Out of the Ordinary by Russ Horton

Three letters from three eras (left to right); Andrew Brady with his letter from 2004, Kenneth Zerwekh with his letter from 1945, and Charles Stuvengen with his letter from 1918.

Three letters from three eras (left to right); Andrew Brady with his letter from 2004, Kenneth Zerwekh with his letter from 1945, and Charles Stuvengen with his letter from 1918.

There are still service members who, for a variety of reasons, write the occasional letter with pen and paper. Sometimes, they even choose to write letters because they have something out of the ordinary on which to write. Andrew Brady, a Poynette native who served with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in Iraq during the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, donated  to WVM over one hundred emails that he exchanged with his family during his overseas service. He also donated one physical letter that he wrote to his brother, Joseph. This letter is interesting for two reasons. One is that he clearly felt more free to write about his real experiences with his brother than with his parents, writing to him about being shot at often with the instruction, “Don’t tell Mom, I know how she would worry.” The other interesting aspect of the letter is that it is written on a piece of cardboard from an MRE box. Because he also wrote emails to Joseph, it is clear that he chose to physically write this letter because of the uniqueness of the medium.

Brady’s MRE box letter is one of many in the WVM collections that demonstrate the imagination of Wisconsin veterans in using materials at hand to write home to family and friends. One of the most unique examples of this came from a Janesville soldier who was serving in Company A, 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Spanish-American War. The 1st Wisconsin spent the duration of the short conflict at Camp Cuba Libre, near Jacksonville, Florida. This unidentified soldier decided to send a souvenir home to his friend, George C. Youmans, so he wrote on, addressed, and stamped a piece of hardtack and sent it through the mail without any packaging. Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly given hardtack’s reputation, the piece survived its postal journey from Florida to Wisconsin intact. Stationed at Love Field in Dallas, Texas during World War I, Sergeant Charles Stuvengen of the 277th Aero Squadron, an Orfordville native, used a piece of canvas from one of his unit’s airplanes to write to his sister. Touching upon one of the dangers of flying planes in World War I, he wrote, “I suppose you’ll be wondering what kind of paper this is. This is what covers the framework of an airplane. I got it off a wrecked ship. Touch a match to it and you’ll see how fast it burns.” He added, “All the fellows in camp have been getting this stuff and writing letters on it.” Madison resident Kenneth Zerwekh, an officer in the 3546th Ordnance Medium Automotive Maintenance Company, wrote dozens of letters home to his wife, Evie, on traditional paper, postcards, and V-mail during his World War II service in Europe. On June 20, 1945, though, he chose a different medium to write to his wife. With the defense, “As this is the only paper available—and the property of Lt. Davidson—I hope you will excuse the reverse side especially,” he continued the letter on the back of a Vargas pin-up girl calendar page. Zerwekh used nine of the calendar pages to write letters to Evie, and although the collection includes her return correspondence, she made no mention of her husband’s unique stationery. The above examples demonstrate the desire of Wisconsin veterans throughout history to stay connected to the home front while also showing off some of the new things with which they were coming into contact. Along with the thousands of other letters, diaries, photographs, and other materials preserved at WVM, they help keep the stories of Wisconsin veterans alive.  Learn more about the WVM’s archival collections at http://bit.ly/1xsHf5E