As expansive as it is personal, this chronicle of World War II is a firsthand account by a journalist and the woman he would marry of the dramatic events that engulfed the world in the middle of the twentieth century. The correspondence between Charles Kiley and Billee Gray also tells the poignant tale of two young people in love but forced apart by the circumstances of war. Edited by Charles and Billee's daughter, son, and son-in-law, this never-before-published compilation of letters is a striking example of the heroic, call-to-duty spirit that characterized "the greatest generation."
Charles was a soldier-journalist for the U.S. Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper and reported on the war from London, Normandy, Paris, Reims, Belgium, and Germany. As the sole reporter allowed direct access to Eisenhower's staff, he was the only reporter on the scene when the German high command was negotiating its unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. Among his army newspaper friends and colleagues was Andy Rooney, later CBS correspondent and 60 Minutes commentator. Billee, like many young women of her time, witnessed the war years from the home front and filled vital civilian rolesdefense-industry plant worker, Red Cross volunteer, war bonds salesgirl, and civil defense plane-spotterand wrote about it all in her letters to Charles.
Peppered with fascinating details about soldiers' and civilians' lives, and including Stars and Stripes articles and personal photographs of the era, Writing the War is both important history and a tribute to two remarkable people as well as their extraordinary generation.
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About the Author
Anne Kiley is a freelance writer, editor, graphic artist, book designer and photographer.
Thomas Pellechia is an independent writer specializing in food and wine. He has written dozens of freelance magazine articles, has been a newspaper columnist in Western New York for two decades, and is the author of five previous books, most recently, Over a Barrel: The Rise and Fall of New York’s Taylor Wine Company.
David Kiley is a journalist and editor, having held senior posts at USA Today, Businessweek, AOL, the HuffingtonPost, Adweek, and CNN. He freelances for the Chicago Tribune and Automobile Magazine, and is the author of two books on the automobile industry.
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Writing the War
Chronicles of a World War II Correspondent
By Anne Kiley, Thomas Pellechia, David Kiley
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2015 Anne Kiley, Thomas Pellechia, and David Kiley
All rights reserved.
I can hear a soldier playing, "You Made Me Love You," on the piano in the Recreation Hall next door. It seems appropriate because it reminds me of Asheville. Not that you did make me love you — that was as natural as the rising and setting of the sun. [Charles to Billee, March 1942.]
* * *
The War: Following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Congress strengthened presidential war powers. The New York Times complained that war messages out of Washington, DC were confused, but to the men in uniform — as well as their friends, parents, siblings, girlfriends, wives, and young children — it was clear that thousands were being trained at military bases to fight war in Europe and in the Pacific.
Under the War Production Board, the manufacture of civilian consumer goods took a back seat. Women who had never worked before outside of their homes were encouraged to take defense production jobs; with gasoline and tires rationed, many rode bicycles to and from work. To save electric power, in January President Roosevelt signed the Daylight Time Act, extending daylight for one hour; it was scheduled to last only until the war's end.
On January 2, the Japanese army pushed Filipino and American forces onto Bataan and then Corregidor; soon thereafter, Libya fell to Germany's Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Korps. With Germans in uniform blanketing the European continent, the one ray of hope to the Allies was the ill-equipped German Army bogged in the snow on the Russian front.
While the sighting of two Axis submarines in the Gulf of Mexico prompted a complete blackout along the Texas coast in late January, the first units of the newly established American Expeditionary Force arrived in Northern Ireland as the result of the US decision to build up American forces in Great Britain.
* * *
[Charles to Billee, written in Charles's hotel room while Billee waited for him in the lobby.] January 18, 1942 — Asheville
Thought I'd like to drop in and say "Hello," tonight and to remind you to be a very good girl until Saturday when I give the command, "Present arms!"
Give my sincere thanks, again, to mother and my best regards to Miss Heffernan [a long-term guest at Oak Lodge], Marguerite [Billee's friend], Evelyn [Fragge, an Asheville friend] and the rest.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] January 22, 1942 — Camp Croft, South Carolina
I had the inclination to drop in and see you tonight but I suppose the least that can be done under the circumstances is a little chat by mail.
You may have seen the news in the paper, or heard it on the radio, that Uncle Sam is instituting a full six-day week for the Army. I haven't heard yet whether it will affect us. However, if it does, I'll still be heading for Asheville [this] Saturday night.
I called home Monday night and gave my mother a description of the Gray hospitality. She asked me to thank your mother again, for her.
Do you know, I spent another restless night [last] Sunday. Seems like I wanted to turn back the clock to Saturday night. I wish such things were possible.
* * *
[Charles to Billee, written after their second weekend together in Asheville.] January 26, 1942 — Camp Croft
I was wrong, but I wish I was right; which is to say, you didn't keep me awake last night. Yes, I did sleep like a baby, just as you said, but you were the last one I thought of before the sandman dropped by. Strange, or is it ... you were still in my mind when I awakened at 5:30.
As I write this, I'm listening to the radio over which a broadcast from Ireland is coming, describing the arrival of the first detachment of the AEF to Europe [Allied Expeditionary Force]. I can't help feeling a thrill to hear that at last we are doing something concrete about giving peace and serenity to our people.
But we can find nicer things to talk about, can't we?
For instance, I'm looking forward, so much, to next weekend. With a visit to the Grove Park Inn cocktail lounge, not to mention approximately 21 hours with you. I'm certain it will be a weekend I'll never forget. I believe I won't want to go to sleep, in fear of awakening to discover I've been dreaming for these weeks.
* * *
[Charles to Billee, written after their third and final Asheville weekend, before the transfer to Fort Dix.] February 2, 1942 — Camp Croft, S.C.
We haven't much to do today except give the barracks a final scrubbing and there isn't anything I would rather do more than "talk" to you. That is, unless I could be with you in the flesh.
Do you know, we were the victims of a conspiracy? As soon as the bus got over the mountains last night the heavens were as clear as spring water and the moon was full, and oh, so big! Then I could only look and miss you some more. Somehow, I couldn't think of much other than "our moment" Saturday night outside the Inn. Things like that just happen once in a lifetime — to me, at least — but I'll always remember and look ahead to the time when we can go to the same spot, contented instead of being restless with anxiety.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] February 3, 1942 — En Route to Fort Dix, N.J.
I hope to cover my trip in chronological order so I'm starting from the beginning. The time now is 2:30 and we are on the train waiting for it to pull out of camp. Johnny Joyce [a Jersey City friend and also a private in the 135th Infantry, 34th Div.] and I are seated together.
3:00 p.m. — The train pulls out with over 1,100 men aboard and the band plays "Auld Lang Syne." I have a funny feeling of wanting to stay behind, to rush to Asheville and be with you. I can't remember ever missing anyone the way I miss you now. John has a wistful look on his face, too, as he looks over the camp for the last time.
5:00 p.m. — We have passed Gastonia and Gaffney and have been served a hasty dinner. Not very good but there are only a few grumbling.
7:00 p.m. — I have been playing cards and reading to pass the time but now the porter is making the berths and I'll have to leave you for awhile again.
9:30 p.m. — We are stopping for 15 minutes at Danville, Va. so it is a good time for me to get a sandwich and coffee in the station if we can.
10:00 p.m. — We have "turned in" and before I put the light out, stare out the window as the night and trees rush by, and think of you, I'm going to kiss you goodnight.
7:00 a.m. — (Wednesday) I woke at 6:00 to discover we were stopping briefly in Washington. Can't see much because the capital is blacked out. We passed the huge printing offices, which apparently work 24 hours.
Baltimore–Wilmington–Philadelphia–and Fort Dix!
7:00 p.m. — (Wednesday) We all arrived safely and sound, but forgive me if I sound a bit bewildered. It's difficult to piece things together: I mean, what has transpired within the last few hours. As I said, 1,100 of us — radio operators, intelligence units, message center company, electricians, etc., all specialists — came home from Croft. But we have all been put into different outfits. That's all I can say now.
If you don't hear from me as often as you know I would write, it will not be because I have forgotten you for a moment but only because I am not in a position to write. As it is now, I don't believe we will be seeing each other for that Easter date [in New York City]. But wherever I am, you will be with me in spirit. Please remember that I'll be back for you some day.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] February 4, 1942 — Fort Dix, N.J.
I was moved over to Headquarters Company from Company H, which puts me in radio again. I don't know how long I'm going to be here so I suggest you send mail to my brother [ John] and he will forward it to me. He will know where I am and will be easier to contact when and if I move. I told him all about you and from my description he is very anxious to see you.
I'll keep you posted as to my whereabouts and my work. Incidentally, our 135th Infantry, 34th Div. is supposed to be one of the "fight'enest" outfits in US military history. There are 13 "major battle" streamers in our standard.
* * *
[Billee to Charles (Billee's first letter)] February 7, 1942 — Asheville
I have just finished reading your most welcome letter.
Yes, I'm at home. Those symptoms turned into the real thing and caught up with me yesterday. So here I am, all greased up and covered in flannel for the duration of this pesky cold. It has its advantage, though. I have that much more time to think about us and these past few weeks.
I still have to stop and wonder if it isn't all a pleasant dream, but then I have your perfume and your emblem on my coat too. There is a certain indescribable element within me that wasn't present before. I feel almost complete. There's more than just a corner of my heart reserved.
Marguerite was so sweet Sunday night after I came home. I went to her room and we talked a long time. Of course, I'll have to admit you appeared more than once in the conversation.
We're having real Dixieland weather: yes, snow and lots of it. You spoke of the moon being so bright Sunday night. Marguerite and I sat on the settee Monday night and watched it come over the mountain.
There are so many things I could say about your letter and what it means, but what would be the use. All we can do is grin and bear it, and hope for the best and that it won't be long before all this will be over and we can go back to our normal living. Perhaps it is just as well we don't have that Easter date. It would only make things harder, but then I guess we can take it. I think I'll come anyway even if you aren't there and maybe I'll go and see your mother.
I'm sending you a picture, the one you forgot. I was afraid it wouldn't fit in your wallet, hence the folder. There's room on the other side for your other girlfriend but you'd better not let me see it.
This letter seems to be going on and on. I hope I'm not boring you and that you aren't disappointed in me as a letter writer. I have five from you and this is my first. I'm not going to read it over. I might tear it up if I do.
* * *
[Billee to Charles] February 8, 1942 — Asheville
I kept thinking "this time last Saturday night" and "this time last Sunday."
My sniffles are still with me. One advantage my cold has, I've caught up on my knitting and reading. I did the back of an army sweater and a sleeve-and-a-half on a child's Red Cross sweater. You must have given me incentive.
I can't seem to forget anything. All I do is remember. I have such a lost feeling not knowing where you are, because, of course, I realize the address you gave me is just an address.
I hope you received the picture and my letter safely and that this one reaches you as well. I sincerely hope you were able to spend some time with your family. I know how much it meant to you.
I'll have to close now, no more paper and yet I am very reluctant to leave you.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] February 9, 1942 — Fort Dix, N.J.
I may be only 70 miles from home but I'd give anything to be back in Camp Croft. They said Croft was a model camp. Now I can understand it more than ever. So far, we have had snow, rain and freezing weather. Moreover, we still haven't been located with our proper outfits. I had been with one company, moved to another, and then moved back to the first one.
Nothing has been said about our radio work and we are only hoping it is cleared up soon so we can get down to serious work. Of course, there are plenty of rumors, good and bad, that are too numerous to list.
I was fortunate in getting a pass to go home over the weekend. Mother, Dad and the "kids" were overjoyed at the family reunion. My younger brother [Eddie] had received his notice to report for induction so he will have his uniform in a couple of weeks.
I believe I told you not to count too heavily on seeing me if you came north for Easter. If I am here, there isn't anything I would want more than to just hold you in my arms for days. But everything is too indefinite. I can honestly say I don't know if I'll be here for a day, week, month, or a year. This is a combat unit and is liable to take off at any time. It is not fully organized yet, but then again, I can't say when it will be ready. At any rate, I'm going along doing my best in whatever I'm told and hoping the day is not too far off for us to make up for lost time.
Do you know, at 11:00 o'clock Saturday night I excused myself from the family to go out on the porch and stand there alone wishing I was back at the Grove Park Inn with you held close to me. There will be one of our anniversaries the 31st of each month — together with the 17th, the day I first looked into your eyes!
* * *
[Billee to Charles] February 9, 1942 — Asheville
Here I am again, but so relieved to know you are still somewhere close. You don't know the visions I had: boats, airplanes, tanks, etc.
It's nice to be with a company that has such a reputation. I know you must feel proud, especially since you are back in radio. I'm so glad you are able to spend some time with your family. I was worried, for fear that you wouldn't, and how awful that would have been.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] February 13, 1942 — Fort Dix, N.J.
Your "little bit of heaven" reached me Wednesday night — letter, picture, case and all — and I wish I could get one every day. Don't take that too seriously, but it is the way I feel. It told me so many things I wanted to hear.
I wouldn't dare put anyone else's picture [in the case], not only because you wouldn't want it, but because it just wouldn't belong.
It appears as if I would be here for a while yet. How long, I can't say. About your Easter visit ... Mother will be happy to see you whether I am still here or not.
I'm writing this, hoping you get it by the 17th — our first month's anniversary. It seems as though we've known each other a lifetime instead of a few short weeks.
* * *
[Charles to Billee] February 16, 1942 — Fort Dix, N.J.
It's raining tonight, but I can smile, since I have your last letter to read over and over again. Mother, Dad and my brother were here to visit me yesterday and your letter came with them, too.
Billee, I guess we both have that same "lost feeling." This past Saturday night, for me, was so terribly lonesome. I would have given ten years of my life to have you with me if only for an hour. But then, I do have "you" in the picture case next to my heart.
And, as I've said before, no matter where I am and what I'm doing, I'll be thinking only of the time when I can hold you oh, ever so tightly. Because, you see, I do love you so much, Billee Ruth! Like you, I can scarcely believe it happened, and, so suddenly. There were people who interested me in the past, but none who made my pulse quicken whenever I looked at her, none of whom I could say, "This is it!"
* * *
[Billee to Charles] February 17, 1942 — Asheville
You'd laugh if you could see where I'm at this minute, perched up on the last flight of stairs going to the roof. It's the only quiet place I could find. Our [work] lounge is something like a bedlam let loose during the lunch hour and you have about as much chance of relaxing as a monkey in a cage.
If my letter was "a bit of heaven," yours was the sunshine we didn't have yesterday. What a day. Rain ... literally buckets of it all day long and far into the night. I don't as a rule mind rain, but coupled with the bad [war] news we've been getting, it was a little more than I could take.
You're sparking me with your letters, Charles. I've had one almost every other day since you left. I'm not complaining. I love it and your letters. They are so much like you and few people can do that. I can close my eyes and almost hear you say what's written.
I'm sending a little something along with this to help keep those Yankee breezes away. I'm hoping that it fits. The size was a guess and I had to be the model since we don't have any men-folk around to try things on. If it doesn't fit, give it to someone it does.
One of our large schools near Asheville is being turned into a naval academy. There is also talk of the building of an Army airfield to be used for training purposes, that is, to familiarize pilots to mountain flying.
I showed our picture [taken the morning after they first met] to Mom and, of course, she turned it over to the back [where Charles had written a note], and this is what she said: "My, he certainly made up his mind in a hurry."
I've had to move from my perch, and I'm really writing under difficulties. We have so many sick in our office that we are all having to do double duty. I'm in the tube room where all the sales tickets come, trying to make change and write in between.
Please, stay 'till [sic] Easter.
Excerpted from Writing the War by Anne Kiley, Thomas Pellechia, David Kiley. Copyright © 2015 Anne Kiley, Thomas Pellechia, and David Kiley. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 January-April 1942 21
Chapter 2 April-October 1942 47
Chapter 3 November 1942-February 1943 111
Chapter 4 March-July 1943 155
Chapter 5 August-December 1943 205
Chapter 6 January-February 1944 271
Chapter 7 March-May 1944 301
Chapter 8 June-July 1944 347
Interval: August-November 1944 373
Chapter 9 November 1944-Aprii 1945 379
Chapter 10 April-June 1945 425
Epilogue: After the War 455