The B-17 Flying Fortresses he and his fellow GIs helped dispatch flew across the Channel to Europe seeking out the Nazi air bases and their hated bombers and fighter planes, their submarine pens, their war manufacturing plants, and their evil determination to overtake those little Isles occupied by the British folks. And, the GI, who happened to be my brother, wanted to express his appreciation and that of his soldier buddies who were welcomed and treated so well by the English people during their extended stay at an airfield near London.
I missed World War II due to my youthful age, and had to wait around for the Korean War. However, my older brothers — Horace, Worth and Donald — all went off to either Europe or the Pacific because America was fighting on two fronts. Due to wartime secrecy, their locations were usually not known to us back home, except that Horace was definitely at an airbase somewhere not too far from London, while Worth was on a communications ship not too far off the islands of Japan, and Donald was being primed for what everybody expected to be the blood bath of all time — the land invasion of Japan itself by American forces.
Estimates were that thousands upon thousands of American soldiers would be killed in what would amount to hand-to-hand combat not only with Japanese soldiers, but with citizens in their homes, mostly armed with sharpened bamboo spears stowed away in every closet in Japan.
Mr. Truman’s decision to drop a couple of bombs on what was truly at the time an “evil empire” changed that, and fortunately — very fortunately — each of my three brothers (and a million or so other American sons and daughters) returned home and lived out fruitful lives. They are all three gone now, but they left behind stories and letters that evoke my memories of those teen-age days waiting at home with my mother, and praying for their safe return.
Letters home from most GIs were of two types: typed or hand-written letters and V-Mail (Horace was an excellent typist and was allowed to type full pages but if he gave away information that was deemed to pose a risk to the war effort, the military censors blanked out those sentences). V-Mail existed as a handwritten or typed letter, but then photographed by the government, with thousands stored on a roll of film, flown to America, and printed out in reduced size to 4 ¼ X 5 inches. Thus thousands more letters could be sent by air for quicker delivery instead of all that weight forcing delivery by ship…usually a 13 or more day delay. Recently I began reading some of these for the first time since the end of the war in 1945.
I was particularly touched by Horace, the eldest, telling his next two brothers who were both entering the military (Army and Navy) regrets about missing their graduations, his inability to send a gift to them but promising to “make up for it” when he did return home, and the need to be careful in all that they did — and the encouragement to ‘do your best’. Reading between the lines, one feels the strength of brotherly love and devotion from a now widely separated family.
Reading from a letter to my mother Isabel, Horace made reference to asking her and his aunt Ruth McDougald Beaver, if they would do some “Christmas Shopping” back in America for him and send the package of American goods for distribution at Christmas. He wanted to repay his British hosts who went out of their way to make his (and other soldiers’) stay in England more pleasant, in spite of the air raids and V-2 Rocket bombs falling on them. Quoting from his letter:
“Well Isabel, I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. I know this will be quite a job for you but I hope not too much of one. I know Aunt Ruth will gladly help you. Don’t let it worry you but just do the best that you can. I hope you don’t think this this is too much; if so I will understand and just do what you can. If it should look like you won’t get them mailed before the fifteenth of October let me know in one of your letters and I will send a request for my payday in advance, if this is sufficient. If today was after the first of the month, I could send a money order but instead, I will just write to Ruth to give you a check to take care of these things.
“I’m going to pay for every single thing too, so let’s not have any arguments. I know it will run into considerable money so I won’t hear to you or Ruth paying for one bit of it. I’m going to ask Ruth if she gives you a check and if she doesn’t I will certainly have a settlement with you when I do get home. So thanks so much for everything. Please remember — I DON’T WANT A SINGLE THING FOR MY XMAS. The above mentioned things ARE my Xmas and will give me far more joy than anything that I could ever get for my personal use.
“I think it is mighty sweet of you to take on this responsibility and maybe I can repay you for some of your kindnesses. The above things were only suggestions, so if you have better ideas, please don’t hesitate to use them. Be sure that you do as much or more for Mrs. Wing and Miss Wing as any of the others for they have always been most faithful to me and they have something they are sending for you and Ruth already for Xmas so you can see they don’t forget you. (I have told them all about you…about being a widow with a very modest salary, and how Ruth with a working husband may have more available funds right now.) Will write more later. Lots of love for now and always, Horace.
Well, the lights went out last night (air raid) and I didn’t get to do anything more than a little thinking, but I will start now in the daylight and hope I get through.
Mrs. Wing: An old lady about eighty who is very small and feeble. She has expressed a desire for a rubber hot water bottle. Are they out of the question? (Ed. Note: all rubber was rationed during the war) If so, anything suitable for her.
Miss Wing: Her daughter who is in her early fifties but would like to give the appearance of someone about thirty. A little on the heavy side and of pretty good build. You might pick a blue sweater for her.
Mrs. Metzner: About the same age and size of Miss Wing. She is beginning to grey the least bit. Have never given her a thing but am a faithful visitor to her home.
Mr. Metzner: Her husband who is slightly older, but very active. I imagine socks would be most acceptable (blue of black) and ONLY long ones please. They won’t wear short socks over here.
Dennis Metzner: Their son who is 21 and not quite as large as I. I gave him the identification bracelet, remember. He’s in the British army so anything you might find would be appreciated I’m sure.
Mrs. Snell: In her late forties and on the large side. She reminds me somewhat of Miss Lottie Blitch back home though not as tall. Have never given her anything but she is the one who never forgets my birthday, Etc. She seems to manage cosmetics etc. but I believe something else would be more acceptable. She is a working lady and spends her time in her book shop and stationery store.
Mr. Snell: Her husband who is not a very large man. About Mr. Watson’s size or slightly larger I should think. Socks would probably do just as well as anything. They all are very conservative in socks, ties, etc. wearing mostly black or blue, etc.
Mr. Wood: a very conservative old gentleman in his eighties who is very active. Black socks or handkerchiefs I imagine.
Mrs. Wood: his wife in her eighties also. Very large and cannot get about much. Probably handkerchiefs.
Mrs. Mansfield: also on the large side (aren’t they all?) She’s not very tall either. I heard her say once that she wore sized 9 ½ hose and imagine they would be mighty nice for her.
Hilda Mansfield: her daughter who wears a size 9 hose. Anything would be appreciated. She’s about thirty and still going strong as she has no connections so anything sort of youthful so that she might not become an old maid.
Mr. Mansfield: their husband and father. Probably socks about 11 in something conservative.
Mrs. Westlake: You remember her description I’m sure. I imagine stockings or handkerchiefs or cosmetics either would be suitable. Have plenty of money but there are many things they can no longer get because of rationing.
Mr. Westlake: Las Xmas I gave him socks, so probably handkerchiefs, a nice tie, or 616 film would either be appreciated.
Muriel Wood: In her forties with two daughters and a son. Very slim build and about normal height. Any kind of cosmetics, hose, handkerchiefs or most anything.
Corinne Wood: her daughter whom I see when I’m in London. Twenty and blond. She is a voluntary nurse and wears black uniform so probably black ties, hose or any clothing matters would be great appreciated.
Marjory Wood: Her sister who is eighteen and still in civvies (Ed Note: civilian clothes as opposed to a uniform worn by so many British volunteers) Very attractive and youthful girl. She wanted some Max Factor make-up and some 620 film, so use your judgment.
Kenneth Wood: their brother who is a little older than my brother Mike but very tall. He’s in school in London so anything for that age would be appreciated. He’s just wearing his first long pants, so out of the “child” age.
Mr. Newell: about seventy and very nice to me. Socks (11 ½), handkerchiefs, or tie would be grateful for.
Mrs. Newell: his wife about 55 and very active. Used to be a school teacher. Hose or cosmetics would be as good as anything I should think.”
So there is Horace’s shopping list for his mother and aunt back in America, to spread a little cheer to the British hosts who have been so kind and grateful to share with him their meager holdings. While America more recently entered into this war, Great Britain had been at it for some time longer and so many things were either rationed or unavailable and would prove to be a real treat. Hose, a nice handkerchief, some film, or cosmetics with a name brand would spread great delight under a meager British war torn household.
As we head out this season 2012 shopping for iPads, iPhones, iPods, tablets, or the millions of items lining the Christmas shopping lists of today, it is well to remember that it was not always thus. A lonely GI going on his third year in England might not be able to give gold, frankincense and myrrh, but simpler gifts given in heartfelt neighborly thanks became very meaningful in those years between 1940 and 1945 when all of Britain stood tall against Nazi forces and proved, with a little help from friends, that right will win out in the end.
Note: This vignette circa 1943 would indicate that most every person listed has passed on, except perhaps one of the younger daughters or sons mentioned who would now be in the nineties. No way of knowing. Horace returned home, picked up his life, found his pre-war girlfriend then married with children, remained single, established an automobile dealership in his southeast Georgia hometown, became his church’s organist, built a nice home, and attended with friends a Gator Bowl football game in Jacksonville on the night of Dec. 27, 1958. Returning home, during the night, suffered a massive stroke and passed away on Dec. 28th at the age of 39.