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Flashback: A Letter from Ma to the #1 Bum on V-J Day

Given that it’s the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day today, tomorrow, or maybe September 2, I want to re-post an entry I posted fifteen years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. On August 14, 1945, my grandmother Sade wrote a letter to her only son Frank (my father) while he was still at a radio base in Mali, North Africa. That letter is a marvelous little glimpse of how ordinary people responded to the end of the biggest and most calamitous war in human history. Follow the links to the letter. It’s worth your time. Really.

Below, a photo from 1950. L-R: My mother Victoria, my father Frank, my aunt and godmother Kathleen, my grandfather Harry and my grandmother Sade.

LR Vickie Frank Kathleen Harry Sade 1950-500 Wide.jpg


The day after Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted, along with all of his friends and cousins who were of age. This gang of fifteen-odd random Chicago kids scattered to the far corners of the world during the War, but one thing held them together: My grandmother’s Underwood typewriter. Throughout WWII, Sade “Ma” Duntemann called them The Bums, and (almost) monthly published The Bum’s Rush, a one-sheet newsletter carefully typed in two columns and run off after hours on a mimeo machine at the First National Bank downtown, where my grandfather Harry “Pops” Duntemann was a bank officer. She drew (or borrowed) little cartoons, and once enclosed a copy of a photo of the pool table in their basement, where my father and his buddies had hung out before enlisting. The newsletter held all the neighborhood gossip, and when possible descriptions of where the Bums were and what they were doing. The January 1945 issue described how my dad’s younger cousin John Phil Duntemann lost a toe when a greenhorn trainee backed T-5 John’s own bulldozer over his foot.

Five or six years ago, my sister and I unearthed something else: A private letter to the #1 Bum (our father) written by Sade on that same typewriter. It began on August 14, running on to the 15th, and it was a first-hand account of the gathering expectation and then the pandemonium in Chicago when news came that the War was finally over. It’s as close to a time machine as I’ll ever find. I cannot read it without hearing her voice, and the shouts in the street, and the church bells, the car horns, and the laughter and the joyous relief beginning a block off North Clark Street in Chicago, and spreading throughout a tired and grateful world. I knew a lot of these people, though most are now gone. I also know and appreciate what they did, so if they went a little nuts, and got a little drunk and silly, well, they earned every second of it.

Don’t try too hard to sort out the names. Sis was my Aunt Kathleen. The Marks (“Marxes”) were cousins. John Malone was my dad’s best friend and (later) his best man, and the families were very close. Most other people mentioned were neighbors. Willie is the mongrel dog my father later smuggled home from Africa, which is a wonderful story I will tell on the anniversary of my father’s return from the War.

Sade Prendergast Duntemann was very Catholic and very Irish. She tried to infuse her letters with some of that Irishness, and if you’re not used to reading Irish dialect, it may be confusing. So what I’ve done is prepared three copies, and you should attempt them in this order: Look at the scanned images of the letter (it’s faded and hard to read, but at least scan it) then read the literal transcription. If you can’t figure something out, then read the third version, which I edited a little for comprehensibility. “Demoni” means “tomorrow” in Italian. And I have absolutely no idea where Kernenyok is!

Image, Side 1 (521K) Image, Side 2. (567K)

Literal transcription.

Edited transcription.

I can add nothing to that. I’ll only say that when I was ten and my grandmother’s health was failing, she gave me that old Underwood typewriter, and I furiously pounded out stories on it for almost ten years until the keys started to fall off. I didn’t appreciate it at the time (How could I? and what 10-year-old ever does?) but no other gift apart from Carol’s gift of herself would ever change me more.

8 Comments

  1. That is awesome. Your grandmother was a hot ticket, to use an old expression. Thanks for sharing.

    1. She was. Alas, I knew her mostly as a sick old woman who died when I was 12. But she was very funny, and when we had a cathedral ceiling in our house, she would go up to the loft, lean out over the banister, and sing parodies of grand opera. I was a toddler then and don’t remember it, but I can see it in my imagination. I think a lot of my skill with humor came down from her through my father.

  2. […] Jeff Duntemann publishes a letter from his grandmother in Chicago to his father (then serving at a radio station in North Africa). […]

  3. Patricia S Bowne says:

    Thanks for sharing this! It makes it so much more real.

  4. Tom Roderick says:

    Jeff, I read the original scanned version and it was a treasure. The feeling of excitement and joy and relief that comes through that letter is amazing. For those of us who were in a much latter and much more confused war (Vietnam) it is even more special to hear how much the folks back home cared.
    When I finally cleaned out my parents house and sold it after they had passed, I found a letter that my grandfather had written his son, my Father, during WWII and I treasure it as much or more than anything I got from cleaning out that house. Yours is longer, typed so as to be legible, and you know who most of the people mentioned in it were. Thanks for sharing this. This is the BEST Contra if not forever, at least for as long as I can remember.

    1. Reading that letter still brings tears, some in sympathy for the nation’s relief at the War’s end, some because I knew most of the people mentioned (John Malone, the Marks, the Ainsburys, John Duntemann, and others) though every single one is (understandably) dead. Fathers matter. Mothers matter. Grandparents matter. Aunts, uncles, and cousins matter. At war or in peace, we are all in this together.

  5. Orvan Taurus says:

    I can *feel* the sheer relief and joy in that letter.

    I’d known that rationing in the USA was not as long lasting nor as deep as in other countries, but that gasoline and fuel oil rations ended almost immediately? Day-yamn!

    o/` And we’ll give a might cheer,
    When a ration book is just a souvenir! o/`

  6. Jim Fuerstenberg says:

    Great contemporaneous slice of history! Thanks.

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