Friday, June 21, 2019

Letters from the War

Private Gauchet(?) composing a letter during a lull in Korean War battle.
The U.S. Army ensured an expeditious exchange of mail between war-zone soldiers and their families back home.  Items addressed to a soldier in the field needed to show only his name and divisional APO (Army Post Office) number. It was the Army’s responsibility to track the whereabouts of the recipient's division and route the incoming mail accordingly. After crossing the Pacific Ocean via air transport, sacks of letters and parcels from the continental U.S. trucked to division-level post offices. Here, the sacks were dumped before a service company tent, where clerks sorted them for subsequent distribution to regiment, then company, then platoon. The arrival of mail was truly a random event, thanks to the intricacies of trans-Pacific shipment. At best, it took seven days for a piece of mail to travel between the U.S. and Korea. 

If the division was resting well behind battle lines, mail could be safely announced by a bugle call. Soldiers responded in double-time. They gathered around a corporal who, much like an auctioneer, held up each piece one at a time, barking out the last name of the recipient. When hearing his name, the recipient’s elation could not be overstated. 

Mail from home was more than a piece of paper. A document with familiar handwriting was the soldier’s most tangible connection to all that was safe, comforting, and sane. Photos and local newspaper clippings often accompanied the letters. The soldier dutifully protected these treasured documents by tucking them into his helmet liner, allowing him the joy of retrieving the same letter over and over again.

During his time in Korea, PVT Philip Hughes wrote home repeatedly to his mother. His standard stationary was the air letter, a blue sheet of paper with adhesive tabs that, when folded properly, became its own envelope. When circumstances denied him access to stationary, Philip may have created improvised post cards as other soldiers did, tearing a panel from a C-ration carton. Because he was in a theater of war, Philip had no postage costs. He simply wrote the word “free” on the item in the same space where one would affix a postage stamp.

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