Two WWII-Era Scrapbooks Help Daughter Bring Her Father Close
Everyone has a story, right? Perhaps at some point in your life you kept a journal or maybe your life opened, leading to an incredible adventure that you’ve wanted to share. When I was growing up, our family gathered in the dining room for the evening meal, and every single night we talked to each other, sometimes for hours. We shared everything from silly jokes to questions about our family ancestors, many of whom had inhabited the very room we were seated in.
Sometimes stories get tucked away in attics because those out-of-the-way spaces are good places to hold secrets. Maybe you have something hidden away that you’ve been thinking about, saying to yourself, “Now may be just the right time to unearth that story—to share it.” How would it feel to remember and bring out that snapshot or to bring back a dear one who is now gone but who keeps entering your mind? Can you honestly answer: What’s holding you back from writing what you want to write? Or from telling the stories that only you know and can share?
The house where I spent my youth was home to three generations of my family. When the time came for my brother and me to sort through its contents and decide what to keep and what to remove, I rediscovered some incredible keepsakes. Among the boxes were some important artifacts relating to my father’s life during WWII.
My brother wasn’t interested in anything except our father’s leather bomber jacket, so I bundled everything else up and, naturally, put it in my attic. It was several years later that a simple encounter jogged me into action. I talked with two veterans who were handing out American flags during a Memorial Day weekend, and from this chance meeting, something came over me. I immediately began thinking about the many times my grandmother had mentioned letters my father wrote to her during WWII. He began corresponding with her shortly after he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He continued in regular communication as he moved from one training base to another across the United States, preparing for active duty. He had joined the military midway through college, leaving behind a comfortable civilian life. He eventually became a bombardier, going off to war in the South Pacific.
My grandmother carefully took each one of his letters and organized them into two scrapbooks. She lovingly saved everything. From these letters and other papers, she assembled the story of his war years, one page after another, as she followed his path during this dangerous mission. There were newspaper articles that gave updates about him and Western Union Telegrams with their short messages telling her what was to come next. There were photos of him in uniform on parade, in khakis during desert training, and casually standing beside his plane, the Bull Snooker. She received flowers on special occasions from him and saved the tiny little notecards with the tender messages he sent her. One held a random clipping and contained a poem by Esther Church called “Prayer for an Eagle”:
My Eagle soars within a hate-torn sky
He is so young, so very young to die—
Until the homeward flight my prayer shall be
Christ, walk the clouds, as once you walked the sea.
When I began reading the letters, I could hear my father’s voice in my head. It was joyful to think of him again. Sadly, when I was 14 years old, he passed away from cancer, and I have truly missed him every day since. Reading these letters brought him back into my life. I got to hear again his familiar words like “swell” and see how he would always end his letters with the words, “Loads of love, Joe.” I learned about rations and spam and other challenges of wartime in the 1940s.
I felt like I needed to do more than read his letters and touch the personal notes, newspaper clippings, and telegrams. I wanted to honor him for his heroism, duty to his country, and love for his dear mother, who carried him in her heart while he was in harm’s way.
As I weeded through the letters and memorabilia, I started to write . . . and to wonder whether some military or historical publication might find this material of interest. A book took shape in my mind. I wanted it to be about my father and my feelings of rediscovering a long-lost parent who was coming back into my life again. And I also wanted it to be a book that could help others who had a special narrative find merit in sharing their stories, too.
I sought out a publisher and an editor to discuss the many questions swirling in my head. I told them about the letters, scrapbooks, and incredible items that were boxed away, including dress hats, ties, dog tags, uniform pins, and other symbols of his military life. The publisher and editor both encouraged me to write, which was helpful. To generate momentum, I started sending the editor one chapter a week for six weeks. We decided to continue this process, but it became more random as we went along. At one point, I asked the editor if I should continue, and she replied, “Yes, you have to write this book!” I was inspired by those words.
Still, I have to confess that it took me over four years to complete. It was not easy having a full-time job and a family life, while sorting through these emotional reminders of my father’s past. Plus, I had a lot of context and background to learn about. I researched the historical events and places he referenced, and I toured a B-24 plane like the one my father flew in over South Pacific. I listened to the fabulous 1940s music that my parents usually had playing in our house when I was young. I immersed myself in their era as much as I could, and I treasured that experience of recapturing and learning about their time of young adulthood.
I wanted to honor him for his heroism, duty to his country, and love for his dear mother.
In the end, the process of researching and writing was more than I ever imagined. Though it started as a project about my father and the war, it became my own personal journey to learn who my father really was—because a 14-year-old, at such a young age, cannot possibly know the person her father was. And with gratitude and love, I came full circle. I had always put my father up on a pedestal, and when I finished, I realized that he could stay right there because he was exactly who I remembered him to be.
I feel lucky to have this wonderful gift of his letters, and I am humbled that my book has become an award-winning memoir called From Fledgling to Flyer, which was named a finalist at the International Book Awards 2020. Thanks to my publisher and others, I have shared my story and the joy of writing it with book and library groups, at festivals and fairs, and in email exchanges with readers. I have been surprised by the veterans who have opened up to me about their own experience in the military, sharing things they say they have told no one else. I have also been saddened for the children of veterans who tell me their one wish would be to have either heard the stories or found letters left behind, just as I did, because their father or mother never talked about their military lives. More than anything, I have realized that every November, I owe my deepest thanks to all veterans for their service and sacrifice, and for my freedom.
Note: Mimi Gough’s book From Fledgling to Flyer is available through Maine Authors Publishing (MAP) and Amazon. In support of local Maine bookstores, MAP can assist anyone who would like to order locally through their Bookstore Direct page on their website.
From letters a young man wrote, before going to war
Here are some lines from the letters Mimi Gough found in the family’s attic—letters written by her father as he trained and prepared to enter WWII. The first two sections are related to his Aviation Cadet Training in Vermont, where he learned to fly. The third takes place in New Mexico, where they practiced night bombing missions. The fourth is from a letter as he departs by ship from the West Coast, as he heads towards war in the South Pacific.
1. “Dearest Folks, Just back from my first flight! It really is a great thrill—a mixture of the sensations of jumping a horse and sailing in choppy water! We were up for thirty minutes, and it was really swell. Several of the fellows in our bunch were a bit ill, but it didn’t hit me at all.”
2. “I was up one hour—my longest flight so far. We were flying along at about a thousand feet when the instructor cut the engine and hollered “forced landing.” I put the ship in a glide, picked out a field, and attempted to make it. However, you don’t come down as fast as you expect to, so I missed the field. We put on the engine, went back up, and then later he tried it again.”
3. “We flew our first real night mission last night. Night flying is quite a thrill. You can only use a very dim light inside the plane (a bright light blinds the pilot). Consequently, you must have a very thorough knowledge of the entire air procedure, so you can go through almost all of it by feel.”
4. “This is experience–all of which comes in the time of one’s life. I was amazed at my lack of emotion as we shoved off. Actually, I’ve always known this would come. Now, I’m fast on my way back home—even though it is the long way.”