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Writing home.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

An urge to read the Sunday funnies saved Howard Luckham's life on Dec. 7, 1941. But two months would pass before his parents learned that their son had survived Pearl Harbor.

Luckham had been socializing in the U.S.S. Helena's barbershop when he decided to dash down to the ship's laundry, where a Honolulu newspaper was delivered each morning.

While he was gone, the first torpedo of the Japanese attack hit the Helena, killing 14 sailors in the barbershop.

"I was real lucky," recalled Luckham, now 85 and a Eugene resident. "But all we were allowed to send home was a little penny postcard saying we were OK. And my folks never received it until the first part of February."

Delays of such crucial communication are almost unimaginable now, given our e-mail era sense of entitlement to instant contact with anyone, anywhere.

Yet wartime logistics and security restrictions are again reducing soldiers and their families to that time-honored mode of war correspondence: pen and paper.

Despite frustrations over the delays inherent in snail mail, letters have tremendous staying power. Treasured and saved, they provide a lasting account of wartime life.

Spanish-American War

Among the oldest war correspondence in Lane County are letters Lee M. Travis of Eugene wrote to his fiancee, Lily Baker, during the Spanish-American War.

The letters, part of the Cottage Grove Genealogical Society's collection, were featured in the Lane County Historian in 1998.

Excerpts convey the young soldier's impression of other cultures en route to the Philippines - and his impatience at sparse opportunities to exchange letters:

Honolulu, June 2, 1898

Dearest Lily:

Land was sighted yesterday afternoon about two o'clock ... coming in the harbor we passed Leper's Island on the left, where 1,100 outcasts live. We were kept on board until the morning. But rowboats continually surrounded us until midnight, filled with Canaka girls who sang in their native language. The nights here are ideal, and the voices of the passionate natives have a tender sweetness which will be long remembered.

Finally Chaplain Gilbert asked for an English song and they readily responded.

``The first three months she liked it pretty well

``The second three months her belly began to swell

``The third three months the kid began to yell

"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.''

In another letter, he signed off with:

It will be 25 days before I have an opportunity to receive a letter from you, and 25 days before I can post another letter. Twenty-five and eight makes 33 days without hearing from you - a long while. It makes me realize how far we are to be separated. But oh, won't we make up for it when I get back.

World War I

The speed of mail delivery had advanced little by World War I. A letter in the Oregon Military Museum's collection reveals why. Even soldiers were still relying on 19th century transportation, as T.E. Malone made clear in a letter from a Texas calvary camp:

June 30, 1918

Dear Mama,

How is everything at home? Things are lovely here it is a little cooler here today. They assigned us our horses yesterday. The first men that come into this regiment (eighteen of us) got their pick out of a hundred and five horses so I believe I have a good one. I don't expect we will be in this camp very long as the water supply is very low we are takeing the horses about five mile to water twice a day and it takes all day to do it.

Your loving son,


On the European front, however, a typewritten letter from Pfc. Robert H. Day showed technology advancing communication for at least some units. Though formed by impersonal metal keys, his words were poignant:

Nov. 11, 1918

Dear Folks,

It's Germany, yes, Germany. A war-torn, death-marred, Germany ... Today I sat in a home or shop, the door burst open, in came a German soldier, all the family rushed to him, embraced and kissed him, save one little tot who remained motionless where she stood, she did not know the stranger. It was the homecoming of the father of the family after 16 months on the Russian front.

In another, undated letter, Day lamented: "You know we are on another front now ... I haven't received any mail for a couple months." Scrawled on the cover of an enclosed French war comic book was an unnerving postscript in his hand: "Since writing you I have had the horror of having shells whiz overhead."

Nor did relatives back home always get prompt word, even after the death of a World War I soldier, noted Philip Richart, curator of the Oregon Military Museum in Clackamas.

"I know of one instance where a soldier was killed in action at least a year earlier, and his family still listed him as alive when filing his history of service with the state librarian," Richart said.

World War II

By World War II, with 13 million service men and women, the sheer volume of mail posed enormous challenges, said Dick Matthews, facilities director of the Oregon Historical Society Museum and a military historian.

Though newsreel footage lauded homefront efforts to speed delivery - including construction of a new, 500,000-square-foot post office staffed by 10,000 postal workers - there was still a bottleneck.

"Shipping capacity was a constant crisis, the priority being munitions and supplies for the fighting troops," Matthews explained. That led to V-mail, a permutation of microfilm technology.

"The V was for victory, of course," Matthews said. "Soldiers would write their letters on a special form. Rather than sending that home, the military would photograph it, fly the film home, print it on photographic paper and deliver that."

But delivery to soldiers in the field remained a hit-or-miss proposition, recalled Luckham, the Pearl Harbor survivor, who went on to fight throughout the Pacific.

"Sometimes a couple months would pass without mail," he said. "Ships were still delivering it, but you had to run into the right ship. In '43, I didn't get my Christmas package until way the end of April. It finally caught up with me down in New Guinea. The cookies inside were all crumbs."

There were, of course, far more serious ramifications than crumbled cookies.

Former University of Oregon wrestling coach Mike Reuter, a World War II paratrooper and retired Army major, learned about his father's death only when he ran across another soldier from his Tacoma neighborhood as both their units prepared for the Angio Beachhead invasion.

Reuter's mother saved his anguished V-mail acknowledging their mutual loss:

October 12, 1943

Dear Mother,

I hardly know how to start this letter, but today I found out about Dad. I have not received any mail since coming over seas, because of changes in orders ... I feel so bad about it, but I know how you must feel. Dad was always so good to us, and certainly did everything for me - perhaps too much ...

For unknown reasons, some of his letters home were delivered on V-mail stationery rather than as photo prints. Another bore the holes of a military censor's scissors.

Among sailor Daniel C. Radovich's letters at the Oregon Military Museum is one penned in a female hand:

July 26, 1945 Hawaiian Islands

Dear Mother,

I believe you've already received a letter from this hospital telling you about the accident. I won't tell you any of the details. I was involved in an explosion and had my right arm amputated ... I'm in one of the best hospitals outside the states, have a good doctor and receiving excellent care.



The Korean War

By the Korean War, mail routinely reached soldiers within three weeks, recalled Bob Dougherty of Eugene, a retired Army sergeant.

"We got mail even on an outpost up on the front line," he recalled. "But telephone calls were non-existent until we got to Japan on R and R."

Retired Coast Guard Lieutenant Fred Farner of Springfield recalled mail delivery as "sporadic" when he patrolled the waters off the Coast of Vietnam a decade later. In fact, he and his wife took to numbering their letters.

"That way, if I got No. 19, and the previous one was No. 17, I'd know things didn't make sense because I'd missed #18," he said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Bennett of Eugene used shortwave radio to ensure weekly conversations with his wife, Kathleen, during the Vietnam War. But the conversations were hardly intimate. The round-the-globe connection required at least three shortwave operators - all of whom could listen in.

"Also, you had to say, `Over?' each time you finished talking, and I always forgot to do that," recalled Kathleen, a home health nurse.

The Vietnam War

Portable tape recorders transformed war correspondence of that era, recalled Springfield resident Gary Smith, an Army staff sergeant in Vietnam.

"Whenever we could get fresh batteries, it was tapes," he said, recalling one particular recording from home.

"It was Dec. 24, 1966," he said. "My mother had everyone talking to me, from the people I used to work with (as a dishwasher) at The Embers to people I went to school with at Willamette High."

The Gulf War

By the time of the Persian Gulf War, it was camcorders. The family of Lane Community College student Jeremy McMillon got a video view of his duty with a Marine Corps anti-terrorist unit in Bahrain from 1996 to 1998.

His "letters home" captured everything from the blue language in his barracks to the boredom of his wee hours sentry post. The most gripping footage came the night a bomb was discovered near base.

McMillon set his camera on the floor and let it capture his rapid reaction unit donning helmets, bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles and loading weapons. There's nary a word of nervous chatter, only the "click-click" of rounds being loaded into M-16s before they roll out the door into the dark.


Jeremy McMillon's correspondence home from Bahrain during the mid-1990s, after the first Persian Gulf War, included photos and videotapes. Letters: A record of soldiers' lives abroad Continued from Page G1 Please turn to LETTERS, Page G2
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 23, 2003
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