The Sault’s Johanne Messier-Mann has completed a project to honour her late father-in-law and for future generations to learn from.
Mann’s father-in-law, Second World War veteran and Sault resident Carl Mann, who passed away in 2015 in his 94th year, left his vast collection of wartime letters for Johanne to preserve.
Mann had written his wartime sweetheart and future wife, Jean Jewitt, a total of 492 letters between 1942 and 1946.
After carefully reading each one, many of them faded with age, and transcribing each letter’s words on to her computer, Johanne and husband Donald Mann (Carl and Jean’s son) have decided to donate the letters to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
“The letters (kept by Jean, who passed away in 2004 at 80) sat at my parents place for 72 years. This was the first time these letters had been opened in over 70 years,” Donald said.
“The letters were so important to them,” Johanne told SooToday.
“It was a lifeline to them. He mentioned he once received 10 of Jean’s letters almost all at once, but at other times he had not received one of her letters for as long as a month.”
In the Second World War, long before any kind of instant electronic communication such as texting, email or Skype existed, and unable to place long distance calls, letters were indeed a lifeline between loved ones separated by war and thousands of miles.
And, unlike the tone of today’s electronic communication, men and women poured their emotions, such as their hopes, fears and affectionate longing for each other into the written words contained in those letters.
“He gave the letters to me and he said ‘I know you’ll know what to do with them,’” Johanne said.
“She was the only one who had the stamina to go through all of those letters,” Donald said, in praise of Johanne’s research and dedication.
Johanne said she would undertake the project once she retired from the nursing profession.
She opened the box of letters and spread them out on an extended kitchen table in her home, sorting them in piles by month and year, and read them in four months.
“The letters were love letters, and he was always concerned about his family being okay and asked about the weather at home… some of them contained some very interesting excerpts,” Johanne said.
Carl Mann and Jean Jewitt met in 1942, and two weeks after that first meeting Carl left for England to serve overseas.
It was love at first sight and a love that lasted, as the couple stayed in contact through letters from 1942 until Carl returned home to Canada in 1946.
“You must really love somebody to stay together (through letters) for four years,” Johanne said.
Carl enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1942 and trained at a Royal Canadian Corps of Signals facility near Kingston, Ontario.
Stationed in England at first, Carl’s Signal Corps unit eventually crossed over to the continent, witnessing the war in France, Belgium and Germany.
The Signal Corps would follow British troops to restore and maintain the lines of communication by erecting telephone poles and wires after the carnage of battle.
Modern military communication today, of course, is information technology sent via computer, but during World War II, “you had to run miles of wire, climbing telephone poles,” Donald said.
Often, Carl would have to work atop telephone poles with enemy bullets whizzing by him.
“He spoke a lot about minefields too,” Johanne added.
Excerpts from Carl’s letters to Jean which Johanne shared with us are both heart-warming and heart-rending.
“I just received another of your letters. I am so lonely it is unbearable. It is very lonely over here just waiting for God only knows what. I wish it (the Allied invasion of Europe) would start soon to get it over with. Don’t worry, I’ll try to take care of myself as best as I can. You mentioned joining the Air Force. Please, do not do that. One of us in this war is enough.” (June 13, 1943)
“I am longing every minute to return. It makes me very unhappy that we’re wasting the best years of our lives. It’ll be better when I come back. It is very funny when I say ‘when I come back,’ for God only knows what will happen to us when we go into action. All we can do is pray we come together again.” (June 23, 1943)
Before the Allies landed in Normandy June 6, 1944 to liberate western Europe, they first landed in Sicily, then the Italian mainland, in 1943, hoping to fight their way north into Germany.
Anticipated to be a relatively easy campaign by Winston Churchill, describing Italy as ‘the soft underbelly of Europe,’ the Italian front became known instead as ‘the Tough Old Gut,’ as Hitler’s forces invaded the country, dug in, and fought a long and bitter campaign after Mussolini’s Fascist regime surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the war on the Italian front not ending until late April, 1945.
At the time, however, Allied troops like Carl Mann were hoping for a quick end to the war through Italy.
“Did you see the news? The Canadians were the spearhead going into Italy. It won’t be long now before it’ll be all over with…maybe we’ll be together for Christmas.” (Sept. 3, 1943)
“Italy just surrendered. It won’t be long now before we’re in Germany itself and then Japan will get it too.” (Sept. 8, 1943)
From England, Carl and his unit were sent to France in the aftermath of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings, on June 23, 1944.
Carl wrote “it has finally started. The Second Front is on. What a sensation. I’m glad it’s started so we can get it over with. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.”
“I miss you. I could sit down and have a good cry. The weather’s okay. I hope it doesn’t rain and make everything muddy again. It’s terrible when there is mud. We get plastered with it. There must be two inches thick of it on our boots.”
“If anything should happen to me darling, please do not worry. I want you to know you are the only girl I have loved in this entire world. I pray to God to bring me back safely to you. He is the only one who can do this for us…I’ll be there for that day at the altar. Oh, happy day!”
“There are some funny things that happened too, like a rabbit running into his tent and it scared him. You can imagine, you hear this noise and they all come running outside and there’s a rabbit. They wanted to eat it,” Donald laughed.
There was anger too.
“It was probably a relief to write down what they did (though much of the mail was censored). The stress level was high,” Donald said.
Sometimes, Allied troops were tempted to take out that stress on captured enemy soldiers.
“They captured an SS officer. They made the comment ‘we would have pumped him with so much lead they wouldn’t have been able to lift him,’” Donald said.
Carl witnessed the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
“He was able to get himself a good camera and film for it. The pictures he took, some of them were pretty graphic, the original ovens where they cremated people, the mass graves, piles of hair,” Donald said.
Carl longed to come home to Canada after the war in Europe ended in May, 1945, but being single at the time, he found he would have to wait in line behind married soldiers, who were sent home first.
His last letter to Jean from overseas was dated Jan. 29, 1946, and Carl was eventually sent home to Canada that spring.
Carl and Jean were married June 15, 1946 in Kingston, the couple settling down in Sault Ste. Marie where Carl worked at Algoma Steel.
The couple had two sons, Donald and Stephen.
Donald is a retired Algoma Steel engineer, Johanne a retired former Sault Area Hospital chief nursing officer and Extendicare Maple View administrator.
“It’s a good story. It would make a great movie,” Johanne said.
As for donating Carl’s letters (along with his other military paraphernalia) to the Canadian War Museum, Johanne said “the knowledge (of the war years) has to be shared with young people.”
“Most of us, our age, our families went to war and we were in closer contact with it than younger people would be, so we want to share this with younger people.”