Saturday, January 9, 2010

Welcome to "Letters from Japan"

A little over a year ago, in the fall of 2008, I made the short trip from Atlanta to visit my Aunt Martha and Uncle Jack in Dalton, GA, a small city located just south of the Tennessee state line near Chattanooga. The main reason for my visit was to have dinner and take home a basket of bounty from their prize-winning vegetable garden; Martha, my mother's sister, had also arranged to hand over to me the correspondence of her father, William Tucker Gillham, with her mother, Frances Holsenbeck Gillham, written while he was stationed in Japan just after World War II. Martha had started transcribing into a Word document her father's side of the correspondence, which contained interesting descriptions of Japan and of his work there with the U.S. Army, and she had subsequently emailed the various installments of her efforts to members of our family. Since I had earned the reputation of the de facto family historian of my generation, I offered to help her with the transcription, and she seemed only too pleased to hand the work over to me.

After dinner, my aunt mentioned that she also had the other half of the correspondence; that is, the letters written by her mother in Atlanta back to her father in Japan. I immediately asked her if I might have these letters as well, as they would create the full correspondence and add the home-front element to my grandfather's journal of a soldier's work overseas.

Upon reading the correspondence in full, I was struck by many things, not least of which was how effectively it complimented my own knowledge and remembrances of my grandparents, making them into human beings more fully than I was able to do as a boy in my teens. By the time one is aware of one's grandparents they are fairly well situated in life, and it's hard to imagine them having once had to cope with the thirtysomething angsts of child rearing, mortgages, absence, etc. Beyond that, though, I also discovered several universal elements in the letters that would be of interest to non-family members as well -- the operation of the U.S. Army in Japan after the war, the typical problems of a "single" wife raising three children, and the human drama of a loving couple trying to keep their relationship alive while on different ends of the earth.

Maj. and Mrs. William T. Gillham, 1943

These letters will be of most interest to the Gillham-Holsenbeck family and their friends, and it is primarily for them that I have set up this blog.  Of course, the general blog-reading public is welcome to participate as well while I systematically transcribe this correspondence. My Aunt Martha has already done much of the typing of her father's entries, and for that I am very grateful. As you can imagine, these are letters written by real people, so they will not read like a Rousseau novel or other literary contrivances like Love Letters or the sort. I have not edited any of the grammar or style of the letters, but I have taken the liberty of correcting misspellings. For all of my grandfather's mastery of any number of subjects during the course of his life, he was a notoriously bad speller; I fear that the constant stumbling of the average reader over my grandfather's howlers would prove distracting in the long run.

Major Gillham's first letter is dated October 17, 1945, and unfortunately I have not located any letters written by Frances Gillham until just after the new year, in January, 1945.   This is one of the pitfalls of historic research.  However, due to the military transition from wartime to occupation and the change of Major Gillham's APO address upon arrival in Japan, he didn't actually receive any letters from Frances until mid-November, 1945.  Once he begins answering her letters, though, it becomes fairly clear from the context the sort of questions and news Frances has included in her letters.  If I ever do get my hands on the missing letters from Frances, I will of course post them in sequence retroactively and announce this in the most recent post.

I will also add occasional notes and clarifications, which will be inserted before and/or after a letter. My explanatory sections will appear in this font, and the letters will appear in italics, to help differentiate the two. After all, italics does make typeface look a little more like cursive handwriting.

I will make every attempt to update this blog on a daily basis; in any event, the entries shouldn't appear more than two days apart. This is my very first blog, so please feel free to send me criticism (constructive or otherwise), tips, advice, encouragement, or even complaints. I will be gradually finding my way through the world of blogging as I go, but any help would be greatly appreciated.

So, to begin your journey, just click the 01/13/10 link below to the left, which will take you to the first letter.  After you read the first letter, simply click on the date of the next post (always located below left) to proceed to the next letter, and so on.