Have you ever thought about what you’d want to say to loved ones before you die? Would your last words show concern for how your family would fare, or might they include a light-hearted comment hoping to ease their grief?
Throughout history, many veterans have given thought to that question and acted, including one very close to home. Can you guess this veteran who wrote to a Dells attorney, Perry Stroud, in 1864?
”It has been some time since I have heard from home or from anyone in Kilbourn City. I presume my friends think that they can employ their time to a better advantage than writing to a poor, miserable soldier who is in the field wearing out his life in fighting for his country,”
Have you guessed the sender yet? If not, the following line might help.
“Well perhaps he can, but I don’t see it. I am thinking some of leaving the Army and engaging in a hydraulic company.”
This writer went on to build a log bridge over the Wisconsin River which led to the establishment of Kilbourn City.
The writer was General Joseph Bailey.
Bud Gussel and his son, Dave, discovered the Civil War letters Bailey had written home in the old Stroud Bank Building. Bud, in a 2009 Wisconsin Dells Events article, described the letters as “heartwarming” and said they made a lasting impression on him.
The following were written by veterans who, unlike General Bailey, didn’t make it home. They show love of country and family.
“I would give 10 years of my life to see you and Isabel for a few seconds,” Private James Coulter wrote to his wife and their baby daughter, “but I see you a thousand times in the day and night. I do not require to tell you I know you can and will care for our little one, fetch her up as like yourself and she will not have many enemies in the world. I will close now with love to you and the baby.” James died in the Boer War at Bloemfontein in May 1900.
“If I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind,” Second Lieutenant Eric Heaton from East Sussex wrote to his parents from his dugout. “’It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country. My greatest concern is that I have the courage and determination necessary to lead my platoon well.” Eric was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The first day of this battle was the bloodiest in the British Army’s history.
Eric Lubbock, age 24, wrote these his last words to his mother. “My darling Mum, One is here confronted almost daily with the possibility of Death, and when one looks forward to the next few months this possibility becomes really a probability. As my object in life is to comfort and help you, so it is my last hope if I should be taken from you, that I may not cause you too great a grief.” He died at Ypres in 1917.
“Sorry I haven’t written more but the weather is against me. You can’t write out here when it rains hour after hour. I love you with all my heart. All my love always, Dean.” This writer stepped on a land mine and became one of the more than 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.
These prophetic words were written more recently, by 22-year-old Gunner Lee Thornton to his fiancé Helen, before he was killed in Iraq. “I don’t know why I am writing this because I really hope that this letter never gets to you, because if it does that means I am dead. Just because I have passed away does not mean I am not with you. I’ll always be there looking over you, keeping you safe. So whenever you feel lonely just close your eyes and I’ll be there right by your side. I really did love you with all I had, you were everything to me.”
Solemn words indeed.
I’d like to end with a light-hearted anecdote from 82-year-old Dells resident Helen Harden. She sent her son, Kenny, who was stationed in Iraq, a goody package, which included a Baraboo Circus World red clown nose. Kenny and his fellow servicemen had been under attack so tension was high. During roll call, Kenny put on the clown nose. Normally soft-spoken, he answered in a boisterous “Here” which made everyone look. Seeing the nose made his fellow servicemen burst out into laughter. When the others were dismissed, his sergeant told him to remain. Kenny was sure he was in trouble, but the sergeant said, “Well done. We needed that laugh.”
Thanks to all those who contributed, whether it was through sharing stories or heartwarming letters home. And to all those who have served, and those who continue to serve, Happy Veteran’s Day.
Credits: “General Bailey goes on display,” by Anna Krejci, Dells Events, May 13, 2009; “‘If You’re Reading This…’ The heartbreaking collection of last letters to loved ones from soldiers who never came home” by Emma Reynolds, Mail Online, February 2, 2012; “Final Letters From Fallen Warriors,” by Andrew Carroll, AARP Bulletin, May 2014