The last of three unmailed letters from the troop ship my father wrote on the way to England. He wrote no further such journals that I know of. He told my mother he looked forward to telling her the stories he couldn’t write when he returned home. According to her, though, they never talked about those years. She tells me he didn’t want to, but I’ve come to believe she is the one who didn’t want to. I will forever regret not asking him about it. (Letter one, letter two.)
March 28, 1944
On the night of the 19th, lighthouses became visible. We were in the Irish Sea and there was the first land we’d seen in almost 10 days. On the 20th, we saw at frequent intervals, Ireland off our starboard and Scotland on our port side. Sure looked good! We dropped anchor at 2300 that night. I was on duty in the hold compartment and heard the chain go out (there’s a nautical term for that, but I don’t know it). We had to wait for high tide before we could dock at Cardiff. We couldn’t go in on the first one because of a drudge blocking the harbor.
We lay there till 1500 the next day and then “heaved to” and headed for the harbor. We had to go thru a tide lock to enter a tiny pier-surrounded harbor. We docked at 1830 while an RAF band played (murdered) our national anthem on the shore.
Coming in we passed some very beautiful scenery. High sheer cliffs rising right out of the sea and topped by beautiful summer resorts – and barrage balloons almost as far inland as you could see.
Then came a frenzy of packing so that our luggage could be taken off at 2130. Five special trains were at the dock to take us to our destinations. The group I was in left the ship at 10 minutes past midnight on the 22nd of March. We’re on foreign soil! We’re in the European Theater of Operations! After coffee and doughnuts – courtesy of the ARC – we boarded our train. English it was. Officers traveled first class – six men to a compartment. Didn’t look much like an American Pullman.
Three of the trains arrived at Stone, England one right after the other. Ours, the middle one, came to a stop at 0900. We boarded US army trucks and had our first experience riding on the left hand side of the road.
But before we did that, we had to wait for about five minutes with a weather officer waiting to board a train. He’d been here for 10 days, having left Kilmer that much ahead of us. Most of the fellows who were with us at Kilmer and who came over before us have left this replacement center, a good portion of them joining mobile weather units.
The camp here (apparently no name – everything goes by number) is a replacement center operated by the 8th Air Force. It occupies a housing project built for the workers in a nearby munitions plant and vacated when the employment was cut. Gas detectors and air raid shelters everywhere. Something new! We occupy that portion of the project known as Beatty Hall. The other units are Howard Hall and Duncan Hall.
Again I seem to be up-to-date with this “confidential report.” It’s against rules to keep this sort of thing. It must not get into enemy hands! As though anything I might know would aid Hitler. Maybe it would though.
Only 99 of my mother’s letters to my father survived, compared to 500 from him that she kept bundled and tied in red, white, and blue or pink ribbons or white cotton string and buried in an Army footlocker. What happened to what I imagine to be 5- or 600 more keeps me awake at night. I offered to read his letters to her as I was transcribing them (I finished almost a year ago). First she said no, she didn’t ever want to go back there. Then she changed her mind and I read many of them to her, until it became exhausting for both of us—she to hear and comprehend, me to read lines over and over until she got it—and we quietly stopped trying. Here is what I wrote about the experience of transcribing the letters—his and hers—and reading them to her.
My mother’s life rushes through me like a river overflowing its banks. I feel her loneliness and fear through those long years apart, joined by love and hundreds of letters. Letters that took two weeks to traverse the ocean and then sat for days in a field office waiting for someone on the base to come and get the mail, crossing paths with one another—a month or more before questions asked were answered, and sometimes answered before they were asked. Letters from Europe devoid of any real information about what was happening, as that would have been neatly cut out by the censor. Letters from the States devoid of any emotion that might cause angst to the soldier.
I feel my father’s longing for his love and his loneliness in a foreign land, forecasting weather and clearing planes for bombing runs in a war he wasn’t sure he believed in and would never speak of once he was home. Missing his new wife was at odds with his excitement, as the untraveled son of a Midwest farmer, at the opportunity to see new places and do new things, out of reach of any war action and, perhaps, unaware of what horrors were there under his nose.
Did she envy him his adventure as she lived with his parents and her sisters-in-law through the cold snowy winters far from the warmth of her Southern home, dealing with ration tickets and shortages and going to work each day at an airfield in his car with crappy retread tires—work chosen because she hoped it made a difference in the war effort, while he insisted that neither she nor he made any difference and she should just do something that made her happy?
Suddenly I become my mother. I feel her loneliness in my gut as I read the letters to her, her love once more now beyond her reach, her vision gone save for what remains in her memory, that last both blessing and curse. She wants me to keep reading the letters, but they make her sad, even as they bring him back to her. She keeps thinking, she tells me, he is just away again. That as he did before, he will come home to her soon, someday, eventually. But he doesn’t come.