December 7, 2017
Seventy-six years ago today, war came to our soil with the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into the Second World War, which ultimately lasted nearly four more years and affected hundreds of millions of people from countries throughout the world.
Records of the war, and of the 450,000 Missourians who served in the military, are still being collected. One ongoing project at SHSMO shares the stories of American servicemen and women through their personal letters. The World War II Letters Project has made the letters of roughly 1,000 individuals in military service available on shsmo.org.
The collection (C0068) began in 1945 when radio broadcaster Ted Malone, who hosted the ABC show Between the Bookends, asked listeners to send in wartime correspondence. More than 3,000 people from all over the United States responded by contributing letters. A finding aid for the entire collection is available online.
In 2016, SHSMO started a digitization project aimed at providing online access to all the letters in the collection. Dedicated volunteers have scanned, transcribed, and added essential metadata to ensure the letters are keyword-searchable.
After more than a year of transcribing and entering details such as the names, hometowns, dates, and places of origin for letters, SHSMO volunteers like Dave Connett have become familiar with many of the soldiers in the project.
"There was one that talked about the King of England saluting him as he was passing by," Connett said. "Another, Gene Carlson, was an excellent cartoonist, so he drew what he saw while he was living in the camps."
Yet, according to Connett, these stories are not the ones that have the most lasting impact. The letters that stay in his thoughts are those like the one that army corporal Clayton Hickman sent his parents from Yokohoma, Japan, on October 14, 1945. It told the story of an orphaned girl his unit called "Jane."
"He described a five-year-old Japanese girl standing outside the camp," Connett said. "The soldiers finally took her in, since she was clearly abandoned and severely malnourished. They fed her and gave her a place to sleep until they could find the right channels to get help for her."
Connett said letters such as this are his favorites. "Some letters show bravery, but the ones that show kindness and make you feel good, that's what kind you like the best."
"There are really great stories in these letters," said SHSMO archivist Heather Richmond. "Because it was often a mother, or a wife who sent them in, there is added context in an introductory note. A letter home might seem typical, but because of the cover letter from the mother we know that she thought her son 'was terrified, and homesick, and trying to keep up appearances for me and not act afraid.'"
Many of the mothers' letters also anticipate a forthcoming book that never came to fruition. "Making them accessible online kind of feels like we are fulfilling that promise," Richmond said. "We are sharing their children's letters, many of whom were killed in action, with others."