Albert Southwick, like many young men of his generation, enlisted in the armed forces in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was to spend the war far from home serving in the U.S. Navy, and so often stationed in remote locales that he was only able to return home on leave once during the war.
In those days before e-mail and Skype, the way someone stayed in touch with loved ones far away was usually by letter, card or postcard. Phone calls were sometimes possible, but prohibitively expensive for the typical serviceman, and telegrams were usually reserved for news of crises or death.
Mr. Southwick recently donated over 250 letters from those years to the Worcester Historical Museum. These letters were to and from young Albert Southwick, from the time he enlisted until shortly after the war ended in 1945. Many of his letters are to his parents, although some were to other relatives or friends. The ones to Albert were mostly from his parents at Maple Hill Farm in Leicester, though occasionally someone else writes to him.
Before these letters were donated to the Worcester Historical Museum, they were painstakingly transcribed by Southwick’s daughter Martha, who has now begun making them available in book form for a wider audience to appreciate.
The first volume, titled WWII Correspondence between Albert B. Southwick and Maple Hill Farm: February to June 1942, begins with Albert stationed at the Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island; later in 1942 he writes from a Navy service school in Jacksonville, Florida. In these early letters we get a sense of what young Albert Southwick was going through as he prepared to be sent to war. Many of the letters sent to Albert are from his parents, and the reader will be surprised to see that his father, Nathan Southwick, writes to young Albert in cleverly rhyming verse, and that Albert sometimes responds in kind. By the end on this volume, he has learned typing, Morse code, semaphore, and other useful skills.
The second volume, titled WWII Letters from Albert B. Southwick to Maple Hill Farm: June 1942 to May 1943, begins with Apprentice Seaman Albert Southwick, now 22 years old, completing his training in Jacksonville, Florida. One gets the sense that the novelty & enjoyment of that location have worn off. He’s been learning radar and earning a swimming classification, spending whatever leave time he has enjoying himself in locations that are now considered vacation destinations, and wondering where he’ll be posted when his training is complete.
He then spends a while in Norfolk, Virginia, where he has his first plane ride and learns the finer points of operating a radio. Then the Navy sends him on a long train trip westward, and he eventually arrives in California, where has lots of other training, and whenever allowed leave, explores many interesting locales, and he’s able to visit with a relative who lives nearby. At one point he’s able to have a short visit with his mother, who makes a trip out west to visit. Later he’s sent back east to Louisiana, where he attends pre-flight training school.
By the end of this volume we’ve followed Albert to May of 1943, and he’s now an Aviation Radioman Petty Officer, 3rd Class.
In the third volume, titled WWII Letters from Albert B. Southwick to Maple Hill Farm: May 1943 to August 1944, we find 23 year old Albert Southwick writing from Normal Station in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he’s learning to pilot and navigate aircraft. Later that year he’s moved to a base in Dallas, Texas, where his flying skills are refined, though he has some difficulties with aerobatics in January of 1944 that set his training back a bit. From there he’s sent to bases in Florida for further training, including night flying. He’s introduced to the PBY aircraft, which will play a notable role in his career in naval aviation. By the end of this volume in August of 1944, Albert Southwick is ranked Aviation Pilot, First Class.
These activities are chronicled amid many dozens of letters which usually deal largely with things like how the family’s faring at home, how certain other relatives in the service are doing, what sort of extracurricular goings-on occur in Albert’s life when he’s on leave, etc. His correspondents are often his parents, though occasionally we see letters from other relatives, or friends such as Ben Bagdikian, or English pen-pal Nellie Timberlake.
It’s amazing to see how long it took to train a young man to be an aviator. At the end of the third volume of letters, young Albert Southwick still hasn’t been sent into harm’s way to fight his nation’s enemies, though we sense that this is what will happen next as we look forward to a fourth volume of letters, to be published later this year.
Through these many letters we begin to get a glimpse of what sort of young man Albert was, and we get some sense of the people and places that have been important to him. Those of us who have known someone who fought in that war may also gain some further understanding of what the veterans we’ve known went through in those years. That worldwide conflict changed so many lives in so many ways.
This man who now shares so much of our local history with us survived a piece of what we now think of as history, but which for Albert Southwick is his story. And thankfully, many of his letters have survived, too, to help him tell us his tale.
Where to buy the books
I linked to Amazon, but you can (and should) buy the books locally.
They are available for sale at the Worcester Historical Museum.
There are also two book signings coming up:
- on Saturday, January 18 from 1-3pm at the Worcester Public Library Food for Thought Bookstore & Cafe
- on Sunday, January 26 from 2-4pm at Annie’s Book Stop at 65 James Street
Note that if you want copies of the older books (Once-Told Tales, More Once-Told Tales, etc.), plan on coming early as there will only be limited copies available for sale.
And there was a great profile in today’s Telegram.