Whether he scanned the mail and pocketed it in his foxhole with artillery screaming around or snow raining down, or in a barn with bullets whizzing past, and whatever information it contained, mail from home was the oxygen of an infantryman’s life.
Even when they were roused from their foxholes at midnight or in the early morning hours during World War II, exhausted, frightened and utterly spent infantrymen welcomed mailclerks like lost family members.
For, next to food and good health, mail from home was the most critical component of an infantryman’s ability to function on the frontlines in World War II. The soldier who made an emotional connection by means of homely words, pictures and home-baked goods, received repeated reinforcement that normalcy and security still prevailed somewhere in the world; and even under the most trying circumstances, he felt, at least briefly, whole again and normal.
While inhaling that passing whiff of normalcy and peace, the fighter was able to turn his thoughts backward, savoring, however fleetingly, the large and small tidbits of that normal, peaceful existence that he desperately longed to resume. And this longing often carried even the most dispirited and bedraggled soldier past the life-threatening emotional crises which are the moment-by-moment lot of the infantryman hurled into his barbaric state.
As a mail clerk/company clerk, I often crept up to foxholes at midnight or later, sometimes carrying hot food along with the mail. From a handwritten diary I kept at the time, I have confirmed the exact times when my unit, Co. D, 345th Infantry, was fed semi-hot chow in their foxholes. I use the term “semi-hot” because, although the food wasn’t cold boxed rations, by the time it reached the fighter during the frigid Battle of the Bulge, it was often tepid—and thoroughly mixed up.
Reduced to its simplest terms, warm food was physically-sustaining, while mail was spiritually-sustaining. Of course, warm food was not as a regular practice doled out to soldiers in foxholes.
When a respite came, the cooks and kitchen personnel worked behind the lines on tall, heavy metal gas stoves, trundling the ingredients on 2 ½-ton trucks to just behind the lines. There is a famous, and typical photo, on this website depicting soldiers shouldering rifles and balancing their metal messkits overflowing with meat, potatoes, vegetable and gravy, with dessert piled on top.
For the frontline infantryman, a hot meal was not only savory; it was life-embracing. And it happened too infrequently—especially during the furious Battle of the Bulge. Once we achieved a breakout from the Bulge, warm food became more regular and plentiful.
So did mail. When boxes arrived, several soldiers usually gathered, sensing that a homebaked cake was inside. Fairly frequently, boxes would arrive for soldiers who had been killed or wounded seriously enough to be evacuated.
To meet such circumstances, it was agreed unofficially that the cake or cookies would not be returned home; it spared grief if they were consumed on the frontlines.
I recall this happening fairly often in my company. And I recall wool scarves and gloves being tried for size. They always fit.
An ASTP cadet in 1943-44, Mitchell Kaidy joined the 87th Division in March, 1944, serving until its demobilization. After the war he received a journalism education and has worked for three daily newspapers, a television station and public radio in Upstate New York. In 1963 he contributed articles to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, and in 1993 he won a Project Censored award for free-lance investigative journalism. He was an active member of the association and served as division historian. Mitch passed away on 10 January 2013 at the age of 87.