WILLIAMSTOWN — By the time he was 23 years old, First Lieutenant Robert L. Stone had left Williams College and completed 40 combat missions in the South Pacific region as a World War II bombardier with the U.S. Army Air Forces.
During that time, he sent home more than 150 letters, telegrams and postcards to his father, North Adams native Jake Stone, and various family members, then living on Park Avenue in New York City. His father kept every word — typically signed "Bobby" or "Bob" — in a round brown checked Saks Fifth Avenue hat box.
The letters stayed with the family and were given to Bob Stone in the 1970s, but stayed in the box in a basement. His medals and ribbons were also kept upstairs, out of everyday view until about a decade ago, when Otis Baker, the child of visiting family friends saw them. The boy questioned the retired veteran about his service. And for the first time, in possibly decades, Bob spoke about the war.
Just in time for Veterans Day, Bob Stone's letters and his story as it connects to his seven other family members who were involved in the WWII efforts, have been published in a 421-page hardcover book, "Letters in a Box," compiled by his wife, Sheila M. Stone of Williamstown, and his stepdaughter, Ali Adair, of Washington, D.C. The book also includes passages from "The Greatest Generation," with author Tom Brokaw's permission.
Instead of selling the 600 copies, the family is giving them away to family members, friends, schools and interested people, with distribution and shipping help from the students and staff at Pine Cobble School in Williamstown and the local post office. Karen Goodman at Goodman's Jewelers on Spring Street is also helping to distribute the books locally to those who request them.
Sheila said this project is being done to not only preserve the legacy of a now dying generation of veterans, but to support the current generation. In lieu of listing a purchase price, Stone's encouraging people to donate funds to the Wounded Warrior Project. The charitable organization supports the holistic healing, employment, civic engagement and well-being of service members incurring an injury or illness, physical or mental, on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
Sheila said that although several members of the Stone family "were in two of the deadliest battles of World War II, our family was extremely lucky that nothing serious happened to them. Not all families are as fortunate as ours."
Bob's stepdaughter, Ali Adair said neither she or her mother considered themselves history buffs, but when they came across the hat box of letters, Bob's scrapbooks and photos, they couldn't help but read them cover-to-cover, over and over again.
Adair said text books used in high school and college tend to give people a lot of dates and basic histories. "This gives you a much richer background of what it took to go through these things ... and tells you what it's like, from when you're signed up from the military to when your discharged," she said.
As it goes, a 19-year-old Bob Stone was studying in his dorm room at Williams College when he tuned into President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Dec. 8, 1941 radio announcement that Japanese bombers had attacked naval ships at Pearl Harbor.
Bob told young Otis Baker in an interview for a class project: "The devastation of our navy's ships plus the enormous loss of American lives upset and angered me so much that I immediately enlisted in the aviation cadets as an entry into the Air Forces. The unprovoked and dastardly act by the Japanese is something that I will never forget!"
The dates of Bob's letters span from when the young man first entered the barracks in Nashville in February of 1943, through his tour in the Mariana Islands, to July 1945, when he was given his last service assignment back on U.S. soil, at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
The letters sent home tended to be social and didn't let on the details of his missions as a bombardier, largely due to a code of censorship. In one letter dated Nov. 14, 1944, Bob wrote: "I've now got in four missions which is only a step in the right direction — forty! As each mission comes up the great tenseness and anxiety gets less as you become more accustomed to what happens. I guess you're always scared of the flak bursting around your ship and the attacking fighters but still you learn to keep calm enough to perform your duties."
Later on in life, Bob told his young friend Baker in a correspondence about his "scariest mission," bombing Iwo Jima and leaving a target that was six hours away their base in Guam. Their B-24 took a number of return hits from the Japanese fighter planes known as "Zeros," taking out one of four of the plane's engines. At one point, the plane began to lose altitude, then suddenly the three remaining engines temporarily stopped.
"The silence was devastating and eerie," Bob told his wife Sheila, who was typing his responses for Baker. She had not heard this story before, and how his crew had to detour to Saipan instead of Guam.
Baker said that when he was sending his questions and later getting the responses, "I didn't know that he had never talked about being a soldier and dropping bombs over Iwo Jima when he was just 20 years old to his friends, or his kids or even Mrs. Stone."
Sheila was only 6 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked; she and Bob met later in life after both had previously been married.
She said she was stunned by all that she learned through the interview and letters.
"I don't think I could have handled it very well ... and I'm grateful I didn't have to go through that with him. It was a horrible and difficult time for so many people."
The couple eventually moved to Williamstown in the mid-1980s and Bob passed away at age 87 in 2009.
Sheila and her daughter say their next goal is to send Bob's letters, decorations and the book to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which, Sheila said, only contains three other collections of letters from WWII veterans. She hopes the Stone family collection will add to the effort of preserving the collective legacy of that era.
"It's pretty amazing what this generation did, and it keeps going on now," said Sheila. "We should be proud of all the people who made, and still make, the sacrifice for our country."