World War II veteran Bob Lamb recently discovered a more than 60-year-old “treasure” in a lost art for many current service members that preserves history: Letter writing.
Lamb, who will be 95 in December and is among a shrinking number of World War II veterans in Ohio, was just 18 in the 1940s when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. which would eventually become the Air Force. He served as a navigator for a B-25 bomber and spent time in the Philippines, Okinawa and other locations in the south Pacific Ocean.
During the war, Lamb often wrote home to his parents, but it wasn’t until in June when he was going through some of his parents’ stuff that he found they had kept every single letter he sent them while he was overseas.
“I had no idea,” Lamb said. “I did not know that they kept these… It’s an amazing thing. The nostalgia connects you with it and fortunately I can read my own writing.”
That nostalgia remembered or passed on by World War II veterans is becoming increasingly rare. Ohio’s population of such vets have dropped 46 percent in just the past three years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That sharp drop decreased the number from about 37,000 in 2015 to about 20,000 this year.
Nationally, the number has fallen at the same pace, as the population is 47 percent lower in 2018 than it was in 2015 (about 497,000 from about 939,000), according to the data.
Experts have lamented the effect those losses have on the history communicated to future generations.
“I’m an avid lover of history and as our World War II veterans continue to pass due to age, we lose another piece of our history,” Chip Tansill, director of the Ohio Department of Veteran Services, said last year when two local World War II veterans turned 100 years old. “Many of their accounts of the war were never recorded.”
That’s what makes discoveries like Lamb’s so valuable. In total, he discovered around 340 letters that he’s gone through over the past few months. Though Lamb’s discovery filled him with excitement, it’s something he said vets of more recent wars likely won’t have the chance to experience because of email and other electronic messaging tools.
Letter-writing has become a practice of the past for today’s service members. Instead, of sending physical letters they now take advantage of technological advances that allow them to call, email or even Facebook their friends and families back in the states.
Afghanistan war vet Abraham Hall said he rarely sent letters home. Hall first deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and during his first trip overseas his only option to communicate with family was to send letters home.
On Hall’s second deployment though, he had access to the Internet and phones which he said he preferred using to get in touch with family members.
“It was all Internet and it’s not that it hadn’t crossed my mind to write letters,” Lamb sad of his second deployment to Iraq. “I was like, yeah it’d be kind of nostalgic to do that it would be neat…but I grew up in an era where one of my biggest forms of communication as a teenager was MSN Messenger.”
While making contact with loved ones during war time has become more convenient due to by way of technology, it could also pose a problem for historians and museums in the future, said Paul Lockhart, a history professor at Wright State University who is also a military historian.
War letters have provided several first-person accounts of people on the front lines of military conflicts.
The physical nature of letters is part of what has led to their survival through decades, Lockhart said. Historians, he said, worry about the “extent to which things like (electronic messages) get preserved.”
“I’m kind of afraid of that,” Lockhart said. “It ought to present some interesting problems for historians.”
That isn’t something Lamb is concerned about though. For him, finding the letters he sent his parents — nearly 40 years after they died — provided him a window into his past that he thought was long lost.
One letter Lamb found describes the day two of his crew members died because of “friendly fire.” It’s a somber letter he remembers writing like it was yesterday even though it was decades ago.
“For three months our squadron didn’t have a casualty but all at once, we had two…we learned that the next of kin had received the telegrams,” Lamb read from a letter dated February 1943. “It really took the wind out of our sails for a while but things have settled down to normal now.”
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