About the Letters
During World War II Captain Ruth Beery kept a small black notebook labeled “Addresses of Deceased.” Her earliest entry is dated December 23, 1943, and her last, more than 200 deaths later, is dated May 23, 1945, about two weeks after Victory in Europe Day. The notebook contains the names and ranks of soldiers or, in some cases, states a person was a prisoner of war or a civilian. The entries have varying amounts of information but include some or all of the following: the geographic location where the soldier was injured, the cause, the types of wounds, time of death, date of death, whether the patient was pre- or post-operative or dead on arrival, and the next of kin with or without an accompanying address. Not all deaths were the result of enemy fire. Several were related to disease, but accidents — vehicular, alcohol, drowning, unplanned discharge of guns, burns — were increasingly common as the cause of death towards the end of the war and after Victory in Europe Day. Several deaths were tagged as self-inflicted by Captain Beery.
After the war Beery wrote letters to the next-of-kin of many of the soldiers who had died at the 8th Evacuation Hospital. Her letters were brief and conveyed minimal information, basically that the loved one had been cared for in a hospital by doctors and nurses who did everything they could for his comfort and recovery. The collection contains a number of letters written by Beery that were returned to her after the post office was unable to deliver them to the intended recipient. These returned letters are postmarked Charlottesville with dates of February 18 through February 21, 1946, within days of the time Beery received her Certificate of Service from the Separation Center at Fort Dix, New Jersey, dated February 25, 1946. An example of her hand-written “form” letter follows:
Dear Mrs. Barber,
Your name was given as the nearest of kin to Pfc. Jack W. Barber.
No additional information can be given to that which you have already received, but it may be of some satisfaction to you to know that your husband was cared for in a hospital by doctors and nurses, and everything possible was done for his comfort and recovery.
We felt that not enough could be done for the men who gave so much.
According to notes in the margins of her notebook, Beery wrote 116 next-of-kin. The number of notebook entries, 205, is greater than the number of letters Beery wrote. Why did Beery send letters to some of the next-of-kin, but not all? It is easy to discern the answer in some cases: five men are noted as arriving with no tag and therefore no information as to the next-of-kin, and ten were not Americans and again had no contact information included. At least 35 of the incoming men were dead on arrival, and except in one case, it appears that Beery did not write a letter, and with good reason, as she could hardly say that the loved one had been cared for by a medical staff in a hospital. Another 27 entries have no address or an incomplete address although they are not specifically marked “no tag.” That leaves 13 soldiers who arrived at the hospital alive with a next-of-kin address, but no mark in the book to indicate that Beery wrote a letter. It is not clear why these next-of-kin, especially those six related to soldiers who died as a result of enemy-inflicted injuries, did not receive a letter. It is apparent that the next-of-kin of a man who died as a result of enemy action was more likely to receive a letter than the loved one of someone who had been involved in an accident.
Assuming that Beery kept all of the letters she received in response to her letters, almost half of the next-of-kin wrote her back. Thirty of the 53 response letters were written by the soldiers’ mothers. Five were written by sisters, four by fathers, three by wives, and two were signed with the names of both parents. One mother-in-law responded to Beery’s letter, as did a cousin, a brother, a friend of a mother, and several writers whose relationships cannot be determined. Some of the responses are very brief and to-the-point:
Dear Miss Beery,
Thank you so much for your kind letter, concerning my son Pvt. Michael P. Rogolewich.
Most of the letters that Beery received indicate deep appreciation for her letter. “Thank you again, so much for writing, seems like my words are not enough to make you realize how your letter has helped me ….” [Letter 30] “… I was so glad to get this letter I’ll like to thank who ever gave you my address you’ll never know the joy in my heart the day I got it. it made me nearer to my son ….” [Letter 35] “Once again our family, each and every one of us wishes to tell you how sincerely grateful we are for your very great kindness and goodness of heart. Thank you again ….” [Letter 9] Appreciative relatives invited Beery to visit them in Minnesota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Missouri, and Alabama.
Some seemed relatively content with the information that Beery gave. But frequently, in spite of Beery’s caution that no further information would be given, most had a desire for just that: more information. It is apparent from the letter writers that many had received minimal specifics concerning their soldier. “July will be two years since his death and we still know nothing of the circumstances of his death.” [Letter 49] “It does help very much to hear from someone as the information we have received has been so meager and I believe you know any word about him is quite appreciated. We have been given no details about his death whatsoever and naturally we do not understand why.” [Letter 32] “We didn’t know any thing Only that our son pvt. John T. Bevill was wounded on the 17th of April and died the 20th.” [Letter 14] “You know how it is with the families of these poor heroes, they are so far away, and the little information that they receive is hardly worth mentioning.” [Letter 9]
While several relatives asked about a missing watch or clothing, many pleaded to know more about the circumstances surrounding a loved one’s last days. “Would you know the name of the place where he died?” [Letter 25] “How did it happen? … If possible could you tell me – or do you know – how and where he was wounded – .” [Letter 23] “… where did he die the name of the place in Italy was it near the Anzio Beach head? was his wound very bad? was it deep or what? would you please let me know I may never know if you don’t tell me these thing[s] I did want to know what time he died how soon did they burry [bury] him after he died.” [Letter 27] “Was you his nurce [nurse]? and could you tell us how he was wounded? And if he knew or said any thing from the time he was wounded until he died?” [Letter 14] “I would like, if it is at all possible, to know in what way or how badly my son was injured.” [Letter 24] “We were never informed of the nature of Bruce’s injuries, the location of the battlefield on which he fell, the circumstances surrounding his death and the whereabouts of his burial place. I have often wondered about all this. If you are acquainted with these facts and it is not putting you to too much trouble, I should appreciate hearing about them.” [Letter 19]. “Were you with him when he died and did he ask you to write to me. Please will you answer this question for me.” [Letter 54]
Beery kept the envelopes as well as the letters she received, and 36 of the 53 letters or accompanying envelopes in the collection have a date and the letters “ans” written on them to indicate that she did write back to the inquiring next-of-kin. Many of the questions were unanswerable by Beery, but not all, given the information she had compiled in her black notebook. None of Beery’s subsequent letters were returned because of non-delivery, but by reading the four letters in the collection [Letter 22], [Letter 28], [Letter 34], and [Letter 52] that are second letters written from a next-of-kin, it is possible to get some sense of what she might have written in her second letter. One writer’s second letter said, “The information you have been so kind to give us has helped a great deal. Just to know that our darling had skilled care, and that some-one was with him certainly gives us a little relief. We are thankful that he died in a bed, and not on the cold ground.” This sister goes on to say, “I don’t expect you to recall any-thing about the men. I know you had so many of these good men under your skilled care.” [Letter 22] In her second letter one mother wrote, “Yes, I realize that the doctors and nurses did a great and wonderful job for our boys in the Armed forces, because there are quite a few that wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the great care that you nurses and doctors [gave].” She also acknowledged the difficulty of keeping complete records. “I just imagine that it was kinda [kind of] impossible for you to keep a complete record of all the boys.” [Letter 34] Not that an evidently vague response from Beery or an understanding of incomplete records kept all second time letter writers from seeking more information. The mother of [Letter 34] also wrote, “… I will start by asking you these questions, first did my son know any thing and talk any after he was wounded? Second do you know if he got an identification bracelet while he was in the hospital before he died?” A father who wrote three letters to Beery asked in his second, “Will you please ans [answer] these questions What was the cause of Wayne’s death how bad was he wounded and on what date. was he counsious [conscious] at any time after entering the hospital what cemetary [cemetery] is he buried at?” [Letter 28]
The notebook and letters raise questions for us today. What prompted Captain Beery to make the entries in the notebook? Was it because she planned to write letters to the next-of-kin following the war? Did she write down details intending to share them but then change her mind? Or did she share more than it appears she did from the second letters we have from the next-of-kin? Did she have a separate notebook for 1943? We will probably never know the answers to these queries, but we can discern something about Captain Beery from her actions. Byrd Leavell described her as one whose “concern was for the comfort of the sick and wounded.” This concern was evidently not limited to her wartime duties of caring for the sick and wounded in North Africa and Italy during World War II, but included care for the heartsick and emotionally wounded relatives who were grieving the death of a loved one. Her correspondence provided a tenuous and frequently welcome link with a lost son, husband, or brother.