We're happy this week to share a selection of letters from a new book from the University of Arkansas Press: "Dearest Letty – The World War II Love Letters of Sgt. Leland Duvall."
Through a chance remark, Arkansas Times columnist Ernest Dumas learned of the trove of letters written by Leland Duvall, his long-time colleague at the Arkansas Gazette. They constitute a love story told in the prolific writing of the self-taught Duvall, from a military training camp to service with a cavalry squadron on the battlefields of Europe.
Duvall was a farm worker with a grade-school education when he joined the Army near Moreland, Arkansas, in 1942. In training camp, he began writing Letty Jones, a Pottsville girl he'd had a crush on for years. By turns tender, charming and humorous, Duvall wrote from the desert, military hospitals and bombed-out buildings.
The letters were discovered by Duvall's daughter in 2010, four years after he died. Dumas researched military records to help fill gaps in the censored letters about where the young Duvall was serving when he wrote his Dearest Letty. Even in combat, the letters were as careful and informed as the thousands of columns and editorials Duvall wrote for the Gazette as a business editor and editorial writer. He was legendary for his precision and knowledge.
The excerpts printed are reprinted with permission of the University of Arkansas Press. The book is now available in stores or through uapress.com.
Leland Duvall was nearly 31 years old when his draft notice arrived at his father's farm in the mountain valley near the hamlet of Moreland, Arkansas, in March 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor. While older men would be taken afterward, 31 was then the upper requirement for men to register for the draft. As the bloody Battle of the Bulge got underway in 1944, Duvall would ruminate in a letter that older men like him who had long-settled habits before the war were more impervious to the life-changing horrors of battle than the young soldiers. It may be said that every man who fought and survived had entered that war as one person and emerged as quite another, even if limbs and mind were intact, and Duvall was no exception. For him, World War II changed everything, starting with the lifelong romance that the war engendered and that is recounted in these letters. His self-description of a man of settled habits must have defined his emotional and social development, for it could not in any way describe the wayfaring life Duvall led before the war. He had little formal education, and if itinerant farm labor can be called a career, it was the clearest path for a man with his upbringing in the hardest of times and the hardest of places, Depression Arkansas. His lack of schooling was not by choice. School at Moreland, such as it was, ended with the eighth grade. A youngster ambitious for more learning needed to go off and board at Atkins, a town of 1,400 that had a high school, but it was 15 miles to the south of Moreland by dirt roads, which in the 1920s might as well have been a hundred miles.
For years, he followed the planting and harvests from the Mississippi Delta to the west Texas high plains, on cotton plantations and at other odd jobs left by the migration from the panhandle during the great dust storms of 1934 and 1935. He worked in cotton fields and gins and a sawmill in Arkansas's Mississippi County, but the vast floods that inundated much of east Arkansas in 1937 chased him home.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Duvall came home from the Texas plains and worked at an ordnance plant at Jacksonville until his induction notice came.
The draft offered him the prospect of steady employment and, even at a private's pay, better money than he had usually enjoyed. But the U.S. Army gave him much more than that — new worlds, new experiences, a chance to expand his learning, and patriotic contentment.
More than anything, the war gave him chances and reasons to write. And write he did — hundreds of thousands of words, from desert sands, pup tents, hospital beds, the floors of armored cars and bombed-out buildings, on stationery, tablets, and wrapping paper, by candlelight and moonlight.
Letty Jones had met Duvall in 1935, when he came to the Methodist Church on Crow Mountain one morning to help a friend from Moreland teach singing. She made faces at the teacher, and her mischievousness intrigued him. He explained years later that he thought the girl might grow up to be something special, and in his mind he "put her on lay-away." He encountered her from time to time during the next six years at gospel-singing conventions. He learned shortly before he was inducted that she had a serious boyfriend and was engaged. The boyfriend was drafted with Duvall, and when the troop train neared the southern California army camp where they were to get basic training, Duvall introduced himself to the fellow and learned that the romance was over.
From Camp Cooke he mailed a postcard to "Letty Jones, Pottsville, Ark.," giving his address and asking if she would correspond with him from time to time. She wrote back that she would, and the romance blossomed. During the next three and a half years, he wrote her at least 403 letters and many postcards and telegrams, which altogether reached the sum of 160,000 words. Mostly, he scribbled with dip pens that were refilled from a bottle of Carter's ink that he took everywhere.
They were married in November 1945, two weeks after his discharge from the Army. Duvall went to work at the Arkansas Gazette in 1955 as a farm and business writer and editorial writer. After retiring in 1990, he and Letty returned to Crow Mountain, where she was reared. He died in 2006 and Letty moved to a retirement home in Russellville. His war letters were discovered last spring by their daughter when she was clearing out the family's garage.
Camp Cooke, Calif.
May 23, 1942
Dear Letty: When I sent you the card I did not dare hope that you belonged to a Keep 'em Happy Club, but I am glad you do. Your letter went a long way toward relieving the monotony of a week in the Army.
Yes, several Pope County boys are in camp here, but only about a dozen are in the 85th. The others are scattered around and I seldom see them. Loyd Bowden is in my company and there is another fellow with a glorious past and little future in "B" Company. He lived somewhere east of Russellville. He and I go to the show together occasionally, but I have failed to get any ideas for the Great American Romantic Novel from him yet. However, I should keep trying if you insist that I write the book.
You should see some of this country if you are interested in the mountains, the seashore or flowers.
Our closest town is Lompoc. The word, translated literally, means "Valley of Beautiful Flowers" and it certainly lives up to the name. Many of the big seed companies grow their flower seed there. In fact, the farmers of the valley produce little else. Most of the crop is in full bloom now. Hundreds of acres abound in flowers. If you should see the valley from the top of one of the mountains it would remind you of an oriental rug whose creator had an endless variety of richly colored threads on his loom. But he is no artist so he gives little thought to the design or pattern. His sole purpose is to weave as much color as possible into the tapestry, and in this he succeeds. It makes a strangely beautiful covering for the earth's nakedness.
I am afraid if I let this run on you will become so bored and disgusted that you won't write again. That would be one of the great tragedies of my young life. Youth is so emotionally unstable, you know, and things like that can undermine the morale of the Army.
As ever, Leland
July 2, 1942
My Dearest Letty: Your letter came Monday, but I have an acceptable reason for not answering it before now. I had six letters in the mail call. I had first opened yours, and the others were waiting to be read when the sarge blew the whistle and called us out.
They took us into the mountains for a bivouac. We climbed until 11 o'clock and they stopped us on a ledge somewhere up in the Rockies. By this time the moon had come up and we could see that our little shelf was about 50 yards wide. Above us, a cliff rose 300 feet. On the other side of the ravine, the mountain dropped away so that we looked down on the tops of trees. Such places always deflate my ego and I felt like a bit of bric-a-brac on a corner shelf.
I was trying to think of some excuse to stay when they put me on guard. When the others had gone to sleep, I could hear the voices of the mountain wildlife. A coyote perched on the cliff over my head and sent his howl out across the canyon. The owls held a convention in the trees, and about three o'clock some kind of a mountain cat gave out an eerie cry. And all the time a chorus of frogs were doing a grand symphony. I thought there must be a stream down there, and when day came I went down to investigate.
I found the clearest little river I have ever seen. The water was icy, but I went swimming and almost missed breakfast. Wish I were able to describe all this to you. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Even if I tried to write poetry I didn't have a chance to describe the bivouac area.
Thanks for the compliment on the newspaper article, but there is really no excuse for my dear uncle, Sam, to be proud of me. I am the most inconspicuous rookie among all the six million guys. We are the modern version of Daniel Boone. That is, we are scouts who ride in cars and send our information back to the main Army by radio. It should be a lot of fun.
I hope you understand that my letters must be detached and impersonal. Military reasons, you know. But don't think I don't enjoy the clever notes you write.
Oct. 18, 1942
My Dearest Letty: ...
Your act of pretending you didn't know I was crazy about you was a good act but it fooled no one. You knew it all along. But remember, I was more than a little surprised at your letter. I had not even hoped for a letter as wonderful as yours. I only wanted to love you silently until we get this mess over. Then, young lady, I will talk plenty fast. I am giving you a fair warning now so that you can have your mind made up.
Love Always, Leland
Pine Camp, N.Y.
Nov. 16, 1943
My Dearest Letty: Just have a moment, so I am writing a note to let you know I still love you and that I got back OK [from furlough].
I had a nice trip up here. In a few hours I had the experience of passing from autumn where the trees were a thousand colors to a winter where they were strung with silver icicles and sparkling snow.
We have about six inches of snow. It melts on the roofs of the buildings and freezes into immense icicles at the eaves. They are three to four feet long now and grow longer by the hour. Every time I look out I think of the verse I read somewhere.
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail . . .
It goes on for several stanzas, like the Pussy Cat song, and I can't remember who wrote it. I think a chap called Shakespeare had a hand in it.
Love Always, Leland
The 5th Armored Division left New York Harbor for England on Feb. 10, 1944, to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. Duvall's cavalry troop landed on Omaha Beach July 25. The division broke through the German lines in Normandy and plunged 405 miles through German-occupied France in its first 21 days of combat. Duvall's troop would fight in all five European campaigns, in France, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and Germany. His scout troop spent much of the time behind enemy lines. Duvall would be awarded five bronze stars for bravery. He would be wounded three times but never leave the front.
March 27, 1944
My Dearest Letty: ... Your letters are coming regularly now, which helps morale. Hope mine are doing as well for you. But no interesting letter could come from here. If one thing sets this village apart from any other it is the sameness with which the days pass. In the evening after chow the guys gather in groups and discuss everything from the war to baseball, and one group is always in my room. But the tête-à-tête of a bunch of dogfaces is no good as material for a letter to the girlfriend. If you culled the language and made it admissible to polite society you would take all the color out of it.
Of course, we make coffee on such nights, boiling it in a can over the open fire. Believe it or not, it is good coffee, the same kind one has on fishing trips when he makes it over a campfire.
Then we usually have cakes or sandwiches, but I must tell you about one bunch of sandwiches we got. They were made on the style of fried apple pies with a beautiful nut-brown crust that promised to be delicious. But when we bit into them we found a filler of raven meat.
You know what a raven is. It is a crow with a British accent. Poe did more to eulogize the raven than anyone else when he wrote:
Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered weak and weary, etc.
But he arrived at the dismal conclusion "Nevermore," which was the unanimous opinion of everyone who tasted raven pie. ...
Love Always, Leland
[Luxembourg, on the Our River]
Sept. 28, 1944
My Dearest Letty: I am writing this under very trying circumstances. The mud is three inches deep and my writing case has just fallen into it. The boys are frying eggs and potatoes, and since I have not eaten in several hours I am plenty hungry. The aroma is tantalizing.
So why am I writing? It must be because I am still in love with you.
Haven't had any mail in quite a while, so it is not easy to write. Don't suppose you have been so loaded with mail from me either, as I have been rushed for writing time.
Love Always, Leland
Oct. 7, 1944
My Dearest Letty: ... [Y]ou should have been with us a couple of days ago. It was Jim Modlin's wedding anniversary, and we had to do a bit of celebrating. So we did it with a dinner. We are staying in an abandoned farmhouse just now, so we had a stove. One of the boys acquired three fryer chickens for the occasion, and we did them in grand Southern style. I must break down and modestly confess that I am not a bad cook when it comes to preparing fried chicken. (But I cannot compare with your mother, of course. You may tell her that truthfully.)
Anyway, we fixed up quite a tasty meal. We had genuine milk gravy (we also have a cow, which we milk twice a day), salad, cheese, onion, French-fried potatoes, milk and coffee, toast and jam. It was very good. The best part of it was that some of the boys discovered a white table-cloth, so we ate from China plates on a nice clean table.
To add a bit of the feminine touch, some guy produced two big beautiful dolls (one blonde and one brunette) and set them up on either side of Jim's plate. A party is a dull affair without girls, you know, and the dolls were the best we could do.
There was only one hitch to the whole party. While we were lingering over our coffee and cigarettes, the jerries opened up with their artillery. One shell landed on a side room of the house and blew the roof away. It knocked soot into all our coffee and we had to pour out a gallon of good milk. They have very bad manners about such things. (Naughty boys!)
... I was pleased to learn that you would probably go to work at Russellville before long. It is a pleasant little town, and you should enjoy working there more than at Kansas City or Fort Smith. Then, too, you will be easier to find when the war is over.
Hope you don't mind my starting this note with ink and finishing with pencil. My ink supply is exhausted and there is no drugstore on the corner.
Love Always, Leland
Oct. 29, 1944
My Dearest Letty: Lady, if you could only see me now you would never suspect that I am not a gentleman. You see, I have a clean shave, a new haircut and I am sitting in a chair to write this. Yes, a real honest-to-goodness chair.
Sitting in a chair and doing the other civilized things we do occasionally helps us to stay in the habit of the conventional life. We have lived in the open and slept on the ground so long that there is a real danger of forgetting what a bed or a table is like. We bathe and shave so infrequently that we lose the knack and grow careless of all personal appearance.
You seem to be curious about where I am, and it is too bad that I cannot tell you. I can tell you to not imagine anything too unpleasant. It is really not so tough as all the papers would make it seem. Those stories come from guys who are in a habit of sleeping on a Beautyrest mattress in a steam-heated room.
I can tell you this. I have been in France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. Saw Paris but briefly and wished I could spend some more time there. I learn from the local papers that soldiers are going there on pass now, but we are too far away for that to mean anything to us. ...
[Near Neudorf, Belgium]
Nov. 14, 1944
My Dearest Letty: The smoke from my fire makes it impossible to see the paper at times, and so I am not entirely responsible for what may come out of the pen. But it is out of the question to move away from the fire, so I will have to take a chance. I will have to make sure that I get over the fact that I am still in love with you, but beyond that the letter will be unimportant.
Snow came to the Western front a few days ago. It started with flurries such as you would expect to see there around Christmas, but in a couple of hours it settled down to the serious business of changing all the landscape. It placed quaint little white nightcaps on all the fence posts and draped a heavy robe over the complaining fir trees. It carpeted the whole earth with a soft white rug so that not even a mouse or rabbit could move without tracking up the floor like a small boy who had forgotten to wipe his feet.
It was all beautiful, but it did not make me happy. My tent is not designed for snow.
It brings up the nostalgic picture of a warm quiet room. I dream of the glow of an open fire, a deep easy chair, a thick robe and — well, you know the picture.
Let the snow fall outside. The room is pleasant. The music on the radio is soft. The light is turned down.
"Shall we go to the show?" you ask after you have checked on the fire to see that it has plenty of fuel.
I glance out. It is still snowing hard.
"Suppose we skip it and spend a quiet evening at home," I decide. "It is pretty cold outside and I can see the show tomorrow."
Of course you are hoping I will say that, and you have already learned to agree me with anyway. We spend the evening at home. You know you will have to be up early tomorrow to go to work. It takes long hours to support a husband.
Maybe I'd better stop before you start throwing things in my direction.
Love Always, Leland
Two of Duvall's three younger brothers, Ardis and Aaron, were fighting in Europe, too. When his troop was camped on the Belgian-German border Duvall learned that Aaron was missing in action. He was liberated from a German prisoner-of-war camp near the war's end.
Feb. 5, 1945
My Dearest Letty: It is pretty difficult for me to write tonight for a personal reason, which you will understand. I had a letter from Mom recently that leaves me in no condition to think of anything pleasant.
You, of course, know the contents of the letter, but you cannot know how utterly helpless it makes me feel. He was my youngest brother, you know, and we always understood each other to a degree that most brothers never reach. I was always able to help him get out of the little jams in which all boys become involved, and if he had any problems he came to me, even when he knew Dad would help him as readily as I.
Now I have to wait for someone to tell me when I can go in and see if he still needs me.
Please forgive me for writing like this but I need to tell someone.
Love Always, Leland
March 8, 1945
My Dearest Letty: For days I have not had a chance to write, and this is not exactly a golden opportunity. The guys have picked up an accordion, guitar and a lot of other noisemakers and are having a jam session. Also, the artillery is rattling the windows so that they seem ready to fall out. So, you see, if you want a letter you will have to wait a couple of days until things quiet down some.
But some of our mail caught up with us today, and among the letters was your picture. Now, that picture was the kind I wanted. It is you, as I think of you, and as I dream of you. That is the vision that dances out to me in the darkness through the mud and snow and across the thousands of miles of water. It is the same gay, laughing creature that is forever tantalizing me when the game gets rough and it becomes difficult to remember that all the world is not hatred. It is the image that shows me a smile when I forget how to smile myself. It is the woman I love.
March 12, 1945
My Dearest Letty: ... I liked your picture of Main Street on Saturday night. It was just as I remembered it, but I needed to be refreshed. Perhaps it is hard for me to make you understand what I mean, but it is an acute and very real situation with me and with all of us. The kind of existence we go through makes it difficult to retain an acute memory of the thing we love and the things we hope to go back to when this is over. We try to reform the picture of those things, but it is not easy. The picture dances and blurs at the edges like a movie when the projector is out of focus. It is not easy to shut out the war, distance, absence and time by merely shutting the eyes and trying to imagine what the things at home are like. ...
When this is over I hope the Army provides a two-week school on how to be a civilian. It would have to include such subjects as "eating," "sleeping," etc. One lesson would, for example, go something like this:
"If you should be invited out to dinner and should desire, say, a second helping of butter you will find that it can be obtained merely by expressing a desire for it in a moderate tone. The phrase 'May I have some butter, please?' is the accepted form, and usually gets results. It is not necessary to yell 'Throw me the — grease,' for such practice is frowned upon in polite society."
"After a visit with friends, if you do not find your hat where you think you left it, your hostess will usually produce it with a minimum of excitement. It is quite likely that she has put it in a closet, which was built for the purpose. As a civilian, you will find that it is not necessary to stand in the middle of the room and yell, 'Don't nobody leave the house. Some lousy — stole my hat, and I'm gonna find it before anybody gets away.' "
The course would cover every phase of civilian activity, and would save many a poor ex-soldier a lot of embarrassment.
But I will take my chance on it when this is over, and I don't care to spend two weeks learning to be a civilian. Can you trust my behavior?
Love Always, Leland
March 28, 1945
My Darling: Must finish this in a hurry for I have another job to do, but I could not do it efficiently until I said I love you.
Letty, I am afraid I neglect telling you how much I need you. Perhaps I could not tell you even if I tried harder, but I can see how it is easy for the girl back home to imagine that a soldier grows independent and doesn't need her. This may seem reasonable, but in my case it is not true. Every day I am reminded in a thousand ways that it is always you I need and that it is you who keeps me dreaming of a future that is worth waiting for.
Love Always, Leland
May 12, 1945
My Dearest Letty: It is such a beautiful day that I can barely muster the energy to do anything but stretch out on the new grass and watch the shadows slide silently across a peaceful countryside. It seems funny to know that the war is over and to realize that the planes that pass over will not take a shot at you and that there is no necessity to shoot at them.
Today, the air is heavy with the scent of lilacs and apple blossoms. Strange how soon the smell of powder and burning flesh can be filtered out by growing shrubs. Yesterday, we drove about 150 miles through the heart of Germany. The war had passed lightly over much of it, for the Germans were on the run when this part was taken, but there were plenty of signs of the fighting. Already the hulls of the tanks had begun to look as if they had been knocked out a long time ago. They were beginning to rust and new blades of grass were creeping up through the tracks.
What I am trying to get at is the war is not permanent and the world will soon forget it. Not literally, of course, nor completely. It will live on as a terrible dream and will be something that youngsters will find on page 435 of their history books. But the edge of the picture will be blurred and there will be no sharp outlines of black and white.
We will forget the sharp crack in the wind that a bullet makes when it passes overhead, and how it sounds like the gun is behind you and you begin to imagine the enemy has filtered through the lines. The sharp sting of the tiny pieces of shrapnel will be forgotten and we will find ourselves trying to remember exactly how German powder smelled. The disrupted fragments of lives will form new and more tranquil patterns — yours and mine together.
Love Always, Leland
August 6, 1945
My Dearest Letty: ... This is not a nice place to see. You could have no idea what a war can do to a country unless you get a chance to see one city that has been destroyed and one country road that is clogged with people who do not know where they want to go. There are literally millions of people now who have no idea where they are going and what they will do when they get to the end of the road.
In one little town no larger than Dover, a park cares for the wanderers. It is a sort of small town Bowery or flophouse where the lost people can sleep and spend a night before pushing on to a destination that is unknown to them. Every night the place is crowded with a new group of people. When morning comes, they are on the road again, traveling by every means available. Wheelbarrows, toy wagons, bicycles, wagons drawn by horses or cows and tractors pull trains of anything that will roll, and there are a few automobiles. The convoy lines up at sunrise and moves out in the direction of the Ruhr or toward the southern part of Germany. None of them goes east. In one such convoy, I counted three tractor trains (each tractor was pulling at least two trailers and as many small wagons as the owners could find space to hitch on), 16 animal-drawn wagons (these, too, had a string of small wagons behind them), five cars of various makes, and at least 30 small wagons that were being pulled by their owners. Each small wagon was piled high with bedding, suitcases and all the goods that the family owned.
It was not a pleasant sight, but somehow I can feel no pity for the German people. If it were not for them, I should be telling you this evening that I am crazy about you instead of having to write it. That would be more fun, I am sure, and I could certainly make it sound more convincing that way.
Love Always, Leland
August 13, 1945
My Dearest Letty: ... Logically, in the long months we have been apart, we should have learned the knack of letting well enough alone, but I have never learned. Always when I go to bed there is the same mischievous face, the same impish grin etched in the blackness of the ceiling. Always there is you. I cannot dismiss the face, nor do I want to.
It says, "Take things easy, Junior (sometimes it says 'Toots' but it always means the same thing). There is really no need to be serious about all this that you see. The world is a place to laugh in and a thing to laugh at. There is war and suffering, like it says in the papers, but that is only a small part of the picture. There is the mountain where the wind is clean and sharp and where the leaves play a soft symphony in the evening. There are quiet lakes where the grass has been nipped short by the grazing cattle so that it makes a carpet of green velvet. There are white birches for the shade, and thrushes and catbirds for the orchestra. Not all the world is tired and hungry and looking for some place to spend the night under a shed before moving out on a road that leads into the unknown."
"There is still the hometown," the face says to me, "where you meet people who will call you by your first name and who really mean it when they shake hands with you. This is the part of the world that you grew up in. This is the kind of life that you learned to like, and it is the kind that you are going back to. I am marking a little corner of it 'Reserved' and that is for us. I hold the other end of the rope that keeps you from drifting into the belief that all the people of the world are a sordid, drifting herd of animals who have not made any progress in the thing we like to call civilization."
All this the face — that is, your face — says to me. Not in so many words, of course, for you would never be so verbose as all that. But you say it in the way you smile, and the way the smile makes me remember that all this is true.
Love Always, Leland