War Correspondents

I have delayed writing to you because I have been in combat. I was in the Palau operation. It was hell as far as I am concerned. During the 1st night and second morning, I thought that I had made my last bird skin. Mortar and artillery shells fell all around my hole. All night, I felt that the next one was coming in to my hole. I did little sleeping because snipers were moving around near my hole. I was plenty scared. I hope that I never have to go through another one like that. I paid little attention to the birds there. To move about more than duty called for was very unhealthy. Never has my interest in birds been as little as it was here.

Sammy M. Ray on Okinawa, 1945, photograph courtesy of Sammy M. Ray.

Seventy years ago, rich correspondence such as this brought the reality of war to the home front. This passage, written by US Navy Pharmacists’ Mate 1st Class Sammy M. Ray on October 29, 1944, brings to life the stresses of World War II. Ray’s wartime experiences, preserved in the letters he wrote to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Alexander Wetmore,  are now on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History as part of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit When Time and Duty Permit: Smithsonian Collecting During World War II.

Field Collector's Manual in Natural HistoryIn the early 1990s, I wrote an article about the Smithsonian's role in World War II, especially the technical advice given to American military and the collections sent to the Smithsonian by soldiers stationed in the Pacific. While conducting research for the article, I was struck by the extensive correspondence between Wetmore and numerous soldiers on the front lines. A warm and kind man, Wetmore wrote long letters to these young men, trying to lift their spirits under difficult circumstances and encouraging them to take a respite from the war by studying the natural world around them. The Smithsonian even published a small handbook, A Field Collectors Manual in Natural History for servicemen.

Alexander Wetmore Leaning Against an Army Air Force JeepAmong Wetmore's correspondents was Ray, a young man from Rosedale, Mississippi. As a recent graduate of Mississippi State College, Ray pursued his natural history studies with great enthusiasm while stationed abroad but only, as he noted "when time and duty permit." He sent specimens of many unusual and beautiful birds from remote islands in the Pacific, including the buttonquail, cardinal lory, and rainbow lorikeet. His long letters transported me to Pacific Islands with descriptions of birds on the wing. His letters also peppered Wetmore with questions and requests for collecting supplies, making clear that his happiest times were when he was able to borrow a pair of binoculars and shift his focus from the battlefield to the world of birds in the treetops.

Trichoglossus haematodus, Rainbow Lorikeet, Pavuvu Island, 1944, collected by Sammy M. Ray, 2011 pho

But as he wrote above, there were difficult days, such as the fierce battle of Palau, when he thought he had "made his last bird skin," as bullets and bombs whizzed around his head. Wetmore listened to these difficult accounts and wrote back encouraging words to help young soldiers such as Sammy Ray cope. I marveled at the rich correspondence of writers in those days, handwritten letters on thin airmail paper that had survived almost seven decades, a far cry from our text messages and tweets today.

But the digital age does give us some advantages. When I began work on the exhibit last year, on a whim, I entered the names of some of Wetmore’s wartime correspondents into internet searches to see if I could learn anything of their post-war lives. When I entered Sammy Ray's name, I was astounded to find YouTube videos of one Dr. Sammy Ray teaching children how to shuck oysters. A World War II vet who makes YouTube videos!

I also found a faculty page at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where I confirmed this was the very same Sammy Ray who had graduated from Mississippi State. I quickly sent an email and received a reply within fifteen minutes. A World War II vet who answers email!  In the past year I’ve gotten to know the energetic and resilient veteran who went on to a research career in oyster pathology and who, at 93 years, is still presenting papers at conferences. He came to visit the National Museum of Natural History last year to see the letters he wrote and collections he sent to the Smithsonian so long ago. He’ll return to see the new exhibit this summer, with family, students and colleagues. A small version of the exhibit is being put on display at his university library.Sammy M. Ray visiting the National Museum of Natural History, April 1, 2011, photograph by Courtney

This project shows the strengths of both yesteryear and today. The Wetmore/Ray correspondence exemplifies a bygone era of long and thoughtful letters that transport us back in place, and time, and feelings. But even if our letters are not so long today, the digital age allows us to search for and communicate with people far removed in space and time, sharing memories and forging new relationships.

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