After her father’s death at 94 in 2008, Peggy Ludwick (’70 Bacterio.) read all of his wartime letters. She compiled them into a book, complementing his missives with her own World War II research as well as his military documents and old photographs. The project was a labor of love. She discusses the work in this Q&A.
What did you discover about your dad in the process of reading and organizing his letters?
In reading my father’s wartime letters home, I discovered a young homesick, lovesick, idealistic, and romantic army officer, thousands of miles away from his new bride of just two months, desperately trying to keep their flame of new love burning through their 28 months of separation. This was not the man I knew as my father.
His eloquent letters were sheer poetry, filled with longing, hope, and despair, and they offered a never-before-seen perspective of war. Responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of traumatized and wounded soldiers, my dad’s courage and leadership, as well as his fears and frustrations, were fascinating discoveries.
I was surprised and moved by the young man I met in those letters. Here was a clever, charming, entertaining, and insightful medical officer, seemingly unlike the more serious, quietly contemplative father I remember growing up. Through the prism of WWII, I came to know my dad in a very different and more mature way. I quickly realized that I had really only known him in my own limited and sometimes immature way, as the parent I experienced and the husband I saw, versus the complex, multi-dimensional individual he was in the larger world. His resolute journey through the minefields of love and war was a revelation—and a gift.
What prompted you to compile them into a book?
I never intended to write a book. I merely interviewed my father about his WWII experiences over the course of several years so the stories would not be lost or forgotten. Using a small hand-held Radio Shack recorder, the interviews occurred during the last six years or so of his life, off and on, during my visits to Wenatchee. Eventually, I transcribed those interviews into a 40-page narrative that my dad read, corrected, and “approved” before his death in 2008.
Then, after my mother’s passing in 2013, I gave myself permission to read Dad’s wartime letters. They had always been stored in a shoe box under my parents’ bed, wrapped in bundles of white string. At that time, the notion of a book hadn’t even crossed my mind; yet, once I started reading my father’s typed, detailed, and engaging letters, I quickly realized their significance, both from a personal and emotional perspective, as well as their possible historical importance.
With the demands of my own life and no deadline, it took me about three years to read through all 265 letters. I found them so remarkable, that I decided to excerpt their most compelling passages. For the first time, together with the interviews’ transcript, the glimmer of a book began to emerge.
From there, things snowballed. In order to provide some relevance to the average reader, outside of my own family, I knew the letters and interviews needed some WWII historical context. Out of curiosity and motivated to research the specific battles in which my father participated, I gained a more comprehensive understanding of the details and extreme conditions of those bloody engagements with the German army, to which my father so matter-of-factly referred during our interviews. Inserting this background material into the manuscript provided critical context for the letters and challenges experienced by the celebrated 34th Infantry Division.
Subsequently, I added a few more personal chapters to flesh out my parents’ profiles as individuals, giving readers a reason to care about the main characters driving the narrative, while also, perhaps, inspiring them to reflect on their own family’s complex stories.
The chapter “Walking Wounded” is an exploration of the collateral damage of war. This more personal glimpse of war’s emotional and psychological trauma with its potential lingering effects within family relationships, still reverberates amongst our military personnel serving abroad today.
What were the most surprising aspects of reading his letters and working on this project?
There was definitely an emotional tethering that intensified as I sorted through all of my father’s WWII letters and archives. The tactile act of excerpting hundreds of letters, striking my keyboard in the very same order as my father had done over 75 years ago, is difficult to describe but was, nonetheless, transforming. This immersive, years long process, reshaped the image of the man I thought I knew. And in so doing, my own internal landscape shifted and expanded in ways that I’m still processing. I was led to consider how this new, intimate information about my parents as the young, idealistic adults they once were, was like pulling back a curtain on a window with a different vista. I was given not only a better understanding of them, but of myself, as well. Is it possible to rewrite one’s family history? Perhaps.
How did your thoughts and feelings about the war and the Greatest Generation change after reading your dad’s letters?
My dad’s letters were a humbling reminder of our country’s commitment, sacrifice, and unity in defeating the terrible threat of fascism during WWII, our last “good war,” if there is such a thing. The Greatest Generation was truly humble, selfless, and patriotic, and in sharp contrast to the all-about-me agenda of today’s culture. History and its lessons have a way of fading over time, and I hope A Doctor’s War will prompt readers to look back on our country’s collective history of coming together in challenging times.
My dad’s references to depression and fear in his letters are poignant and significant. They raised my awareness of the hidden, uncounted injuries of war—the invisible wounds that veterans carry into their postwar lives that can affect families for generations to come.
Soldiers who return home from war physically unscathed, are not necessarily injury-free.
I also gained a better appreciation for and understanding of my father’s definition of success, a phrase I heard throughout my life: “Success is doing something you don’t want to do, and doing it well.”
This life motto served my father well, having been raised during the Great Depression, unexpectedly losing his father at age 16, entering college soon after and, at age 18, entering medical school, then dealing with the challenges of supporting his elderly widowed mother and serving on the frontlines of WWII.
What are some of your favorite memories of your dad as you were growing up?
I didn’t really spend any recreational time with my dad. He was just too busy as a small-town family doctor, on call 24/7. However, sometimes after dinner, he would take me on hospital rounds to check on patients or to make house calls. From about the ages of 12 to 15, I worked in his office during the summers, doing mostly clerical work that made me feel very grown up: answering the phone, posting payments, making appointments. He also let me fiddle around with his microscope and attend a few clinical procedures. I saw and learned a lot.
Other favorite memories with my dad are: his teaching me how to properly couples dance, smoothly guiding me across the kitchen floor in perfect time to the waltz, box step, polka, or swing music playing; educating me about sex and how babies are conceived, one morning on the way to school in the fourth grade; setting my broken leg when I was 12; sending me off to college with my own customized medical kit filled with everything I’d need to treat myself and 60 sorority sisters in case of minor illness; piercing my ears when I was 19; and, when I was pregnant with my first child, sending me a typed four-page letter about the benefits and techniques of breast feeding, complete with diagrams. I guess you could say, we had a unique father/daughter relationship.
He could be brooding, serious, and quiet, but also had a quick wit, dry sense of humor, and twinkle in his eye if you took the time to engage. He loved telling long rambling jokes and stories that always ended with the punchline’s perfect timing and deadpan delivery.
Who do you hope reads your book?
Of course, military veterans, history buffs, and the baby boomer generation whose relatives may have served in WWII. However, underscoring the war narrative is the unfolding of a love story between a young wife of only two months and her courageous medical officer husband, serving overseas in a horrific war. Desperate to keep the flame of his new marriage burning over their 2 and a half years of separation, my father was not only fighting for his life and country, but perhaps for his marriage, as well. This layer of the book may resonate with anyone whose personal relationships have been impacted by adversity, prolonged separations, and life-challenging circumstances.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
As a daughter, in reading through my father’s letters, I was led to consider how this new information about my parents as the young, idealistic adults they once were, gave me a better understanding of not only them, but of myself, as well.
As humans, we all grapple with similar life challenges: fear, uncertainty, compromised choices, mistakes made, unrequited love, regrets, hopes and dreams. It’s surprising how anyone, in sharing his or her own story and vulnerabilities, can provide consolation, comfort, and reassurance to others—and help one feel not so alone. My hope is that this book will resonate with readers in some kind of meaningful way, and encourage them to reflect on and explore their own family’s convoluted past. Our stories connect us. What are yours?
What else is important for readers to know?
Connecting the dots from previous generations can be illuminating as we dare to learn more about our family stories and their clues to what we know about ourselves. Our ancestry defines us in large and small ways and our ancestors still have an effect on us. We’re a mosaic of not just their DNA, but of their life choices and world circumstances at the time. Where we go in life is heavily influenced by where our ancestors have been. Knowing where we’re from can guide us to where we’re going.
Unfortunately, this interest in and curiosity about our family’s stories often comes later in life, as we confront our own mortality. It wasn’t until I was in my early 60s that I began to more seriously explore my parents’ beginnings and their individual family histories—and consider that collective impact on myself and my own family. The rich archive of letters, photos, and notes my parents saved over their lifetimes, provided a map of sorts to explore my own journey through life, and better understand how I arrived at where I am today.
I wonder how our children and their children will come to know and remember us?
In our modern and technological times, with most communication so transient through emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts, all of which disappear over time, what will remain of us? And does it matter? For me, I think it does. Knowledge of my own family’s history gives me comfort and perspective. I’m worried that from now forward, there will be lost generations with no tangible artifacts remaining to inform a family of its origins, their challenges and triumphs.
The material and physical collections of family archives have the capacity to live beyond a generation or more and provide insight and understanding, if we take the time to look—and contemplate. They can be handled and pondered, sorted and considered over a period of time, sometimes providing clues to how we came to be who we are. These kinds of deeper connections to the roots of our family trees can corroborate what we already think we know about our family’s past; but they can also expand our perspective, understanding, and appreciation of complex family relationships and the cultural influences of time and place.
For more information, visit adoctorswar.com.