We celebrate the Greatest Generation. We thrill to books, movies, and television programs about World War II. But the men who fought were, and those who are still alive, remain more reticent about their experiences.
They came of age in an era when complaining about conditions and “sharing” feelings were not considered manly. They went off to war and, like combatants through the ages, witnessed horrors and miseries and later refused to speak of them. When some of them came home wounded in mind rather than body, the talk therapies and support groups that today’s military provides didn’t exist. They kept their own counsel.
But the letters this silent generation sent home, which I have been reading while working on a novel about the lives of the women left behind, tell a different story. Men who were reluctant to speak of feelings face to face became startlingly articulate on paper. Caution went out the window. Passion flowed. Their expressions of raw emotion and yearning are especially surprising when we remember that the letters were read and censored by officers with whom the writers lived cheek by jowl. But that did not inhibit lonely, homesick, battle-fatigued, fearful, almost always astonishingly young men from expressing themselves.
“I love you more than life itself,” wrote a captain with the Eighty-second Airborne, “I’ve realized that many times these last 3 weeks when I thought I was going to be killed & always the regret of missing seeing & marrying you was topmost in my mind.”
A twenty-three-year-old corporal, training in England for the Normandy landings, told his wife, “Darling I love you sincerely with more overwhelming power than the ordinary heart could endure. Ours is the perfect formula for love everlasting. Nothing of the world could rise to separate us from each other. Darling we fit like the last piece of the puzzle.”
Holidays sharpened the hunger. “I have only one important personal wish for the whole year,” an officer serving on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic told to his wife on New Year’s Eve, “to be reunited with you in our life together…I love you and cling to you over all the distance that separates us –- and all the time.”
Sometimes the expressions of love took the form of concern for the one not in danger. From the brutally beleaguered Bataan Peninsula, a sergeant consoled his wife over the hardship she was enduring at home. “I know you have suffered and have grieved many times since I have left but chin up…my sweet you know I…would give anything under the sun to be with you, but, I am not so just have faith in me and in God and I will be home some day.”
A palpable physical ardor infuses many of the letters. After describing to his wife an evening on the town he is planning for after the war, a twenty-four-year-old pilot suggests, “Or we could say to hell with it and surrounding ourselves with cigarettes, choice morsels from the nearby deli, and a jug, make love until the sun came up –- and then make more love.”
Some even sent love letters to their parents. “I want you to know how much I love each of you,” a second lieutenant wrote before D-Day in a letter he explained would be forwarded only in the event of his death. “You mean everything to me and it is the realization of your love that gives me the courage to continue.”
Frequently the letters bubble over with euphoria at the birth of a baby or a milestone in the life of a child, some known only through photographs.
Reacting to the news of the delivery of a son, a young pilot in England exulted, “this happiness is nigh unbearable… I’m a father, I have a son! My darling wife has had a fine boy and I’m a king.”
So much pent-up passion, on both sides, was bound to be occasionally misplaced. One First Lieutenant chided his unfaithful wife. “Regardless of your strength of character and will, I love you and consequently, the whole matter is finished with the completion of this sentence!” It wasn’t. Wounded by a wife half a world away, he turned to the buddies he had learned to rely on, and went on to explain to her that she had betrayed not only him, but the entire Marine Corps. Nonetheless, two years later, he wrote from the Pacific, “each day apart from you is only half a day lived.”
The letters the men who fought World War II received were even more crucial to them than those they sent. Mail call was the high point of the day. Half a dozen letters, and they did tend to arrive in bunches, was tantamount to breaking the bank. Coming up empty broke the heart. A protracted spate of silence engendered fears and suspicions.
In today’s constantly connected military, mail is as outdated as cavalry units and sabers. E-mail, texting, Skyping, and social networking permit -- perhaps force -- men and women serving in current wars to keep their hearts and minds at home. Twelve-hour differences in time zones present no obstacle to staying in touch round-the-clock. But does constant and casual connectivity make for more words and less communication, more chat about practical and mundane matters and less expression of feeling?
The men who fought World War II were no more articulate or romantic than the generations that came before or after them. And the circumstances in which they found themselves were no more traumatizing than those faced by combatants through the ages. Perhaps if the G.I.s of WWII had possessed the technological means to express their love and longing in a hundred-and-forty characters, they would have. But tweeting was still something a bird did, and the closest equivalent of the time, the telegram, cost by the word.
The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. The war in Europe had ended the previous May. The men came home. The all-consuming passion they had sworn on paper had to face the test of dishes and diapers, bills and, worst of all for many, those unspeakable memories. But the love letters they wrote--some published, most forgotten in attics and basements across the country--provide an immediate and vivid picture of what life was like during the war. Instead of shrinking emotions to fit a small screen, they reveal the human heart at its most expansive.
ELLEN FELDMAN - A VJ DAY TRIBUTE TO A GENERATION OF LOVE LETTER WRITERS