Still Smiling

Paula Wallace
5 min readSep 17, 2020

“Another rainy day,” U.S. Army Cpl. Paul E. Poetter — my father — wrote home on September 16, 1945, from the Philippines. “As if that wasn’t enough, they have me on K.P. duty today,” he continued, his prose painting a smile-and-shrug. What can you do?! Yet, greasy pots and pans (K.P. duty — “kitchen patrol” — forever the G.I.’s gripe) would not spoil his mood. More than 8,500 miles from home, Cpl. Poetter sought a silver lining and summoned a grin: “Well, it could have been worse. It could have come tomorrow on my birthday. You know, I keep getting older every year.”

My father had a penchant for penning winks and grins — and words of promise and possibility — during both his time in the South Pacific and the years that followed. Today, on his birthday (he would have turned 103), his humor and hope endure and reverberate, especially during seasons of uncertainty. At a time when we seek meaningful moments small and grand to celebrate, I share his persistent positivity and unrelenting optimism — gifts of grit, examples to emulate.

If Cpl. Poetter took his correspondence seriously — and his hundreds of pages of wartime letters suggest that he did — he took himself less so. Lamenting his spelling (many of us can relate), he shared with his sweetheart — Ms. Willie Mae Lewis, my mother — a secret companion he’d kept for nearly four years: his pocket dictionary, received in reply to his first letter home to his parents. “That was back in 1941,” he wrote to Willie Mae. “That was funny,” he continued, explaining the book was a gift from his father, who joked that his son “couldn’t spell worth a darn.” (Still, my father shared an even deeper secret: the dictionary was his go-to for “intelligent” words used to impress my mother.)

He lived to make her smile. “Honey, you made me laugh, telling of having to give up your room so many times that you have established permanent residence in the kitchen,” he wrote. (The Lewis family had hosted many a visitor during the summer of 1945, so comings and goings ebbed and flowed throughout their correspondence.) “Well, when I pay you that post-war visit, may I have the honor of residing in the kitchen?” At the time of his letter, Japan had just capitulated to end World War Two, yet my father knew reunions were months away. Rather than wallow, he wielded wit: “Willie Mae, you sure seem to be getting plenty of practice entertaining guests.”

Yet, sprinkled amongst the jocular jabs and playful jokes are moments of reflection and gratitude. “Glad you understand how the Japanese surrender has affected me so far,” father wrote on the eve of his birthday. “As a matter of fact, it really doesn’t seem much different now from the time when the war was on. That is, except now I have more peace of mind and feel much more assured of returning home safely and in one piece.”

During World War Two, birthdays meant something different…something more…than merely celebrating another trip around the sun. In 1945, Cpl. Paul E. Poetter was one of the more than 12.2 million service members who filled America’s ranks, that figure according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Almost three-quarters of all American troops served overseas during the war, with the average deployment lasting 16 months. So, that means millions of troops marked birthdays in far-flung locales.

For some Americans, like Marine Corps Pvt. Sid Phillips of Mobile, Alabama, the best present was a letter from home — in fact, the very first letter Pvt. Phillips received arrived September 3, 1942, on Guadalcanal, a day after his 18th birthday, just a few weeks into fierce fighting that would rage five more months. “One fellow in our squad got a box of cookies that had been reduced to dust, and the dust was soon reduced leaving an empty box,” Phillips wrote of voracious Marines. Others, like sailor John B. Theiss, marked their special day with a victorious voyage: “We left Japan for the USA on my birthday,” Theiss, who’d stayed after the surrender, wrote 75 years later for the Arizona Daily Star. “[W]hat a wonderful birthday present.”

Gifts of all stripes sustain soldiers, who find sunshine in life’s downpours. “We sure did something funny last night,” my father wrote September 8, from Leyte Island. “There was a double-feature movie, and just as the first picture started it also started to rain. Not hard at first, so we decided to sit out in the rain and see the show. Well, the longer we stayed, the longer and harder it rained. After a while we didn’t care anymore, so we just sat there till it was over.” The movies: Strike up the Band and Back to Bataan. The moment: comedy in its own right.

“Willie, did I tell you I made a 100 on my first two tests at school,” he wrote in the same letter, which told of “The Small Business” class at the “Pacific Institute” the army had established on Leyte. “No, not smart, just lucky,” he quipped. He was “learning the finer points” and envisioned “a box lunch or sandwich shop, maybe the two combined.” “They are building a couple of big car factories in Atlanta which may be an outlet for sales,” he mused, peering past palm trees and Quonset huts toward horizons of hope.

That sandwich shop never materialized, nor did the insurance agency (another venture he floated in a letter home). Indeed, there was greater success — and legacy — in store for Cpl. Poetter than he could imagine: founding a university to help future generations fulfill their dreams. He unrelentingly believed something grand awaited, and indeed it did. And on practically every page of several dozen letters my mother saved from September 1944 to February 1946, it’s clear that his plans included Willie Mae Lewis.

Across more than 200 pages of wartime notes, my father showered my mother with love. He sent home Japanese pesos and a Philippine handkerchief embroidered with her name. He passed along copies of the “Grenade Daily News” — the official bulletin of the U.S. Army’s IX Corps — and postcards from Hawaii. He shared stories — celebrations of culinary prowess (“I made a big kettle of very good soup and some bran muffins. It was my first try at making either one.”) and self-deprecating delights (“dish-pan hands” after a “whole week” of, you guessed it, more K.P. duty). On his birthday and every day, he shared more of his world with her. And he did so with humor, warmth, and love — the gift of letters that still fill hearts and spaces three-quarters of a century on. “I’ll be thinking about you as I take a tour of my guard post,” he wrote, ahead of a night of sleepless sentry duty. “Hopefully there is a pretty moon.” I hope there was, too, and that he lassoed it just for her.

Today, as we lift up our own hopes and dreams, I’m reminded of Cpl. Poetter’s example — a man of vision and boundless enthusiasm whose spirit lives on in the hearty laughs, bright eyes, capable hands, and generous hearts of his grandchildren. “Keep smiling,” he often wrote, his signature walk-off line in a letter. The timeless gift of sage words from my dad who, today and always, makes me grateful to be blessed with such a wise and wonderful father.

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Paula Wallace

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