“Children are not born to be historians of their little world. They do not interview their parents about events that happened earlier in their parents’ lives. Children live in the moment, care only about their own lives and about their friends,” writes Princeton resident Terri Halbreich David, PhD in the introduction to her recently-published book, Mail Call: The Wartime Correspondence of An American Couple, 1943-1945.
In fact, Ms. David does indeed become an historian of sorts, sharing the wartime correspondence of her parents, Lester and Shirley Halbreich, and bringing it to life for new generations.
Letter writing — on paper — is something of a lost art today. With the advent of the internet, e-mail, smart phones, texting, and twitter, etc., the carefully-crafted letter has become a rarity. That was certainly not true during the war years of the 1940s. It was a time when the arrival of a letter meant the world to those serving overseas and to those waiting at home.
When Ms. David’s father, Lester Halbreich gave her 600 letters containing the correspondence between her parents during World War II, she found a treasure trove, evidence not only of her parents’ deep devotion to each other but of the unique history of those wartime years.
She remembers a happy childhood, with parents who clearly loved each other and their children, but she had never known about the existence of the letters. When her father gave them to her, with no real explanation, in 1995 after her mother’s death, she was hesitant to read them.
“I was shocked when my father gave me the letters. I didn’t read them for 12 years. I felt I was invading their privacy, although I did organize them by date according to the postmarks.”
Her father’s death in 2000, and then her retirement as a school psychologist in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Middle School in 2009, provided enough time for her to reconsider. “I now had an emotional distance, and I felt I could read the letters,” she explains. “It is a revelation to see your parents as young people at 20 and 27. They were so young, so passionate, and so excited and enthusiastic about their lives.”
She describes her reaction to this in her book. “I could not have imagined the wonderful surprise that awaited me. There, in black and white, I found the richly-textured and detailed account of my parents as a newlywed couple, very much in love but separated for month after month by the demands of war. Through these letters, I was able to step back in time and come to know them years before I was born, to see them when they were very young, quite unlike the middle-aged or older couple I had known, and learn about their daily lives, their concerns, their friends, and their aspirations. I also had glimpses of my older brother as an infant, of my two aunts as teenagers, and of our other relatives.”
Lester and Shirley, both residents of Brooklyn, met in a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York in the summer of 1941. It was a whirlwind courtship, and they married three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Lester was 24, Shirley 18. He was in his last year of dental school at New York University, and Shirley had finished the first semester of her freshman year at NYU.
After war was declared, Lester enlisted in the Navy. Having been in Naval ROTC in college, he entered as an officer, eventually serving as a dentist on the USS Oxford, a transport troopship in and around combat zones in the Pacific Theater of the war.
Once she began reading the letters, Ms. David became more and more involved in the lives of her parents and their wartime experiences. She also began to feel the need to share them. “It took all summer to read the letters, and I realized how wonderful they were and so out-of-the ordinary. I wanted to share them with a wider audience.
Her father, especially, had the ability to provide vivid descriptions of what he saw, as well as profound expressions of his love for Shirley, and her mother’s letters were equally forthright in her love for Lester, and fascinating depictions of life at home in Brooklyn.
She began to sort the letters by topic rather than chronology; a secretarial service helped transfer the letters onto the computer, and Ms. David set about writing in earnest, gradually weaving a tapestry of compelling narrative, with the letters as the focus.
“I wrote nearly every day, and I was really living in the 1940s. I became so involved in what day-to-day life was like then. It was sometimes hard to return to the present.”
Lester was stationed at several bases before he was assigned to the Oxford, and their letters began in 1943. From Corpus Christi, Texas, he wrote to Shirley constantly. The most common theme was his loneliness for her, until she was able to join him there.
In 1944, their first son, Jeffrey, was born, just after Lester’s departure for assignment on the West Coast, prior to joining the Oxford. Many of the subsequent letters referred to his dental practice and treating the men aboard ship, as well as continued references to how much he missed his wife.
On July 23, 1944, he wrote: “Darling, one thing I want you to know. I am always lonesome for you.”
This was followed in August by: “I know that I have told you this a thousand or more times, but it bears repetition. I love you, my darling, with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might …. I could die of unrequited love because you are not here with me.”
When letters from Shirley didn’t arrive regularly, Lester was both melancholy and frustrated. On August 26, 1944, he wrote: “My darling wife, evidently the mail system is very fouled up, for except for that one letter of yours I told you about, I’ve had no word from you, this despite the fact that I know that you’ve written to me.”
And then he expressed his great happiness when they did arrive. March 19, 1945: “At long last a windfall of letters. Again, I believe, honestly, that a prayer of mine was answered.”
Other letters described the events of his day, both routine or otherwise. On September 14, 1944, he related this news to Shirley. “It really is interesting to listen to the various comments come over the loudspeakers. And how salty I am getting! The first thing you hear is a hum as the loudspeakers warm up, then comes the boatswain’s whistle, loud and shrill for attention. Then, ‘Now hear this ….’”
Other times he was reflective, such as on October 1, 1944: “Time at sea is so evanescent. It seems to drag, yet lo and behold, another day is gone.”
On occasion, Lester’s correspondence reported news of battles and war zones, which he could relate when the censors gave the go ahead. For example, April 7, 1945, he wrote: “The censor has given us permission to write saying that we have been in a recent invasion, and that we are all right. See, I told you not to worry.”
Then he was able to write about the invasion of Okinawa, which he had observed from the ship: “Fires were burning everywhere, and the sky was clouded with smoke. At frequent intervals, both in time and space, a star shell would be sent up, its brilliant dead whiteness lighting up the area over which it hung.”
In contrast to such dramatic events, much of the time aboard ship was routine. To combat the boredom, Lester found time to read (including Shakespeare), play bridge, and watch the movies the Navy provided. In addition, he enjoyed the natural world around him, the ocean, and the sky, and he was eloquent in his ability to express what he saw.
As he wrote in October 1944: “It was a lovely night. A great full moon shone brilliantly on the water. And the ship rocked slowly and majestically to the movement of the waves. Standing where we were, the moon appeared right over the mast, and instead of the ship moving, it seemed as if the moon was describing circles about the ship.”
Also in October of that year, he wrote: “Yesterday, while standing on the fo’castle, I saw a couple of schools of flying fish. At first glance, I was really amazed. I knew how far we were from land, and here were these swallow-like creatures skimming the waves. A moment after the sun shone on them from the right angle and lighted up their brilliant blue iridescence, and the filmy gossamer-like fins, I could see them for the fish they were.”
At the same time Lester was serving aboard ship, Shirley was coping with life on the home front. This involved rationing, budgeting, paying the bills, and caring for the baby. She shared many of her day-to-day activities and observations with him in her letters. Socializing was also an important part of her life.
As Ms. David notes in the book, “Because the electronic age, including television, was far in the future, there was less to do on one’s own than there later would be. Much of life, much more than is common today, was social, and the great part of that social life was centered on family.”
Holidays, of course, were focused on family visits, but there was also a great deal of casual visiting taking place during week days. “Family relationships were a central part of everyday life, everyone actively involved with each other and always up to date on each other’s lives,” continues Ms. David.
Shirley also often writes about the weather, noting especially cold winter days and hot summer nights. Heating oil was among the items rationed, and she mentioned this in some of her letters.
In January 1945, she wrote, “The room was really freezing, as only our rooms can be. In fact, it was 40 degrees in my room.” On January 11, she added, “My darling, it was 5 below zero today, yet Jeff and I braved the elements, and stayed out for two hours.”
On January 17, the weather was still cold, and now there was snow. “Darling, more snow today, but in the afternoon, it cleared up, so I got Jeff, Skipper (the dog), and I dressed in our winter clothes, and off we trudged. I must admit it nearly broke my back, pushing that carriage (with Skipper pulling) through the slush and piled-up snow.”
The war intruded on the homefront in many ways, points out Ms. David. “It was inescapable, from the news on the radio, in movies, newsreels, in the newspapers, and constant conversation with all who visited. It also made itself felt in more subtle ways, such as the rationing that had become such a part of the fabric of daily life, to the black-out shades that had to be pulled down at night so that no light would be emitted to guide enemy planes that made it that far, and to the fact that nearly all the men were in some branch of the military.”
At times, Shirley referred to the war, its duration, its meaning and implications, and to specific events, such as the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler, and finally to the end of the European War. It is hard to realize that at this point, she is only 22 years old; the voice is of one much older.
In May of 1945, she wrote, “The news has come at last of the unconditional surrender of the Germans. All New York, especially along Broadway, is packed with hysterical mobs. It’s wonderful news, and certainly an indication that complete victory cannot be far off, but I don’t feel that all-out joyous feeling I thought I would. I’m so sorry for all the misery the war has brought, and for all the lives lost.”
“The News showed the atrocity pictures of the German concentration camps,” she continued. “Darling, can those people be sane? Can reasoning men do those things to other men, and still remain civilized? I kept my eyes open throughout, for I never want to forget what they did.”
Shirley also reflected on what lay ahead with the world at peace. “The events of the last few days have been breathtaking in their rapidity. Truly, we are witnessing in this week alone, the end of a ghastly era. I pray a new one will dawn much brighter. I’ve lived with aggression and persecution and war for so long. How will peace feel? I pray it’s forever.”
On May 8, she added: “We realize that victory with Japan must come before we really celebrate the end of this horrible war. Then, too, people can’t forget the price of this war (not to be measured by any standards of money) in the cost of human lives or human sufferings.
“But there is one thing God has blessed us with, and that is faith. We all have hopes for a better future and permanent peace — towards that goal we strive. I do wish that my son grows up in a world where the words ‘war’ and ‘inequality of race and color’ are obsolete. For what land, or gold, or ‘place in the sun’ is worth the agonies of war?”
With the fighting winding down in Europe and the end in sight in the Pacific as well, Lester began to think about life after the war, contemplating where the couple might live, and what options would be available to them. Mostly, he yearned for the day when they would be together again. “And that, my darling wife, brings us up to today, a day nearer home. A day when these thin schemes of mine and yours can be turned into reality; and above all, a day when we two shall be once more together again.”
The Halbreichs were happily married for 54 years, living in New York City for most of that time. In addition to Jeff and Terri, a third child, David, was born to them.
It was Ms. David’s wish to share her parents story and their letters of those wartime days with others, and she worked diligently on it for four years. She published it this year, and it is now available on Amazon.com and also Barnesandnoble.com.
Ms. David was part of a recent book signing event at Cornell University (her father’s alma mater), and in September, she will speak about the book at a Rotary Club breakfast in Hamilton.
Mail Call is dedicated to:
“Shirley and Lester Halbreich, my parents,
whose lives of love and quiet dignity
inspired it, and whose personal example
inspires their daughter still.”