Jeanne Sathre/Voices: In memory of a soldier I never knew

Jeanne Sathre/Voices: In memory of a soldier I never knew


After my parents died, my sister and I got out the letters that Dad had written to Mom while he was in Burma during World War II. They had never met at the time they started writing, but wrote back and forth for the last two years of the war. When it ended, Dad came to Springfield, where Mom was living, and they started a nine-month courtship that turned into a happy 55-year marriage.

My sister and I had known about the letters, but had never been allowed to read them. We knew only that they were kept in an unlocked chest in the back of their closet and, from glimpses of them, that they were bundled together and tied with ribbon. It surprises me that I never breached those ribbons in the same manner that I sought out and unwrapped my hidden Christmas presents. But I never did. And neither did my sister.

If we had, we would have discovered that half of the letters were not from Dad, but from a Sgt. Charles Rayburn, stationed in England.

The name wasn't a surprise. We knew that Mom had dated him and that he was killed in combat when his plane was shot down. But we had never known much more than that. In the same way that it was somehow clear to us that Dad's letters were private, it was clear that Mom's memory of Charles Rayburn was private too.

I remember only one time when Mom told me any specifics, and it wasn't until I was an adult, with children of my own. She told me then that, after he died, his mother had asked if she could be pregnant. This was a question that I would have expected Mom to be offended by, but she said she wasn't because she knew it was asked out of love.

My sister remembers gently asking Mom about Charles and that she smiled and repeated his name. They danced, she told her, and he sent her flowers from London for Christmas.

His letters revealed a little more. They met on a train and, during the several months that he remained in the States for training, they were able to spend four additional weekends together before he was sent overseas. One of those weekends was at his home in Chicago, where Mom met his parents and his sister.

The letters don't reflect a love affair, but they do reflect a fondness, which seemed to deepen over time. His greetings progressed from "Dear" to "Dearest" and his salutations progressed from "Sincerely" to "Love." In the last of his letters, he reflected back and wrote:

Just one year ago today "Old Man Fate" handed me a ticket that made our meeting possible. I'm sure going to do my best to repay him for his kindness. Remember? Seats 36 and 37 in Car 5 on the smooth I.C. train the "Green Diamond." You know, Leslie, sometimes it seems so long ago, then, it seems like only yesterday. I really think that although we haven't been together nearly as often as I would have liked, we did get to know each other pretty well, don't you think?

He was killed in combat three days later. Mom continued to write him for several weeks, not knowing. We don't have most of her letters, but we have five that were returned to her, marked "Return to Sender — Addressee deceased, 2/10/44 — 413 Bomb Squadron, G.L Lintzennich, Captain, A.C."

The first of those returned letters thanked him for flowers that he had sent:

Yesterday was really a red letter day on my calendar — Flowers for Madam — beautiful flowers — and so many of them!!! Eight red roses, iris that looked like orchids, glads, and the most gorgeous sweet peas I've ever seen in my life. Sitting here looking at them now, just can't see them enough — they're so beautiful. Nice guy, this T.Sgt. Rayburn. Wish he were around so I might thank him properly.

Her last letter was dated Feb. 28, 1944, and we assume she was notified sometime soon after, probably by his parents, because she went to his memorial service in Chicago. There was a printed poem from the service with the letters.

There were also pictures. Several with Charles alone in uniform, one with his flight crew, one with him reclined on grass in civilian clothes reading a book, and one with Mom and him together with two friends at a restaurant. Newspaper clippings from a London paper describing air offensives over Germany that he was involved in were there too. All bundled together and tied with ribbon.

Mom's correspondence with Dad started about a month before Charles was killed and appears to have started as a courtesy. In one letter, Dad mentioned that Mom's boss was writing him too. The letters weren't initially as frequent as those to or from Charles, and Mom shared at least something about her relationship with Charles and his death. Early on, Dad wrote:

I'm terribly sorry to hear what happened to your friend. I want to take this opportunity to offer my condolences. I'm sure he must have been quite a fellow and that he did his job before he went. That is one of the things all of us over here hope to have said about us if we do go over the Hump.

If you think that I can in any way help you, I want you to be free to write me whenever you wish. I'm deeply touched to think that somebody thinks by writing to me they will get their troubles off their minds.

It was a surprise to find the letters from Charles, kept and tied with the same ribbon as the letters from Dad. And it was hard to read them without wondering, "What if?" Did the death of Sgt. Charles Rayburn somehow give us our lives by leading Mom to Dad? It's an unanswerable question. As is the question of why Mom kept his letters for 55 years.

Yet, there are some answers. We know that Sgt. Charles Rayburn was a good man who did his job before he went and that he would like to have that said.

We also know that his life helped form the mother that we knew — the one who nurtured us with love and with a very real understanding of war, and sacrifice, and honor, and loss.

Jeanne Sathre is a retired attorney living in Champaign.