My angel: Well, I’m fatigued again tonight but you know the reason and you know that I’m happy. Hold up your left hand and hold down your little finger with your thumb. What you have left is what I have left.
My grandmother, Patricia Byfield, explained to me what my grandfather, George D. Byfield, had meant in the V-Mail he wrote on March 30, 1945. It meant that he had three missions left to fly.
Nanny had opened an old cigar box filled with faded photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings tacked together with rusted pins, and a stack of handwritten letters. The V-Mail I had just read was one of hundreds she received from my grandfather, who flew 35 missions in a B-17 bomber over Europe during World War II.
Her story probably isn’t too different from many other young brides whose husbands had gone off to war. They had recently gotten married and George was attending law school at the University of Texas when news spread of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The young student immediately enlisted in the Air Force, and with one semester left of school, the Supreme Court of Texas allowed him to take the bar exam on the condition that he would complete his studies once he returned from duty. Not much time went by before George was sent to training, and he was followed around the country by his new bride and new baby. “He asked me if I was going to swim after him when he got shipped off,” my grandmother told me.
“Did you?” I asked.
“No,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t like to swim.”
She remembered what it was like during the war; how she lived, how everyone got along, how rationing was a fact of life. She picked up more letters from the box. “I haven’t looked through these in years,” she confessed. “We had closed this chapter in our lives. Pulling all this out and reading it is really a revelation to me, and I know how much I loved him.”
And he her. She received almost a letter a day during the year George was at war. Although, there was period of about three weeks without any news. “We were all so worried. When I finally got some letters, the postman sat down with us and we all cried.”
Though the correspondence my grandfather sent rarely revealed much about specific events, my grandmother quickly learned to read between the lines. “He probably could have told me more than he did, but I could always tell when he’d flown. He’d say, ‘rough day,’ or, ‘helping the infantry these days,’ but couldn’t say where. When they went to London, George always wanted a hotel with a bath. But one time, he said he was taking a bath and a buzz bomb hit near the hotel. It shook all the water out of the tub.
“He’d give other hints, too. Here’s a letter from January 9 . It says, ‘We got a lot of snow, so Hitler got a little rest.’ Can you imagine? Hitler resting because of the snow. We just talk about Hitler now, but then, it was happening. We didn’t know anything about concentration camps. We didn’t find out until they went into Germany. Gas chambers, all of that—we didn’t know.”
On VE Day George headed home—to his wife and fifteen-month-old daughter. His part in the war had ended, but his courage wouldn’t be forgotten.