Interpreting the Letters
Patriotism ran high in America after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Men, women and children were energized with the desire to fight back, but by the time we entered the war, England had endured several years of privation, the Battle of Britain and the blitz.
Americans lived in relative comfort and plenty. We were unfamiliar with the havoc war wrecked on societies and individuals. Men were able to put a face on it in the Pacific in 1942 or when they landed in North Africa or on the beaches of Sicily in 1943. But women were not commonly in the military except as Army nurses or with the American Red Cross.
Wartime censorship never allowed Elizabeth to say precisely where she was living or what big city she was near, but the letters are detailed. Internal clues exist which can be used to locate her at various times.
Elizabeth was still in America on August 5, 1943. In that letter she is concerned about her older brother who never was able to take orders. “I have a sneaking feeling that everyone else has a sneaking feeling that Steve was AWOL ere he returned to camp,” she wrote.
She wrote again three days later, on August 8, apparently staying in a D. C. hotel and paying 20 cents an hour to use a typewriter in the lobby. She anticipated being sent overseas and wrote that her friend Johnny Maloney went to Officer Candidate School with Clark Gable. She told how Johnny related the worst class they had to take at OCS was public speaking, and she tells a unique anecdote about Gable’s speech: “Gable used a tiny piece of toilet paper — held it up before the class quietly for a minute, and then told them that that was the one thing in the world that made us all equal.”
This is also the first letter in which Elizabeth mentions Captain Bill Hugill, her boyfriend and later her fiancé. Hugill was not my father. It is unclear what ultimately happened in their relationship, but he is mentioned a number of times and she sees Hugill often while they are both in Europe. It is clear from the August 8 letter that she knew him before she joined the Red Cross.
Elizabeth was sent by boat to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) and on September 28, 1943, wrote, “At present I’m with my unit ‘Somewhere in England.’”
This letter is one of the briefest and is hand written. By that time, she writes, she has already visited London and describes the countryside near where she lives. “I walked to a nearby mountain Sunday crossing windswept moors to do so — and actually saw wild horses! We could view the entire landscape from there and you can’t believe its breath taking loveliness.”
Not all her letters have envelopes and none of her envelopes have a return address other than an APO (Army Post Office) number care of “P. M. N. Y.” which likely stands for Post Master New York. At least one of the envelopes is actually Nazi stationery. The price of a stamp was three cents, six cents for U. S. air mail, and most of the letters are on nearly tissue-thin translucent paper.
APO numbers were random, according to the Military Postal History Society. This was for security purposes meant to prevent information about troop location from being ascertained by the enemy.
However, this information has been declassified and it is now possible to determine with some accuracy where Elizabeth was by what APO numbers she did have. She was assigned at least five.
APO 122 puts her in Torquay, Great Britain prior to D-Day. After the crossing, she was assigned APO 403 which was Nancy, France, and APO 887, which is Paris. Toward the end, she was receiving mail at APO 408 which puts her in Bad Neuenahr, Germany.
“Evacuation and Convalescent Hospitals were not assigned their own APO numbers in WW 2,” wrote James Boyden with the Military Postal History Society when queried on the number of APOs Elizabeth had. “Those units would have to use the nearest available APO.” However, he cautioned, “The APO assignment may have absolutely nothing to do with the physical location of your Mother’s unit.”
Dennis Donnellan, her brother in the 84th Infantry, had APO 84 throughout the war. It followed him no matter where he was stationed.
At the time, these were not known facts to the average person. In her Oct. 17, 1943, letter Elizabeth ponders where two men are who have a similar APO.
She wrote: “Dick’s outfit is the 609th Ord., and his shipping APO is 4834, Ralph is with the 655(?)th I think and his apo was 4835. Seems they are probably nearby. If I find out, I’ll let you know. That APO is an old one, because it is a four digit one, and he should have another soon.”
Boyden explained, “The main purpose of APOs was to facilitate the delivery of mail. They served somewhat like our present day ZIP Code system does.”
More likely, the near consecutive numbers merely meant they were assigned the same day, according to Boyden. Generally, a temporary four digit APO number was given when a soldier was transferred and he received a new three digit number upon arrival.
So no, Elizabeth could not have found any information about her friends’ whereabouts merely using their APO numbers.
Another clue as to where she was in England in September, 1943, comes from the text. Moors are found in several parts of the country including the south in Devon. Devon was a strategic staging area for aircraft attacking across the Channel during the war and the site of many launchings, both aerial and nautical, on D-Day.
There is another clue in the January 21, 1945, letter when she describes meeting Hemingway. She makes the remark that a Major with Hemingway at the bar of the Ritz in Paris used to dance with her at the Imperial. The Imperial Hotel is located in Devon along the coast at Torquay. Incidentally, Torquay is where Agatha Christie lived most of her life. The Majestic Hotel, which appears in three of her crime novels including the Hercule Poirot mysteries, was the re-named Imperial.
A “tor” is a rock outcropping, often of granite, at the top of a hill. The word is Celtic in origin. “Quay” (pronounced: key) is from the French “quai,” a wharf or pier. The word is commonly found in place names. Torquay is a beach city, a resort town 215 miles south of London on the Channel in Devon. In Devon there are moors and in nearby Cornwall lies Bodmin Moor.
Elizabeth, then, lived near enough to Torquay to party there. But that is only made clear by reading letters separated by a year and the English Channel.