'The new generation ... really should know what this generation did'
Correspondence from a young World War II veteran 'gives you a glimpse into his world'
WILLIAMSTOWN — How do we become who we are? We are formed by what we experience in life and how we handle each event, each decision, and each adventure that comes our way. The letters you are about to read were written by my beloved husband many years before I knew him and when he had just entered early adulthood. They are important to read because they will bring you close to a young person who lived at a time when the world was very different.
So begins an introduction by Sheila Stone, a Williamstown resident, of a new publication titled "Black Hours and Narrow Escapes: The World War II Experience of Bombardier Robert L. Stone."
Using a collage of letters, postcards and oral history transcriptions, it details the World War II experiences of Stone's late husband, Robert L. "Bob" Stone, who left Williams College as a plucky, patriotic 19-year-old sophomore to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. There, he cut his teeth as a bombardier.
By the time he was 23, 1st Lt. Stone had completed 40 combat missions in the South Pacific, which included several brushes with fate.
During that time, he sent home more than 150 letters, telegrams and postcards to his father, North Adams native Jacob "Jake" Stone, his stepmother, Beatrice, and various family members then living on Park Avenue in New York City. In total, eight people in his family either were serving in, or otherwise involved in, World War II.
His father literally kept every word — typically signed "Bobby" or "Bob" — in a hatbox. The collection later was returned to Bob, who went on to have a significant business and corporate consulting career working with ABC, NBC, Columbia Pictures and the like.
He died in 2009 at age 87.
In 2015, after revisiting the letters, Sheila and Bob's stepdaughter, Ali Adair, of Washington, published them with narratives in a 421-page hardcover book, "Letters in a Box," compiled as a keepsake for family members, friends, and any interested libraries, historians and schools.
She told The Eagle during an interview at her home, "The new generation, our grandchildren, really should know what this generation did."
In 2017, with the help of Susan Dunn, a Williams College professor of humanities, author and political history commentator, Sheila Stone donated the letters, as well as other scrapbooks, pins, medals and memorabilia of Bob's, to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City.
The artifacts are incorporated into the "Black Hours and Narrow Escapes" publication, which has been distributed internationally to more than 4,751 schools through the institute's free K-12 Affiliate School Program. Sheila said she wants Berkshire schools to know that they can sign up.
The Stone collection also can be browsed by historians and scholars through the institute's online database.
"History books give us facts and dates and interpretations, but letters bring us history in the present tense, with no filters, no commentary, and no distance," Stone writes in the publication's introduction.
Sandra Trenholm, curator and director of the institute's collection, recalled her first impression of the letters.
"Bob's personality shines through the letters and really gives you a glimpse into his world," she told The Eagle via email. "You can feel his anticipation, anxiety, worry and fear. His sense of humor and love for his family are visible in nearly every letter. You can definitely see him as a 20-year-old kid. You can see the challenges he is facing."
In a letter to his family dated Feb. 11, 1943, Bob describes training camp, and being routed out of bed at 4 a.m.
"It's certainly a heck of a grind!!!" he writes.
Then, in describing his unit of about 35 trainees, he writes: "Never have I been with such a funny bunch of fellows. Each one is cleverer than the next and the repartee that floats around is truly something. Of course, the language is not that of the king's court but none the less it's a riot!" before signing off, "Must run to formation in a minute so I'll halt here. ... All love — Bobby."
But Stone's tone changes in later years, after being in the throes of war.
In a letter to his family dated March 17, 1945, Bob wrote from Guam, after finishing his 31st mission: "The tension on a crew plays hell with you until you've finally flown your 40th. Once you have most of your missions completed, you're constantly thinking about flying the last few. Before a man has completed his tour of combat duty, he's mentally been through the torture of the damned."
At the institute, the letters and medals and such are featured during a World War II tour for school groups. Unlike the emoji-laden text messages and emails that are more frequently exchanged among people today, students viewing his letters can get a feel for the bombardier's handwriting, his nonabbreviated word choices, and his choice of what he could access for stationery in those days.
"Books, movies, and TV can tell the story, but seeing the original letters, touching something that they touched, it creates [sic] can create a connection," Trenholm said. "It helps people relate to the past and we can often see some of our current challenges being played out in the past."
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.
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