Hale Bradt, 84, was 14 years old on August 14, 1945 – the day the White House announced the end of World War II. His father, Wilber Bradt, had shipped out to the Western Pacific on October 1, 1942, with New England’s 43rd Infantry Division.
Wilber had left an Army soldier—a captain—in the field artillery and would return as a lieutenant colonel and regimental commander of the 172nd Infantry Regiment, the famed Green Mountain Boys of Vermont. He had been wounded twice and was awarded three Silver Stars for personal bravery. Hale couldn’t wait to see his dad.
On December 1 – 108 days after VJ Day – Wilber took his own life. He was 45 years old.
Hale went on to serve in the Korean War in the U.S. Naval Reserve and became a Physics Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although he remembered his dad, they were the memories of a 14-year-old that became more distant with each passing decade. All that would change on his 50th birthday in 1980.
Prompted by an argument with one of his sisters, he went to his family home and rummaged through old documents in the basement that might shed light on her paternity. He found a cache of letters from his father – written before and during the war – that would alter the trajectory of his life and add an intimate layer to the story of America’s involvement in World War II and the effect it had on the soldiers who served and the families they left behind.
Those letters, plus additional context and interpretation by Hale, resulted in the handsome three-volume set, Wilber’s War, An American Family’s Journey through World War II, recently published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of V-J Day on August 14.
Speaking to The Salem Gazette from his home in Salem, Hale described finding 12 letters addressed to him as the ‘a-ha!’ moment when he knew he had to share his family’s private story with the public.
“They were so fatherly and well-written and descriptive. I found a guy who could really write. As a 50-year-old, I knew what good writing was. As a 12-year-old, I didn’t,” he said.
Wilber’s wartime letters to his wife, children and other family members first and foremost provide a rare peek at the stark reality of WWII combat in the Pacific Theater. “His letters are special because they are contemporaneous,” Hale explained. “A lot of the war stories are reconstructed after it’s over. Some of these were written in the foxhole in pencil.”
They are also unique because they tell the story of an Army soldier. “Most of the stories of the Pacific War are about the Marines and the Navy,” Hale said.
He spent the next three decades interviewing relatives, academic and military colleagues. During his M.I.T. sabbatical in Japan in 1983, he visited the beach Wilber where Wilber would have landed had the war not ended when it did. He even met Col. Seishu Kinoshita, the Japanese battalion commander Wilber mentioned in his letters about combat in the Solomon Islands, a fascinating tale he recounts in detail.
However, it was not just the combat stories that propelled Hale to undertake a decades-long journey to learn more about his father and his family; he also uncovered the narrative of Norma, Wilber’s wife and Hale’s mother, that illustrated the serious challenges faced by the military spouse during a long deployment.
No stranger to the world of writing (he authored two textbooks on astrophysics), Hale learned first-hand how complicated the publishing side is when he decided to self-publish Wilber’s War after a couple of attempts to get an agent. He whittled down Wilber’s letters from 450,000 to 150,000 words and authored an equal amount of annotation and text. The fascinating book is chockfull of pictures, charts, maps and historical documents. “I’m a little embarrassed by the three volumes. I’ve constantly told my students, ‘You can always say things shorter,’” he said with a chuckle.
On a more serious note, Hale said that although soldiers today serve a different type of deployment than in his father’s day (three sequential deployments rather than one long one that lasted three years, for example), the story of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is the same. “They’ve known about PTSD since the World War I and earlier. Everyone is vulnerable.”
Hale credits his older sister Valerie with encouraging him to write Wilber’s War even though she knew other family members might object. “She said, ‘Hale. You’ve got to tell this story. It’s everybody’s story.” The rest, as they say, is history.
For more information or to order “Wilber’s War”, go to wilberswar.com.