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  • by Karen Cummings

Wartime Letters From Home

Harry Eastman Sent the Greatest Gifts


On June 29, 1944, Harry Eastman of Fryeburg, Maine, sent out a letter to the Fryeburg men and women who were away from home because they were doing their part for the war effort. He wrote: "Some time ago Lt. Col Clifford Eastman, who at that time was in Ireland, wrote to me and suggested that I send a letter every week or two to every boy and girl from Fryeburg serving in the Armed Forces. Since that time he has been transferred to England and I

expect he is partaking in the invasion. I think this is a wonderful gesture on his part..."

At that time, T. Clifford Eastman, though in the service, was essentially Harry Eastman's boss. There was no family relation, as always seems to be the case with the Eastmans in this region, but until the start of the war, T.C. Eastman owned a business in Fryeburg which included running a nursery and selling farm machinery, power mowers, and golf course equipment throughout northern New England. Since starting work for Clifford in 1931, Harry Eastman had moved up from working out in the field to being the star salesman for the company.

As the war progressed, the elder Eastman (Clifford was born in 1902 and Harry in 1904), who was an officer in the Army Reserves, decided he wanted to enlist for active duty. "He pulled me off the road and into the office to learn how to run the business," explained Harry. Feeling that the separate businesses were too much, Clifford dropped the farm machinery, lawn mower, and golf course equipment lines, and put Harry in control of the office and his own brother Harold in control of the field. "He told us, 'You two boys are going to run this business,’” Harry remembered, "and on December 26, 1940, he was called up for active duty."

Being extremely conscientious, Harry wrote fairly regularly to the absentee owner of the Western Maine Nursery "to report on the business." Also being a typical New Englander from a small town, Harry added some interesting...well, not exactly gossip, but...stories about what was happening around town. Harry was also a good salesman, and salesmen know that the best way to loosen someone up is to tell a good joke, so Harry would always include something humorous in his letters to Clifford.

Thus was born the idea to have Harry write regular letters to every Fryeburg "boy and girl" away from home because of World War II. "He told me that he really enjoyed my letters and thought it would be nice if everyone could get one," said Harry, who explained that Clifford also specified that the Western Maine Nursery office would pay the postage and provide the stationery and the help he needed to get the letters out.

With help from the American Legion, the Women's Auxiliary, and local families, Harry started compiling a list of names. "It took me quite a while to build up that mailing list," said Harry. Nevertheless, he got right to work, sending out what he thought would entertain and interest the majority of people. As he said in his introductory letter, "Whenever time permits, I will write you a letter every week, but in any case, every two weeks. I will try to make it as interesting as possible, but it will be difficult to write one letter and have everything in it be interesting to 165 people, which is the ap-proximate number who have now gone from Fryeburg."

The letters, which talked about the weather, who'd gotten a deer, and what was going on in town, were obviously well received, and many of the servicemen started writing back:

"I don't get many letters but every Monday right on the dot your letter arrives and I sure look forward to getting it..."

"I thought it was about time I wrote to you and told you what a swell job I think you are doing on the news letters...When a man is a few thousand miles from home, all contacts assume tremendous proportions...You see I have been gone nearly three years with the past 7 months overseas and it seems like a lifetime to me.

"Sorry I haven't answered your letters long ago to let you know that I enjoy them an awful lot. I wait for them every week just as much as I wait, from Monday till Saturday, for a letter from my Mom and Pop."

"I've been getting most of your letters and they are very interesting. I sure do appreciate them. Letters are the only thing that keeps up a man’s morale here… I hope you will excuse my writing, Harry, as I'm out here on the front lines in a hole, so my knees don't rnake a very good writing table."

"I receive and enjoy very much your weekly letters which you sent to all of us in the Service. Hope you're able to continue doing this as it really means something for us to get the news from home."

The letters obviously made each recipient feel that there was someone out there who cared about them:

"Just a line to let you know that I am alright..."

"I am feeling fine and am in the best of health. I just hope I will be able to say the same thing after the war."

They helped those away from home stay in touch with old friends:

“Will you send me Forrest Mills address so that I can write to him."

"Is Pat McGee still on an ice-breaker?"

"Say Harry, I'd like for you to send me Wilfred Tibbetts address and also Forrest Mills. I do want to write to a commissioned Officer once."

"Has anyone heard from Erwin Hodsdon that you know of?"

"Hooray! I finally found Dave Bell today, thanks to you...You don't know how great it makes a g.i. feel to see someone like Dave from your home town..."

Word of the letters spread quickly and many people wrote to request that Harry add a name to his list. A woman born in Fryeburg wrote and revealed her pride coupled with a realistic view of her young son: "Bob enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserve and was sworn in as a private on Dec. 17, 1943, subject to being called to active duty after his 18th birthday… This enabled him to graduate from Cape Elizabeth High last June… He was shipped to Keesler Field, Mississippi… took a series of 36 tests to determine whether he was suited for a pilot, navigator, bombardier or a member of the ground crew... We were thrilled and, well, a bit proud that he made the first hurdle O.K. as the Army Air Force examining officers are more strict than earlier in the war and Bob isn't exactly a born scholar or genius."

Headings on return letters read "Somewhere Across," "Somewhere in Germany," "Somewhere in Belgium."

Letters sent to Harry revealed that these small town men and women were seeing a lot of the world:

"I have traveled quite a distance since the last time I was in Fryeburg. The waves on the ocean are sure different from those on Fryeburg Harbor. I was one sick boy on the way over."

"Have visited Paris, Mitz, Nancy, and many other smaller places since being here. Wish you could see the lumberman's boots we were issued. You would think that we were ready to go skiing on the top of Mt. Washington."

"I can say I've been in London, England, now as I was there the other day. A very interesting place."

"I've seen a real live Mormon now! The Rockies sure make North Conway look little."

And they revealed that they were learning a lot:

"San Juan is quite a town and the whole coast line, both Atlantic and Caribbean is lovely with many beautiful beaches and of course lined with palm trees. The people are poverty stricken and shiftless and therefore the whole island is filthy---! mean it literally stinks in lots of the towns. Of course 10 or 12 people live in one room with a few chickens and pigs mix-ed in...Fruits of all kinds grow abundantly in addition to the sugar cane and tobacco. All the money is in the hands of a few."

"Most of the boys have gone to Washington and Baltimore, but I thought my hat would fit better tomorrow if I stayed in and wrote letters."

Some replies showed the dissatisfaction:

"Here I am back in camp after a swell 20-day furlough. Twenty days seems like a long time but it is dam short when you are on furlough."

"This Army isn't what it’s cracked up to be."

"Right now I am not doing much of anything as I just finished up a nineteen day furlough (that I spent right here in San Rafael, Calif., with Marge my wife and our boy Buster) as I am going overseas to a permanent change of station. A year ago last Nov. I put in for overseas service as I wanted to get over and get my time so I would have it done and over with, but no, they would not let me go over then. So I sent home and had Marge come out here and live and now just as we are getting settled in a swell one family house the Army decided that I was to go overseas now for a while. See what I mean about the Army."

Some of the soldiers achieved new heights: "...I like the work and I like the responsibility that goes with it and somehow I am going to let the people of Fryeburg know that the renegade that left there in 1939 has made good..."

Others didn't: "There isn't much of interest I can tell you about this island and of course my work doesn't amount to a damn as far as the war effort is concerned...I really envy the boys that are on fronts where there is really something worthwhile to do."

"You probably want to know my occupation in the Army. Well, I started to drive a truck when I first entered the Army and that's just what I am doing now."

Harry continued to send a joke or two every week. "I'd cut them out of magazines or newspapers," he said, "and save them in a box, and when I'd use one, I'd throw it away." They were simple and often corny:

"A Modern Maiden's Prayer: 'Oh dear Lord, bring him back safe, sound and single."'

"Saw a poster in the store the other day advertising a benefit church supper which read, 'Come in for a wing and a prayer."'

"They tell me that one tire manufacturer has just built his 5,000,000th syn-thetic tire. The event was celebrated with a blowout."

"We're winning the war by jeeps and bonds."

"My memory probably isn't as good as yours, but can you remember when Uncle Sam could live within his income and without yours?"

"Perhaps it's better to be an old maid. They know all the answers, but never get asked any questions."

"My boy came home from school the other day and said the teacher kept him after school. I inquired why and he said, 'She asked me to spell 'straight' which I did. She then asked me what it meant, and I said, 'Without ginger ale."'

The servicemen must have been desperate for humor:

"The jokes are very good that you usually enclose and I always pass them around for the gang to read."

"Some of the fellows here get a great kick out of the jokes you put in each one. Some of them copy them and send them home."

“The little items of interest to the other boys in my division which you usually put at the bottom of the letter give us all a good laugh."

Harry reported on things that were going on around town:

"Excitement, well I should say. Yes, sir, a murder was committed last Monday night right here in our neighboring town of Brownfield. They call it a murder although the accused hasn't confessed yet...as usual, there was a woman in the case, so I hear."

"They sure are having a big winter at Skimobile in North Conway, I was told that there were 1500 people up there last Sunday."

Many return letters reeked of homesickness:

"My wife tells me you folks are having quite a lot of snow and cold weather. I miss it a lot and wish I could be there, but guess it will be quite a while before I will so I will read your letters and dream about it."

"You mentioned the Skimobile at North Conway, well I went to a movie the other day and they showed the Skimobile while it was running in the news. It sure looked good to me."

"I will be glad when this is over and I can get back home. It will be good to go walking up the street and see all the fellows again. We used to have so much fun going bowling."

The letters could only reveal a little bit about what it was like fighting a war:

"This is just another nice, quiet Sunday morning...of course there is some noise as we have about 300 rounds a day to shoot..."

"Speaking of people being educated, a kid here pulled the pin on a hand grenade and then wondered why it smoked. If he hadn't thrown it when he did, he never would have known why it smoked."

Clifford Eastman wrote to report how the Germans planted their trees: "They plant evergreens in hardwood brush and then thin out the brush eventually getting all spruce. You might say this was studying forestry under difficulties with your arty [artillery] firing from behind over your head with machine guns on the front chattering every once in a while—and with buzz bombs or hundreds of your own planes overhead."

Harry did not neglect the sad news in his newsy letters:

"It is reported that Pvt. Elford McAllister has been wounded and is in the hospital."

"Cpl. Lee Glines' mother has received word that he was wounded in Germany and is now in a hospital in England."

"On December 14, Sgt. Edwin Hodsdon's parents received the following telegram:—'Report now received from the German Government through the International Red Cross states your son, Sgt. Erwin E. Hodsdon, who was previously reported a Prisioner of War, was killed in action on sixteen March over Germany.' The mistake of reporting him a prisoner must have been due to the fact that Erwin and the radioman on his plane exchanged dog tags..."

But, he always. tried to give some good news:

"By the way of the grapevine, I have just heard of a wedding. Don't know when, Don't know where. The bride and groom are Shirley Drew and Pvt. Hubert Haley."

“Send your congratulations to S/Sgt. Philip and Mrs. Ela. They have a new baby boy."

"Pvt. Edgar Jordan, Ernest Jordan TM 2/c, Donald Ela 2/c and Ed Leach, who is a brother of Pvt. Clarence Leach, were home over the weekend."

Harry's reporting when people came home prompted one serviceman to write: "I sure would like to know how Dan Hutchins gets so many leaves. I sure wish he could get more, but I sure would like to know the secret of his success.

Christmas was an especially hard time to be away from home, prompting many to write:

"Well I had a grand Christmas out here despite our position...You know you can really have a wonderful theatre aboard a carrier."

"I sure miss the Christmas dinner which I would have had if I had been home. You know there isn't anything to take the place of things you get at home."

"Let us all hope that next Christmas we’ll all be in our respectful homes...If this comes true, and we all think it will, it will be one of the merriest Christmases any of us have ever spent."

Harry continued to write his letters on a regular basis helped by the secretaries in his office, Ethylyn Shaw and Ruth Hanscom. "After I started, I put a letter in the mail every single Friday night," he said.

And he saved all of the letters he received so that Clifford could read them when he got back. It was Clifford's idea, after all, and he was in essence footing the bill, so Harry thought the credit should go to Clifford. "I think this is a wonderful gesture on his part and it surely is a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to be the person to do this," Harry wrote in his introductory letter.

But Lt. Col. Clifford Eastman didn't come back. "He always said he wouldn't send his men anywhere he wouldn't go," said Harry, "and he went out on a routine reconnaissance mission in April 1945, after the Armistice, and was shot by a sniper."

After that Harry's letters stopped, but the men and women from Fryeburg still remember what he did. For a year, he gave them the gift of home. 

 



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