Finding hope in family letters from World War II

Andrew Taylor-Troutman learns about his great-uncle's experience as a soldier in WWII and reflects on the habitual nature of hardship — and grace.

Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash

My father’s cousin renovated the family farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania on the land passed down from my great-great-great grandfather. Arranged throughout the house are family artifacts: a cast-iron skillet hangs on the kitchen wall, the milk delivery box sits on the porch, and the dining room table is set with family china. On a refinished table sits a leather-bound, three-ring binder filled with laminated pages of letters from my Great-Uncle Zeke as a soldier in World War II.

I sat down one morning with a cup of coffee and opened the collection to the beginning. Zeke wrote to Pop-Pop, my father’s grandfather, from basic training, assuring his father that he was fine and asking for care packages. He excused the brevity of his letter because he needed to “get off a few lines to Toots.” Who was that? Perhaps a girlfriend? My father, who was in the kitchen with me, smiled at my questions. “Toots” was my great uncle’s nickname for his youngest sister — my grandmother! Within the leather-bound binder, I found a treasure trove of about fifty letters to her.

My grandmother, Marion, died of cancer when I was a boy. I have no memory of Uncle Zeke, who returned from the war, settled in Scranton, and died when I was even younger. Yet, I glimpsed both of them in these letters.

Marion was the youngest of six children. There were 20 years between her and her oldest sibling and almost six years between her and Zeke, the next youngest. She was about 12 years old when Zeke enlisted. The tenderness he had for his baby sister is evident from the start of each letter — “Dear Toots.”

How do we find personal meaning in the grand scope of history?

After this greeting, Zeke often protested that “I have nothing to say.” He wrote passing complaints about KP (Kitchen Patrol) and digging post holes in the mud. “Time really flies here,” he mused.

His letters always asked about life back on the farm. He wondered if the planting was going well, then later in the year if “the corn was all in.” He envied their older brothers at the start of hunting season. He hoped his baby sister “got a good piece of deer meat.”

“I bet the new preacher is settling in,” Zeke wrote. “Never can tell it’s Sunday here. Work all the time.”

As the years passed, he wrote from different cities: “I can say I was at Normandy and a lot of other places but Paris had them all beat. The styles there are way ahead of New York.” I chuckled at that!

My great-uncle experienced the end of World War II in Germany in real-time. He wrote of “thousands of German prisoners marching by” and how “their morale was below their knees.” There were also German women and children “fleeing the Russians.”

I read these letters during the hottest summer on record, what some are calling the “first extinction summer.” The war between Ukraine and Russia slogs on; there are more conflicts and rumors of wars.

How do we find personal meaning in the grand scope of history?

But what grace will we glimpse?

An ancient poet known as Isaiah wrote that nations are but a drop from the bucket, a speck of dust on the scales. And life is a breath, a sigh, a passing shadow on the face of the earth.

Uncle Zeke is remembered by my extended family as a gruff, working-class man. I doubt he would have considered himself a poet. But his words from the winter of 1945 fall down the corridor of time with a poetic ring:

“In a writing mood though I have nothing to say. I was just sitting here by the stove watching it snow for the first time. Was real big flakes.”

Was real big flakes. That line has stayed with me. I am reminded that my ancestors have experienced tragedies. Yet, people have noticed beauty, even in war. Zeke shared “real big flakes” with his baby sister, and I share the line with you, gentle reader, in case you are also in search of hope in our time. Not that most of us will witness snow here in the dog days of August … But what grace will we glimpse?

Jesus directed us to small, everyday miracles like mustard seeds and yeast. Like real big flakes.