Discovery

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The story lay dormant for 15 years; it had bubbled for three years of everyday activity, paused, was tucked into a box, and left at the bottom of a back-room closet. Then in 1960, my grandfather’s rowhome in southwest Philadelphia was damaged in a fire—the neighbor’s boy had been playing with matches and set the house next door in flames. That house was destroyed and the fronts of several houses in the row had been damaged. The front of my grandfather’s house, both upstairs and down, was destroyed forcing him temporarily into an apartment.

Salvaging what he could, he discovered the box at the bottom of a closet in the back, unused bedroom: 433 letters that he and his children had shared during World War II. Sheet after sheet of familiar script on post cards, onionskin, formal stationery, V-Mail, even scraps of paper…letters that had kept his family—my family—connected over three years of war, across two oceans, on four continents, and across 14,000 miles.

But the story began before that…the story began in 1938 when my grandmother at 38 years-of-age was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The family—daughter, Mary; older son, Billie; and the “baby” (my father), Jack—was pulled close together as they supported her through her illness. For more than three years, she was in and out of hospitals, where my grandfather visited her every day (children were allowed visits only on Sundays), until she died on August 31, 1942. The family had developed a closeness that was then tested by the War—the nation needed men to fight Imperialism in the Pacific and Nazism in Europe…and this Philadelphia family responded.

  The correspondents, left to right: William J. Pawley, Sr.; Mary Pawley McCauley; William J. Pawley, Jr. (Billie); and John P. Pawley (Jack).

The correspondents, left to right: William J. Pawley, Sr.; Mary Pawley McCauley; William J. Pawley, Jr. (Billie); and John P. Pawley (Jack).

Within two months of losing his mother, Billie enlisted in the Army and was inducted in New Cumberland, PA, where on Thanksgiving night, November 26, 1942, he wrote the first letter that was tucked away in that box. Importantly, he was honest in his writing: “Have plenty of company here, about 5,000 buddies, all of them just as dumb as I about Army life.” Thus begins the story of this Philadelphia family going to war. A little more than a year later on December 17, 1943, Jack—at 17 years-of-age—sends his first post card home as he heads off to Marine Corps training; he naively writes, “What a train ­ride!!!”

The “ride” from that first letter forward is one of personal discovery: worry, dedication, bravery, patience, persistence, hopefulness, tragedy, loss, and love. For three years, the story of that ride is traced, day-by-day and battle-by-battle, in their from-the-heart collection of letters. My grandfather and Aunt Mary wrote about many things, but always optimistically about waiting to welcome their boys back home; the boys wrote what they could—censorship limited the details—but they always closed their letters with the hollow admonition: “Don’t worry about me.”

This collection of letters—and peek into history—is due out this December: A Philadelphia Family Goes to War. It is a personal story filled with daily life, intense worry, high hopes, and history: the collected letters of four Philadelphians during World War II, two who waited at home for the safe return of their boys: one a soldier and one a Marine.