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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

A Box of Letters

When my mother returned from her father’s funeral in Michigan in 1979, she brought back a brown cardboard box which contained a complete set of the letters he had written home from the Pacific Theatre in World War II. There were more than 400 letters in this box, averaging one a day for a seventeen-month period beginning in the Spring of 1944. Most of them are hand-written on thin, off-white letter paper. A handful are typed. Many of them contain some kind of artwork. Ben Quartertmaine, my grandfather, was an artist—“born with a pencil in his hand,” my mother once said of her father. That is exactly how I remember him. 

I was fourteen years old at the time, and almost from the moment I received this box, the letters became a force in my life. Even as a boy, I understood their significance. They were evidence of my family’s participation in the war, of my grandfather’s sacrifice, and of his love for his wife and daughter, my mother, who was just an infant when he was shipped overseas. Embedded within these pages is a love story, a tale of separation and longing that would become the foundation for another three decades of marriage and family life after he returned. Before the War. After the War. This is how so many people in that generation measured their lives. 

For me, the letters represented something else. I had not attended his funeral, never said goodbye. He had driven away one day in the summer, smiling and waving, and then vanished entirely from my life, with his pipe and his easel and his sweaters pocked with burn holes from stray ashes and his paint-stained fingernails and his stories of the Great Depression and the war, too many to count, too many to hold in my memory. This box was all that had come back from the abyss into which he had disappeared.

The letters chart his journey to a war zone and then back home again.  He first traveled from Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, to San Francisco by train, then crossed the Pacific on a luxury liner that had been converted into a troop ship, stopping first in Australia. From there, he moved on to a staging area in Buna Bay, New Guinea, and finally, to a mobile hospital unit on an island called Biak, where he worked as a sign painter and the co-editor of two Army newspapers. He was gone for almost a year and a half, but he returned after it was over alive and unharmed, except for a recurring bout of what he called “jungle rot.” He never fired his weapon in combat and by his own account, he spent most of the war fighting boredom by writing letters home.

The letters have a distinctive smell, old paper and dust and a faint, indistinct chemical tang—a trace of his workshop on Biak perhaps, which I imagine was much like the big, cumbersome wooden easel he carted around with him as a retiree, dabbed everywhere with thumb-sized smears of oil paint and always reeking of the distilled spirits he used to clean his brushes. The pile of letters was organized into chronological order by me in the 1980s and it has retained this order over the years. My mother once divided the pile into separate piles by years, 1944 and 1945. When joined together into one stack, the letters are an unwieldy mound of paper standing about twelve inches high. The mound is disorderly because it is comprised of letters of different sizes, written on a variety of paper stocks—crackly onion skin, thick memo paper, workaday typewriter paper, the prim stationary from the “Canteen” in Salt Lake City (each page has a column of four bluish reproductions of photographs from Utah’s capital—the Morgan Temple, Bryce Canyon, The Great White Throne, The Rotary Headquarters). Ben wrote on whatever paper was available. When he was in basic training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, he used stationary from the Service Club, which featured two stately green pine trees centered at the top of each page. In New Guinea, he often wrote on stationary provided by the American Red Cross, with its very distinctive logo at the top center of the page. He also wrote letters on stationary from the Canteen Service with the VFW logo at the top. A handful of the letters are typed. One is partially typed. Most of them are written in a neat cursive script that shows practice and discipline, a faint trace from an era when everyone learned penmanship in school. 

Many of the letters contain artwork. He often personalized his letters with little sketches and cartoons that frolic in the text of the letter or dangle in the margins or tiptoe across the top of the page. The first letter in the collection features a funny stick figure drawing of my grandmother in a plaid dress and high heels pushing a baby carriage.  You know where she is going because he sketched a wooden sign pointing the way to “Aunt Ruth’s” house. Lower down in the letter, he drew himself standing at a mailbox wearing a dress uniform and sporting an expression that can only be described as lovesick. To drive the point home, he drew a thought bubble with an arrow and heart symbol. When he was on the troop train from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, he drew a large pencil sketch of a soldier staring forlornly out the window. At the bottom of another, he drew four train cars trailing behind a steam engine with the words “Trainload of Kisses.” In another, he drew a cartoon sketch of his head after a crew cut. There are sketches of natives from New Guinea and Biak and the ad-hoc movie theater on Biak, cartoon renderings of fellow soldiers, and a hastily made drawing of a clothesline hanging from the back of the Matsonia, the troop ship that carried him across the Pacific Ocean. 

Some of the letters have very neat rectangular pieces cut out of them. This was the work of Army censors, who would spend hours each day hunched over these letters, reading the most intimate, heartfelt, plaintive sentiments of service people, looking for militarily sensitive material to excise using exacto knives. Mostly, the censors would cut out dates and place names and facts about troop deployments. Sometimes, my grandfather would insert funny little notes for the censors—“You’ll probably take this out” or “what do you think about THAT?” 

There is a mantra-like quality to the writing as if he is performing a kind of meditation through these letters. Every day, he would take pen and paper in hand and meditate on a normal life back home. Letter writing was very nearly a sacred act to Ben and his fellow soldiers. His letters are full of references to the act of writing letters, leaving the impression that this was the most important activity of the day. At one point, in mid-July of 1944, he was running low on stationary and decided to write in smaller letters, just so that he could finish the letter. The men in Ben’s unit waited expectantly for mail call. They griped when the mail was late, and they all made time to write letters. I could picture them sitting together in the mess hall in the evening, like ladies in a quilting circle bent over their sewing, all of them diligently writing letters home.   

The letters express his boredom and loneliness, even as he is trying to present a cheerful side to his predicament. They are filled with the minutiae of army life behind the lines—discussions about how to keep beer cool in the jungle heat, descriptions of men being swindled by the Native New Guineans, lists of tasks completed, excuses made for not going to church, and references to USO shows, movies, and songs heard on Armed Forces Radio. Like millions of others, he was drafted to support the combat troops. He never regretted not seeing combat, and as far as I can tell, he never falsely portrayed himself as a heroic man of action. He was, in his self-deprecatory way, relieved to have avoided the fox holes but also deeply appreciative, even reverent, towards the front-line troops. He was most proud of the friendships he made during the war and of the deals he struck to improve his day-to-day life while overseas. They were badges of honor that he wore proudly. To hear him tell it, the war was all about conversations with interesting people, trading eggs for parachute silk, and finding a refrigerator to keep bottles of Coca Cola cold. 

The letters are full of references to my grandmother’s letters, which have long disappeared, so reading his correspondence is like listening to one side of an intimate phone conversation. Ben almost always explains where he is writing the letters, usually in his tent or sitting in a chair in front of his tent, or in the mess hall. He almost always says how much he misses my grandmother and my mother. He comments on the details of my grandmother's letters, praising her for taking my mother to the park often or giving the thumbs up to her plan for finishing nursing school. In almost every letter, he describes some kind of leisure activity, like going to the beach or eating or relaxing with the other soldiers. He sees a lot of movies.  You get the impression reading these letters that he spent a lot of time hanging around and talking, playing cards, and writing letters—killing time basically. Staving off boredom. 

Later, I would learn how much his letters did not reveal. The Army actively censored letters written home from the war, but he censored himself as well, probably because he did not want my grandmother to worry. The real Biak was a hell zone. The battle for the island was one of the most savage of the Pacific War, with American GI’s fighting battle-hardened Japanese soldiers who had built fortifications in the island’s vast network of natural caves. When my grandfather arrived there a few months after the fighting had ended, the island was still littered with the decomposing corpses of dead Japanese soldiers, many rotting in caves where they had died en masse, killed by flamethrowers or grenades or makeshift fire bombs made from barrels of gasoline. Corpses were treated like garbage and some American soldiers roamed the battlefield looking for gold teeth to extract. When American aviator Charles Lindbergh visited the island in late 1944, he reported seeing tents and a ready room decorated with human skulls. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers never surrendered, and they were starving in the jungle interior of the island. Though they had run out of bullets and posed no military threat, they were hunted and killed by a special unit of Biak natives who stalked them like animals and took ears as trophies for each kill. They proudly strung the ears on sharp sticks and held them up for display. At least one of the American officers working with these native soldiers also wore a string of desiccated human ears on his belt. Some of these Japanese soldiers resorted to cannibalizing the dead in order to survive.

I do not know how much of this my grandfather witnessed firsthand, but he certainly saw some of it. Thirty years after the war had ended, after he had retired from his job as an autoworker, Ben Quartermaine was eager to share his stories with his ten-year-old grandson, like the one about the American soldier wearing the belt of human ears.  I learned from him that Biak was also filled with unexpected dangers. A Native American soldier was accidentally shot dead while trying to board a troop truck because he was out of uniform and mistaken for a Japanese soldier. Another soldier died in a latrine, strangled by a giant snake and an officer was driven mad by the sound of rats scurrying beneath the floorboards of his tent. My grandfather saw hundreds of wounded GIs recovering after surgery in the hospital, men who had lost arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, and ears; men who were badly burned; men whose souls had been crushed by war and would never be the same again. Once, a Japanese fighter plane followed an American bomber back from a bombing run in the Philippines and strafed the base. 

When I was a boy and a young man, these stories had a cinematic quality. I could project myself into them as I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be on that island in 1944. At that stage of my life, the stories possessed stand-alone value. They were interesting because they were war stories, or more precisely, my family's war stories. Telling them to others made me feel connected to the war, which was then—in the 1980s—still a living memory in so many American families. But in the late 1990s, American society turned to memorializing the war. In 1998, two films—“Saving Private Ryan'' and “The Thin Red Line”—expressed the zeitgeist. The New Orleans World War II museum opened in 2000 and the Washington DC World War II Memorial in 2004. If you were paying close attention during this period, you could almost see the war migrating from living memory to stone tablets. 

Jump ahead another twenty years and the collective memory of the war has continued to calcify. In popular culture, the war is often little more than a juicy piece of simulacrum ready to made fun and thrilling in a new way, as Quentin Tarantino did in “Inglourious Basterds” or Timo Vuorensola did in “Iron Sky.” Straight war narratives are often treated like they were recovered from a dark cave somewhere, lost for eons. The recently released Dutch film about the 1944 battle for the island of Walcheren in Zeeland is titled “The Forgotten Battle,” for instance, and writers now sometimes label their WWII stories as “untold” to suggest that they are worthy of consideration despite the fact that the canon is closed.

By memorializing the war, many people around the world have apparently given themselves permission to cease learning from it. The recent resurgence of fascism 2.0 around the world would not have been possible forty years ago when the beer halls and parliaments were still filled with men who had actually fought a war against fascism. It is only in their absence that men like Putin, Orban, Trump, and Bolsanaro can appear presidential.

If I want to properly remember the war, I simply open that box of letters, pick one, and begin reading. I am instantly transported to that island where my grandfather sat in a mess hall after dark with a dozen other men scribbling away on stationary, all desperate to connect with the people they loved back in the U.S. The letters are a tactile reminder that we were once engaged in an epic global struggle against the forces of evil and that ordinary people like my grandfather were caught up in it. I am also reminded of something from the voiceover in Terrence Malick's 1998 film "The Thin Red Line": "War turns men into dogs. It poisons the soul." I breathe deeply, absorbing the molecules of that place into my nostrils and I remember.  


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