Fall Issue 2010
From Dreams to Reality: One Woman's History of World War II
by Lynne Hewes
“For me, it was all so romantic: that girl who wrote all those letters to servicemen was going through a totally different war from the war stories I heard years later on those interview tapes. When I wrote those letters, all I was thinking of was those handsome young men in uniform. The things they had to go through, their fears of being killed, none of that was real to me then.”
Those are the words of Cimarron resident Bernice Magouirk, who, as a young teen living in Lincoln County, wrote long, chatty letters once a week to thirteen young men who were serving overseas during World War II. Many years later, Magouirk volunteered to transcribe more than 30 tapes of WWII veterans who had been interviewed for a Gray County history project.
“When the war broke out, I was just a girl. My sister and I would sit on a fence in front of our house and watch truckloads of soldiers going by,” Magouirk said. “They would call to us and throw us C-rations. We had dances. It was such a romantic time.”
Magourik began her letter writing sometime during her senior year, after several young men she knew in high school went off to war.
“It was a small town. There wasn’t much to do there,” Magouirk said, “and as the guys left, there was even less to do. I started out by writing and telling them what we were doing, but my mother talked to me about that.”
Magouirk’s mother understood some of the seriousness of war.
“She told me, ‘Don’t spend so much of your letter telling how nice things are back home. Things aren’t very nice over there for them,’” Magouirk said.
The content of Magouirk’s letters changed after she considered that advice.
“I’d tell them about things I’d read, in books or magazines or just details from newspapers,” she said. “Sometimes, when I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I’d write down the words of popular songs. Those guys were a long way from home, and some of those song lyrics were pretty romantic. A lot came home later, thinking that I was their girlfriend, but that wasn’t what I meant. I just knew that they needed to have letters at mail call.”
She was correct in thinking that those letters were important.
“One boy came back and told me, ‘No matter what was going on, what was happening to us, I was always thinking, when I get back to camp, I’ll have a letter from Bernice.’”
In spite of all those letters written and received from young men overseas, Magouirk remained naive about the war. Return letters from the soldiers she was writing to didn’t offer much information about what the soldiers were really experiencing.
“Back at home, we didn’t get detailed information about the war. It wasn’t like watching TV now and learning what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Magouirk said. “Nowadays we can see the reporter talking at a scene while a battle is taking place. In those days, it was much more secretive. Even the newsreels didn’t really show much. We didn’t see our guys getting shot. We didn’t see wounded servicemen in hospitals. And always, always, they would say that the enemy had received more casualties than we had. It was our government propaganda.”
Soldiers, too, were told not to divulge information in their letters about where they were or even the conditions they endured.
“Once in a while, someone would write about their feet nearly freezing or something like that which would tell us a little about the weather,” Magouirk said, “but usually not. We all had maps on our walls back home then. If we knew about where someone was, and they mentioned something about the weather, then we could look at the map and try to figure out exactly the spot.”
Because of that secrecy, most people back home were unaware of actual day-to-day living conditions for soldiers overseas, and, because the military coached those soldiers on how to act and what to say when they returned from the war, most never told their loved ones about their experiences.
“They were told not to talk about it, that nobody would want to hear about it, the war was over. They said just go on back and pick up your lives where you left off,” Magouirk said. “And this was impossible after the things they had faced. Most of them were just boys who had never been off the farm before, never had any idea of traveling farther away from home than the next county.
“Nowadays we all travel, even to foreign countries, but those boys went off to war, and they experienced things they’d never even thought of. Some got frostbite, some in the Philippines faced foot-rot; they killed people and saw people being killed. They lived in fear most of the time. They were young boys, not men, when they went in. When they came out, everything was different for them, but they didn’t talk about it.”
Magouirk graduated from high school at age 16, then got her teaching certificate from Emporia in 1946. She moved to Cimarron for a job, where she met Louie Magouirk, who would become her husband and the father of her four children.
“Louie had been a Marine,” she said. “He was fresh out of the military when I met him, but he never talked about his war experiences with me. Once in awhile, he might talk about something funny that happened, but he never talked about anything serious. Oh, one time when Brent [their son] asked him something, he said, ‘When we went to that island, they were killing people so fast that we had to walk on dead bodies.’ But that was the only time he mentioned anything serious.”
It wasn’t until about three years ago, when she began transcribing interview tapes of Gray County veterans, that Magouirk began really to understand what life was like for those soldiers overseas.
“I started to see it then,” she said. “You could hear it in their voices. Many of them cried. As I listened to the tapes, I heard the fear. Everyone was afraid almost all the time. I learned about their daily lives, about having to take a bath in their helmets. I heard stories about being on a sinking ship and having to swim all night long just to stay alive. I heard one man tell the story about being given a machine gun and being afraid that he’d never be able to shoot anyone with it, but he did. I listened to one man talk about having to leave a dying buddy and never forgiving himself for that.”
Through listening to the transcripts, Magouirk also came to understand that, in addition to the horrors of war, some of the things that happened helped many of those young men learn about the world and about other cultures.
“The stories were fascinating; I couldn’t stop listening,” she said. “One man told about taking over the home of some civilians and about the woman who owned the house coming over everyday to wind an old clock in the house. He said that one night some of the American soldiers got drunk and someone shot the clock. When the woman came back the next day, even though he couldn’t speak her language, he tried to let her know that he wasn’t the one who did that. He knew how important that clock was to her, and he always felt such guilt about what happened. He never told anyone that story until he was interviewed.”
Other veterans interviewed for the project told their stories for the first time too.
“I found out that so many of them learned about people of other countries, that they were just people too, like we are. It changed their view of life,” Magouirk said. “A man talked about his unit marching on Christmas Eve and hearing villagers in a church, singing songs. He said that they stopped and went inside the church, took their hats off, and sat in the back row. After the service, the people of the village all wanted to take them home, to feed them, but they had to keep moving; they couldn’t stay. It’s those incidents, like we see today on the news of soldiers sharing candy with children, that’s what the war movies and the history books don’t tell.”
Through her transcriptions, Magouirk also came to understand how much World War II changed our society.
“It didn’t really occur to me until I was doing those tapes that so much of our culture was changed by World War II,” she said. “Yes, those boys who went off to war, all young and naïve, were changed, but when they came back, things at home were different too. Women had taken jobs, meaningful jobs, while the men were gone. Up until the war, most women had been totally dependent on men for money. They kept busy raising children, working in vegetable gardens, canning food. But then they went to work and built up an image of themselves. They became someone who puts an airplane together, someone who accomplishes something. After the war was over, their husbands came home, looking for that girl with an apron, and she wasn’t there. And she didn’t want to be. World War II totally changed our society.”
To read the interview transcripts which Bernice Magouirk transcribed, go to the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansas Memory website, www.kansasmemory.org.