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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unanswered Letters to Norene Royer: Letter Writing and Postal Service in the American Expenditionary Force

I've been posting about the materials in the Grace Phelps Papers at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University that relate to the death of Base Hospital 46 Nurse Norene Royer on September 17, 1918. The materials tell us about one woman in wartime service but also much more.

That leads us to a very interesting form letter Chief Nurse Grace Phelps authored to let people corresponding with Royer know that she had died as she returned their most recent letters. We've seen that Phelps began her September 18 letter to Royer's mother with "You will find enclosed your letters to Norene, which were received but were never read." Personnel records indicate that Royer came down with influenza on September 8 and died on September 17, a period of ten days. Within that time she had received more than one letter from her mother.

Royer also had numerous other letters unanswered and perhaps unopened. Grace Phelps decided to notify all of the authors and return the letters they had sent to Royer. The form letter, dated September 28, 1918, was short and to the point: "You will find that we are returning your recent letter to Miss Norene Royer. We cannot tell you how much we regret that Miss Royer is no longer with us." Phelps gave a few specific details about her illness and military funeral and burial.

Then Phelps added two more sentences that reflect her views about the Base Hospital 46 endeavor and perhaps give us a window into her own ways of coping with Royer's death. "As much as we regret that she could not live and go back home with us," she wrote, "it is sweet to know that those of us who do not go back can be laid at rest with our dear men who are fighting the fight of all men." And then, she concluded, "Norene was very brave and sweet and not afraid to die." (Grace Phelps, Chief Nurse, to Multiple Recipients, September 28, 1918, Box 1, Folder 7, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University).

Phelps included the names and addresses of those people who had written to Royer, presumably from the onset of her illness to September 28 when she wrote the form letter -- 21 days. There were nineteen names on the list, including enlisted men in the American Expeditionary Force, her brother serving in France, her sister, other members of the Army Nurse Corps including Inah Templeton at the Vancouver Barracks Hospital in Washington State and Agnes Lavelle serving at Camp Dodge, Iowa. There were friends and employers in Spokane and either friends or relatives in Wisconsin. Together with the letters from her mother, Royer received an average of one letter per day.
"Norene Royer," Box 1, Folder 8, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
These numbers suggest that Royer herself was a letter-writer who was in correspondence with a variety of people inside the military and outside of it. It would be interesting to know how she compared with other colleagues at Base Hospital 46, but in the absence of complete correspondence we can't really know the answer.

I also wondered about the volume of mail to and from those in military service in France during the conflict and found some answers thanks to the staff at the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress who have digitized the Stars and Stripes, the U.S Army newspaper for wartime personnel in France. The U.S. Army had its own postal service. The Stars and Stripes reported that the American Expeditionary Force received 700,000 letters and 65,000 sacks of "paper mail" in June 1918 alone and that about one in five letters was "insufficiently or improperly addressed." ("All Mail Delays Not P.S.'s Fault," Stars and Stripes, August 2, 1918, 3.

"Home Bound Mail Bundled at Bases," Stars and Stripes, August 9, 1918, 6.
And in "Home Bound Mail Bundled at Bases," published on August 9 we learn that there was an astonishing amount of outgoing mail: "every seven days something over 2,600,000 pieces of mail, not counting packages and papers" arrived at the army mail terminal in France.

The article outlines the process of getting a letter from Base Hospital 46 to Portland or other cities in Oregon: "Eighty experienced postal clerks [now in the army] sort the mail as it is received. They come from every part of the United States, and each, through intimate experience with the section from which he hails,  knows just how a letter bound there ought to be routed. Each handles mail for the section with which he is familiar.

"As the mail comes in each man sorts the mail for his section. The letters are placed in racks divided into cubby holes. There are 7,500 of these cubby holes, each for a city or town in the United States which are subcenters of distribution for thousands of nearby smaller villages."
"A Clerk Sorts Mail During World War I," Smithsonian National Postal Museum,
The Stars and Stripes concluded: "Just before a mail boat sails the accumulated letters in each rack are tied into packages and these are put in bags so that they will be sent direct from New York to the starting point of the mail route along which their contents will be distributed."

The editors estimated that every man in the American Expeditionary Force sent two letters a week. Women personnel were part of the AEF mail service, too, and presumably are part of this total. It is intriguing to think about how women's letter writing compared to men's and, of course, to consider how front line and battle limits to letter writing and the long shifts of nursing at peak conflict points might have impacted the totals. Different individuals undoubtedly brought personal needs and practice to the mix. It does appear that in this context Norene Royer wrote and received a larger than average number of letters.

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