We're happy this week to share a selection of letters from a new book from the University of Arkansas Press: "Dearest Letty – The World War II Love Letters of Sgt. Leland Duvall."
Through a chance remark, Arkansas Times columnist Ernest Dumas learned of the trove of letters written by Leland Duvall, his long-time colleague at the Arkansas Gazette. They constitute a love story told in the prolific writing of the self-taught Duvall, from a military training camp to service with a cavalry squadron on the battlefields of Europe.
Duvall was a farm worker with a grade-school education when he joined the Army near Moreland, Arkansas, in 1942. In training camp, he began writing Letty Jones, a Pottsville girl he'd had a crush on for years. By turns tender, charming and humorous, Duvall wrote from the desert, military hospitals and bombed-out buildings.
The letters were discovered by Duvall's daughter in 2010, four years after he died. Dumas researched military records to help fill gaps in the censored letters about where the young Duvall was serving when he wrote his Dearest Letty. Even in combat, the letters were as careful and informed as the thousands of columns and editorials Duvall wrote for the Gazette as a business editor and editorial writer. He was legendary for his precision and knowledge.
The excerpts printed are reprinted with permission of the University of Arkansas Press. The book is now available in stores or through uapress.com.
Leland Duvall was nearly 31 years old when his draft notice arrived at his father's farm in the mountain valley near the hamlet of Moreland, Arkansas, in March 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor. While older men would be taken afterward, 31 was then the upper requirement for men to register for the draft. As the bloody Battle of the Bulge got underway in 1944, Duvall would ruminate in a letter that older men like him who had long-settled habits before the war were more impervious to the life-changing horrors of battle than the young soldiers. It may be said that every man who fought and survived had entered that war as one person and emerged as quite another, even if limbs and mind were intact, and Duvall was no exception. For him, World War II changed everything, starting with the lifelong romance that the war engendered and that is recounted in these letters. His self-description of a man of settled habits must have defined his emotional and social development, for it could not in any way describe the wayfaring life Duvall led before the war. He had little formal education, and if itinerant farm labor can be called a career, it was the clearest path for a man with his upbringing in the hardest of times and the hardest of places, Depression Arkansas. His lack of schooling was not by choice. School at Moreland, such as it was, ended with the eighth grade. A youngster ambitious for more learning needed to go off and board at Atkins, a town of 1,400 that had a high school, but it was 15 miles to the south of Moreland by dirt roads, which in the 1920s might as well have been a hundred miles.
For years, he followed the planting and harvests from the Mississippi Delta to the west Texas high plains, on cotton plantations and at other odd jobs left by the migration from the panhandle during the great dust storms of 1934 and 1935. He worked in cotton fields and gins and a sawmill in Arkansas's Mississippi County, but the vast floods that inundated much of east Arkansas in 1937 chased him home.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Duvall came home from the Texas plains and worked at an ordnance plant at Jacksonville until his induction notice came.
The draft offered him the prospect of steady employment and, even at a private's pay, better money than he had usually enjoyed. But the U.S. Army gave him much more than that — new worlds, new experiences, a chance to expand his learning, and patriotic contentment.
More than anything, the war gave him chances and reasons to write. And write he did — hundreds of thousands of words, from desert sands, pup tents, hospital beds, the floors of armored cars and bombed-out buildings, on stationery, tablets, and wrapping paper, by candlelight and moonlight.
Letty Jones had met Duvall in 1935, when he came to the Methodist Church on Crow Mountain one morning to help a friend from Moreland teach singing. She made faces at the teacher, and her mischievousness intrigued him. He explained years later that he thought the girl might grow up to be something special, and in his mind he "put her on lay-away." He encountered her from time to time during the next six years at gospel-singing conventions. He learned shortly before he was inducted that she had a serious boyfriend and was engaged. The boyfriend was drafted with Duvall, and when the troop train neared the southern California army camp where they were to get basic training, Duvall introduced himself to the fellow and learned that the romance was over.
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