World War II Letters
In 1944 and 1945, during the so-called “Friendly Invasion” of Britain by the American military, poet Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962) was stationed at Shipdham in Norfolk, UK, where he was a US Army Air Force lieutenant with the 2nd Air Division. He served as an ordnance officer during the D-Day invasion and later as education officer for the base, where he organized lectures and discussion groups.
The Hyam Plutzik Archive at the University of Rochester, New York, USA, contains hundreds of items from his time in Norfolk, including correspondence with his wife, Tanya Roth Plutzik (still living in Rochester), correspondence with author R H Mottram and others, plus drafts of poems inspired by the English countryside and by his wartime service in East Anglia.
In total, over 400 letters remain that were penned by the poet, and there are additional letters from family and friends; most are in English, but some are in Yiddish. Using the back address'Somewhere in England' required by law during Wartime (to ensure confidentiality), the collection presents a comprehensive portrait of existence in Norfolk during the final two years of World War II as observed by a young American writer.
In the letters, Plutzik writes of everyday life in the barracks, bicycle jaunts around the English countryside, encounters with R H Mottram and Lady Ironside as well as with ordinary farmers and townspeople, as well as his visits to London and Stratford-on-Avon to see Shakespeare’s plays.
In addition to several “war poems” such as “On the Airfield at Shipdham,” “Bomber Base,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England,” Plutzik also began drafting his long poem “Horatio,” which earned him finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize shortly before his death in 1962.
June 5, 1944
The invasion of France began this morning, after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hands of the evil ones. It has been a cold and bitter day and now in the evening the sky is overcast and a drizzle is falling. The planes are out on a mission. Another officer and I stood under the wing of a grounded plane and saw them take off, one after the other, roaring in the long takeoff and then rising laboriously in the air. For hours later a roar could be heard above the clouds.
How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France!
I went around with the men as they loaded three of the planes. The hoisting contrivance for the 500-lb’ers is ingenious. They worked as though fiends were pursuing them. Then when the bombs were up in the plane’s belly, we fuzed them and threaded the arming wire. It was such a routine task, yet to think that this was a load of death for the enemy. The men are almost nonchalant in their work, except for their haste, yet even still they have a detestation for the fragmentate [sic] bombs.
On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.
From a letter by Hyam Plutzik to his wife
The machines are quiet before the day's struggle.
Geometric lines subtend the air at random.
In the half-dark, propeller, wing and fin
Loom out of space. A searchlight lifts a far
Pillar of white and a flare falls slowly,
In isolation, so calm, so secretly.
There are many messages coursing the earth
In this wartime night: of command, terror, despair;
In guttural syllables, in soft; by lights in the sky.
And none so beautiful as the white flare sinking
On a distant field, in East Anglia the ancient.
And space is full of the mutter of engines passing
Over the clouds, like a great organ playing.
Now the thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark
Among wakeful men, moving swift to their task.
The runways stretch silent; somewhere in the blackness
The guards stand, unseen, longing for home,
And a woman's arms, a warm bed in a house.
Upon the fields the stone weapons of dead men
Lie awaiting the outcome, which they will survive.
And the bomb-trucks move down the deserted perimeter
Where the cold North Sea wind stifles all.
Listen: the King's airmen are at large tonight.
But this is no story. Already the enemy
Touches them with his instruments. His guns poise.
Already fragments of metal puff out in the sky.
The bombs shatter the factory and many are blasted.
The broken machine crashes into the hill.
The young men die in manifold agonies.
Hoist up the bombs carefully into the belly
Of this great monster and do not look too closely
At the work of your hands as you thread the fuse, performing
The set procedure, till the thing is ripe for killing.
Was there not a time when you turned aside to avoid
Crushing a beetle or marring a spider's web?
Well, man grows wiser and older-wickeder also.
One by one the passionate engines speak,
The hoarse pack, shaking the ground with its baying.
A few words—a cigarette puffed and stamped out—
A whiff at the cold air—a look at the sky:
The crew at their posts ready. On starlit nights
When the huge searchlights play among the constellations,
There is always one whose beam rears motionless,
Slashing up through the bowl of the Great Dipper.
To those who ride the air on these fragile wings,
Someone, the unwitting jester, signifies
(War being a bad joke, what does it matter?)
To drink to the bottom of the cup quickly.
You remember that the faces changed often at the tables,
That you talked to them, that they had many dreams,
That they were you yourself with a different number.
Probably they would not have been very happy—
The world being as it is—but they were young.