More than a year ago, I walked into an Arizona pizza shop and was confronted by my own lack of familiarity with aspects of World War II.
Fierce sub-Arctic combat between U.S. soldiers and Japanese troops on Alaskan islands seized by Japan? U.S. troops using code words in letters to explain to each other where they were deploying while bypassing military censors? Californians sitting silently in the night, uneasily listening for the sound of Japanese bombers? Those sorts of things are only glanced upon in American history books, at best.
The details snapped into focus after an Arizona man, Joe Alosi, approached The Washington Post last year with a trove of hundreds of letters written by one family — the Eydes of Rockford, Ill. — during and after World War II. The letters had been found in an abandoned storage unit that Alosi bid on as part of his work.
Alosi’s invitation was confident: Come check out these letters, he said. There is an amazing story here.
It also came with a mystery: Why had the letters been left behind in the first place?
The resulting project, published Wednesday, includes a long-form story, supplemental materials and a podcast, “Letters from War,” that I narrate while modern-day veterans play the roles of the Eyde family. Collectively, the assignment includes work from more than a dozen editors and designers, in addition to my own reporting.
The story required consultations with historians from the Rockford Public Library, the Marine Corps History Division and the Army Center for Military History, and hours upon hours getting to know the Eyde family through their own writings. It also needed documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which paint a picture of how difficult it was for one of the brothers to cope with the psychological wounds of war after he returned home.
The project took me back two more times to Bella Pizza & Pasta in Mesa, Ariz., where Joe’s wife works (the lasagna is highly enjoyable, by the way). By my third visit, I had located the Eyde brothers’ closest surviving family member, Vicki Venhuizen, and she sat down with us and filled in more gaps about who the brothers were while getting her own first glimpse at the letters.
From a factory town in the heartland, three out of four brothers joined the military, two saw combat and one was wounded twice, in two separate battles in the Pacific. Their correspondence was preserved in large, dusty Tupperware containers that made their way from Illinois to Arizona, and now provide an intimate and at times sad look at how one family of patriots coped with the war and its aftermath.
As I got to know the Eyde family, I came to wonder more about my own family’s history in World War II — and about how American families in general preserve the history of their loved ones who serve in any conflict. So many veterans downplay their experiences or avoid talking about it, for fear of scaring or jarring their families. But there also are some who might want to share — if only asked a bit more.
Listen to episode 1 of the podcast
Growing up, I knew that my maternal grandfather, Edward T. Dore, served in the Army Air Forces in Britain, loading bombs on planes after joining out of my hometown of Chicopee, Mass. That was about all that was clear. He died years before I was born, and disliked talking about the experience.
His brother Louis — my great uncle — also served in the Army in Europe. His military details also are somewhat fuzzy in my family, and he also died long before I was born.
In a search for some of my own roots, I placed a Freedom of Information Act request for their information — just like I had for the Eydes.
A FOIA request can be a crap shoot — many Army documents were destroyed during a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. However, in this case I learned that my uncle was a demolition specialist in the 280th Combat Engineer Battalion, serving in the Battle of the Bulge and the campaigns for the Rhineland and Central Europe, according to military documents. He also contracted scarlet fever. I’ve covered the U.S. military for more than a decade, but I never knew any of that.
I also learned that although there wasn’t a lot of substantive documents available about my grandfather, copies of a treasured March 1946 telegram that he sent to my late grandmother before they married are still in the family.
“Darling definitely leaving England Friday 22nd will call from there all my love — Eddy,” it said.
Those sorts of details are something to which Venhuizen can relate. She remembers the Eyde brothers from her childhood. Two of them were outgoing, and two of them were more withdrawn, she said. None of them really talked about their military service, she said. Now, she wishes she had asked more while she had a chance — of anyone who might have known.
There’s a lesson in this for all of us who have veterans somewhere in our family. So often, a history of service is relegated to a box of medals and documents on a closet shelf somewhere, without any explanation for how it fits into America’s bigger picture. It’s not because we don’t care about our loved ones. It’s because it can be sensitive, uncomfortable or intimidating to understand.
New generations of veterans are aging before our eyes. Those who served in Vietnam are now in their 60s and 70s. Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan now range between their 20s and their 60s.
Let’s ask them now what it was like. Let’s figure out where they fit into America’s story.
Sometimes, part of our nation’s history is staring right at us at our own dinner table.