“Gwen Mayes describes herself as a sentimentalist who is passionate about writing. She’s written professionally as a result of her career in health policy and even served as a columnist for Today’s Woman magazine in the early 2000s. More important to Gwen, however, is her love for personal, handwritten letters. When asked what item she loves the most, her answer was easy — her greatest treasure is a bound copy of Letters to My Mother: 1944-1946, written by her father, James Henry Mayes, as he was serving in the army during World War II.
Gwen’s father grew up in a poor family and was drafted like many other young men at the time. He was 19 years old and served for about three years, primarily in Germany. James had four sisters, the oldest of whom was the matriarch of the family and a surrogate mother to him. This loving sister, Lila McCoin, was still at home while he served overseas, and the letters he penned during the war were written to her. Returning from the war, James Mayes had a successful career in the Kentucky State Police, raised a loving family, and passed away in 1991 due to complications associated with adult diabetes.
In 2010, when her father had been gone nearly two decades, Gwen attended a family reunion where she saw her Aunt Lila’s son, O.B. “Butch” McCoin. Cousin Butch had recently been going through his mother’s possessions and found some letters that his mother Lila had stashed away. Butch had them bound into a book for Gwen. There are more than 50 letters in total, each in remarkably good condition.
James wrote about V-J Day and about joining General Patton’s 3rd Army. He treated Czechoslovakian children to candy treats at Christmas. He told about finding 19 German soldiers in a barn one day toward the end of the war. Those soldiers surrendered as prisoners because they were afraid of being killed by Russians. A common thread Gwen found in all the letters was her father’s positivity. “He always had an incredible vision of coming home even when he was sitting in a foxhole,” Gwen says.
“My dad has been gone almost half my life,” Gwen says. “We never knew these letters existed until long after he died…it just goes to show that when we are living our lives on a day-to-day basis, we don’t know how important it’s going to be for somebody in the future.”
As Gwen reads portions of the letters, we learn in one letter that Lila was able to send fudge to her brother in Germany. Gwen smiles as she reads the postscript in her father’s next letter: “P.S. Send more fudge.” No doubt that special treat meant a lot to James and his fellow soldiers. These letters are a treasure for Gwen. In them, she has learned even more about the father she adored.
By Megan S. Willman | Photos submitted