PROLOGUE: TO MY PARENTS—MORRIS AND SHIRLEY MERSKY
The handwriting on the envelopes never changed, even when the world around them was falling apart. My parents, like millions of other young cou- ples separated by World War II, depended upon letters to keep them connected to each other and to their families. Those neatly folded pieces of paper—now curled at the edges and tinged brown with age—preserve the dreams, fears, and passions of men and women whose lives were fast forwarded and turned upside down the day in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
As the daughter of parents who both “served” in World War II, I had heard bits and pieces of their stories over the years. But like many members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed the “greatest generation,” my parents rarely talked about the war and the fears, separations, sacrifices, losses, and life lessons asso- ciated with it. The wartime letters and scrapbooks that had somehow survived multiple moves and decades of annual spring cleanings were stuffed away in a corner of the basement, and it seemed their memories were, too. World War II had changed the psyche as well as the face of this country and of the world. Yet the survivors of that heady time who were closest to me were mum.
That all changed one Thanksgiving more than 10 years ago, when I listened in awe as my mother and her cousin by marriage, Lila Saulson, swapped sto- ries of their time on the road as service wives and the challenges their hus- bands faced both stateside and overseas: crowded troop trains, shabby rooms with packrats and roaches, lusty landlords, near disasters while learning to fly, learning to play bridge in less than an hour to secure a place to stay, lonely days and nights, aircraft engine troubles behind enemy lines, and the births of their children into a chaotic, confusing world. It was suddenly clear that World War II had been the pivotal emotional experience of their lives; it had shaped their character and liberated them—at least, for a time—from tradi- tional inhibitions and roles.
Shirley Saulson, a teacher, and Morris Mersky, a salesman in the grocery business, were married on December 22, 1940, after a one-year engage- ment. Theirs was a carefully considered marriage, not a “last fling” deci- sion, as were an estimated half the marriages once war became increasingly imminent in 1941. By then, my parents had settled into married life in Highland Park, Michigan, where they enjoyed a large circle of friends and close family ties.
On December 7, 1941, my folks were visiting my mother’s parents, watching my uncle and grandfather build a sailboat in the garage. When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor blared across the radio waves, my father jumped down the garage stairs. My grandfather turned white. And my mother just stood there, unsure of what it all meant. She learned quickly enough when my father announced he was going to enlist in the army air corps. But he was married, too old (24 years old), and too heavy to meet the army air corps’ rigid requirements. Disappointed but intent on doing something for the war effort, he nabbed a job at the Continental Motor Corporation where small airplane engines were made. My father stayed at Continental Motor until he discovered that he could sign up for civilian pilot training and possibly use that experience as a flight path to the army air corps. At age 26, my father enlisted, training first as a civilian pilot in Wyandotte, Michigan, and then spending time at Washington University in St. Louis before heading to preflight training in San Antonio, Texas.
His first letter to my mother from St. Louis dated May 17, 1943, described “quite a place” and closed with an uncharacteristic expression of love and sentimentality:
I miss you like the devil already. I don’t know what I’ll do as time goes by. I certainly was proud of your saying good-bye. I think I cried more than you. You’re a swell gal, and I love you with all my heart.
Two days later, he wrote:
I think I will enjoy my stay here . . . There is only one serious thing wrong with the set up . . . you’re not here. I do mean it. I’m terribly lonesome and it’s only two days without you.
Do you love me?
Mail call was one of, if not the, most important events of the day for a soldier away from home. For most servicemen, letters and magazines were their only contact with loved ones and old friends. There was no email or video phone, and phone calls were few and far between. You could always find soldiers carrying around letters, rubbed, worn, and crumpled after having been read over and over again. So many letters were sent during World War II that, to save shipping space to be used instead for war supplies, the War Department devised a miniaturized letter form known as the V-mail, or Victory mail. The 37 bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be re- placed by a single mail sack that weighed a mere 45 pounds versus 2,575 pounds. The specially designed V-mail letter-sheets were a combination of letter and envelope that were constructed and gummed so as to fold into a uniform and distinctly marked envelope. Once delivered, the V-mail was reduced to thumb-nail size on microfilm, and the rolls of film were sent to prescribed destinations for developing. Facsimiles were reproduced about one-quarter of the original size and then delivered to the addressee.
I just returned from mail call and STILL NO LETTER FROM YOU. Have you forgotten me already? You have no idea how anxiously I wait for mail call and some word from you.
Finally, four days after my parents parted, a letter from my mother arrived. In a letter my father wrote two weeks later, he talked about his first off base pass and his visit to St. Louis. His expressions of love took a back seat to his disgust for young soldiers’ sexual appetites and the women who were apparently willing to do their “patriotic” duty and satisfy them:
I ended up eating a steak dinner and then commenting on some of these “young fellows” who are under the impression that wearing a uniform entitles them to do a lot of things they wouldn’t ever do as civilians . . . under the impression that the uniform makes them men. Out getting pickled and look- ing for women. And there are plenty of young gals in St. Louis. I guess it’s all part of a country at war.
A country at war was a troubling, confusing place, with virtue and love under fire. As my father observed, young “fellows” in uniform were shedding socially acceptable behavior from back home, as were young gals. Sex and sexuality had become a significant part of the war experience—a hedonistic impulse that redefined relationships between the sexes. Who can say what part the fear of “young gals” played in my mother’s eventual decision to join my father on the road? After more than seven months apart, my mother “made up her mind” to take a leave of absence from her teaching job to be with him dur- ing the remainder of his stateside training. “Nothing I would rather have,” my father wrote. “But whether it’s the sensible thing to do is another story.” When it comes to love and war, sensible is not an operative word.
And early on a frigid Detroit morning, my mother wedged a set of Mexican bookends into the trunk of her 1939 Chevy, slammed the trunk shut and slid into the driver’s seat. With her mother, father, and two younger brothers assembled on the front porch, all waving furiously like the American flags flapping in the wind, she shifted into first gear and made her way slowly down Broad- street Boulevard. My mother was driving to Corsicana, Texas, on the first leg of what would become more than a yearlong journey as a World War II service wife. She had no idea at the time that she was joining what the August 30, 1943, issue of Time magazine described as a “vast, unorganized army of women” estimated, by some, to include more than 1.25 million wives who were all following their husbands from one end of the country to the other.
The thousands of miles of travel, as captured in my mother’s letters home to her family, often read like a movie script. Cadets at Corsicana’s Perrin Field spent most of their time learning to fly PT 19As, trainers for the B24. Their time off was limited to Tuesday and Thursday base visits from 7:30 P.M. to 8:30 P.M., Saturday nights from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M., and Sundays from 8 A.M. to 10 P.M., if they didn’t have to fly. But a few stolen hours here and there didn’t add up to much. In a scheme to have more time with their wives, my father and a buddy of his volunteered for the staff of the Flying Lines, a weekly, 12-page newspaper with news items about the base and its person- nel, cartoons, and weekly sections like “Locker Lovelies” (photos and bios of cadets’ girlfriends and fiancées), a “Heroes’ Corner,” and “Girl of the Week.” The last might feature a “classy lassie” like Mrs. Hazel Brenner, the wife of Corporal W.C. Brenner, or an 18-year-old like Miss Geraldine Bishop who, with her neatly-arched eyebrows, shoulder-length dark hair and seductive smile could win the hearts of many a young cadet.
My father had some limited experience doing advertising layout, and his buddy knew how to take a decent photograph. The Flying Lines staff was delighted to sign them on. Little did they know that the cadets’ interest in journalistic pursuits had little to do with their willingness to serve. Armed with drafts of stories and page layouts, my father and his friend would leave the base to “go to the printer in town.” Instead, they made a beeline to their respective wives’ rented rooms to steal a few extra hours together each week. Of course, the boys couldn’t return to the base without something to show for their time. So, my mother started writing articles and helped out with the typing. One of her poems, “’Twas Visitors’ Night” (with all due apologies to St. Nick),” appeared in the February 28, 1944, issue of Flying Lines and playfully described the one-hour base visits from the point of view of a cadet wife:
. . . In one sustained movement while the moment was tense
They looked for their cadet: grabbed their pass through the fence
Rushed through the gate; formed into many a couple,
And raced for the reception room on the double.
Holding hands, telling each other the news
Both talking at once, ‘cause there’s no time to lose...
At eight twenty-five just like Noah’s Ark,
They line up by twos for that kiss in the dark.
It doesn’t take long for wives to learn
They no sooner arrive when it’s time to return.
Yet back on the bus they all cry with delight
“Just 47 more hours ‘til next Thursday night!”
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