I recently rescued a box of letters, correspondence between a wife and her GI husband during WWII, from the precarious future at the hands of a flea market peddler. Two of their letters are presented here.
Frances always began her letters to Melvin the same way – “My Darling Husband.” Melvin’s favorite salutation to Frances was, “My Beautiful Little Red Head.”
As an American GI during World War II, Melvin and his wife Frances have been apart an uncomfortably long time. She writes to him daily. Her graceful script is inviting and warm and conversational; you can picture her in housecoat and slippers, sitting at the kitchen table, as she chats on paper with her husband. Her letters are filled with the retelling of her daily activities or neighborhood gossip, but most importantly to Melvin, are her warm expressions of love.
Just as relentless in his letter-writing, Melvin’s cramped and hurried cursive offers a picture of him prone on his bunk, jotting down his thoughts. In his letters, he talks about the everyday occurrences of military life – from weapons training to KP duty, or the retelling of a joke that made its way around his barracks.
Question: “Which would you rather be, a hardware store mouse or a grocery store mouse?”
Answer: “A grocery store mouse goes behind the beans and peas. But the hardware store mouse goes behind the nails and screws.”
And as may be expected, from a soldier separated from the woman he loves, he reminisces – frequently and vividly – about their physical relationship. When he’s not wallowing in his fleshy remembrances, he rambles about their future. A future he envisions will be made perfect with the addition of a baby girl.
Their letters enable us — almost shamefully — to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations between two lovers while escorting us into a world seven decades removed. Each letter tells the story of life in the 1940’s. Their love, humor, and concern for each other, are laid out in these conversations. Their hundreds of pieces of crisscrossing correspondence were a salve for each of them.
The new “It Girl”
Penned in April of 1946, Frances’ letter reminds us that for thousands of allied soldiers their military obligation didn’t end with Germany’s surrender almost a year before. Europe was in ruins—its infrastructure, as well as its social and economic systems, needed rebuilding. Part of the occupation army given that task was PFC Melvin Blakeslee. In this letter, Frances talks about Melvin’s new assignment as part of “Operation War Bride.”
During the war, over 150,000 European women and American GI’s fell in love and married. With the war’s end, these new brides were anxious to be reunited with their American husbands, who were already stateside. Part of Melvin’s job was processing the bride’s paperwork, clearing their way to a new life.
While her concern for his well-being and happiness runs throughout the letter, and was appreciated by Melvin, her refreshingly descriptive need to be “loved,” (possibly requiring Clara Bow to give up her “It Girl” title) may have been the most memorable, and welcomed, words he could read.
“His Happy Place”
Written the day after Japan surrendered, Melvin’s letter isn’t what you would expect from a U.S. soldier on that triumphant day. His unit was given unexpected leave and Melvin headed to St. Louis. Instead of a letter from a soldier drenched in high times and raucous celebration, we see Melvin, not as a participant in the festivities, but a lonely observer. A night that should have been filled with backslapping euphoria was instead spent wandering the streets.
Not lingering in the unpleasantness of his St. Louis visit, Melvin ends his letter dreaming of the place he knows he will be a happy participant – in all of the festivities – the arms of Frances.
Meet Frances and Melvin
The couple grew up in a tight-knit community. Although Frances was four years younger (b. 1921) than Melvin (b. 1917) he was only two grades ahead of her in high school, Melvin graduating in 1936 and Frances in 1938. After Melvin was discharged from the Army he returned to their neighborhood, and to Frances, where they remained the rest of their lives. Melvin found employment as a municipal bus driver and Frances continued working at the local Bank and Trust company (she retired from there after 49 years of service). Melvin died in 1978 at age 60; Frances died in 2006, at the age of 85. They had no children.
With the help and research by the staff at the Gloucester County Historical Society, and high school year-book photos we’re able to put faces with the names.