Short Film Shows What Happens When a Letter from World War II Finally Gets Delivered 69 Years Later

A few years ago, I stum­bled upon a nev­er-sent let­ter writ­ten to a friend when we were both in col­lege. The con­tents weren’t heavy. Dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion is the most like­ly expla­na­tion for why it nev­er went in the mail. I cracked the enve­lope and had a look.

It was a time cap­sule, for sure, a cringe-induc­ing one. It was­n’t so much the life I was report­ing on as how I framed it, self-aggran­dize­ment strain­ing to pass as non­cha­lance. For­tu­nate­ly, an artist acquain­tance hap­pened to be run­ning a project— send her your shred­d­a­ble doc­u­ments, and even­tu­al­ly, she’d send you a few sheets of hand­made paper in which your mulched data min­gled with that of oth­ers. Tru­ly a beau­ti­ful way to dis­pose of the evi­dence.

But what hap­pens when nei­ther the writer, nor the intend­ed recip­i­ent, is the find­er of the lost let­ter? In Feb­ru­ary 2013, some mail post­ed by Lt. Joseph O. Matthews, a sol­dier sta­tioned at a mil­i­tary train­ing facil­i­ty in Jack­sonville, North Car­oli­na, found its way to Abbi Jacob­son, an actress (and col­or­ing book author!) rent­ing an apart­ment on Mac­Dou­gal Street in New York City. Addressed to Matthew’s wife, the can­cel­la­tion mark was dat­ed Decem­ber 2, 1944.

Jacob­son opened the let­ter, the con­di­tion of the enve­lope hav­ing sug­gest­ed that she would not be the first to breach its con­tents dur­ing the 69 years it had spent wan­der­ing in the wilder­ness. The words inside were roman­tic, a young offi­cer inform­ing the bride he’d left back home that he’d soon be ship­ping out to Oki­nawa. Eager to pull an Amélie by reunit­ing the let­ter with those to whom it would mean the most, Jacob­son enlist­ed the help of her friend, doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Todd Bieber. Togeth­er they searched records at City Hall, look­ing for clues. When that approach proved fruit­less, they cre­at­ed the Lost Let­ter Project, a web por­tal that invit­ed the pub­lic to join in the search.

An avalanche of tweets, Face­book updates, and human inter­est pieces ensued. In no time at all, they had their man, or rather his descen­dants, Lt. Matthews hav­ing passed away in 1999, crush­ing Jacob­son’s dreams of hand deliv­er­ing the let­ter to “a lit­tle old man and a lit­tle old lady.” (I’m will­ing to bet Jacob­son will one day wish there was a giant blender capa­ble of turn­ing dig­i­tal state­ments like how cute would that be, my god, right? I love old peo­ple into hand­made paper.)

Bieber’s video reveals what became of Lt. Matthews and his wife. Even more inter­est­ing is how the let­ter res­onates with his grown chil­dren, par­tic­u­lar­ly a cer­tain the­o­log­i­cal ref­er­ence at odds with the man they thought they knew.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In Touch­ing Video, Artist Mari­na Abramović & For­mer Lover Ulay Reunite After 22 Years Apart

“Noth­ing Good Gets Away”: John Stein­beck Offers Love Advice in a Let­ter to His Son (1958)

Stephen King Writes A Let­ter to His 16-Year-Old Self: “Stay Away from Recre­ation­al Drugs”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is all for stuff­ing your stock­ing with a hol­i­day gift sub­scrip­tion to the East Vil­lage Inky, her award win­ning hand-illus­trat­ed zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • Kenn Fong says:

    Did you ever see the BBC series (shown here on PBS affil­i­ates) called, “As Time Goes By”? It’s about an Eng­lish cou­ple who have a mad romance before the Kore­an War and when Lionel ships off, his let­ter to Jean is lost. Both assume the oth­er is not inter­est­ed or in Jean’s case, she won­ders if some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pened to him. Jean is played by Judi Dench and Lionel is sit­com vet­er­an Geof­frey Palmer.

    They lat­er meet again 40 years lat­er. In the final year of the series, it’s learned that the let­ter was found and end­ed up in the British War Muse­um.

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