Bullies and Bad Guys: World War II in Letters to American Children

The Museum’s archives contains many examples of letters written to children and the tones struck in the letters are as varied as the paper they’re written on. How did those in service help children understand what was happening in World War II while still trying to make sense of it themselves?

How did those in service help children understand what was happening in World War II while still trying to make sense of it themselves? Explaining war to one’s children is something that parents, adults, and leaders have had to do since the beginning of time and tragically, must still continue to attempt. One of the all-time classics of children’s literature, Winnie-the-Pooh, is said to have been the result of A.A. Milne parable-izing the trauma of his WWI service to his young son, Christopher Robin.

In the Museum’s archives, we have many examples of letters written to children, and the tones struck in the letters are as varied as the paper they are written on. Sometimes the child recipients were not old enough to read their own correspondence. Even newborns received letters from their dads in service; new dads overjoyed and awed at their new responsibility as a parent. Other letters were to grown children; in rare instances there were cases where both father and child were serving in the war.

In a tender letter to his two young sons, Leonard Isacks tries to explain why he could not be with them for Christmas in 1944. He wrote, “I guess you often wonder why people have wars. That’s a hard question to answer…” Isacks attempted to explain the war by saying, “I know that you certainly wouldn’t like it if one of the boys in the neighborhood tried to tell you what church you should go to, what school you should go to, and particularly if that boy would always be trying to ‘beat up’ some smaller or weaker boy...the only way to make a person like that stop those sorts of things, or a country like Germany or Japan, is to fight them and beat them...and teach them that being a bully (because after all that’s what they are) is not the way to live and that we can’t put up with it.” 

Letter from Lt. Leonard Isacks to sons. Gift of Fletcher Isacks, 2001.038.002.


Many American fathers, brothers, and uncles avoided the subject of the war altogether when they wrote home to children. The writers inquire about school, about grades and teachers, about homes, farms and gardens, about sports. They want to know about innocent life at home and feel a connection to that carefree life outside of the war. Jo Anne Harrell’s dad wrote to her in April 1944, “Just keep studying hard and be a good girl.” Most of the letters to children request photos, mentioning how much the child must have changed since they were last together. Even if the war is not mentioned explicitly, the distance and the passing of time is ever present. 

Fathers fighting overseas did not always attempt to explain why they were not together with their families. Often it fell to the mothers to explain the war and a father’s absence to the children. Sgt. Wendell Wolfenbarger wrote his wife Ruby about their young daughter, “Try to make her understand that it’ll be some time before I can be there.” Legendary entertainer Bob Hope was often away from his family during the war while he traveled to provide comfort to those in service. Daughter Linda Hope remembers her mother Dolores explaining, “We’re so blessed that he is supposed to come home to us in two weeks...Think of all the boys and girls that don’t have their dads for years and sometimes they’ll never have their dads back again.” Lt. George Cermak wrote his toddler son, “Some day, Dave, we shall be together, and then...Well, Dave, for now have your wonderful Mommy, our one and only Mommy, tell you about that…”  Leonard Isacks wrote, “Mummie will explain them to you, as she knows…”

Lt. Isacks with his sons. Gift in Memory of Leonard Isacks, 2001.038.


In some letters, the writers took a very direct course. In these, one can hear a message, a clear message about the most basic human principles. Lessons about right and wrong are spelled out plainly and in some cases, urgently. I want you to know this. They are written as instructionals, potential last letters, the last words of advice from a father to his children should he not survive. What is the meaning of war? What is the meaning of life? Writers tackle enormous issues trying to place them in simple terms so that child readers can identify with and attempt to make sense of the chaos and loss. Lessons about fairness and responsibility, lessons that take a lifetime for parents to depart to their children are packed into letters mailed from a faraway, often hostile place.

Chaplain Carroll Hamilton instructed his son, “You are practically on your own. Save every penny you can, study hard, live clean and set a high goal for yourself. If you fail, we have both lost. If I don’t come back, I’ll live through you. If I do come back, it will be to help you, Rodney and sister carry on to do your best in a world that is not cursed with war.” Leonard Isacks wrote, “Dad doesn’t want you to ever be a bully, I want you to always fight against anyone who tries to be one; I want you to always help the smaller fellow, or the little boy who may not be as strong as you. I want you to always share what you have with the other fellow; and above all, my boys, have courage, have courage to do the things that you think are right.”

Letter from Chaplain Carroll Hamilton to son. Gift of Rodney Hamilton, 2008.251.021.


American servicemen wrote about the desire to live out their dreams of being fathers, having happy-ever-afters, tossing footballs with sons and protecting daughters from handsy first dates. They write of the ability to teach their children the important lessons that they can only write about in wartime. Such dreams of future happiness like these were often the carrot on the stick to surviving the war. In April 1945, Sgt. Harrell wrote his daughter Jo Anne, “I am hoping this mess will soon be over and everyone can get home. That will be a happy day for everyone.”  Lt. George Cermak wrote to his newborn son, “Ah, the three of us shall always be happy through rain or shine because we shall always live in harmony and understanding! You bet son after the War, when we are all together in a better world at peace, you’ll have brothers and sisters too, be it God’s Will. And Son right here and now we seal an agreement to be pals together always… Your Dad, Your Pal.”

Letter from Sgt. William Harrell to daughter. Gift in Memory of William Lewis Harrell, 2018.027.


Parents who served in World War II often referred to their children as the reason they were fighting. They wanted to make a better world for their children and all of the children of the world. Lt. Shannon Estill wrote to his newborn daughter Sharon, “I am so proud to know you are in this world, even though I wish it were a safer place to live right now. That is why I am away from you, my sweet girl. I want this to be the only war in your lifetime.” One correspondent who we only know as Uncle Joe wrote his niece Robin in Cleveland, “There need never be another war, Robin, as long as we fight to build and go forward in the freedom and peace we’re winning in this one.” Carroll Hammilton wrote to his son Sam, “So whether I come back or not, always remember that your daddy went for your sake and for of you [sic] who are growing up that you may have peace and liberty of every kind. 

The letters were all that some of the child correspondents had from their fathers, robbed of the parent they never fully knew by a war they could not yet understand. For more on letters in the Museum’s archives read about Ray Toohey, Wendell Wolfenbarger, C.V.S. Mitchell, and Leonard Isacks.


Mail Call: V-mail

One specific wartime demand was the efficient and expeditious delivery of mail to US forces serving around the country and overseas. Between June 1942 and November 1945, over 1 billion V-mails were processed. 


Kim Guise

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.

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