So Many Tracers and Bursts…from Letters Home

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:

The paperback copy is available here for 9:

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 He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.


Life Raft Metaphor Ties Letters Home Together

I mention near the end of Letters Home that my grandfather gave away the life raft he and his rear gunner got on after being hit over Kure, Japan, and having to crash land near a destroyer. He gave it to some teenagers passing the house, one afternoon. What I left out is what a surprise this was to everyone. My mom and aunt used the raft as a wading pool. I don’t think anyone ever had a good guess as to what he might have been thinking. I didn’t want to clutter his book with my conjecture, but I felt like it was an important detail to include and let it speak however it might to any readers. He states repeatedly how important it was to him to find a way to pack up that life raft and bring it back with him.

My theory is he survived the emotional turmoil of war by intensely fantasizing about how wonderful life would be after the war and that the hardship they endured as a couple, separated and fearful of his safety, would result in a lasting payoff, a heightened appreciation of a life together. I believe he lived a happy and content life, but I think what he used to get through the war, fantasizing about the happy and contented life he would have, didn’t work in the reverse. He couldn’t dip back into the painful memory of being at war to remind himself how “privileged,” a word he liked to use, he was to have survived the war while so many didn’t and get to enjoy that happy and contented life. It was just too painful a memory to consciously engage. So the life raft that he thought would be a symbol he could keep with him to use as a means of purposely returning to that fortunate moment of rescue, specifically, and surviving the war, generally, failed to work as he thought it would. He probably struggled with why it didn’t. After all, his daughters used it as a wading pool, and my mother was seven or eight when he finally gave it away. So he might have kept waiting and then, one random afternoon, when some kids were happening by, he impulsively gave it away. He didn’t want that connection to the war, the same way he never went to the squadron get-togethers. He just wanted to forget. But that’s just my guess and that’s why it didn’t go into his book.

“…the same God regardless of how he is worshipped.” – Rex Jones, Letters Home

I came across this letter early on while reading my grandfather’s letters home as a WWII bomber pilot stationed in the Pacific and abridging selections of them for Letters Home. I copied it out but it was already a maybe in my mind. I copied out everything I thought I might use on my first pass through the letters. I recall specifically mentioning this exchange, where one of the fellows pretends to be Jewish and gets a laugh out of the Catholic Chaplain, to someone who knew about the project:

I’ve changed my mind about the Catholic Chaplain. I don’t like him anymore. The other night during chow they announced that Jewish services would be held in 15 minutes and a fellow eating with the Chaplain (a catholic) started shoveling food in his mouth and exclaimed that he’d have to hurry or he would be late. Just acting the fool of course. Anyway the Chaplain just laughed and laughed so we ain’t friends no more. I would like to have punched them both in the nose. Father or no Father he was ridiculing God by ridiculing another religion for it is the same God regardless of how he is worshipped. There I go again.

– Excerpt of the July 27, 1945 letter, from Letters Home

He seemed interested and pointed out the relevancy of anti-Semitism, particularly at that time. I don’t know what others’ thoughts were when they read this letter, but I don’t know that Judaism was being ridiculed. Context is everything and I wasn’t there, but couldn’t the joke have been as harmless as that the guy was pretending to be a member of a different religion in front of the Chaplain of his actual religion? It happened to be a Jewish service, but that detail might not have been relevant to the joke. We’ll never know. That’s just one of many questions the book leaves us with that can either frustrate you or leave you intrigued.

Another clue, though, comes in a later letter when he writes about two letters he wrote when he was feeling so down that he shouldn’t have written at all. The July 27th letter was one of them. So I wonder if his stress level resulted in taking the joke as more mean-spirited than it was intended, but again, we’ll never know. Whichever the case, his reason for being upset is admirable. Another reason for including it that occurred to me is that his oldest grandson, years after my grandfather’s passing, married a Jewish woman, converted to Judaism, and raised four of Rex’s great grandchildren in the Jewish faith. I thought they might appreciate coming across that passage.

The written word is special, particularly a book like Letters Home that so directly brings the consciousness of a person no longer living into readers’ minds, but it’s not as special as a life. Sadly my cousin’s wife passed. My grandfather’s great grandchildren are all college-age and older but nevertheless lost their mother far too soon. When I mailed copies of the book to the family, Deena was the first to start reading. I met her a few times many years ago, so hearing that she was interested in Letters Home is my strongest connection to her, and so I wanted to share this post in her memory.

August 6, 1945 (8:16AM, Japanese time)

War sucks. War is hell. Every day of war is hell on Earth for someone, which makes most days on Earth throughout human history hell for someone. December 7th, 1941 was hell on Earth for all stationed at Pearl Harbor. The morning of August 6, 1945 was hell on Earth for the citizens of Hiroshima, Japan.

My grandfather’s reflections immediately after are captured in a journal entry and letter home from the next day. A bomber pilot stationed in the Pacific, as you probably know, he had no foreknowledge of the atomic bomb.

Journal Entry, August 7, 1945

We got the news of bombing with “atomic bombs” by the B29’s. That is too much power for men to have. I pray we can use it to promote peace and keep peace. Will we???

Letter, August 7, 1945

No doubt you have been reading about the new “atomic bomb.” I just heard about it myself and if it is all it is made up to be it should hasten the end of things. I studied the possibilities and mysteries of atomic power in physics and if they have found a way to release that power it is too much power for anyone to have. If the human mind is clever enough to develop something like that I should think it would be clever enough to live without trying to destroy. Why is it that people go to such extremes to kill and destroy each other?

– from 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. Amazon link to book here:

The Letter Left Out of Letters Home

Seventy years ago to the day Rex Jones, my grandfather, was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Kure, Japan. Blinded by hydraulic oil, fellow pilot, Smoke H., who he credits with saving his life (and the life of his gunner), led him out over the Shikoku Mountains. Rex executed a water landing and he and his gunner got safely aboard their raft and were picked up by a destroyer.

He describes the incident in a letter home after the war was over and censorship restrictions were lifted. That letter, of August 16, 1945, is in Letters Home (pg. 68). He describes the explosion breaking the lenses out of his goggles and being saved by his generator control box and manual bomb release quadrant deflecting most of the shrapnel away from him. He describes getting aboard the destroyer exhausted and being dragged to the skipper’s room:

The doc offered me a pint bottle of whiskey and I drank it all in one gulp. That settled me down to where I could shower and then he patched me up and tried to settle me for the night. I wouldn’t settle. I insisted on writing a letter, which I tore up later.

He wrote he couldn’t read it himself, later, but I would have liked the chance to try deciphering it. Reading over a thousand pages of my grandfather’s letters gave me tremendous insight into the mind of a man who died when I was seven, but also roused some questions frustrating because they can never be answered. What was in that letter tops that list. As a work, Letters Home might be better with that entry left a mystery. A reminder of the value of the letters we do have and an opportunity to connect in our imaginations with what he must have been thinking, not having access to what he wrote about what he was thinking. So I tell myself. Still, I would have liked the added project of taping together the shreds of that letter and transcribing one mark at a time what those words were.

Letters Home is available at Amazon:

links below from wordpress.

Rising Red Elevators

We had to file up violating hospital policy to see Grandpa before he died. I only remember standing between my sisters and our parents leaned toward us in the lobby. Behind them, a white hall seemed to rise toward red elevators. I tend to think it was all designed by our parents as something that would be good for us, help us to organize this new phenomenon, which seemed like another event in our lives that involved him, somewhere between letting him give us noogies at Christmas and shaking hands at our graduation, as if this in the middle wouldn’t exclude the latter. Grandpa’s funeral seemed like it should have been followed by us watching Grandpa play pool with our uncles in the basement. I like to think he wanted to see us, that the visit wasn’t one last thing our parents needed from him, that he asked to have us lined against the wall of the room he would die in: eleven, seven, and five. Little kids reflecting our ignorance, our expectation—despite what we’d been told—that death would happen and Grandpa would still show up at our graduations and shake our hands.

Letters Home, Abridged Again

No worries if you haven’t gotten, yet, to your copy of Letters Home. If you’ve started it and are finding it isn’t holding your interest, no worries there, either. If you’re finding the collection of letters too repetitive, you’re not wrong, I just don’t agree with you. Some of the repetition from the original two-hundred-sixty-nine letters was left in intentionally. That was part of my goal in capturing the experience of him trying to maintain a connection with her while away at war.

(Not trying to be a defender. Perhaps I should have cut more but was too close to the material, though rereading the book again, I wouldn’t change a thing.)

I did promise, at some point, to post the “crib notes” version of the book. I meant to do it sooner, but as this date approached, I decided to time posting this with the abridged version’s beginning date.

On page 42, the June 13, 1945 letter, written seventy years ago, to the day, opens with “Since our presence out here isn’t a secret any longer they have relaxed censorship regulations and we can now write about our activities up to May 10.” He goes on to describe providing ground cover for the troops at Okinawa.

On page 52, letter July 9, 1945, he compares personal anger to be “just as silly and futile as this whole war only on a smaller scale.”

On page 55, the journal entry of July 18, 1945 compares nicely with the following letter written the same day.

Following that, on the same page, the July 20, 1945 letter is a favorite of mine.

Pages 57-61 coincide with his getting shot down on July 23, 1945.

Page 62 and 63, journal and letter describe atomic bomb.

Page 64, letter, August 10, describes rumor of war’s end and his opinion that we should accept Japan’s one condition we don’t treat the Emperor as a war criminal. “…if there is anything human in us we certainly should.”

Also August 11 letter

Page 67, August 15, journal entry: end of war entry, called back from strike on Tokyo

Also end of war letter, August 15

Page 68, letter August 16, 1945, description of getting shot down. “There were so many tracers and bursts around me I could have gotten out and walked on them.”

Page 71, letter August 19, 1945, word received of birth of Lynne Dalee Jones, my mom!

Page 74, letter, August 20, 1945, to daughter, Lynne

Page 76, letter, August 23, 1945, describes homecoming he imagines.

Page 78, letter, August 26, 1945, describes flyover of Tokyo and prisoners’ barracks.

Page 82, telegram falsely reporting baby’s death and corresponding letter.

Page 87, the end of the book, letter my grandmother wrote my mother years after my grandfather’s passing, in which she describes his actual homecoming when he first saw his daughter.

I personally don’t believe in spoilers for a nonfiction book like this. So I would say feel free to follow this guide and read through the key moments listed. This might satisfy you or your interest might be piqued enough to go back and read the whole book straight through.

If you don’t have a copy of Letters Home, you’re welcome to purchase one at Amazon, either paperback or Ebook form, you can purchase one from me, you can borrow one from me, or I would be glad to gift you one. I appreciate the interest in my grandfather’s story.

Here’s the link to the book up at Amazon:

My other books available for purchase include Flowers on Concrete, a novel, and Hibernation, a short YA thriller.

Links below from wordpress

The Telegram, Part Two

Part two promises to be lighter fare than part one. Here:

Letters Home came to be thanks, in part, to interest from facebook friends when my mother and I were reading letters, one day, and I posted a few snippets and found so many people interested. One of the reasons I was glad to give out copies to those interested readers. One of these friends told me a pretty interesting story, which I’ll retell here.

He read his copy and was waiting for his wife to read it before passing it off to another interested friend. He asked her if she planned to read it, and she told him to go ahead and lend it out, which he did. Then he asked why didn’t she think she’d read it. She thought it would be too sad. He understood. It is a book about a man enduring the horror of war and, in parts, he’s quite open about his emotional turmoil, but there is a payoff in his elation when the war ends. But she’d skimmed it and saw that his baby dies, and she didn’t want to go there.

He started laughing.

“Why the H are you laughing?” (I’m kind of imagining the dialogue, here.)

He explained the mix up with the telegram on page 82, where my grandfather was told, well after he’d gotten multiple letters as late as August 15th that his wife and baby were doing great, that the baby died on July 21st. (Actually my mother, Lynne’s, birthday)

Then my friend pointed out that his exchange with his wife mirrored the exchange, seventy years prior, my grandfather and the Chaplain had.

From Letters Home, page 82:

Letter, August 30, 1945

I saw the Chaplain and got the socks scared off of me. I walked in and in a very mournful manner he handed me the message I am enclosing. At first I was just dazed and then I realized the mistake. I began to smile in relief and seeing the astonished look on the Chaplain’s face explained that I have received letters as late as August 15th and that everything is O.K. The other day when I was notified by the communications officer he just asked me if I heard about the baby and that you hadn’t received any word in a month, probably thinking that the Chaplain had informed me already. It sure took the Chaplain long enough. He must have thought I was a nut for I was all smiles about it.

Link to Letters Home at Amazon, available as an Ebook and paperback:

Contact me for a free copy. Thanks for your interest in my grandfather’s WWII story. Links below from wordpress.

The Telegram, Part One

Saving Private Ryan includes so many devastating, unforgettable moments that, at least seem to, give us some glimpse into the emotional horror of war. One scene about halfway through the movie almost appears to offer a needed drop of comic relief. The small group is on a mission to rescue the last surviving Ryan son after his brothers were all killed around the same time. They think they’ve found the guy and Tom Hanks’ character breaks it to him that his brothers were all killed. He absorbs this news and then asks how this could be because his brothers are all under 14 and safe back home. This soldier’s middle name didn’t match. They had the wrong Private Ryan. The guys on the mission groan and the mix up is almost a light, funny moment, until the soldier starts asking about his brothers. Tom Hanks’ character tell him he’s sure they’re fine but he doesn’t know. And suddenly this guy is terrified that something happened to his younger brothers. They tell him, Don’t worry, it’s just a mix up, and he says, “Maybe the mix up is that this other guy’s brothers are okay and mine aren’t. How do you know?”

The focus returns to the characters resuming their search for the correct Ryan, but you still hear this soldier pleading that he has to go home and make sure his brothers are okay. You realize, here is a guy stuck in the middle of Europe surrounded by death and dying. His communication with his family back home is probably letters that find him even less frequently than my grandmother’s letters got to my grandpa who was always, at least, on the same ship. His solace must have been knowing his family was safe back home and now his trust in that has been shattered. He would have to return to the business of war with this not knowing weighing on his mind for however many weeks until another letter found him. How or if he managed this the movie doesn’t tell us.

The telegram my grandfather received on page 82 of Letters Home is meant to be the one surprise in a book I didn’t feel right about filling with surprises. The telegram, announcing his baby’s death instead of birth, “scared the socks” off my grandpa even with him knowing, because of letters announcing her (my mother’s) birth that arrived previously, that the telegram had to be a mistake. The telegram was meant to arrive weeks earlier. I don’t know if anyone else who’s read Letters Home wondered, as I did, What if it had?

The telegram would have arrived around the same time he was hit over Kure and had to crash land in the Pacific. Right during the period my grandmother refers to him as feeling “so bitter” in his letters of the 28th and 29th of July. In this “alternate history” he would have also been mourning the loss of his baby. What would have happened? I’m almost certain nothing would have changed from our perspective. He would have remained focused on his job despite mind boggling dejection and, in a week or two, would have gotten a letter that his wife and baby were both fine. He might spend another nightmarish week wanting confirmation. Which should he believe the telegram or the letter? He had a scientific mind and would likely have figured out how close “birth” and “death” are in code, as he describes in a letter home on August 30th (page 82). and believed the words in my grandmother’s handwriting. Though frazzled and dejected as he must have been feeling, how sure could he have felt about anything. He would have needed to see them, but wouldn’t have gotten that chance until the war ended and he got to come home.

That telegram arriving late is on par with the miracle he describes of surviving the explosion in his cockpit when he was hit over Kure, in my mind. I even wondered, Did they hold it up because the news was bad? A miraculous coincidence seems more likely, but I’m not sure we’ll ever know, for sure. I consider that a miracle because we know now that the trauma of war inflicts emotional damage that doesn’t vanish when the war ends. And for these men, that damage went undiagnosed, because then PTSD didn’t have a name. These men simply came home and went back to living as best they could. What they were dealing with they dealt with alone. And I don’t know what my grandpa dealt with, but my guess is that it would have been exponentially worse if that telegram had arrived on time. (Miracle #2)*

*For people who haven’t read the book, in his description of getting hit he marks the explosion breaking the lenses out of his goggles but no shrapnel getting in his eyes as Miracle #1. He doesn’t number the next events that led to him crash landing in the Pacific and being picked up by a destroyer, but he must have considered them a series of miracles.

If you’d like to read the book, you can follow the link below and purchase an Ebook or paperback from Amazon. Feel free to contact me and I’ll get a copy of either one to you. My goal is to gift copies to interested readers, and if you made it this far, you qualify. Thanks for your interest in my grandfather’s story.


In Stephen King’s fantastic book on writing, On Writing, which I read in one sitting I was enjoying it so much, he said one thing that has always irked me. He said that he said in an interview that he writes every day, except Christmas, Easter, and his birthday. Then he said that was a lie. He writes every day. He made that up because if you agree to an interview you have to make sure to say something interesting.

I agree wholeheartedly that you have to make sure to say something interesting in an interview. Everyone involved is giving up their time, for you. The interviewer and anyone reading. Their time is to be respected. That goes for any time any writing is published. Whether someone is reading or not, someone might, and as a writer your job is to value that gift of time. That doesn’t mean they have to like it, that part is out of your control, but it should be the best work you can present.

I wouldn’t agree to the lying part. Readers are deserving of your time and also the truth. Stephen King has plenty of characters in plenty of books he can give interesting character quirks to. He doesn’t need to make them up to pretend to be interesting for an interview. He also said in On Writing that he doesn’t remember writing Pet Sematary, which was told to demonstrate how severe his abuse of drugs and alcohol was prior to getting sober. So maybe he exaggerated (lied) about how little of the writing of that book he recalls. Now, how do we know?

I know people are likely thinking, Talk to us when you’re Stephen King, which will be never. That’s fine. I’m not bashing him. I just think there’s a better approach. You disclose the truth. You turn off that part of your brain that worries what negative things people might think and not say or think and say about what you disclosed and get to the truth. You uncover that truth and reveal it. And hopefully it will be interesting. Whether it is or not, to readers, is out of your control. And here is a character quirk that is true. Since Robin and I completed our Q and A exchange, some weeks before the post went live, I’ve been too shy to return and read my answers. So, how did I do?

The interview Robin Stratton did with me can be found at the link above. Check out Robin’s website, at the link below:

She has links to excerpts from her novels and links to resources for writers. Lots of great stuff!