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New Orleans Museum Spotlights World War II Soldiers’ Love Letters

War is often billed as being all about guns and guts. But there’s glory in gushiness, too

Mail was slow and spotty during wartime. But that didn't stop homesick soldiers from penning love letters by the thousands. (National WWII Museum, New Orleans)
smithsonianmag.com

When recounting the ups and downs of war, guns and guts tend to hog all the glory. But all’s fair in love as well—and a heart-wrenching letter can deal just as heavy a blow as a bayonet.

Perhaps that’s why the lovelorn missives in the collections at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans still have the power to draw modern crowds in droves. As the 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s conclusion approaches, the institution is spotlighting and digitizing thousands of heartfelt letters sent from soldiers and sailors to their partners back home—a reminder that intimacy and connection lived on alongside the divisiveness of battle.

“If only we could be together soon dear, I’d give anything to be back to you,” wrote Leslie Upcraft to his girlfriend Barbara Russo in December 1944. “I’m so sure that I am coming back to you after the terrible war is over.”

The pair’s love didn’t last. But Upcraft’s words, immortalized on yellowing paper in the museum’s collections, epitomize the poignant passion that poured out of soldiers shipped off to war, never knowing which correspondence would be their last.

“I was really struck with how passionately and how often young men then wrote to their girlfriends,” Toni Kiser, the museum’s assistant director for collections management, tells the New York Times’ Maria Cramer. “When I gave a lecture about this, I said, ‘Men, these days. You’ve got to step it up.’”

The museum began actively seeking wartime letters still in the possession of veterans and their families some 20 years ago. In the two decades since, thousands of letters addressed to wives, girlfriends and other loved ones have poured into the New Orleans institution’s collections. Some contain lurid proclamations of undying dedication, others confessions of loneliness and longing. A few even sport curt, relationship-ending declarations, primarily from women—the breakup texts of the mid-20th century.

One particularly poignant set featured on the museum’s website is a precious trove of letters sent from Raymond Toohey to his wife, Virginia, and two sons before his death in Germany in May 1945, just a few short months after he shipped out from the United States. Even after receiving telegram notice of his passing, Virginia continued to receive her husband’s delayed letters, each arriving signed, “Love Ray and Daddy.”

“I’m completely awestruck by their courage,” writes curator Larry Decuers in a blog post. “Not the kind that’s measured in medals, but the quiet kind of courage it takes to watch your husband go off to war, or to leave your wife and children behind to go fight.”

Of course, the National WWII Museum isn’t the only institution that’s wised up to love letters’ appeal. Most of the missives from the time have ended up in the hands of family members, including writer Elizabeth Fox, whose parents, Lenny and Diana Miller, exchanged more than 2,500 letters between 1943 and 1946. Despite painfully slow transit times and a hefty helping of perilous conditions, nearly all of the missives survived. Fox and her compilation of her parents’ correspondence, We Are Going to be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Letters, was featured at the National WWII Museum earlier this month.

Other letters, however, have followed a more tortuous path into the public eye: A set of 21 dispatches written between 1944 and 1946, for instance, ended up in a secondhand shop in Tennessee, where they were sold for $4 apiece. Another stash from Great Britain was deliberately coded and concealed to protect two men in loving correspondence during a time when homosexuality was illegal and, in the armed forces, punishable by death, reported Bethan Bell for BBC News in 2017. Now on display at the Oswestry Town Museum, the letters offer a rare glimpse into a risky relationship that, decades later, can finally be celebrated.

Beyond detailing a crucial point in global history, these letters bolster the legacy many of our predecessors left behind.

“Many of us would not be here today if it wasn’t for the fact that WWII brought our grandparents or parents together,” said Clem Goldberger of the National WWII Museum in a 2011 statement calling for letter submissions. Highlighting the decades-old correspondence, he added, shows that “even in the face of war, the power of love can triumph.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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