The letters from war that never ends

My mother, who is 94 now, spends most of her days reading letters my father wrote to her during World War II. When she finishes the stack, which is tied in ribbon, she starts over again. I suspect that each letter is new to her.

She let me read a few not long ago and I didn’t recognize the writer; it didn’t sound like my dad at all.

The Greatest Generation might be the last generation of great letter writers what with their command of a formal language back then. We may never approach such writing again.

Here’s an example, provided today by the Des Moines Register.

And his response:

And then, there was a last letter from Margaret — she learned that George was dead.

Author Morgan Halogen read that letter. She learned about her uncle when she was touring a military cemetery in the Netherlands and offhandedly checked to see if she knew anyone buried there. She did.

Walking past rows of headstones, my daughter and I touched hands and gave each other a faint smile — and then we saw it.

“George S. Ronkette CPL 335 Inf 84 Div New York November 29 1944.”

Uncle George — who swept my career-minded aunt off her feet — charmed her with his love of classical music and poetry, and endeared himself to her with his introspective nature.

Quietly patriotic, he underwent an operation on his neck so that he would be eligible to serve in World War II. That decision allowed him only a few months with his infant son, my cousin, Bruce, before going overseas.

Uncle George — who received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart posthumously.

“I’ll leave you alone here,” said the attendant. “Take as long as you like. If I can help in any way, please stop back at the visitors’ center.” Judy followed suit and gently motioned to the others in our party to leave my daughter and me alone at the grave.

When she got back to the United States, she called her cousin to tell her she’d found his father’s grave. He said he wasn’t ready to hear about it.

Then I phoned my sisters, “I just don’t get it. I thought he would be so excited.” My oldest sister, Barby, offered a convincing explanation. “Don’t you remember Mother telling us about how George’s death affected Auntie Margie? How she just seemed to be going through the motions of life? Well, Bruce would have grown up with all that. No wonder he chooses not to go there.” My sister, Janie, thought maybe the news was too shocking for Bruce and that he might show interest later. My sister Gwen, the family genealogist, had a different idea. “I’ll work on it,” she said.

It was a few months later, on Gwen’s next visit to Bruce’s house that she took his wife, Norma, aside and broached the subject.

Norma herself had tried, perhaps subconsciously, to involve Bruce in his father’s life by organizing 10 albums of correspondence sent between his mother and father between 1943 and 1945 when George was stationed in England and Germany.

Five years later, her cousin went to the Netherlands to find his dad’s grave. He told her he never knew his dad, but it was the biggest moment of his life.

Earlier this month, Morgan Halgren and her daughter returned to the cemetery. It was busy with people — Dutch citizens who’ve “adopted” the soldiers who died on the soil.

The common thread in our experience is the surprising personal connection to the far-reaching consequences and reality of war. Bruce grew up without a father, but he became a father himself. Auntie Margie never re-married and lived a quiet life as an executive secretary. My sisters and I never knew our uncle.

Wars don’t end.

From the archive: The picture in the wallet (NewsCut)

  • Thanks Bob.

    Photo is from one of my trips to the US cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy.

    This is what Memorial Day is about…

  • kevins

    My dad is a vet of the Battle of Huertgen Forest…not a nice experience. One inch closer by that German sniper’s bullet, and I would not be writing this.
    Good weekend to honor those that served, and the folks left home to deal with it.
    Thanks.

  • Gary F

    I volunteer for many of the Serving Our Troops events and they have Skype hookups so the family can talk with their service person. It’s a great thing and those are great people.

    I can’t even imaging having a family member over seas serving for years overseas and the only communication was a letter.

    Our hats off to those who came home and those who didn’t.

  • wjc

    While I appreciate the service of those (including my father) who fought in WWII, and other conflicts, I wonder if humanity will ever reach the point where we can disagree without needing to kill each other. Sadly, it doesn’t seem likely.