|"I marched up this street the 1st day I hit France. A very|
pretty place." Courtesy of Robert Ander.
And there, tucked amid scores of letters and postcards that went back to World War I, was a love story that blossomed into marriage but then disappeared into the mist of time.
Robert K. Ander, a commercial photographer, was unsuccessful in tracking down family members but carefully preserved the cards and letters. Now, 40 years later, he has shared them with me because of the personal stories they reveal from a time nearly a century ago.
The story begins with a letter of greeting by the president of the United States to Joseph Frederick Warren, instructing him to report to 505 Law Building in Norfolk at 1 p.m. on May 9, 1918.
“From that day and hour just named,” the order informs him, “you will be a soldier in the military service of the United States.”
The order includes advice to bring “strong comfortable shoes to relieve your feet from your new regulation marching shoes,” plus up to four sets of underwear, six pairs of socks, two wash cloths, two towels, a comb, brush and toothpaste and soap and other toiletries, all of which should be tightly rolled into a woolen blanket and “slung from your left shoulder to your right hip.”
Now begins a long series of postcards and letters between “Joe” and his girlfriend, Rubye Koontz, who then lived on York Street. The postcards are brief and brimming with enthusiasm at seeing “gay Paree” at a time when the war was almost over.
Her letters, addressed to Corporal Joseph F. Warren, Co. E, 6th Div. Motor Supply Train, American E.F. via New York, are often signed “Snooks.” They include news of home, from the mundane to a frightening outbreak of Spanish flu. But they’re also brimming with loneliness and love. “Dearest Little Soldier,” she sometimes begins.
His first postcard, on May 20, 1918, is from boot camp in Spartanburg, S.C., and simply reports, “Well & am living fine, as to a soldier’s life. Be good, ‘Joe’.”
Then, beginning in August, his Carte Postales are from France, including one from the port city of Le Havre, where he had arrived safely.
“Am well and feeling fine. Like it very much.” Over the photo of La Place de l’Hotel,” he exclaims, “I marched up this street the 1st day I hit France. A very pretty place.”
Her letters, posted with 3-cent stamps, begin with news of a “little Xmas package” she was sending. It included a “fountain pen, one silver picture case containing two pictures, candy, little cigars, cigarettes and chewing gum.” She wishes she could send more, but “at least 50 people examining it after I last see it.”
One of her envelopes indicates that the letter had been censored by
> one “Capt. McHugh.” And one of his letters, she said, had words cut out that referred to why he hadn’t able to write sooner.
Among the subjects the authorities were trying to censor was the impact of the Spanish flu, a terrifying pandemic that may have resulted in more than 100 million deaths. Such reports, they felt, might be demoralizing to American troops.
Rubye, in an Oct. 14, 1918 letter to Joe, says the flu “seems to be spreading more and more. All of the public places are closed in both large and small cities, the school buildings turned into hospitals. Practically everything is quarantined.’’
She adds, “Now, love, listen don’t worry over me for I have good strong lungs and even if I get it, it will not go very hard with me. I will be real careful, sweetheart.”
In the same week as her letter, this newspaper reported there were 11 new deaths and 1,112 flew cases, “the heaviest for any one day since the epidemic began.” A second story said the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. was struggling to keep service going because so many employees were sick.
About one week later, the disease, one of the deadliest in world history, receded and was soon gone.
Rubye’s letters are full of endearments. “There is never an evening that I don’t spend my time thinking of you and wondering where you are and whether you are comfortable,” she writes.
There’s much more to their story, although there are wide gaps that I hope a few readers might be able to fill in.
Next week: a homecoming.