Several months before she died, my Grandmother passed to me bundles of letters she had kept for 70 years. These letters were older than I, but I had the joy of knowing these boys, save one, who had written these pages.
Some of the letters started as early as 1941 and most ended sometime in 1945. I don’t know how often after 1945 these boys wrote to her, if at all, these are the ones she kept together; along with her brother Pete’s, who served during the early 1950’s, after WWII.
The letters are dirty, with 70 years of dust. A few of the envelopes appear to have been nibbled by a tiny quiet mouse, who found these letters in the old white wooden cabinet, in the little room that led to the basement.
It was WWII and these boys, some, who became men, in this “rite of passage” called War, wrote letters. Some wrote just one postcard. At least that is all I have found from this boy. Yet that one postcard, in itself, without reading the words written, is powerful. It was written by my Grandpa’s brother while he was a Prisoner of War and stuck to the front is a postage stamp which holds the face of Adolph Hitler. How much more pain could be inflicted to those who loved him and worried for him, than to add that stamp? I know the boy had no choice for a pretty stamp with a bird or flower.
I call these men, boys, because they were boys to my grandmother. They were her younger brothers and brother-in-laws. I have been working my way through the letters, reading them, scanning them and trying to share them with other members of the family.
Some of the boys served here in the states, never seeing combat, some served on ships and submarines while others served on the front lines. From what I have read of these many pages, not one of them can speak of the war they are seeing. Most of the letters were censored. They could not say where they were, where they had been, what their country called upon them to do, or what other men in other countries were called upon to do to them.
The letters are precious. The chit-chat I can hear in my head, of the youngest boy away from home for the first time, just 17 years old, in training at Great Lakes. There is quite a few conversations about drinking, drinking too much, never drinking too little. I cannot blame him or the others who write of drinking. These boys had no idea if they would make it out of this war alive.
I have a lot of time committed to these letters. They have made me smile and chuckle at times, but mostly they have made me very sad and I’ve made myself walk away from them, only to be drawn back to read “just one more”.
Three brother-in-laws, four brothers all serving this country during WWII, and one brother serving after the war, I can feel their fear, for themselves, and for their brothers as well. Sometimes, I can hear the anger.
I am reading my great-uncle Adren’s letters today. He writes how he wishes he could take his little brother Norman’s place. Adren served stateside, he was married with a small baby girl. From his letters and looking up where he was, I know that he was in charge of POWs from the countries fighting against us. That could not have been easy, but maybe easy to show your anger at these other boys. Yes, these were someone else’s boys, yet maybe he could only see them as the enemy, rightly so, they were. Adren’s little brother Norman had been sent to the front, he was single and 19 years old.
I have many more letters to read, I’ve only made it completely through my Grandma’s brother-in-laws’ letters and halfway through her brother Adren’s letters. I’ve read her brother Pete’s letters, but Pete served after WWII. These are the easy ones. The brother-in-laws, didn’t write quite as many as the brothers. The brothers wrote two sometimes three or four letters every month from 1941-1945 and a few wrote into 1946. When I finish Adren’s I will move on to Albert’s and Dareld’s letters. As I go back to get another bundle I see Norman’s letters sitting there and I know these will be the hardest ones for me to read. It won’t matter if they say nothing about what he is doing. It won’t matter if they are silly or “off color” or if he talks about drinking too much, I know once I start to read them I will feel the darkness filling my heart and there will be tears leaking from my eyes. Norman served on the front lines, infantry, with only a helmet on his head for protection. I have often wondered how many times he pulled his rifle to his shoulder and looked down the barrel and saw a boy standing before him with his own rifle raised, or did he only see it once.
In this pile of letters are six empty envelopes dated Sept. 1 through Oct. 14, 1944. I never had a chance to ask my Grandmother why she removed the letters, but I can guess. These are envelopes addressed to her little brother, Norman; she had written the letters that are now missing from within. She wrote these six letters to her 19-year-old brother, not knowing where he was. I know now he was in Italy, fighting. The first letter returned to Grandma was postmarked Sept. 1, 1944, in the bottom left corner of the envelope, written in cursive, in blue ink, is the word, Missing. I don’t know if she received this letter back first or if she was told Norman was missing. Yet I know it still could not have been an easy thing to see written on her envelope, with his name all scratched out. Five more letters were returned. Norman was in Italy, fighting and dying. The other five letters all returned have in the lower left corner one word, Deceased. Norman never got to read these six letters his sister Ida wrote to him. His official date of dying was September the 14th, 1944. Just a few months shy of his 20th birthday. I bet she told him how the family was, her husband, and her children; her baby was only 4 years old. I bet she told Norman something funny or questioned him about something funny he had written to her. I bet she told him she missed him and to be safe. I bet my Grandma removed the letters because Norman never got to read them, Empty Letters.
I am grateful my grandmother kept these letters. I am grateful she entrusted me with them. I am grateful I can share them. I have had dark moments reading them and the ones left to read, but they are indeed treasures. They are filled with sadness, mine and theirs and tears, mine and maybe theirs and yes giggles too, I know mine and theirs. I am grateful I met seven of these boys as men; I regret that one never had the chance to be the man my Grandma thought he could become.
Empty letters, piles and piles of letters from the boys, yet empty letters have been the hardest to read. These are the ones that truly wet my face with tears, empty letters say so very much.