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Letters Home Recall Life During Wartime

Posted on 24 May 2013

Dolores Mulvihill Zebrowski during her service as a W.W.II Army nurse.

Dolores Mulvihill Zebrowski during her service as a W.W.II Army nurse.

By Annette Hinkle

With Memorial Day upon is, it’s worth pausing to consider not only the nature of armed conflict around the world and the sacrifices made by those who put themselves in harms way as a result, but also how much the world has changed since WWII when much of what people stateside understood about war came courtesy of the ubiquitous letter home.

While these days, communication is virtually instantaneous through texting, Tweeting and emailing and soldiers serving overseas can visit with family members via Skype, during WWII, letters from servicemen and women offered a much different take on the world.

For one thing, a letter from the battlefield could take months to reach home — if it ever did. By that time, situations had changed drastically and the writer could even be dead.

So unlike the “one off” digital messages of today (which are rarely preserved for posterity’s sake) letters home represented a carefully considered snapshot in time — one soldier’s perspective in which he shared what he was seeing and possibly, what he was feeling at the moment.

No matter the content, one thing’s for certain — the letters home were greatly treasured by those who received them.

“The printed word mailed home — you could hold on to these letters, wait with anticipation, take it to bed with you, read it 100 times and pass it around to family,” says Carol Mulvihill Ahlers. “They were so infrequent, you might not get one for months, then you might get five in one week and they’d be completely battered.”

Recently, Ahlers found two letters written to her grandmother in Sag Harbor. One was from her father, Daniel, and the other was written by her aunt, Dolores Zebrowski. A third letter, written by her uncle William Mulvihill, came to her through an aunt.

Ahlers is sharing the letters with the Express in honor of Memorial Day (the full versions can be read on the paper’s website at www.sagharboronline.com) with the hopes that other families will do the same in years to come.

“My family, like many in Sag Harbor, was deeply affected by World War II,” notes Ahlers. “While my grandfather, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel F. Mulvihill, was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, his three children, Daniel, Dolores and William were all in the Army, serving in the Pacific, on hospital trains, and in Europe respectively.”

Such family commitment wasn’t unusual during WWII when supporting the war effort was a collective experience shared from coast to coast, and all three letters from Ahlers’ family offer folks back home a unique perspective of what life was like in the very different venues in which Dan, Dolores (or Susie as she was known) and Bill served.

While much of the detail in the letters concerns the day to day matters of meals, interactions with fellow soldiers and descriptions of the landscape, there are other details to be gleaned by reading between the lines.

For Susie, a nurse, a high point was the camaraderie she experienced with other staffers aboard the hospital trains on which she served while crisscrossing the nation caring for wounded soldiers returning home from war.

“This train business is a good deal and I know I am going to like it,” wrote Susie. “I had 2 girls, 1st Lieutenants, on with me and they are swell and really showed me the ropes. We all just had another cup of coffee and it is just like one big happy family.”

But there were other impressions in her letter — the changing of bandages, the stoic demeanor of wounded soldiers and the image of residents crying as they stood on the platform of the Utica, N.Y. station when her train passed through.

For Bill, stationed in Lippoldsberg Germany, his letter home contains descriptions based on matters of mission — dealing with war refugees and strong arming one mayor into ensuring the Belgians in his small town received decent accommodations and as much to eat as the Germans.

“I came back the next day to see how everything was and the old German mayor came to attention and saluted,” wrote Bill. “You have got to show these people that you mean business and treat them with an iron hand. I only hope we don’t go soft on them like we did before.”

Bill also makes note of the publicity coming out of Europe by writing he has never seen a “newsreel man,” though he adds matter-of-factly, “We did have a correspondent and a writer from Yank but they were killed.”

Perhaps the most reflective of the three letters — and definitely the shortest — is the one written by Ahlers’ father, Dan, serving in the South Pacific, to his mother.

It reads:

Dear Annie,

Not much news. In the past two days have gotten off two letters to Billy, as I’ve received two v-mails and one airmail from him.

Have been reading a book called “Mediterranean Assignment” which is mostly about the British 8th Army under Montgomery. Part of one speech of his to his men is, I think, well worth copying. Here it is.

‘And what of the future? Many of us are probably thinking of our families in the home country and wondering when we shall be able to see them again. But I would say to you that we can have today only one thought, and that is to see this thing through to the end. Then we shall be able to return to our families honorable men.’

Good, isn’t it? I think he’s a great man.

Love,

Dan

“I think in my father’s letter, I was surprised it wasn’t just the news. That he took the time to send something kind of uplifting,” notes Ahlers.

Ahlers also notes that in his letter, her father is less focused on the details and much more philosophical about the future, highlighting the importance of being committed to the cause. He was also very deliberate in specifying the book he was reading and quoting the passage that obviously affected him.

“The fact he was inspired to do that was surprising,” says Ahlers. “He has a mature sense of why we are at war.”

She also notes in the pre-digital age how much effort and thought soldiers put into their letters — even those, like her father’s, that were very short.

“It’s so much easier to be in touch with so many more people now,” says Ahlers. “But composing a letter, you would sit down under a tree and write it by hand. My father wrote to his brother, his sister, his wife and his mother — and that’s all he wrote to.”

Ahlers notes though the number of recipients were few, her father was, in fact, a rather prolific letter writer and had composed many more than this single example.

“My father obviously wrote a lot of letters to my mother,” says Ahlers. “But when she died, she asked that they all be destroyed.”

“As much as I wanted to read them, I didn’t. I destroyed them.”

 

 

The complete letters:

 

Letter from Dolores (a.k.a Susie) Mulvihill, from somewhere in New York State

Dear Ma,

Well, today was my first trip. Got up at 4:30 am and went to the Headquarters Building where 3 nurses and about 8 MAC officers and one doctor were. We went over to the mess hall and had breakfast and collected about 50 GI’s who will also go with us.

We left about 8 am with about 200 patients from Halloran.

We made stops at Camp Shanks, Albany, Plattsburgh and Utica. It was a beautiful trip and the scenery was just wonderful. We went all along the Hudson, and that was nice. I never realized that N.Y. State is so pretty.

Most of the patients were well enough to travel, and I gave out cough mixtures, aspirin, APAC’s, soda bicarb, changed dressings, made beds, and really kept busy. The fellows are swell and never complain about anything.

We got on the good side of the cook and he gave us coffee between meals and gave me some spaghetti he made just for his gang. For dinner we had hot dogs, beans, cole slaw, mail, and fruit cup. For supper, lambchops, potatoes, peas and fruit cup.

We didn’t have a chance to get off at Utica, but I gave a card to a G.I. to mail for me.

We got rid of all of the patients and have now started back. We have made all the beds and cleaned up, and I am now getting ready to go to bed.

We are supposed to go right back but at any time we could get a telegram telling us to go anywhere.

This train business is a good deal and I know I am going to like it. I had 2 girls, 1st Lieutenants, on with me and they are swell and really showed me the ropes. We all just had another cup of coffee and it is just like one big happy family.

All of the people wave at us and in Utica we were going so slow thru the city that some of the people were crying.

Well, I will close now,

Love,

Susie

 

 

Letter from Bill Mulvihill, stationed in Lippoldsberg, Germany

Dear Dad:

Received the Time [magazines] this week and thanks a lot. I read them from cover to cover. We never got much publicity I see. All the time over here and I never saw a newsreel man. We did have a correspondent and a writer from Yank but they were killed.

With the revised system in which the new campaigns were announced, I will be able to wear at least 2 medals (Rhine, Central Europe) and perhaps one for the Ardennes.

Our division has been put into the Ninth Army now and we are still doing occupational work for the most part.

We are around Kassel now and right on the Weser River. All the bridges are blown up but the Europeans built some fine ones from long poles and lumber so it doesn’t affect us at all.

Like the rest of Germany, this area is full of slave laborers and German refugees from the big cities. We have D.P (displaced persons) centers for the ex-slaves but there are so many that they have been told to stay where they are. In the next town, a Belgian came up to me and told me in German that the mayor wasn’t giving him and the others enough to eat and instead of seeing that they were housed properly, he had put them in a barn. It took me about three minutes to straighten out the mayor. The men there now get as much to eat as the Germans and I got them rooms with beds in German homes. I came back the next day to see how everything was and the old German mayor came to attention and saluted. You have got to show these people that you mean business and treat them with an iron hand. I only hope we don’t go soft on them like we did before.

I got the lighter and thanks a million. A lighter like that is very rare over here as you can’t buy them. Once in a while the battery may get one and then it’s raffled off among a hundred men. I use high test gas in it as lighter fluid is also almost non-existent.

All for now and I hope this finds you as good as ever.

Bill

 

 

Letter from Dan Muvihill, stationed in Okinawa:

Dear Annie,

Not much news. In the past two days have gotten off two letters to Billy, as I’ve received two v-mails and one airmail from him.

Have been reading a book called “Mediterranean Assignment” which is mostly about the British 8th Army under Montgomery. Part of one speech of his to his men is, I think, well worth copying. Here it is.

“And what of the future? Many of us are probably thinking of our families in the home country and wondering when we shall be able to see them again. But I would say to you that we can have today only one thought, and that is to see this thing through to the end. Then we shall be able to return to our families honorable men.”

Good, isn’t it? I think he’s a great man.

Love,

Dan

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