Lifelines in Wartime

When my mother kissed my father goodbye on that Navy pier in Los Angeles the morning of August 5, 1945, they both assumed he was headed for the invasion of Japan, possibly the Pacific equivalent to D-Day in 1944.  He was a 24 year old lieutenant (junior grade) fresh out of his war-accelerated medical school and internship.  She was 23 with a couple of years of college and no kids after three years of marriage.   Were they facing months, years, or that dreaded final separation?   Did they dare try for contact of any kind?

She had choices: work, study, join the war effort, care for family, deny, drink, love someone else—all he could do was take orders and learn to live the military life.  Her first letter to him at 9pm the night of August 5th ran 12 pages; her second on August 7th ran 13 pages.  The next day she wrote him of rumors floating through the train to Chicago that the atomic bomb had been dropped.  One week later Japan had surrendered.  By the time he finally arrived on September 15 at his assigned ship, the USS LST 243 docked in Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo, he had not yet seen any of the 35 letters she had posted to the “Fleet PO, San Francisco” over 40 days, though he had sent her 24 to her mother’s home address.

After he died last summer at 94 (she died in 2003 at 82), we emptied the house they had lived in for over 57 years.  In the eves of the attic we found to our surprise a frayed and crumbling leather suitcase containing packets of hundreds of letters to and from him, dated 1927-58, tied in bundles with white butcher string.   A month later under the stairs in their damp and dark basement we found another surprise, a box of letters Mother had kept, hundreds of them from 1942-59, the envelope ends frayed by letter openers, mold, and mice.  I spent much of the last week sorting these two collections and piecing together their wartime love letters.

She wrote him that August, 1945, of her need to “get to work in September before any temptation to succumb to self-pity submerges me.”  She moved in with her mother and ailing sister and then enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to finish her college degree. Writing love letters took its place along with her literature and history courses as her way of defying distance and death to hold on to their marriage.

After conducting much of their courtship in 1941-42 by letter, this would be round 2.  What could they possibly write about day after day, often with lags of a month or more between one letter and the response to it?  He wrote at length about his ship’s travels, life on the LST and in naval bases, the loss of his college friend Harry Blaine, who died in the war that summer of 1945, the psychology of war medals for dead, the politics of occupying Japan, the absence of men in the rice fields, the horrific poverty of the rural children—shoeless with face sores, the subdued deference of the Japanese ticket takers and taxi drivers toward their conquerors in uniform, the imperative for a new world order guided by “internationalism,” and pearls from the books he read.   Instead of poker or bridge, he spent his ample military idle time reading and writing his sweetheart.

She sent him detailed descriptions of people she encountered, argued forcefully for the League of Nations, and argued indignantly against the eulogies in the August 6 papers for Hiram Johnson, the former governor of California who voted against the League of Nations.  She shared her war news and the daily challenges and triumphs of her courses, laced with literary quotations and pearls from her reading.   And eventually she wrote him responses to his letters, hatching plans for his return.  They knew how to dance in letters.  They dared to flex and strut their art.  They loved each other and they loved letter writing, the dance that saved them for 12 uncertain months.

For most of our lives their expressions of affection toward each other were discreet and understated—the ritual peck on the cheek, the wry “Yes, my dear,” the nostalgic references to their younger romance.  Here in these letters the roots of this romance show in bold declarations.   She wrote in her first letter that August: “I think my not-unhappy-frame-of-mind is due to the entirely satisfactory and almost satiating ten days we had together.  You were so good to me and you made me so happy.  We were alone almost completely and you gave me the quantity of attention which I crave and which is, perforce, not the lot of the cooking wife of a busy civilian doctor.”  And from him, “I love you beyond words and emotion, B.”  And in the next letter, “I feel so helpless in trying to tell you what I feel—the many nuances and sudden flashes.  Love, fidelity, a healthy longing, and over all, gratitude—that is the jist of my thoughts, which are you.  Love, Bi.”

For most of our lives they called each other “Johnny” and “Roz.”  On these envelopes she addressed him as “Lt (j.g.) John H Wulsin, MC UCNR.”  But inside she addressed him as “Dearest Bijou” and its variants: “Bi, Bij, Beege, Bu, Boo, and Beezlecrunch.”  After signing her first few letters “R,” she moved to variations on “Kaikleekee,” such as Kai, Qui, Q, and Cailloux, so his letters began “Dearest Qui” or “Q” or “Kai.”  We have no idea where that name came from, or where it went.

The force of their young love comes through in the sometimes daily frequency (over 200 from her and 150 from him), the lengths (2-13 pages), the intensity of detail, the reverent attention to wording, the confiding, the name games, and their anticipations of the other’s inner life.  During that year apart they each arranged their days around their habits of writing, receiving, and digesting these letters.  They fed each other through the “Fleet PO,” through these letters, the lifeline they hoped could save their love from the wrack of war.  Of all they left behind for us in that half a century of house, this forgotten lifeline is what I most treasure.

One comment

  1. Jeff Wells says:

    Wonderful, just wonderful!
    Thank you, Lawson.

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