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What do you think of when you think of war?
If you’ve been to war, you don’t have to think. The images, the sounds, the pains, the tension come even when you don’t want to think about it.
Those of us who have not been to war stand in awe of those who have served, and express gratitude for a debt that cannot be repaid.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Millions of Americans served in the war, and their experiences were wide and varied.
Janet Dalton Honek, part-time Las Cruces resident, always knew her father served in the war, but she never knew any details.
When her mother, Sandy, passed away in 2018 at the age of 99, Janet found an unexpected time machine hidden in the family home.
It was the house the Daltons built in 1956, in Los Angeles. That meant there were more than 60 years of stuff to sort through. Tucked away in the bottom back corner of a hallway linen closet, Janet encountered a box.
It was full of letters to Sandy from her husband, Bob Dalton, Janet’s father.
Suddenly, Janet was exposed to a side of her father she never knew, from a time before she or her brother, Russell, were born.
Hours and days passed like seconds as Janet read the letters, the words transporting her back to 1944, building a black-and-white movie – complete with Glenn Miller soundtrack – of her mother and father as newlyweds.
Many of the letters began this way: “Well, how are my two best girls?”
Bob was referring to his wife, Sandy, and their young daughter, Carol, who was just 15 months old when Bob was inducted into the Army in October of 1944.
As Janet continued reading the letters, she got this gnawing feeling: “I should do something with these.”
She talked with her brother, Russell, who initially was reluctant to make the private missives public. Janet, though, convinced her brother of the value of helping paint the picture of an American G.I., through the prism of his own eyes and camera. Bob Dalton was also an amateur photographer, whose photos were also scattered among Janet’s finds.
Russell was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany and was a professor of political science at Florida State University and the University of California-Irvine. With that expertise and Janet’s urging, he finally agreed to help “do something.”
The result is a book, “Love Letters from World War II: Robert W. Dalton’s WWII Service.”
Janet transcribed the letters, and Russell built the framework, setting the scenes with the goings-on of Robert’s surroundings, and placing the letters in the context of the larger picture of the war.
Robert entered the war late, and spent his time in the European theater, mostly in Frankfurt, Germany, where he was stationed well after the war ended. Even though Victory over Europe Day was May 8, 1945, Dalton was in Europe through April of 1946.
His letters illustrate a largely forgotten part of the war: The logistics of re-building Germany and the re-establishment of peace in Europe.
First of all, what do you do with five million German prisoners of war?
Robert Dalton was part of the Third Army, which in itself took in nearly 500,000 POWs, and much of his work for the next year was guard duty.
Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the big battles of World War II, but we probably have never given much thought to the aftermath, and the building back of peace.
Dalton’s letters also display the contradictions of war and his own emotional struggles.
Janet found the following to be one of the most hauntingly powerful comments from her father’s writings.
“The future certainly looked awful black at times during the war over here,” Robert Dalton wrote. “Is it right to pray for one’s own safety and at the same time kill a man? It gets to be a pretty complex picture.”
For Janet, creating the book was a catharsis, and belied the quiet, distant man she grew up with.
In her epilogue, she writes that doing the book has inspired her to spend more time with her own son and granddaughter, and she hopes that readers will make steps to open themselves more to their families.
It would be a shame for us to keep our joys, our hopes and our love hidden in a box in a hallway closet.