written by Julia Brooke
“We have mail call every day-including Sunday-just before lunch and just before supper. The letter was stamped 3:30 p.m. Thursday, and I got it at about 12:00 noon Saturday, so I’d say it really pays to send letters Air Mail out here. After this I’ll send most of mine to you by Air Mail.”
These are just a few of the words written almost 80 years ago by Robert C. Spalsbury. Words from letters written home to his parents back in St. Joseph, Missouri to an address on 11th Street that generations of Spalsburys called home. Mail call represented a life line to home while serving in the U.S. Army during WWII. His letters, that frequently began “Dear Mom and Pop,” are becoming a part of the St. Joseph Museums’ online archives.
Born and raised in St. Joseph, Robert was a member of the 1940 class of Central High School. He worked as a page for the St. Joseph Public Library and was a Spring 1943 graduate of St. Joseph Junior College; although he was called to service prior to participating in his graduation ceremony. His brother, Duane, two years older, was also called up to serve. Robert was one of the many from St. Joseph training for and serving in the war. Yet he is unique in the fact that his letters home have survived. How and where they survived remains a mystery. They were acquired at an estate sale then donated to The St. Joseph Museums in 2021, sixty years after the last Spalsbury resided in St. Joseph.
The first letter of the collection is postmarked April 21,1943 just four days before his 20th birthday. The letters include details of Robert’s life but also reflect the times in which he lived. He references movies, food, radio programs, magazines, movie stars, authors, prices, communication methods and more. His penmanship is excellent and the letters reflect his love of words and writing. As a result, he opens up an extraordinary first hand account of what it was like to leave home in service of your country with an unclear destination or purpose.
Robert’s training journey began at Fort Leavenworth however the first letter in the collection is from Camp Callan, California near San Diego. He fell in love with the community of La Jolla while stationed there for basic training.
“2 other guys and I went down this afternoon to La Jolla, a picturesque and beautiful resort town 4 miles south of our Camp. I stood out on the beach and watched crabs, shells and seaweed, while the surf came in around the mossy rocks I was standing on. The ocean was a blue-gray- green color. Sea gulls were flying around overhead, and the atmosphere was quite hazy, since today’s been very cloudy and foggy.” April 18, 1943
Robert’s letters served as a journal of his life as much as an update for his parents. He wrote more than 100 letters to his folks during his Army training and service, frequently several a week. He details the training, daily routines, duties, inspections, testing, uniforms, meals, illnesses, new phrases and Army lingo. His letters provide a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to have your life interrupted and redirected. As was the case with many at the time, an Army career was not his intended pursuit as is clearly evident early in his correspondence.
“I Ioathe bayonet practice, of which we have 10 hours altogether during our 13-week cycle. We had 2 hours of it this morning.” April 20, 1943
“We took a march with light packs, rifles, and belts this afternoon to a point about a mile or two north of La Jolla proper. I guess it was about 6 miles altogether going and coming.” May 7 1943
“Today we had one hour of infantry drill, and 7 hours of Automatic Gunner’s Drill, which bones me. I hate machines. We also had 3 British Training Films on guns.” May 12, 1943
Initially, his Army service took him and thousands of young men to newly created Army Camps scattered around the state of California, most of which no longer exist as U.S. Army installations – Camp Callan, Camp Roberts, Camp Haan. Robert’s favorite part of the initial experience was taking in the sights, sounds, landscapes, and people of new cities when allowed oﬀ post with weekend passes. He loved to go into town, any town he was close to – LaJolla, San Diego, Inglewood, Los Angeles, Hollywood. Transportation was frequently by hitchhiking with the occasional bus, cab or streetcar. His letters are full of tales as he explores what to him was a whole new world.
“I can hardly wait to get back to Hollywood next weekend, just to stand at a busy street corner
– Hollywood and Vine is the best -and watch the mob go by. It is a veritable kaleidoscope of human nature, varied as it can be. It really put me to wondering about the human race. Some of the clothes they wore! Big flowered prints, and hats of all sizes, colors, and shapes.
However, this is one thing I like about California – the dress is so liberal. People stroll down the streets in shorts, slacks, and sometimes even bathing suits. Oh, yes, we saw Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the autographs and hand and foot prints of all the stars in the cement of the lobby floor. Very interesting.” July 26, 1943
Visiting the local communities during the time he was stationed at the various camps in California provided great distraction as Robert struggled with finding his place and figuring out exactly how the Army intended to utilize him. His experiences exemplify what a daunting, long term task it was to prepare the country for war; to train troops and have the resources for evolving needs and missions. These letters blend the realities of the massive mobilizing system of war with the day to day experience of the individual.
“I have confidence that I’ll be put into something in accord with my interests” April 20, 1943
“I believe I’d rather get in the Foreign Service Division than any. It sounds interesting and exciting, doesn’t it?” May 7, 1943
“I’m attending a very dull military correspondence class twice a week, and an hour apiece of physics and chemistry six days a week. You can imagine how I hate it. I really feel like a round peg in a square hole.” July 28, 1943
“The Board told me I made fairly high scores on the math parts of the test we took; and that the Army needed good engineers much more than they need linguists. The Board told me that I had good potential qualities of leadership, but I think they always tell you a crock of bullshit just to make you feel good if you’re not put in what you want.” July 28, 1943
Robert’s letters show the diﬃcult contrast of who the troops being trained for war really were, teenagers and young men. At first being called up to serve felt like an exciting adventure that they were embarking on together and he calls them boys and fellas. Yet within a few months the experiences change and he refers to them no longer as boys but as soldiers. This is reflected in a passage from July at Camp Callan contrasted with a passage from October at Camp Roberts, an Infantry Replacement Training Center.
July 30, 1943
“I went swimming last night with some of the boys. We had so much fun. We’d carry each other on our shoulders, and try to push or pull another pair over. Then we’d swim under water and try to pull people under. One trouble with the pool is that it’s so crowded at night – it’s impossible to swim in a straight line for any distance.” “I really enjoy it, if there’s someone I know in swimming. It’s always much more fun when there’s someone you can play with.”
October 21, 1943
“What a hell hole this place is. We live in tents. We have to stand in a long line for chow and we eat out of our mess kits. …I don’t particularly like the open air latrine and wash basins we have here. There is also another luxury – open air showers (cold water only).”
“There are a lot of soldiers around here who’ve been overseas and seen action. A lot of them were wounded, and many of them had malaria.”
Among Robert’s favorite things to receive in the mail was news of home. His letters are filled with references to St. Joseph’s people and places.
“This evening at mail call I got my first Griﬀon News – Kathleen had sent it, bless her heart. Was I surprised to read in it that I was one of the 10 highest ranking sophomores at J.C.! There were 3 boys and 7 girls in the list. My name was there 2 other times. The issue was April 9 – maybe you can get one; or I’ll send you mine soon.” April 20, 1943
“I’ll tell ya what to send me in your next letter – that picture of Duane and me standing up on Wyeth Hill, the one we took that Sunday when Tootie rode us up there. I don’t have a picture of Duane with me, and it’s a pretty good of us both. Just look in my photograph album toward the back, and take it out.” May 17, 1943
“I bet the yard is beginning to get pretty. There are flowers galore out here – especially in La Jolla – but things like redbud, iris, daﬀodils, spirea, etc. – would look mighty good. May 3, 1943
“Servicemen, we were admitted free to the Hollywood Bowl, although we had to sit fairly close to the top. To me it didn’t seem much larger or nicer than the Krug Park Bowl. Of course there are seats from the very bottom to the top of the Hollywood Bowl. The program last night consisted of the Russian Ballet, with Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra furnishing the musical accompaniment.” July 26, 1943
“Thanks for the Centennial Edition of the News-Press. I got it at Mail Call this evening after chow. Paul Leibowitz helped me read it. I guess if I see Bob Raidt I’ll have to give it to him.” July 30, 1943
Robert’s letters span the years of 1943 to 1945. With only about half of the collection entered into the online archives there is much more to discover about his journey. So much is learned by reading the on going narrative not just individual letters. Robert’s moods and emotions become evident. When his early confidence and excitement are later replaced with dejected acceptance, the disappointment is felt alongside him.
A humorous example of the benefit of having the entire collection of letters is when curious details gradually become clear. After the transcription of more than 50 letters it was finally determined who Pat was. Several times Robert’s salutation is “Dear Folks and Pat,” Pat was not a family member or visiting friend. Pat was the family dog.
“Give my love to Pat.” May 26, 1943
“Tell Pat I’m sorry the itch has bothered him.” November 17, 1943.
The Letters Home project is truly a form of time travel as Robert’s story unfolds one letter at a time. There are no epic battle scenes but instead a dramatically compelling story of one family’s sacrifice and service laid out in letters home to a mother and father whose sons were thousands of miles away preparing to go to war.
“Don’t worry about me. Love, Bob ” September 29, 1943
To read the complete text of Robert’s Letters Home, visit the St. Joseph Museums website. They can be found under the Research tab in the archives section of CatalogIt.
Special thanks to Marshall White who acquired and donated Robert’s Letters Home to the St. Joseph Museums in 2021.