Letter from Lester: November 18, 1941

Ambassador Bridge at Night between Detroit, Mich. and Windsor, Ont. Photo from postal card, 1942
Ambassador Bridge at Night between Detroit, Mich. and Windsor, Ont. Photo from postal card, 1942

Lester’s letter from November 18, 1941, less than three weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, describes routine life for Navy recruits. Perhaps he did enjoy a “liberty” in town and was witness to a scene like the one in the post card he sent home. He is looking forward to a trip home over the Christmas holidays.

November 18, 1941

Dear Folks.

I have just finished writing to Uncle Loren & I guess I should have made carbon copies as I can’t think of anything that I didn’t tell him.  I hope your good weather is holding out as well as it is here.  The sun has been shining fairly steady the last few days.  It is still warm here.  You must have been having some bad weather there.  Did you have my anti-freeze tested?  Also did you get my battery from Fred?  I intended to give you the money to pay for it but forgot to do so.  Tomorrow is pay day but by the time we get our bills paid there won’t be much left.  I have a little other money so I will have enough to come home.

Lester and the automobile he was proud to own.
Lester and the automobile he was proud to own.

We received our grades yesterday but this is the first time I have had time to write to you.  Here are my grades:  English 87, Spelling 94, Arithmetic 95, Mechanical Aptitude 93, General Classification 93, with an average of 93.  I was one of the five highest in our company, So I should get to go to trade school.  I don’t know where the school will be but it may be here at the Great Lakes.

We have to go to a show or something tonight so I won’t have much time to write tonight.  Did Josephine tell you that I have received the rating of a petty officer?  I was made a squad leader as a result of the first bag inspection.  We had another inspection today & I made it ok, too.  There were about three or four others in the sixty on this floor that had good bags.  I didn’t tell you about my rating before because it isn’t permanent & I didn’t know if I could hold the job.  I’ve gotten along ok so far so chances are that I will make it now.

We go over to Paradise this Saturday so we will start getting some liberties then.  I haven’t found it bad here except that there isn’t anything to do on Sunday afternoons.  We’ve walked all over the place where we are allowed to go & we can’t just study or write letters all the time.  We usually have time in the evenings during the week to keep up on our correspondence.  If there is anything you want to know which I haven’t told you, ask some questions.  Frances sent me some papers & Josephine sends me clippings once in a while.  She sent me some candy this morning & I didn’t get time to open it until tonight.  I didn’t get to read my letters until this afternoon.  I got four letters today.  Everyone wrote on Sunday, I guess.  That means no more until the last of the week which won’t be long at the rate the time is going.  We got another haircut today.  Just when my hair was getting where I could part it.  It will grow some more tho, I guess.  I’ve gained almost ten pounds.  Paul, I enjoy your letters.  Keep on writing to me.  I will write you a special letter someday.


Setting Sail

Lester F. Harris
Lester F. Harris

When I think of family and losses, my thoughts turn first to an uncle whom I never met. Lester Franklin Harris was the older brother to my father. Born the 21st day of February in 1918, Uncle Lester came of age during the depression era. He helped run the family farm for a few years after graduation from high school. In 1941, with conflicts escalating all over the world, he joined the US Navy and headed to the Great Lakes for training.

Lester did not make it home from World War II. His loss came years before any of my generation arrived, so none of us had the chance to know Uncle Lester. But we heard about him. My cousin, the son of Lester’s older sister, was named after him with a middle name of Lester. Additionally, David Lester’s life was so impacted by his mother’s love for her brother that he later joined the US Navy himself and remained active in the Navy reserves for many years beyond his active duty.

When the telegraph bearing news of Lester’s presumed death arrived at his home, the family–my family–bore a tragic shock. His parents had lost a son. His sister and younger brothers had lost their brother. His fiance had lost her soul mate. And those of us who came later not only lost an uncle, we lost the aunt he would have brought into the family, and any cousins who might arrived. Growing up, we didn’t know we had lost anything in particular. We’d never known the world with Lester in it. So how could we miss him?

Decades later, after the deaths of his younger brothers, I have found a box of Lester’s letters. And I understand. My grandmother saved everything. She filled a scrapbook with postcards he sent, photos, and other memories. Through his own words, I am now learning who my uncle was, what he meant to the family, and the scope of his tragic and untimely death. Over the next few months, I will post those letters, on the anniversaries of their origin, and share a few of the memories from over seventy years ago.

Today’s post is a speech he gave at his high school graduation. As salutatorian of his class, he was expected to address those in attendance. Surprisingly enough, or maybe without surprise, he spoke of a ship setting sail as a metaphor for graduates launching into their lives after school days are over. I post it today, for it was possibly on this date in the year 1941 when Lester left home for his basic training.


Setting Sail
This week will see members of senior classes from all parts of the United States receiving their diplomas and setting sail on their life vocations.
When a ship starts on a voyage it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. So it is in our life. Our fuel is knowledge, gleaned from our school life. Our first fueling station is the eight years of grade school. Our second, high school, and for those doing larger things in life, a third, college.
Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. Our storms are discouragements, financial reverses or perhaps choosing the wrong vocation. The sunken reefs and rocks are perhaps the association with the wrong kind of friends.
However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots. A young graduate’s pilot can be a number of persons—his parents, his teachers, or his friends. Usually each has a large part in determining what route the graduate will take. The lighthouses and buoys are perhaps business partners or others who can help to mark the best course for the graduate who is “Setting Sail” on new seas.
Lester F. Harris, Salutatorian
Senior Class of Dunlap Rural High School
Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas