Making Letters Come Alive
On Sunday I posted a transcription of a letter my uncle wrote to my grandparents on 8 July 1942 describing leaving his home in San Francisco and traveling to Navy boot camp in San Diego.
When you are reading and sharing your family letters, it will be a much richer experience if you take the time to understand the context in which the letter was written. Here are some ideas to get you started in researching the context.
Look for images. Warren mentioned several places in his letter, among them the Federal Building in San Francisco and the Santa Fe railroad depot in Los Angeles. I was able to do image searches on google and find historical photos of those buildings. Libraries and state archives are another good resource for finding vintage images of buildings. With these searches I was able to go back in time and see what my uncle saw.
I knew that Warren was in the navy, and I was able to use Fold3 to discover a bit more about his experience. A 31 December 1943 muster roll from the submarine Searaven showed an enlistment date of 6 July 1942, just two days before he wrote the letter. That immediately got me thinking about what my 21-year-old uncle might have been feeling – excitement, fear, homesickness and more.
I thought about the date. July 6 was a Monday. Just two days after Independence Day, the most patriotic of holidays. I imagine the first 4th of July after Pearl Harbor must have held some particularly impassioned celebrations. Might those have perhaps prompted Warren to enlist? What was going on in San Francisco and the world at that time?
I looked at the San Francisco Chronicle and found some answers. On Sunday 5 July 1945, page 1 of the comics ran the cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” In this strip, the evil Chinese captor threatens Muzz and derides her independence. Mazz ponders the words of the Declaration of Independence regarding the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and how we must invest in our futures to keep those rights.
Elsewhere in the same paper, above the masthead on page 1 of the news section, was a striking photograph, the full width of the page, captioned “Yesterday, San Francisco saw a parade. San Francisco has seen other parades, many of them, but never one like this. For passing grimly down Market street marched sudden death. This was typified by a 3200-man combat team of the Army of the United States. Armed to the teeth, this unit, however, was not unique. It was only representative of hundreds of other such units in the United States and over the world ready – and anxious – for a scrap. Above, infantrymen of the unit march by with fixed baoynets.”[i] Other page 1 stories included “New Zealanders Pile Into Rommell; The Tide MAY Be Turning in Battle of Egypt,” “First Yank Flyers Skim Dutch Housetops to Bomb 3 Airdromes in Nazi Europe” and more.[ii] It seems that every day the first several pages of the Chronicle were filled with accounts of the war. Warren must have had those stories in his mind when he enlisted and as he wrote his parents of his experiences as a new recruit.
When you’re reading old correspondence, make sure you spend some time studying the history, reading the local newspapers of the time, and finding images to make your family letters and the people who wrote them come alive.
[i] San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 1942, page 1, col 1.
[ii] San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 1942, page 1
The First Letter Home
I took a week off from the blog. I spent some time with family celebrating the life of my dear Auntie Wilma who passed away last month. Her memorial service was on 5 May, what wold have been the 71st anniversary of her marriage to my Uncle Warren.
A few years ago when I visited Wilma, she pulled a bag of letters Warren had written to his parents, my grandparents, during his service in the Navy in WWII. I organized the letters i chronological order in a binder. I believe the letter below is the first one he wrote home, telling his mother, father and his youngest sister, Babe, what his first full day in the navy was like.
July 8, 1942
Dear Mom, Dad, Babe
Russ and I are both well and enjoying ourselves her at the San Diego Naval Base. I hope this letter finds you all well. I guess you would be interested in what has taken place the last couple of days so I’ll try to let you in on it.
After Dad left the Federal Building we stood around until about 12:00 N. and then we got a 39¢ meal ticket for lunch. We were back at 1:00 P.M. and off again about 4:30 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. During this time we had dinner with Jeanne and Nat who were waiting for us when we came out at 4:30. The took some pictures of us.
About 7:00 P.M. we left the Federal Building on Santa Fe buses and went to Oakland where we boarded the Santa Fe train. We left about 8:00 P.M. We didn’t get much sleep last night on that darn train. It was bucking and rocking and pitching all night. I dressed about 5:00 A.M. this morning hand we had breakfast in Bakersfield about 6:00 A.M. After breakfast we left by bus and arrived in L.A. about 10:00 A.M. I sent you and Ida and Jeanne and Nat cards from the Railway Station which by the way is a very beautiful building. We had a good lunch there and left by Santa Fe and pulled into San Diego about 4:00 P.M. We were then sent directly to the Naval Base where we were assigned to our bunds, had chow, and took showers. The sun is about down now and they are just striking the flag. We are supposed to hit the hay now, I think, there is a black out here every night.
Well, I think I’ll close now. I can’t give you any return address now but I’ll write again in a few days and I think I can give it to you then.
Your loving son,
P.S. Say hullo to Geo. And Rose for me. Tell them I think I will like it here. I’ll write them as soon as I get their address.
I will follow up this post on Tuesday with a bit of strategy on analyzing the context of letters like this. Stay tuned.
 - Letter from Warren Hardy Brown to Mary Jane, Ira, and Iris Brown, dated 8 July 1942.
Dear Darling Duckie Daddle
In one of my boxes of miscellaneous family papers I found a few letters. Here is one from my grandfather, Charlie Kircher, to my grandmother, Agnes. Seeing how much he loves her and his children just warms my heart.
In the transcription below, I have adjusted the punctuation somewhat for clarity.
Well, here we are again in Sausalito 7:45 after a rather hard day. Olaf’s dad in law died and he wants we to work tomorrow night for him so more trouble. I ate breakfast at Bradleys[iii] this morning and slept home last night. My bed was made when I got home and I don’t know who did it. You ma says she didn’t. Let me know if you get the papers all right and if you want anything sent just say so. I am so glad you can have a little outing and if you need anything to add to your or the kiddie’s pleasure let me know.
A funny old bird is the pelican
His bill holds more than his belican
He can hold in his beak
Food enough for a week
Although I don’t see how the helican
And how are my little honeybunches[iv]? I just love them so much that it makes me most cry to think they are so far away. And are they sleeping outside? I think they would be fine outside with you and Brownie.[v] You’ll let them won’t you honey? And you will tell me all about how they like it and how you cook spag[vi] on that cunning little stove and what time you go to bed and what time you get up. You’ll tell me everything won’t you Dear Darling Duckie Daddle. I just love you honey and when I come up we’ll sit on some big log and spoon and spoon and spoon. You’ll fix it so Brownie will be on watch minding kids when I come up won’t you. It must me just dandy sleeping under those great redwoods isn’t it. And you ought to see how cold it is here. Just awful. Is it warm there? Bye Bye dearie and kiss them all for me. Miller will go to work Sunday morning so I will send the clocks up then. That is if Sunday time is the same as week day and brings him on my boat.[vii] This isn’t good writing or a good letter but it is all big love for you honey. Your loving Husband
[i] The letter is undated, but I found another letter written on the same Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. letterhead, dated June 17, 1914, so I presume this letter might have been written around the same time. I also found an item in the Marin County Tocsin, "County News Condensed", 15 Aug 1914, page 8, col 2 which reads "Mrs. Chas Kircher. and daughter Mary returned Friday from an extended visit to Cazedero."
[ii] I believe “D.D.D.D.” stands for “Dear Darling Duckie Daddle.” Later in this letter he uses the full term of endearment.
[iii] This is probably Tom and Mary Bradley’s, Agnes’ parents.
[iv] The honeybunches would have been their first children, daughters Mary and Bertha.
[v] Brownie is Agnes’ younger sister. Though her given name was Miriam, she was known as Brownie.
[vi] Not sure what he means by this. Perhaps spaghetti?
[vii] By “my boat” I assume he means the ferry he was working as engineer on. Miller is likely a fellow Northwestern Pacific Employee, probably working on a train northward. Since Charlie references the redwoods in his letter, it sounds like Agnes might be
I'm in California now, doing a little genealogy research and visiting family. I've been spending some time with my cousins and my Auntie Wilma, who was married to my mom's brother, Warren. Wilma has a collection of letters Warren wrote to his family during World War II. A couple of years ago when I visited, she pulled out a bag of letters and I set to work putting them in chronological order.
The letter I post here was written close to today's date 74 years ago. Warren's birthday would be later this week. I miss him very much. He was a wonderful father, son, brother, and uncle.
August 24 
Dear Rosie and Geo,[i]
By the time this letter reaches you Geo will have probably left for San Diego but I’ll include his name in case he is still there. I know how bad you must feel to see him go and how bad he must feel to leave. It was better however, to join the Navy now than let the Army get him. Send me his address and I’ll write him as soon as I get it.
I don’t know what school the selection officer will give him but I sure wish he could come back to Detroit and study with me for electricians mate.
Four other fellow and myself left San Diego for Detroit and we certainly had a lot of fun I’ve never had better food than that we got on the train. We were served in the diner, allowed a buck a meal.
From the following paragraphs you might assume that there were only four of us on the train but it was full of sailors from about ten other companies, some going to Rhode Island to gunnery school and some to Radio school at Indianapolis. Every station we pulled in to all of the sailors including yours truly would be out talking to the girls. Speaking of girls, there are sure some honeys here and they’re certainly friendly. A lot of the boys have already been invited by them to their homes for dinner.
For some reason the whole town has a friendly attitude towards sailors, we never have to ride the streetcar although they are free. We just step off the curb and within two minutes someone will give us a lift.
It doesn’t cost a sailor a cent to get drunk, the men here will set him up as many as he wants. We can get our meals and sleep at the U.S.O. free. The show rates are cut in half for us.
As you know we are studying for electricians mate third class. We started today and these are our subjects for the first eight weeks: General Instruction Electrical Theory Mathematics, Wiring Shop tool Instruction, Electrical Machine Lab. I’m sure going to try to make the grade, if I make a 3.5 average which corresponds to about 87% I’ll get a crow and one stripe which signifies electrician’s mate third class. [at this point in the letter there is a hand drawn illustration of the Navy logo he describes.]
This has a faint resemblance to what it looks like the round ball means electrician. I would be a third class petty officer. I would sure be proud to bring it home and show Dad. I would like Vernice[ii] to see it too.
I haven’t got an answer from her as yet but maybe they have it down to San Diego and they haven’t forwarded it. I guess I’d better write her again soon and give her my new address.
We have liberty here every weekend from noon Saturday until midnight Sunday. I had a swell time here on my first liberty.
Our quarters are pretty cramped here as at Kidd. There are four companies here in a comparatively small building. The bunks are three high, the firs one is about 8” off the floor and the top about 6’ off the floor. I’ve got a bottom one so if I fall out of bed I won’t break my neck.
The weather here is certainly queer. When we first arrived it was so hot we slept without blankets and the last few nights have been very cold. I wish it would make up its mind so I could get a good sleep.
Well, Sis, it’s nine o’clock and I want this letter mailed tonight. I’d sent it air mail but I haven’t a stamp and won’t be able to get one until tomorrow.
If George is still there I wish him all of the luck in the world and hope to see him soon. Write soon, Sis as I would like to know what you two are doing and how everything is going in general. Give my love to Mrs. Powers.[iii] Say hullo to everyone.
[i] Letter written to his sister, Rosemary Brown Hartman and her husband, George Hartman who was a very good friend to Warren. They had played soccer together.
[ii] Might have been a girlfriend of Warren’s in San Francisco.
[iii] Mrs. Powers is George’s grandmother. She raised George and was more like a mother to him than a grandmother.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.