The following letter, one of a series, was written by George Edwin "Ned" Black to his parents in Fargo, North Dakota. He was 19 years old at the time and had been traveling throughout Britain with a college friend.
On Board R.M.S. "Queen Mary"
August 30, 1939
But a moment ago I began to write you when the trumpet sounded the muster at the life stations; so I was forced to give up my work and attend. That completed now and being thoroughly safe and saved, I may return to my original plot and write as intended--but starting anew, and I am hoping for it, better.
I have very grave concern for the nervous health of all of you--and particularly Mother. Dad's two cables have had a convincing nature--that worry is an uninvited visitor at our house. I am much afraid that crises have made the position of anyone, near or about London, that of a manifestly and thoroughly dead man--requiring only an early burial.
I need hardly tell you that the continent and Britain are on the threshold of another war. I need not say that all are prepared to fight again in the names of justice and peace, corrupted and perverted--you probably know more of all this than I do.
I knew little of the crisis until my first day in London. I was astonished and astounded that, during these weeks of apparent apathy, the crisis had taken on such grave nature again. Don told me of it my first night in London. The next day we were advised to evacuate! I will tell you more of this when I am returned.
Preparation for defense was being advanced in every quarter of the city. Sandbags (and their number is increasing rapidly) were being placed in important buildings to absorb shock. Blimps are stationed in Green Park, ready to arise at a moment's warning to drop cables to ward off enemy planes. Anti-aircraft guns are stationed at located points--notably Hyde Park. Troops are constantly being called up--and our second night there, several especially-commandeered buses were loaded with men directly in front of our hotel--or better said, our pension. In the streetsaluminum paint is daubed upon curbings and pedestrian islands, as traffic precaution in a blackout. Street lights are being dimmed, changed, removed, or screened (even to the traffic lights). Tubes are being prepared to carry women and children to remoter quarters immediately upon the declaration of war. Museums are being closed, art treasures are fast disappearing into safe caverns or cellars.
Naturally, all citizens hold gas masks, have allotted shelters to give them sanctuary, if there is a sanctuary from a posse of shrapnel and bombs. Hundreds--nay thousands--have left the city for the south of Wales: yet there is no panic, no riot, no confusion. All moves on at its usual pace--and, but for a few wild-eyed Americans, calm and quiet confidence and strength is everywhere, in every face, on every lip, in every eye. They seem to feel that this will be a messy little business, but the policing must be done--and after it's all over, there's plenty of soap.
In Canterbury the stained glass was all being removed and the crypt was in a clamor with partitions, packed with sand, appearing as the workmen labored hurriedly. Students at Cambridge are crating old manuscripts. The thirteenth century West Gate at Canterbury has a small garrison of artillery in the north tower. Banks, stores, offices of the government have established rural centers for records and archives. Even the boat on which I travel will be under partial black-out when night comes (the lounge windows by which I sit are blinded) and smoking will not be permitted out of doors.
And in the churches the faithful gather in a silent prayer for peace. But peace is lost. As I stepped aboard the ship this morning from the pier, a man called to his friend from his bicycle, passing by, "I think we shall be over there again," and the friend replied, "Yes, I think we shall." And, lacking the intervention of something greater than we, they will.
They will die, these men. They will believe to the last that they know why they die. But I do not believe they do. I think no one does...
My love to each
In 1944, Ned Black was shot dead by a sniper while serving in France. He was 24 years old.
Andrew Carroll. War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars