“Dear Betty, Love Byron: The Letters of Lieutenant Byron Yarbrough and Betty Jones, 1944-1945”
Introduction by Mark Wilson
Preface by Dennis Blocker II
Publisher: Solomon & George Publishers
Price: $10.00 (Paper)
There could be literally thousands and thousands of books like this one, letters between a sailor away at war and a young woman at home. My own father and mother did exactly this during WWII.
In the autumn of 1944 Byron Yarbrough’s sister, Jane, mentioned to her college roommate that her brother would like to receive letters from stateside. That roommate mentioned it to her cousin Betty who then wrote to Byron, whom she had never met.
Byron, Lt. Junior Grade, was serving in the Western Pacific on LCI(G) number 449. A craft designed to carry soldiers onto the beach, she was only 150 feet long and 25 feet wide, with 60 enlisted men and 8 officers. This vessel, like John Kennedy’s PT 109, could and did sail across the Pacific but was still not large enough to carry a name.
Betty, graduated from Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, living in Cordele, Georgia, with her family, is working days and then helping her father at the family pharmacy.
Byron, whose home was Pebble Hill, is an Auburn graduate in Agricultural Engineering. Both are 24 and unattached.
The collection starts with Byron’s return letter of November 2. We have Betty’s letters from Jan 28 to March 10.
The correspondence is casual at first, but as the two come to realize, writing by hand, mysteriously generates intimacy. And we, eavesdropping, come to know and like them as they are learning about each other.
We learn that Byron is an extraordinary straight arrow. Although he pledged Phi Delta Theta at Auburn he did not join. There was too much drinking. He writes “it is hard these days to find associations that are not delvers in whiskey.”
She responds “I am proud of you.”
This sailor was shocked when on Guam, he met a chaplain, a graduate of Howard College who was drunk. “Well,” he writes “this will give you an idea about what goes on in this old world.”
Byron has tried the occasional cigar, but loathes cigarettes and urges Betty to quit. She promises she will, the day he sets foot on American soil.
Betty, a steady movie-goer, has become a fan of the “horse opera” and enjoys Roy Rogers.
She loves popular music, especially Dinah Shore, and writes of listening to Shore’s radio show with Frank Sinatra as guest, singing “When Your Lover Had Gone.”
Byron also likes Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby, Ginny Sims and Dick Hames. Of Frank Sinatra he says: “I don’t have the contempt for him that most men have.”
He doesn’t explain.
Sinatra not in the service?
Jealousy because Sinatra was being swooned over by girls stateside?
On 27 January, he writes: “I feel perfectly at home writing to you now” then on 11 February: “Let’s have it understood that you are my girl and I am your boy.”
On Feb 2nd, Betty writes “I live altogether for the time when I can get off by myself and write to you just what I’m thinking.” Writing is cathartic for her. “I feel like a new person when I’m through with my letter.”
True, it was wartime; they were lonely, but an element of this is the alchemy of the hand-written word. Not texts or, god help us, tweets, but what John Barth called the “muscular cursive.”
Over a period of three months these two become friends and then in their way, fall in love.
Sadly, a recurring motif in her last dozen letters is worry that she has not heard from him. On Feb. 17, 1945, Lt. Yarbrough was killed in action at Iwo Jima.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.