Letters of love and war

John Kubal/Register: David Mitchell shows three of the four volumes of letters his parents, “Mitch and Skippy,” exchanged during nearly four years of a correspondence courtship during World War II. The couple married in December 1945 and spent the rest of their lives in Brookings.

Brookings brother, sister find treasure trove of parents’ World War II correspondence

BROOKINGS – When siblings David and Jeanne Mitchell (Goens) were growing up in Brookings during the 1950s, their father, Eugene Mitchell, didn’t talk much about his World War II military service. 

But he had written about it on a near daily basis from early 1942 to November 1945, a couple months after the war in the Pacific ended – in letters to Miss Gladys Petterson, who lived at 614 Main Ave., Brookings. Gladys, in turn, wrote Eugene as many, if not more, letters in response.

Now those letters have been found and bound in four three-ring binders: “World War II Love Letters: Eugene R. & Gladys Mitchell, ‘Mitch & Skippy,’ Married December 1945.” 

“Not enough,” David said of his dad talking to him about his World War II service. “When I was a little kid, we’d be visiting some relatives and he’d tell an occasional story and I heard them all from the corner for years.

“But to my regret and many people’s regret, we never sat down and had the talk, just a thing here and a thing there. I was lucky my dad was not in Europe, going into Normandy and so on,” David said.

“My dad was in the Pacific, in the Army Air Corps. He started out in India and he ended up on Tinian Island where the B-29s left for bombing Japan, including the Enola Gay. In fact, he saw the Enola Gay take off.

“They knew it was a big deal, but they didn’t know what it was. The secrecy and all that, they knew something was going on.” (The “Enola Gay” was the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug.6, 1945.)

Eugene served in a ground-support crew. According to David, ”He was in charge of the vehicles that hauled the bombs, loaded the bombs, hauled the pilots out to the planes, and such.”

During his nearly four years of active duty, Eugene would climb through the ranks from private to master sergeant in what was then the U.S. Army Air Forces, which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. His wartime deployment initially was to the China Burma India Theatre.

A box of letters under the bed

Looking back to his father’s growing up and to his life before the war, David recalls that as an infant, Eugene, born in September 1917, was orphaned when both of his parents died in Iowa during the influenza pandemic of 1918. 

“He ended up in South Dakota in a foster home in Shadehill, south of Lemmon. That’s where he was raised,” David said.

However, David “was curious why his foster family never adopted my father.”

“I believe they needed that foster money,” he explained. “A stipend, not a lot of money, but they were getting that every month. That’s probably what kept food on the table at times.”

Eugene took some classes at what was then South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and became a mechanic. After the war, he worked at Gene Beckman and Sons John Deere dealership and in some of Beckman’s auto garages. But for particulars about the war years, David and Jeanne turned to the cache of letters that were a sort of long-distance courtship.

“We always knew that these letters were floating around somewhere,” David said. 

Following his father’s death in 1985, David and his mother lived together until her death in 2013 at age 97. Following a house fire after Gladys’ death, David and Jeanne found the letters both parents had exchanged during the war. They were in a box marked “Just Memories,” in Gladys’ bedroom on the main floor. 

‘Just Memories’ 

Using 3 1/2 binders, Jeanne catalogued the correspondence “as best she could by postmarks or dates on letters.”

“They had met before the war. My mother was a waitress at OA lunch. They were dating,” Jeanne explained. “My Christmas present (to David) this year was this collection – all 3 1/2 volumes. It was quite a project once I got into it. All these letters in there from Mom and Dad, World War II, back and forth.”

David admits he hasn’t read all the letters yet: “I need a multi-day blizzard,” he said, smiling. “What a treasure.”

However, he adds a caveat to that. “The sad thing is, young kids today, including junior high, wouldn’t be able to read most of them; because they can’t read cursive. They’re going to have treasures in their family down the road they’ll have to have somebody read to them or transcribe them,” David said.

Dearest honey, lonesome love

Both Gladys and Eugene were candid in their caring and concern for one another, and their love for each other could be seen growing over the years they were apart.

In a letter from Brookings on Sept. 11, 1942, Gladys, noting that she “has the blues” that day, writes to Eugene that “… it is 8 months since you left, seems like eighteen to me tho. When you come back I don’t think I will ever let you out of my sight, even long enough to step out on me. How about it, Hon?

“I just get a sick feeling in my stomach when I think about you going across. I suppose I am not being patriotic. But I might as well give up trying to understand the world, cause it is beyond me.”

Writing on Sept. 12, 1942, she expressed regret at her letter of the day before: “I wish I had tore up that letter I mailed to you yesterday. Besides being down in the dumps, I was coming down with a very nice cold.”

Most of Gladys’ letters began with “Dearest Honey” and ended with “Lonesome Love.”

‘To my one & only’     

Gladys’ letters were of a keep-the-home-fires-burning genre, written in Brookings or her hometown of Ihlen, Minnesota. In addition to expressing her affection for Eugene, they chronicled day-to-day events of the women on the homefront while their men were overseas at war.

Eugene’s missives were written by a warrior on the move: from several bases in the United States, at sea on the way to India (which he couldn’t identify until he got there) and later from Tinian.

A Jan. 28, 1944, letter written at sea notes: “I am O.K. Am someplace on the (blacked out by censor) don’t know where I am couldn’t tell you if I did. … So far I haven’t been sea sick, have my fingers crossed tho. This is a little different than riding around on Lake Campbell.”

While Eugene’s letters were a bit more matter-of-fact than Gladys’, more often than not they opened with “Hello, Sweetheart,” and closed with “Sending all my love & a kiss to my one and only, Love, Mitch.”

After a courtship through nearly four years of wartime letters, Gladys and Eugene married in St. Paul in December 1945 following his discharge from active duty. 

And what followed for the one-and-only couple is nicely and simply said in Gladys’ obituary on Sept. 23, 2013: “’Skippy’ and ‘Mitch’ settled in Brookings in 1945, and both finished out their lives in the city they started their married life in and loved.”

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]

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