By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
In the same small cardboard box where I unexpectedly found about 200 letters that my mother wrote to my father during their World War II courtship, I uncovered an even bigger surprise: About 100 pieces of correspondence from other young men sent to the teenage Lois Simon.
That she was also extending a normalizing lifeline to other Americans away at war at the same time she was writing her new sweetheart, Elliot Gordon, wasn’t an issue. In addition to writing family members, many Americans also did as Lois did: If they met a serviceman going off to war and he requested that news of home be imparted via mail, they complied.
The 600 or so letters that Lois and Elliot exchanged in 1944 and 1945 form the basis of my as-yet unpublished book, “Fondly with All My Affection: A World War II Love Story.”
Their letters reveal the world of two New Jersey-reared teenagers, going about their lives on the home front — Elliot at Aloe Army Air Field in Victoria, Texas, and Lois at West Virginia University — while the war’s outcome was very much yet to be determined.
Beyond family stories — which over the years may have been embellished or exaggerated — who hasn’t wondered what their parents were like as children, teenagers and young adults?
Some of this unadulterated information can be gleaned from old photographs. And some, if the writer was truthful, can be found in handwritten letters.
From March 1944, through the end of that year, Elliot and Lois were getting to know each other, having only dated briefly before he was called to duty. The 1945 letters are less formal as they agree that they have become a couple, albeit separated by thousands of miles.
Elliot wrote of basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, going off to advanced classroom training in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and then arriving at Aloe Army Air Field, where he spent most of the war.
When they met, Lois was 15 and in high school in Passaic, New Jersey. She enthusiastically discussed music, voice lessons and having a lead role in the school production of “HMS Pinafore.” Later, as a 16-year-old college freshman, she addressed the challenges of being away from home for the first time, going to “teas” — she had no idea of the etiquette beforehand — keeping up a full schedule of classes and pledging a sorority.
The letters my parents exchanged tell their story of friendship turning into something more. The ones Lois received from the other young men communicate a different experience because most of them were stationed outside the United States for part or all of their military service.
Their geographical distribution was wide: from the Aleutian Islands to Europe — sometimes from censored locations — to the Pacific Theater, where my father’s twin brother was an Army infantryman. Some letters that my Uncle Fred wrote to Elliot were forwarded to Lois.
If finding her letters was unforeseen, finding Fred’s delivered a heart-pounding shock. They were tucked in among the pages and pages that Elliot mailed, and undiscovered until I undertook the task of organizing and preserving my father’s letters more than two years ago.
And because I found Fred’s letters and the ones from other servicemen almost as fascinating as my parents’ correspondence, I devoted chapters to them in “Fondly with All My Affection.”
Some of the servicemen’s letters were written on personalized stationary, others on plain paper and others still with the company, squadron or service branch insignia at the top.
Many that were mailed from Europe were sent as V-mail, either a full-size, fold-into-itself letter-envelope, or the miniaturized version thereof. (WWII V-mail is not to be confused with shorthand for voice mail or video mail.)
During the war and based on a British model, photographed V-mail was developed by Eastman Kodak to reduce the costs and physical space involved in transporting correspondence from the United States to far-flung troops around the world, or bringing their letters home. Reducing the size and numbers of sacks full of mail freed up room in planes and ships for more badly needed medical supplies and equipment, ammunition and other provisions going overseas.
V-mail — the V stood for Victory — involved photographing letters onto rolls of microfilm, which were delivered to their destinations, where they were developed as 4 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch prints. Information was limited to one page — a few hundred typed words, more if handwritten in smaller script — so writers had to be concise. Much of the mail had to clear censors, so some that Lois received display bold black lines, usually marking out location or details.
Of the nine correspondents, Lois knew two through her drama group and music lessons. Two were cousins. All of them were older by two years or more.
Others she met as a volunteer at U.S.O. dances, including one serviceman from Virginia who turned out to be her most frequent correspondent, other than Elliot.
What these young men did in the war also varied a great deal. Working off letter content and return addresses, I was able to piece together a bit of their experiences. Of the five that I researched, only one — a cousin — is still alive.
Randol, whom Lois knew from a shared music teacher, had spent a year at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City — he’d even given concerts at Carnegie Hall — before joining the Navy, where he was assigned to a band. A pianist who also could play other instruments, he spent some of his time performing, and writing charts for other musicians while stationed in San Diego.
Early 1945 found him serving on the USS Augusta, playing with the 30-member band. Randol may have been among the first to hear of the August 6, 1945, detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, because President Harry Truman was aboard the Augusta on that fateful day. (Lois did not receive a letter confirming this, but I think odds are that Randol was on the Augusta at that time.)
Via some Internet digging, I was able to find Randol’s son. I photocopied all the letters Lois received and mailed them to Florida.
Lois knew Sid from her drama group. His letters are a marvelous mix of self-deprecating humor about acclimating to military life and his love of New York theater. In a magical twist, my research turned up the fact that Sid had been in my father’s high school graduating class in Paterson, New Jersey — confirmed by the fact that I have my father’s senior year book from 1942. Sid was outgoing and brainy and must have been very entertaining company.
Like my father, Sid had a year of college under his belt before joining the Army. After basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he, too, had advanced schooling at the University of Missouri. At one point he thought he might be a translator, but he ended up in the infantry and in England.
He and hundreds of other servicemen en route to the Battle of the Bulge were on the troop transport Leopoldville, a converted Belgian luxury liner, on Christmas Eve, 1944, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank off the coast of England. He survived, but hundreds of others didn’t. After this tragedy, Lois didn’t receive another letter from Sid, or if she did, I haven’t found it.
I also made contact with Sid’s daughter through Internet research and forwarded copies to her. That I found his letters so lively didn’t startle her at all. She told me they mirrored the tone of those that Sid had written to her at college.
I located one of Lois’s cousins in California. He’s in his 90s. Hal had finished a year of engineering studies at New York University before he was drafted in 1943. His job in an engineering technical intelligence unit was to teach infantrymen about the enemy’s anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and booby traps.
While he was in Europe, he let Lois know how important letters from home were.
“That’s awfully sweet of you to put off your homework, which I know must be pretty important, just to write me a letter. I don’t know how your letters affect the rest of the armed forces, but they really boost my morale up a few notches,” he wrote on December 19, 1944.
Nowadays, service members are lucky to have instantaneous contact with their friends and loved ones via email and video chats.
I hope those electronic missives are being archived for future generations too.