Recently, Jack Levison, a Seattle-based writer, was sifting through his father’s letters from World War II when he found one dated July 4, 1944. Seventy years after his war-hero dad wrote that letter, Levison is sharing its moving contents with the world.
On July 4th, 1944, my dad was a 19-year-old in aerial gunnery school in Lincoln, Nebraska. His mother, Conceptione Immaculata Capitolo (her friends and family called her Tina, thank goodness) was an indomitable, five-foot tall (in heels) Italian immigrant who had made her way to New York through Ellis Island when she was a young girl. Now her son was training to become a front gunner in B24s that flew over her childhood home in the Italian countryside, across the Alps, on bombing missions over southern Germany.
On the Fourth of July, 1944, my father wrote to his mother:
Bang! man boom!! Happy fourth of July. At twelve today the cannon used for retreat gave a 21 gun salute, boy what a noise. It was cloudy today but warm. We have a radio in the barracks now and it is playing a lot of marches, personally I would rather hear popular music but it is not my radio. Punk Soldier, huh? Don’t agree with me.
We had a good chow tonight! Iced tea, cold cuts (lasagna, liverworth and salami), cheese, cold macaroni, beans, rye bread, fried potatoes and to top it off a nice hunk of cold watermelon, boy it was an [something crossed out] ball.
I received a letter with Rebas’ letter included. Richard is doing O.K. isn’t he. Radar is a good field but I will still stick to aerial gunnery. We stopped up the P.X. today and had a milk shake, good deal.
That about empties the barrel although but remember that I miss you and love you very much.
Your Ever Lovin Son, John”
I’ve just started to read through my dad’s letters, and already I’ve noticed a pattern, which this letter follows, more or less.
He tells his mother the news of the day, usually that the guys he’s with are “swell.” He tells her what he’s eating. She’s an Italian mother, after all. He tells her not to worry, that he misses her.
Pretty innocent letters, as far as I can tell. No premonitions. Lots of reassurance, as he waits, wonders, probably worries, even at nineteen, about the days ahead. And he should.
In Europe, where he’ll soon be flying, the Battle of Normandy, which began with D-Day, on June 6th, 1944, rages on. On July 4th, American troops fight fiercely, without patriotic marches blaring from the juke box, without heaps of cold cuts and hunks of ripe, red watermelon. They press ahead in the siege of La Haye-du-Puits. The army’s 83rd and 90th Infantry divisions are locked in violent battle with German soldiers. American casualties are terrifying—into the thousands—just to gain around 200 meters, a scant two football fields worth of land.
That Fourth of July in Normandy, my father was still having a swell time with swell guys–sweating up a storm, snarfing up his meals, mastering new skills. He hadn’t yet lost hearing in one ear, thanks to the relentless roar of B-24 engines. He hadn’t yet stuffed sandwiches into his armpits to keep them from freezing on bombing missions. He hdsn’t yet cowered from flak hurtling toward the glass bulb at the front of the aircraft in which he sits, mission after mission. He hadn’t yet returned from war to his Jackson Heights, Queens apartment, where he’d stand at the window in the middle of the night and scream, “Fire! Fire! Bail!”
My dad didn’t talk about the war except in small doses over an occasional beer during infrequent vacations on distant sandy beaches. He tucked his memories away somewhere and went on to raise a family—coaching little league, attending concerts, fertilizing our small lawn on Long Island.
So I’ve started to delve into his old letters to connect with the boy, the soldier, the son my father once was. Some of the letters he wrote his mother from Italy still have the black markings of censors, though they’re a lot like his letters from Lincoln and Lubbock and Greensboro—reassuring, casual, funny.
This Fourth of July, when I sit in my study and pull out the briefcase full of my dad’s old World War II letters, I’ll connect with my father again.
Fourth of July, 2014 will be my personal Father’s Day.