They lived in the same house, laughed in the same house, and were brothers in the same house. But when war threatened America, their government called them to combat the fascist Axis, and they were scattered around the world. They left their house almost empty; in fact, it was temporarily closed by the University, until renewed recruitment by alumni on campus and a merger with other Philadelphia chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) bolstered the numbers enough to fill 3909 Spruce Street once again. But while 70 SigEp fraternity men served on three different continents, one brother, Henry A. “Hank” Pope Jr. W’43, was kept out of the fight by a medical disqualification.
Rather than sit idly by as his brothers battled across Europe, flew bombing missions over the Vaterland, and hopped island to island through the Pacific theater, Pope decided to track down each Quaker by mail and begin a correspondence. He then distilled their adventures, misadventures, and impatience into a newsletter, The Delta Pen, which he mailed abroad to his brothers in the war. He signed-off each issue with a reminder of hope: “Remember the reunion. First and second Cornell games after the war.”
This fall, Polyglot Press, Inc. (www.polyglotpress.com) published a collection of the letters, edited by Brett R. Danko C’90, a SigEp brother who heads the Pennsylvania Delta Chapter SigEp Foundation, and J. Stuart Freeman.
“In 2001 I was going to retire,” recalls Freeman over lunch at the White Dog Café. A longtime editor of medical journals, Freeman was a history major at the University of Virginia, served in the Korean War and began his career as an editor at The Herald Tribune in Paris. He also had vivid memories of watching World War II newsreels as a boy. A colleague introduced him to Dankowho had heard about the letters from another alumnus and wanted to turn them into a book.
While digging through some of his old knick-knacks, Pope’s wife, Elaine, had stumbled across the SigEp brothers’ correspondence. Danko, also a history major, visited and interviewed Pope, and collected and photocopied the nearly 800 letters the brothers had written to the Delta Pen during the War. He contacted each of the brothers, ultimately bringing them together in November 2000 for the dedication of a plaque at the SigEp chapter house at Penn, now located on 40th and Walnut streets.
Danko asked Freeman to edit the letters into a book, and Freeman signed on pro bono. Upon his retirement in January 2001, he hopped onto a container ship with his wife and sailed to Barcelona, taking along more than 1,500 photocopied pages, which he thumbed through on the journey, marking in red sections he thought he could use.
Freeman views the book as a testament to the men of this generation. “One moment they’re sitting at 3909, and suddenly we’re in World War II,” he says. “The incredible thing is taking ordinary guys from Penn and putting them up againstyou knowHitler’s Panzer division. And they win! These guys from SigEp were what the English called ‘Hardys’. They were the backbone of the American forces.”
The letters also testify to the brothers’ resilience in battle. “One man is in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. You’re cold, you don’t know when you’ll get your next meal, and you could die any minute, but you write a letter to Henry about how you hope [the fraternity’s] rush is going well, and you can’t wait to watch the Penn-Cornell football game?”
Freeman, a Phi Sigma Kappa brother at UVA, marveled at the concern the men had for each other, as well as their unquestioning acceptance of their duty to country. “This really speaks to the value of the fraternity system,” he says.
Brett Danko echoes this sentiment. “[The book] shows a togetherness and community that existed at Penn. It shows brotherhood at its best. It provides insight into the hearts and minds of Penn guys during World War II.”
In most cases, Danko says, the letters that survive are those “to loved ones that say, ‘Everything is great. I love you, mwah, mwah, mwah.’ These letters aren’t about that. They were over there looking for women and booze like every 20-year-old. They would fight afterwards, but they were telling their buddies about the real stuff they did,” he says.
As you skim through the letters, it becomes apparent that many of the men who went to war not only did it without floundering; they liked it.
Reese “Bill” Lindsay, who joined SigEp in 1939, has only one piece of correspondence included, yet his contribution expresses such a depth of excitement that it nearly takes center stage.
“Flying is the best there is!” he writes, “Don’t know why I ever wasted my time getting drunk and going to beer brawls (and school).”
But Lindsay’s letter steals the spotlight not only because of his extraordinary animation; in July of 1944, his plane went down during a bombing raid over Germany. He was officially declared missing in action, and his brothers hoped in letter after letter that he would turn up. By the end of the war, though, his name appeared on the “blacklist” of soldiers killed in action. As the brothers got word that Bill was indeed dead, the tone of the letters changed from hope to sadness.
The book is dedicated to the five SigEp members who lost their lives in the war. Among them, Lindsay and Kenneth Wicker, who joined SigEp two years after Lindsay and even mentions him in his last letter, contribute correspondence to the book.
Wicker, who served as a private first class, would die in Italy nine days after writing his final “monthly letter.” But thanks to a SigEp brother more than a half-century removed from his death and a veteran editor who took the time to have those words printed and bound, his letters will live on, along with those of his brothers in war.
Patrick Brugh C’05 is a work-study student at the Gazette.
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette