The Big Question
On a Sunday in the Philippines, U.S. Army Cpl. Paul E. Poetter wrote his sweetheart with breaking news. “I just heard the radio broadcast of the signing of the surrender,” Cpl. Poetter — my father — scribbled in the letter, bound for Mississippi, addressed to Willie Mae Lewis, my mother. “Both MacArthur’s and the President’s speeches were good. It made me feel I would get home shortly after the first of the year.”
Pride and optimism poured from my father’s pen that day, September 2, 1945. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s and President Harry S. Truman’s remarks resounded hours after Japan’s official surrender, signed on a cool, gray morning in Tokyo Bay, filled with more than 200 vessels from the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet. From the deck of the USS Missouri, where the ceremony concluded, CBS reporter Webley Edwards’ voice filled the airwaves: “Ladies and gentlemen of the world, as if God himself approves, the clouds have broken away, and the sun has come out in these first moments of peace.”
Webley’s words warbled across the airwaves to reach millions worldwide — a then-rare, real-time, collective experience in the age before television, satellite broadcasts, and social media. Today, we hoist handheld cameras and “go live” from the sidewalk; back then, the world stopped as radios crackled and people listened on street corners. Overseas, in Europe and Asia and elsewhere, soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen celebrated the cessation of combat — even as they remained vigilant against lingering hostilities, homesickness, and morale-sapping mundanity.
Indeed, as my father’s letters tell, reunions with loved ones were months away. V-J Day — which now connotes closure — meant marking time for Cpl. Poetter and his comrades. They would have to be patient, steadfast, and motivated. They were, and then some — and their shining example gleams with promise at present, as we seek our own victory over a stubborn foe and trust that happiness hovers on the horizon.
“I just heard a news broadcast and it sounded good as far as the surrender of Japanese troops scattered over the Pacific,” my father wrote on September 1, 1945. “This is good news alright, but it isn’t the news us boys want to hear so much. All we want to know is how much longer before we will get home” — in his words, the “big question.” Understandably so. At that point, my father had been overseas for years, and his letters home more than hinted at homesickness.
In missives that made weeks-long voyages, he dreamed of the “super party” (a “chicken fry,” perhaps) that awaited his homecoming in Atlanta, and he reminisced about time spent in Hattiesburg, Mississippi — near my mother’s hometown of Collins — swimming at Lake View Park and singing at Baptist churches alongside fellow soldiers who’d formed a choir. “How is that swell girl from Collins today?” he might write to open a note. “Golly, it would be nice if I could be home. You see, they are having a big state fair going on right now,” he might scribe, a paragraph or two later. “Maybe next year we can take it in together.”
In their notes back and forth, the vision of a couple began to coalesce. She wondered at the type of figure he might cut in streetwear. “Boy take note of those two-tone shoes,” he once wrote in reply, enclosing a photograph of himself during a prewar trip to north Georgia. “To me, they sure look snappy. How do you like that wave in my hair? Ha! I think I have lost it now with these G.I. haircuts I keep getting.” Sometimes, though, his words tended toward bittersweet bluntness: “I just hope you won’t get your hopes up too high or expect me back too soon, for I am afraid it won’t come true.” “Gee, it is later than I thought,” he wrote toward the end of a seven-page letter in early October 1945. “So, guess I had better close.”
Even as the war wound down, my father knew he was in for the long haul, just as he understood how tenacious the Japanese were. Weeks after the sun broke through the cold gray of Tokyo Bay, American troops remained on high alert. And for good reason. A holdout Imperial Japanese unit on Saipan didn’t surrender until December 1945 — three months after Japan capitulated and almost a year and a half after U.S. Marines prevailed on that same island. Following Fall 1944’s Battle of Peleliu — the very island where my father caught a 7.5-pound fish, according to his letters — a small Japanese detachment continued to take potshots at Marines into the spring of 1947. And, with every anniversary of V-J Day, we’re reminded of the Japanese troops who lingered on windswept islands into the 1970s.
If my father’s unit witnessed lingering hostilities post-surrender, his letters are silent on the matter. He does, however, tell of dangerous escapades born of boredom: a fellow soldier who commandeered an innertube and paddled out to inspect a sunken warship, only to be swept away in stormy currents and forced to spend a night at sea; two comrades who crafted a canoe from a jettisoned aerial fuel tank, and who suffered painful lacerations when it sank; a chaplain who imbibed a bit too much and crashed a jeep into a ditch. (“Boy, that was a hard one to believe, but it’s true,” my father wrote, adding that the wayward chaplain had also been accused of gambling.) Yet, those were isolated incidents; instead, victorious Americans put their hands to work building basketball courts and baseball diamonds — a general stopped by to throw out the first pitch at “Cambell Field,” which Cpl. Poetter helped construct. When my father wasn’t guarding second base on Cambell Field’s sandy surface, he’d strike up a football game. “I ran and played so hard that my tongue was hanging out,” he wrote after a beachside scrimmage. “Gee, this has been a swell Sunday, and it was also pay day.” Perhaps, though, it was the school that opened on Leyte Island that most buoyed his spirits.
“For a little other news, I am now a schoolboy once more,” my father wrote on September 6, 1945, from his tent in the village of Burauen on Leyte. “Yep! Today I went to my first class.” He was most enamored with a course called “The Small Business,” and my mother was, too — across the ocean, they shared many a letter considering the finer points of risky startups and real estate development. Reading these letters 75 years later, I see the beginnings of SCAD — two dreamers with grit and moxie who teamed up with me to create something seismic.
If my father’s ceaseless enthusiasm is apparent, so too is his humor, undaunted by everything that stood between him and home. As a November 1945 typhoon took aim at the Philippines, my father wrote, “It should give me something more to tell my children about.” When a wild pig burst into his tent — mid-letter! — he scribbled, “[S]ome of the boys took out in the rain after it. … They were yelling that we would have fresh pork for supper.” Yet, “luck was against them” — the pig got away and “they came back all wet.” And yet, all was not lost on the culinary front. “We got in a new mess sergeant and so far he is doing a good job,” he wrote. “Why, just take today. For dinner we had ice cream, and for supper we had doughnuts, and very good ones. That is sure one thing I’ll be wanting when I get home, good cooked food.”
Like millions of servicemen and servicewomen in World War Two, my father wrote to pass the time, yes, but also to share news, hope, and love. Despite the lag between a letter leaving Mississippi and reaching the Pacific — a November 2 reply to a September 24 note, for example — he answered promptly, thoroughly, and dutifully. And, in his letters, he remained cheerful and grateful, even as Thanksgiving passed and December neared.
No, he was not home for Christmas 1945, but he arrived in Atlanta soon after. “Mom still had the tree up and my things under it,” he wrote on New Year’s Day 1946 from home, where he listened on the radio as Alabama vanquished USC in the Rose Bowl. He beamed about his forthcoming honorable discharge from the army — scheduled for 9:30 a.m. the next day. And he lamented, with a wink and a grin, that he had still yet to see his sweetheart.
“I know you have read this whole letter wondering with each page if I was going to say when I was coming to Collins,” he wrote. “Well, honey, I’ll be there as soon as I can, maybe this weekend.” My father would travel to Mississippi that winter, and my mother would meet him in town to guide him to her house. After the visit, their letters continued, and they soon married — a romance, family, and future that was, truly, worth the wait. The big question, answered.