An Airman's Letter To His Mother

YOUR TURN

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Editor's note: On Friday, Aug. 18, this Your Turn column should have run. Today, we are printing two columns to make up for the mistake, as one refers to the other.

I buy old books whenever I can. One I recently found was the 1943 edition of W. Somerset Maugham's "Great Modern Reading" -- 613 pages of things Maugham thought were well worth reading.

On page 25 of that book, I stumbled across something that just took my breath away. It was written in England in 1940. I'll include it here without comment and in next week's column I'll do my level best to address some of the questions it raises.

"Dearest Mother:

"Though I feel no premonition at all, events are moving rapidly and I have instructed that this letter be forwarded to you should I fail to return from one of the raids that we shall shortly be called upon to undertake. You must hold on for a month, but at the end of that time you must accept the fact that I have handed my task over to the extremely capable hands of my comrades of the Royal Air Force, as so many splendid fellows have already done.

"First, it will comfort you to know that my role in this war has been of the greatest importance.

"Our patrols far out over the North Sea have helped to keep the trade routes clear for our convoys and supply ships, and on one occasion our information was instrumental in saving the lives of the men in a crippled lighthouse relief ship. Though it will be difficult for you, you will disappoint me if you do not at least try to accept the facts dispassionately, for I shall have done my duty to the utmost of my ability. No man can do more, and no one calling himself a man could do less.

"I have always admired your amazing courage in the face of continual setbacks; in the way you have given me as good an education and background as anyone in the country: and always kept up appearances without ever losing faith in the future. My death would not mean that your struggle has been in vain. Far from it. It means that your sacrifice is as great as mine. Those who serve England must expect nothing from her; we debase ourselves if we regard our country as merely a place in which to eat and sleep.

"History resounds with illustrious names who have given all; yet their sacrifice has resulted in the British Empire where there is a measure of peace, justice and freedom for all, and where a higher standard of civilization has evolved, and is still evolving.

"But this is not only concerning our own land.

"Today, we are faced with the greatest organized challenge to Christianity and civilization that the world has ever seen, and I count myself lucky and honoured to be the right age and fully trained to throw my full weight into the scale.

"For this I have to thank you. Yet there is more work for you to do. The home front will still have to stand united for years after the war is won. For all that can be said against it, I still maintain that this war is a very good thing: Every individual is having the chance to give and dare all for his principles like the martyrs of old. However long the time may be, one thing can never be altered. I shall have lived and died an Englishman. Nothing else matters one jot nor can anything ever change it.

"You must not grieve for me, for if you really believe in religion and all that it entails that would be hypocrisy. I have no fear of death; only a queer elation ... I would have it no other way. The universe is so vast and so ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice. We are sent to this world to acquire a personality and a character to take with us that can never be taken from us. Those who just eat and sleep, prosper and procreate, are no better than animals if all their lives they are at peace.

"I firmly believe that evil things are sent into the world to try us; they are sent deliberately by our Creator to test our mettle because He knows what is good for us.

"The Bible is full of cases where the easy way out has been discarded for moral principles.

"I count myself fortunate in that I have seen the whole country and known men of every calling. But with the final test of war I consider my character fully developed. Thus at my early age my earthly mission is already fulfilled and I am prepared to die with just one regret: That I could not devote myself to making your declining years more happy by being with you; but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have directly contributed to that, so here again my life will not have been in vain."

Your loving son

The above letter was printed in the London Times on June 18, 1940.

I believe those are some of the finest words ever written -- not by me; by a young English airman.

Perhaps the sentiments expressed in the letter were so incredibly perfect that you wondered, as I did at first, if it might not have been a piece of wartime propaganda. It wasn't.

Though it was published anonymously, the letter is absolutely genuine.

The handwritten original can be found in the archives of the London Times. Those archives disclose that the author was Flying Officer Vivian Rosewarne, the copilot of a Wellington bomber who was stationed at RAF Marham, Norfolk, England. His RAF serial number was 40021; he was a member of 38 Squadron. He died on Thursday, May 30, 1940, and is buried at Veurne Communal Cemetery, Veurne, West Vlaanderen, Belgium in grave number B1.

Rosewarne's station commander found the letter among his personal effects after his death and asked the bereaved mother's permission to forward it to the London Times.

When it was published, the Times received more than 10,000 requests for reprints. In 1941, MGM released a five-minute short subject titled, appropriately enough, "An Airman's Letter to His Mother." In W. Somerset Maugham's 1943 book, "Great Modern Reading," he refers to the letter as "already famous," but I suppose that the 66 years that have intervened since it was written have changed that.

I never heard of it before I chanced upon it in that old volume, and I'm willing to bet that most people haven't.

What strikes me most about what the young airman has to say in his letter, putting aside his obvious courage, and his even more obvious love for his mother, is the universality of the feelings he expresses. He writes of duty, honor, country, and the Creator. Change a few words and he could be any young man or woman writing home from any war.

War is war, I suppose. The names of the combatants change, the precipitating causes change, the battlefields change, but the enemy remains the same.

It is, as one very brave, and very wise, young airman expressed it in his letter, "evil things sent into this world to try us."

What better way to end this column than to quote again from a young man who spoke for all young men and women, saying what they all say to us when they give up their lives for their country, "...but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have contributed directly to that, so here again my life will not have been in vain."

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