Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sending the War Letters Back Home

Save for his first name, I'm going to make the American soldier who wrote these war letters anonymous in this blog post.  It's enough to read what he wrote, and see how he captured his war experience through art.  

I think it's also important, whenever possible, to track down surviving members of soldiers' families and offer to send them the old war letters that turn up at estate sales (or copies of them, if they're not interested in the originals).  That's what happened with this unique batch of letters from one soldier to another, after they returned home from World War II.

The war letters I find at estate sales are usually hand-written or typed.  Occasionally the writer will add a little doodle or sketch, or tuck a newspaper clipping or cartoon into the envelope, to entertain the reader.

But I'd never seen illustrated war letters like the ones from Reese to his buddy Bill.  I found them at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago.  Both of these American soldiers had been stationed near Sydney, Australia during World War II; both had been sent back home.

I did a double-take when I first opened this letter. That's an original pencil drawing at the top!  

March 6th, 1945

Dear Bill,

...The little picture at the top is from a sketch looking out from the door of our tent at Parramatta, the soldier is heading for the mess hall where you and the boys used to come for dinner when you were on duty at Sydney.

That camp was located on ground belonging to Henry Ford, he had intended building a plant there but gave it up for some reason.

The ground was very level there and were were flooded after a big rain of 16 inches in 24 hours, remember it?...

I believe it was in the first part of April I came up to Warwick Farm one Sunday morning and saw the boys marching out on their way to the 32nd Div. and points north, since then those boys have covered a lot of territory and did some hard fighting....

When he returned home, Reese worked in a shoe factory that had a defense contract.  Bill worked at a hospital in another state.

Even though the letters continue into 1946, past the official end of World War II, I consider them all to be "war letters" because in them, Reese describes his experience as an American soldier stationed near Sydney, around 1943.

Reese's handwriting was elegant and precise.  And fortunately for us, he reminded Bill what each piece of art represented.

George River at Warwick Farm, ‘43

May 6th, 1945

Dear Bill:

Received your letter of April 2nd and your card a few days later, must say that I envied you that trip, for, for some unexplainable reason to me, nature in the raw is like food to a starving man when I view it, and I always want to put it on canvas or paper so I can keep it for always.

For some reason, Bill, I have an idea that all of our boys are out of Australia now and once more the Aussies can enjoy their horse races, and take their girls down to the spot pictured above where you and I have whiled many a weary hour away and sitting in the shade of those trees [writing] letters to the loved ones at home.

Across the river two homes, a vineyard, a peach orchard, and a chap who had home-made wine, did you get any of it?

We did not have the ice cream cone type store in our tent there at Rosehill but the other boys with me did have them, we located and swiped a regulation stove form the Signal Corps and we also had a floor, an actual wood floor, and we just confiscated it.  The other boys did not have floors and when it rained it was miserable for them, after we went North we were quartered in a grandstand for a while and then into tents, as far as Army life is concerned we had an ideal camp, good stoves, wood floors, a writing table and stool, a shelf and coathangers beneath, and believe it or not, a linoleum rug my buddie got someplace, and best of all only four to a tent, we also had a 150 watt lamp too.  I never liked Army life at all until we were sent up there and as far as that sort of living goes it was O.K., but, boy, a real home makes that sort of life seem like something out of a bad dream....

Sure am glad to hear that it is about over in Germany, or I might say over, for it will be by the time you get this letter – I hope.

We will not celebrate VE Day [at his job], we will continue working as the Army has asked us to do, after Japan is licked I will feel like celebrating for we had something to do with their defeat.  I would rather they would wait until all the boys are home, then in each city have a gigantic military parade of the boys to honor them, and after the parade every one break loose to celebrate their return.  I don’t think it is right for civilians to celebrate by themselves for it would be much nicer to have all the soldiers home to take part for they are the ones who have earned the right to celebrate victory in the two hemispheres.

If they have a parade in LA let me know about it and believe me I sure would like to be there to march again with you....

Above is an original pen-and-ink sketch of a bridge in Sydney, Australia, that adorns the top of another letter, from 1946.  Note the boats beneath. 

Dear Bill,

Once again you see "the bridge," and as dusk falls the lights of Sydney wink on and Luna Park attracts the boys in suntans and their girls from Down Under.

Electric trains at Town Hall, Windward Station, Kings Cross, Parramatta, and Warwick Farm, gee, Bill, it all came back to me as I made this pen and ink sketch, and the first night we were there, standing by the rail of the transport watching the search lights go on in different parts of the city until they at last located the plane which glowed in the evening sky like a giant moth when all the lights were on it.

...They were very patriotic [at his current job location] and bought a flag which was hung in our department, one of the fellows who stayed at home was standing looking at it last week when an ex-GI, who had been a prisoner, barked, "Stop looking at that flag you damned 4F,you did not think enough of it to fight for it and you don't know what it means."  Some of these days it will end in a fight and I hope that I will be around when it happens, might be exciting....

Another letter shows an original painting of an old train that ran through the town of Parramatta, Australia, near the place the American soldiers were stationed.  

Dear Bill,

While you are taking time out for a much deserved rest in Milwaukee I will also take time out to write a decent letter and also paint a little water color of that quaint little train we saw at Parramatta.  Quite a difference in that ancient locomotive and its open carriage to the trim, sleek lines of El Capitan.  I expect you saw it several times when you can from Sydney to Rosehill Camp for dinner.

It came past us one evening when were going to Parramatta, puffing and laboring along and we stopped to watch it, an old Aussie seemed very proud of that little train, said it was the first one in Australia and it was more than 104 years old, we didn't say anything but I thought we kept antiques like that in the Smithsonian Institute....

The final piece of artwork in Reese's letters is my favorite:

It was 1946; he and his wife were building a new home.

Fortunately I've been able to locate Reese's grandson and other family members through, and I've sent the letters to them.  They are good custodians of their family history.  Copies of the letters will be going (with the family's permission) to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.

(I wonder what it would feel like to see not only letters, but artwork, from one of your ancestors?  What a joy, to be able to provide that experience for a family.)

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