Today's soldiers communicate with families and friends in many ways. They can tweet and post on Facebook. They have email and voicemail, and they can send audio and video recordings. They can often make cellphone calls, use VoIP, and even videoconference using Facetime or other programs. There are, of course, restrictions on these activities in some locations and circumstances, but none of these modes existed in World War Two. Those soldiers had only letters and post cards. For them, the "mail call" was either a great reward, or a great disappointment.I was the youngest of three brothers, and now the only one still living. My oldest brother, David Jr., volunteered for the army at age seventeen, over the objection of our father. He trained at various bases, then shipped to England, then fought in the Normandy Invasion. He was killed in action on August 15th, 1944 at the age of nineteen, five days before his twentieth birthday.
His death was a great loss to our family and I still think of him often. Just hearing the music from "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" brings it back. By all accounts, my brother was bright and personable and had a fine life ahead of him. That his life ended at nineteen years of age and mine has been long and mostly happy seems unfair. That he was among nearly 300,000 other killed-in-action soldiers from the United States alone, all mostly his age, is a haunting memory.
I look at nineteen-year-olds today and they seem so young. It is hard to believe this was the age of my elder brother as a soldier. It is also hard to fathom the use of German boys aged twelve through sixteen which occurred toward the end of the war. There was actually an Allied camp for captured German boy soldiers that once housed 10,000 of them.Before he died, David Jr. wrote letters to me and to my older brother, John. The letters are cheerful, caring, and given to some wisdom and good advice.
Dear John. Please buy a book on chemistry or something that you want. If there is a book that you want, buy it. Be good, kid, and think of your brother once in a while. Take care of yourself, and if I go oversees soon, don't worry about it. Nothing will happen to me, fellow. If anything ever does happen to me you will have to fill my place. I know that you will do a good job of it. Always remember that I am counting on you. Always keep in mind that it pays to do things for others. Try to resist the temptations that you will meet. You are now sixteen, and it won't be too long before you will be as old as I was when I came into the army. If I don't leave for overseas I will get a ten day furlow the first of June. I want to see all of you once more, then I am ready for anything. We've got a job to do, and our younger brothers owe to us something. They are bound by the blood that we shed for them to do a good job in life. Remember that. You owe us that much. It isn't asking too much. I may never go across, but you can't tell. Your brother, Dave.
A Private in the U.S. Army made $138 per month back then. I assume from his letter that my brother had enclosed a check for John, suggesting the chemistry book.
The letter contains his youthful assertion that "nothing will happen to me," and then goes on to anticipate that, indeed, "something" may happen. Most of the latter anticipates that something will happen. If "something" does happen, sixteen-year-old John will need to fill his place: his place in the family, but most of all his place in the army if the war goes on. John will soon be military age. My brother is "ready for anything," but John must be ready also. I wonder about John's thoughts on reading these words.
Besides the anticipation of military service, there is also advice about living. John is asked to "be good," to "resist the temptations" he will meet, and to "do things for others."
I know where this may have came from. The three brothers of us were all Eagle Scouts of Troop 88 in Maryville, Tennessee. The "scout law" taught us to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. In our small East Tennessee town, these values were impressed upon us by parents and by grandparents, by teachers in the schools and by preachers in our churches.I know that in my life I have sometimes been just the opposite of those values: untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unfriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, uncheerful, unthrifty, unbrave, unclean, and irreverent. But whenever I have violated them, something internal always reminds me of them.
My brother's letter to me is briefer than John's. It mentions my new goat and our family dog. But it also includes the same "be a good boy" admonition.
Dear Edward. I hear you have a goat. That is swell. I had a goat when I was your age. Tell Queen hello for me. Study hard in school and be a good boy. I am working hard. Everything is fine down here. I'll see you sometime. Take care of the goat. Love, Davy.It is humbling and remarkable that David Jr. would write his two brothers about these values in the midst of everything he was facing. There are so many other things that might have been expected: the food, the war, the Germans, his soldier buddies, the things he missed, the hardships he faced. Instead he focused on us, his brothers, and our lives.
My brother wrote other letters to our parents on August 7th and on August 10th. The August 7th letter closes with "Give my love to Eddie and John. Give Eddie a five franc note to keep the little rascal satisfied." And the August 10th letter closes with: "Give my love to John and Edward."He was killed just 5 days later fighting with the 23rd Infantry Regiment near Truttemer le Grand. He is now buried in the Brittany American Cemetery near the town of St. James.
I was eight years old at the time of his death, and did not think as much on these things as I do now. I knew my parents were sad and crying, and thought that I should do the same. But it soon passed, and my childhood resumed. It never left my parents, though, and now will not leave me.
I often replay in my mind the conclusion of "Saving Private Ryan." The elderly Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. He speaks to the grave stone as to the captain:
I want to thank you not just for my life, but for all of (my family). And to tell you that I — that we've all tried the best we could to earn what you did for us.
[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “World War II” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]