The letters tell the story

World War II letters from a publisher’s parents inspire a five-part series

Posted

Jane Nicholes

Growing up, the Anderson children knew their parents had a collection of letters from World War II. They didn't know that the letters, beginning in 1941 and continuing through the Korean War, numbered about 700.

Nor did they realize the extent to which the letters chronicled the WWII experiences of their father, Major William Alvin Anderson, and their mother, Faye.

"All the time growing up we would look at old family movies," recalls Greg Anderson, now the publisher of the Salisbury Post in North Carolina. "But nobody pulled those letters out. Never. So we really didn't know what was in them."

What was in those letters became a five-day series tied to Veterans Day and taking up an average of 1½ pages.  The series is a detailed account of Alvin Anderson's military service, the couple's courtship and marriage, Faye's work for the War Department and her first pregnancy.

Although it was clear that Anderson's father downplayed the horrors he saw, Sunday's opening quote in the series demonstrates why the letters were compelling enough to justify the huge commitment of space and time on the part of an 18,000-circulation daily newspaper.

Alvin and Faye Anderson, subjects of the series
"Darling," Alvin Anderson wrote in February 1945, "I met face-to-face with two German soldiers at night. I had two sergeants with me. The Germans had a machine gun and rifle. All we had was hand grenades and trench knives.

"These Germans were not over 10 feet from me. But me and my sergeants got away without a scratch.

"There I faced death, and the odds were against me, but today I'm alive and in good health."

Faye opened each letter from Alvin the same way, slitting the envelope along the right side. Her letters to him at the front had to be destroyed, most likely to ensure they didn't fall into enemy hands and become sources of propaganda, Greg Anderson said.

Anderson's father served through the Korean War, retiring with the rank of major. He eventually became transportation administrator for the Alachua County public school system in Florida, and died in 1971 of lung cancer shortly before Greg's 12th birthday.

When his mother passed away in 2010 at the age of 86, Greg's wife Melanie gathered the letters from Faye's Gainesville home and brought them to North Carolina. She began sorting them and urged Greg to read them, but he was upset about his mother's death and wasn't ready.

In 2012, the Gainesville house was sold. In the process of clearing it out, Anderson came across some of his father's military records. He began researching his father's military history, particularly his participation in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Only 21 members of Alvin's infantry company survived it.

Salisbury Post Publisher Greg Anderson looks over the hundreds of letters that formed the basis for the Veterans Day series on his parents’ lives during World War II. (Photo by Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post.)
Finally, Anderson started reading the letters. Soon he was telling Mark Wineka, the Post's feature writer, about them. Wineka asked to read some of the letters, and then asked to write about them.

"I brought all the records and letters into a secure [vacant] office next to mine, and he went in there and read those letters over, I don't know, six or seven months," Anderson said. Wineka read letters between daily assignments. The project was first scheduled for Memorial Day, but that target proved to be optimistic.

Anderson said Wineka finally had to stop reading at 1945 and confine the project to WWII.

"Mark Wineka, I can't say enough about him. He can be in the middle of that newsroom with chaos going on all around him, and when he's focused on something like this, you can barely distract him."

Reader reaction has been positive, Anderson said, and not only in Salisbury. His parents grew up in small towns in Florida before settling in Gainesville after his father's military career. Parts of the series were picked up by The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner, and have been shared on social media.

"I was a little apprehensive about this because I was putting my parents' private lives out there, and mine to a certain extent," Anderson said.

"But it's just such a great story, and it's not glorifying anything. I think it's a slice of life from the Greatest Generation."

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at jbnicholes@att.net.

Salisbury, Anderson

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