Saturday, November 17, 2012

Letter From Bob, November 1942

Dearest Rosie:

I am sorry beyond words that it's been so long since I've written to you. All I can say is that it's a measure of the kind of hell we're seeing that I've been kept from the most important person in the world, even on her birthday.

This "Kokoda Track campaign" as the brass are now calling it, has been frightful on both sides. We're flying air support over the jungle and the mountains, threading the needle through narrow valleys carpeted with trees that seem like they're reaching up to grab you out of the sky even as you're roaring by at hundreds of miles an hour. All the while another fellow's chasing you in a plane with Rising Sun "meatballs" painted on its wings, trying to kill you while you try to kill him. It takes a lot out of a fellow.

But it's the Japs on the ground who are really taking it on the chin. The Aussie troops are telling us they've found hideous things as they advance toward the Japs' main base at Buna. It turns out our enemies are running short on supplies. The few who've been captured are clearly starving, all ribs and bones and hollow eyes. They've eaten their pack horses and now they're devouring the corpses of their dead comrades. The Aussies say the Japs call the latter "white pork."

It pains me to write these things to you, but I cannot be anything other than honest about how it is here. If any good comes of these tales, maybe it will be to inspire you and your friends to keep fighting as hard for victory on the home front as we do here in the jungle.

But I should stop being all gloom and doom! I can tell you I scratched my head for a good long time trying to figure out what to get you for your birthday. As you might imagine the shopping opportunities in Port Moresby leave a lot to be desired. No matter how hard I looked they were fresh out of Mainbocher dresses, every single time! And although we're surrounded by beautiful tropical flowers that make even the sorriest corrugated tin shack look like a Matisse painting when the sun's out, there's no way to send any of them to you. You'll have to wait as always for the rhododendrons and cherries to bloom in Seattle.

I finally hit on an idea: It turns out a few of the fellows here are pretty good artists. In their small bits of free time they've taken to painting what we see around us every day. I got a watercolor for you from a sailor. I call it "Landscape With Coconuts and PT Boats." I hope it survived the journey unscathed and that you like it. It's a pretty sure bet that you're the only gal on Tillicum Road SW who's got one!

Well, I've got to finish this letter and try to get as much shut-eye as I can in this furnace-like heat and drumming rain (the other fellows in the unit have been joking that since I'm from Seattle the rain shouldn't bother me, but these firehose downpours are nothing like the misty drizzle we're used to in the Northwest). I've got another mission early tomorrow and the Zeroes will be waiting. Just know that the Japs may slow me down from writing but they'll never stop me from thinking of you as long as I'm breathing.

Your loving husband,


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Letter from Joe, November 1942

Dearest Bess:

We did it! After eight months up here in this freezing, burning, mosquito- and grizzly-bear-infested wasteland, we've finished the Alaska Highway!

I should say, "sort of finished." We got slowed down plenty the last few weeks by something the engineer-types call "permafrost." Turns out that just underneath the ordinary-looking dirt there's big layers of ice that lasts all year round. And the craziest thing about it is that we have to insulate it and keep it frozen! If we don't, it melts and opens up giant sinkholes in our road.

So the boys with the pencils and transits scratched their heads for a while and finally decided that those "corduroy roads" we've been building out of logs would have to do. I guess what works for mud works for ice.

Things got a little tense in our camp. We got so far behind that the Army brass decided to bring in Negro engineering brigades to add to our manpower. Some of the fellows from the South took offense, and I heard one officer say that it was ridiculous to send blacks up here because they'd never stand the cold. But the Negro troops worked plenty hard and personally I was happy to see anything happen to make this wretched job go faster.

So we bulldozed and felled trees and built bridges, racing south toward the northbound crews. It started getting really cold again. A few of the fellows were going around with their down sleeping bags wrapped around themselves, leaving trails of feathers wherever they went. It was the usual circus of bulldozers breaking down and trucks tumbling into rivers or snapping axles that froze brittle if they sat still for too long. But night and day we kept at it, fixing whatever broke and pushing forward.

Finally at the end of September one of our advance clearing crews broke through to an advance party from the northbound unit, near the British Columbia/Yukon border.  We're calling that spot Contact Creek now, and a few days ago my brigade arrived there as well. You've never seen such jubilation! There were a heap of what the newspaper boys call "photo opportunities," and I got permission to send you a few pictures.

Our C. O. says there's still a few weeks' work left to do before the highway officially opens, but I've saved the best news for last: I'm coming home on furlough! Should be home just in time for Thanksgiving, though probably not long enough for Christmas as well. I don't know whether they're rationing turkeys these days but I wouldn't care if we had nothing but cold beans and water as long as I was kissing you and holding you in my arms again. Till then, take care and keep 'em flying!

Your loving husband,


(Images from National World War II Museum)