May 13, 2017

My grandfather, Frederick Leighton Durham, served in the 39th Machine Records Unit during World War II. He never spoke much about his time in the war. He only said that he logged soldiers’ deaths. As a young girl I got it into my mind that he was nothing more than a desk clerk, filing papers far behind the lines of any real combat, and I was disappointed. I wanted to hear stories about storming the shores of Normandy, capturing unsuspecting Germans, and deciphering codes. The only person my grandfather ever shot was the mess sergeant who wandered off one night and didn’t answer in time when they called out for the password. My grandfather shot him in the ass.


The fact is, the Machine Records Units were a vital part of the war effort and gave the Allied forces an enormous advantage over the Germans, communicating supply needs and keeping track of soldiers, casualties and missing persons. They went everywhere combat troops went and at times were under enemy fire. They were so valuable, German officers were given orders to hunt them down and take all machines, records, and personnel alive.

Here are a few good articles on M.R.U.s if you find yourself, like me, knowing very little about their role in WWII:


Munich City Hall, 1945

I came across an interview yesterday of a man that served in the 39th Machine Records Unit at the end of the war. He was stationed in Munich, Germany along with my grandfather. From reading the interview, I discovered that they lived and were headquartered out of the Munich City hall, which was still intact though certainly battered. They spent their days interviewing and training civilians, working towards the denazification of Germany, and at times they guarded prisoners and cleaned up debris in the city of Munich.

It seems my grandfather was far more than just a desk clerk.


The Beginning…

I don’t know what triggered the memory. I was visiting my parents’ house in Texas, wallowing in a heap of self-pity and pining for my children who were on the beaches of South Carolina with their father, hunting for seashells, giggling as the waves tickled their toes.

Everywhere I turned I was reminded of my three (I have a boy and two girls). I’d see a picture of M (my youngest daughter) as a toddler-pigtails and smocked dress, her dark brown eyes round with innocence-or pass my son’s favorite hamburger joint on the way to the bookstore he loved to visit and then I’d collapse into tears.  Even the song of the mourning doves perched up in the oak trees outside my parents’ home sent me longing for L (my middle daughter) who had just discovered before I left that they were mourning doves and not morning doves. “It’s because they sound like they’re crying!” she squealed, delighted with herself for having solved one of the world’s great mysteries. Each time I stepped outside I’d hear the mourning doves and tear up.

I went to sleep that night with the words of one of my favorite authors, Dorothy L. Sayers, pulsing through my mind. “A human being must have occupation if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.” I knew that something needed to change if I was not to become a nuisance to the world.  I needed occupation-something to take my mind off of my divorce and my grief and missing my children.  I needed something to get lost in.

The next morning I was in the living room, sipping coffee, when the memory popped into my mind.  I must have seen a picture or heard something that awakened it, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. I remembered as a young girl crawling into my grandparents’ closet and discovering a box of letters and other memorabilia. I couldn’t remember what the letters were or anything I’d found that day, I just remembered spending an entire rainy afternoon, hidden away, perusing the treasure and fantasizing about what life must have been like back then, what my grandparents were like back then.

I mentioned the memory to my father and then said apathetically, as though it was only a pipe dream, “I wish we still had that box.”

“I have the box.” he said matter-of-factly, and before I knew it he handed me the old box with its tattered letters-dozens and dozens of letters from my grandfather to my grandmother during the Second World War.  Letters from Normandy, Luxembourg, Nuremberg. Letters of love and of hope.  Letters to get lost in.

It didn’t take me long to realize how very little I knew about my grandparents or The Second World War or the daily lives of civilians during that time.  I feel as though I’ve landed in a different world, it’s all so foreign to the life I live, and I want to understand and recreate as much of that world as I can.

I’ll post the letters here along with anything else I discover (I’ve already been collecting books and magazines referenced in some of the letters) for those who’d like to follow along. I hope you will.