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Telling Dear John Stories: VHP Collections in Action

The following is a guest post by Dr. Susan Carruthers, professor of history at the University of Warwick and author of several books including Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America (Cambridge University Press, 2022). She used Veterans History Project collections in her research for this volume, and also in research for her previous publication The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (Harvard University Press, 2016).

In October 1943, twenty-four year-old Milton Bracker, already a seasoned war correspondent, reported from North Africa on an alarming new phenomenon. His story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine began with an uncontroversial claim. “Separation” was the “one most dominant war factor in the lives of most people these days.” But, regrettably, the old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was more often disproved than validated, the reporter claimed. Wherever “dour dogfaces” found themselves in alien settings like Algiers, “Dear John clubs” were springing up. Bracker explained these as mutual consolation societies formed by officers and enlisted men who’d received letters running something like this:

“Dear John: I don’t know quite how to begin but I just want to say that Joe Doakes came to town on furlough the other night and he looked very handsome in his uniform, so when he asked me for a date…”

“Mail call in the barracks. Fort Belvoir, Virginia.” January 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d12247

GI slang for a break-up note from a girlfriend, fiancée or wife, the “Dear John” entered civilian circulation in 1943. The coinage has been in use ever since. Over several decades and successive wars, it seems just about every man in uniform– real or imaginary– received a Dear John at some point in his service, from Gomer Pyle to M*A*S*H‘s Radar, and from grunts on Hamburger Hill to jarheads in the Gulf.

Although the “Dear John” quickly became a dominant feature of wartime’s emotional landscape, it’s well-nigh impossible to find extant specimens in the archives. Researching a book on the topic, I tried to do just that– only to come up empty-handed. Not surprisingly, unlike cherished love letters from home, “Dear Johns” tended to be quickly consigned to oblivion. Reeling from rejection, who clings onto a break-up note with a view to preserving it for posterity?

What I soon realized was that, rather than trying to piece together scattered fragments of a female epistolary genre, I’d do far better to approach the “Dear John” as a male oral tradition. Conversations with staff at the American Folklife Center helped crystallize this epiphany. After all, most of what we know about these notorious missives comes from the stories that men in uniform– and veterans of the armed forces– have told us about break-up notes and the women who write them. Thanks to the stellar sleuthing of senior reference specialist Megan Harris, I was able to watch and/or listen to well over a hundred oral histories from the Veterans History Project, all containing a Dear John story, whether in passing or as the piece de resistance.

One of my biggest surprises was just how varied these stories are, in substance and style alike. Even on the definition of a “Dear John” veterans diverge. Some insist that this letter doesn’t just end a relationship with the recipient but, more woundingly yet, informs him that he’s been supplanted by a new love. In some cases, revelation of this usurper’s identity supplies the punch-line. During World War II, the snake was likely to be a reviled 4-F; sometimes a best friend, or even a relative of the dumped serviceman. In Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s 1953 hit, “A Dear John Letter”– released as an armistice brought conflict in Korea to a conclusion– it was John’s brother, Don, who claimed the apologetic writer’s affections. Veteran Gerard Streelman‘s story goes one better, and had me laughing aloud in the Folklife Center when I first heard it.

Illustrated envelope sent by Sumner Grant to his fiance, Helen. Sumner Grant Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/20970.

Streelman pivots to this anecdote having just recounted a horrific suicide– also involving a Dear John– to his son, the interviewer. That he oscillates between registers, deftly supplanting tragedy with comedy, tells us a good deal about the flexibility of the Dear John genre. Far from sharing a common denominator of grievance or grief, they span the gamut of wartime experience: sometimes utterly wrenching; sometimes playfully humorous.

Veterans besides Streelman remember distressing incidents in which young men took their own lives after receiving a Dear John. Interviewed at the age of 102, Sam Sachs recounts an episode of lethal self-harm from World War II so vividly that it might have happened yesterday. Strikingly, Sachs doesn’t condemn the young woman who severed ties with this soldier. She was young, lonely, and in search of fun– just like many youthful men in uniform dispatched to far-flung theaters of war.

Others are less forgiving. One strand of Dear John story-telling relates to the inventive forms of payback servicemen devised in order to get the final word– or last laugh– in a situation which commonly left rejected men feeling powerless to do anything about a decision unilaterally made in absentia. Arthur Taylor, who served with the Third Army in World War II, devised a ruse to guilt-trip his ex-girlfriend into believing his life was in mortal danger during the Battle of the Bulge. For his part, World War II veteran Claude Orville Bryant relates an anecdote– told by many other veterans of later wars– about how a “Dear Johned” buddy gathered together as many photos of other men’s girlfriends as he could muster, put them in an envelope, and told her, “I haven’t seen you in a long time I forget what you look like.”

Theodore Cummings smiles at the camera, wearing his uniform jacket unbuttoned and an Army cap slightly askew on his head.

Theodore Cummings in uniform. Theodore Cummings Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/78232.

Some men never received a Dear John. Instead they found out at a remove that they’d been replaced in a wife or girlfriend’s affections– informed by third parties, and sometimes only after demobilization. Theodore Cummings, who served with the Marine Corps in WWII, received a press cutting from his mother, who “thought [he] should see it,” about his girlfriend’s marriage to another man while he was away. Jim Wayne returned from his thirteen-month stint as a marine in Vietnam to learn that his high school sweetheart had married someone else. The news was broken by her father– Lafayette, Indiana’s first Black police officer– when Wayne knocked at the door of the family home, eager to see his girlfriend. Whatever else about military service was defined by race, receipt of a Dear John transcended ethnic divisions.

Other veterans interviewed for the Veterans History Project were themselves third-parties or bystanders to comrades’ heartbreak. Dr. Theodore Ning, a medic in Vietnam, relates the expertise he developed in coaxing distressed– often severely intoxicated– servicemen away from the abyss as they reeled from the impact of a Dear John. Nurses like Ilsa Hansen Cooper, who also served in Vietnam, detail the emotional care they devoted to distraught men suffering self-inflicted wounds. Meanwhile, some female veterans offer telling reminders that they too received letters from boyfriends and fiancés that severed romantic ties during their wartime deployment– experiences far less commonly or sympathetically memorialized in popular culture. Toby Newman, interviewed in 2015, not only recollected how her boyfriend had cavalierly dumped her while she was serving in the Women’s Army Corps– “You wanted to be free, now you’re free”– but showed her interviewer the letter. Unlike most male veterans, she’d preserved her “Dear Jane” as tangible proof of an otherwise invisible war wound.

Decades removed from active duty, several veterans reminisce about Dear Johns as heralding an upturn in their romantic fortunes. Break-up notes freed them from unsatisfactory unions to meet the one for whom they were truly destined: the short-term sting of abandonment replaced by the soft glow of decades-long marital contentment. Perspective is everything. But in contrast to these retrospective validations of destiny working itself out in the fullness of time, Kenneth Brown tells of a life fortuitously, and swiftly, saved by a Dear John. The most elaborate story I found in the Veterans History Project, it affirms the peculiar workings of fate in the deadliest of circumstances (editor’s note: anecdote begins at the 8:45 mark in the interview).

Dear John letters, like divinity, could move in mysterious ways.

Curious to hear more about Dear John letters? You can view a video interview between Dr. Carruthers and VHP Reference Specialist Megan Harris. One note about the video… so entrenched is the idea of a Dear John letter in our collective unconscious that we didn’t even notice a verbal typo in the video concerning the definition of such a letter. Oops! Please pardon our mistake. 

Looking for even more? Watch this space for a blog post next week on Dr. Carruthers’ research process and her experience in the American Folklife Center reading room. 

 

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