. . . in the course of working on this book I have realized how many stories still remain unknown to the larger world, confined as they are to the memories of veterans and their families . . . .
— Tom Brokaw
The Greatest Generation
And a . . . reason for tears tonight is one that can barely be understood now; it’s for a reason far into the future, one that I’ve no basis for yet; but I save your letters each one because they’ll be valuable someday to someone besides me. They’re so like you, your personal experiences, your hopes, the war, impatience, music — evidence of the very best? Why yes! And all in truth. Can you understand the trend of my thoughts?
— From 1st Lt. Alva North in Belgium,
To Capt. Charles Dunn in England,
January 23, 1945
Some day I feel that your letters will mean a great deal . . .
— From 1st Lt. Alva Dunn at Buchenwald,
To Capt. Charles Dunn in England,
May 6, 1945
Going back to my earliest childhood days, my parents had always possessed an olive drab footlocker. Regardless of where we were living or how frequently we moved — which was quite frequently — this footlocker was always stored somewhere in the basement. White stenciling on the lid indicates that its contents belonged to
Alva G. Dunn
617 N. Waller Ave.
Of course I had always known that my mother was a combat nurse in WWII, that my parents married in England in 1945 wearing their officers’ uniforms, that, because Mom’s last name on the trunk is “Dunn” rather than her maiden name of “North,” it must have been stenciled sometime after their marriage, that it was addressed to her parents’ home on the west side of Chicago, and that it primarily contained their massive WWII correspondence. However, to the best of my recollection, during all the years that I lived in my parents’ home, Mom had opened it in my presence only twice. On the first occasion she did so to retrieve some Army memorabilia. Since those items were not returned to the trunk, most are now lost. On the second occasion she had wanted to show me a picture of her younger brother, who had died as a newborn. Because the picture was taken after the infant had passed away, I remember thinking that my tiny uncle’s lifeless image was a bit morbid to look at.
In the autumn of 1975 my wife Usha and I had been married two years. Usha was pregnant for the first time. I had just begun a sabbatical leave from my high school teaching position to meet the residency requirement for a graduate degree that I was then pursuing at Northwestern University. We knew that Dad was thinking about closing his private practice in Oak Park, Illinois, and moving back to Michigan where he had done his medical residency years before. But, to our surprise, Mom and Dad now offered to sell us their brick, split-level home in suburban Westchester. Because there soon would be full-time university tuition to pay, and because Usha was planning to take a maternity leave from her own career as a medical technician, this was not a good year for us to contemplate the purchase of our first house. However, Dad’s terms were too favorable to decline. Like Don Vito Corleone, the family patriarch in the gangster movie The Godfather, he was making an offer that I could not refuse.
About the time that my parents were packing up and preparing to vacate the Westchester house, Mom informed us that she was leaving the footlocker behind in the home’s paved crawl space. Further, she made us promise that the trunk not be opened until . . . after we are both gone. Except on one occasion, Usha and I did honor her request. During a later move to a different house, we did briefly open the footlocker to make sure that its contents were not suffering from mildew or insects.
The next few years in Michigan were some of the happiest of my parents’ often-turbulent marriage. However, in 1981 Dad was diagnosed with leukemia. Because of his rapidly declining health, he soon retired from his position with the Michigan Department of Mental Health. In December of 1985, after considerable suffering, he passed on. Before his death, he made the request that his remains be cremated. That wish was honored, with Mom initially taking possession of his ashes.
Following Dad’s death, Mom was determined to continue residing in the new home that they had built together in a remote corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. However, over the next two years she proved incapable of doing so. She was obliged to transfer the management of her financial affairs over to my sister Jane, Mrs. Jane Jethani, who persuaded her to move to a nursing home in Batavia, Illinois, near Jane’s own Glen Ellyn residence. By 1995 Mom was suffering from dementia. She could neither remember my name nor carry on a conversation in complete sentences. In February of 2003 she also passed on.
A day or two afterward, Jane telephoned to ask if I knew Mom’s Army serial number. I replied that, off hand, I had no idea but could consult the footlocker for the answer. Since our younger brother Bob, Robert N. Dunn M.D., had recently conducted considerable research on Dad’s military flying career, we already had his military records. When I asked who needed to know about Mom’s wartime military service, Jane’s explanation was that — since she was now in possession of Dad’s ashes — the Government would provide for the interment of both our parents at the new Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Joliet — provided that we could supply documentation on Mom. So the footlocker was opened. [As it turned out, Mom’s serial number was available not only on many of the envelopes contained within, it also was stenciled on an outside corner of the footlocker itself: N-771835.]
At the funeral, a small military honor guard was present. The wartime awards that had been earned by both Mom and Dad were read out. A three-gun salute was fired. And for the first time in many years, I cried a little bit. Later, Jane was told by the cemetery’s caretakers that, among all the married couples buried together there, our parents were the only such couple that were both WWII veterans.
Our parents’ were both gone. But I was no longer bound by the promise not to investigate the footlocker’s contents. Some of the correspondence was still in the original envelopes, which were distributed randomly throughout. However, many of the multipage letters were now in loose-leaf fragments. In the months that followed, the footlocker’s contents were arranged into an elaborate file system by date and topic. Care was taken to correctly reassemble as many of the multipage letters as possible. While no exact count has been made, the footlocker held perhaps 1200 letters and other family documents, of which about 900 were Mom and Dad’s wartime correspondence to each other.
Mom never said that she intended for me to write a manuscript based on their wartime correspondence. Indeed, she never even said that she expected me to read the letters. Perhaps, she had passed the trunk along to me because I was the first of her three children to marry and was, in some sense, the most settled at the time. Or perhaps it was merely a matter of convenience. After all, it was easier for her to simply leave the trunk behind in the Westchester house when she and Dad moved out than to lug it elsewhere. On the other hand, I was the oldest and possessed, arguably, the clearest memories of Mom and Dad when they were younger. Moreover, unlike my siblings who both had chosen careers in the medical profession, my own academic training was in history. I would like to think that Mom saw me as being in the best position to preserve some memory of their wartime romance.
As I began reading through the letters, I observed that my parents’ respective wartime handwritings were identical to what I remember of them. Mom’s letters are written in a graceful hand. Dad’s penmanship, in contrast, seems like notes marked on a musical staff rather than words assembled from the Latin alphabet. Learning to read his correspondence took practice. Even now, some of his words continue to elude. Nonetheless, his letters — and Mom’s — quickly absorbed me. A new sense of obligation toward both my parents developed. In Dad’s case, I was hearing from him for the first time in nearly two decades. Reconstructing who they had been during a brief but heroic time became something that I needed to do.
Anecdotes that my parents, especially Mom, had shared decades earlier now came flooding back. Previously unknown adventures came to my attention for the first time. Significant events could now be more precisely sequenced. A vision of my parents as young lovers separated by war — rather than as middle-aged Mom and Dad — appeared before my mind’s eye. Indeed, with some of the letters it was as if — like the Marty McFly character in the Hollywood fantasy Back to the Future — I was intruding into my parents’ courtship.
On March 17, 1944 Mom knew that her evacuation hospital unit was preparing to depart from England for participation in the impending invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. For his part, Dad had already survived more than a year of combat flying. On that day he wrote Mom a letter explaining why he was now being transferred to a new bomber group.
One of the first instructions everyone gets in the Army is ‘Eyes open — mouth shut — never volunteer.’ It works fairly well. I could have backed out of this transfer; but the bigwigs thought I was the man for it; and I would be better off personally; but I didn’t have to go if I preferred not to.
I am going — and it will mean combat and more. To be very honest, you influenced my choice. You see, it became clear that I wasn’t going to do a passive job over here and have you in position of really fighting the war. So I am going to a new place. It is far better to share this all the way.
P.S. This above all — to thine own self be true.
Now I also needed to be true to myself — by being true to them.
: Within the privacy of their relationship, Dad always called Mom Gina.
: During the War, Ricky Gallagher was Mom’s nickname for Dad.