I didn’t pay attention. Perhaps because the stories always began on Christmas, after presents had been opened and dinner was in the stove. Dad would get a far off look in his eye and say: “In December of 1944, I was crossing war-torn Belgium in an open jeep.” Bitter cold was mentioned, as well as K rations and the Battle of the Bulge, which to my young ears sounded like someone trying to knock off a few pounds. Hoping to keep the day upbeat, we would shush him gently, and jolly him back to the present. He died in 2008 at age 93, with many stories untold. I wish now I had listened more.
I am not alone. But if Diane Smook didn’t listen as closely as she should have, she did something about it, compiling her father’s wartime letters to her mother in a sweet book called Love & War: The World War II Letters of Arthur Smook.
Putting the letters in chronological order, she discovered two storylines: a relationship that moved from friendship to love, and the relentless pace of history as WWII drew toward a close. Before that, there was the Battle of the Bulge, a last ditch sneak attack by the Germans in December of 1944 that produced the highest number of American casualties during the war.
The story begins when Arthur I. Smook, completing his undergraduate degree at Cornell, enlists in the U.S. Army. His first letter to Miss Sylvia Rosen of Carroll Street, Brooklyn, dated May 11th, 1942, is sent from Ithaca. The dominant tone is light and joshing; they are just friends, fellow alums, good buddies.
HIs next letter to her comes from Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he is in “the midst of a company commander’s course in heavy infantry weapons.” He speaks briefly of eight exhausting hours spent on the machine gun range in heavy rain, setting the pattern for many missives to come: some news as to his whereabouts and doings, a few tight-lipped lines describing hardships and fighting in a way that makes them seem way lighter than they were, followed by a cheerful close.
The close of the letters is the key to Smook’s deepening feelings for Sylvia, whose parents initially opposed the match. Which according to his daughter, “was a big deal.” But Arthur, like many of his generation, was level-headed and steady in his approach to both love and war.
In the summer of 1944, on a home leave, their relationship took a passionate turn, and that August her parents allowed her to visit him in Texas where he was stationed. In letters back to her to family, small details of the times emerge. Looking “put together” was as important then as it is now, and a huge concern for Sylvia was keeping the orchids for her corsage fresh on the long cross-country train ride. Arriving in Paris, Texas, she learns that hotel rooms are hard to get, one with a shower “an untold luxury” (even if the floor of the shower and the bathroom are one in the same). It was a spare time, with hardships large and small. Amid the minutiae of daily life, there is a sense of larger purpose and shared sacrifice.
After the Texas sojourn, talk of marriage begins to appear in the letters. As Arthur Smook is shipped overseas, this morphs into a dream-like tone of longing and hope for a better time when the war is through, when they will “be together in our own little shack on Long Island.” Their story has a happy ending, but many did not. According to his daughter, Smook’s unit was “decimated crossing the Danube.” There was a “group of forty going in, eighteen coming out.”
She remembers asking her father whether he had killed anybody, and his answer was: “well, yes.” He told her that “the first thing you learn is to stop thinking,” to “put one foot in front of the other and turn off your brain.” You also had to “adjust your brain to the fact that you’re probably not coming back.”
As the war progressed, Smook also worried about returning to civilized life:
“We are men in a foreign country and cannot help feeling that slowly we are being forgotten by the people back home. Men I have met who spent a long time in combat are really in bad shape. They are afraid of the day when they will have to go home for fear that they will no longer fit into the society they came from.”
He had seen terrible things, been devastated when men he had trained or commanded were killed. It affected his nerves and gave him nightmares. In April 1945, he suffered a concussion when a shell exploded in a nearby foxhole. He and many others were affected by a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, it was lumped into the vague category of “nerves,” for which many, including Arthur Smook, were treated with insulin. Which didn’t address the psychological roots of the suffering. And Diane’s mother, the former Sylvia Rosen, admitted that “the man she married was not the one she was engaged to.”
The man who returned to Long Island to raise a family had a short fuse. His daughter learned this firsthand as a teen when she tangled with him over curfews and rules she felt were too harsh. Her brother Richard also felt a distance, and wished he had done more fun things with his father. Yet reading his letters, they were struck by the depth of feeling conveyed, discovering a side of their father they had never seen.
Diane Smook, a talented photographer, was determined to preserve the letters. She photocopied them and put them in chronological order, then assembled them on her computer, upgrading software as necessary to edit and complete the project. After investigating several publishers and book designers, she decided to do it herself. Love & War is not fancy in terms of size and fonts, but looks fine and is easy to read. There are pictures of some of the letters, and of Arthur, dashing in his uniform, and Sylvia (minus corsage) resplendent in a summer dress and what appears to be a Red Cross coat. Also included is their wedding invitation and pictures of the happy couple, united at last.
Reading the letters is strangely comforting. Though war hovers in the background, they speak of a more modest time when honor and serving the greater good took precedence over self. After a decade of economic hardship, the Greatest Generation faced the ultimate test and rose to it. Through it, they were tough and uncomplaining, as were their loved ones. It was a shared burden with high stakes–the future of the world. Though letters, they dreamed of a better time, yet took a keen interest in the small details of everyday life as they waited for mankind to regain its sanity. Love & War is a loving tribute by a daughter to her parents, a snapshot of the way we as a country once were. It deserves a home in libraries, institutions, and museums dedicated to preserving the history of that day.
(Arthur Smook received two Combat Infantryman’s Awards, a Bronze Star, and four Purple Heart medals for bravery and combat service during World War II)
– Catherine Kirkpatrick