It was a cold and rainy morning in Belfast Lough on May 19, 1944 when the crew of the USS Texas turned out in rank-and-file to await General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Allied Supreme Commander would address the crew in a brief speech from a stage on the fantail of the ship, next to what my father called “his guns.” Eisenhower’s words roused the crew for an invasion that they knew was imminent, for which they’d been rehearsing…but they didn’t know where or when.
World War II took place, naturally, before the immediacy of communication that we expect today. “You are there” is today’s rallying cry, where cameras and on-the-spot broadcasts give us news immediately. If Viet Nam was the first “television war,” and the Iraq invasion was the first instantaneous war—we watched live from around the world as Bagdad was bombed, then World War II was simply the war of patience.
Adding to the delay of information created by the mail system was the tyranny of censors: many things just couldn’t be shared. My father wrote home 6 times during those 18 days between Eisenhower’s visit to the ship and D-Day, but never once did he mention where he was, never once did he mention an upcoming invasion, never once did he mention that Eisenhower visited the ship…he writes home on May 25, “I probably will have plenty to tell you when I see you, but “mum” is the word until then.” Had he tried to tell details, the censors would literally have cut the letter to pieces.
Thus, my grandfather waited patiently—if anxiously—at home. Naturally when the invasion began, he heard reports on the radio; he wrote to his son on June 8, two days into the invasion, “I heard a re-broadcast of a battle from the deck of one of our battleships given by a war correspondent, of a Nazi plane being shot down in the English Channel. It was very exciting. I thought I could hear you shouting when the plane burst into flames & pitched into the sea.”
He explained that he reads news accounts, shares information across the family, but he waits patiently and hopes: “I hope and pray everything is OK with you and all your mates in fact all our boys. I understand why we have not been hearing from you lately.” In fact, he will not hear “directly” from his son until 20 days after D-Day!
On June 26, he received a form letter, written by the ship’s chaplain, Lieutenant Moody, and signed by his son…nearly three weeks after the battle. The form letter relieved any need for the censors while still allowing the ship’s crew to send something home. By the time the letters arrive in the states, the beaches of Normandy had been well secured, the Allied forces were well advanced onto the continent, and the Texas had been to Cherbourg [where she was hit by two German shells, wounding 13 and killing the only combat fatality aboard the Texas during the entire war, Christen Norman Christiansen] and was undergoing repairs in Plymouth, England.
Nevertheless, my grandfather was relieved and excited to receive a post-invasion letter from his son, no matter how out-of-date it may have been. He writes back to Jack the next day, June 27, 1944, to express his mixture of pride and optimism and realism: “I was ever so happy to receive it and it simply confirmed everything that we have been getting in the news. It looks like the old Texas done more than her share, boy, when we catch up with you I think we’ll wear you out with questions, you sure have seen something that you’ll never forget. Although that letter was dated 6/10 and 17 days have since elapsed & I know she has still been banging away, I feel certain that everything is OK with you.”
I know that my grandfather relied on his faith at the times of greatest worry, but I often wonder if patience is what really got him through the war.
[The full collection of letters is available at Amazon collected in A Philadelphia Family Goes to War.]
Next entry will be posted on Friday, June 14.