Letter in a Battle

Stories often wind up in the trash. But this one begins there, with letters I found in a Tempe alley two years ago.

They were dumped among heaps of books, files and envelopes stuffed with bills and receipts. The discards were too dated to be those of a college roomie who'd just left town. There were Time magazines from the 1940s, and old family scrapbooks, photo albums and manila folders filled with commendations and awards. There were two boxes bulging with 1940s radio scripts -- mostly in Spanish -- from the Voice of America's show The March of Time. Yet it was the 6-cent air-mail stamps on some of the letters that finally proved irresistible.

The letters -- dozens of them -- were in several bundles wrapped with light blue paper and wound loosely with a strand of rotting cotton string. They were what remained of a lengthy correspondence between an American soldier from Phoenix and his family during World War II.

They chronicled nearly three years that carried James Creasman away from his wife, small daughter, family and friends in Arizona to boot camp and other Army assignments in Texas, Maryland, Oklahoma and, finally, Europe.

"It was as though all my connections with the world I have known were being cut off," he wrote aboard a troop ship, a few days after leaving New York in the first week of 1945. "And it is strange to be sailing at top speed across the ocean without ever knowing where you are going . . ."

Most of the letters I read as I crouched over the piles in the alley were from Creasman. But several dozen others were scribbled and typed by friends and loved ones in Phoenix.

They covered wide slices of Army and home life, and were filled, as one would expect, with the longings and fears accompanying the war.

"Wish you were here right now," his wife, Dorothy, wrote to him while he was stationed in Oklahoma. "I just finished washing and drying the dinner dishes and Martha Dee is asleep. I am writing on the little blue and white card table in my room where I can see your new pictures. Wish they could start talking."

Her letters recounted the latest doings of their little girl, who wasn't yet 2 years old when Creasman went into the Army.

The war shadowed just about every pleasantry.

"Jimmy, what do you think about the way things are going in Europe?" his wife wrote in one. "Do you think everything is as favorable as the news (radio) gives it?"

The letters bolstered the view -- handed down through two generations now -- that the war was worth its price in tragedy and grief. Yet they also aired the anxieties and blues -- rarely heard these days -- that agonized families left behind, waiting to hear.

Some of the frets and more personal expressions of love and isolation probably weren't intended to be read by anyone but the person receiving them. But lengthy passages describing events and scenes at the front were meant to be shared among family and friends.

"I promised to tell you about the sights along the roads," Creasman wrote home from somewhere in Germany late in the war. "Refugees, liberated slave laborers throng the roads day and night. I have passed thousands of them -- Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, French, Italians, Greeks, and many others. They carry all they own on their backs or on carts and other vehicles which run the whole gamut of wheeled contraptions known to man."

These candid, fresh, personal accounts -- more meaningful than news reports -- told not just tales of war, but of the foreign places and people that the war brought Creasman, and many other soldiers, in touch with.

The letters from home opened a window on Phoenix during the war that histories of the day rarely do. They told how families adapted to the absence of young men. How they doubled up to save money. How they pitched in to look after youngsters whose mothers had gone to work to supplement the low military wages. The letters charted the separate paths at home and at war -- paths that left nearly everyone wondering, with mixtures of guilt and sadness and confusion, which life was the more real, the more necessary.

The letters didn't belong in the trash. But they also didn't belong to me. I gathered them up and took them home to track down the Creasmans.

They were a Tempe couple with deep roots in the Valley. I knew Jimmy Creasman was associated with ASU. He led the successful drive in 1958 to change the school's name from Arizona State College to Arizona State University. And he was the stadium voice of Sun Devils football.