- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

WINONA, Minn. (AP) - Writing to his wife and daughter from a battleship in the South Pacific during World War II, Delmar Jack Laudon had no idea that his loving letters would be saved, forgotten, then brought to life in a Winona State University classroom 70 years later.

His letters - about 500 of them - provide a detailed account of what life was like for Laudon, one sailor among many thousands. Their narrow focus makes them a valuable source for history students, said Matt Lindaman, chairman of the Winona State history department and also the instructor of the department’s World War II course.

The letters give an individual perspective to the generalizations of history, and a valuable complement to what the students read in textbooks.

For example, Lindaman said government propaganda during the war tended to be more high and mighty, focused on freedom and the American spirit.

By contrast, he said, “For a lot of rank and file soldiers, it was about getting the job done and getting home.”

Laudon passed away in 1987, and the letters found their way to the history department by way of Barb and Dave Heim, Laudon’s daughter and son-in-law, the Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/1QfR71Z ) reported.

When the Heims were cleaning out Barb’s mother’s house in 2004, they ran across bundles of war letters written in her father’s messy scrawl. Her mother had saved them carefully, envelopes and all, so the Heims took the letters to their farmhouse near St. Charles.

They sat in the Heims’ basement in boxes for about 10 years until Dave, a semi-retired farmer who enjoys chronicling family history, got bored one winter day and started unfolding the letters, organizing them in a total of five binders that spanned Laudon’s three years in the Navy.

He knew the letters were something special because there were so many of them, and they spanned almost the whole war.

“I thought it was pretty unique that you would have the whole war from one man’s perspective,” he said.

“That’s really something, that she kept those letters,” Barb added.

But the letters still weren’t getting much use in the Heims’ basement. They didn’t want to throw them away, and the rest of the family did not have time to read them. So on a whim, Dave called the Winona State history department, and Lindaman accepted the donation of the letters for use in classes and research_just in time for his May term World War II class.

“We like to give our students lab time for history,” Lindaman explained. “It gets students working with real documents.”

The letters tell a long, unfolding story of Laudon’s time in the Navy. He left for basic training in September 1942. He was 33 years old, living in Dover, Minn., with his wife, Emaline, and their young daughter, Barbara.

The way Barb tells it, her father was the postmaster of Dover, and as he delivered war mail to anxious families, he was constantly told how lucky he was that he was too old for the draft.

He got so sick of hearing these comments that he volunteered for service and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago.

And the letters home began.

Laudon wrote almost every day, and in his detailed eye - he had wanted to be a writer, Barb said - he described the overcrowded training facility he was thrust into, where he was surrounded by many much younger trainees.

Lindaman noted that as Laudon got accustomed to life in the Navy, his excitement at enlisting quickly gave way to appreciation of his home life.

Laudon was a devoted father, Barb said, sending her music boxes from around the world. In the letters, he laments being unable to watch his daughter grow up.

“I think the Navy is swell,” he wrote in September 1942, “but in no way compared to home life. I much prefer the home life. The quicker I can get out of here the better. We have a job to do and when that is done I’m coming home to stay forever.”

In April 1943, Laudon reported to Seattle, where his new battleship, the USS San Pablo, was being built. One letter home reported that he and some others snuck into the shipyard to see the vessel before it was christened.

The ship then sailed to San Diego, where the captain, drunk during a training exercise, broke the rudder of the ship, grounding it for several weeks. Lindaman said the class learned that blunders played a large role in World War II for both sides, and that the United States had its fair share.

As the war went on and the ship left for Pearl Harbor and then the South Pacific, Laudon expressed longing to get home, boredom, and lack of knowledge about where the ship was headed next. Some of his letters are missing lines due to censorship, and in other letters he mentions having to start over when a censor took a whole letter.

For the three-week World War II class, which ended last week, Lindaman split his 19 students into five groups, assigning each group a binder. They read the letters and looked for connections to their course reading, and they sought outside sources to get context on the events Laudon wrote home about.

Students said they were struck by the plain, everyday nature of much of the war. It’s also a misconception that war is a series of dramatic events - for soldiers like Laudon, it was a lot of downtime.

Student Meghan Guernica said her two grandfathers, both now deceased, were in the Navy in World War II, so the letters gave her a window into what their experience might have been like.

“They might have been kind of mundane,” she said. “It made it a little bit relatable - he was somebody’s dad.”

She also said it was interesting to read that just in his first month of service, Laudon was already aching to go home.

“He knew why he had joined, but he still wanted to go home,” she said.

Nick Lee echoed Guernica’s comment, noting that Laudon’s situation was unique because he had a wife and young daughter. “There’s a sense of duty, but there’s also a sense of like, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said.

The letters reflect highs and lows, student Eric Scott said. Laudon wrote openly about his frustration and loneliness, weight loss and sleeplessness.

Then there’s the merriment of the port at San Diego, where he washed down steak dinners with plentiful beer, and snuck off the ship to type his letters and circumvent censorship. Laudon sometimes went along with the shenanigans of the younger crowd of sailors, but at other times his maturity set him apart.

Students noticed the letters’ vibrant details and honesty. Laudon didn’t know his letters would be preserved, so his language is candid, without polish, and occasionally rather colorful.

“This is a really personal, intimate view at somebody’s life,” Nic Barnes said.

When Laudon got home, he rarely talked about his time in the service, Barb said.

Because she was so young at the time, Barb only remembers a few things about what the war was like. She said one event that stands out is meeting her father in Seattle when he got home in September 1945, the streets full of ticker tape and confetti.

But the details of Laudon’s service, as much as he could say, remain permanently recorded in his hundreds of letters.

Lindaman said he has plans to scan the letters into a digital archive, so that students can use the collection as primary source material for years to come.

“The more it gets used, the better,” Barb said.


Information from: Winona Daily News, https://www.winonadailynews.com

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