By NANCY PATRICK
In the late 80s and early 90s, my son Jason had a favorite television show called Quantam Leap. Though not a fan, I knew that in each episode the main character traveled to a historical time where he would need to help with someone’s problems. Although I don’t really believe in time travel, I have to admit that I have recently felt as if I morphed into the 1940s during WWII.
I volunteer for a local organization called RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program). I have recently worked for the 12th Armored Division Museum in downtown Abilene. Many of their original documents include typewritten documents (and I do mean typewritten on manual typewriters like I learned on), not digital documents. These documents also include handwritten letters from soldiers to their families back home.
I have just completed typing 47 handwritten letters that 20-year-old William Rowland Hahn wrote from his basic training camp in Tyler, Texas, to his parents in Culver City, California, between July and October 1943. I cannot find the words to express what I have experienced during this project.
I have felt like a proud and anxious mother much of the time. I have a 24-year-old granddaughter, so her age helped me put myself into William’s (he went by Bill) world as I read the reports he wrote to his family.
His beautiful penmanship especially appealed to the English teacher in me. Considering the age of these letters, they remain quite legible. William’s attention to detail in his letters helped his family “see” what he saw.
He told his parents everything they would want to know and some things they probably did not want to know. For example, he described some of the training with hand grenades, bayonets, rifles, and land mines. I couldn’t help but think of his parents’ reactions as they realized clearly what their son would soon face.
Ironically, the soldiers themselves seemed to think of the training as another subject in school. At least, William didn’t convey any worry or apprehension about what may lie ahead of him. Rather, he concentrated on the scores he made during the drills as he anticipated his future assignments. He also seemed to enjoy boot camp—something that really surprised me.
This young man never complained about anything. I enjoyed his 1940s language. Evidently, the kids’ favorite word in that generation was “swell”: swell food, swell fellows, even swell 20-mile hikes with 50-pound backpacks. At one point, William told his mom that during inspection the Sgt. “gigged” him. I learned that meant he had committed an infraction—he needed a haircut. He said his punishment was swell, though—not hard at all.
As I read through these letters, I kept thinking of how his generation’s attitude differed greatly from many people in the modern world. I realize that in 1940 our country had faced only one World War as it entered the World War II era. Perhaps those involved were less jaded than today’s citizens.
Our country as well as many other countries have fought war after war during the past eight decades. Some of our wars have lasted two decades or more, depending on how one calculates the date of the war’s impetus. It saddens me to realize the innocence our young people have lost during modern times, but it gladdened me to see young William Hahn’s innocence and vulnerability as he wrote to his parents.
I want to share a glimpse into this young man’s thoughts, concerns, and attitudes during his basic training at Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas.
I have retained his spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax because the digitized documents’ aim is to preserve the soldiers’ own voices:
“Im filthy dirty as the train was quite dusty. I can hardly see my skin through the dirt. They gave us haircuts today. Cost 35₵. 1 ½ from the top. Doesn’t look too bad. Don’t have to comb it and that makes it simple.”
“Went to church and was invited to lunch afterwards by the man who taught the Sunday school. He has a very large home and family 2 of his boys are in the service now. 1 boy 15-one daughter 21 and 2 daughters about 8 and 11 Their house has solid brick walls about 18” thick and there are oak trees all around the place. It was 78◦ in his living room, felt like the place was air-conditioned. I stayed at his house until about 3:30 and then caught the bus for Tyler State Park where there is a lake.”
“My beard sure grows fast in this heat it seems like. I use my electric every morning as that’s the only time my face is dry enough to shave good. It takes too long when your face is damp.”
“Had the 3:00 rest in the shade but I was still feeling HOT and run down I don’t remember the 4:00 rest as I passed out with Sun stroak The next thing I remember is waking up at 6:30 Fri morn they told me I really kicked up a fuss. That’s the way it happen they had to strap me to the stretcher to bring me here As Dick has come to see me this afternoon I will have him mail this letter to you so you will get it sooner than if I had one of the nurses mail it. The doc said I vomited all over the place and really kicked up a row They all do he said but I was the hardest case he had to subdue yet. Have been going mostly on a liquid diet as stomach is still a little wobbly. Have been keeping things down very good and I should be out in 1 or 2 more days its all according to when my stomach will take food The Colonel is definitely going to change things as so many fellows are dropping out.”
“As to the cookies & nuts I had 95% of them for myself. So send anything you want anytime. Cookies become a little stale because of the long time it takes for them to get here but they are still plenty good. If you want any gum let me know. I believe I got your letters ok.”
Young William’s words reveal an innocence and spirit of adventure that many lack today. As I read his words that reveal his assessment of his entire world, I realized what kind of young men fought for our country’s freedom and for the world’s humanity during WW II. His patriotism sprang from his heart and not from the platform of a political party.
What a refreshing look at history and what a sad realization that very few of our WW II veterans remain!
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing