It has been an incredible experience.”
That is how Dr. Celia Edmundson describes her four years editing “Letters to Lee, from Pearl Harbor to the War’s Final Mission,” a compilation of letters written by her father, Lt. Gen. James V. Edmundson, to her mother, Lee.
The idea for the book was formed in 2003, two years after her father’s death. Edmundson had started going through some items that had been stored, and at the bottom of a trunk she discovered a couple hundred letters.
They were letters exchanged by her parents, Jim and Lee, during World War II. The ink on the tissue-thin Airmail paper was faded, but still legible. The postmarks were mostly APOs (Army Post Office), but the dates were clear — censors had neatly snipped out any references to locales and plans.
Overwhelmed by her find, Edmundson sorted the letters by date using four shoeboxes as her filing cabinets.
Then, she began to read.
“I was like a fly on the wall,” Edmundson said. “At times, I felt I was there with them.”
Gen. Edmundson was a 25-year-old second lieutenant stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked Dec. 7, 1941. At home in his pajamas reading the Sunday paper, he tossed on clothes and ran to his plane still wearing his bedroom slippers. For the next four days, he was in the thick of the action — still wearing his bedroom slippers.
During the attack, Lee, with several other service wives, was huddled under a dining room table at their home.
In the days following, service wives were evacuated. Lee left for her parent’s home in California.
And that’s when the letter exchange between the couple began — first Hawaii, then the South Pacific and the China-Burma-India theater. They wrote frequently. The letters were filled with love and the quiet determination to see the war through together, although apart.
But Edmundson said she had no thoughts of a book while she read the letters.
“They were wonderful firsthand accounts of action in the days of war and their personal concerns for each other,” she said.
After Lee Edmundson died in 1999, Gen. Edmundson began to write daily vignettes. They were detailed accounts of events and experiences, and both he and his daughter would discuss them each night at dinner.
Edmundson said that as she continued to read the letters, she was struck by how the letters and vignettes were interwoven. In addition, Gen. Edmundson’s mother had kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper articles about his war action.
“I just felt I had to preserve this wonderful love story and these bits of history,” Edmundson said.
Four years ago Edmundson decided she would try to assemble the letters, vignettes and articles chronologically and create a book.
“Even if nothing came out of it, I set a goal to do it,” she said.
Perhaps it was a childhood lesson from her father that led her to tackle this task.
He always stressed: “Be prepared. Then you can go forward in confidence.”
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy, because he always set high standards and he always expected me to keep them,” Edmundson said.
As she began the tedious task of typing the hand-written letters, she said she felt like she was going back in time.
“It was a different world, and often I would find myself almost there with them,” Edmundson said. “I could recognize them easily as my mom and dad as I read the letters. There were a lot of funny incidents, too. There weren’t any real surprises.”
Edmundson said she also developed a deeper appreciation for her father through the letters.
“I knew he was modest, but I saw so many examples of it in his accounts of combat action. He would always give the credit ‘to his crew,’” she said. “I always knew he was a caring man, but I don’t think I realized how deeply he cared about his family, his country and the people he met.”
Throughout his letters and the vignettes, his love of flying was also evident.
“It was where he was the happiest,” Edmundson said.
Edmundson, a professor of organizational leadership, spent all her free time on the project.
She said one of the hardest decisions was how to end the book — but she eventually found the answer in the last letter Gen. Edmundson wrote to his wife, dated Oct. 15, 1945.
The last paragraph read: “Well, my darling, I’ll stop now. I hope this is the last letter I ever have to write to you. I hope I never get so far away from you again that I can’t whisper ‘I love you.’”
A year ago, the book was completed, and Edmundson concentrated on securing a publisher. Choosing not to use an agent, she decided the book, with its historical firsthand accounts, would be best suited for a university press. She was right.
“It’s hard to express my feelings when I received an e-mail acceptance from Fordham University Press,” Edmundson said. “To say I was elated is an understatement.”
After several weeks of final editing and photo selections, the book will be arriving at local book dealers in mid-November.
Edmundson has created the Web site, www.letterstolee.com, for more information.
Excerpts from the book will also be printed in the Nov. 19 and Nov. 26 issues of The Longboat Observer. See page B20 for the first excerpt in the series.
“Letters to Lee” is a first-person account of two of the heroes of World War II and of the love that they shared across the years and miles. They lived their lives with integrity and courage, but they were not the exception for this time and generation. They are, however, one example of this great generation and this incredible period in time.
Chronological vignettes provide the structure and the big-picture view of the story. Dad’s (Lee called him “Duke”) letters to Lee (and to his parents) are interwoven and provide incredible descriptions and detail of the conditions in the territory of Hawaii, both before and after the U.S. entry into the war and of the early fighting in the South Pacific. Dad returned to the States to participate in the highly secret development and implementation of the B-29 Superfortress, which ultimately brought an end to Japan’s war against the United States. He returned to the China-Burma-India Theater as the war accelerated and the last mission was flown. Correspondents from the United Press and Newsweek who accompanied him on combat missions enrich the story. Their writings gave an anxious nation a firsthand account of the war effort and of the men who were fighting.
— from Dr. Celia Edmundson
Excerpt No. 1
Part II: Territory of Hawaii, 1940 to 1942
Chapter 2: I Meet My Queen
I stepped off the Army transport in January 1940, onto the dock at Honolulu Harbor and into a new world. It had been a rough crossing. The ship was loaded with troops, most of them Air Corps troops, on their way to the Philippines. The war in Spain had been boiling for several years; Hitler was biting off pieces of his neighbor’s property and bunching his muscles for even bigger things. And Japan had declared its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and was beating up its neighbors in places like Nanking and Manchuria. It was an angry and dangerous world, and America was pretending that it wasn’t happening. The United States had declared its non-combatant status and hoped it would all go away. Finally, long-overdue action was being taken to strengthen places like the Philippines. Dropping a few of us off at Hawaii was incidental, but it got me to Hawaii in the midst of a rumbling and dangerous world.
But to a 25-year-old bachelor, second lieutenant, arriving in the fabled and beautiful Hawaiian islands, the rumbling over the horizon was hardly noticed. I was glad to get off the boat. My new squadron commander was there to meet me as I stepped off the gangplank. So was my friend Ercell Hart.
When I was a teenager growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., I belonged to Sea Scout Ship 16. There were about 20 of us, we were all Eagle Scouts, we did things together and we were very close. We sailed together, we were patrol leaders at Emerald Bay, the Scout Camp on Catalina Island, in the summers, and we all went to high school together. We were a group of Depression kids with a special feeling for each other. One of the members of Ship 16 was Ercell Hart.
I found myself assigned to the 31st Bomb Squadron of the 5th Bomb Group, on Hickam Field, flying B-18s. Hickam was a new field, still under construction, and there were no bachelor’s quarters on the base. I was invited to move in with five other bachelors into a beautiful home they had rented in Manoa Valley. A Japanese couple, John and Massawa, came with the house. They did the cooking, serving, cleaning and everything else. John even washed all our cars once a week. It was Hawaii at its best.
Letter to Dad
(A letter from Lt. Gen. Edmundson to his father)
Feb. 9, 1940
I’ve moved into a big house up in one of the canyons behind Honolulu with five other young officers, and it is really swell. We have a Japanese couple to cook and wait tables and do everything from taking out our laundry to shining our shoes. It sure is a beautiful house and a nice part of town. It’s a little cooler here than down in the city proper and much cleaner. It rains up here at least once every day, usually in the afternoon or evening. It only rains lightly for a minute or two at a time, and nobody pays any attention to it but it sure keeps everything green. The lawns never need watering, and as there really are no seasons over here, the trees never lose their leaves and so the leaves never need raking. What a place!
I spent two-and-a-half hours this morning flying all over the island of Oahu and looking it over in an A-12. I haven’t flown an A-12 since I left Texas and I sure did enjoy it. The island is beautiful all right and even flying bombers is enjoyable when you can go out in a little ship and relax whenever you wish, as I did this morning.
I do think I’m going to like it here. There really is a swell bunch of guys I moved in with and my squadron has a great group of officers in it too. It’s hard to imagine a nicer arrangement than I have here. I sure do have better than my share of good luck Ercell has a place right down in Waikiki Beach where I can go to swim and the Army also maintains several nice beaches for officers.
. . .
I had only been in Hawaii a few days when Ercell had a party for me to meet a few people. He was established with three other Navy ensigns in a lovely cottage on the beach, right behind the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, on Waikiki. Ercell got me a date with a nurse who worked at Queen’s Hospital and there were half a dozen of Ercell’s Navy buddies there with their dates. The moon was full, the waves were lapping on the beach, and the wind was in the palm trees. What a night!
Introductions were casual. It was a nice group of young people, and the men were all Navy pilots, which gave us much in common. My blind date was a pleasant gal who already knew most of the people and I felt right at home. I met everyone in due course, and I found myself repeatedly zeroing in on a beautiful little lady who was the date of one of Ercell’s Navy buddies. My nurse would drift off on her own with friends and, whenever I could, I would join the cluster around the little beauty who had caught my eye and seemed to have me hypnotized. I found out that her name was Lee, she had been in Hawaii about a year, and she lived in Waikiki, just off of the Ala Wai with two other girls and she was head of a ladies-wear department at Liberty House, the biggest department store in Honolulu.
I didn’t learn much else. She was always busy and surrounded by guys; her date was beginning to get suspicious of me. She was pleasant enough to me but totally without interest, and I had my own date to be politely attentive to. I did ask Lee if I could drive her home from work some time, if I happened to be in Liberty House around 5 o’clock some evening. She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no, either. She kind of shrugged her shoulders and said, “We’ll see.”
That was enough. The door was open just a crack and I intended to make the most of it. The party wound on to a finish. I took my nurse back to where I had found her and never did see her again. To this day, I can’t remember what her name was or what she looked like. But I had been harpooned. I couldn’t get Lee out of my mind. The next day, I asked Ercell about her. He didn’t know her well, but said she was quite popular and seemed to date this guy she was with at the party fairly regularly. Ercell told me that this guy was the great operator in his squadron. He rode a motorcycle and had a lot of wahinis, but that Lee seemed to be his favorite. It wasn’t an awful lot to go on, but it was enough. I was fascinated by Lee. Now, of course, I realize that I had already fallen head over heels in love with her and wasn’t smart enough to know it at the time.
Letter to Dad
(A letter from Lt. Gen. Edmundson to his father)
March 14, 1940
I was very interested in your observations of Margaret, they coincide closely with mine. She is a very nice girl down inside, a “diamond in the rough” as you might say and I’m sure with time and energy expended she would turn into an alright article, but I’m sure I can find one tailor-made and save myself lots of trouble.
I’ve been going down to pick Lee up after work every afternoon, and it makes a nice break in the day. I have also seen her every evening since the first date. There are so many guys here to every girl that you can’t use kid-glove methods. You have to dive in and hang on with both hands and feet or somebody else will be beating your time.
Part III: The South Pacific, 1942 to 43;
Chapter 23: Mission of Aug. 19, 1942
‘Letters to Lee’
• Book signing
takes place at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle
• Dual book launch
Launch of “Letters to Lee, from Pearl Harbor to the War’s Final Mission,” edited by Cee Edmundson, and “Wyatt’s Revenge,” by Terry Griffin, takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub, 780 Broadway
Lt. Gen. James V. Edmundson
U.S. Army, 1936 to 1972
In his 36-year military career, Lt. Gen. James V. Edmundson accumulated more than 11,000 hours of flying time in 138 different types of aircraft. He survived 107 combat missions in World War II, 16 missions in the Korean War and 42 in the Vietnam War.
Edmundson earned 45 medals and commendations: three Distinguished Service Medals, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals, three Legion of Merits, a Silver Star, Bronze Star, a Navy Commendation Medal and a Purple Heart.
After World War II, his assignments included commander of the 22nd Bombardment Group, director of Operations Strategic Air Command Headquarters for Gen. Curtis LeMay and command of the 17th Air Force, U.S. Air Forces, in Europe.
In 1970, Edmundson and his wife, Lee, retired to Longboat Key. Known affectionately as “General Jim,” he became active in community affairs and served three terms on the Town Commission and two years as mayor. In 2001, the local post office was named after him.
For 12 years he wrote a column, “Generally Speaking,” in The Longboat Observer.
It has been an incredible experience.”