There’s just something about a letter. The anticipation. The intimacy. The permanence. Today words can fly at the speed of light and, while your words can outlive you on the Internet, the words you put to paper have the power to transcend time. That holds especially true for the words in a love letter. They can be grand or plain, poetic or hokey — but to the writer and the recipient, a love letter is more than just correspondence. For soldiers and sailors and their loved ones waiting back home, a love letter is a lifeline.
Love Letters Home, now on exhibit at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, features letters, photos, mementoes and artifacts that resonate with emotion, from love and excitement to loneliness and boredom. They may be ordinary objects, but their value is immeasurable because of what they meant to the people who held on to them — and what they say about us all.
Next to a desk where visitors can write their own letters on postcards provided by the museum, is a black-and-white photo from the 1940s. It is of a woman reading in a chair and it’s clear that she’s waiting. Waiting, hoping, enduring were common themes in wartime. It would often take weeks, months, even years to receive word from a loved one. Those universal themes still hit home for military and civilians alike.
Many of the letters in the exhibit were written by Seabees, the nickname for members of the U.S. Naval Construction Forces, or Construction Battalion (CBs). They include enlarged prints of V-Mail (short for Victory Mail) on loan from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme. During World War II, letters home were “photographed and transported as thumbnail-sized images onto negative microfilm” and then printed onto paper when they reached the U.S. The system saved money and “thousands of tons of shipping space reserved for war materials.” It also deterred espionage because invisible ink, microdots and microprinting would not show up in a photocopy.
The examples include everything from humorous fill-in-the-blank letters to love poems and drawings.
“Across the sea I hear your voice
“And feel the beating of your [heart].
“We two grow closer day by day
“Although we’re really far apart.”
Each message had to pass the muster of the censor, which was often mentioned with cheeky humor by the sailors.
“My Dearest, ‘I love you, my darling,’ is all I can say. That’s just about all that will get by okay.”
Also on loan from the Seabee Museum are mementoes sent home, such as scarves, jewelry, pins and trench art — or objects made by sailors from found materials like coins and scrap metal.
The rest of the exhibit showcases letters sent to family and friends from a Ventura resident named Donald Brug while he was stationed overseas in the 1950s. Donated by his niece, they paint a picture of a young man exploring the world for the first time.
“Dear Happy People,
It’s Sat. and I’m back from a wonderful furlough. We traveled over 4000 miles and saw the greater part of Europe.”
Brug’s time in the Army must have fueled a wanderlust, for once he returned to Ventura, he built his own 26-foot sailboat that he christened Mistress. In 1962, Brug set sail by himself from Santa Barbara. Photos, video, notes and logs document his eight years at sea, traveling throughout the South Pacific, visiting ports in Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. Upon returning to the States, Brug made his way back west and became a master ship builder.
Curator and Collections Manager Kate Crouse explains that when she found the box of letters and mementoes on her desk, she knew they were worth sharing. “They are his story, but they are everyone’s story. We like to share stories about people who would otherwise be unknown, but everyone has a unique, important story to tell.”
From offering a personal chronicle of wartime to sharing timeless feelings of love and longing, the exhibit is a love letter unto itself — one that goes right to the heart.
Love Letters Home will be on exhibit through March 26 at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, 3900 Bluefin Circle, Oxnard. For more information, call 984-6260 or visit www.cimmvc.org.