Throughout this year, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of a war that ravaged civilizations and reshaped the world map, I have been rereading the wartime letters of my father, U.S. Army Cpl. Paul E. Poetter, who wrote to my mother throughout his deployment. From the restorative power of the written word to the anticipation and opportunity every homecoming brings, each page shares a laugh, or a lesson. Despite the destruction and dread of war that he experienced daily, moment by moment, my father’s letters brim with his humor, optimism, and quiet stoicism. I find several poignant and telling examples of this optimism in one letter in particular, written on November 3, 1945.
For example, when writing about the slow speed of letter delivery — letters often took weeks, months, to travel home — he might have grumbled and scribbled invective at Uncle Sam, but no: Cpl. Poetter just smiles: “Yes, I agree, the mail service is awful. But what can we do about it, except make conversation?” he quipped in a November 1945 letter from the Philippines.
On another page, he discusses the unknown date of his return home, describing the point system used by the Department of the Army in determining eligibility for the end of a soldier’s deployment: “They refigured our points again and, just my luck, they discovered I had been given credit for two extra points,” he writes. Again, he might have railed against this turn of events, bemoaning his fate, but my father merely brushed aside this delay with stoic resignation.
As the holidays drew near and the doubtfulness of his speedy return intensifies, he gently encouraged my mother, Willie Mae Lewis (soon to be Willie Mae Poetter), to hope for the best: “Now, as for a Christmas present, my advice is not to send it. Not that I wouldn’t be tickled to death with anything you would send.”
In this letter and indeed all his letters home, what I most vividly notice — now, looking backward across time and memory — are not the what of war, but the how: How my father reached out through words with care and compassion and consideration, despite what must have been some of the most difficult and tumultuous moments of his life.
During the darkest days of history, when literal and figurative storm clouds covered the sky, my father mailed silver linings woven with warmth and kindness. Every word shimmers with assurance.
Cpl. Poetter wore optimism and humor like a shield, one that protected both him and my mother. This early November letter spans 10 handwritten pages — one of the longest in a 200-plus page collection of his surviving writings from 1944 to 1946 — yet he spent only a few paragraphs deploring an impending storm in the Pacific headed straight for his tiny island. Instead, he discussed postwar business plans — first, a sandwich shop, and later, the civil service — and praised Willie Mae’s writing. He even slipped in a joke. “Honey, you gave me a laugh when you spoke of being impressed that I was taking a correspondence course. Bet you didn’t know that I was referring to the course coming from the well-composed letters you write. Why, here I have been getting all those lessons from you and you didn’t even know it.”
When Cpl. Poetter wasn’t penning quips, he’d offer affable asides. “Oh yes, in the paper ‘The Dud,’ you will find an item about Grigg and myself,” he wrote. “You see, Fred and myself do all the sewing for the battery. Yep! That’s right, I am pretty handy with a needle.” A few lines later — after highlighting the extra $25 he’d earned from patches affixed and tears mended — my father proclaimed: “Not bad! Maybe I should open up a tailor shop instead of a box lunch. Ha.” He was just picking up a little extra work, he wrote — something to fill the time and pad the wallet. A story to make Willie Mae smile.
For all of my father’s jovial accounts and jocular tangents, there were moments when he shared more of the war with his readers. Weeks after Japan’s official surrender on September 2, 1945, he worried about being sent to Okinawa, then Japan, for the postwar occupation. And throughout 1944 and 1945, as he island-hopped along with Marines, sailors, and air crew, he occasionally told of the realities of combat. “Angaur and Peleliu are only seven miles apart and cost a lot of American lives,” he noted on September 16, 1945, referencing previous stops on those islands of Palau. “We could see enumerable scars of battle.” Later in the same letter, he noted that the ship on which he’d traveled had helped refuel a destroyer, which had just assisted with recovery of the USS Indianapolis, sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945. The destroyer’s men, he wrote, were visibly shaken by the task.
“No, Willie, I sure do not like ships,” he once wrote, calling his nautical journeys “one of the many experiences I’ve had in this army that I could have done very well without.” If he was ever troubled by his own duties, he didn’t dwell on it in his letters; those few lines are about as close as he came to hinting at dangers personally faced. Instead, he tried to keep the conversation moving, the subject matter varied — a brief review of Without Love starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example, or memories of a back porch perfect for summer slumbers at his Atlanta home. In most of his notes, he wrote like a solider who wanted to cover as much ground on paper as he had in theater.
“Golly, this will be 10 pages before I’m through,” Cpl. Poetter wrote on November 3, “and along with a news clipping from ‘The Dud’ and pictures, I’ll be doing good to get the letter sealed.” The envelope probably needed an extra stamp, “but I haven’t a loose one,” he continued. “I hope you won’t mind buying it out of the post office.”
“Time to stop for sure,” he scribbled, nearing the end of the last page. “Take very good care of yourself. Keep having fun with lots of laughs. Write lots of letters so I too can have some enjoyment.”
That letter, like most of his others, ended with his signature signoff: “Keep smiling.” And, as in all of his missives, you can tell Cpl. Poetter didn’t want to curtail his conversation with Willie Mae. On this Veterans Day, during this auspicious anniversary of World War Two, I’m grateful for the stories and love and encouragement my father shared with my mother, and with me. During his final days on earth, he confronted the enemy of pancreatic cancer with the same resolve and stoicism reflected in the wartime letters he wrote home as a young man. Every day, I remember my father’s advice, and strive to embody his approach: Be positive. Shine a light. Make someone smile. In our current moment in history, when it can sometimes feel like dark clouds are gathering, I’m comforted by words that wrap like armor, gleam with warmth, and shine with hope.