Dec. 8, 1941, Camp Claiborne, La.

My dearest Ethel:

You undoubtedly want to know what’s been going on in the past day. Naturally, with Japan’s declaration of war, there was a lot of excitement. Apparently, though, it’s going to be a naval battle because they are using the Infantry regiments from our division to guard key points. One regiment left early this morning for New Orleans to guard the coast. One is supposed to go to move to California by tomorrow. … You see, honey, when war was declared, all the men took it calmly. Their greatest worry was over their loved ones at home – their mothers and fathers, wives and sweethearts …

Just your – Joey.

Pvt. Joseph Mink, Company B, 136th Medical Regiment, 34th Division

I keep wondering: Why “The War”?

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who jointly directed and produced the tender, booming, wrenching and, yes, inspirational seven-part documentary now running on PBS, have pointed to two motivating factors. One is the decaying force of time and human frailty: The aging veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day, and their stories are dying with them. The filmmakers also have cited the startling ignorance of generations that experienced neither the war nor proper schooling in its facts, scope and significance.

Constructing wartime stories around deeply personal portraits of the men, their families and their communities creates compelling narratives. And filmmaking at this level of artistry and technological sophistication makes watching “The War” more of a visceral experience – and, therefore, more memorable – than a solely intellectual one.

But no matter how ingeniously conceived and artfully crafted, “The War” can do justice to the stories of only a handful of veterans, even in 15 hours of running time. The acknowledgement with which each installment begins – that the subject matter defies “any one accounting” – simply is a confession of fact.

Like many viewers, I have been pulled into “The War” by its characters, soldiers abroad and civilians at home alike. I have been held there by a hunger to learn more about who they were, what they did, what was done to them and how they were affected by it all.

But the greater value of “The War,” for me, lies in its transcendence of generational distinctions and historical specificity. Whether by intent or inadvertence, these films drive home universal human truths about decent people impelled by jumbled combinations of choice, chance, courage, reflex, obligation, fate and necessity to transgress our most fundamental moral standards. Then they are expected to return to decent living, to co-exist somehow with the memories of the terrible things they’ve seen and done.

Feb. 25, 1943, North Africa

My darling Ethel,

Yesterday I viewed the first battle casualty that I’ve ever seen. It’s probably a picture that will stay with me for quite some time. His right arm had been hit by shrapnel, above the elbow, and must have torn out a hunk of bone about six inches long. … He was taken into the station and given a shot of morphine and two tourniquets applied. His arm, Eth, was just hanging on by mere shreds. … The boy was rushed on back to the hospital where his arm will no doubt be amputated. … Sitting here, we think of the war which we are now in the midst of, and then let our thoughts run on into the future, where we find our children participating in the next one. Next one? Must there be? Cannot something be done to make wars just nightmares of the past, instead of horrors of the future?

With love as ever, Joey

Cpl. Joseph Mink, Company B, 109th Medical Battalion, 34th Division

Part One of the series, titled “A Necessary War,” established the legitimacy of World War II as a total national endeavor. As the films have unfolded, some of their more revealing sequences have illuminated the marshaling of courage and commitment by the men and, especially, the women in big cities and small towns all across the United States.

History classes have conveyed something of the conversion of domestic factories to the production of planes, tanks and bullets, but “The War” infuses the process with stories of personal empowerment, racial injustice and conflict and widespread societal sacrifice. It’s one thing to read about the rationing of gasoline and meat. It’s another to hear people who were young women and children at home during the war recall community-wide drives to collect scrap tin, rubber, rags and even congealed fat from which the glycerine essential for explosives could be extracted.

But as affirming as these interludes are, they inevitably recede before the descriptions – in moving images, photographs, sounds, personal accounts and narration – that, after the war, veterans tended to share only with others of their kind, those they felt could understand.

Sept. 7, 1943, Somewhere in North Africa

My dearest Ethel,

I think that you are interested in what my reactions are to the things that go on around us. Some of them are mine – mine alone. Others are shared by fellow soldiers. We do things in the army that we never did before in civilian life. We take orders that would never have been thrown at us as civilians. And it is because of these things, along with all the other reasons – return to our loved ones, crushing of the enemy, etc. – that we constantly pray to God for a quick end to all this. …

The love of your . . . Joey

Sgt. Joseph Mink, 34th Division

My father, who died 13 years ago, spoke often of his military service: basic training in Louisiana, waiting in Ireland and England to be sent into combat, the campaigns in North Africa and Italy. But he never said a word to me about what he saw serving as a medic, and I, to my enduring regret, never pressed him for details. The generally guarded observations embodied in this column I have drawn from letters he sent home, letters I read for the first time this past weekend.

Oct. 19, 1943, somewhere in Italy

My dear Ethel,

Since we are once again in combat, we are always out in the field, changing bivouac areas frequently. The rains here have turned the country into a sea of mud, knee-deep. … The people are friendly, after a fashion. I think they are still quite dazed by all that has happened. … They are usually inhabitants of a town that was just taken by us, and which was usually heavily shelled and bombed. These people, who are escaping from the Germans, have been practically in a state of siege. …

All my love, Joey

Sgt. Joseph Mink, 34th Division

Before last weekend, when I found a shoebox marked “Ethel B. H.,” neither I nor my brothers and sister had ever heard of Ethel Holtzman. Our uncle Lou Mink, my dad’s only sibling, told me he has only a vague recollection of the name. So far as we know, our mom, who died in 1972, was unaware of her.

I can tell from the letters that Ethel Holtzman lived in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood, then moved to Wood River, where she eventually managed a small department store. She and my father met at the wholesale clothing company where he worked before he went into the army.

I don’t know how my dad happened to have the handwritten letters he sent Ethel between May 1941 and December 1943. I’ve found no trace of any letters from her to him. But he meticulously had arranged his letters in chronological order, noting their dates on the envelopes. Every now and then, there’s a page or a part of a page missing. The simple truth is, we know my father did not marry Ethel Holtzman after the war, but we know nothing about what happened to a passionate relationship that appears to have been conducted mostly – but not entirely – through correspondence.

In the personal stories of “The War,” this phenomenon, too, has a transcendent quality:

Oct. 13, 1943, somewhere??

Dearest Ethel,

You know, our outfit has been overseas a long time, finishing up 21 months. That’s a long time to expect a girl to wait for a fellow. … You should see how many of the boys are receiving letters which begin, “This is one letter I hate to write, but -“. There must be at least one such letter in every mail call for someone or other. And, believe me, it really breaks the boys up. …

Your Joey

Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may e-mail him at [email protected]

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