Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"I will write to you forever" — One World War I soldier's letters home


     In your letter you say, “What is love?” Surely a girl of 19 years ought to know what the word “love” means, if not, I do not think I could explain it to you.
     Tuesday is Veterans Day, when we honor the soldiers, sailors, Marines and other military men and women who serve and have served our country. The date, Nov. 11, was originally Armistice Day, the anniversary in 1918 of the end of World War I, so it is particularly apt to remember the two million Americans who fought in that war.

     What I mean when I say I love you is that I think more of you than of anybody else. You are the one that I would do anything for. You are one that I can trust and one who I can tell my troubles to.

     Recalling such an enormous group is impossible. It’s hard enough to remember just one person, taken at random, such as Pvt. Gail O. Woodman, who grew up in Evergreen Park and volunteered for the Army in 1917, following his older brother Roy. We can hear his voice today only because he wrote letters to a certain special young woman who, well, let him explain it.

     You are the one with whom I love to spend my idle hours with. You have a lovable disposition, you have winning ways, a great entertainer. With you nobody can feel lonely, and for this reason I have learned to love you.

     Gail Woodman — Gail was a man’s name 100 years ago — had met a teenager named Lucile Nelson, who lived at 3813 W. 83rd Place, in the Ashburn neighborhood.

     I have learned to love you so that now I want you for my own. You say you think you will always like me. Why can’t you always love me, dear?

     Four hours hadn’t passed after he left Chicago before Gail started to write his first postcard to her; his troop train hadn’t reached Bloomington, Indiana, yet.

     Train rocks so I can hardly write. Letter will follow.

     And so they did. Like every soldier, he complained about the food; the train trip was three days of beans, corned beef, tomatoes, bread, jam and coffee. . . . Texas is several month of sandstorms, scorpions and constructing the camp. Gail goes into detail discussing their mutual acquaintances while constantly pitching woo.

     If letter writing will hold us together as fast friends, believe me, dearie, I will write to you forever....

     NOTE: Alas, the rest of the story is not available online. I'll try to pull it out of the Sun-Times computers as soon as I can. 11/11/16


  1. I enjoy how you got soldiers, sailors and marines correctly. Most people call us "soldiers." Soldiers = Army, sailor = Navy, marines = marines and "that guy" = Air Force. Haha, just kidding. We love you Air Force.

    1. I always heard from my marine friends that marines, because they didn't have their own equipment per se, was an acronym for "My Ass Rides In Navy Equipment Sir!"

  2. Anyone who reads today's column without getting a lump in his throat isn't human.


    1. I got a lump in my throat all right, but it wasn't for the reason you're probably thinking of. How utterly sad and pathetic that this young man, and millions like him, had to lose their lives for nothing at all. WWI was the most pointless, purposeless slaughter of the 20th century, leading to nothing but the horrors of WWII.

    2. That's exactly what induced the lump in my throat: the insanity that infected all of Europe and much of the rest of the world, including the most prominent intellectuals of the day, leading to the wholly preventable deaths of millions, including Gail, who would have been "disappointed" had he not been sent into combat.

    3. So true unknown of 9:54.

      The Treaty of Versailles set up a mess.

    4. Too bad Ashburn today is probably a place you don't dare drive into.

  3. Attitudes toward war have changed somewhat since Dr. Johnson wrote "Every man must think meanly of himself for never having been a soldier or gone to sea," and the carnage of "the Great War" had a lot to do with that. But events have a way of altering attitudes. In the 1936 Oxford Union debates the question was "Resolved, that we will not fight for King and country," but five years later many of the debaters were fighting and dying in the skies over Britain and on the beaches at Dunkirk. And once the thing gets started it's hard not to get swept up in the martial exuberamce. Robert E. Lee said "It is well that war be so terrible, else we would grow to love it."

  4. the spectre of brave youth cut short is hard, but today is the day to look

    hope Gail was not writing more cheerfully than he felt, and believed in his recovery until his passing

    great post


  5. Did you find the rest of the story in the Sun-Times computers?

  6. I must have read this column in the past, because the address was familiar, but I must have missed something along the way. Other comments allude to his death, but I don't see that anywhere...maybe it's just me.

    Did he finally get a kiss-off letter from the lovely Lucille? Was he killed in action, or did he come home in one piece?

    Did they marry, or did both of them marry someone else? Perhaps he lived a long and happy and productive life, but Lucille remained in his thoughts as "the one that got away." Been there.

    Or perhaps they reconnected in their middle years. Before the age of the internet, that happened to only a very fortuitous few. I was one of them.


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