The original purpose of this story was to examine the lost art of writing love letters. In the age of heart and eggplant emojis, it often seems like meaningful correspondence is a thing of the past.
We’ve all heard about the letters our grandparents and great-grandparents wrote to each other during wartime — page after page of captivating prose that compares love to a summer’s day or an ocean breeze. So, recently I ventured over to the Heinz History Center to find real-life ink-on-paper expressions of love.
Turns out, I found something even more meaningful.
When Joseph Ostronic was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943, he and his wife Esther had already been married for nearly 20 years and were living in a row house on Peralta Street in the North Side. He was a longtime barber and was 38 years old when he began his military service on the USS Nields, also as a barber. His ship was mostly stationed in New York and Boston, but then went into service making transatlantic voyages carrying troops into battle.
When the war separated this couple, they weren’t two pie-eyed young lovers; they were two veterans of marriage who had spent at least half of their lives side by side. Their letters tell the story of two people who hadn’t been apart in nearly 25 years; they were both heartbroken about being separated and fearful about what the separation might lead to.
On Nov. 1, 1943, Esther wrote to tell Joe that she was afraid she might not be able to take the train to see him on his upcoming leave.
“The government is threatening to cut off all unnecessary travel and if that happens, I may not get to come to where you are stationed,” she wrote. “Unless I use the bus and I’ll do that even if I have to stand all the way there sweetheart.”
She signed the letter: “God Bless and keep you my darling for me. Your selfish wife Esther.” The letters were also usually covered in lipstick kisses.
For his part, Joe was a pretty prolific writer. The letters to his wife fill two archival boxes. In the beginning, he kept the letters as upbeat as possible. In one of the first, he signs it, “So long for now kid. Love and kisses, Joe.”
However as 1943 turns into 1944, and then that year into 1945, his letters show what the pain of separation has done to him and the temptations he faced when on leave. The worry of infidelity was present in both their letters.
On Feb. 7, 1944, Esther writes: “My darling daddykins, Darling when you go out on leave please don’t go with the girls, as I want you to be true to me as I am to you honey boy. Sweetheart, I live only for you and I love you with all my heart, body, mind and soul.”
One of the most amazing things is how honest Joe is about his situation. Two weeks following her letter, he writes that being away from home for so long “is going to make a bunch of bums out of a lot of real swell young lads, as dear all they think of is to shack up with some girl when they hit port … But dear, I am not thinking like that, I am thinking of you sweetheart and the day I come back home to you, when I can take you in my arms again and truthfully say that I have been true to you and love you and only you and I have kept myself clean and untouched for you only. … God knows dear there has been a lot of temptation when I was on liberty here and in New York but sweetheart, there has never been anyone who could hold a candle to you.”
Joe Ostronic did finally make it back home to Esther in 1945; their love endured separation and a world at war until Joe died in May 1982. However, one can’t help but wonder if they would have made it through without constant communication. The Ostronics wrote each other every day they were apart and shared their lives — the good and the bad —with each other. They shared the kind of deep, intimate moments that you just can’t capture with a heart emoji.