The Museum’s collection contains many letters describing some of the war’s pivotal moments as viewed by young Americans who both participated in and witnessed these events. One such letter, a 10-page missive by Sergeant Richard Merritt to his parents, describes London on the days surrounding May 8, 1945. Merritt and his friend had a 48-hour pass to visit London from their nearby airbase at Bury St. Edmunds and were caught up in the city’s celebrations. The two young servicemen, support staff with the 364th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force, had intended to sightsee and take in some plays, but ended up instead becoming ambassadors for the United States and guests at one of the spring’s biggest parties.
Shortly after arriving in London, and after a trip on the underground, which fascinated him, Merritt and friend Bob Campbell stumbled on a scene he recounted for his parents. “After a short walk we found a great crowd of people having themselves a time around a large bonfire,” he wrote. “They were dancing and singing and making lots of noise in general. There were no Yanks in the crowd. When the people spied us they grabbed us and started dancing in a circle and kicking and singing ‘Yankee Doodle’ and other such songs like the ‘Marine Hymn,’ ‘God Bless America.’ Etc. . . . They talked a brand of Cockney that was quite hard to understand but one old lady said, ‘You Yanks saved us. We’re all terribly grateful to you Yanks for what you’ve done.’ Apparently they were and we had to act as the official representatives of the United States. We had glorious and simple tributes heaped on us from all sides. To say we felt foolish is an understatement but we enjoyed ourselves nevertheless. We had a ‘smashing’ time.”
Merritt and Campbell’s V-E Day whirlwind continued in the heart of London, Piccadilly Circus:
“Piccadilly was an absolute solid mass of allied humanity. You couldn’t move, you could only sway with the crowd. On the sort of monument in the center of the square, an English sailor sans pants was doing his version of the Highland Fling. It was something for to see. People hung out of all the windows and from the street lights. People were everywhere. Streamers of toilet paper flapped in the breeze. Flags and bunting of the United Nations covered every building and hung from every wire. Fireworks were being shot off sporadically. I’ve wondered how many casualties have resulted from the celebrations. Certainly more than a few were crushed or suffocated or severely burned by the fireworks.”
Back at the base, just days later, Merritt was offered an aerial tour of a destroyed Europe in a B-17. He goes on in his letter to describe the devastation as vividly as he did the victory festivities in London. He closes on page 10 with an almost apologetic, “If you struggled through all this, so long. Love from Dick.” Merritt’s letter to his “Mamy and Pappy” is just one of the many thoughtful and interesting letters home in which Americans attempt to put into words the war as they lived and experienced it.
Kimberly Guise holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II.