Among our many interesting “small” collections is a book of letters from a soldier in World War II.
U.S. Army Captain Sumner Danforth Davis, a doctor with the Medical Detachment of the 306th Infantry Regiment, 77th (Liberty) Division, served in the Pacific Theater from mid-1944 to the end of the war. Davis’s letters were transcribed and bound together into a book, which also includes an appendix of background information like maps and transcribed newspaper accounts.
Archival items provide a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with history, to follow an eyewitness’s story over time, through the everyday as well as the extraordinary. This page from the book is a good example of that:
The letter concluding at the top of the page briefly discusses combat (“I have seen fighting, but nothing ferocious”). The one in the center deals with more mundane aspects of camp life, ones which were apparently very important after the fighting is over. “Have you ever tried bathing, shaving and washing clothes in one quart of water?” he asks. He claims his fatigues are so dirty they can stand up on their own!
At the bottom of the page, Capt. Davis talks about going into the jungle to tend to men wounded in an ambush. (The story concludes on the following page.) The next letter, though, returns to an account of an ordinary Sunday in camp. “Things are quiet,” he says, “except for distant firing.”
These letters also bear witness to important events — from a combatant’s perspective. On May 5, 1945, he makes mention of Germany’s surrender, which would be accepted a few days later on V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day).
The next month, he talks about how many — or how few — are left from his original group:
He also mentions hearing news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima (letter of August 9, 1945). By then, his detachment was apparently too weary and wary to be very hopeful.
That’s not to say they didn’t have a sense of humor about things: