They were boys. One day they were studying, laughing, tossing around a ball with friends, trying to hold a girlfriend’s hand, and attending church on Sundays – sometimes Wednesday nights, too. Life was simple, smiles were plenty, and America was the greatest country on earth.
But our world changed. Germany and Japan had been fighting for world domination, but not on our soil. Not in America. Not until Sunday, December 7, 1941, the holiest day of the week. On that day, the “Imperial” Japanese Navy slaughtered soldiers, sailors, Marines, and civilians with a deadly strike on Pearl Harbor. Close to 3,000 people were killed – just a few less than the number killed during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, another morning sneak attack.
History books abound with detailed accounts of young Americans running to their draft offices, hurried basic training, and long, bloody attacks throughout Europe, the Pacific, and throughout the world.
The young men went off to fight an enemy they could see and vowed to stay in the fight until America prevailed. It was a dirty war, and much of the dirty work and horror took place on the ground in bloody battles waged by our infantrymen – Army and Marines. How many miles did they trudge along, one line on each side of the road (where available) carrying supplies, engaging in battle, stumbling, but always picking each other up? Months before, they had been boys; they’d never even imagined the hardships and horror that became their daily lives.
They went to protect our way of life. They returned, minus more than 400,000 U.S. civilians and military members. Some returned to ticker-tape parades; others simply went home to family. Not many knew the demons they battled when the closed their eyes, images they’d never forget, smiles of friends who’d died in battle.
They found jobs, tried to forget what they’d seen, and lived quietly in the country they’d saved. Some were maimed and “shell-shocked,” but it was only spoken about within the circle of family and friends. They received help and respect. They were not silenced, even denied, by the leaders and citizens of this country.
As time progressed, these Great Americans got older. And so did their stories. For those who remain, memories grow dim. While we’ve seen biographies and autobiographies of military leaders and heroes, we see few stories from the men who trained, went to war, fought, and came home.
Many times, God’s blessings come in ways we do not recognize at first. I received such a blessing, a privilege granted to few. After getting settled in here in High Springs, I met (through my High Springs “family”) one of those men who trained, traveled on a troop ship, came ashore and fought, then finally came home. During R’s time in the army, he managed to write a letter to his girlfriend (who later became his wife) every day. She kept these letters – oh, how she must have treasured them – and he has entrusted these precious letters to me to transcribe. I have the letters she wrote to him while he was in basic training, but he was not able to save her letters once he shipped out.
The letters capture the giddiness of a young couple in love, and the “summer camp”-like atmosphere of his basic training. They move into the intricacies and tragedies of war as seen through the eyes of a young infantryman from Virginia. It’s both love and war, with him choosing his words carefully (and then dodging the censors) so as to not worry his sweetheart back home. It is a love story of man and country. As I read the letters, I hear R’s strong Virginia accent, and it makes me think of my family members who fought in that same war.
They went away as boys. They returned forever changed. R’s story will be the greatest project I have helped into existence. We must never forget their sacrifice. They did not question.They did not protest. They did their jobs. And because of them, we are here today.
Thank you, R. The world will know your story.