money, resentment, anger, loneliness, ennui, and maintaining one’s values in the face of challenges.
Jaffe’s story, which his letters document, is ultimately one of resilience. He did not want it to be said he used his age or infirmities as an excuse. In the end, Jaffe survived basic training and went on to serve overseas in the Philippines. Like thousands of much younger men, Jaffe played his part, and then he came home to fulfill the promise he had made: “I swore to myself many, many times that if I were spared, the rest of my life would be all for you” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 9/20/1945].
I have the honor of being Ralph Jaffe’s son and reading the article about my parents during WWII was very emotional for me as I looked back on that period of my life. The bond between my parents was always strong and the year my father was in the service was tough for all. I am glad the letters are in a good place and demonstrate the love between 2 people some 70 years after the fact.
Thanks so much for your comment, Mr. Jaffe, and for donating these letters to the Veterans History Project in the first place. We are so grateful to have this collection in our archive. It is a tribute to both of your parents, to their relationship and what they endured, and is a rich historical resource in addition. Thank you so much once again for your family’s contribution.
I have the honor of being the granddaughter of Ralph and Betty Jaffe. Their love story resonates with me as an example of true commitment and love. After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother wanted nothing more than to be with him every single day and she missed him dearly, eventually passing away on their wedding anniversary. Even in her 90’s, she always got a sparkle in her eye whenever she spoke of him. I remember in college seeing the boxes of all the letters she kept, all numbered and in chronological order. I am so thankful they are accessible through the LOC and that I can read them online!
Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Ms. Steel. Like you, we are glad that these letters will be preserved here at the Library, as they capture the wonderful spirit of your grandparents. Thanks to your family’s contribution, their story will continue to be accessible for years to come.
An inspiring story of history, duty, and devotion. We don’t call them the Greatest Generation for nothing.
We certainly agree, Ms. Hanes! Thanks for your comment, and keep watching this space–and our website (www.loc.gov/vets) for more stories like this one.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story and for keeping history alive for all of us!
Thanks for your comment, Ms. Allen, it is certainly our pleasure to preserve and share stories such as Ralph Jaffe’s.
Your story transcends time and wars wherever there is true love and respect between 2 people. Mr. Ralph Jaffe’s words to his wife rang true to me as I read it. I met my husband during my Navy boot camp, he in his 2nd service branch, 29 years ago. He lives through his struggles, as a disabled veteran, but never forgets to let me know his sentiments. I heard my husband’s words as I read Mr. Joffe’s words to his wife. To serve both country and family is a sacrifice that not many people understand, but I hope people continue telling stories like these to help explain it. Thank you.
Thanks for your kind words, Ms. Monturio. Please know that if you would like to tell your own story, or your husband’s, that we would be honored to accept either manuscript materials (such as letters, like the Jaffe collection) or an oral history. Please see our website (www.loc.gov/vets) if you are interested in learning more about submitting materials to our project.