We recognize the images from Hollywood movies, old newsreels, and wartime photojournalism. Soldiers gather in an expectant throng; spirits are high, exuberance playfully hammed for the cameras. At the center of the crowd, a junior NCO calls out names, cracking jokes as he hands over envelopes and dispenses parcels. Hastily torn open, letters are read with rapt attention. Buddies lean in to share news over one another’s shoulders, while a few hunker down alone at the edge of the crowd to snatch a moment’s solitary communion with loved ones back home. The men might be naked from the waist up, simmering in the thick tropical soup of the Marianas or the Mekong Delta, or they might be buttoned into olive drab woollens, stacked up on bunks in chilly barracks. Although the tableau could have been captured in any decade since the camera first froze soldiers on the battlefield and off during the Civil War, the name for this scene has remained unchanged. A hallowed ritual of military life – a staple of patriotic iconography – this is unmistakably “Mail Call.”1
Orchestrators of wartime sentiment have long touted the symbiotic relationship between mail and morale, employing an array of similes to convey the potent properties of letters from home. Mail forms a “bridge” or a “chain” linking distant loved ones. “It is the letter, coming and going, that alone makes the separation of war endurable,” editorialized the Los Angeles Times in June 1917.2 Like food, letters supply sustenance craved by perennially hungry soldiers, giving them “a whiff of home.”3 They energize like a pep-pill, but also provide insulation from harm like protective armor. “A woman’s letters to a man abroad are a proven secret weapon,” Vogue reminded readers in June 1944.4 No wonder, then, that in successive twentieth-century wars the government should have intervened to facilitate the flow of caring words – and more tangible care packages – between “here” and “there.” During World War II and later conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Congress authorized free mailing privileges for uniformed personnel, while significantly cutting the cost paid by civilians to send letters and parcels to men and women serving overseas.5
Federal agencies, commercial advertisers, and a host of interested parties bombarded Americans with sharp reminders that the primary obligation of civilians on the home front wasn’t buying war bonds, digging for victory, or retooling for work in defense-related industries. It was writing letters to men in uniform. “Ask a service man what his biggest single morale booster is and he will probably reply that it is mail from home,” opined an editorial in the New York Times in May 1951. By then, the eleven-month-old Korean war was mired in a stalemate that would persist for another two years, while the combatants haggled over POWs and their repatriation. GIs already considered themselves the neglected footsoldiers of a “forgotten war” in a country few Americans knew anything about. Dug in against North Korean and Chinese forces, US troops were waging an “unnecessary extra battle against despondency, lonesomeness and the terrible feeling of being unloved and forgotten by the folks back home,” one sergeant darkly warned. “A letter or package from home may at times be more welcome than a whole boatload of vaudeville performers,” the Times exhorted readers who might’ve neglected to put pen to paper recently.6
Mobilizing legions of letter writers on the home front was only one part of the equation, however. The twin challenge lay in ensuring that civilians “wrote right.” For if mail could do more than steak, ice-cream, beer, and Bob Hope to boost morale, then the corollary also stood to reason. Few or no letters from home – or dispiriting messages from loved ones – threatened to deflate individual esprit and corrode group cohesion. As one journalist put it in 1953, “the man without a letter” at mail call was “like a puppy without a bone or a baseball fan without his peanuts.”7 Worse yet, “blue moods” were contagious, one man’s gloomy withdrawal or sullen demeanour quickly poisoning the unit’s atmosphere. The “secret weapon” touted by Vogue might, if mishandled, prove lethal. Civilians were thus repeatedly tutored in the delicate, yet vital, art of how to write to soldiers. And since the armed forces regarded the provision of emotional support as an essentially feminine duty of care, their instructional efforts targeted women in particular, as did those of civilian attitude-shapers who lent their services to this disciplinary effort.
Military policies aimed at shaping soldiers’ romantic choices found a counterpart in wartime efforts to accelerate the flow and regulate the tenor of women’s correspondence with men in uniform. How to dissuade female letter writers from giving voice to their own gnawing anxieties and troubles, ensuring they produced only the kind of cheery, newsy missives soldiers apparently craved? And how to make sure that women’s love, once proffered to a man in uniform, wasn’t withheld or withdrawn in a devastating letter? The tricky business of sustaining intimate relationships across geographic distance – and over often unknown expanses of time – repeatedly vexed the military establishment at war, beginning with the seemingly simple question of who should write to whom.
Soldiers and “Strange Girls”
Given the cyclical calls for civilians to set pen to paper and boost the morale of lonely soldier boys far from home, it might seem peculiar that some women who responded most avidly to these pleas should have been told to desist. Unease over soldiers’ correspondence with females unknown to them was palpable during the Great War. Clues as to the nature of this wariness can be found in the pages of the Indianapolis Star, which, like many other local papers, sought to channel civic participation in the war effort. In August 1917, the Star trumpeted a novel plan to provide the name of “a Sammy for any patriotic backer who would lighten the burden of a soldier training or at the front.” (“Sammy,” a uniformed representative of Uncle Sam, was a nickname for soldiers serving with the American Expeditionary Forces – more common than the better-remembered term “doughboy.”) Sammy Backers would not just send letters to doughboys but keep them supplied with “magazines, Thanksgiving boxes, Christmas and birthday presents, ‘smokes’ and the thousand and one other little things that will readily suggest themselves” – myriad modest luxuries “no reasonable man could expect state or nation to furnish.” In short order, a “Sammy Backer Club” sprang into existence, complete with its own theme tune that swelled to a rousing finale: “Don’t you be a Slacker, Come, be a Sammy Backer, Cheer a Fighting Lad!” But there was one catch. The first rule of eligibility stated bluntly, “You must be a man.”8
Female readers of the Star soon protested. One disgruntled nineteen-year-old scolded the editor that she was just as capable of meeting the interests of Sammy as any man, and would gladly brief him on national events as well as matters dearer to the Hoosier’s heart. Since Sammy was going to France “to fight for me and those of my sex,” women were more indebted to doughboys than were their male peers, yet had fewer ways to do their “patriotic bit,” this unnamed writer lamented. “Girls are ‘cowardies,’ so the men say,” another scoffed, insisting that if repressive and misguided gender norms prevented them from fighting, then women should surely be permitted to do more writing. A twelve-year-old, “knitting wash cloths now for the boys who love Uncle Sam,” pled her case for admission to the club, while older women also rebuked the paper for its discriminatory policy. Their petitions insisted that they had no desire to “write foolishness” to a young man; nor were they drawn to the “romance” of corresponding with a soldier or sailor.
These matronly protestors, disavowing the dubious motives they ascribed to thrill-seeking flibbertigibbets, only reinforced the Star’s resolve. The men-only membership policy was shared by other newspapers that sponsored Sammy Backer clubs. The Star continued to insist that Hoosier doughboys wanted, above all, “the friendly interest of an older man” – even when the paper’s initial appeals to men above draft age failed to produce sufficient volunteers. Sammy “doesn’t want any of the flowery stuff about the ‘balmy breezes’ and the ‘calm and placid lake,’” the like-minded Arizona Republican chimed, disparaging what it regarded as the ineffable whimsy of feminine letter-writing style. “Sammy wants letters, a man’s letters, man’s ideas, man’s comfort.” Women could assist this effort, but only relegated to the rear echelon of “Sammy backer-backers,” knitting socks, parting with some “pin money” for tobacco, and chivvying older men to sign up for club membership.9
The underlying concern exceeded matters of literary style. The Star feared that women mightn’t just fill their letters with frivolity, but would subvert the paper’s patriotic venture for their own sentimental purposes, seeking not so much to support Sammy as to seduce him. As historian William Kuby has shown, the 1890s and early 1900s witnessed a backlash against what critics deemed a crude “commercialization” of the sacred institution of marriage. These conjugal crusaders took aim at the people, institutions, and practices they deemed responsible. Their targets ranged from matrimonial advertisements – and the women who responded to bachelors’ and widowers’ solicitations for female companionship – to the alarming spread of spurious marriage bureaus. The latter inveigled solitary men into parting with significant sums on the promise of a prospective spouse’s photograph and contact information. Invariably, however, the pictures turned out to be portraits of glamorous actresses, not eligible spinsters: a bait and switch that left swindled lonely-hearts to nurse their wounded pride and emptied pockets alone. The first decade of the twentieth century saw several well-publicized trials of fraudsters involved in the fake fiancée racket, with a number of unscrupulous female entrepreneurs ending up behind bars.10
The cloud of suspicion that enveloped women whose only crime was answering personal advertisements didn’t quickly dissipate. Newspapermen found women’s eagerness to volunteer as Sammy backers indecent. The more passionately women asserted their patriotic bona fides, the higher they stoked these fears. Surely, they protested their unsentimental interest in Sammy too much. A chaplain with the First Infantry at Schofield Barracks in Hawaiʻi confirmed the wisdom of the Star’s single-sex policy in a letter the paper reproduced at length. Correspondence between “soldiers and strange girls would, in the majority of cases, soon ‘smack of piquancy’ … and would eventually do more harm than good,” the vexed padre warned. If “girls” were to write to soldiers at all, they should be young ladies known to the soldier – and his mother. A “mere” state of war, the chaplain reasoned, provided insufficient reason for “overthrowing convention.”11
Since the military establishment shared this mistrust of “strange girls,” the convention remained in place not only throughout the Great War but also during the World War that followed it. In May 1942, the War Department announced that its “approval would not be given under any circumstances to plans to encourage correspondence between soldiers and unknown civilians.” The American Red Cross, the agency dedicated to facilitating contact between home and fighting fronts, was put on notice, while the Army Guide for Women (1942) reminded “letter-writing enthusiasts” that the army forbade servicemen from replying to mail sent by those “not really known to them.” Letters opportunistically addressed to “The Private Who Receives No Mail” – invariably from “girls wishing to correspond with soldiers,” tutted one journalist – went straight to the morale officer for destruction.12
In the very same month that the War Department publicized its disapproval of “unknown civilians” writing to men in uniform, Anne Gudis did exactly that. Initiating a correspondence with a man she’d never met, she was well aware that there was something unorthodox – untoward, even, in skeptics’ eyes – about a single woman presuming to address a soldier she didn’t know. In this case, the taint of impropriety was mitigated by the fact that Sam Kramer was the brother of a friend of Anne’s closest female friend from college. For several weeks she teasingly kept him guessing as to which mutual acquaintance had played the role of Cupid in providing his APO address. But, as Sam pointed out, “to tease by means of a letter is mild compared to a ‘tease’ in other expressions.”13 Within a fortnight, Sam was writing both regularly and racily to Anne, even though “it is slightly on the difficult side to continue a correspondence with one who one has never seen, nor held in one’s arms, either kissed or tenderly embraced with full affection.” Sam followed this rhapsodic riff with a cautionary warning he was writing not only to Anne but “about seven other girls.” So, she needn’t start forming any premature notions of exclusivity.14
The brass’s fear that surreptitious romances might distract servicemen’s attention intersected with civilians’ concerns that they would simultaneously detract from young women’s reputations. But these weren’t the sole considerations behind the attempted embargo on correspondence between soldiers and strangers. During World War II, as in earlier and later wars alike, the military establishment stopped worrying that civilians weren’t writing enough letters only to start fretting that too much mail would inundate the military postal service. Sammy backers and women who independently attempted to “adopt” soldiers in France during World War I must have been disappointed to find that censorship rules soon prohibited servicemen from corresponding with strangers on the grounds that excess volume would “choke” the mail, delaying important communications.15 The War Department offered the same rationale during the next world war, and certainly the quantities of mail Americans dispatched were prodigious. Over the course of this conflict, the number of items handled by the postal service ballooned from approximately 28 billion pieces in 1940 to almost 38 billion in 1945.16
Official strictures may have tamped down civic initiatives to muster pen-pals for servicemen during World War II, but soldiers used private initiative to seek out women with whom they might exchange letters. Many of the GIs who sent notes and V-mails to Anne Gudis after Yank published her riposte to Sam Kramer did so with a view to securing a new female correspondent. Anne evidently had some prior experience in the business of writing to soldiers, even if the published specimen of her handiwork left something to be desired in terms of both length and tone. Some requested not only a response but the promise of a long deferred date when the war finally ended. “As long as you told your old boyfriend to go to hell, how about me putting in an application?” inquired one hopeful staff sergeant.17 Others professed themselves wholly unconcerned by Anne’s relationship status. They just wanted a pen-pal or prospective girlfriend who’d send them a longer, sweeter V-mail than the one Kramer got, preferably accompanied by that other much sought-after wartime commodity – a photo. To improve the odds on receiving an affirmative reply, inquisitive GIs included compliments on Anne’s chutzpah, as well as plaudits for the boost she’d provided to men in the ETO. “While you must have torn up the morale of one soldier and broken his heart you make thousands of us laugh,” gushed a private stationed in North Africa, well aware of the double-edged relationship between mail and morale. One man’s heartbreak could inspire other men’s horseplay.18
Some of these strangers in uniform exhibited an unapologetic air of entitlement. As far as they were concerned, Anne owed them a reply because they demanded one. But many of her unknown interlocutors recognized that letter-writing was an intensely rule-bound activity, even if the protocols regarding who was eligible to address whom, how, and with what expectation of reciprocity remained rather fuzzy. Several more circumspect correspondents expressed concern that they might have violated social niceties in presuming to address a young woman they’d never met. They duly tried to justify what might otherwise seem inexcusably brash behavior. A number of the GIs who wrote to Anne invoked shared Jersey origins, or their identical hometown of Newark, to underscore a degree of familiarity between male writer and female addressee: two people who might actually have crossed paths in person if they only knew it. Perhaps they’d attended the same high school or synagogue, or frequented the same downtown cafés and clubs.19Reaching for familiar templates, several GIs appropriated the phraseology of the personal ad, offering Anne cameos of their distinguishing features the better to ingratiate themselves. One of Anne’s most persistent unknown admirers, Phil Seriffignano, introduced himself with droll self-deprecation unwittingly heightened by duff spelling:
I am 22 years old, 5 ft 7 inches tall, I have dark wavey hair and a neat little mustash under my nose. This description would lead you to beleive that I am rather handsome. The truth of the matter is that I am very far from being just that. I have a nose that looks as if I were continually eating on a banana. The reason I mentioned the latter fact is that I’m truthfull and hate to give people the wrong impression of what I look like.
When this note failed to elicit a reply, Phil waited two months and tried again, beginning with an apology for having “broken some sort of unwritten law concerning correct etiquette to use when writing to a girl that I neither rightfully know or even been introduced to, formally or otherwise.” Then Phil changed tack, conjuring shared urban kinship to legitimize his forward behavior: “We all, the boys in the barracks and myself, figured that since you and I were of the same native state and even city, it would be strictly according to rules for me to be the one to write and ask you why you sent that V-mail to Kramer in which you told him to ‘go to hell.’” His persistence was rewarded. Anne kept hold of both a Christmas card and a Valentine from Phil with references to her replies, attesting an ongoing exchange that, however lopsided, wasn’t completely monologic.20
As time passed, correspondence between “soldiers and strange girls” ceased to seem too spicily “piquant” and became instead a vanilla staple. By the time American draftees were sent en masse to Korea, newspapers routinely printed personal ads posted by letter-hungry GIs, even if the mode of self-presentation sometimes betrayed residual traces of anxiety over questions of respectability. In the pages of the New Journal and Guide, an African American weekly, 1st Lt. Lonnie W. Williams announced himself a graduate, twenty-six and single, who enjoyed “photography, dramatics and music”: “In music I like Chopin and hot records too. I also like to write letters about the things I see over here.” For his part, Pfc Samuel Evans publicized his particular yen to hear from girls who attended basketball games. “It would give me a real big bang to get a letter from a girl in the states that I don’t even know,” he enthused, uninhibited by any notion this might be an indecorous desire. More relaxed social norms also extended to women who sought to initiate correspondence with servicemen. In June 1951, Stars and Stripes printed seventeen-year-old Janice Pendur’s request for “addresses of fellows serving in Korea who’d appreciate mail.” Within a week she amassed 213 letters. “They asked about everything from the color of my eyes (hazel) to the gauge of my father’s shotgun (12),” Janice confided to a Los Angeles Times reporter, adding the guilt-inducing coda that most of her new pen-pals in uniform “sounded bitter about folks back home not writing.”21
Both the Korean “police action” and the United States’ later, longer war in Vietnam gave rise to numerous private initiatives to make sure GIs didn’t lack for mail because loved ones at home had failed to do their part. Most of these ventures – or at least the ones that garnered press attention – were started up and staffed by women: an ever-lengthening roster of patriotic mothers, widows, wives, and co-eds eager to ensure that no man was left behind at mail call. Prominent among them was Mrs. Maynard (“Mom”) Jenkins of Huntington Beach who turned her pen-pal drive into a California non-profit corporation in 1967. By then, her “Operation Mail Call” boasted a network of 60,000 letter writers, with Jenkins having personally shipped 10 tons of parcels to servicemen in Vietnam in 1966 alone. Taking her cultural cues from World War II, Los Angeles Times reporter Linda Mathews billed “Mom” as “neither a Mata Hari nor a Marlene Dietrich,” but nevertheless “the most popular woman among troops in the bunkers and billets of Vietnam.” At a time when newspapers regularly reported the high incidence of Dear Johns being sent to GIs in Vietnam, Jenkins’s efforts supplied a romantic rejoinder. She had personally attended nine weddings between civilian women and soldiers who’d been put in contact through “Operation Mail Call.”22
Servicemen were right to perceive letter-writing as an activity constrained not only by invasive military surveillance but also by a thick hedge of social prescription. They were wrong, however, if they believed these rules unwritten. During World War II, guidance on how to compose appropriate missives came from numerous quarters. The Infantry Journal’s Handbook for Army Wives & Mothers (1944), a title that revealingly elevated wives over mothers, and whose subtitle squeezed sweethearts between sisters and grandmothers, devoted a chapter to “Keeping in Touch with Your Soldier.” Newspaper and magazine advice columnists, aptly termed “agony aunts” in British parlance, maintained a steady barrage of prompts. Girls who agonized over whether they should sign letters to soldier acquaintances “affectionately yours” or “sincerely yours” could send off for Emily Post’s booklet, “The Etiquette of Letter Writing.”23 Entire volumes like G. A. Reeder’s Letter Writing in Wartime (1943) and Ethel Gorham’s So Your Husband’s Gone to War (1942) strove to resuscitate what their authors billed as a “lost art.” Since the telephone had supplanted letters in the interwar era as a mechanism for arranging dates and staying connected, Americans apparently needed intensive remedial instruction. Reeder duly included chapters on “How to Write a Love Letter,” “A List of Salutations for Love Letters” (“My Galahad”; “My Sweet Brave One”; “My Super-Duper Love Maker”), “A List of Closing Terms of Endearment for Love Letters,” and a dauntingly long list of “Do’s and Don’ts for Sweethearts.”24
Meanwhile, best-selling novels like Margaret Buell Wilder’s Since You Went Away (1943), soon adapted as a silver screen blockbuster by David O. Selznick, modeled the effervescence that was mandatory for women’s wartime mien in general and their mail to servicemen in particular. Hollywood enthusiastically took up the drumbeat that sought to synchronize mail and morale, whether by including scenes of crestfallen soldiers left empty-handed at mail call or reminding audiences about the importance of “laughs, lookers and letters” – and civilians’ responsibility to supply the latter while the studios delivered the former.25
Not to be outdone, radio chimed in too. The Office of War Information’s didactic drama series, Chaplain Jim, made its debut with a pilot episode unsubtly entitled, “The Case of the Soldier Who Never Received Any Mail.” This five-episode saga hinged on a lonely GI who, to mask the absence of mail from home, tried to pass off a famous movie star’s portrait as his girlfriend’s picture – a fabrication that nearly exposed the soldier to public humiliation when the actress made a surprise visit to his camp. Fortuitously, Chaplain Jim intervened, asking the movie star to play along with the charade to spare the GI from his comrades’ ridicule. But since real-life padres couldn’t always be relied on to work such timely miracles, women on the home front needed to step up their efforts. The “case” was closed with a blunt rhetorical inquiry to listeners: “Are you writing to your men in the Army every day? Are you writing regularly and cheerfully?”26
Levity and frequency were the watchwords of guidance angled at women in the 1940s, reprising themes from World War I and the Civil War before that, when women had been warned that men could actually die for want of mail.27 Thoughtlessly written letters could do almost as much damage. “[O]f all the horrors inflicted on the man at the front he characterizes the ‘sob letter’ as the hardest to bear,” cautioned an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in June 1917, alluding to notes in which the writer self-indulgently bemoaned wartime conditions, whether commodity shortages or concerns over the distant soldier’s wellbeing. As more members of the AEF reached France and as life in the trenches worsened, with prospects for doughboys’ unscathed return growing more precarious, calls by the civic custodians of morale for more self-censorship on the part of letter-writers grew louder. “Write to him often and always cheerily. In Heaven’s name, don’t mope,” admonished the Boston Daily Globe in 1918, five months before an armistice concluded the Great War.28
Etiquette gurus repeated the same mantra relentlessly during World War II. Reeder even encouraged women to illustrate their letters with quirky stick figure drawings and happy faces, anticipating the “Smiley” and emojis by several decades. “Cute little sketches liven up a letter and increase its value to the receiver immeasurably,” Reeder proposed, encouraging women to cultivate their artistic talents.29 Like other morale-minded Americans, he conceived wartime correspondence as an enterprise that, first and foremost, served the cause of victory. As some would-be Sammy Backers had surmised during World War I, writing was a gendered counterpart to fighting. The prime mandate, thus construed, was to bolster the spirits of men at war, not to foster intimate relationships that both partners found reciprocally satisfying. That women had emotional needs of their own figured nowhere in this division of labor. While composing artful missives could “improve personality,” making women “more tolerant and attractive,” the Atlanta Constitution’s Violet Moore reminded female readers that “it’s not what [letter-writing] does for you that really counts. It’s what it does for the man who’s out there fighting for you.” To this end, elevation of male self-esteem was a vital art to master. “Girls, your most important job is to keep up Bill’s ego and his moral,” entreated Mary Lee Smith in the “Soldier’s Letter Box,” a feature run by the Call and Post, Cleveland’s African American weekly newspaper. “In the army, your hometown hero is merely a wart in a barrel of pickles. Say it isn’t so. Make him feel that he is still a mighty important person in this world – especially to a certain girl back home.”30
For women, letter-writing required a constant negotiation between expression and suppression of feeling. Dispensers of advice, anticipating (or amplifying) Johnny Mercer’s hit lyric of 1944, urged women to “ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive,” “eliminate the negative,” and not “mess with Mister In-Between.” “Are you feeling lonely and upset and vaguely suicidal?,” Ethel Gorham caustically quizzed wives who consulted her volume So Your Husband’s Gone to War. “Don’t put it into written words unless you’re prepared to jump out of the window and this is your last message on it all.” A like-minded, albeit more tempered, contributor to the Ladies’ Home Journal urged women, when down in the dumps, to “take your tears to a stirring movie … Then when you have got it all out of your system, go home and write your husband the swellest letter you can compose, with not even a hint of a sob in it!” Official censors scrutinized civilians’ mail to excise indiscreetly divulged information, squelch rumor-mongering, and catch those who attempted to write in private code. Censorship cast a long shadow over wartime letter writers. But women heard time and time again that the most vital omissions were those they authorized themselves, not because the offending material would violate formal censorship codes but because “trouble, complaints, grief, fears” would “raise havoc with morale and reduce the soldier’s margin of safety.”31
Although many edicts issued in World War II reprised those of the previous global conflict, the home front assumed a different, and decidedly less domestic, aspect in the 1940s. Women entered the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers. This phenomenon unnerved more conservative men, changing the character of many households that servicemen left behind, as mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends took up jobs in factories and offices or themselves enlisted in the women’s auxiliary services. Thousands of women struck out for far-flung destinations, leaving home altogether – or shifting its location – to seize opportunities offered by an invigorated war-oriented economy.32 But if greater mobility, more money, new skills, and wider social circles raised many women’s expectations about the horizon of their lives, these developments also complicated the female correspondent’s task. Letters to distant soldiers, women frequently heard, should attest the timeless, unalterable character not only of her love for the absent man, but also of that mythic destination longed for by every man in uniform. “Home may seem far away to him; but he thinks of it often – and your vivid descriptions and anecdotes can make it real to him,” Frances Fenwick Hills prompted readers of Good Housekeeping. “Then he’ll be sure that home – and you – are still there, waiting for him.”33
Overlooking men who entered the forces from unhappy or abusive households, columnists and counselors framed their prescriptions as though all soldiers overseas clung to the same vision of home as a source of security and a reassuringly fixed compass point: an image women should strive to sustain. But maintaining the façade of domestic permanence was an especially tall order at a time of epic demographic upheaval. Men in uniform were well aware that the needle had swung in the direction of women’s greater autonomy from male-headed households supported by male-earned wages. Although many soldiers approved of women undertaking war-related work, at least for the duration, not all servicemen took such a sanguine view. Some married men with children fretted that wives with jobs might be forced to abandon responsibilities for child-care. Military mail censors in the Pacific found a good deal of grumbling inspired by rumors that the federal government was poised to conscript all women into war work.34 Some husbands-in-uniform doubtless feared returning home to a less malleable partner who’d relished greater freedom and was loath to retrain as a “clinging vine,” in the words of one disgruntled wife. Other men may have feared that paid employment outside the home, a change likely to enlarge women’s social networks, would provide wives and girlfriends with more opportunities to meet, flirt with, or date other men.35
Infidelity loomed large as the most corrosive of servicemen’s anxieties. Soldiers traded tales of mass female defection from the home front at mounting volume and with greater vitriol as the war lengthened.36 By 1945, Stars and Stripes buzzed with reports that seemed to corroborate the escalation of women’s disloyalty. Two stories garnered a particularly ferocious response from aggrieved GIs. In June 1945, lawmakers in California proposed altering legislation to allow married women to put up illegitimate infants for adoption without informing their absent husbands: a move intended to curb a “black market” in babies. Egged on by headlines like “Licensed Infidelity?,” servicemen vehemently protested proposals they saw as condoning – and hence encouraging – extramarital affairs conducted behind servicemen’s backs.37 GIs were perhaps even more upset by press reports that some American women were dating, and even clandestinely marrying, Italian prisoners of war encamped in the United States. How was such disloyalty possible when American men had risked, and sometimes lost, their lives fighting against these same Axis soldiers, GIs demanded to know. “The way I look at it is, I blame it completely on the American public and women,” announced one enlisted man serving with the 59th Ordnance Ammunition Company in the Pacific theater, voicing widely shared sentiments. “If they want their daughters to go around with a P of W who has probably killed one of their friends or relatives in Tunisia or Silicia [sic] it’s their fault … Us fellows over here are really burnt up about the situation.”38
The more convinced GIs became that American women were betraying them en masse, the more justified some men felt about their own sexual encounters overseas. Rationalizations for male transgressions were not, however, hard to come by. A 1943 handbook, Psychology for the Fighting Man, pointed out that servicemen who failed to receive “constant reassurances of undeviating faithfulness, expressions of pride in what her man is doing for his country, and gifts and letters in abundance,” might be driven “to seek sexual satisfaction with other women” – “especially if he half-consciously wants to make his own girl suffer for her neglect of him.” This observation, a warning shot to “waiting women,” issued a tacit permission slip to “fighting men” looking to cloak infidelity with righteous indignation.39
Taken together, recommendations for correct composition of letters to soldiers mandated a delicate (if not impossible) balancing act. Women had to maintain an upbeat tone, but without striking any false note. No man wants letters filled “with forced good cheer,” intoned Vogue, a magazine dedicated to flawless appearances. Wives and girlfriends had to reassure absent soldiers that they were missed, but not to the point of female incapacity; that women were getting along fine with their jobs, but not becoming overly independent; that they remained buoyant, but without having too much fun. As a cautionary tale, the Afro-American’s Will Neely alerted readers on New Year’s Day, 1944, to the letter one poor soldier had received from his wife, “telling him that she was a little woozy from a night of drinking gin, and therefore her missive would be short.” An evening of solitary boozing would be worrisome enough, but any reference to gin-guzzling was likely to conjure a night out on the town, and that broached the riskiest topic of all. Rule-makers warned that soldiers had no wish to hear of wives’ and girlfriends’ social interactions with other men. Yet the absence of any male figures in a woman’s correspondence would arouse suspicion, Reeder’s primer suggested, so the prudent female letter-writer should throw in the odd reference to a self-evidently harmless male – “some 50-year-old uncle” – by way of re-assurance.40
All this guidance was more easily dispensed than espoused. Many women divulged to their partners feelings of anxiety, including worries about whether relationships would endure and men overseas would remain faithful.41 Like many ordinarily mortal women, Anne Gudis failed to observe the cardinal rule of eternal good cheer in her correspondence. As a family friend later explained to Sam Kramer’s chaplain, “Although we in the States are told to be very cheerful, when corresponding especially to someone overseas, there was a time when Anne was feeling blue and could not help but put that feeling into one of her letters.” From Sam’s response, it seems Anne had violated another cardinal principle, bemoaning the advances of a lecherous, married boss – palpably not the asexual avuncular type. Whatever inspired a note of complaint in one of Anne’s letters, it elicited a ferocious put-down. “If you become too despondent why don’t you try committing suicide, or some other way to an end,” Sam taunted, pre-empting Ethel Gorham’s similarly worded recommendation. A few days later, he warned her, “You really are in a rut. Get the hell out of it.”42
Kramer evidently did not expect to be on the receiving end of a similarly sharp rejoinder. While Anne did indeed “keep it short” – as the snappy promotional motto for V-mail urged – her injunction didn’t sound at all sweet. When Sam’s self-described “chaplin” wrote to Anne, chastising her for the blow she’d dealt her boyfriend’s esprit, he drew particular attention to her reprehensible language. But his telling-off, unlike some of the harsher criticisms lobbed Anne’s way, was laced with unmistakable irony. Lieutenant Leonard Paul couldn’t have been serious when he insisted that Anne’s V-mail had caused its recipient a “terrible shock” since her phraseology was “definitely not the type of language that Sam hears in the army.” Writing in 1946, psychiatrist Henry Elkin pointed out that profanity was “perhaps the most striking feature of Army life” – something Anne knew very well. Some of Sam’s choicest curses had, after all, been aimed at her. However, in matters of diction, as in so much else relating to male–female relationships in wartime, double standards were the order of the day.43
In World War II, GI slang dubbed notes from sweethearts “sugar reports,” emphasizing the preferred key ingredient.44 Anne Gudis’s V-mail, by contrast, seemed to exemplify a new and more dangerous type: the Dear John. Just a week after Yank published Anne’s V-mail, the New York Times carried its first reference to “Dear John” letters with Milton Bracker’s Sunday magazine story on October 3, 1943.45 Bracker helped establish a template that quickly became paradigmatic. A Dear John didn’t simply end a relationship. This poison-pen letter announced that its author had transferred her affections to the rejected serviceman’s rival, often excoriated as “some 4-F or defense worker.” 4-F referred to the draft board categorization of men deemed unfit for service, often used as a derogatory term for men assigned this label (also referred to by GIs as “four-effers”). By September 1944, four million of thirteen million American men examined for military service had been rejected as 4-F.46 Among enlisted men, the most reviled “four-effer” was undoubtedly Frank Sinatra. With his perforated eardrum, silken voice, and shady connections, Sinatra struck many soldiers as the very personification of the entitled string-puller who’d managed to shirk military service on spurious grounds.47 Being jettisoned by women in favor of men that soldiers considered too frail, feeble-minded, elderly, or cowardly to serve added insult to injury. “The girls in the states aren’t to be trusted,” griped one enlisted man with the 172nd Infantry. “I know that from the way the girls are throwing these guys [serving in the Pacific] over, over here to marry some 4F jerk.” Not surprisingly, the Handbook for Army Wives and Mothers warned that, above all else, soldiers did not want “to hear that you’re engaged or married to somebody else.”48
Unmoored from their emotional anchors, men were seen as vulnerable to emotional injury in a variety of forms, from mild bruising to the ego to life-threatening broken-heartedness. “Loneliness is hard enough – isolation from hope is unendurable,” intoned a Red Cross field director in New Guinea from the pages of Vogue, while Bracker told his New York Times audience that the effect of a Dear John on its recipient was “always the same. He is browned off – and a deep, dark, blackish sort of brown it is.” Some men found external outlets for their rage. One private stationed in Italy, responsible for sorting his unit’s mail, was reportedly so distraught by being jilted that he ripped up his comrades’ love letters to ensure that, if he went unloved, others should suffer likewise.49 More often, however, journalists highlighted cases in which feelings of rejection turned dangerously inwards. Celebrated novelist and war correspondent John Steinbeck, having warned readers of the Boston Daily Globe that “a good letter can make the difference between a good soldier and a sick man,” hinted that heartbreak wasn’t simply a figurative proposition. Romantic reversal could prove fatal. A letter from a “returned wounded soldier now doing time in an Army hospital,” printed in the Washington Post in July 1944, made the point less obliquely: “a large number of servicemen are in hospitals today as a result of such letters. And many others are known to have committed suicide as a result of being jilted by a girl back home.”50
With Dear John letters identified as an alarming new trend, women were warned emphatically not to break off relationships with servicemen or, in some cases, not to lead young men into unwarranted expectations of love in the first place. Dating advice aimed at teenage girls admonished them not to alleviate the longueurs of life without a full quota of beaux with “a little hot talk by mail.” Penning fervent letters – motivated by a misplaced sense of patriotism rather than genuine devotion – risked encouraging romantic hopes that would necessarily later be dashed. Such masquerades could only end badly for the girl or the boy, if not both, columnist Maureen Daly and other like-minded advisers counseled. The boy might come home on furlough and expect the girl’s words and deeds to align, perhaps (sotto voce undertones hinted) even attempting to force this alignment into existence. Or the flighty young woman would write a Dear John at some later date, telling the soldier she’d found some other fellow she really cared for. “You send him a well worded brushoff with that ‘but I’ll always consider you as one of my best friends’ lead. And you do it feeling righteous, upstanding, and womanly. You forget to consider that the boy to whom you are writing may read that letter sitting in an empty barracks after a hard day’s work, with his shoulder muscles aching from rifle drill.”51 A Chaplain Jim story-line reinforced the same point: “the Army wants the folks back home to write … But, it’s not necessary to pretend you feel very close to someone, just because you believe it might make him happy.”52
Press stories about Dear Johns aimed not only to inform but to deter. Whether implicitly or explicitly warning women against their despatch, these moral fables exposed the contradictions riddling wartime prescriptions around love, letters, and loyalty at their starkest. Women could perhaps be forgiven for confusion over when and whether it was acceptable for feelings to be falsified. After all, the key tenet of wartime letter-writing mandated the adoption of a perpetually chipper persona. Even if a woman was feeling rather glum or careworn when she sat down to pen her daily missive – and no matter how sparse, self-involved, or suspicion-laden her partner’s letters may have been – she should exude high spirits, optimism, and affection. At the same time, girls were also sternly instructed not to feign romantic sentiments where none were felt. But what if a woman’s feelings, once genuinely loving, altered over the course of long months and years of separation from a soldier spouse or boyfriend serving overseas? How should this change of heart be conveyed?
The most common answer was that it should not. Although faked feeling was unacceptable in some circumstances, it was seemingly obligatory in others. Some journalists introduced the plaintive voices of lovelorn GIs to stress that women must sustain romantic bonds with soldiers come what may – or at least to perpetuate the motions convincingly for the duration. “A kid from Staten Island whose sweetheart married a shipyard worker stated the case this way,” the Chicago Daily Tribune noted: “‘You can’t make a girl stay in love with you. Nobody’s asking that. But any girl who calls herself an American ought to have the character – or call it patriotism – not to stab a soldier in the back. Let her at least wait until the guy gets back home before giving him the gate.’”53 Women whose love had faded for partners serving overseas were routinely advised to maintain precisely this charade. Counselors elevated the performance of attachment – however hollow women’s utterances of reassurance may have been – over authenticity of feeling. The furthest some guidance-givers went toward licensing the severance of an outworn or misbegotten relationship was to suggest that women gradually reduce the heat of their epistolary outpourings if they lacked the self-discipline necessary to defer the coup de grâce until the man’s demobilization.
During later conflicts in Korea and Vietnam columnists continued to insist that women either not send Dear Johns at all or turn down the thermostat, hoping that the soldier would not notice the lower temperature or respond to the cooler air with good grace. In March 1952, a perplexed young woman wrote to Elizabeth Woodward’s “Column for Teens” printed in the Daily Boston Globe, uncertain how to handle the fact that her male pen-pal had “suddenly got much more serious when he went in the service.” With the prospect of deployment to Korea looming, he’d started to write twice daily, developing burdensome emotional needs and unrealistic aspirations. Suddenly, and unilaterally, he expected to “get married!” “Every time I try to break it gently, he counters with, ‘a Dear John letter would really finish me.’” Woodward agreed that things had snowballed, but weren’t “necessarily headed toward the complete smash of a ‘Dear John’” – so long as the girl adopted “a few slowing-up tactics,” like writing weekly rather than daily. Nor should she “pour on the goo.”54 In Woodward’s view, this delaying strategy had the additional advantage of allowing the girl’s own feelings to develop. Perhaps, in time, hers would match his.
“Agony aunts” made similar recommendations to “cool down the letters gradually” to teenage girls whose boyfriends served in Vietnam a decade and a half later.55 A retrospective reading of advice columns from the late 1960s offers few hints that a sexual revolution was reshaping the contours of romantic intimacy in the United States. On the contrary, young women with boyfriends or husbands serving overseas received the same counsel their parents might have heard in the 1940s. In September 1968, at the height of the war in Vietnam with half a million US service personnel in country, the Baltimore Sun’s “Teen Forum” featured an especially loaded column with a letter from a female reader who corroborated the paper’s caution against Dear Johns. This unnamed woman volunteered her own experience of having sent such a letter and its tragic upshot: “He scrawled an answer on a piece of paper and sent it to me. In the note he said he hoped to die. Two months later I read in the local paper that he was dead.” The woman had later married and begun a family, but still vehemently asserted that she would “never forget the boy in Vietnam I’d fallen out of love with and the cruelty of my letter to him.” Just as “cheerful” served as the stock epithet for the ideal tone of women’s wartime letters, “cruel” formed its antithesis: the adjective invariably used to characterize Dear Johns. The “Teen Forum”’s Jean Adams urged her young readers to “save the cruel news,” waiting until boys had returned from Vietnam, when they were “likely to have a higher morale.”56
To reinforce the message, battalion chaplains in Vietnam submitted their own letters on the subject to prominent national papers, the small-town press, and African American weeklies. In November 1967, for instance, Lt. Clyde Kimball, Navy chaplain of the 1st Medical Battalion of Marines at Da Nang, told the Afro-American that Dear Johns were “the major problem” facing chaplains in Vietnam, the “bane of fighting men.” This claim was enunciated again and again in the war’s later years. Not all servicemen agreed with the prohibition against Dear Johns, however, even when the warning came from military padres. One GI responded to Abigail Van Buren, whose “Dear Abby” advice column was widely syndicated, by telling her that the chaplain whose moralizing sermon she’d just printed should “go soak his head.” Admittedly, a breakup note wasn’t “the greatest letter in the world to receive.” Yet, as this soldier saw it, the alternatives were even worse: either “sweet loving letters pretending all’s well,” or a sudden absence of mail from a girlfriend who wordlessly “just quit writing.” He’d experienced the latter situation first-hand: “when you’re expecting a letter every day and don’t get it, it’s like getting a Dear John every day. When a guy gets a Dear John at least he knows what’s happened.”57 A mysterious void was no better for morale than a verbalized rejection.
“Cowards” and “Traitors”
This anonymous grunt’s opinion didn’t represent a complete generational shift against the verities of an earlier era. During World War II, some GIs had also bristled at the idea that women should write tepid letters rather than candidly state the fact of changed feelings. Some took to the pages of the servicemen’s newspaper, Tropic Topics, to rubbish advice on “gentle jilting” recently dished out by Modern Screen magazine. In particular, they resented the suggestion that men would buckle under the pressure of long-range rejection.58
Some servicemen twinned this perceived affront to their masculinity with attacks on women’s “cowardice” in sending Dear Johns rather than breaking up in person. Men weren’t alone in delivering this damning verdict. Women writers were sometimes just as harsh in upbraiding the weaker sex’s weakest members, who employed mail as a long-distance missile because they lacked the stomach for close quarters combat. “There are wives,” Vogue magazine chided, “who have not had the courage to face estrangement at home while the man was there, but wait until he is overseas and then write, ‘I knew all along it could not last, and now I want my freedom.’” Like other strictures against long-range breakups common during World War II, this attitude resurfaced during the Vietnam war. “Why do these girlfriends and wives wait until the man is gone to break the bad news?,” one soldier undertaking his second tour in Vietnam grilled Sun columnist Mrs. Mayfield in 1969. “Are they too cowardly to tell them face-to-face? I think they are.”59
Was it always cowardice that impelled some women to wait until a soldier was overseas before announcing that she wanted to dissolve an unsatisfactory union? And was it wise for a woman to dissemble when she knew a relationship was irredeemably broken? Emotional deception of the kind recommended by many advice columnists and chaplains spelled trouble – in a variety of ways. What superficial stuff could a woman fill her letters with if she had embarked on a new relationship with someone else during her former partner’s tour of duty? And how long could the semblance of unaltered affection be sustained? (How this pretence might undermine a new relationship wasn’t a question publicly aired since the illegitimacy of such unions was taken as read.) Even if a woman’s evasively up-beat notes managed to pull the wool over a distant man’s eyes, there was always the danger that he’d hear the news from someone else back home, a “helpful” family member or friend. As Red Cross workers and chaplains repeatedly pointed out, pernicious “thought-you-should-know” letters, dishing dirt on spouses’ and girlfriends’ alleged infidelities, were a scourge of life on the front lines in each of the United States’ twentieth-century wars.60 “I don’t want to hear none of this bull – about Joe or John running around with Sue,” one Black GI in Vietnam bitterly informed the Afro-American’s Mike Davis in 1967.61
Purveyors of relationship wisdom were signally silent about the deferred moment of revelation when the soldier returned home and found the woman he’d considered “his” now in love with, perhaps even living with, another man. This scenario was fraught with peril – the pain of betrayal likely aggravated by a prolonged pretence of fidelity. Recommendations that women deliver the knockout blow on the demobilized man’s return appear blind to the prospect of retribution when veterans belatedly discovered the truth. To imagine that such revelations would be received with equanimity by men making the fraught transition back to civilian life was to ignore both the evidence of history and the intuition of empathy. World War I was followed by a number of well-publicized homicides involving doughboys who returned home to find their wives or girlfriends with new lovers and then killed one or both. Some veterans concluded their killing spree by committing suicide, like the demobilized man reported on by the Chicago Daily Tribune in September 1919 under the headline “Soldier Slays Girl and Self.” This veteran shot his former fiancée, “so no one else shall have her,” because she’d formed a new attachment and refused to marry him. He then turned the weapon on himself.62
During the final months of World War II, GIs’ mounting hostility toward the home front, accompanied and accelerated by rage about women’s rumored disloyalty, bristled with intimations of retaliatory violence directed against men and women alike. Officers overseas documented this simmering fury in morale reports based on what they found in enlisted men’s mail. “Those men there that prey on wives of men over here deserve to be shot as mush so as a Jap and there’s lots of ’em that will be too,” one enlistee in the 1st Infantry predicted in an injudicious letter home. But while military censors tasked with tracking the ebb and flow of servicemen’s moods noted dark fantasies of payback, they didn’t always excise such sentiments from the outgoing mail they scrutinized. Pronounced traces of this animus linger in archival collections of wartime correspondence.63
One revealing example of how misogynistic ire mounted over time, transcending divisions of rank and race, can be found in the letters Leo Dykes sent home to his brother, Lawyer, in Akron, Ohio. A Black private with the 5th Marine Ammunition Company, and self-styled “‘wolf’ in marine’s clothing,” Leo maintained correspondences with several women during his period of wartime service. But he favored a certain Velvene. Her beauty made “Lena Horne and Marva Louis look silly,” and Leo nurtured “great plans for the future if God is willing.” So he claimed in May 1944, shortly before embarking for the Pacific. By the following January, Leo’s tone had changed markedly. Not having heard from Velvene for a few weeks, he informed Lawyer: “I do know that she will never hear from me again until she writes me, and then she won’t want to read it. I know she isn’t sick. Boy, am I glad I’m not married now, because I know women.” In Leo’s opinion, some of his fellow servicemen hadn’t yet wised up to the antics of wives and sweethearts in their absence. A few lotharios, he reckoned, would be unconcerned, having played the field themselves. “But for the boys that do care, watch out. These things aren’t going to happen just in one city or country, but all over, just wait and see.” Precisely what Leo anticipated had already been broached in an earlier letter: “I bet when some of these guys come home, there’s going to be more divorces and cracked heads and jaws. (Ha-Ha.)”64
Dykes’s prediction turned out to be grievously accurate. In April 1945, a soldier in Kansas City made the headlines when he killed his wife to prevent her marrying someone else. Questioned by the police, he darkly warned, “There’s gonna be more women killed for stepping out on their husbands than all the Japanese put together.”65 His extravagant boast was, of course, hyperbolic. But this homicidal veteran was far from being the only demobilized serviceman to enact a lethal scenario that some particularly disenchanted GIs had collectively scripted while overseas. A number of veterans returning from Korea in 1953, from Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Persian Gulf in 1991, and Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decades of the twenty-first century later killed wives and girlfriends, and/or the men they believed responsible for alienated affections. They, too, justified lethal force with reference to female infidelity. In some cases, these men’s lawyers mounted what they termed a “Dear John defense,” even when no such letter had been sent, and the defendants had acted on rumor and suspicion of broken vows, not direct word of a breakup.66
Woman-hating soldiers serving overseas perhaps enjoyed more in common with the reviled home front than they knew. Attacks on disloyal women – the ones who had affairs, gave birth to illegitimate babies, fell for Italian POWs, and sent Dear Johns (or didn’t) – reached a shrill crescendo in the summer of 1945, with Germany defeated and Japan’s surrender still frustratingly elusive. Opera singer Grace Moore denounced unfaithful wives as “the greatest criminals in the world,” who should have their heads shorn as a “mark of shame and disgrace.”67 In Anne Gudis’s hometown, Newark, New Jersey, Judge James Pellecchia proposed meting out the same punishment for female adulterers.68 These propositions added a domestic twist to the motif of women’s sexual treachery in wartime. In newly liberated Europe, French men took it upon themselves to punish French women accused of sleeping with Germans by shaving their heads, stripping or tarring-and-feathering them. In turn, German vigilantes did likewise to fellow countrywomen they condemned for “fraternizing” with US occupation soldiers.
General George Patton upped the ante, denouncing the very despatch of a Dear John as a capital offense. Never one to mince his words, Patton informed journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns that women “who began letters Dear John, I don’t know how to tell you – should be shot as traitors.”69 In the eyes of Patton and his ilk, a broken heart was the least tolerable injury an American soldier might sustain in wartime: a wound that ought never to be inflicted, and that might prove fatal. Those who administered such devastating blows deserved to die. In his trademark style, Patton stated the case with singular bluntness. Over the course of later decades, verdicts against women who wrote Dear John letters remained consistently damning, if less viciously worded. But while condemnation of the messenger has remained a historical constant, the media through which news – good, bad, and intolerable – reaches men at war have constantly evolved, infusing commentary on Dear John letters with the technological angst of successive eras. Rules about “writing right” have been supplemented by prescriptions about how to tape, talk, and text right.