Keep Smiling

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese signed official surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri. Finally, my father could write Willie Mae Lewis — my future mother, almost 9,000 miles away in Collins, Mississippi — with news of his island-hopping, the journey tens of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen braved in the South Pacific during World War Two.

“Well, now that the censorship has lifted, I can tell you of some of the islands visited on my trip from Oahu,” Paul Poetter — a young army corporal destined to become my father — wrote from the Philippines on September 16, 1945. “Naming them in order, Eniwetok, Ulithi, Angaur, and Peleliu.”

This letter was not my father’s first to my mother while stationed overseas. My parents’ sweeping courtship flourishes in more than 200 pages of surviving correspondence, all from my father’s wartime letters between September 1944 and January 1946. Their romance began with a couple of dates in the Magnolia State before the Army whisked him away to the West Coast and, soon, Hawaii. “You know, I don’t have a picture of you,” he wrote from Oahu, on Christmas Eve, 1944. “How about sending me one?” Now, nearly 75 years later, I treasure these photos and letters and the patient love they capture — particularly at a time when photo albums flicker in our palms and thoughts pop up in bubbles, only to evaporate in fleeting exchanges.

Can you imagine beginning a romance through printed photographs and handwritten letters? Today, we enjoy the immediacy of messaging and the luxury of filmless photography. In the war years, though, Hollywood had to ration film, and a picture became more valuable than a diamond. My father even wrote of a secret darkroom that he and fellow soldiers commandeered to develop their own photos — before the Army discovered the hideout and shut down their clandestine operation.

Still, the young lovers managed to trade photographs from half a world away. “I like the picture taken at the beach,” my father wrote in September 1945. “The bathing suit is rather cute and so is what’s in it. Is that the new one you spoke of? The one that is yellow with polka dots?” The picture reminded him of a Jimmy Durante quip: “All the girls are wearing a General MacArthur bathing suit: it’s guaranteed to land a man on any beach.” My parents joked, conversed, flirted, and dreamed on paper, each letter an extension of their minds, hearts, and spirits. “It would be nice to look across that smooth water and see you,” he wrote from his tent on the island of Leyte, later that month.

Some days, there was no mail. “Gee honey, I was pretty blue for a while because no letter came today,” he lamented on one occasion. On another, he wrote: “Have been missing your nice letters. It is getting to where, when I don’t receive a letter, the day just isn’t as complete as it should be.” The post often lagged, because of the space between civilian life and the realities of combat — like the time the mail plane crashed, a detail my father slipped into a note.

When mail call brought letters, his mood decidedly brightened. “If you’re wondering if I like them, the answer is heck yes!” my father wrote, after receiving a stack of notes. Each reply expressed gratitude and a deepening love. Together, they longed for his return and a reunion. “You said, ‘Wish I had you close enough to talk to right now,’” he wrote. “‘To kiss’ would have sounded so much better!”

At times, he proffered poignant poems as proof:

“Thinking of You”

Just sitting and wishing and wishing

And thinking how mighty nice it would be

If I could be where you are now

Or you could be with me.

Other times, he reminisced about “their” songs, Alexis Smith’s “Some Sunday Morning,” Jeanne Crain’s “It Might as Well be Spring,” and Nat King Cole’s “I’m in the Mood for Love”:

Heaven is in your eyes

Bright as the stars we’re under

Oh! Is it any wonder

I’m in the mood for love.

With every pen stroke, their admiration rose like a king tide. “The reason I find myself liking you is because of your truthfulness, devotion, understanding, thoughtfulness, and intelligence,” he wrote from the Philippines on September 1, 1945. A day later, he would listen to the Japanese surrender on the radio. On this day, though, he penned a thank-you: weeks earlier, she’d accepted his mother’s address, and agreed to write her. Willie Mae, a woman of her word, did.

Today is my mother’s birthday. From time to time, on a significant occasion like this, I read my father’s letters once again and see my mother in his words. “Keep smiling,” was his closing thought on many missives. Today, I’m smiling through my tears.



Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || ||

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