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Power of a Primary Source: The Robert Barnes Ware Collection

Martha and Robert Ware, Jr. Robert Barnes Ware Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/41351.

Darling, can a person live with tears, and longing and frustrating for years and not be changed by it? Do you know the quotation that says, ‘Tho a man be dead, yet shall he live”—I think I’ve come to know what that means these two years, as I watched my “20s” slip away, and realized that we have never yet had our chance, and have no hope of it for a long time. I am only living on the faith that God will give me a chance before it’s too late—a chance at a permanent home, children, a certain amount of financial security, and above all a chance to live with the man I love so devotedly, so completely—my husband.

I first read these words while reviewing a collection for a 2014 online feature. I have had the opportunity to research thousands of collections and original documents during my tenure as the Senior Research Specialist at the Veterans History Project, but these lines have always struck a chord.

Written by a woman named Martha Ware, they are the last sentences of a letter sent to her husband, Captain Robert Ware, on June 4, 1944—two days before D-Day. A doctor from Virginia, Captain Robert Ware gave up his medical career to serve with the 104th Medical Battalion. On D-Day, he volunteered once again, this time to advance in the first wave of troops headed for Normandy, before the beaches had been secured by American troops. He was killed while disembarking from his landing craft on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

He never received Martha’s letter.

A few weeks ago, I presented a gallery talk at the U.S Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) highlighting a handful of items from the Ware collection that are part of the CVC’s current exhibit, Congress and the World Wars. In case you aren’t able to visit the CVC in person, I wanted to offer a “tour” of the exhibit case featuring Ware’s materials, to give you a sense of how they illuminate his story—and also how documents such as Ware’s are the lifeblood of the Veterans History Project.

Letter from Robert Barnes War to his wife, Martha, April 13, 1943. Robert Barnes Ware Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/41351.

The letter above was sent by Ware to Martha on April 4, 1943. It features a poem entitled “Easter Thoughts,” expressing Ware’s love and longing for his wife and son, as well as hand-drawn sketches of symbols of the season such as flowers, butterflies, and a bunny rabbit. A V-Mail, it was originally composed on a full-size sheet of paper, and then microfilmed; the version received by Martha is a fraction of the original size, measuring about three inches by five inches.

Telegram informing Martha Ware that her husband has been missing in action since June 6, 1944. Robert Barnes Ware Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/41351.

Such a personal document stands in stark contrast to a more formulaic piece of correspondence also featured in the CVC exhibit case—the Western Union telegram sent to Martha Ware on July 17, 1944, informing her that Robert Ware was missing in action. A later telegram, sent on August 5, 1944, carried the message that he had been killed in action.

Photograph of exhibition case at the Capitol Visitor Center. Photo by Megan Harris, October 3, 2017.

The third document in the exhibition case, a piece of Congressional legislation, is not from the Ware collection, but in fact, is the reason that the letter and telegram are included in the exhibition at all. Public Law 106-380, passed unanimously by Congress on October 27, 2000, created the Veterans History Project, and in doing so, ensured that documents and stories such as Robert Ware’s would be preserved within the Library of Congress, available for review by researchers and the general public—and for use in museum exhibitions like the CVC’s.

Captain Robert Ware, England, March 1943. Robert Barnes Ware Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/41351.

Examining this seemingly disparate group of documents, I was struck by the way in which they connect not only to one another, but also to VHP’s raison d’etre. Speaking literally, without this founding legislation, the Veterans History Project would not exist, and letters such as Ware’s might be lost or accidentally destroyed over time. Documents thus preserved, his story perseveres.

Beyond simply existing, however, Ware’s collection offers a moving example of how individual stories and primary sources can change our perception of and humanize historical events like D-Day, and also demonstrate its costs. I think of the events of June 6, 1944 differently after having read correspondence written by one of its casualties: a man who decorated a letter home with butterflies and bunny rabbits. A man whose wife, after enduring years of wartime uncertainty, waited for two more agonizing months before receiving a telegram confirming his death. A man whose son, Robert Jr., chose to donate these documents to the Veterans History Project seventy years after his father was killed in action.

If you’re in the Washington, DC, area, we encourage you to visit the Congress in the World Wars exhibit, and please view our website for more information on donating original letters, diaries, scrapbooks, military papers, photographs, and creative works relating to the veteran in your life.

 

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