In the summer of 1941, Esio (Joe) Bertoncini met Carmela, the “black-haired beauty” he married six months later after proposing to her on the front steps of her father’s house on Liberty Ave in Pittsburgh, Pa. They didn’t have much time together before Joe was called to serve in World War II. By the time he headed off for training in December of 1942, he was also leaving behind an infant daughter Marie, nicknamed Cookie. Assigned to the 14th Armored Division 92nd Army Infantry Battalion, Joe would not see his wife and daughter until the summer of 1945, when he returned home after a lengthy rehabilitation in England following a gunshot to his face that almost completely severed his jaw.
Sent to a hospital outside Philadelphia, Joe was finally released in July 1945 and returned home terrified that his little girl would be frightened when she finally saw him. “The test came when I knocked on the back door and a little girl opened it,” writes Joe in his memoir of his war years. “I asked where her Mommy was and she said at the store. I asked her if she knew who I was and her answer was so sweet. … ‘You are my Daddy.’ The sweetest words I had been waiting to hear for three years.”
Joe’s love for his women in his life are chronicled in a treasure trove of letters he wrote to Carmela and Cookie during his time in the U.S. Army. Most are humorous – like the one of an angry-looking German soldier huddled behind a fence post. Some are a little racy, reflecting the feelings of a married man too long separated from his wife. And some are poignant like the one picturing him huddled in a fox hole, shells flying overhead, reading a letter addressed to “Big Joe,” the name given to him by his fellow soldiers.
The following letter from France – dated March 14, 1945 – pictures the Statue of Liberty on the envelope, showing Joe’s longing for home.
My Dearest Wife,
I have received no mail today. My buddy has received another package which makes three this week. He had some of that pepperoni that I like so much. ... How time is flying over here honey. It’s one day after another and they go so quick for me. Today is the hottest I’ve felt so far. The buds are coming out on the trees so you can see that spring is here. The farmers are stacking manure on wagons and taking them out to their land. The smell is terrible even up in my room. At present we are eating rations. Us three drivers cook our own meals and it isn’t too bad. We have a nice stove to keep warm on cool nites [sic]. My feet got cold during my time on guard. I have something good right in front of me. The people finally broke down and gave us red wine. It sure is good. It gets me to drawing pictures like that one. Oh for you. I’m feeling very good honey after a clean shave this morning. How I’d love to be home now on a day like this. days like this do things to me. Yes it drives me mad. Do you let the baby out much? I’d better quit calling her baby for she’s quite big now. Give her a kiss for me. I expected to get a pair of those wooden shoes for her but the lady told me the store has sold out of them. I’ll try in the next town we stop at. I will close now honey hoping you and the baby are in the best of health. God bless you both.
Always Loving You and Cookie,
A second letter, dated two weeks later from Germany, pictures a German soldier waving a white flag while holding a explosive behind his back.
My Darling Wife,
I hope that white flag sure comes very soon but not with a trick in back of his sleeve. I received two letters from you honey, just a while ago. There isn't much I can answer in them, so I'll write you anyway honey. I am sending you another Stars and Stripes. I read about the mistake the radios made back home. Everyone thought the war was over. Don't build your hopes up too high when listening to radio broadcasts. Honey, how I pray it soon will be over. I want to come back to you and Cookie so much. Today is Good Friday which I didn't know until a few minutes ago. I never know one day from the other honey. You are supposed to get your roses tomorrow which I ordered at Primrose Shoppe. I told him to deliver them one day before Easter. ... I hope it really surprises you. ... I don't know when us Catholic boys will get to hear mass anymore. We are in Germany now and I guess you can't even trust the churches around here. Maybe our chaplain will have an outdoor mass for Easter. ...
Good Night & Pleasant Dreams,