The Lost Art of Letter Writing, Part 2

The Lost Art of Letter Writing, Part 2

Going through my family letters, I found many that were written by my granddad while he was serving in the Navy during World War II. I knew that he served, and as a boy I remember reading through his Navy manual and playing with the mementos he brought back from the South Pacific. But he never talked about his war experiences. Even after I was grown up, I can’t remember a single conversation we had dealing with his Navy days.

But now, quite unexpectedly, I’ve been given a glimpse into what those days were like. Week after week, my granddad wrote letters to my grandma and their two young sons. My grandma was in her twenties, a young mom who was suddenly on her own. My dad was only five years old.

My granddad was drafted in early 1943 and was assigned to the LST-740, an amphibious ship. You’ve probably seen pictures of an LST before, coming right up to the shoreline and opening its side to offload men and supplies during an invasion. I had the privilege of touring an authentic LST a few years ago, and I can tell you they’re big! My granddad took part in General McArthur’s famous return to the Philippines (if you look closely, you’ll see the 740 behind McArthur) and many other battles in the Pacific islands.

But against this backdrop of war, I saw a man who was determined to write his wife faithfully, to be an encourager, and to stay as involved as he possibly could in the life of his family.

I was struck by my granddad’s longing to go home. It was a theme that came up often, especially during the holidays. Christmas seemed to be the worst. With two young boys, Christmas was a busy, magical time. My granddad couldn’t be home for Christmas, that’s true, but he did get the next best thing--grandma gave a full rundown of the day. I could almost see my granddad smiling as he thanked her for sharing the day’s excitement.

Another theme was the heat. Naturally, there was a lot of deck work to be done on a Navy ship, and for most of the war the 740 was sailing in tropical waters. According to my granddad, the men shed their work shirts in Bora Bora and never wore them again on deck duty. He also described going belowdecks into the ship’s storage room and almost being overcome by the heat. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that he missed the West Virginia snow. He liked hearing stories of the boys playing outside in the snow and complained how the Pacific winters were almost “like July.” It wasn’t just family he missed. It was the rhythm of the seasons too.

One letter was especially moving to me. It was written on December 7, 1944, and my granddad was recalling the Pearl Harbor attack. Like those of us who experienced the September 11 attacks, Pearl Harbor became a defining moment for a generation. My granddad remembered exactly where he was when he heard the news. Then he asked philosophically: who could have imagined that he would end up fighting in a war half a world away? I couldn’t help but think of my own emotions after September 11.

I was surprised by the reassuring tone of my granddad’s letters. In almost every letter he let my grandma know that he was safe and that he would be coming home soon. What made this surprising was the fact that the 740 was constantly in harm’s way. In fact, it was a part of six different invasions during its tour of duty. More than that, my granddad was a gunner. That meant he was responsible for manning one of the 20 mm guns on the ship’s deck. I’ve read a summary of the 740’s time at sea. I know there were plenty of encounters with enemy aircraft. I know a few of them were kamikaze attacks. But in spite of the danger, my granddad was still an encourager every time he wrote.

*Image courtesy of Unsplash/Pixabay


Today's blog: As part of a series, Jay Stoneking delves into a second part by telling how writing letters allowed his granddad to keep in touch with his family during WWII.