“Imagine having my lips pressed tight to yours with my arms around you tight… hearts beat in unison,” a serviceman stationed in India told his beloved, Iris, in 1941.
This passionate prose comes from a love letter from World War II – one of more than 700 letters found aboard the wrecked SS Gairsoppa that restorers strive to piece together.
On February 16, 1941, as the Gairsoppa, a British freighter, was heading for Ireland, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship near the coast, killing all but one of the 86 crew on board. It remained uncovered three miles under the Atlantic Ocean until 2011, when a US company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, found the wreckage. From 2012 to 2013, the company recovered various treasures: personal items of crew members, more than 200,000 pounds of silver and 717 undelivered letters.
The artifacts were eventually donated to the Postal Museum in London. In 2018, the museum exhibited some of the letters in an exhibit titled “Voices From the Deep”.
So far, around 100 letters have been completely processed, according to Jackie Coppen, senior curator at the Postal Museum. The final treatments, including the love letter to Iris, began after Christmas. The Guardian reported this month on efforts to reconstruct the letters.
“We were there really long before the pandemic,” said Eleni Katsiani, another conservator of the Postal Museum. “Now we’re just putting our notes together and hoping we can go back and continue.”
That so many letters were found intact after nearly seven decades under the ocean was extraordinary, agreed Ms Katsiani and Ms Coppen. Discovered in the ship’s cargo storage under piles of mail bags and sediment, the letters were isolated from decaying forces such as currents, light, heat and oxygen, according to the museum.
After the letters were collected, they went through “a gentle cleaning process” that involved fresh water washing and freeze drying, Ms. Katsiani said.
“The rescue operation did a lot for their immediate survival because if they were allowed to dry out they would turn to dust – they would completely disintegrate,” Ms. Katsiani said.
Some of the letters are so fragmented and delicate that it’s nearly impossible to put pieces together, the curators said. Ultimately, they hope to digitize the letters, making them even more accessible to the public, like what was done for the “Voices From the Deep” exhibition.
“It’s like a puzzle, putting them together, which is why we end up reading a lot of them,” Ms. Coppen said.
Correspondence discovered on board the Gairsoppa ranged from Christmas cards to commercial documents. The Conservatives also noted that the correspondence was written on notepaper from countries such as India, Norway and Sweden. The destinations of the letters varied, with most going to Britain and the United States. Ms Katsiani said many were heading to the Salisbury Plain area in southern England, an area known as a training ground for British soldiers.
Two notable pieces of correspondence come from a Major Wilson to his two children, Pam and Michael. The letters, stamped on December 1, 1940, bore the address of an Inglewood hotel in Torquay, England, where Tories believed the two children could have been evacuated during the war.
The letters were found side by side almost 70 years later, according to the Postal Museum.
“They are now in my storage box, next to each other,” Ms. Coppen said. “It feels like they were related to something more than luck.”
In his letter to Pam, the father writes, “You can be sure Mom will send you back to Wycombe as soon as it becomes practical politics. In the meantime, we all need to make the most of things as they are. The war has changed the plans and lifestyles of most people – mine included! “
In the letter to his son, he congratulated him on his improved writing and for joining the Cubs and encouraged him to improve his spelling. The letter also came with a small gift: a glass envelope of used stamps from around the world.
In 2019, the Postal Museum, with the help of the BBC’s ‘The One Show’ program, helped reunite a recipient with a letter addressed to them almost 80 years ago.
In a letter to Phyllis Aldridge, Pvt. Will Walker, of the First Wiltshire Regiment in Allahabad, expressed his excitement over Mrs Aldridge’s acceptance of her marriage proposal, writing: “I cried with joy, I couldn’t help myself. If you could only know how much it made me happy, honey, to know that you accepted me and that you will be mine forever.
However, Mrs. Aldridge – at that time Mrs. Ponting – never received the kind words of Private Walker.
It wasn’t until after the letter was featured on an episode of “The One Show” that Ms. Ponting was reunited with the letter, according to the museum.
Following the 80th anniversary of the Gairsoppa sinking this month, Ms Coppen said, the 700+ letters showed the poignant power of connection and the value of just putting a pen on paper.
“These are people’s stories, aren’t they?” Mrs. Coppen said letters. “This is the everyday, mundane thing written on a piece of paper.”