Letters from the front

Four soldiers from three wars write home to their loved ones.

This photo and the following caption appeared in the Boston Globe: Bay State Marines Rest After Iwo Battle. After three and one-half days of continuous battling against the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, 750 miles south of Tokyo, these heroic Marines take a well-deserved rest. They are members of Company C, Ninth Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division. - Courtesy of Yvonne (Berube) Sylvia

On Memorial Day, we pause to remember those who died serving in the armed forces. But they shouldn’t be thought of simply as casualties; names etched in granite. These were all real people with unique lives, not defined by war. And these personalities emerge in the letters they wrote home to their family and friends.

We’ve chosen to print excerpts from four such letters written by Martha’s Vineyard men who served in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Only one of the men actually died in the line of duty, but we wanted to share all their letters so as to provide some human context to our remembrance. The letters are light on battlefield descriptions and heroics. Instead, they speak to the human condition: An 18-year-old boy overcome by emotion as he sails down Vineyard Sound on his way to war. A soldier on leave in South Carolina who has a chance encounter with a Martha’s Vineyard ferry and crew. A weary WW I combat veteran who longs to return home. And a medic who yearns for normalcy on a godforsaken island in the South Pacific. Normal, everyday people who become tangled up in the web of war; that’s who we remember on Memorial Day.

We’d like to thank the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for help in researching this article.

John L. McCollum, Dec. 30, 1862

John McCollum of Tisbury enlisted at age 18 as a private and served as a drummer in Co. D, 45th Infantry, during the Civil War. When his nine-month enlistment was up, he enlisted in the Navy, and when the war ended, he joined the merchant marine, sailing to England, South Africa, and points beyond. In a letter to his mother in 1862, he describes his feelings as he sails down Vineyard Sound and takes a parting look at his Island home as he heads off to war.

… We had a very pleasant, pleasant passage out; I did not experience any seasickness whatever. I well remember when we passed the Island it was a beautiful autumn day and the sun was just rising above the horizon. As we smoothly sailed along, I watched the well-known shore, the oaky hills in the distance. I could plainly see the sheep quietly grazing, I could recognize many of the homes as I stood leaning over the rail and watched the fast receding hills, the tall brick lighthouse, those bold grand looking cliffs until they were lost from my gaze then Deare Mother you can imagine how the pleasant scene of my early days came back to my memory and with sadness I turned away, and went below and sought to throw it [off]. But in vain. I felt sad all day and until the next day, I did not feel very lively.

I have been in two battles since I have been out here, one at Kinston the other at Whitehall. The air was thick with death around me but fortunately I came out unscathed, but I shouldn’t wear your patience so I will close by hoping that these few lines will find you in good health both in body and mind.

Charles MacReading (“Charlie Mac”) Vincent, Nov. 7, 1863

Charlie Mac Vincent of Edgartown enlisted at age 18 (or 21, depending on the source) in Co. H, 40th Infantry, served three years and finished the war as a second lieutenant. He returned to the Island and embarked on a career as a newspaperman, which included a stint as owner-editor of the Gazette in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and ended as an editor at the Boston Globe. In a letter to his mother in 1863, while stationed in South Carolina, he tells of a chance encounter with the Monohansett, a Martha’s Vineyard ferry that had been chartered by the U.S. Government to carry dispatches to the fleet operating off Cape Hatteras.

… Yesterday I had a very pleasant time. I was on a “fatigue” detail at the landing at Stono Inlet and had but very little work to do. While down by the shore I looked off in the stream and saw the good old Monohansett lying there. Well, you may believe without my saying it that the sight of her was good for sore eyes. I then [unreadable] her for the wharf and caught sight of old Captain Crowell looming up like the lighthouse on Cape Poge and soon hailed him. He seemed to be pleased to see me and wanted I should go aboard with him and get some dinner. I told him I should like to go first rate so I took a trip to see the corporal in charge of our fatigue party so that he would know where I was, but could not find him. Well, says I, Vincent, it won’t do to be bluffed off this way, so I first went off on my own hook and trusted luck for the consequences. So off I went and soon had the pleasure of stepping the good old Manohanset’s deck once more, and best of all had the pleasure of seeing a lot of old friends. Charlie Smith, Capt, H.B. Fisher, the Engineer, Tommy Gardner, one of the firemen, Capt. Fisher’s son and last but by no means least good old Fred Cook. I felt about as glad to see Fred as any man aboard of her. I had a good dinner, and when I came away, Charlie Smith gave me a can of blueberries, holding two quarts or more, and some nice oranges right from St. Augustine, Fla. Lieut. Sweet is Provost Marshall there and was well and hearty at last account. I was very much pleased with my presents and think he was extremely kind …

Dudley “Dud” Howland, Nov. 25, 1918

This is an excerpt from a Christmas letter sent by “Dud” Howland from Rogeville, France, just two weeks after the Armistice was signed. Howland was born in Tisbury in 1893, his family lived on William Street, and he went to the Tisbury School. He registered for the draft in Barnstable in the spring of 1917, at the age of 24. He had been working for the Vineyard Haven office of New England Telephone and Telegraph, and in the Army, he strung communication lines at the front. Dud died in 1964.

… Pont a Mousson was a fairly good sized city of about 25,000 inhabitants, but everyone moved out a long while ago, it was a target for German artillery daily; consequently it is pretty well shot up.

There is a mountain near it which they call Mousson and at the top there were a few houses and a very large statue of Jean d’Arc which still stands facing Alsace Lorraine with only the base damaged a little.

We ran lines up to an observation station there and many times had to seek a dugout on account of Fritz’s shells.

Some towns are completely wiped out, not a building left standing, and most all of them show the effects of shelling. German planes could be seen any time and the anti-aircraft guns were continually firing at them with shrapnel and high-explosive shells.

We have been in Zone A now nearly two months, within the range of German artillery which sometimes came a little too near for comfort.

Out near Thiancourt, we salvaged German poles and cross arms. They had a funny kind of wire shaped like a gouging chisel, and all the arms were solid iron. None of the telephone construction, equipment or anything which pertains to telephone work compares for a minute to ours in the states.

The 76th Division was made a depot division, so every unit was scattered around and we were attached to the 6th Army Corps and have done corps work ever since.

When the armistice was signed (11/11/18) they organized a third army which they called the “Army of Occupation,” which followed the Germans as they retreated, and it was a toss up between the 417th Telegraph or us which would go into “Alsace Lorraine,” and they drew it so we are still here and have been expecting to move back most every day. So I guess they don’t know what they will do with us yet. We are all willing to start home, but those who have been over the longest should go first.

Edmund Berube, Feb. 13, 1945

Edmund Berube was born in 1918, went to the Edgartown School, where he excelled in track and basketball and entered the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in the spring of 1941. Later that year he enlisted in the Marines, served in the Pacific, and landed on Iwo Jima with the Third Marine Division. From Oct. 7, 1944, until Feb. 15, 1945, he wrote a series of letter to his sister, all with a return address of “somewhere in the Pacific.”

The following is an excerpt from a May 21, 2009, Martha’s Vineyard Times article titled, “A scrapbook’s tale — a brother, an Islander, and death far from home.”

Mr. Berube was with Marines who had already had experience fighting the Japanese. If he was worried or concerned because of what he had learned and consequently what he might expect, he never shared such anxious thoughts with his sister.

As he celebrated the New Year in the Pacific, his letters became more somber. “Here we are starting on another year, and many new things are to be given to the world,” he wrote on Jan. 1, 1945. “We will just go along almost the same as before life changed a bit, but behind it, all our thoughts are to be back together. The New Year for me was a decidedly different affair than was the previous one … Of course, I was still what people look upon and call a civilian. Ella had eyes for Alvin, but he had eyes elsewhere. Ella, Pauline, you and Betty were a little more indulgent than the rest of us, and I do believe just a trifle on the silly side. But the fun did not last long enough, so here we are passing another [year].”

On Feb. 13, five days before the first wave of Marines landed on the black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima; Mr. Berube sent his last letter to his sister. He criticized some of the movies shown to the troops but wrote not a word of the upcoming battle or nonstop bombardment of the island that he witnessed. He wrote about photos he recently received. “I really like your picture and also the one with Albert [her husband]. They really made me feel wonderful all over; it took me back to the days when you were in school in Boston and all the fun we had. That, of course, is one of the things we have to help us though blue days. I do not like to look back, but rather ahead to the future when everything can be done as you want and have your good times as normal humans. I hope some day I can walk into someplace out here and meet someone from Edgartown.”

He added a comment on some lively and current town gossip, offered some brotherly advice, and a request for film for his camera. In one of his only comments on the war, he wrote, “Yes, the war news is very good, but still some way to go for a finish.” He ended, “Yvonne, I have really run out of words so will say so long for now. Regards to all. Your loving brother, love Edmund.”

Mr. Berube’s unit landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 22. On March 3, a Japanese sniper shot Edmund Berube as he went to the aid of a wounded Marine. He was 26 years old and one of the 6,800 servicemen killed in a battle defined by its unrestrained ferocity.

He was buried in the Marine cemetery on Iwo Jima.