Thursday, August 26, 2010


Soldiers have written home to comfort and console their loved ones since Plutarch wrote to Timoxena during the wars of Alexander the Great. Their letters tell us of their lives, their thoughts, their fears and hopes -- a window into who they are. And we are losing them, to email, Facebook, and cell phones, aides that have become replacements.

This letter is a V-mail written by Lieutenant Jordan to his mother from his foxhole in Belgium in World War II. A V-mail was a letter that was written, microfilmed, and sent with thousands of others on a thin strip of film to save space and weight on the boats crossing between the United States and the war zones. Sharing these letters opens up this window for all of us.
If you have a letter from your parents or your family written while they were in our service, any time from the Civil War to Afghanistan, and are willing to share it, please send me a note at And, whether you do or don't have one to share, please see what others have already contributed at The Letters Project, a new website we have created for you to share, browse, and enjoy at

See you soon.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

D-Day, 2010: How Good It Is To Have Been Born On Third Base

This is a hard photograph to look at, but please do. It's about us.
One of the most blistering comments made about a recent president was that he was born on third base and grew up thinking he had hit a triple. I'm not sure it was a fair comment for him, but today it seems fair, even generous, to say it about us as a whole.
Today is June 6, 2010. This day in 1944 was D-Day in Europe. The men in this photograph were among 2,499 Americans killed that one day. They were ordinary Americans in a hurricane of extraordinary events. They, and many others to follow, died as heroes they never sought to be. But do we remember them? Most do not: the only memorial to them in today's newspaper was an old Peanuts cartoon in the Sunday funnies, a reproduction of a photograph of General Eisenhower chatting with 101st Airborne paratroopers shortly before they crawled into the planes, a drawing of Snoopy in World War II battle uniform superimposed on the lower corner. If you want to remember D-Day by reading the paper, Snoopy is your only choice.
We were born on third base. We don't have to walk to work in the cotton fields because of a want of gas ration coupons, or die in childbirth for want of a wonder drug like penicillin. We have credit that didn't exist in the 1930's or 1940's, activated not only by plastic cards that did not exist and computers that exceeded last century's imagination, enabling us to buy plasma televisions and iPods and X-box war games and clothes at the Gap, cars for high school students and summer vacations in purpose-built destinations, whether we have jobs or not. And we don't even have to register for national service, much less be a part of it. We are so far beyond second base.
What is second base, anyway? It's that beach where these men sacrificed themselves so that their mates, and we, could continue.
I was asked to discuss my French Letters novels with a literary agent not too long ago, a woman from a well-known agency whose print resume said that she specialized in historical fiction with a 'strong stable' of such titles in her portfolio. I was interested, not at first surprised, however, when a mid-20ish woman of impeccable finishing school clothes and hair sat down with me and asked me to describe Virginia's War. I was not prepared for what followed: at my mention of 'homefront,' 'soldier,' and '1944' within a single sentence, she stood up, said 'World War Two's been done -- I don't see how I can make any money on it,' and was gone before I could register what she had just said. She was born on third base, perhaps with a tiara, and plainly not interested in what had happened on second base to get her there. There was no obvious money in it for her.
Life on third base is good. It has been better, and worse, and will be so again. But if we don't learn from history, if we don't look at what happened on second base to get us here, sooner or later history will be repeated.
So, please, spend a difficult moment looking at this tragic picture. These men were someone's sons, their husbands and brothers, no different from us except for their extraordinary times. There was no money in it for them. But we need to hank those men and all the other men and women who hit sacrifice flies for us, and not forget D-Day. Not today. Not ever.
Jack Woodville London

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A three day weekend

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

John McCrae shared this lament for the friend he watched die in battle the day before. Like him, we honored our citizen sacrifices on May 30 every year, those men who gave everything at Antietam and Gettysburg, at San Juan and Chateau-Thierry, on Peleliu and Inchon. We took poppies to the graves of those we lost in New York and Washington and in a lonely field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, those who died in Fallujah and in al Nasariyah. We mourn at the tombs of women from Avenger Field who died delivering our warplanes in 1944 and of graves of those who nursed us at DaNang and in Bosnia.
But it seems, somehow, that something has changed.
Instead of memorializing May 30, the day of reunification at the end of our civil war, Memorial Day now is the last Monday in May. That way we can enjoy a three day weekend. A bonus time off from work that makes it easier to enjoy the movies. Memorial Day Sales for tires and sofas and flat screen televisions. Low interest rates for every car on the lot. Take the family to a restaurant. I have seen a lot of Memorial Day sales advertised.
The only thing that I haven't seen yet, one week out, is a sale on poppies.
Perhaps they are so expensive that few are willing, now, to pay their price. Perhaps I just don't know where to look anymore.
In any event, next weekend, when there are three days to it, in addition to telling your boss 'thank you' for the extra day, take some time to say thank you for all those who made your weekend possible. They won't get three days off.
Jack Woodville London

Friday, May 14, 2010

Armed Forces Day

Fist. Club. Rock. Sword. Spear. Arrow. Gun. Cannon. Tank. Bomb. Mushroom cloud.

Mushroom. Glade. Hollow. Grave. Tomb. Tombstone. Cemetery. Arlington. Colleville.

Army. Navy. Marines. Air Force. Reserve. Mothers. Fathers. Wives. Daughters. Sons.

Gone to flowers, every one.

God bless those who, knowing that the leaders say war is the public's business, take up their duties with the heavy knowledge that the losses are personal.

Armed Forces Day.
Jack Woodville London

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The first American in St Lo, France

Major Thomas Howie used a field telephone to tell his commanding officer that his battalion of the 116th regiment would not quit until Howie would "See you in St. Lo," the critical French crossroads market town defended by Germany and attacked by the United States beyond the point of destruction. Howie then led his men to attack uphill to seize the high ground at Martinville, a hamlet that blocked the attack. He was killed by mortar fire but his men honored their leader: Major Howie was the first American in St. Lo after his unit broke through. His body was draped in a battle flag and put on the hood of a jeep, then driven to the rubble of the abbey church of Ste. Croix. Every soldier in the 29th and 35th divisions who entered St. Lo in the next 24 hours marched past and saluted the first man American to enter the city. The attack succeeded, the war moved on to the next critical battle, and Major Howie and thousands of other dead and wounded remained behind with the French in the Capital of the Ruins.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Flee, yes. But... where?
When the sanctuary is no longer a sanctuary. St. Lo, France, July 18,1944

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Flee, yes, but where?
After more than two thousand years of doing laundry in their quiet streams, a thousand years after William the Conqueror left Normandy for England, after four years of being conquered by German occupation, and a few days after leaflets dropped from the sky to flee the bombardment for a few days, the women came back to their town, or up from their cellars, or out of their caves, and found their city and every other town and village and hamlet, to look like this.
The war had come to them and, like their river, it had flowed beyond them.
Their homes were in ruins, all of them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Flee, yes, but ... where?
The laundry women may first have heard the sound of war twenty or thirty miles away at the landing beaches, but they would not have known that the war coming to them until this notice fluttered out of the sky, telling them that their town was a likely military target. "Bear in mind that the bombing is not aimed at you but at the Germans who have set up in your town."

The leaflet tells them to flee and take with them enough food, water, and clothing 'for several days.' If they cannot leave, they should go into a cave, a cellar, or 'lay on the ground.' "And, stay away from Germans."
Few could leave -- they had nowhere to go. Every bridge was a separate battle and rivers were no longer for trade and gossip. Life under German occupation meant you could use the roads only with a travel pass. Life under the allied invasion meant that the Germans were the only ones on the roads, and the roads were under constant assault.
The 'few days' of bombing lasted from D-Day, June 6, until the last Germans were forced out in late August, 1944.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rivers not only brought boat loads of wine, grain, fruit, and construction materials (and Norsemen), they also brought people together. Every village in France had a place along the river for women to gather. In a European equivalent of the red tent, they brought their clothes, their gossip, their stories, their wisdom and myths, all to share far from the prying eyes of men and, they thought, far from the intrusions of conflict and war. This image from John Singer Sargent captures the sturdy tranquility of rural women who can not imagine that their lives are about to change forever.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Engaged in War

Rivers were the roads of France since before Caesar led the Romans into Gaul. Towns were built on rivers for trade but, as the French learned, the rivers also brought disaster: the Vikings drove deep into France on the Seine and the Vire, then stayed and took over in the region named for the Norsemen, now 'Normandy.' William the Conqueror (a Viking descendant) used the Vire to launch his fleet against England. Almost one thousand years later, the Vire was to become the dividing line in another invasion: in 1944 it separated Omaha Beach from Utah Beach in the Allied landings in German-occupied France. Before then, and more recently, Normandy was peaceful, a picturesque countryside of farms that produced exceptional cheeses and more exceptional white-lightning brandy known as Calvados. The town in this photograph was destroyed in the war.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


January 1, 2010, was the first New Years Day that I woke up without calling my friend Marty. Marty was my Army pilot, my Spurs buddy, and one of the Best Men at my and Alice's wedding. Marty made me laugh, taught table manners to my boys, and I once watched him call the police and a wrecker when a wise guy in a sports car shot him the finger as he parked and walked away from a disabled parking space (the car was towed by the time wise guy got back). I guess I should mention that Marty lived his last twenty-five years in a wheelchair after a helicopter accident made him a paraplegic, a fact that he never mentioned to anyone in all the years I knew him. Marty left us in November, a hard final few weeks and sad end for a most loving and generous man. New Year's Day was cold this year.

It was also cold for my friend Beth Ozmun because her husband, my friend Scott, died unexpectedly early in the year. And for my friend Jane Hudson Burroughs; her brother, my high school friend Carl, died within days of Marty, in November.

But Alice reminds me that for every cold day there are two that are warm. In early Spring our friends Lee and Leslie gave birth to Annabel a/k/a June Bug. In September our friends Ben and Christin married on a mountain top in Colorado. We spent almost two weeks last summer with our nephews and we know that there are babies percolating and weddings planned for 2010.

Birth, marriage, and passing. So, goodbye to last year, hello to this year. Life is good.