To the Letter: These MHS Collections Reveal How Mainers Served in the WWII Era

By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist & Cataloger

This post quotes directly from primary sources, including outdated language and depictions which may be considered derogatory or offensive to a modern audience. Sharing such content is an important part of learning from the past.

Last year, I had the privilege of working on two collections that are an interesting representation of Mainers serving their country in World War II and the aftermath. One collection is rich in letters without images. The other has only images, leaving us to guess about the stories.

The Doiron family World War II Letters Collection

Letters were a vital link to home, familiarity, and morale for those who served, and their families. The Doiron family World War II letters (Coll. 4198) are an amazing resource of not only a tightknit rural Maine family, but also provide a fascinating glimpse into how various family members found their way through the war years.

Stanislaus (“Stan”) and Eugenie (“Jenny”), of Chisholm had eleven children – eight of whom served in the U.S. military during the war – with a few ending up overseas. Dick, Pauline, and Nick were too young to serve and remained at home.

  • The eldest, Ludger (1912-1982) served in the Army. He was stationed in California, Washington, Georgia, Florida, and Colorado (where he attended pharmacy school at Fitzsimons General Hospital),
  • Camillio, or “Cam” (1914-1989) served in the Navy, training in Sampson, New York. He was stationed in Miami and Boston.
  • Reginald, or “Reg” (1916-1983) served in the Marine Corps, including overseas. Reg was married to Aurora, who lived in Glastonbury, Connecticut, while he was in service. She wrote to Stan and Jenny.
  • Ruth (1918-2011) served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC.) She trained at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, and Camp Detrick in Maryland.
  • Vincent (1921-1992) “Vin” or “Vinnie,” served in the Army’s Medical Collecting Company (463rd). He was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Camp Tyson’s Barrage Balloon Training Center in Tennessee. He later served “somewhere in England,” and “somewhere in France.”
  • Twins Armand (1923-2014) and Norman (1923-2012) both served in the Army.
    • Armand (aka “Mike”) served at Camp Tyson, Camp Forrest (Tennessee), and Camp Crowder (Missouri.)
    • Norman trained at the Gallups Island Radio Training Station in Boston Harbor to be a radio operator and on the passenger/cargo ship S.S. Abangarez, owned by the United Fruit Company. Some of his letters were penned from “somewhere in France.”
  • Rene (1924-1975) served in the Navy, including training in Newport and Norfolk.

Although most letters were written home to parents and children, there are some exchanged amongst the siblings. It’s a bit mindboggling to think how mail was transported to all these soldiers and sailors. From time to time the Doiron siblings were able to see each other, and furloughed with family back home. But mostly it was letters that kept the family together.

Ludger writes to his brother Armand: “I’ve written more letters this week than I’ve written for a long while. I got a letter from Reg and answered that and also wrote to Ruth and the folks. When I get a letter I try to answer it as soon as I can, because I like to get some mail and the only way to get it is to write myself.” (January 8, 1943).

Armand writes, “Boy I’ve had a letter from all my brothers and my sister in the service this week, even one from Reg…That is a complete week.” (Feb. 22, 1944)

Weather is always a topic. Ludger writes about the heat and flies (Sept. 14, 1944). Cam writes, “It’s very beautiful here, the weather is about like June up in Maine. We live in a hotel that overlooks the sea and all the places around are beautiful.” It’s not clear where he is writing from, but clearly, he’s enjoying the scenery. Later, he’s in Miami: “I don’t like it down here at all. We are living in a hotel but it’s not a nice hotel. It’s so hot down here that the water runs off from us 24 hours a day.”

Among various leisure activities, movies were very popular and mentioned often by the siblings. Ruth shares, “Here I am sitting in the Service Club. We started out to go to the movies for the first show but they had a full house so we have to wait for the 2nd show. The others are playing ping pong but I thought I’d drop you a line” (Sept. 24, 1943). She references other films in a later letter: “Tonight we went to the movies to see ‘The Master Race’ – it wasn’t too bad. Tomorrow I’m going to see ‘And Now Tomorrow’ & Wednesday ‘The Song of Bernadette.’” (Nov. 12, 1944).

Ruth also writes about a trip to Washington D.C.: “We went over to visit the Capitol where a guide took us around and pointed out the interesting places.” (Oct. 17, 1943). Vincent appears to play a lot of baseball: “I don’t do much around here now except to play ball. We play every afternoon and in the morning.” (June 23, 1943). Armand writes, “Last night I went to the camp U.S.O. show and saw Eddie Bracken in person. Boy is he foolish.”

Armand was more impressed with the African Americans who performed: “The orchestra leader asked if any soldiers would like to lead his band for a few numbers. A negro went up. Boy was he good right in the groove. Solid. Boy can these negroes put on a good show. We have a lot of them in this camp. You should see them march and sing. It’s fascinating.” (undated letter to his sister Ruth).

The Doiron family’s Catholic faith is sprinkled throughout the letters. Rene writes, “Yesterday was Ash Wed and I didn’t receive the ashes but I didn’t eat any meat either, because Sunday morning in church the chaplain told us we weren’t suppose to eat any meat even if they served meat on the ship so I remembered that and when they served meat for dinner I didn’t take the meat.” (Feb. 24, 1944). In the only letter that is not from one of the Doiron family, but is addressed to Stan Doiron, the patriarch, Roderick Perry writes, “I wish to thank you for everything you have done for me while I [was] learning to become a Catholic. I have been going to church every Sunday since I’ve been in the Army and I find it helps a great deal.” (Feb. 22, 1944)

Although camp life was probably a village unto itself, there is some commentary on their general surroundings. Rene writes about Norfolk, Virginia: “This is an awful nice base but the town is no good at all – the people don’t speak to you and they charge the sailors double for everything.” (May 23, 1943)

A lot of letters express frustration and tedium with military life. Ludger: “There isn’t much to do. All I have to do is hang around in case we have a call.” (Sept. 7, 1943). Vin: “The training now is not very hard but it is very tiresome. We are learning to pack our barrack in order. The non commissioned officer don’t like it any more than we do because he has to pack his just like us. They were telling us that they have done that about 100 time now. Every time they [have] a new bunch of fellows they to go through the same darn thing.” (April 4, 1943).

He later adds, “All we’ve been doing here is sleeping, eating and going out [at] night. We don’t do a darn thing,“ (Sept. 13, 1943) and “This army life is getting to be a lazy man life. We sleep all day and go out at night. I don’t know why we come out here really. We don’t do anything.” (Oct. 6, 1943). Vin from “Somewhere in France”: “After this war is over I’m going to take a nice long vacation. I’m going to go to a cottage near a lake and just lay around for a couple of months. The first fellow that tells me to do anything, I’m going to hit over the head. Boy! I’ll be so darn glad when this war is over, that is not funny. Sometime I dream of getting up morning and having eggs for breakfast. Don’t mind this letter, it’s just the way we feel today. We’ll get over it. Every once in a while you feel that way.“ (July 20, 1944).

Letters from Vinnie, December 12 and August 6, 1943

For brothers overseas, we hear about their travels and surroundings. Norman notes, “Well, I’m finally on a ship. I got on it this afternoon with the Radio Inspector from Tropical Radio… Here I’m Chief Operator on this ship and I have two Navy boys under me…I’m in a sort of daze right now. It all happened so fast that it doesn’t quite seem real. You should see all the equipment that is around me, boy it sure is scary at times. Some of the crew say that we are taking Army officers along and nurses. I am not in the know as yet so I haven’t the slightest idea.” (not dated)

Vin writes from “somewhere in England”: “I had an enjoyable trip over. I mean I wasn’t a bit sea sick. I like it a lot. I kind of wish I was in the Navy. This country here is not too bad. I’ve been to worse places since I’ve been in the army” (Feb. 12, 1944).

That is one of the more interesting components of this collection — how each sibling ended up in a different arm of the military. Were they happy where they ended up? It’s not always easy to tell, but from the letter above Vin “kind of” wished he was in the Navy. Apparently, Armand agrees: “Hi ya Sailor; Well, Rene, you are a lucky boy but at that you were always pretty smart. Joining the navy was the smartest thing you did. I wish that was where I was instead of the Army.” (undated)

There is awareness of the war, amidst all this. Ludger writes in September 1944: “The war situation looks much better now than it did a few months ago. I think that now we can really see an end to this war in the very near future. I’m certainly praying that it does come to an end soon, not that I’m afraid to go across and fight in this war but I really think that we’ve been in this army long enough and some of the boys have been fighting long enough. Sometimes I can’t figure how they could have stood it so long.” Vin: “I really can’t see what good we are doing in the War. If Washington D.C. knew how things were run down here they would take a fit.” (June 23, 1943).

Probably the most amazing aspect of this collection is that all siblings survived the war relatively intact, as far as we can tell, living into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.  These letters give a unique perspective of how the war years affected one rural Maine family. Learn more about the Doiron family.

Esther Barlow Photographic Negatives Collection

The other collection I worked on, that relates to the years revolving around World War II, is Esther Barlow’s photographic negatives of Japan, after the war. Esther Manson Barlow was born in Ohio, and moved to Portland when her father, James Barlow, became Portland’s second City Manager in 1928. A graduate of Deering High School and Connecticut College, it was when she worked on General MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo around 1949 that she took these photographs of Japan. The mostly negatives (and a few prints) in the collection show cities, villages, rivers, parks/gardens, temples, and people, but also includes photographs of Esther and her friends and coworkers enjoying the sites.

Esther Barlow in rickshaw

What work was Esther doing? We know few details, but General Douglas MacArthur acted as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan, and he and his staff, including Esther, helped Japan rebuild itself. After this time Esther lived and worked in Washington, D.C. and retired to Portland. She never married, but was part of the John Stevens family in Cape Elizabeth, as Rebecca Stevens and Esther taught together at Scarborough High School. Rebecca’s son Paul recalls that “Auntie Pete” was included in all the family gatherings. 

These two collections show us how average Mainers contributed to the United States’ involvement in World War II, not only in the midst of wartime, but also to help rebuild the world following the devastation that war brings.

Esther Barlow with her father

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