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Letters from the Front, Part 1

In my review of Joy Neal Kidney's book Leora's Letters last week, I lamented my lack of access to more letters that my uncle Dillon Summers had written during World War II. He was serving as a tank driver for forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division. I also indicated, however, that the few I do have give enough information about those times to whet one's appetite for even more.

Although some of Dillon's letters that I do have offer only innocuous information (thanks to the strictures of the military censors at the time), some of them are more revealing of the stresses and personal trauma that both the service members and the families they left behind experienced.

Dillon had been drafted into the Army and had been inducted at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He then went through months of training to drive various types of vehicles at Camp Polk, Louisiana; Freda, California (desert warfare, which led them to believe, incorrectly as it turned out, that they were headed for North Africa); Camp Pickett, Virginia (tank warfare); and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania (artillery firing). During the latter training, the 391st was declared the most accurate battalion in the division.

During his training, he learned to drive not only trucks, as seen above, but also a variety of tanks, including the Stuart light tank, the Lee medium tank (shown here), and the Sherman main battle tank. I haven't been able to determine which tank he would eventually drive in his role as forward observers' driver, but since the Lee had been proven inadequate in North Africa, it most likely was either the Stuart (smaller, lighter, faster, and more maneuverable) or the Sherman. He also made friends, as the photo shows. (The names of the individuals are not given on the photo, but Dillon is on the far right.)

At some point during the training, possibly following the desert training and while en route to Virginia, Dillon returned home for a brief visit. This made everyone in the family happy, especially my mother, Hazel, who always looked up to her big brother. (She would not be so happy when he had to return to his unit as another photo shows her downcast.)

The earliest dated letter I have of Dillon's he wrote from Indiantown Gap on August 23, 1943. It opened with immediate excitement and obvious haste. (I am reproducing these letters just as they were written, spelling , capitalization, grammar, and punctuation errors included.)

Hello again.
This isn't a secret!
We are leaving here Thursday Aug 26th/6 AM. will get at the embarcation at 1:45 same date. Won't say much as I wrote this morning.
Don't know much to say
I'm just praying for the best I'm not afraid. I just want to keep praying for that is what gets results. Ha
Don't worry about me for I am going to be O.K. Ans to this add. unless notified otherwise. Well so long for now
Love to all Dillon.

It doesn't take much imagination to read between the lines and sense the mix of emotions involved for a soldier going off to war farther from home and family than he'd ever been before and with no guarantee of ever returning alive. One can only imagine the feelings of his parents and siblings.

On August 26, the 391st departed Fort Indiantown Gap via train and arrived at Camp Kilmer, N.J., the staging area for troops headed for the European theater. On September 5, they steamed out of New York Harbor aboard the S.S. Shawnee and arrived at Avonmouth, Port of Bristol, England, on September 16. They immediately boarded a train, which took them to Warminster, Wiltshire, on the Salisbury Plain, where, for the next nine months they would receive their final intensive instruction in tank warfare.

Although Dillon might have written other letters after his brief August 23 letter, the next one I have is dated October 2. His family apparently still did not know precisely where he was in Europe until he headed that letter "Somewhere in England." That letter was primarily his response to some tragic news. But that is for the next blog post.

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