On Sept. 11, 1918, Sgt. David Ker, a Columbia University student who had dropped out of college to fight in World War I, sent a letter to his mother the day before the attack on Saint-Mihiel in France. While some troops consider it bad luck to write an “in case I die ...” letter, Ker wanted his mother, his sister (Elizabeth) and his fiancée (Mary) to keep their spirits up, no matter the outcome.
“Tomorrow the first totally American drive commences, and it gives me inexpressible joy and pride to know that I shall be present to do my share.
Should I go under, therefore, I want you to know that I went without any terror of death, and that my chief worry is the grief my death will bring to those so dear to me.
Since having found myself and Mary, there has been much to make life sweet and glorious, but death, while distasteful, is in no way terrible.
I feel wonderfully strong to do my share well, and, for my sake, you must try to drown your sorrow in the pride and satisfaction, the knowledge that I died well in so clean a cause, as is ours, should bring you. Remember how proud I have always been of your superb pluck, keep Elizabeth’s future in mind, and don’t permit my death to bow your head.
My personal belongings will all be sent to
you. Your good taste will tell you which to send to Mary.
May God bless and keep you, dear heart, and be kind to little Elizabeth, and those others I love so well.
The Americans broke through the German lines but suffered 7,000 casualties in the three-day offensive. Twenty-year-old David Ker was among the dead.
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Among the most heartbreaking war letters are those written by soldiers who have been mortally wounded and realize that their life is ebbing away. John Ross Wallar volunteered to serve as a drummer boy in the Civil War when he was only 15 years old. He was shot in the leg and languished in a military hospital for days. From his bed, he dictated a short letter to his family before he died:
Dear Sister father Mother and friends
I recievd your letter But I don’t think I Ever shall see another that you write this is Friday night But I don’t think I will Live to See Morning But My Kind friends I am a Soldier of Christ I will Meet you all in Heven My Leg Has Bin taking of above My nee I am Dying at this time so don’t Morn after Me fore I Have Bleed and died fore My Country May God Help you all to pray fore Me I want you all to Meet Me in Heven above Dear Sister you wanted to Know if My Leg would be Stiff God Bless Your Soul Sister I will be Stiff all over be four twenty four ours My wound Dresser is writing this Letter fore Me when you get this Letter write to Alexander Nelan fore I wont Live till Morning so good By My friends May God be with you all good by God Bless My poor Soul
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Like Wallar, a 21-year-old second lieutenant named Tommie Kennedy serving in World War II knew he would not come home alive. He had been captured by the Japanese at Corregidor and spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war. Fatally malnourished and incarcerated on a “hell ship,” Kennedy scribbled a farewell message to his parents on the backs of two family photographs.
Momie & Dad: It is pretty hard to check out this way with out a fighting chance but we can’t live forever. I’m not afraid to die, I just hate the thought of not seeing you again. Buy Turkey Ranch with my money and just think of me often while your there. Make liberberal donations to both sisters. See that Gary has a new car his first year hi-school.
I am sending Walts medals to his mother. He gave them to me Sept 42 last time I saw him & Bud. They went to Japan. I guess you can tell Patty that fate just didn’t want us to be together. Hold a nice service for me in Bksfield & put head stone in new cematary. Take care of my nieces & nephews don’t let them ever want anything as I want even warmth or water now.
Loving & waiting for you in the world beon.
Lt. Tommie Kennedy
Kennedy’s letter was smuggled from one POW to another, and it was finally mailed to his parents in late 1945 — more than four years after their son had left for the Pacific.