Last Memorial Day, I wrote a diary about how I came into possession of letters written by my husband's uncle Clayton and his wife Hazel. Back then I was barely halfway through my first read of the archive, which consists of 450 letters, all written in 1944. Since then, I've organized, read, and outlined them all, and am getting ready for the next phase of this new project: matching the military record of the 9th Army and the formal process of basic training during World War II with the dates of the letters, in essence mapping Clayton's progress through the war, from when he was drafted until the end of his service.
They wrote to each other almost every day. Four hundred fifty letters, all written between two people who never intended anyone else to read them. So I feel an eavesdropper's responsibility to keep confidence about the personal aspects of their relationship, even as I feel the emotional connection between them and the desire to share what is essentially a universal love story. I'd like to hope they wouldn't mind.
Hazel and Clayton had been married for seven years before he was drafted on January 1, 1944. He, like most men of the time, was a reluctant soldier, and spent some of his time in Basic trying to get out of the Infantry and into a position as a mechanic or railroad worker, since he had done both in civilian life. But the Army needed infantry, and into the infantry he went. Hazel kept Clayton up to date on the latest news from home (and she was both frank and gossipy), and Clayton did his best to reassure her that he was both physically safe and emotionally devoted only to her.
The best way to capture the essence of the archive is to let them speak for themselves. I'll add explanatory notes to these extracts, if you'll follow me below the orange Maginot line.
Clayton's first posting was the in-processing station at Fort Meade, Maryland, not far from his home in the Shenandoah Valley. Hazel was devastated when he left, but tried to make the best of it:
January 22, 1944Who's who:
Well Saturday has almost passed and I miss you more by the hr. I could hardly sleep last nite, kept waking up thinking I had to hug you up and steal a little kiss. What a feeling when I started to hug Margaret! Then I would lie there awake and couldn’t go back to sleep.
We didn’t get up until about 9:00. We had breakfast and Sue wanted me to fry eggs for Daddy, it seemed you had to come in. I guess it will take me and her quite a while to get over that feeling….
Bernice came down for a while this evening, said she came in a hurry but she sat down and stayed quite a while which pleased me very much. She said Bob sure was taking it hard over you leaving, said that was all his talk, and his appetite had left him, said he asks her if she had seen me every time he came in.
Sue and I went up Kakie’s tonight for a while. Her baby isn’t a whole lot better. It cries a lot. She sure looks like a whipped chicken, said she and Herb could hardly get you off their minds. She expects Herb to get his greetings most any time, but he hasn’t heard anything.
Well Daddy I guess I’ll sign off for tonight as I don’t have anything to write about but just Sue and me. This sure has been one lonesome Sat. and Sun. night. I don’t even feel like listening to the radio. I guess it will be one of many. But I’m doing my best not to worry too much, I try to hold my chin up and smile. Just the same I miss you more than you will ever now. Well anyway, I still love you.
Margaret: Hazel's sister, who often stayed with her while Clayton was away.
Sue: Clayton and Hazel's 2 year old daughter
Bernice: the wife of Clayton's last employer, Bob, who ran a car dealership and hired Clayton as a mechanic.
Kackie and Herb: Kathleen and Herb Kress. Herb worked with Clayton on the railroad and Kackie was Hazel's best friend.
It was Hazel's early hope that Clayton could get a pass while he was at Fort Meade so they could see each other, but Clayton explained that couldn't happen.
January 28, 1944The anticipated pass never happened, because in short order Clayton was shipped to Fort Blanding, Florida, for Basic Training.
I didn’t write yesterday. I was on detail all day and then called out last nite from 6:30 until after 9:00 on K.P., so I cleaned up and went on to bed.
I am still here for I am on detail today all day, but I have a soft job, carrying a broom around and keeping out of the way.
I got 5 letters Wed. and 1 yesterday. Boy, was I glad to get them. I sure am glad to hear that you are all o.k. and well. I am feeling good and have plenty of money so far. It hasn’t taken much. Tell Bob as soon as I get straightened out I will write him and I appreciate his attitude toward us. I can’t get a pass yet for I have to be here 10 days, so if I stay over Sunday, I hope they let me stay all next week so I can try to get one
I think some about home but they keep you on the move so around here you haven’t time to do much thinking…..
They are having a big party here tonight for the officers and old personnel and are they having a time! Cleared out two mess halls and really decorated them pretty….
There sure are a lot of fellows coming in here—all breeds, shapes, sizes and creeds. Everything you can think of there are men who has done it.
Well, don’t worry about me because I am getting along swell and I can take care of myself. If you can’t, you soon learn how.
It’s getting late. I am sitting here watching a pool game in the Day Room. Time has slipped by and I am tired.
Well, chin up and keep writing and I will see you soon, I hope.
Always All My Love,
Feb. 11, 1944Who's who:
Well, I said I would write again tonite so here goes. Mrs. Bailey came up this morning and sat awhile. She didn’t know much except Wallace was on another bender. She said she couldn’t understand why I stayed so close home. I told her I was a lot better satisfied here than any place that it wasn’t because I couldn’t go it was just because I didn’t want to.
I forgot to tell you in this morning’s letter that Bernice told me last night that Bob hit Mr. A. Brown, the one legged man. She didn’t seem the least bit worried about it. I don’t believe she realized what it meant. He hit him on the way home to supper in front of Lee Davis’ store. They called Dr. Nicholson and he sent him to the hospital. They say his head was cut rather bad. And his leg, arms and shoulder bruised. But I heard down town this evening that he was resting fairly well.
I also heard from town that Marshall Sipe had killed himself. I guess you might know him, I don’t. They say he was working up in the A. B. C. Store in Harrisonburg. Some seem to think it was his nerves. He was examined for the Army last October when Wilson was and Lois said Wilson said he worried so then. He had been taking some kind of treatments. He was supposed to have gone to Richmond today for some kind of treatment.
Helen Hinkle heard from the War Dept. that Willis was still seriously ill but was in a hospital. They say about 300 men in that camp have it, and that it broke out overnight.
Mammie sure was proud to hear from you. They are all in pretty good spirits. She’s been hearing from Barney right regular.
Lillian asked me and Sue out to her house for supper this evening so we went on home with her. She had liver and pork chops, peas, greens, potato cake + hot rolls. It sure tasted good. Tomorrow is Carol Lee’s birthday and she is having a party tomorrow evening. She mailed Sue an invitation and was she proud of that. I guess I will take Sue after she has her nap. Carol got us a box of candy chocolate with peanut in the center over at Kennie’s. I wanted to pay him but he wouldn’t hear to it. I will send you some when I send your box.
By the way, I will send you those things Monday, as I won’t have time to get the things together in the morning. Daddy I didn’t know you could use safety pins in the Army. I thought they taught you to sew. I bet you missed Mommie when it came to putting out that washing. I would loved to have seen that. Lois is going up Harrisonburg tomorrow and she will find me those towels and I have the pins. I will fix everything in a box together and send it first thing Monday morning. How is your money holding out? Let me know if you get low.
Herb came down this morning to empty my ashes I told him I didn’t have any but my firebox sure needing cleaning. I haven’t taken out but two shovelfuls since you left, and I can’t seem to shake any through so I guess there must be some clinkers in the bottom. I told him I would let it burn down and he could clean it in the morning. It was pretty decent of him to come down to ask to do that for me. He hasn’t heard anything more. He still will have to go when his papers have been transferred. I sure would miss them if they would have to move. Their baby is doing fine, it sure is getting cute. She smiles now when you talk to her.
This sure was some day for that bunch to go to Roanoke, it sure was a big gang. I saw them come through town. There was three busloads of them. I don’t know why they came through Elkton. I haven’t heard any reports from any tonight, but will write you as soon as I do. It started the day by sleeting, then turned to snow, but it didn’t do much. The ice didn’t melt at all today, so you know it is cold here. It’s doing a little something out now. There wasn’t a list of reclassifications in the paper to day. I guess you will miss them.
Well Daddy I will close as I am getting sleepy. I’m sitting on the bed now writing this with my big outer gown on. Susie has been asleep a long time, she has been good today. You mention love and kisses. How I wish you were here. All of ours to you.
And lots of love,
I will write again tomorrow night.
Mrs. Bailey and Wallace: neighbors
Wilson and Lois: Clayton's brother and sister-in-law
Mammie: Clayton's mother
Barney: Clayton's brother, stationed in England
Lillian and Carol Lee: Clayton's sister and her 4 year old daughter
Feb. 20, 1944
Another Sunday about over. It’s been a long one. Just lying around. I went to the movies this evening again with a couple fellows here in the hut. Their names are Gosnell and Grinder, they are both swell fellows. They had big jobs before they came in the Army. They are both from Arlington, Va.
We have a pretty good bunch of fellows in our hut, none very noisy. All are friendly and will share anything they have.
There is one fellow in here from Texas, about 35. He is something—coughs and talks all night in his sleep. And too clumsy and dumb to pour pee out of a boot. The Non-Coms ride him hard, he just takes it and goes on.
Next week I won’t have so much to wash, for the laundry has started picking up dirty clothes and towels. They take $1.50 out of our check so I might as well let them wash them.
Well, Sugar, I guess you went to church today. I think I might go next Sunday. It will be something to do. And a bunch of the fellows out of the hut go every Sunday.
I guess it’s still cold up there. I have forgotten all about real cold weather, for we have none here. It gets cool and damp here some mornings.
Gess Sugar, it’s just the kind of evening here that we used to like to get out and just ride around, pretty and warm. How I would like to be up there taking you and Sue for one, and then a big supper on the Farm….
April 11, 1944
Daddy, I will try and write you a line as it is getting late. Daddy, I hear that 12:00 freight train blowing. My, but it gives me the blues. Remember, Sugar, how you used to kiss me bye and rush off? Gee, I will be glad when it’s like that again, or any way just so you are home.
….Well, Daddy, the news on the radio still sounds good. It makes everyone feel like it won’t be so long. Gee! Won’t it be wonderful when it is!
May 4, 1944Once he completed Basic Training, like all draftees, Clayton was given a week's pass and sent home. In an archive like this, everything happens in the gaps, the silences. I'm sure there was visiting with friends and family, the wish from both to slow down time, and inevitably, the awful parting, as Hazel rode with Clayton as he reported for duty. Then she had to leave, not knowing where he would go or when she would see him again.
I guess you are wondering if I had stopped writing, Honey. But I haven’t. This has been one hell of a week. Getting up early and getting in bed past midnight. This week has been the toughest one yet. No time for anything. We have been out on the ranges all week and really getting a drilling.
I am sitting in the latrine, writing this just to let you know everything is O.K. with me and I’m feeling fine except I am tired. I have to take a bath and shave yet. Will try to write more tomorrow night. Just want you to know I still love you more than ever and am first looking forward to getting home.
All My Love,
August 2, 1944As it turned out, Clayton didn't stay in his pretty nice camp for long. Within a few days, he was in the hold of a troop ship and heading across the Atlantic, bound for England. Hazel took a job in a clothing factory, and moved back with her parents, Lizzie and Daddy.
Just a line to let you know I am o.k. My mail is censored and there is nothing I can write or tell you. I am on the East Coast and don’t know when or where I will be moved.
This is a pretty nice camp and so far the food has been very good. I wish I could write what I want but I can’t. You understand.
How are you and Sue. I sure wish I could be home with you. I sure hated to leave Sue crying. Sunday it looked like she knew I was not going to see her for a while. It was sure tough standing there and watching you all pull out.
Honey, I guess you think this is some letter, but I am not used to writing censored letters, but I want you to know I still love you and miss you more than ever.
You can write me anything you want. Incoming mail is not censored so I am waiting for some letters.
Always All My Love,
Once he was in the field, Clayton had to burn all correspondence he received, both because it bore addresses and because he couldn't carry anything with him. He managed to scrounge paper from various places--a French composition book he found abandoned, even toilet paper--and write. He preferred writing on paper to V-Mail, since it traveled faster.
V-Mail was mail written on a single page form the Army supplied. Once a week it was collected, microfilmed, and shipped back the U.S., where each letter was printed and mailed. V-Mail had the advantage of being free, while regular letters, still subject to Army censors, had to be stamped.
Despite the challenges in writing, Clayton wrote home as often as he could, but his letters are brief and, as he explains, there's a lot he can't write about.
August 20, 1944
Gee Honey, here it is Sunday again, and I can still think of places I would rather be. I am not busy today, just lying around resting and waiting for the next move.
This letter leaves me some place in France. Wish I could tell you where I am at but I do know this part has been through hell. Honey, if you don’t get mail regular don’t get alarmed, it will be that I am too busy or the Mail Service. I understand it’s lousy out of here. Don’t let this letter alarm you for I am still o.k. and will be. This leaves me loving you more than you know, and just waiting until I can see you again.
All my Love,
Sept. 20, 1944
Well, another day is about over. I came in this evening and shaved and ate chow. You should see me shave out of my steel helmet. When I get through washing and shaving in about ½ gallon water you can cut it with a knife. It’s a good deal different than using running water back home.
Honey I guess you wonder where I am at and what I am doing. I can’t tell you where I am, but I am not doing anything exciting. So there is nothing to worry about. Right now I am about as safe as you are. Later I can tell you and Sue where I am at.
I don’t know anything else to write now. I guess you get tired of this scribbling anyway but I want you to know I am still o.k. in every way and my love is greater than ever to you and Sue. I hear church singing so I will stop here and go.
Always all my Love,
Sept 21, 1944
I went to Church last nite, Honey, before the Movie. I talked to the Chaplain. I am going to join church and he is going to send my membership back to Rev. Fulk. I don’t want you to think anything radical or get alarmed about where I am at or what I am doing for I am o.k. I haven’t changed any, I am doing what I should have years ago. Write and give me your opinion of it. I think I am doing the right thing….
Sept. 26, 1944
Just another old Army day, Honey. I am just messing around, still not knowing anything. We hear plenty of rumors but most of the time they are false. From what I understand and the news, this mess can’t last much longer. Goodness knows I hope not. I sure would love to sleep under a good roof in a soft bed and enjoy the comforts I once had. But I am not complaining. I have no reason, considering some of the fellows here. Again, Honey, I want to tell you how much I love and miss you and how I am hoping to see you and Sue again.
All my Love,
Oct. 3, 1944
I will write you a few lines this morning while I have a chance. The mail is going out this morning the first time for a week and a half. I have had breakfast and am sitting by a fire I just built up. Where I am at it is pretty cool and damp.
Well, Honey, I have been at Brest, France, and there were really things to see there. After Brest fell we moved back into a rest area. Then we moved where we are now. But there is nothing to worry about. I am still safe and will be.
They are hollering for the mail so I will have to stop here. I will write when I can so don’t get alarmed when you don’t hear from me for some time.
I still love you more than ever and am o.k. and chin up, and hope you are the same.
Oct 5, 1944
Our outfit was at Brest when it fell. The day I was baptized the Chaplain and a friend of his and his assistant rode through the town or city a couple of hours. Every building was destroyed or badly damaged and sights there that you would have to see to realize it was true.
We have made another long move now and I saw a lot more of France. We moved by box cars and boy was that a ride. Gee, Honey, I hope it isn’t long until I can tell you about these things in person and I don’t think it will be, things are looking real good….
Oct 12, 1944
…you ask what I want for Christmas. I will tell you what I would like, a wedding band or ring if you can get one. I will put a piece of paper in this letter the length around my finger….
It sure has been old and rainy here for a couple days and I have been real busy. This leaves me o.k. and loving you more than ever. I am depending on you Sugar so keep your chin up and one of these days we will both celebrate…
Nov 6, 1944On November 8, Hazel wrote to him with her opinion of the election:
Honey I hope you are right about this mess can’t last much longer. The news does sound good and we are making good headway. If only the devils would give up. They know they are whipped.
I got my ballot to vote yesterday so I voted for Mr. Dewey. I hope it does some good.
I guess you know by now that Old Roosevelt is President again. The Ole Devil. I hope he soon ends this mess, but I’m afraid he won’t. I believe every time he and Ole Churchill have a conference it is to see if they can’t make the war last longer. It seems as if this mess will go on forever….Clayton writes of his Thanksgiving in the field:
We had a real dinner yesterday for Thanksgiving, plenty of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, a good Salad and pumpkin fixed up fancy, but I couldn’t go that. Believe it or not, I ate the big part of a leg and thigh of a good sized turkey. It was baked and well seasoned and sure tasted good. But Honey, it didn’t taste half as good as it would have if I could have been home and you could have fixed me a good meal. I thought of you and home while I was eating but, I still ate a lot, for food like that don’t come often over here. Honey I am just waiting for the day when I get home and can sit on a chair at a table and eat food that you really like and cooked home style by you…As the 9th Army moved into Germany, soldiers were bivouacked with German families, and Clayton was no exception. As grateful as he was to not be living in a tent, he was still homesick:
Things are mighty quiet. But we are kept busy working or standing guard all the time. And, Honey, standing guard all night by yourself and so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face gives a man a lot of time to do a lot of thinking. He thinks of things in his past and thinks of things he wants to do when he gets home. There are some good rumors that the war over here will soon be over. From the progress our armies are making maybe it will be, for they are doing good work now.
Dec 6, 1944Clayton's final letter, dated December 8, 1944:
I don’t know any news, except I was reading a little war newspaper we get most every day. The news sure looked good and things sound good, so maybe Honey it won’t be so long until I can come home…
I hear the people of the house downstairs praying. They are sure giving it off. Wish I could understand what they are saying. They speak German.
Honey this leaves me the same and I feel rested up. I hope it finds you and Sue o.k. and well too. Honey I ask the Good Lord to look after you and Sue and I believe He will. I am sending all my love to you and I am hoping this mess will soon be over so I can be with you….
Dearest Hazel,Clayton was taken prisoner on December 18, at the beginning of the German offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge. He was shot, hit by small arms fire, and died sometime during that day.
I will try to write you a few lines now. I just got through overhauling my fountain pen and it writes much better, but it don’t improve my writing any, does it? Ha. I hope you can least read it. This high-powered French ink I have been using stopped it up.
This has sure been another easy day. We haven’t even had to fall out for anything. All we had was a clothes inspection. I sewed up a big snag in my pants this morning. It was about 4 or 5 inches both ways. You should have seen me handling that needle. It taken me about 1 ½ hrs. to sew it up.
I didn’t get any mail today so it leaves me with nothing to write about. We are still hearing good rumors. I hope they are true. I wish I could tell you what they are, but I don’t think they would go through the censor.
I had to stop and go get some chow. It was pretty good tonight. They had ground hamburger, potatoes, pretty good spegetti (I don’t know how to spell it.) and sliced peaches.
I helped to cut some wood this evening for the folks. They let us use their dining room to warm in and do our writing. And we hauled some coal for them this evening, too. These people are very peculiar the way they live and the way they do things. I wish I could understand their language.
How are you and Sue getting along? I feel like you are O.K. I don’t know why I feel that way but Honey I do. I know you are taking care of yourself and See. Gee, Honey, it makes me feel good to know I have some one back there like you to depend on and to come back to. Is Sue looking forward to a big Xmas? I bet she is. Honey, do you remember how cute she was last Xmas morning when she walked into the room and looked at her things? I hope I am there for yours and her next one.
Well Honey I guess I will have to close here for the gang has gathered in here and they are slinging the bull so thick I can’t even think. This leaves me the same as always well and O.K. and I hope you are the same. I still want you to know how much I love you and I am still just living for the day when I can come home to you.
Always all my Love,
On that day, Hazel wrote to him:
…I worked today. A blue Monday, Sugar, I mean a blue Monday—cloudy and dark all day. It started to rain about 4 this evening. The news too sounds awful bad on the 1st and 9th Army fronts. Sugar I am worried sick over you but something inside me tells me you are O.K. I hope and pray you are and this mess soon ends. I have a feeling it will….and the next day, December 19, 1944:
My Dearest Clayton,All correspondence that Hazel and the rest of the family wrote was returned unopened. The only letter Hazel touched was the letter from December 18. The rest of them she put into a box, and put the box in the barn. There it stayed for 60 years.
Sugar, nothing unusual, just another day. It’s been real cod all day, it didn’t rain enough to melt the snow and ice, and the ground still has right much ice on it in some places. The roads are o.k. I don’t want you worrying about me going to work.
I worked today and still doing fine, although Sugar, I will be thrilled to death when I know you are coming home and I can quit. It is a good thing for me now to work, it certainly helps pass away the time. There are quite a few girls in there just like myself, we are just living for the day we can take care of our homes and live again.
Sugar, I fixed your box to mail last night and taken it up this morning and it weighed a quarter of a pound too much so I hope to mail it tomorrow. Sue fussed because I brought it back this evening. She wanted to know why I brought it back, why for Mommie you don’t mail Daddy’s box? Boy, Sugar, your daughter is a bird. I don’t care how many Christmas Cards I bring home, she says didn’t we get a letter from our Daddy. She thinks of you first, Honey.
Sugar, the news still sounds bad from over there. Of course I am worried silly and listen to the radio news, but Sugar, I have a feeling you will come through O.K. for Sugar I am depending on you. You are my whole life. My chin is high, Sugar, for I just have a good feeling.
Lizzie had hay beans and corn bread for supper and back bone, you know how I like hay beans. Well, I really ate. I really acted a pig. Little Sue really eats, she looks as heavy as ever but she is getting lots taller.
Sugar I don’t know any news tonite, except we are all well and doing fine.
Just have to tell you I still love you more than anything in this Ol World and just waiting for you.
In time, Hazel remarried. Sue grew up, and died without having children of her own. Hazel was, by all accounts, a much harder woman after Clayton's death. He was buried in the American cemetery in France, but two years later his mother had his body shipped home and reinterred in the family plot in the local cemetery. Hazel, who was by then remarried, never forgave her former mother-in-law.
I know this has been a long diary. They tell their own story better than anyone else ever could. Thanks for reading it, and thank you for giving me the chance to share a little of this treasure.