I’m not sure what level people were on when they read Letters Home, the book of my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother while he was serving in the Pacific during WWII as a bomber pilot. Most people probably read the book as one man’s account of his war experience, which I think it would be a worthwhile read at that level. But if he was writing them for posterity, which he might have been, he wasn’t primarily. He was writing primarily to an audience of one: my grandmother (except for one he wrote to my mother shortly after her birth).
He wrote to entertain her, to connect with her, to reassure her, all these things, but he also, at some point, began writing for him. Writing sustained him through the war. Writing kept him together. Maybe I’m projecting because without writing I have trouble imagining who I would be, but the one piece of evidence I use to trust there’s something to my theory is that after his emergency landing in the water, he got picked up by a destroyer. The doc offered him a pint bottle of whiskey, which he drank in one gulp (I guess we’re not judging the doctor’s technique, it was a different time), and then he insisted on writing a letter. He tore the letter up later. (I wish he hadn’t. He said he couldn’t read it himself but I would have liked a try at deciphering it.) Out of habit, he probably addressed that letter to my grandma but he was writing that letter for himself.
There are times he writes straightforward letters just to meet his self-imposed requirement of getting a letter out to her every day. I included some of these to give the book an accurate feel of his letters to her but cut many to eliminate repetition. Other times he sits down to intentionally write her a real beauty, which could feel forced but doesn’t because he has good writing instincts and knows how to avoid writing that feels like it’s trying too hard (this is my opinion, obviously) but also because his aim isn’t to impress you or me or anyone else reading this book he had no idea would one day come to exist, his only aim is to impress his wife.
But other times he’s so accidentally good that is what confirmed to me his writing instincts. This is most clear in his letter from August 16, 1945 when he writes about getting shot down; before censorship wouldn’t allow him to describe the incident that occurred over Kure, Japan. He gives such a clean, ordered account of exactly what happened, without any flourishes. Ends with how he missed one hop but got on the next one “for if I hadn’t I would have lost my nerve completely.”
Then he tacks on this bit that I still remember knocked my socks off when I found it:
I knew before I got hit that it was coming because there were so many tracers and bursts around me that I could have gotten out and walked on them. I jerked like a madman but they got me.
Those lines create such intense imagery, not just of what it must have looked like to be surrounded by explosions so dense and close he could have stepped out of his plane and walked on them but also how it must have felt. The second part of that passage I also love because the “they” feels like not the enemy below firing but the tracers and bursts up there with him. Almost like they’re detached from the people firing them. The pair of lines feel like a man caught in a war aware everyone else was caught in that war, too. The bombers above and the men firing anti-aircraft weapons below are in identical situations, to him. This might seem like a reach, out of context, but the letters provide more context. He writes, elsewhere, “Is it bravery to fly though gun fire to bomb and kill others?”
After the war in a flyover, he writes, “Everything seemed to be under control except that I did see a couple kids throwing rocks at us. Some of the civilians even waved in a friendly manner and then some just waved fists. Most of them, however, just looked up casually. I imagine they are about as relieved as we are that it is all over.”
I had no idea I would find this level of empathy for the enemy when I decided to take on this project, but it’s one of the reasons why reading these letters and turning them into the book was one of the great experiences of my life.
Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific, available in print and as an Ebook from Amazon and as an Ebook through other online retailers. I also have paperback copies I’m glad to gift to interested readers. You can read it on kindle by following this link and purchasing for 2.99: https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Rex-Jones-ebook/dp/B00RPV4P3A/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517500069&sr=1-2&keywords=Letters+Home+by+Rex+Jones
The paperback copy is available here for 9: https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-WWII-Pilots-Pacific/dp/1505382912/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517500214&sr=1-1&keywords=Letters+Home+by+Rex+Jones
Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. All are available as paperbacks and as Ebooks at amazon.com. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.