Backstory: Writers of letters inspire writer of series

Backstory is a blog that allows Herald reporters and photographers to share the story behind the stories and photos that are published in The Herald.

Herald City Editor

Over the past couple of years, The Herald has produced close to 20 profiles of World War II veterans.
Telling these stories is an ongoing project that we believe is well worth our time and effort.

After reading one of those stories this past July, one of my co-workers asked if we ever had considered doing a story about letters home from the war.

That suggestion is all it took.

By mid-August we had run a blurb in the newspaper asking for readers to share the letters their loved ones had written from World War II and we had posted the same request on Facebook.

I heard from 15 people, some of them with only a few letters to share and some with dozens or, in the case of Tim Bell, hundreds.

A couple of people even let me borrow letters from World War I that they had. Urban Schnaus had copies of letters from his father, Theodore, who was in the Army in 1918. Phil Buecher had original letters that some Jasper natives — soldier Albert Sprauer and sailor John Gullett — had written to his aunt Victoria Gasser (later Corley) when she was in high school. The letters to Gasser cost 3 cents to mail — from Michigan and Connecticut, respectively — to Jasper.

At the bottom of each lined page was a preprinted note: To the Writer: Save by Writing on Both Sides of this Paper. To the Folks at Home: Save Food, Buy Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps.

“1918,” I said to myself, letting it sink in that the pages I held were nearly 100 years old.

My work on this series was very much inspired by the letter writers of decades ago. As much as I could, I let the sailors and soldiers tell their own stories in their own words. Their vivid descriptions of what they were experiencing transported me to a different time and place. I wanted them to do the same for Herald readers.

Deb Enlow emailed to tell me that her mom, Juanita Hoffman, had eight brothers in the military during World War II. One of them, Lowell Gray, was missing in action and presumed dead. Sadie Sermersheim called to let me know that her brother Calvin Voelkel was killed by sniper fire. When I met with each of the sisters, I was struck by their memories these 70 years later. Each still wonders how her brother might have lived out his life if given the opportunity.

Sue Taylor brought in two dozen letters that her father, Marty Gosman, had written his parents. When Sue, 68, said she had never read the letters, I asked why not. She said she cries just thinking about it. Now that she knows what they say, I hope she will read them.

If she does, she will see her father’s fine penmanship (most of these guys had great penmanship or I never could have made my way through all of their letters), see examples of his gentle care for his wife and, when Susan was born and Marty was in the Pacific theater, read of his reaction to her birth and his anticipation of meeting her.

I interviewed Anna Mae Gosman, Marty’s widow, and got a glimpse of her life on the homefront during the war and how she and her husband lived out their life together for more than 50 years afterward.

And about those 400-plus letters that Tim Bell delivered to me. They were written by Denny Bell, Tim’s grandfather. He wrote to his wife, Jenny, almost daily during the 20 months he was in the Navy.
Many of the letters ran six or eight pages. (Denny never saw a page he couldn’t fill, so leaving a page blank and writing an odd number of pages was out of the question. He noted disdainfully when censorship started and limited him to writing on only one side of a page.) On the only Valentine’s Day that Denny and Jenny were apart, he sent her seven — yes, seven — valentine cards.

Feeling overwhelmed but not wanting to send a single one of Denny’s letters away unread, I asked my oldest sister if she would help me prioritize them. She said yes and she and I read all of them over two days (about 11 hours for each of us). Most of the letters began with “Good evening Darling.”
Sitting across the table from each other, my sister and I shared favorite passages back and forth. It didn’t seem like work at all.

We loved Denny’s recurring references to the newfangled “slack suit” he bought his wife in San Francisco and his frequent use of the word “swell.” He even coined a new word, “swellegant,” a combination of swell and elegant.

Denny died in 2004 at age 92. I never met him — but Denny Bell in his mid-30s is one of my new favorite people. In some of his letters, he wrote about movies he had seen and books he had read.
Among the titles he recommended was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I downloaded it to my Kindle last week.

About this series: A few months ago, The Herald asked readers for letters written by their loved ones from World War II. We received more than a dozen responses, including from a couple of people who had letters from World War I. Some readers had fewer than a handful of letters to share, while others had dozens, even hundreds. From now through Veterans Day, we are publishing excerpts from the letters received. The words are original to the writers, though some spelling and some punctuation have been altered.

Part 1: In shared company — Soldiers and sailors wrote of new experiences and of missing the old routines.
Part 2: Pigeoneer Marty Gosman — This soldier followed the birth of his firstborn from a distance.
Part 3: Two who never came home — The sisters of Calvin Voelkel and Lowell Gray always have wondered what might have been.
Part 4: Pharmacist Denny Bell — This sailor — the father of two — wrote his wife almost daily.
Part 5: From World War I — A soldier missed the farm he grew up on, and several servicemen were pen pals with a Jasper girl.


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