Love and Longing from the Front

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As the sixty-sixth anniversary of VJ Day approaches, author Ellen Feldman commemorates a strong, silent generation of men who found their voice on the battlefields of World War II

We celebrate the Greatest Generation. We thrill to books, movies, and television programs about World War II. But the men who fought in this conflict were — and those who are still alive remain — more reticent about their experiences.

They came of age in an era when complaining about conditions or “sharing” feelings was 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 in person 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 three 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.”

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.”

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 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 sixty-six years ago on August 14. 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 2009 Guggenheim fellow,  is the author of Next to Love, just published by Spiegel & Grau

2 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Ellen, Next to Love — a love story taking place in letters is definitely going to have my interest.  What sets this WWII era apart is that there was the belief – still instilled by family and the times – that you married for this everlasting love.  Marriage was forever.  The lyrics of the music of the time cemented that feeling.  But it was the war itself — the feeling by the boy and the girl that the dangers were of such magnitude that there was a good chance that their loved one was not going to return.  And so, all the deep and heartfelt feelings that we find hard to express in person were poured out.  Emotions seldom expressed so deeply were written.

    This is why so many of the letters were kept and treasured, read and re-read until they were crease-worn.  I have my aunt’s love letters still tied with ribbon back and forth to England during World War I.  Her fiance was killed.  She was gorgeous but never married, but after she was gone, I found her dresser drawer filled with those love letters that were beyond beautiful.

    I personally think that the sense of family, the moral values of the time would not be the same 25 years after WWII.  And for most in the years beyond that, there would be love letters but they would not be quite the same.   .   . for the world was not as it once was.

    Sounds like a wonderful book!! 

  2. avatar Lila says:

    Ellen, some interesting points.

    Civil War letters, often written by mere boys with less than a high-school equivalent education, were masterworks of eloquence and penmanship. No surprise that WWII produced similar missives. We really have lost an art form in our modern-day blizzards of electrons.

    As for the fact that the men poured out their hearts in letters they knew would be read by their seniors: those who have served, especially in dangerous deployments, understand how bonded a unit can become. The men who served together understood each other deeply, perhaps more deeply than their spouses ever could afterward. One of the things they understood is that it becomes more important than ever to say what might not have been said before and what you may not ever get a chance to say. Even if someone else is reading it. And the written word allows one to compose one’s thoughts in a way we could never do in person.

    I suspect that upon their return, few of these men ever voiced the sentiments of their letters out loud. Having come through the crucible, there was no further need to say the things – perhaps, in their minds, to repeat the things – that they once feared they might never have a chance to say. And more than that – for them, the letters were tied to all the horrible experiences that drove them to write in the first place. Better not to mention…