WESTFIELD TWP. — When Jane Corbus sifted through the letters her father wrote to her mother during his stint as an Army tank mechanic from 1943 to 1946, she discovered a love story intertwined with the descriptions of military life.
It began with a postcard — the first of more than 800 letters Norman Effinger wrote to his wife, Velma, affectionately known as “Babe” since childhood — dated March 30, 1943:
I don’t have time for more than a line because we just got through and lights go off in 5 minutes: Everything is OK and they sure are pushing us through. We got uniforms and had our aptitude tests today along with some drill and other things thrown in. It looks like another busy day tomorrow. Hope you are getting along OK. I tried to call you tonight rather than write but couldn’t get you. I will write as soon as I have time.
Love x Norm
Effinger, on his way to basic training at Camp Polk in Louisiana, mailed the card from Columbus. The card, now yellowed with time, sports a preprinted one-cent postage mark in green ink, with a postal cancellation that reads “Buy war savings bonds and stamps.”
He wrote to Babe almost every day, from the time he entered basic training to his deployment to New Guinea and the Philippines.
Corbus, who said she and her sister used to play dress-up with their father’s Army uniforms and hats, was unaware of the letters until her mother shared them with the girls many years later. Norm died of a heart attack in 1964 when he was 52 years old and Corbus was a high school junior.
“When she was in her 70s, my mother reread the letters in order and recorded them as part of a legacy,” Corbus said of her mother, who passed away in 2005. “There are 32 cassettes (of her reading the letters). I think her original intention was to destroy the letters after she recorded them, but she didn’t. I knew my dad for 16 years, but I never knew about the letters while he was alive.”
As Corbus began to read the correspondence, she decided to share it in a blog.
“Here I have all these letters, and I think they’re pretty good, pretty interesting, but how do I share them?” she said,
gesturing at the binders filled with the letters written in her father’s careful, neat penmanship. She realized there might be a wider audience after she read some of them during a patriotic program at her church last May and several people told her they had war letters, too.
“It’s a way to share them with my sister, Sue (Kali), in Hawaii. When she shared them with her husband, he said they reminded him of his training for Vietnam. There is a resonance there.”
Corbus created “The Letter Box” online at norm-and-babe.blogspot.com, beginning with the first postcard and entering them in chronological order corresponding as closely as possible to the original date it was written. Although her mother used a black marker to censor some of the language when she read them to record them, Corbus has restored the honest, colorful and often explicit content.
“There’s so much of our language, of the way our family speaks, in the letters, like ‘I’ll write to you for a bit’ — it’s so familiar, so specific to the way we spoke as a family,” Corbus said.
She’s had to guess at some of what her father is responding to, because she doesn’t have any of the letters Babe wrote to Norman, but much of the content simply is descriptive of Army life in the 8th Armored Division, Third Army. The binders holding the pages are spread across a work table in the studio where Corbus crafts fine arts whirligigs, flanked by framed photographs of her parents and some of her father’s uniform insignias.
She pulled out the binder holding the first letters home and opened it to the first full letter written March 31, 1943.
“… After supper we were taken to barracks and issued sheets, blankets and pillow case. Then we had to make up our bunks and go down for first instruction. Lights go out 9:00 in the barracks but you don’t have to be in bed until 11:00. We just made it the first night and we were a plenty tired bunch, too much waiting in line.
Next morning the bugle sounded at 4:00 A.M. and we rushed like mad to dress and perform our toilet only to find that there was nothing to do until breakfast which was about 6:00 so we lost a lot of time by having to remain alert. … After breakfast (eggs, cereal, bread, coffee, and fruit) we were processed, that is office work pertaining to insurance and etc, we were measured and given uniforms, they fit very well….
They had the results of our tests and I was very much gratified to hear the big boy say I had an unusual grade for a man so long out of school. In the aptitude test I got 134 out of 150, In the mechanical 135 out of 150, and in the radio 90 out of 140 but that radio one was just luck. … After interviews we got two shots and then chow.”
He writes about pulling KP duty and eight-mile cross-country hikes in oppressive heat “with full field equipment, about 40 lbs. in all on our backs … the sun just seems to be a weight pressing down on your back. Several of the boys had to be picked up by jeeps and a couple more folded up after we got back, but the old man stayed with it and wasn’t even too tired after I had finished K.P. at a little past 9. Pretty hard to kill even if I am a little old for this sort of stuff.”
In another letter, he wrote it will be their job in combat “to break through and open the way for the infantry foot soldiers. Nearly all of our fighting will be done from our machines, although if our machines are put out of action we will fight on foot the same as the infantry.”
He was impressed with the tanks he learned to repair: “I could sure plow the garden in no time with that baby but I am afraid I might do more damage than good. They weigh about 40 tons and cut tracks in hard ground. They sure are some buggy.
There is an airfield at South Camp Polk and we see quite a few combat planes of the new type fly over, and some of them just miss the trees so we get a good look at them. They go so damn fast they are nearly out of sight by the time you hear them.”
But love was at the heart of most letters. Norm usually wrote two or three pages to Babe at a time, expressing how much he missed her and loved her, and often illustrated the letters with sketches of his surroundings.
“Don’t you be saying your letters aren’t worth answering. (Dec. 12, 1943) I won’t stand for it. They’re very nice letters and I love every word of them. If you think I’m kidding you just quit writing and you’ll be able to hear me screaming way up there. Your letters are swell, very much like you.”
Babe followed his exploits as best she could, trying to determine his location by matching his information with war stories she read in The Gazette or heard on the radio.
“Their relationship changed,” Corbus said. “They were married 1½ years when he was called up. They were still newlyweds, but settled in a routine. The experience deepened their love. You can see that in the letters.”
Corbus said she probably will donate the letters to the National Archives when she is finished transcribing them. She indexes each letter and writes a synopsis of key points to remember, like the movies he goes to see and who starred in them or opinions of what he heard through the war rumor mill.
“This is a journey,” Corbus said as she closed the binder she was holding and put it back on the table. “I’m going on the journey with him.”
Contact Judy A. Totts at firstname.lastname@example.org.