He wrote often, sometimes every evening, in tight slanted script on blue Armed Forces Air Letters. The forms were rationed to one a week, but Lieutenant William Richard Graham secured a steady supply to tell his Doodie how much he loved her.
Mostly he begged for news from back home in Newmarket, Ont., especially about the baby girl he barely knew. His mail wasn't getting through regularly and he was so lonesome.
The letters, written after Lt. Graham sailed for England on Christmas Day, 1944, bear witness to the vagaries of war in the months leading up to V-E Day.
In the United Kingdom, the former milkman deemed the alcohol pricey, the weather chilly and the toilet paper scarce. In Belgium, a meal of eggs and chips was dear and the buildings seemed to “breathe the continental atmosphere.” In Germany, however, he found himself in “very dramatic circumstances.”
“I'll certainly be glad when this is over. And I say that with more fervour than I ever thought possible,” the 26-year-old wrote by candlelight from a destroyed German house on Feb. 24, 1945. “It will be so nice to settle down and live peaceful, normal lives again. I adore you my own dear wife. ... Take care of yourself and Susan. We'll all be together soon.”
Six days later, on March 2, Lt. Graham of the Essex Scottish Regiment was killed in the battle of the Hochwald Forest in Germany.
Four days after he died, a letter from his wife arrived bearing two small snapshots — one of a Christmas tree, the other of baby Susan — and news that the Pablum Eater, as he called her, had learned to roll over in her playpen. “I love you with all my heart and Susan and I will be waiting right here for you,” she wrote.
The letter was returned to Mrs. Graham stamped “Reported Deceased” with a Return to Sender label that said: “The Postmaster General deeply regrets the circumstances which make this necessary.”
Just over two months after Lt. Graham fell, Germany surrendered and V-E Day was declared on May 8, 1945.
For the better part of six decades, his letters lay forgotten in his rattan steamer trunk tucked in a dusty back corner of his brother-in-law's basement. In late 2003, Todd Taylor, Lt. Graham's great-nephew, discovered the chest — which also contained his shaving kit, utensils, gas mask, medals, photographs, an ashtray fashioned from a bombshell and a Nazi arm band — and began a mission to find out more about the great-uncle his family never really knew.
“I wish we took better time to remember what's gone on before us,” said the 28-year-old Toronto-area teacher, who uses the trunk to teach his students about the Second World War. “It puts a human face on the war. You suddenly realize that this is someone who had a family here.”
Lt. Graham's widow, Doodie, remarried and died in the late 1990s. Mr. Taylor said the family has lost contact with Susan.
These excerpts from Lt. Graham's letters to his wife tell the grim and personal story of war:
Dec. 26, 1944: Well we are on our way darling. And the sea is really rough. ... The ship is really heaving, and from all indications my stomach is going to be doing the same soon.
Dec. 31: I could write and tell you what a wonderful year this has been darling and all the happiness you have given me. But I am trying to think of other things. If I don't I'll be weeping all over the place.
Jan. 1, 1945: Happy New Year darling . . . I didn't even stay up for the celebrations. ... There is only one woman on board (the ship's nurse . . .) and the fellows got her pretty high. She tried to dance with some of them but the rolling and the drinks only made it a comedy.
Jan. 2: We are still rolling madly around the Atlantic. It is awfully monotonous. I sometimes think I'm going mad.
Jan. 4: Great excitement to-day. A baby whale was spotted. Unfortunately I didn't see it. But we have something to talk about now.