First Sergeant, United States Army
Letters Found in a Footlocker Reveal a Reticent Woman's WWII Experiences to Her Daughter
By Tamara Jones
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Little was said about Eleanor Brown at her memorial, in the beautiful old chapel at Arlington National Cemetery. She would have wanted it that way. Her daughter knew this as she skated lightly across the surface of a life well lived, recounting Eleanor's fondness for popcorn and poker and shoes, lots of shoes.
It was the words unspoken that best eulogized Eleanor Brown, capturing the reticence of one generation and the hunger of another as parents who revealed too little about their extraordinary lives keep slipping, too quickly, away.
Eleanor Brown was a 26-year-old secretary in Upstate New York when she enlisted with the first wave of recruits after the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps was mustered in 1942 to place women in the military's technical or clerical jobs, to free men for combat in World War II. She spent two years as a company clerk in Italy, dutifully writing home to her parents each week as the bloodiest war in the history of mankind raged on around her.
When the war ended, First Sergeant Eleanor Brown returned to Sackets Harbor, New York, and soon became an Army wife. She raised a daughter, Christine, and never spoke of the war she helped win. "I knew she'd been a WAC in Naples, period," Christine says. "My mother was not a talker. I didn't really know my mom."
When Eleanor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago, Christine began cleaning out her widowed mother's apartment in Sun City, Florida. There, in an old army footlocker tucked back in a closet, she unearthed a stack of letters. There were more than 150 of them.
"I started sitting on the floor, reading them to her," Christine recalls. "I realized she had this whole life . . . "
I am stationed somewhere in Italy, much to my surprise. We live in a convent. . . . Several little orphans go to school in this building and my heart just aches for them. They bring their lunch every day and all they have is a crust of bread. I am well and safe, so don't worry about me. -- December 10, 1943
Christine, now 57, felt a small give in a window frozen shut. She tried to pry it open, peppering her mother with questions. What did you do, what did you see, whom did you love, what did you feel? The answers were minimal. Eleanor would claim that she didn't remember, or it wasn't important. "Maybe it was modesty," Christine speculates. "But maybe some memories are lost simply because you don't share them."
Days before Friday's memorial service at Arlington, she sits at the kitchen table of her gray Victorian in Montclair, New Jersey, where an American flag flutters from the front porch. She wonders what she can say as her mother's ashes are borne to the grave. "I don't have the stories," she laments. "She loved popcorn and fudge and shoes. She had hundreds of shoes."
In the memorial program, Christine cited Psalm 145:4. "One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts."
Did she have any regrets? her only child wondered. Only two, Eleanor said. She wished she had had a real wedding gown instead of the teal wool suit she was married in, and she was sorry she had never seen India. Her husband, Colonel Noel Brown, had served there during the war, and had painted such a vivid picture, Eleanor always wanted to go. Christine felt the same pull, and visited India on her own 20 years ago.
Christine's own children are busy teenagers now, and they never ask about her life beyond motherhood, about her career as a high-powered executive, or about her adventures as a military brat living in postwar Japan or beneath a thatched roof in rural France, before settling in Alexandria. "I realize I don't talk much to my kids," she admits. Her 15-year-old daughter wanders into the kitchen. "Did you ever know that I went to India?" Christine asks, and Laura says no, she didn't, but she doesn't ask for more details, and Christine volunteers none. Her mother's girlish letters make similar wide turns and abrupt stops, the breezy banalities suddenly pierced by moments of darkness and despair.
Tonight I'm going to the opera with a group of girls. It is 'Madame Butterfly.' -- January 10, 1944
And then, barely a week later:
There are several cases of typhus here in the
city so they have made it off-limits to all military personnel. . . . Every
Friday night we have to powder all our clothing and bedding. -- January
Eleanor's cancer went into remission after intense radiation treatments, and she was soon back to playing golf and bridge with her friends. Christine took the letters and yellowed newspaper clippings and stray photographs home to Montclair, becoming the amateur historian of a life unexplored.
Over the past three years, she meticulously organized her mother's memorabilia, carefully photocopying each letter and tucking the originals in plastic sleeves. She catalogued and indexed them, filling six black binders. She listed each movie Eleanor mentioned seeing, and wonders now if she should rent them all and watch them herself. She went on the Internet to learn more about the WACs, and discovered how controversial they had been in their time, how a suspicious American public largely believed that the 150,000 women who volunteered were prostitutes or loose women whose real mission was to sexually service the boys overseas. Newspapers falsely reported that large numbers of the women were returning pregnant. The ugly rumors were so rampant that Congress demanded to know how many WACs were pregnant or infected with venereal disease. The real statistics quickly convinced the lawmakers that commendation, not condemnation, was in order. Christine shared some of her research with her mother.
"She stopped and said, 'That's why Daddy didn't want me to talk about it!' " Christine recalls. It was when they were in Japan, Eleanor told her daughter, right after the war, that her husband demanded she stop mentioning her stint in the WACs. His service was treated as a source of pride; hers, one of shame.
Christine examined each fragment of information she discovered in the footlocker and tried to find meaning: The newspaper clips about her mother's meritorious service plaque, the engraved silver box she was presented as president of a golf club, her swift promotions in rank -- her mother, Christine realized, must have been a competent manager long before she was a self-effacing homemaker who took pride in her perfect gravy. And while never analyzing it or debating it, Eleanor clearly saw the cruel irony of war and understood that liberation and survival were separate ambitions.
She wrote about her few days' leave in Rome, and the locket she was sending home blessed by the pope. She talked about having breakfast in bed at her hotel and then touring St. Peter's, where a priest pointed out the kittens in a painting of "The Last Supper" and remarked how sad it was that starving Italians were now forced to eat their own beloved house cats. She described courtyards blooming with orchids and camellias while people scavenged the bombed ruins of their cities.
Sunday night I visited one of the big hospitals with several other girls. . . . Most of the fellows that I saw had just been sent back from the front with frozen feet. . . . They were all such nice fellows and so young. It made me feel as though I never wanted to complain about anything again. -- February 1, 1944
She wrote about a St. Patrick's Day dance and about longing on a dreary day to be sitting in a cozy chair next to the fire back home.
I write you about the parties and dances because I am not allowed to write you about the places I go or what actually goes on over here. Don't worry about me because I am well and happy, only I wish this war would end soon so I could get home again. -- March 16, 1944
She mentions a beau killed in action, revealing her sorrow, but not his name.
He was a wonderful fellow and I liked him a lot. We took pictures one day when we were visiting the ruins of Pompeii. His death was quite a shock to me and it took me some time to get over it, but since that time I have become a little more hardened to that sort of news. It is best not to get too fond of anyone over here. -- August 8, 1944
She asked for a care package of Fanny Farmer candy and said she could use some nail polish, too, and some "bright, flashy pajamas" to lift her morale. That same month, her 22-year-old cousin, Ramsey, was reported missing in action.
If he was taken prisoner, he will be OK and the war should soon be over with the Germans.
She asked her parents to send a small picture of themselves.
Eleanor hounded the Red Cross for any word about Ramsey, but none was forthcoming. His family received news of his death five months later. His remains were lost.
(Christine remembers walking through European graveyards as a small child in the late 1950s with her parents, looking for Ramsey's grave. Her father was based in Verdunnes then. One afternoon in Flanders, in the late 1950s, her mother was drawn to a particular wooden cross, and discovered Ramsey's name on it.)
It was after Ramsey's death, in the waning days of the war, that Eleanor's letters turned somber.
I don't go out much anymore. . . . I am so tired that I prefer going to bed with a book or magazine. I am taking piano lessons once a week from an Italian teacher who is very good but doesn't speak much English . . . it helps to break up the monotony of the same old routine. -- March 21, 1945.
And then finally, on May 2, 1945, in the middle of a letter about the placemats she was sending home and the rose-velvet gown she wore to another WAC's wedding, Eleanor hears on the radio that the Germans have surrendered in Italy.
It is really official this time. It is so wonderful but it makes me feel like crying. No one will ever know what those boys up at the front have gone through.
By September, she was home, with her picture in the local paper above a story that focused on her disdain for khaki. The only quote referred to her surprise over how narrow skirts had become. Mention was made of her buying "a cherry-red sport frock in size 14." She had been at war for 23 months, but no mention was made of what Eleanor Brown had seen or felt.
She died at the age of 89 last December 10. Her daughter still holds the random pieces of a jigsaw life, mourning the mother she never knew. She will donate her modest archives to a military museum someday, "but I'm not ready to part with them yet."
Both of her parents always wanted to be buried at Arlington. When the cancer came back, and the end was near, Christine asked her mother if she wanted military honors. She was entitled. "No, I don't need any of that," she insisted.
But Christine did. "So I'm doing that in spite of her wishes," she says defiantly, before the rainy afternoon when she accepts the folded flag and the three-gun salute in her mother's honor. "I'm doing it for me, for my children." For all the daughters who linger, thirsty, in the cool silent glade of a mother's reserve.