HOME IS WHERE THE LETTERS GO

By Lois Overton

aka Foxhole Filly

November 1999

Italy

January 17, 1944

Dear Tom,

So, little brother, you leave for basic in three weeks! Good luck. I know you're going to love it. Ha ha. Just remember that you will survive. Hey, I've never known you to be this nervous before. No, I don't have any advice for you. As you pointed out in your letter, listening and following have never been your strong suits. And I can personally verify that. You've always been too busy asking "why?" You'll find in the marines, if they're at all like the army, that your opinion on anything doesn't count a bit. At this moment, what is right is what they are doing, and they don't have to tell you why.

It may not seem fair or make much sense to you right now, but there are reasons for what they say and do. They have a very short time to make a bunch of strangers into a unit, and they're going to do it any way they can. They know that the only way to survive in war is to be able to trust the men around you. So they break you down as individuals and teach you to depend on each other. Then they build you back up as a member of a squad. Believe me, in combat the men in your squad are everything.

Now, as to your question. I don't know how to answer. I try not to think of the why of killing. Since hitting Italy, I've killed a lot of men, and the way I deal with it right now is to remember that if I don't kill them, they'll kill me. That doesn't answer your question, but maybe I'm not the one to talk to. I know that when the time comes you'll find what you need inside yourself. Sorry if that sounds like I'm sidestepping the question.

Well, I gotta go. We're getting ready to move out, and a corporal doesn't have much say over when or where. I know that you won't be able to get mail in boot, so this will be my last letter for awhile. Word is we're moving up to a place called Anzio soon, so I may be a little busy, anyway. Take care, brother.

Chip

* * * * *

London, England

March 7, 1944

Dear Brat,

Me again. Just wanted to drop you a short letter because I want to talk to you about Chris. You two aren't getting along well, are you? I know it's really hard right now, and you want to make your own decisions. You think you're all grown up, but you aren't. You're just a kid. That isn't what you wanted to hear from me, but I've got to be honest with you.

With Tom bound for the Pacific and me over here, Chris is the man of the family. You need to listen to him, Louise, and help him out. He didn't ask for the job, but he's got it. That's just the way it is. And you have a job to do too, so you need to do it. I can't be worrying about what is going on between you two.

This war isn't easy on anyone. Mom needs help, and Chris is there. Period. We're a family, and we have to work together because when push comes to shove, we're all we've got. So hang in there. One of these days, the war'll be over, and you'll have me back there nagging you again. Then you'll probably want Chris back. Enough said.

Time for me to get back to work. Write me when you can, and think about what I said. OK?

Love,

Chip

* * * * *

London, England

March 7, 1944

Dear Chris,

I don't have much time, but I need to say something and you need to listen carefully. I know that you and Louise are fighting like cats and dogs. With Tom headed to the Pacific and me laid up in the hospital here in England, Mom's got enough to deal with without you two adding to it.

When Dad left right after Joey died, I had to take over as the man of the family. It wasn't what I wanted, but that was just the way it was. Then when I was sent overseas, Tom took over. Now he's gone, and that job has come to you. You should know how your sister feels because you have been in her position with everybody telling you what to do.

I am counting on you to be a man. But being a man doesn't mean being a bully. You and Louise are only two years apart, and she's your sister. Be her friend, not her boss. Listen to her and accept her feelings. Louise is a smart cookie and can help you a lot if you let her. She has good instincts. You don't have to do it alone. But more than anything, love her. She needs it a lot right now. One by one the men in her life have left, and she's hurting.

I'm not going to say any more about this. You're old enough to figure out what you need to do. Tom will be in action soon, and eventually I'll be well enough to join a unit. If something happens to Tom or me, we want to know that the family will be all right without us. It's a big responsibility to put on your young shoulders, but life is what it is. I'm counting on you. See if you can't find a way to work together.

I've got to go now. Think over what I've said and take care.

Chip

* * * * *

Braunton, England

April 3, 1944

Dear Tom,

How's everything going? I figure they're keeping you pretty busy. The military is good at finding ways to keep soldiers busy. The 361st was sent here for a couple weeks of amphibious assault training. Our tents have been set up right on the beach. It's convenient for the training, but lousy for living. It's cold and windy all the time. We spend most nights sitting around our Sibley stove trying to stay warm. When we're not being beaten to death with sand or frozen in the cold, the army seems determined to bore us to death before the Krauts get a crack at us. There's absolutely nothing to do here. And I mean nothing.

Our platoon sergeant is a man named Hanley. He has no combat experience whatsoever. Most of the time he seems to know what he's doing, but every once in a while he seems a little reluctant to take advice from people who've been there. That could be real dangerous. I'm reserving my judgment until I see what he does in action.

Well, the guys are here now, and I have a poker game waiting. You know how much I hate playing cards. That's how bored I am.

Chip

P.S. Be careful what you tell Mom about what's going on. Louise says that Mom gets real nervous when she gets mail now. Says she cries a lot. Just don't talk about anything that might upset her. OK?

* * * * * *

Braunton, England

April 5, 1944,

Dear Mom,

I don't have much time, but I wanted to drop you a line and tell you that everything's OK over here. Like I told you, no pain or anything, so you don't have to worry about me.

I got the package you sent. Thanks especially for the nail clippers. I can make good use of them. I'm the only one in the squad who has clippers, and the guys are always asking to borrow them. Maybe I should start renting them out. I also appreciate the handkerchiefs and the book. Tell the Brat that her oatmeal raisin cookies lasted about 35 seconds. I think I only got one of them.

They say the southwest coast of England is beautiful country, but I wouldn't know. I haven't seen much of it. Just the beach. We live on the beach, and we train on the beach. I'm beginning to hate sand. It's in our clothes, our hair, our beds. Even in our food. We train every day, and then we train some more. We are the best-trained army in the world right now.

Scuttlebutt is we won't be here much longer. I'll sure be glad to get back to Dorchester. One reason is that I am tired of being cold here. You just get cold and stay that way. The other reason I want to get back is that I had started seeing a girl. We'd been out several times, but I think she was seeing some other soldier too. When we get back, I'll see if she is still interested. She reminds me a little of Maryann Blevins. Next time you see Maryann around town, tell her I said hello.

This break is just too short. I have to run…literally. Gotta go play in the sand. Take care, and give my love to Louise and Chris. Pray for a quick end.

Love,

Chip

* * * * *

Braunton, England

April 16, 1944

Dear Brat,

I have a favor to ask of you. I have a friend named Grady Long. He's the squad BAR man. We served together in Italy and were both wounded there. Now he's in my squad. The thing is, he's kind of down now. He doesn't have a family like the rest of us. He was raised by his grandmother, and she died about two months back. Now he doesn't have anyone. When mail call comes, he usually just disappears because he never gets any letters. No one should have to be alone these days.

Anyway, he's always telling me how lucky I am to have a big family, and I thought maybe you could be his family for a while too. All you'd have to do is write him a couple of letters. Just tell him about yourself and what you're doing. It doesn't matter how long it is or what you say. It's the mail that counts. You have no idea how much mail means over here. I know I can count on you. His address is the same APO as mine. Thanks, kiddo.

Love,

Chip

* * * * *

Dorchester, England

April 27, 1944

Dear Tom,

So boot is over and you survived? Are those marine sergeants as tough as I've heard? Knowing you, you probably spent most of your time doing KP. Things should be better now that you're taking advanced training. Hawaii sounds like a pretty great place to be sent. The weather has got to be better anyway. I'm sick of being cold and wet. Everything is about the same here. We train. We wait. We train. We wait some more. If we wait much longer, the Germans are going to be too old to fight.

You remember Hazel, the girl I was telling you about? I learned that Sgt. Hanley is the other soldier who is seeing her. I was going to visit her tonight, but it seems that Sgt. Hanley got to her first. Maybe this is payback for me always telling him what he should do in the field. It would be just like him to get revenge that way. I know that he met her first, but she hasn't made any attempt to tell me to get lost. So, until she does, it's every man for himself.

I told Mac tonight that if Hanley thinks he's going to one up me, he's crazy. I scrounged up a brand new pair of stockings. When she sees those, that'll be the end of Hanley. Stockings are in even shorter supply here than they are in the States. Anyway, Hanley lost all his money in a poker game, and now he can't afford to buy Hazel anything. I hope he's better in combat than he is at poker.

I've got to go. The guys have just come by and we're going into town for a while. I know you're way too busy to write me, and once you ship out for the Pacific it's going to be even harder to find time to write. I won't expect too much of you. You'll probably have your hands full with Japs. And don't expect too much from me because I'll probably be busy with Krauts soon. Just keep your head down and dont do anything stupid… like volunteer.

Chip

* * * * *

Dorchester, England

May 8, 1944

Dear Mom,

I got your letter today. Thanks for the pictures you sent. Louise is growing up so fast, and I wish I was there to see it. There was one picture of her wearing a letter sweater. It's too big to be my old wrestling sweater. Looks more like football size. Is there something you haven't told me? Do I need to be worried? What the heck, I'm going to worry no matter what. That's what being a big brother is about.

Chris wrote me that he got a job at Bergen's Hardware on Saturdays. That's right up his alley. He always was good with his hands. He also told me that you've been babysitting a lot for Mrs. Schwinn. Mom, you're already working 50 hours a week at the plant. You should be resting when you get off, not working another job. Now that I have my third stripe, I can increase my allotment. Besides, those kids are monsters. I'd rather face Krauts any day of the week than Sherman and Herman Schwinn.

So far, being in England hasn't been too bad. When we aren't training, we go into town. Everywhere you look, American soldiers. I haven't seen so much action since the Albano Highway. You'd like all of the activity here. We got to see a USO show back at camp last week. Chris would've gone nuts. Betty Grable was one of the stars. Everyone was whistling and shouting so loud you could hardly hear anything. Joe E Brown were there too. I missed Brown when he started his tour last January, but I'd heard a lot about him. We were laughing so hard, you probably could hear us clear up in London. We heard they tried to get Martha Raye, but she was making a movie or something. The guys who saw her when she toured North Africa said she sure could sing.

The weather's getting warmer, but it still rains a lot. The guys who've been here longer say that winter can get downright nasty. All I can say is, we'd better be on the road to Berlin before that. I just want to get this over with and get home.

I have to go. Seems they can't run a training schedule without me. I'll try to write more later. Give my love to Chris and the Brat. Miss you.

Love,

Chip

* * * * * *

Dorchester, England

May 15, 1944

Dear Chris,

Sorry I've taken so long to get back to you. I hope everything's going OK. So my little brother is a working man. I just hope that you don't let your work get in the way of school. I heard a rumor that you've been talking about quitting school so you could work full time. That had better remain a rumor. Your job isn't to support the family. Your first job is to finish high school. Ever since you were a little kid, all you ever talked about was building things and having a business all of your own. With your ability, you can do anything you want, but you need an education first. I know that when you're 17, the big, wide world seems like a place you have to get to real fast. Believe me, it isn't. Being grown up is hard work and carries a lot of responsibility. So enjoy being where you are right now and stay in school. If I sound too much like a nag, then good. I'm going to keep on nagging you until you get the message. Do you roger that?

Chip

* * * * *

England

May 25, 1944

Dear Brat,

How is everything at home? Chris says that things are better. He says you two aren't fighting nearly as much. I'm glad you took my advice to heart. And just so you'll know how much I appreciate how hard you are working at it, I have a little surprise for you. Last week we got up to London and went to a comedy play at the Lyric Theatre. I got you a program so you could cut out the actors' pictures and put them up on your bedroom wall with the others.

Grady Long says to say hi. He's sitting here right now making faces like an idiot. He's been like that ever since he got your first letter. You should have seen him when he heard his name at mail call the first time. When a letter came every day for a week, you can only imagine. Then when he got a letter from Mom too? Well… he's still smiling. Now he gets in line an hour early so he can be first.

Grady has made himself an adopted son of the Saunders clan, and after the war he expects a Mom-cooked meal…meatloaf, real mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, and cold beer is what he is ordering. We may never get rid of him. Something tells me that would be OK with you.

Well, I have to go take the men on a very long march. It is our third one in three days, and they are not happy about it at all. Take care and give my love to all.

Hugs,

Chip

PS

I showed Grady your picture and he said you are a pretty cute looking kid. I told him with eyes that bad, it's a wonder he can hit the broad side of a barn with his BAR.

* * * * *

.

England

June 1, 1944

Tom,

I hope this letter catches up to you. The news we get is that things are pretty rough in the PTO. I know you just got there, but please forgive me if I'm hoping that it'll be a while until you see action. I almost feel guilty that the whole time you gyrenes are fighting your way through the jungle, we're in England confined to base doing nothing. Just doesn't seem right somehow.

Sometimes I think that I'm going crazy over here. All this waiting. Too much time to think. But at least it gives me a chance to tell you some things I never knew how to tell you before. It isn't going to be too long before we are landing in France, and funny as it seems, I find myself wondering if I told you that I love you before I left. Kind of dumb, huh?

You know, Tom, even though I'm your older brother, when we were kids, I always wanted to be just like you. The two of us are so different. Me? I see something or someone that needs fixing, and I have to act on it. Just plow ahead no matter what the consequences. I don't know how to be flexible when I think I'm right. On the other hand, you were always so easy going. You'd just charm people into thinking the way you think. I can't be that way. I tried for a long time, but it just isn't the way I'm made. I still let things gnaw away at me until I get mad. I sure make life difficult for myself sometimes, huh?

I could use some of your cool right now. What is coming scares the hell out of me. I've come to terms with the thought that I might die. I don't want to, but I can't change whatever is going to happen. What scares me so bad is being in charge of men who count on me.

Back in Italy, the only one I had to take care of was me. Now that I'm a sergeant, I have a squad I'm responsible for, and I don't want to lose a man. Not one. I keep wondering what will happen if I make a really bad mistake. How many men will die if I'm not good enough? Do I know enough? Is there something I should have taught the guys? Will I make the right decisions? How will I be able to send men out to die without seeing their faces in my dreams for the rest of my life? Sometimes I think the only way I'm going to survive this war now is for me to stop thinking about anything except doing my job the best I know how, and not think about the rest. But if I stop thinking, I'm afraid I'll stop feeling. That's what really scares me.

Hey, you got better things to do than listen to me rattle on. I don't know why I even brought it up. Let me hear from you when you can. Remember, we don't need any heroes in the family, so keep your tail down. And always carry spare socks.

Chip

PS as soon as I know anything about where I'm going, I'll let you know if I can. Just remember what we agreed to before I shipped out. It still goes.

* * * * * *

France

June 14, 1944

Mom,

Not much time to write except to tell you that I am safe and well. Came through without a scratch, no thanks to Braddock. That private is so funny, he ought to be a comedian. It's a great story I'll have to tell when I get back home. So far it hasn't been too bad, but the Germans are keeping us pretty busy. That means that if I can't write for a while, don't get worried.

Love,

Chip

PS Tell the Brat that Grady is OK. He wants me to tell her that his favorite cookies are apple raisin, but oatmeal cookies would do in a pinch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

France

June 14, 1944,

Tom,

No time to write, but I wanted to tell you that everything is OK. There's no way we could have prepared enough for Omaha. We lost a lot of good men on that beach. But it's over and behind us, and I can't allow myself to think about that. Now it's on to Paris.

Chip

* * * * *

France

June 18, 1944

Dear Louise,

This is really hard for me, but I don't know any other way to tell you except to come right out and say it. Grady Long was killed this afternoon. I think he would want me to tell you since there is no one else to receive notification. Your friendship meant a lot to him. He talked about you all the time. That picture you sent him never left his side. He carried it inside his helmet liner. When new guys came around, he would pull it out and show them 'his little sister.' He got such a kick out of it.

There is something that I haven't said anything about till now because I was hoping there wouldn't be a need. Remember I told you that he'd been raised by a grandmother who died a while back? When Grady came into the service, he took out a GI insurance policy of $2,000. When she died, he didn't do anything about changing the beneficiary since there really wasn't anyone else. That is until you started writing him. When we were crossing the Channel on D-Day, he told me that he'd changed his beneficiary and named you. He said it would make him happy to know that if something happened to him, there'd be enough money that you wouldn't have to worry about how you were going to pay for college if you want to go. He wanted more than anything to be part of a big family, and I guess he found one. I'm going to miss him a lot. I just wish you could have met him. Sorry, I can't talk about it any more.

Love,

Chip

* * * * * *

France

July 2, 1944

Dear Chris,

At first I was going to write you a long letter telling you how stupid you are for enlisting. I still think it was the worst mistake you ever made to quit school and sign up, but I have to respect why you did it. I said a few months back that you were the man of the family now, and it seems to me that if I'm going to expect you to be a man at home, I have to let you be a man and make your own decisions. Whether you are at home or over here, we are still a family. We will get through this. The only advice I can give you now is to always do your best and stick to the values that you were raised with. You're going to be OK. I love you.

Chip

* * * * * *

France

July 12, 1944

Tom,

We don't get a lot of news about what's going on over there. I guess they figure we have our hands full with Germans without worrying about Japs. I don't know how long it's been since I've heard a radio that wasn't strapped to another GI or seen a newspaper that was in English. Right now, we aren't even getting Stars and Stripes.

We did hear a little about a place out there called Saipan, and I'm betting you were there. If so, you have now killed, and you're no longer worried about it. I've thought a lot about your questions since your first letter. When I wrote from Italy, everything seemed so much clearer. We were the good guys, and they were the bad guys. It all seemed so easy to understand.

Here in France it just isn't always that easy. I feel as strongly as ever that the war is right. All you have to do to convince yourself of that is to see the great suffering of people here and their courage in the middle of this hell. But the lines between the good guys and the bad guys aren't always so easy to see. A beautiful, innocent young girl is blown to bits by a land mine for the crime of stopping in a field to pick flowers, and you just want to kill every Kraut you can get in your sights. Then a German chaplain saves your life by throwing himself on a hand grenade. Suddenly it isn't so simple any more.

Maybe we aren't meant to understand the why. We can only hope that out of it all will come an end to war and hate. Then our children, if we're lucky enough to survive, won't have to make decisions to kill or not to kill. I don't know if that answers your question or not, but it's the best I can offer you. I hope that you will be able to find your own peace about it within yourself, as every man has to do.

Well, keep your head down and be careful. What do you say when this is over and we all get home, the three of us Saunders boys go out to the Schooner and tie one on… and hope Mom doesn't find out.

Chip