Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dear Mary Lou

Remember that letter from an RAF recruit training in the US? I've found the corollary - a letter from a GI about life in Britain.

As there is a mention of  beer, so I feel justified in posting it:

"Dear Mary Lou-
Doughboy Joe Doakes gives his honey the lowdown on British girls, politeness, Weather, and beer
Somewhere in Britain.

Dear Mary Lou, —I was getting little tired of walking around being an official secret like all us guys were until F. D. R. announced our arrival.

But now the announcement has heen made you can know, honey, I am stationed somewhere on this island of tea and scones.

I can't tell you much about what we are doing, but yon can take it from me I never worked so hard in life. You don't have to worry about me stepping out on you, babe. The Army keeps me too tired for that.

This is strictly screwball country—but screwball in nice sort of way. In some way, I guess you could call it corny. The way these people over here dote on tradition and the way they wear morning coats and derby hats — they call them bowlers, and the way that when you get a letter they always add "Esq" on to the end of your name.

These things were so different that I and the rest of the guys my company thought the British were putting on a show for us. Now that we're getting used to things we're beginning to see what's been cooking in this country for the past several hundred years, and that tradition stuff isn't so bad.

There are two things Britain is strong on—rain and courtesy. We had a lovely spring at home, but when we first hit this side of the ocean we were making a book that if it rained one more day the whole works would sink. It always rained that extra day!

It's becoming an old joke in our billet that the barrage balloons are the only things that keep these islands from doing a swan dive into the drink.

However, these people are just as saturated with politeness and courtesy as the ground is with water. Even taxi-drivers take time to thank you when you pay them off. No kidding. If this sort of thing is catching, I'll be coming back saying, "Yes, ma'am," all over the joint.

You remember how I hated cabbage and spinnach and such stuff? Well, right now I'm practically a walking brussel sprouts. I've put so many of them away I'm seriously thinking of organising a movement to make post-war peace aims include the eradication of brussels sprouts from the British diet.

Actually we're eating extremely well. We're getting American Army rations, and you don't know how homesick an ordinary tin of grapefruit can make you feel.

We had pork chops for supper the other night. I ate four. So, you see, there's nothing wrong with my appetite. Incidentally, a pork chop outside of an Army camp is a thing of beauty and almost impossible to get.

I WAS in London for a dance the other Saturday night, and, honestto-gosh, they had a swing band that wasn't too schmaltz. The boys actually got out and kicked a couple of times.

I think that in about six months, if the Army continues to import jitterbugs with rifles, we'll have the British gals swinging right on down in the groove. At first they danced a little on the slow side, but now we're getting them pepped up to par.

Don't get the wrong idea, and think I'm walking out on you. I did meet one real nice English gal that I think you would approve of.

She's blonde, and says "rahlly" for really," and she works in a factory making shells. I met her at this dance, and she has the makings of as fancy a little rug-cutter that ever lifted hoof.

I suppose you would call most of the British girls plain. They haven't had any silk stockings for a year or so, and lipstick and rouge are as rare as Nazis here. Clothing has been rationed, and the girls buy their clothes for endurance instead of beauty.

No, they don't dress as sharp as you, kid, but they don't do too badly.

WE'RE over here, of course, to kick the hell out of Hitler. We will be doing same soon, I hope. But in the meantime it can't be all work. That's where more of that British courtesy comes in.

The Red Cross has opened clubs pretty well all over the country, and there's practically nothing they won't try to do for you. We get free tickets to shows, and sometimes people call in and have some of us out to dinner.

That's pretty nice, you know, because people over here have almost all their food rationed, and we don't really feel like eating up their stuff.

We weren't quite sure what to expect when we first hit this country. We didn't expect what we got. As matter of fact, half-expected to be forced to sort of fight the British for such things as billets and grub and privileges. After all, we were strangers, and what I've heard of the Limeys, they're just naturally not very friendly, I thought.

You can imagine our surprise when we got off the boat. Those guys not only took care of our duffel bags, but they had a hot meal waiting and bunks made up for us. That's when we first began discovering there isn't much difference between the guy who drove a truck in Britain before the war and the guy who had a similar job in the States.

I HEARD the other day that we're not going to get even the small amount of American beer s been coming over. That means going to have drink the British stuff. They call it "bitter" for apparently no good reason at all, and it's flat, although they do have a kind of lager that bubbles. I suppose we can get used to anything, and will get used to bitter, but give me a cold can of Pabst or Budweiser every time.

We're getting about a package of American cigarettes a day, thank goodness, because another thing we might have to work at getting used to are the local brands.

It's a funny thing, the British import tobacco grown in Virginia, and put it all in one cigarette practically without any blending. That makes it almost completely an American cigarette.

On the other hand, we take our own tobacco and import others from Turkey and such places, mix it all up, and put out cigarettes which, I think, are a lot better than what the British smoke. But it works out that when we do all our griping about British cigarettes and having to smoke 'em, we are really giving the works to an all-American product.

Worst thing about the smokes over here is the price. They cost two shillings for twenty — that's about forty cents, while our Post Exchange sells Camels and Luckies and Chesterfields for the regular fifteen cents, which is about sevenpence.

We're getting lines out over here, and should start really cooking with gas. I'm planning on having a look soon at Paris and Berlin.

Let me know what you want in the way of a souvenir. I'll bring you back a stuffed Nazi if you want, and we'll stick him up over the fireplace.

Meantime, think about me as often I think of you, and don't go getting yourself hitched up to a desk soldier.
The Post - Sunday 05 July 1942, page 4.

The absolute philistine, preferring canned Pabst to a decent pint of Bitter. But that gor me thinking: was canned beer really already that common bny 1942? That's pretty quick, as beer cans had first appeared fewer than 10 years previously.

I have to admit to having a few doubts about the authenticity of this letter. The relentless use of hip American phrases seems a little overdone. What do you reckon?


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, it sounds to me like something written by a journalist, maybe an army journalist or another writer covering events in England, to publicize their activities there. (What was the Post, was that an army newspaper?).

Joe Doakes was a term for the common man, so this is a clue as well (see the Wikipedia entry on the Joe McDoakes film series from 1942-1956, it explains that the Joe McDoakes name was derived from Joe Doakes which had that meaning at the time).

In general, the phrasing of the letter seems a little too pat, I agree. That's a lot of cigaret knowledge for the average soldier, and the thing about eating four pork chops sounds like a joke to me.

On beer, since hop levels in England did fall during WW II, and given American beer had higher levels than today, the two probably met in the middle, in that respect. The bubbly stuff may have been English lager or perhaps some brewery conditioned pale ale.


Craig said...

I don't know if cans had come on that strong by 1942 in the civilian sector—although the war did fuel the canning industry. The exception would have been the military. It's likely the War Department and the Quartermaster corps would have purchased canned beer rather than bottle beer simply for storage and transport—cans don't break and they are easier to stack. GIs would have been fairly used to can beer— even before deployment overseas—at officer's clubs, and NCO clubs stateside.

Craig said...

By the way—Schaefer, Budweiser, Pabst, Ballantine, Blatz and even Albany's own Beverwyck made olive drab beer cans for shipment overseas during WWII. The cans were moral boosters. The Government contracted with 30 or 40 breweries to produce OD cans that would be sent overseas to areas where men from those breweries hometowns were—for example men of the 27th Division—a NY National Guard unit in the Pacific—may have gotten Schaefer or Beverwyck OD cans, while the midwestern boys may have gotten Budweiser. Not all of the cans going overseas were OD, but a good number was.

Ron Pattinson said...


interesting stuff. It makes sense that cans would be aesier to ship around than bottles.

Gary Gillman said...

Also, a guy making efforts to show he isn't seeing other girls isn't going to talk about a nice English blonde who has an exotic accent and the makings of a good hoofer. Sorry.


Jeff Renner said...

Couple of pertinent links:

In the second, you'll note that the author draws the US distinction between beer (lager) and ale. By the 70's or so, US ale was a very minor portion of the market except perhaps on the East Coast, and ale became a kind of mysterious beverage. His note that ales were generally stronger than beers was certainly a common perception, if not necessarily a fact, when I was a kid in Cincinnati in the 50's. even today in some states, notably Texas, any malt beverage over a certain percent alcohol must be labeled an ale, so you have doppelbock ale.

beer guru, jr. said...

My old man was a GI infantryman, landed at Normandy four days after D-Day. He spent about a year in the UK before the landing in France. He HATED British beer, calling it weak, warm and flat. He saw American beer cans- but it all went to the Officer and NCO clubs. He tried French wine ("not sweet and gave you a bad hangover"), but never saw or drank any German beer. He did get to try a bit a schnapps. Didn't like it though.

Gary Gillman said...

Maybe the British Army shipped Felinfoel lager in tins to the Tommies. :)


Shawn said...

smells like a fake to this American

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the fake Yank bits from Adrian Mole to me.