(This story was originally published in the Raleigh South Connection in March of 2008.)
Letter writing has become a lost art these days. E-mails, text messages and cell phones have forever changed the way people communicate.
For those Americans involved in World War II, letters were much more than just an enjoyable luxury. They were the sole connection hundreds of thousands of servicemen had with loved ones at home.
Those thin sheets of papers containing words penned by a spouse, parent, friend or relative were a tangible piece of home that could be carried around for days and reread many times.
Collins Grove native Agnes Holleman Smith clearly understood the importance of her letters. Six nights a week for more than three years she sat down at her table and wrote to her husband, Arthur, serving overseas.
Her caring words contained family news, local gossip and humdrum events of everyday life. But most importantly they revealed her love and the longing for the day when she and Arthur would be together again.
“Those letters were just like a telephone call to me,” said Smith. “I would write him every day except on weekends when I would only write one letter. He got teased because he got so many letters. But you felt like it could be the last letter he would ever read. You didn’t know because it was a war.”
Her husband, a cook with an aviation engineers division, nearly matched Smith’s prolific writing habits.
“Our mail carrier told me he delivered more letters to me than anyone else on his route,” said Smith. “Those letters were just wonderful.”
A sad goodbye
The world was a very uncertain place in 1941. Hitler’s armies had conquered most of Europe and were waged in a brutal conflict against Stalin’s Red Army deep in Russia. Half a world away, the Japanese were brutalizing China and Mongolia and turning their eyes toward other Far East prizes.
The clouds of war were beginning to form over the United States. Most Americans realized that it was only a matter of time before American blood once again spilled on European soil.
Yet, for Agnes and Arthur, life wasn’t so bad. Both in their mid-20s and deeply in love, the pair was busy making plans for their future. They had been dating for three years and were ready to get married and start a family. The troubles of the world could wait.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. It was a lesson many Americans learned on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.
Agnes and Arthur had planned to spend the day visiting with their pastor in Wake Forest. The news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had already been broadcast over the radio by the time the couple arrived.
“We walked into the pastor’s house,” said Smith. “There were (seminary students) sitting in his parlor and not one person was smiling. We hadn’t heard about it yet and then we learned the war had started. Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It was stunning.”
Arthur’s name was already on the draftee list and both knew that he would soon be called into the armed forces.
So three days later, on Dec. 10, Agnes Holleman became Mrs. Arthur Smith.
“We had planned to get married anyway,” said Smith. “I knew some that had (planned it) but they decided not to (after Pearl Harbor). But we talked about it and I have never regretted it.”
As the holidays approached the newlyweds waited apprehensively for Arthur’s draft notice to arrive in the mail. Little did they know at the time but the notice had already reached the Varina post office.
The postmaster knew the couple had just gotten married and decided to let Smiths enjoy the holidays before delivering the bad news.
“We knew the postmaster,” said Smith. “She saw that the notice of him going away was for Jan. 5 but she held it through Christmas. I don’t think you can legally do that today. But that’s how things were back then. People knew each other and they looked out for one another. It was a lot different than now.”
Less than a month after the wedding the Needmore native heeded the call of the U.S. Army.
“It was hard but we knew we weren’t alone in it,” said Smith. “It was just time to go.”
Arthur underwent basic training in Virginia before being transferred to Ft. Jackson, Miss., for additional training.
Following a brief visit home, Arthur was sent to Ft. Dix, N.J., and then shipped overseas. It would be another three years before Agnes would see her husband again.
We’ll meet again
After spending a few months in England recovering from “yellow jaundice,” Arthur was sent to North Africa for several months. He then spent the remaining two years of the war stationed in Italy.
After moving back home with her parents in Holly Springs, Agnes quit her job at the Varina Knitting Mill and started a new one at Carolina Power & Light in Raleigh. She also learned everything she could about the war.
“We listened to all the news we could,” said Smith. “We also learned a lot of geography.”
Arthur and Agnes continued to write each other nearly every day. The two never asked each other to write, said Smith. It was just something they both felt strongly about.
“We never talked about it,” said Smith. “We had an understanding. That’s the best way to put it.”
Being apart was difficult but it was worse during the holidays. The couple spent three Christmases away from one another.
“It was really harder on him than me because I had family, both mine and his family, to visit,” said Smith.
She was also able to talk with other wives sharing similar circumstances.
“It was always our main thought,” said Smith. “We all had the same experiences.”
Dealing with the fear and worries became even more difficult when friends and neighbors received notices that their loved ones would never come home.
“You had to take it as it was,” said Smith. “It was hard when you heard about a friend being killed. It was mighty hard.”
Better days ahead
After three long years apart, Arthur and Agnes were finally reunited following Germany’s surrender in May of 1945.
Arthur was being transferred to the Pacific theater but he was given a two week pass before heading to the West Coast.
Smith had received a telegram from Arthur citing the date of his arrival and she remembers vividly the day her called her from Boston.
“He called me as soon as he landed in Boston and he said he was on his way home,” said Smith. “We met at the Sir Walter Hotel in Raleigh. He didn’t get there until after midnight and we couldn’t find a place to eat. We finally found a place and we both had a cheese sandwich. You just can’t explain what it was like to see him again. It was wonderful.”
The next morning she proudly took Arthur to meet her co-workers at Carolina Power & Light.
“They had only seen him in pictures,” said Smith. “I remember when they saw him they said, ‘Agnes, you didn’t tell us that he looked better than his pictures.’ He looked so good in that old army uniform.”
Arthur was still in the state of Washington waiting to be shipped out for the planned invasion of Japan when the war ended.
It was a bittersweet time for Smith who was still mourning the death of her 17 year-old sister, Joyce, from a brain tumor.
But on the day that Japan surrendered, Smith only had tears of joy.
“It was a wonderful day,” said Smith. “I knew Arthur would be coming home.”
The couple moved around after the war before settling in Holly Springs. The Smiths became the proud parents of two daughters and Arthur opened State Barber Shop in downtown Raleigh.
Arthur passed away in November of 2006 at the age of 91.
If Smith could go back and do it all again, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.
“We had a lot in common and just enjoyed being together,” said Smith. “It was wonderful and I have no regrets.”