Letters from a soldier: Retracing the path of WWII pen pal
By TERRY DATE | The Eagle-Tribune | Published: November 8, 2015
North Andover, Mass (Tribune News Service) — As a college sophomore exchanging letters 70 years ago with a soldier during World War II, Josephine DiMauro Demers of North Andover expected and hoped that she would meet her pen pal in person when he came home.
Through letters, they became acquainted and flirted, but she never did get to know him in person — nor was she certain he even made it home from the war.
For a long time, the business of life kept her from wondering too much. She became a teacher and worked in Methuen elementary schools for 46 years. She married, too, though not until she was 80 years old, when she exchanged vows with longtime friend Gene Demers nine years ago.
Earlier this year while cleaning out her North Andover home of 60 years, she found the eight letters sent to her by Marine Cpl. CJ Arsenault of Reading while he was deployed in the Pacific Theater.
Now 89, rather than 18 years old, she found she still hung on each of his handwritten words.
“I expect to be home around the first of the year, so I hope I can find something or someone to keep me warm," 19-year-old Arsenault writes in one of eight letters sent between May 21 and Nov. 3 1945 to DiMauro Demers, who was attending Regis College at the time.
With each passage she read from the letters in the old shoe box, she felt a growing urgency to find out what became of the pen pal she located in a list of servicemen printed in The Evening Tribune, a predecessor to The Eagle-Tribune.
“It was something I had to do,” she says.
Getting to know him
She chose his name from the list in the newspaper because he was from nearby Reading, but the letters quickly took on a romantic flair.
“You never did tell me whether or not you are engaged, going steady, playing the field or married or waiting for someone on a white horse," Arsenault writes early on. "By gosh am I getting curious.”
In another exchange, he imagines DiMauro Demers — who he calls "Jo" — taking it easy during her summer break from school.
“I can picture you sitting on the sofa in the parlor writing on a cookie box and trying to stay cool while the lawn outside grows longer,” he writes.
Having spent 2 1/2 years of hot, dusty weather at war in the Pacific, home never seems far from Arsenault’s mind.
He reminisces about Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., Salisbury Beach, Reading High football games, homes warmed in winter by wood stoves and throwing snowballs.
“You talked about Reading in your letter and it brought back memories of some real good times,” he writes July 18, 1945. “Yes, it is a small town with only one movie, but it’s the best little town in the world. We have had some pretty good times around that white church and little movie house.”
As soldiers will be, he was grateful for the letters.
“Don’t think it isn’t appreciated,” he writes in June. “There is nothing we look forward to more than mail. So keep up the good work, and I’ll keep things going at this end.”
In wartime, it wasn’t easy on his end. For security reasons, he had to be careful what he said. One letter even was returned by the military because it was too long at seven pages. He started using both sides of the stationery.
In a letter penned late Aug. 9, he talks about enjoying the final hours of his teens, as his 20th birthday was Aug. 10.
Mostly, he looked forward to the end of the war.
“I guess the way they are bombing Japan, now, it can’t be very long before this thing is over and we will all be home. I heard rumors today that Russia declared war on Japan. If it’s true, then it can’t last much longer.
To his frustration, the path home was not straight.
“I guess I sound bitter, but I will explain the reason why," he writes Sept. 12, 1945. "I left the states 13 months ago for Honolulu, Marshall Islands, Okinawa and now Japan. I’m supposed to get a relief in November, which would get me home 2-1/2 years after I left, but the word now is no relief until the first of March. I guess I’ll stop crying on your shoulder, but it has been so damn long that I guess I plan too much. We have one consolation, the war is over. And there is no more men being killed.”
Despite his angst, he fantasized about the future, and what life would be like after the war.
“You asked what I would like to do when I get back to ‘Joe Civilian’? I am still young and I have an ambition, that is to be an aeronautical engineer, which means a few years of college on top of the year of school I had in the service. I think I have enough practical experience on aircraft to pass the exams. And MIT is the college I am aiming for. Of course, the above is a lot of dreams, and I may go back to what I was doing before the war. I worked for a year in the Boston Navy Yard and really enjoyed my work there, but I think airplanes will always be my ambition. I guess I just like to fly.”
The rest of his story
CJ Arsenault did make it home, but DiMauro Demers didn't know that until she found his family in Reading this past summer.
In his last letter he said he looked forward to seeing her, so she truly doesn't know why they didn't connect.
“He never called,” she says.
In July, she met his two surviving brothers for lunch at the 99 Restaurant in North Andover and realized all the things she didn't know about him.
He was the oldest of five boys and also had a sister. He left high school before graduation and went off to the Marines.
“He was my hero,” brother Jack Arsenault told her.
In the military, CJ (short for Clarence James, the brothers told her) was known to fellow Marines as “Jimmie,” the same signature he put on his letters to her. Around town and to his family, though, he was always known as “Kelly.”
After coming home he worked hard, as an auto mechanic, cab driver and on the road selling tools. Sometimes he held two jobs while putting himself through Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied business, they said.
He did marry, fathering five children, including twins. And he left this world too young, at the age of 51.
“I cried when I heard he died,” says Demers, who has visited his grave in Reading at Forest Glen Cemetery near a big oak tree.
Despite the tears, DiMauro Demers is happy she came to know the rest of the story of the man who wrote sweet letters from the Pacific all those decades ago.
They brought back memories. She plans to give them to his family.
They are beautiful letters, she says.
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