the deceased speak
- Author’s Note: Childhood friend, Amelia Blakey Wheatley, shares her late father’s letters from North Camp Hood Texas. The letters give us a sense of what life was like for Private Charles A. Blakey, his family, and friends during World War II. We thank her.
“Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in World War II. Few things mattered more to those serving abroad than getting letters from home, ‘mail was indispensable,’ one infantryman remembered. ‘It motivated us. We couldn’t have won the war without it.’ The mail, whenever it arrived, also helped reassure the worried families of servicemen back home.” – “The War, Letters & Diaries,” PBS
The year was 1944.
War was raging. The U.S. bombed Tokyo for the first time. Glenn Miller would go missing. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent a month at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown, South Carolina planning D-Day. LSU beat Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, 19 to 14. Life went on best it could. Back home, friends and family were writing brothers and sons sent to fight World War II. Such was the case with Charles A. Blakey’s family.
Age yellowed the envelopes you see here. The envelopes, four inches high when stacked, amount to a time capsule, for the ensuing years brought change. Seventy-two years ago stamps were 3 cents. ZIP codes? No such thing. Airmail was getting to be a big thing. New words brought home the realities of modern war, “buzz bombs,” the nickname given Nazi Germany’s V-1 rocket bomb, heralded the advent of death-delivering missiles.
Times were treacherous. Some freedoms were suspended with good reason. An envelope from Charles’s brother carries a circular blue stamp. “Passed By Naval Censors.”
To hold Private Charles Blakey’s letters is to hold history. At the time they were written, small farms dominated the South and folks still chopped cotton. People regularly wrote letters. They corresponded, something few do today.
I sorted through the correspondence and selected passages that convey things that mattered back then. The passages provide a sense as to what concerned people in 1944. Then as now, it was daily life, work, health, weather, the safety of loved ones, fun, gossip, romance, and family.
Let’s return to 1944, the sixth year of the seven-year global war. February 8, Charles wrote a letter to his mother from North Camp Hood Texas with a simple request. “Send coat hangers.” He had lost his while in sick bay. He needed them for his uniforms.
His dad wrote February 13, 1944. “My Dear Charles … Received three letters from you at once the other day. Intended writing you right back but I am trying to get you out to help me farm. Had some papers fixed up and got to have some more fixed. I did just what the Red Cross lady said for me to do. They say that I can get you out but I don’t have much hope of it, although it could be possible.” After some talk about sawmilling, getting up the hay, and the death of Uncle Will Walker, Charles’s dad writes, “I am glad your money lasted until you got paid off. Don’t worry about me trying to get you out. It will just be luck.”
Brother Roy Blakey Jr., who was in the Navy, wrote Charles, postmarked March 28, 1944, a Tuesday, “I asked you in one of my letters if that Smalley boy is with you. How many boys that you knew are with you. You never mentioned who went from Wilkes County.”
Later Roy refers to his and Charles’s anxious parents. “Yes, I know that mama and those worry about me. I have told them thousands of time that I am and will be all right. No need to worry about me. I am well and I write often so why worry? I’m looking forward more and more each day that we both may return home and everything will be as it was before. I can’t say I like the Navy but I like it better than I do the Army. Why didn’t you join the Navy? I didn’t even know that you were being drafted.” Roy closes with a good-natured admonition. “Be good for mom and dad’s sake.”
March 27, 1944, Aunt Mattie writes Charles. “The Grand Ole Opry will come to Washington tonight but we won’t go. I can’t leave Thelma now.” She continued, “Old Bunk Aycock stole him a car in S.C. Saturday. Come riding home and in about five minutes the state patrol rode in behind him and caught him. So now he’s locked in the Washington jail house where he belongs.”
Later Aunt Mattie writes about the war in Europe. “I haven’t heard from Buddy in a long time. I am worried about him for the old Germans are playing the wild, bombing London and places close around. They bombed it three times last week. I mean bombed it hard, too, so the newsman said. Churchill made a speech Tuesday P.M. but was so much static, we couldn’t hear him.”
March 3, 1944, Private Blakey wrote his dad on United States Army letterhead. One sentence jumps out. “We have to get up in the morning at four and go out on the rifle range.”
A day later Charles’s Aunt Mattie wrote him a letter about his helping out on the farm. “Well, it has rained so much until nobody has plowed any yet so you see if you were at home you wouldn’t have anything to do, but, oh my, after while when the grass starts growing.” Later, she turned her attention to his girlfriend. “I know your girl is sweet. I haven’t seen her but I heard Leila say she was pretty. You are more homesick to see your girl than anyone else I bet. Maybe she will wait for you. Maybe she won’t do you like Cooter’s girl is doing him. I hope Cooter will find him another girl.”
Next, she turns to war and a boy who was stationed near London. “I sure will be glad when this war is over. I feel like my worries will be over then. I sure have worried about Buddy lately, for the old Germans have bombed London lots in the last few weeks.”
Before closing, Aunt Mattie wrote a sentence that caught this writer’s eye. She mentioned my mother and one-time neighbor, Lois. “Wish you could be here this weekend for Lois Bolton is coming home with Leila, also Mary Strother and Ruth Walker. I can’t find a boy apiece for them for there isn’t [sic] any boys around here now.”
“War Letters, Part I,” closes with words from brother Roy Blakey Jr., a man who would become a Georgia State Patrolmen. His May 31, 1944 airmailed letter, written on Navy letterhead parchment, talks about his trip home to Danburg. “I arrived here Friday night. Had a tiresome and lonely ride. Everything around here is dull and lonesome as can be. Just about all I can do is to go to see Edna. I don’t know what I will do during my stay here. Nothing much.”
Roy goes on to express either a bit of frustration or his reluctance to discuss war matters. “I have two campaign bars for the American Theater of War and the Pacific. Also two stars for two major battles. No one around here knows what they are all about.”
As we see, life’s concerns three-quarters of a century ago were not that different from today’s. As the old cliché goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
- Click to read War Letters, Part II. Image: the feature image, "War Letters," is a photo by Tom Poland.