She Kept Every Letter

Canadian soldiers pose by their Bren carrier, shortly after 0800 hours when the World War II ceasefire came into effect, 5th May 1945. Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Separated by thousands of miles and the Second World War, author Harley Rustad‘s grandparents maintained a correspondence spanning hundreds of letters over four years. As he traveled through Europe and North Africa commanding a tank troop in the 11th Canadian ­Armoured Regiment, Harry Mac­donald kept one of Jacquelyn Ruth Robinson’s letters — the one that kept him going, the one in which she said “yes.”

In that blue cardboard box, in the correspondence between a young man and a young woman who were sep­arated by conflict, I found neither myth nor fable but honest words of both pain and love. Between 1941 and 1945, Harry and Jacquie sent hundreds of letters across the world to each other. They spoke of mundane details and of big plans for their future. He sent her more than 200 dispatches and replies, around one for every week he was away, containing tens of thousands of words. She kept every letter.

The silence was broken by rapid staccato. Tap. Tap, tap, tap. Not gunfire but anxious fingers typing words onto creamy white paper with Canadian Legion War Services letterhead at the top. A soldier was writing a letter to a girl on the other side of the world.

It was the middle of March 1944, in the hills of central Italy. The Canadian soldier, a lieutenant commanding a tank troop in the 11th Canadian ­Armoured Regiment, was waiting for the rain to cease so his men could start ­moving again through the rough and sodden terrain. He didn’t write about what could lie ahead: the next assault on Monte Cassino, already one of the Allies’ deadliest battles in the Italian campaign.

The Canadian soldier, Harry Mac­donald, my grandfather, had sent Jacquelyn Robinson dozens of letters, spanning several years—letters written in spidery cursive by candlelight as rain ­pounded down on corrugated rooftops or amid the blasts of nearby shelling. His letters were often rushed or cut short, with some started and finished with hours or even days in between. He ­frequently apologized for his messy handwriting, hoping his words would be legible. One letter, sent five days before, written in haste, contained a question for which he anxiously awaited a reply. The letter had begun with a familiar two words, “Dear Jacquie,” and ended with a ­question: “Will you marry me?” But, impatient for an answer, he wrote her again.

It was March 14 when he found the typewriter. He needed his words to be as clear and as confident as his thoughts. “When I think that even now I could be calling upon you, taking you to a dance, going to a show and doing those things normal people could be doing I feel personally one of the greatest horrors of war—the separation of men from those they love,” he typed. “However, I suppose that if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m in the service it might have taken ­longer for me to realize just how lucky I am. I hope for the best, darling, no matter which way things turn out.”

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