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Imagine a time in which many of ones friends and family members went “off to war.” Would you join them? What if you had a family and obligations at home? What goes through the minds of those placed in such difficult situations? Fortunately, some have left letters, diaries and other writings to give us some clues.
Charles and Ardith Westie
The Charles and Ardith Westie Collection, housed at the Archives of Michigan, contains the prolific two-way correspondence between a husband and wife during World War II. The Westies’ letters display both their difficulties and their determination.
As 1943 began, Charles was attending Central Michigan College of Education (now Central Michigan University) in Mount Pleasant. Ardith had graduated from Central Michigan the previous summer, and in February, she began a teaching job in North Muskegon, Michigan. The Westies’ daughter, Judy, stayed with Ardith’s parents during the school semester.
Charles and Ardith naturally corresponded a great deal, with their future being one recurring topic of discussion. Would Charles be drafted, thus prolonging his separation from his wife and child? The matter weighed heavily on Charles’ and Ardith’s minds.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Charles watched friends and his brother Frank enter the military. In one letter to Ardith, he wrote, “Today, the boys began leaving in all seriousness – twelve boys in the Army Air Corps received their orders today.” Charles describes the painful good-byes and notes that, “I think today, I have fully realized the dread meaning in the phrase ‘War is Hell.’”
Charles was the father of a young girl, and thus, there was some question as to whether he would be drafted. On March 24, he told Ardith that the draft board had classified him as “1-A,” indicating that he would almost certainly be called to serve (In a note written years later, Ardith explained that the draft board had failed to record their daughter’s birth.).
In another letter, Charles indicated that his father was clearly opposed to his induction. “I suppose you saw how the papers smeared out the draft regulations about fathers not being drafted,” he wrote, “and of course, Daddy had to get ahold of it and thought now that I wouldn’t go.” By this time, though, Charles had made up his mind: “I don’t know if he [Charles’ father] is mad at me, but I do know that he isn’t too pleased. I just told him that I was going and that was all there was to it, and I didn’t want to discuss it anymore.”
What inspired Charles in such uncertain times? He may have had several answers to this question. Perhaps one answer comes in the form of a play.
Watch On the Rhine
In early 1943, Charles acted in a stage production of Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist play Watch on the Rhine. He played “Kurt,” the main protagonist, who ultimately returns to Europe to fight Nazis. He mentions the play in several letters to Ardith. “Everybody said that I never played a more superb role,” he wrote in one, “and I am sure it was sincere. Mrs. Bush said that she couldn’t think of me for a minute either night except as Kurt, the father of the three kids.”
Years later, in a memoir, Charles indicates that he had kept a copy of the play. His words indicate that the play had had some effect on him: “I find in the front cover, a message I wrote to my wife when I left for the army. It says, in part, ‘…someday, this may tell us why this had to be – this war that brings so much hurt to the world.’”
In the memoir, Charles quotes several lines from Watch on the Rhine. “In this play,” Charles writes, “the hero is asked why he must return to the fight against the Nazis – and he answers – ‘because someone has to – to even fight with bare hands against the Nazi might.’ Asked why it has to be his hands, he replies, ‘for each man – his own hands – he has to sleep with them.’”
Later, Charles further explains that, “to guarantee a decent childhood for every child, you have to have a certain kind of social order – and that kind of a social order totalitarians have never advocated. This view took on more meaning for me when I found that I was not the only guy fighting for kids – when we saw them sleeping in subways in bombed out London – begging leftovers from our rations in Normandy.”
Clearly, Charles identified with Hellman’s message in Watch On the Rhine. By choosing to fight, he put these thoughts into actions.
Life as a Soldier
Charles Westie entered the U.S. Army and participated in the Normandy invasion. He was later wounded, and his wound ultimately resulted in the loss of his leg.
On June 6, 1944 – just prior to his departure for Normandy – Charles wrote Ardith a long, heartfelt letter. He wrote, in part “I just couldn’t and somehow can’t for long entertain the thought that my life is more important than the fighting against the things that may take it from you.” Charles had thought long and hard about the sacrifices that he was making and elected to make them anyway. The words he left tell us why.
For more on Charles and Ardith Westie’s wartime experiences, click Charles and Ardith Westie: Shared Sacrifice
Letters and artifacts from the Charles and Ardith Westie Collection will be displayed during the Michigan Historical Center’s 2014 Statehood Day celebration on January 25. This year, the event honors both the 177th birthday of Michigan and the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. Click Statehood Day Celebration for more information.