by CHRIS ROGERS
Glen Palecek never looked in the boxes. They were old and heavy, tucked under the bed in his late mother’s room — something she must have held onto for ages. Glen’s wife, Denise, knew, vaguely, that there were letters inside. Muriel Palecek had left a note on one of the boxes: “To sort later.” After she died in 2012, the boxes sat untouched under her old bed until a few months ago, when Denise and Glen opened them up.
The boxes are jam-packed with letters from World War II between Muriel, a teacher at a Japanese-American internment camp in Utah, and her husband, Marvin Palecek, a radio section chief in the U.S. Army on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy, and France. “I never put two and two together that these were letters from the war,” Glen said. “I didn’t know there was a day-to-day account, almost, of the war.”
“Don’t forget that I love you,” Marvin wrote to his wife while he was fighting in Italy a few weeks ahead of their first wedding anniversary in November 1943. She kept that letter — and hundreds more — all those years. Some of them are filled with poems Marvin wrote from foxholes, with a rifle stock for a desk and his helmet for a chair. “I’m dreaming of a land of liberty / Dreaming of the times that used to be / Dreaming of a place I long to go / Dreaming of a girl I know,” Marvin wrote just before Christmas 1943.
Marvin spent the holiday fighting through machine guns and mortars in the mountains between Rome and Naples. He and Muriel had only spent a couple weeks together after getting married before he shipped off to a distant Army base in the states. Marvin landed with the 45th Infantry Division in North Africa in June 1943. He was in the chaotic invasion of Sicily in July — when part of the 45th Division was overrun by German tanks — and fought in the battle of Anzio, a port city south of Rome, which the Allies invaded in January 1944 and spent four months trying to hold. In the whole of the Italian campaign, there were over 300,000 Allied casualties, according to a PBS history.
Most of the letters Muriel saved are tiny “V-mail” cards the size of airline napkins. Soldiers’ letters were shrunk down to save space on transport ships, and the one-page missives Muriel received are just big enough to read Marvin’s looping cursive. Soldiers who got mail tried to contain their excitement, Marvin wrote, and those who got none “let loose everything from tears to profanity over their ill luck.”
“Mail call was a big, big deal,” Glen said. However, mail delivery in a war zone is not always regular. Marvin sometimes did not get any mail for weeks or months at a time — he thought Muriel stopped writing him. Then he got a flood of back messages all at once.
The letters in Muriel’s boxes are nearly all from Marvin to Muriel. American soldiers were ordered to destroy the letters they received, though as the war wore on, obedience to and enforcement of that rule broke down, Glen said. When she asked him not to destroy one particular letter, Marvin told Muriel that she didn’t know how difficult her request was. “The only place I can try to keep it is in my pockets, and you should see how much stuff I have crammed in them!” Marvin wrote. “When I empty them to change clothes at a shower, I have a terrific problem getting all the stuff in the clean clothes until the water-shrunk pockets stretch again.”
While Marvin was at war, Muriel was living and working at a U.S. internment camp in Topaz, Utah, where, according to the Topaz Museum, 11,000 Japanense-Americans were detained during the war.
The museum reports that was just one-tenth of the total number of people, many of them U.S. citizens, who were locked up during the war simply because of their Japanese heritage. While the “Topaz Project” was essentially a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire, it was also a small city of sorts, with spartan barracks, recreation halls, and schools full of teachers like Muriel.
From Marvin’s letters, it is clear Muriel wrote to him some about the discrimination her pupils faced. Years later, Muriel talked to her son about her time at the prison camp, too. Glen said she became close with many of the detainees. Despite the United States’ mistrust of Japanese-Americans, the government allowed some young Japanese-American men to serve in the war. Muriel told Glen that some of the families at the prison camp were Gold Star families; their children died in the war. “I always thought it was kind of ironic that they were fighting for the same country that imprisoned their parents,” Glen said. Glen added that whenever he talked about what his mom did during the war, his former co-workers never believed him that the U.S. had unconstitutionally imprisoned Japanese-Americans en masse. “No way. That never happened,” he recalled them saying. It did. “It’s a real black spot on American history,” Glen stated.
Glen said that his father tried to hide some of the dangers of war from his wife — and some things didn’t make it past Army censors that inspected soldiers’ letters. In some of his earlier letters, Marvin writes about the beauty of Italy and his messages are often full of winking humor. “They have grape vineyards, pears, oranges, lemons, tomatoes, mulberries, watermelons, very sour apples — but how would I know? They told us not to eat them,” he wrote. Marvin was a radio section chief and became a sort of go-to source for news-hungry G.I.s. Marvin seemed to revel in news of the war effort, and his messages to Muriel are often full of jubilance and comic bravado. “The Russians are going to get to Berlin before we do yet if we don’t hustle. Why? The Germans over here can’t run so fast over all these mountains,” he writes in August 1943. “Don’t worry about me,” he adds, “a bad penny always returns.”
But as the war wears on, more sadness over the violence he is surrounded by creeps into Marvin’s letters. He calls it “hell” and “fierce gory fury.” Glen said he thought his father wrote his own poems to Muriel as a means to sneak things past the censors. Marvin took his Christian faith seriously, and Glen said his father had compassion for the Germans. Marvin quotes the gospel’s message to “love your enemies” in one letter, adding, “Slightly different than the doctrine we’re getting now.” In a letter on Christmas Day in 1943, he quotes a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: “Hate is strong, / and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
In April 1944 Marvin told Muriel, “If I started telling you how much I miss you and how much I think of you or about our future home, I’d completely wreck my own morale. It gets hard sometimes to look toward Berlin when you want so much to look the other way, but it can’t last much longer.” In another letter that spring, he writes, “I hated to wake up this morning. I was dreaming we were together.”
Marvin died in 2007. Now, 10 years later, Glen has learned far more about what his father went through in the war than his father ever told him. Asked how he felt while going through the letters, the normally stoic man was silent for a time. His voice changed. He mentioned a letter about Marvin’s best friend dying at Anzio. “What really took me back was after I read over 100 letters, I got a little emotional because I started to feel the war,” Glen said.
After the war, Marvin and Muriel had several children. Marvin earned a Ph.D. and went on to become a professor of history at Winona State University. Muriel taught high school and eventually worked at the former Saint Theresa’s College in Winona. She was an English teacher and in their letters, Muriel would correct her husband’s grammar, Glen said with the hint of a smile. He is still going through his parents’ letters from the war.