Monday, June 30, 2008

Echoes of the greatest generation

kw: musings, war, letters, poetry

I've been going through old family letters, putting them in protective sheets and binders. I hope some family historian will have the energy to transcribe them. It is a fascinating exercise. I've come to the wartime letters between my parents. The image just below is a V-MAIL letter my father wrote (I've obscured all but their first names; my mother's address no longer exists).

V-MAIL was a way of saving weight and space in the 1940s, when we didn't have that many airplanes yet; these standardized sheets were photographed onto microfilm and the undeveloped rolls were flown to the U.S. from overseas. One mail bag full of film could carry as much as 35-40 bags of "unshrunk" mail.

The film was developed and printed onto 3"x4" sheets—still readable if the soldier followed instructions and didn't write too small. The image above is probably that size on your monitor. These sheets were mailed to the recipient, who typically got a week's letters all at once. My father's letters indicate he would get 1-2 weeks' worth from his fiancĂ©e at once...but her letters were originals, not filmed.

This particular piece of V-MAIL had gotten wet, so it couldn't be filmed, as it wasn't clear enough. It was sent entire. The microfilmer's note is shown along with the standard instructions to the writer in this image. This image and the one above can be seen in a larger version by clicking on them.

A few weeks after this letter was sent, Dad(-to-be) realized he could not get home for Christmas. He was in the South Pacific, where he remained until early 1946. So he sent the following poem on Nov 18, 1943:

I'm many miles from Department Stores
There's nothing here to buy.
It makes be blue as I can be
But darling I'll not lie,
I must be frank and let you know
I'll not be sly or foxy.
I can't do my Christmas shopping
So - your gift I'll buy by proxy.

(He had asked his mother to buy a gift for her.) My son and I write occasional poetry. I guess it is one more thing we "come by naturally"...that is a family proverb. When one of my brothers, or I, would do something my Mom knew she or Dad once did, particularly the mischief, she'd say, "Well, you came by that naturally."

I wonder if any Americans today would tolerate the wartime restrictions that my parents learned to consider as routine. Some of the V-MAIL letters have a word or two blacked out by the censor (whose stamp appears upper-left in the first image above). Other mail was sometimes clipped—the offending word(s) cut out with a blade. One of the censor's clips looks like it started with a pinking wheel, then the slits were connected by razor cuts.

My dad's first half year of letters are written on one side of heavy foolscap. Whenever my Mom or his mother would send him onion skin, he could get more pages into a 6 cent Air Mail envelope...but many of the envelopes have postage due stamps on them. Later, all the foolscap letters are written on both sides, but the onion skin ones are still one-sided; the paper is so thin the ink shows through and writing on two sides is impractical. However, onion skin weighed 1/3 as much, so it was worth it.

The letters mention gas stamps and food rationing back home. There is a lot that they didn't talk about much. My parents weren't the type to berate us with how hard they'd had it. Their reason for urging restraint would not be "I had to wait THIS long for food coupons", but "It isn't right to be wasteful." They trained our consciences, for which I am thankful.

A lonely G.I. can write a lot. I am not yet through the first year, and I have four fat binders full of Dad's letters...and two-plus years to go! I get about two months per binder. Amazing.


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