Letters from the Good War

A running series of World War II letters written by a Navy Seabee who served in the South Pacific theatre taking the reader through the entire war experience.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Writing a foreword to Hugh Aaron's letters is like saying a few words after Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: It's a tough act to follow—but a privilege, too.

One of life's deepest regrets is that of neglected opportunity, especially in expressing love for parents, to whom—once they are gone—words of praise prove futile, gestures of affection mute. In these letters, however, Hugh, as a World War II Seabee, tells his mother, his father, and his brother, too, how much he loves them, admires them, misses them. There are conflicts, also: old grievances aired and new ones erupting, though nothing this family couldn't handle. And this is a family of immigrant stock, molded by the Great Depression, tested in a frightful world war. To Hugh's traditional Jewish parents his letters must have reflected the biblical observation that a loving son gives his mother joy; a devoted son gladdens his father's heart.

These splendid letters also represent a journey both literal and cerebral, revealing the growth of a young mind—calm and turbulent, rational and imaginative—searching for truth as it thirsts for knowledge, groping for answers to life's problems as it grapples with life's perplexities. It is a mind in transition, an uncommon mind responding to upheaval and uncertainty, to kindness and insult, to literature and music, to God and man.

Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. Hugh's letters, then, can surely be classified as Socratic. Had Hugh placed himself under a microscope, he could not have examined himself—nor others, nor events—more closely. Though, on occasion, he can be hard on others, he is harder on himself. His self-honesty is as painful at times as it is refreshing. He never forgets a kindness, always grateful to good people good to him—and good for him.

These articulate reminiscences resurrect the times when names like Anzio, Casablanca, the Coral Sea, and Normandy dominated the news; men like Roosevelt, MacArthur, and Churchill dictated—if not controlled—events; entertainers like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny reigned supreme in films, in the theater, on the radio in what was then called the Home Front, for which Hugh, the young Seabee, yearns and to which he addresses his soul-searching correspondence.

These are letters of reflection, a progress of the soul, in a world in turmoil, changing dramatically, rapidly, and irrevocably.

Hugh writes that he wants to be a writer; he is a writer, but he doesn't know it (his father does, however). His eye for detail is well nigh photographic, his expression both powerful and lyrical, whether discussing abstract ideas or describing a city or a sunset. In his developing and fertile mind he maintains a balance between thought and mundane living. Hugh impresses people as much as they impress him. His letters reveal a discriminating, headstrong young man without affectation, friendly without condescension. Sense of humor? Check his epistolary sign-offs. His work record as a Seabee matches his work ethic—extraordinary. The reader likes him, for he has a good heart. He has character.

Yes, his mother saved every letter he ever wrote home. Well, Jewish mothers did not get their reputations lightly; but isn't that what women do when receiving love letters?

Ramon de Rosas
Arlington, Massachusetts


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