Monday, May 28, 2007

A World War II letter home

On this Memorial Day, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. For the first time, I've dipped into my dad’s wartime correspondence to my mother.

During World War II, William F. Seifert was a flight surgeon with the rank of a major in the U.S. Army Air Force. His 58th Bomb Wing of B-29s was stationed in eastern India with the job of flying “The Hump” (the towering Himalayas) and delivering bombs and supplies to bases in China. Later, the wing’s Boeing-made “Superfortresses” bombed the Japanese in Thailand, China and Japan itself.

In the last stages of the war, the 58th was stationed on Tinian, where the planes were being readied for their fateful A-bomb missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Dad survived the war and went on to practice urology in Rockford, Illinois. He died in 1989 at the age of 77. My mother saved every letter he wrote during the war, packing them into a cardboard box that was passed on to me when she died.

I picked a letter at random from that box today.

The letter, pulled from its envelope, is crisp and creased and in remarkably good shape. The words jump off the page. Dad was an excellent writer. He even dabbled in writing fiction later in life before depression, even paranoia, and tremors brought him down.

I’m looking at a letter dated Sept. 13, 1944. It describes the debilitating humdrum of war. The unremitting, sweltering, sleep-destroying heat of Calcutta. In the letter, Dad admits to having medicated himself to induce sleep. When realizes that he is becoming addicted to the drug, he stops taking it. The result, he writes reassuringly, is that he “feels like a new man.”

Then there is the dysentery and the diarrhea and “severe abdominal cramps.” Again, he manages to cure himself through his own regimen of drugs and diet.

A paragraph describes a strange incident of nocturnal noises in the corner of his sweltering tent:

“I had gone to bed at 9 p.m. when I heard crunching in the waste basket. Thinking it was a rat, which I’ve been chasing with a crowbar, I grabbed same and switched on the light to find a good sized wild cat. He made a bolt for the door. I let him have it as he went by, but I missed his head. Though he rolled over a couple of times, he kept going. Afterwards, I was sorry because I prefer wildcats to rats anytime, and this fellow should be very efficient at killing rats. Besides, maybe I can tame him.”

There’s a request that my Mom have prints made of photos of two airmen who were killed and that she send them to the men’s families. “I know you don’t like the assignment,” he wrote, “but it’s the last thing we can do and you know it’ll be appreciated.”

There’s his account of a pick-up volleyball games (“…my side lost — largely because they had to carry me. I truly played for the hell ‘off’ it….as I hate the game.”) followed by rounds of bridge. “You know — all-around athletes — and I should do better.”

He offers advice to my mother, who had written about how those who had been isolationists prior to the war and had managed to avoid fighting, were now celebrating V-Day in Europe. My mother had expressed her anger, and Dad writes her, “… and you are right, but we mustn’t forget that we were charter members of the isolationist school, although, of course, we have seen the light and done an about face… even if I lose the decision [Dad’s way of say he could be killed], which I won’t, you will always be able to tell Rick [I was 2 1/2 at the time] that the old man believed in giving it the full treatment, and that’s going to mean a lot to us….Don’t ever forget, we have ourselves to live with, and our country to live in, and if it’s as fine as we say, then it’s worth fighting for. Patriotism? Sure, but the kind that’s been raised by good, solid thinking, not just over-night.”

Mom used to recount how the war changed Dad from being a religious man to being a skeptic. He rarely talked about the war but he once bitterly recounted how the battered and shot-up B-29s would limp home only to crash land on the runways. He told how he and the medics would jump into the ambulances — they called them “meat wagons” — and how they would be left with the agonizing task of collecting the scattered remains of their buddies.

As is evident in his wartime letters, he clung to his humor and tried to brightened my mother’s life on the home front during his service.

I have no idea what I would have done in his position in those years before, and days immediately after Pearl Harbor. I know what he did. I have an idea of what the war did to him and that knowledge has influenced me.

In the years and wars that followed — Korea and Vietnam — he would occasionally speak of terrible costs of war, but without elaboration. I know this box of letters will fill in some of the blanks.

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