"My dearest sweet: I'm just finishing my supper and you're just getting up . . . I can hardly wait till we reach port so they can mail all my letters . . . I picture ourselves together again . . . "
Words retrieved from the past usually disappoint us a little: They are so unaware, so lacking in prescience, so . . . ordinary.
Yesterday some letters written in 1944 by American servicemen were finally delivered by Albert V. Casey, the postmaster general himself, before a roomful of press people.
The letters, on wartime V-Mail forms, were part of a batch of 235 written by 93 soldiers on board a troop transport headed for Algeria. The letters were collected on May 21, 1944, when the ship, the Caleb Strong, docked at Oran, and they were to have been put in the mail on its return to Newport News, Va.
Unfortunately, the man who was supposed to mail them, a young GI from Raleigh, N.C., forgot. Mortified, he later stuffed them into a duffel bag under some socks and hid them in his aunt's attic.
Then he died, and the yellowing letters lay there forgotten for 42 years. Early last month, a termite exterminator found the duffel bag and took it to the local postmaster, Ross Garulski.
Things started to happen. Postal authorities and the Veterans Administration began an all-out search for the senders, known only by name and wartime address. So far, they have returned 16 letters to four veterans and the son of one who died, and yesterday 10 more were personally handed over to four more veterans.
One was Raul Alvarez of East Los Angeles, who had written his girl, Terry Espinosa, as "my dearest sweet." She was there at the ceremony, too, for she married Alvarez 36 years ago ("It was a long engagement: I wouldn't say yes"), and she read the letter aloud.
The young Army Air Corps corporal wrote of the things that were on his mind: the weather; his sunglasses, which he wanted sent to him; his brother's bad leg.
"I miss you very much and think the world of you. I love you with all my heart and no one will come between us. Have you started to work yet?"
For some reason he mentioned the stars. Perhaps he was thinking that she could look up and see the same stars he saw, but he didn't say that. "The stars are in the sky," he said.
He was en route to an air base in China, where he spent most of his war. After retiring from the Air Force in 1971 he carried the mail in Livermore, Calif., where he still works part-time. He and his wife have five children.
Robert Kirsch of North Huntington, Pa., was a radioman serving on B17 bombers, headed for his squadron in Italy, when he wrote seven letters aboard the Caleb Strong. He got all seven back. They were to his parents, cousins and friends and a girl who later married someone else.
"There's a little postage due, old boy," joked the postmaster general. In fact, GIs could send letters free in World War II.
"I'd-a wrote more letters if I'd known all this would happen," Kirsch said.
*Waist gunner Manford Peins was also headed for a B17 squadron in Italy. He wrote to Ruth Kidd in his home town, North Plainfield, N.J.
"Dear Ruth: Everything's okay, that's about all I can say. All we can do is read, eat and sleep. The eating part isn't very good . . . "
He signed it "All my love." He married her a year later. They have five children and 14 grandchildren, and Peins has retired after 37 years with New Jersey Bell.
Another writer was one Walter Dropo, a draftee Army corporal from Boston. That would be Walt Dropo, the long-ball-hitting Red Sox first baseman and later a Baltimore Oriole. He wrote to his mother, still alive today at 90.
"I'm feeling fine," he said, "and hope everything is well at home . . . You'll probably be getting my mail a little more regularly from now on . . . We're getting plenty of food and sleep."
The 6-foot-5 Dropo, who runs the family business, Washington Fireworks Co., with a brother, told the press, "Well what else can you do on a Liberty Ship 21 days at sea?"
He had the impression that the 100-ship convoy to North Africa was attacked five or six times, but naval records report only a series of alerts, though depth charges were dropped once.
None of this is mentioned in any of the letters read yesterday. None of them tell what those young men, crowded together on the transport, saw from the railing as 100 ships, carriers and cruisers and destroyers stretching to the horizon, plowed through the hostile Atlantic.
They had been told not to divulge their destination or plans, and perhaps they felt they shouldn't talk of such things.
No hint, either, of their thoughts or fears or secrets, their inner life. No literature here.
Just ordinary talk.
"There is nothing to worry about," Walt Dropo wrote to his mother.