Their father served in World War I, but his daughters cannot recall ever hearing him speak of his wartime experiences.
“From what we’ve read about it, that’s quite typical,” said Roberta Williams Lee. “I don’t think any of (the veterans) really wanted to talk about it. He didn’t volunteer anything.”
So, it was a surprise and a joy earlier this year — as we approach the centennial of the war’s end — when they began sorting through a box of letters their mother had kept in the attic through the years and discovered correspondence between their father and his family while he was at war.
“It’s so wonderful to have the letters,” said Eda Williams Martin. “His positive outlook . his love of life and his sense of humor came through. It’s almost like getting to know him again in a different way.”
Added Lee, “When we read the letters in their handwritten form we could almost hear our father speaking to us.”
Walter Williams’ three children — Martin, 87; Lee, 84; and Alice Williams Vining, 80, who lives in Michigan — compiled their fathers’ letters, along with letters to him from his parents and siblings that he brought home with him from France after the war, into a book they published primarily for family: “Voices From World War One: A Virginia Soldier and His Family.”
The sisters grew up in Richmond’s West End, near the University of Richmond. Their father, who was born in Richmond in 1893, graduated from the University of Virginia with his undergraduate and law degrees before the war.
He came home to run a mortgage business with several close friends, opting to lead a quiet, orderly life — his daughters remembered him leaving every morning at precisely the same time on the streetcar and returning home at the same hour every evening, whistling as he came in the door — that perhaps a law career would not have afforded.
“He was a quiet, unassuming man with a wonderful sense of humor,” Martin said. “He loved music. He bought records, and played them all the time at home. I think one word — modest — should be added.”
Reading the letters added two words to her description: brave and patriotic.
Williams died in 1971, at age 78. His wife, Eda Carter Williams, lived until 2002, when she died at 96.
“After my mother died, we went through her many things,” Martin said. “There was a box of letters, but we had so much to do, and there so many letters” — Martin said it was a large collection because her mother saved everything, including “all the letters I wrote from camp” — “that we just put them aside for another time.”
“Another time” didn’t arise until this past January, when the sisters began poking through the papers and found the World War I letters.
“A treasure,” Martin said.
This morning when I woke up in my small crowded dugout and found that there was about a couple of inches of water in there too and that my blankets were all wet and that I was in immediate danger of being in the same fix, the proper thing for me to do would be to shrug my shoulders a half a dozen times (and a few extra times to get warm perhaps) and then in a mild way to blame it on the war. But I will have to confess that I have not become quite so philosophic and my first word was a real good old American “damn” (and a few extra ones to warm me up perhaps).
— Walter Williams, writing from the Western Front during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
Their father reported to the Army in May 1917, on the day before his 24th birthday. In letters, he writes about his training at Camp Lee (now Fort Lee) and later from Europe and even as he waits months to come home after the war. In a long letter dated a week before the armistice was signed, he took time to write about gardens he encountered and the roses and chrysanthemums that “remind me of crisp Fall and everything pleasant that comes along with this time of year.”
His sisters believe their father was putting the best face on a terrible situation — “He must have seen a lot of death and dying,” Martin says — so as not to worry his family. What also comes through clearly is his devotion to his family. Williams was one of six children — his older brother, Carrington, was a doctor who served simultaneously in a medical unit in France — and four sisters.
“I really believe that writing those letters and knowing how much his family loved him really sustained him throughout the war,” Lee said.
His war experience shaped his life in ways his children couldn’t fully know. Besides his own time in the trenches and under fire, Williams lost his best friend, George Wayne Anderson, who was killed only days before the armistice. He lived out his life prizing time with his family and friends.
The sisters spent hours and hours on the phone talking about the letters, reading and transcribing them. Organizing them into context for the book was “so much fun,” Lee said. “Every now and then, we’d disagree about something, and we’d talk it over. I think we worked well together. That was one of the wonderful things about doing it.”
The sisters have donated the letters to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, and they’re left with the book and a better understanding of just who their father was.
“It was enlightening to us,” Lee said. “It was important knowing our father before we were born. It’s almost like having a conversation with him, in a way.”