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Love letters in a time of war
Second lieutenant Dwight Thompson, 24, shipped out to Korea in April 1953, just as Cleora Barnes, 21, was about to graduate from the University of Connecticut, where they’d met. The letters they exchanged until August 1954, when he returned and they married, form the basis of a play by their daughter Susan Thompson, a lecturer in Boston College’s theater department. Unforgettable: Letters from Korea had its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2012 (in a Pilgrim Theatre production). Subsequent venues have included the Boston College Arts Festival and, last July, the Korean War Memorial in the nation’s capital, for a performance sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the armistice. An excerpt from Thompson’s script follows:
My parent’s letters were always a little off. They crossed in the mail. On the Korean front in 1953, letters came in bundles, and then not at all. Often, my parents were writing and responding to old news.
Cleo: You said in your last letters that you haven’t received any mail. I don’t understand it for I’ve been writing pretty well—you might say excellently for me. I wish you’d get some mail. I feel awful when you write and tell me you haven’t received any letters.
Dwight: My Darling, You’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard from me for nearly a week. A flare exploded in my face during training and some fragments were blown into my eyes.
Cleo: Darling, How I wish you could have been with me tonight—was elected Miss University of Ct. What a riot!
Dwight: They didn’t have an eye doctor up here at the front so they evacuated me by plane to the rear. I’ve already had the pieces removed and I can see fine. There won’t be any scars on my face or eyes so I feel pretty lucky.
Cleo: I had a tough day before the dance—my English exam—also had my last waitress shift—broke a cup—I usually break something while I’m waitressing. I have to go out with a bang, you know.
Dwight: I’ll be here about a week while my eyes get healed and then I’ll be back to work.
Cleo: It’s almost unbelievable to me at times to think you’re really over there. Here all is peaceful—people are partying and having a good time. The whole earth seems to be alive.
Dwight: They are sticking so many needles in me that I feel like a human dart board.
Cleo: Are there cherry blossoms in Korea? Where are you now? It’s possible, that this very moment you are thinking the same thought—that if we had our way we’d be together.
Dwight: Can’t write any more now. Hope you are well and happy.
Cleo: Dwight, I’m so confused. I just don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate. Darn the army! I don’t mind you traveling but I want to be able to come too. Think I’ll join the WACs (—only joshing). Enjoy your new experiences and hurry back.
Cleo: Dearest Dwight, My ole New York Yankees almost broke the record of 1906 for 19 straight wins but last night with 18 straight the St. Louis Browns beat them 3-1. The Browns have been at the bottom of the ladder and chalked up something like 17 losses. . . .
Dwight: Inje, Korea. My Darling Cleo, A couple of guys have short wave radios so we catch a few stations that way. Right now I’m listening to your New York Yankees get beat 1-0 in the 4th inning. Don’t have much else to write except that I’m glad it’s Pay Day in 2 days.
Cleo: I got a job offer. $60 a week at the City Planning Office in New Haven. I am considering it for summer work.
Dwight: I spend about $8–10 a month. There isn’t anything to spend it on except a cigar which is about the only thing I’d want anyhow.
Cleo: Tom Gallagher was my date for Seniors’ Week so I wasn’t a third wheel at the dances and outings. I’m enclosing a shell from Friday’s excursion to the beach. Don’t worry I’m still yours.
Dwight: I’ve been offered a position at headquarters. Hope you are well and happy. I’d give my left arm to be with you babee rather than have you with Tom Gallagher. I need my right arm or I’d offer you both.
Cleo: Darling, you asked me to think of you during graduation and I did. I couldn’t help it. You are the one person who has really affected my life. Without you I wouldn’t have done half the things I did in college. It was so lonesome today after the girls moved out of the dorm. It’s awful! Have never felt so depressed. The place was like a morgue.
Dwight: Darling, the Chinese have made a big break through over on our left so I rejoined my company. We’ve been alerted for the last 24 hours that we may have to go and plug the gap.
Dwight: The 7th ROK [troops of the Republic of Korea, the South] was rushed up to plug the gap and stopped the Chinese last night but got quite a few casualties so if they get hit again we’ll probably be pulled over to stop them. Right now we have our ammo, rations and bags on trucks and we can be ready to move in an hour.
Cleo: Sweetheart, I just got your letter and when I found out a flare had blown up in your face I just didn’t know what to write and I don’t know now. It seems unbelievable that something like that should happen to you.
Dwight: I may not write for about a week or so, I don’t exactly know, but don’t get mad. We just got the order to move out and replace the division which got so chewed up.
Cleo: Thank God your injury wasn’t worse. It must have been painful.
Dwight: I’ll write again as soon as I can.
Cleo: I hope your eyes are all healed.
Dwight: Please don’t tell my mother as I have followed the policy of telling her I’m in the rear and not to worry.
Cleo: Your mother called me for graduation. I didn’t mention you being hurt. I thought you might not have written to her about it so she wouldn’t worry. Headquarters! What a job!
Dwight: I have always squared with you though.
Cleo: I always knew Thompson would end up behind a desk commanding men!
Dwight: I’ve got to get a few hours sleep before the relief begins so I’ll say goodbye for now.
Cleo: I decided to take the job of associate city planner in New Haven.
Dwight: I’d give my left arm to be with you babee.
In addition to being a lecturer in Boston College’s theater department, Susan Thompson is a member of the Massachusetts-based Pilgrim Theatre Research and Performance Collaborative. Dwight Thompson remained in the Army, earned a law degree in 1972, and retired from the service in 1973 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He worked as a lawyer in Howard County, Maryland, until his death in 2004. Cleora Barnes Thompson earned a master’s degree in city planning and eventually worked as an historic preservationist. She died in 2010. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The couple raised five children.