The first letter
It is February 1941. Edward B. Holton, age 21, gets two calls that change his life forever.
The first comes from Uncle Sam, telling him he has been drafted into the Army. The second comes a few days later from Lucille Smith, a pretty, 19-year-old college co-ed, who phones to wish him luck in the service and suggest that they stay in touch. Eddie writes his first letter to Lucille from Camp Robinson, Arkansas, February 15, after chancing upon her picture in the Feb. 9, 1941 Rotogravure section of The Kansas City Star newspaper. (the “rotogravure” printing process enabled newspapers in that day to print photo-laden feature sections for publication on Sundays). She was pictured (second from left) among four candidates nominated for the “beauty queen” section of the University of Missouri yearbook.
I can almost picture my Dad as a buck private, sitting on his bunk bed in a noisy barracks, composing this note on a Saturday evening using some old board for a writing desk as his fellow grunts craned their necks to see what he was up to. It’s not clear to me if he ever would have gotten around to writing this letter from boot camp had he not been prompted by seeing the picture of Lucille, or if he had not visited the “canteen” for a beer or two that afternoon. All I know is that it is the first letter that resulted in hundreds more letters going back and fourth during World War II, a correspondence that led to them falling and love and getting married on Feb. 16, 1946 — five years and one day after this letter was written.
Here is that first letter in its entirety. More background from my Mom’s perspective follows:
FROM: Pvt. Edward B. Holton, A.T. Battery, 1st Battalion, 127 Field Artillery, Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas
TO: Miss Lucille Smith, Women’s Residence Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri
Camp Robinson, Feb. 15, 1941
Here I am reporting from Camp Robinson. I am a veteran here by this time since I have been here for four days. We left Ft. Leavenworth at 3:00 p.m. last Tuesday and arrived here 3:00 p.m. Wednesday. They had a special troop train for us which consisted of about 350 men. We ate three times during the trip and had a Pullman to sleep in. That was not so bad for a beginner was it? The meals have been fine and the tents are not so bad except we just about froze Thursday night. It got very cold and we can not run the stove after we turn in for the evening. I guess they are afraid that we would become asphyxiated (maybe that is not the correct spelling but you get the general idea). When I asked the fellows here to spell that one they looked at me as if I had been down to the Canteen a bit too long and had too much taken. Incidentally, I just have been to that very place doing my Saturday afternoon shopping. You very probably get what I mean, or do you?
If you wonder why this letter is so illegible you must understand that we don’t have a personal writing desk for each private as yet but I just have been in consultation with the Colonel and requested that he have the same down here at once if he expects to keep in my favor. Right now I am doing this masterpiece from a half sitting and half reclining position and using a 2 x 4 board for a writing desk. You know Washington suffered at Valley Forge quite a bit but I don’t believe that he can be compared with myself when it comes to that part of the old Army game.
I sure would like to see the face of a pretty damsel right now. You know it has been over a week since I have beheld the face of one of the weaker sex and at the present time the camp is under quarantine because of an epidemic of the flu and the chances are that we will be here for another month without any leave. Really the only comfort which I have had since I have been in the Army was seeing your picture in the Rotogravure section of the Star last Sunday. I surely am proud that I am able to know anyone who rates a picture in the Rotogravure. The picture was very good. How does it feel to be one of the beauty queens? I knew you the minute I picked up the paper, I knew it was your picture. Pardon me if this letter does seem to be written in bad form but I am trying to watch these guys watch and write to you at the same time.
Well Lucille I am about running out of stationery and I know that you will be tired of trying to decipher this code so I will close with
Lots of love,
P.S.: Write soon. Address: Pvt. Edward B. Holton, A.T. Battery, 1st Battalion, 127 F.A., Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Ark.
My Mom’s immediate response was not preserved, because her letters from February 1941 to May 1942 were lost. But much later in the correspondence, Lucille looks back on the earliest days of their relationship: “I remember a date I had with you before I went to MU and I’ll never be able to figure out why but you were such a disappointment to me that night. And then one weekend in February, Mother told me `Ed Holton has been drafted. He is such a nice boy, I think you should call him and wish him luck.’ So I did and a few weeks later you wrote me a letter from Camp Robinson. At first your letters, although always welcome, didn’t do much to me. But later towards the end of the summer something changed and your letters were most anxiously awaited. I remember one passage in particular written shortly before your furlough that fall. You implied that you thought that our correspondence had changed our friendship into something deeper. And then you came home and – you were right, weren’t you, darling?”
Eddie was right. One day while on furlough in November 1941, he took Lucille to meet his family at their farm in Tonganoxie, Kan. Sometime that day, or on the way back into town that evening, according to their recollections in later letters, Eddie kissed Lucille for the first time and told her he was in love.