D-Day: What It Cost
Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg's searing and absorbing account of American soldiers battling to gain a foothold on the French coast in 1944, immediately rekindled interest in the greatest of all amphibious operations—and in touring the sites where it took place.
The letters below were first published in American Heritage on the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion. They are so affecting a reflection of that momentous time that they became a part of the commemoration, and President Clinton read aloud from them during the anniversary ceremonies in Normandy.
his is a story of the months prior to June 6, 1944, and a few of the days following, told through some of the letters my twenty-three-year-old father, Frank Elliott, wrote my mother, Pauline, while he was with Company A of the 741st Tank Battalion, and some she sent him at the time of the Normandy landings.
It begins with three telegrams to my mother, one sent on the day of my birth from Camp Young, near Indio, California, where he was in desert training, although, as it turned out, the unit never went to North Africa.
All correspondence was read and approved or disapproved for mailing prior to making its way to the addressee, so there is scant indication of troop movements or other military matters.
My parents were from New Castle, Pennsylvania, a town with a wartime population of about fifty thousand, and home to steel, bronze, and a few other heavy industries. My father's father and his uncle, Reuben, owned a small family steel mill, which is still in operation today. My parents met while my mother was in college in Erie, Pennsylvania; my father was a senior at Georgetown
University when he enlisted in the Army.
I'm publishing these letters now for those who remember that war or any war, for anyone who might not understand what war does to each life that it touches, and as a tribute to those whose lives have not turned out the way they planned.
St. Louis, Mo., January 19, 1942
I HAVE THE BLUES DARLING AND ST. LOUIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT MUCH LOVE FRANK
Indio, Calif., January 8, 1943
DARLING YOU'RE TOPS ENROUTE TONIGHT MAY TAKE 3 DAYS LOVE FRANK
Chicago, Ill., January 11, 1943
NO FINGERNAILS LEFT WILL BE BUYING BOXING GLOVES OR BABY DOLLS FRANK
Camp Polk, La.
April 28, 1943
I was working today when your telegram was delivered to me and I dropped everything. After reading it I went back to work with increased fervor because your letter or gram was so consoling and heartening. My darling I never could have believed that my love for you could grow to any greater proportions but it has darling. It has become unspeakably intense, so great that I can't encompass it. Pauline darling, you are so restrained so so very warmingly withdrawing and controlled. Your love for me must be great and in its greatness, it makes me unworthy. I hustled you in shopping and rushed you across a street and I only had two days with you. I loathe the impulse that leads me to such mad action. Your kindness, your demuring withdrawal from fighting back is all so endearing so inexplicably adorable that I feel like a drowning rat. Perhaps I never knew you till just this weekend. Perhaps it's because I discovered more and more about you that is so lovable. Perhaps it's the total lack of any taint in your makeup. I don't know what it is my darling but I do know I have never loved you like this before and I have loved you so much it's awful to remark. Every word you spoke, every syllable, every part of your body, every hair on your head, every expression that found itself on your beautiful lovely features, just served to increase to gigantic extremes the humble love my inadequate heart feels for you….
Your worthy-wanting husband,
November 1, 1943
If this writing appears to be extraordinarily wavy, it is due to the environment. We are en-route across seas in a large boat but none with any name to speak of. The meals are cooked by limeys and sure taste it….
November 5, 1943
Hello Mrs. Frank,
… I was counting on Christmas with my daughter—you know that and I am human; only my feeling for you is super human… . Until we are again together I live in the past. We converse nightly darling and we walk together through the day… . Please enjoy your holidays darling as it will be your last one without me… . So it is my wish for me to enjoy this strange land at Christmas to be sure in my heart that Dee and her angelic mother are also enjoying this gay festive Yule-tide. Give my greetings to Kate, Eb, Jack, Ann & Ma & Pa Lynch and my best wishes for this coming year which will see peace come to the world. The boys are discussing the English monetary system so I had best lend them my banking experience to settle the discussion. All my love my angel madonna I love you and how well you shall realize it by Christmas in '44.
November 12, 1943
… To-day we got our implements and on our particular weapon was the message "Good luck boys I hope you win soon. Love and kisses—I am a little girl." Cute, don't you think? It was written in a childish hand. (Such as mine.) Kiss our very beautiful little girl for me darling… .
All my love,
November 25, 1943
The people of this vicinity of the British Empire have good reason to give thanks on this Thanksgiving day. The reason; the sun is actually shining. The sun, ol' sol, that immense planet that gives its life heat to that part of the world where I was born. Last seen by myself in New York, I thought it phenomenal that it was no longer in evidence. I scanned the papers in vain for some clue as to its departure but, failing to see it mentioned, I decided it came under that vast category—a military secret. The tri-partite powers have condescended to let it reappear at the appropriate time… .
Sincerely I love you,
December 3, 1943
… Rondy is a cute pseudonym for our daughter but it will be DeRonda whenever she misbehaves—as if she ever could! I get a pass to Bristol soon and will put forth supreme effort to get my wife and sweet child a gift. But since I'm going on a Sunday I don't know what fruits my efforts will bear. There are so many things I should like to tell you dearest but some of them are censorable and some are too sacred to us to be written—even in a whisper. I was sorry to hear about the glass top to our coffee table. That particular glass top held many pleasant memories of tangy beers and good books—ah well! It served us well and sentiments should not be wasted… .
I love you I love you