“I see quite a lot of these collections – but this one stands out.” ~Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
Letters Lost Then Found
At the Scriptorium BookFest, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with author and graphic artist Amy L. Johnson. Her book, Letters Lost Then Found, is a memoir containing the letters between her grandfather, William, and his younger brother Fred, penned during WWII when Fred was in the army (1942-45 to be exact). Before the day was over, she handed me a copy of the book and said, simply, “Read it and pay it forward.”
I had no idea what she had so graciously given me until I got a chance to spend some time with this gorgeous book. No wonder it’s won several graphic design awards, including the prestigious Gold Addy Award in the National American Advertising Awards, and an Indie Book Award. What I love is that the handwritten letters themselves are published in their entirety, allowing for an authenticity I’ve never seen before. Amy’s keen design skills make for outstanding graphics.
It is a visual journey and an experience as much as it is a story of brotherly love in wartime.
In the margins are “This Day in History” facts to give the letters context. Running along the bottom of the pages is a commentary, designed to look like a Western Union Telegram ticker tape, on the importance of the China Burma India campaign. Interspersed with the correspondence are photos, telegrams, clippings and even the envelopes from the letters that the two brothers exchanged. And it all works beautifully.
Buzz Boy Pete and Willie
But the story in the letters are what make this book a gem.
Frederick Raubinger was First Lieutenant in the US Army Air Forces in World War II who flew more than 120 combat missions in the China Burma India Theatre. Fred, aka Buzz Boy Pete, (nicknamed as such apparently because there was an abundance of men named Fred!) often couldn’t give his exact whereabouts to his brother, whom he affectionately calls Willie or Boss, as in, “Gee, Boss, there’s nothing more I can say. My tongue is tied, if you know what I mean.”
Fred writes about how he loves to fly, some hair-raising mishaps with the Japanese, money lost and gained playing cards, a fiasco where the men were ordered to dig a hole for a recreation area that never materialized, and leaky ceilings during the monsoon. This excerpt is from when he’s in India:
It rains almost every night and the humidity is so high that nothing will dry unless it’s put out in the sun. We have to air out our “wools” about every other day so they won’t mildew. We live in bashas made out of bamboo, with thatched roofs and they’re none too weather proof. I woke up about five A.M. today with water dripping in my face but a shelter half fixed that. Then at 8:00 A.M. when I got up I found my right shoe half full of water. Our shower is an open air job, about five foot square with bamboo mats about five feet high. My steel helmet serves as a wash basin. Ah yes! All the comforts and facilities of home!
Meanwhile, back in the states
What’s going on in the home front during the war is equally fascinating. William is circulation manager for the Saginaw News in Michigan. He writes about his work:
In the last 6 months 3 bookkeepers have quit and I fired a 4th for stealing. I didnt mind the money 1/10 as much as the time necessary to catch her at it. The enclosed copy of the News Letter will show the number of employees Ive lost to the armed forces in addition to the girls. Besides that 3 more fellows quit for War Jobs, and about 18 or 20 part time fellows have passed through the mail room and office. Hary Lund leaves for the army next week… Ed Kempter got yellow along about Feb. 1st, and was so afraid he might have to fight for his country that he quit and got a war job over at Koehlers. He dont like it over there because he has to work, and has been putting the buzz on Harold Slaght to come back – but no dice. I wont have him… Suffice to say I’m busy as the devil…
Don’t tell Mom
The brothers also conspire to keep their mother in the dark as to the specifics of Fred’s combat missions, not wanting her to worry. This backfires after Fred writes to their sister, Mary, about his work. William explains:
Mom put the finger on me a little while back regarding your activities. It seems you wrote to Mary telling her what you were doing, and she damn near broke a leg gettin over to Moms to blab everything she knew. As I mentioned once before — don’t tell Mary anything you dont want repeated and broadcast to the entire town. So I guess Mom knows the works, but I did a good job of calming her worries and making light of your activities so she would feel better. Of course she was a trifle suspicious because I never showed her any letters from you, and never mentioned much about hearing from you, so she wondered if I wasnt hiding something. In fact, right now she accuses me of knowing a lot of things and not telling her about them, which is right, except that actually I dont know anything about your activities. All I know is, I aint saying nothin….
Fred later responds:
Mom mentioned, in one of her letters, that you acted like the cat that ate the canary when she asked to see one of the letters I’d written to you. She isn’t dumb by any means and can still put two and two together…
The affection between the two brothers is genuine and touching, and it extends to all the family, even the more problematic members. For example, they refer to brother Phil as “Angel” when he sounds as if he’s just the opposite.
Amy’s grandfather, William, never discussed the heartbreak of losing his youngest brother, who was 11 years younger, in the war. When her grandmother died in 2001, Amy helped clean house. She discovered the all letters between her grandfather and his brother in a file cabinet in the basement. She told me reading them helped her to see her grandfather in a warmer, more tender light.
Life and war often end tragically, but this collection illustrates how family love survives. Whether or not you’re a WWII buff, you’ll find this wonderfully personal account a great addition to your library.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell her truth without shame.
2017 New Apple Book Awards Official Selection
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters