When Sophia Wheeler and her boyfriend moved into his grandparents’ old farmhouse near Cornwall, Ont., she knew they’d have to sort through the documents and boxes that were left behind.
She wasn’t expecting to find old wartime letters dating back to the 1950s between her boyfriend’s grandmother and a relative who was serving in the Korean War.
“I came across these handwritten letters and I was really blown away. It was personal, so of course I didn’t want to go through it too much,” she told CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning.
At first, she thought the letters might tell the story of a long-lost love. But as she kept reading, she quickly realized it was a familial relationship, not a romantic one.
Her boyfriend’s grandmother, Nelda Windsor, was keeping in touch with one of her second cousins, Cpl. Wycliffe Lesly Presley, who was deployed to Korea.
As she read the letters, Wheeler said she was struck by the close relationship between the two, despite their physical distance from each other.
“The values of the family were unparalleled. They were just keeping up with every little thing of what’s going on in the town: ‘Oh, this person just got married, this person just had a baby,'” she said.
Among the five letters, Wheeler also came across several original photographs including “beautiful” ones of Presley and a little girl.
Their correspondence ended in June 1952, when one of the letters addressed to Presley was returned with a stamp from the dead letter office marking him as “deceased.”
“That kind of made me realize this little girl [in the photo] didn’t really get to know her father at all. And that’s when … I made it my mission: I have to find this girl,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler turned to the internet to help track down the mystery girl, joining and posting in several Facebook pages for Barrie, Ont., where one of the first letters was addressed.
Within five days, someone recognized the young girl in the photo as their mother-in-law and reached out to Wheeler.
Wheeler mailed the letters and photographs to Presley’s daughter, who would be seeing them for the first time.
“They were so grateful,” Wheeler said of the family’s reaction.
“She gets to see her father’s handwriting … and some of his humour — he was telling jokes in some of them — and just seeing a side of him that she’d never had the chance to meet.”
Wheeler said her own close relationship with her parents motivated her to start looking for Presley’s daughter in the first place.
“It breaks my heart to know that she didn’t have that chance to have a relationship with her father,” she said.
Letters a way to ‘remember those who served’
Andrew Burtch, the post-1945 historian at the Canadian War Museum, called the letters a “terrific find” and a great way to reflect on the human losses of the Korean War.
“These discoveries do matter, and these records that people have of connecting in wartime do help us to remember those who served,” Burtch said.
I think that people experience history first through their families, and it’s through these sorts of connections where we see the most human face of warfare.– Andrew Burtch, Canadian War Museum
The Korean War is often referred to as a “forgotten” part of Canada’s military history. Many veterans of the war returned to a country that had moved on, Burtch said, and some even had trouble getting into Royal Canadian Legions and having their service recognized.
But for the families of those serving overseas, the war was never forgotten.
“It was obviously very key, at the front of their minds, and that is really what these letters bear out is that you can see that there is a hole left in the lives of the people, of the families of those who don’t come back,” he said.
Wartime letters are an incredibly important resource that can provide interesting insights, Burtch said.
“Sometimes what’s in there can be mundane, just basic things. Some things could be as revealing as the relationship that existed between the soldier and their loved ones.”
Documents reveal glimpse of Presley’s service
Through archival documents and photographs, Burtch was able to uncover more details about Presley’s life and military service.
Records show Presley was working at a soft drink bottling plant when he enlisted in the army on Dec. 12, 1949, just a few weeks before his 23rd birthday.
Notes from his intake interview describe him as someone who had a Grade 8 education and a steady girlfriend, attended shows and sporting events, and kept an old car running.
He wouldn’t be deployed overseas until the early spring of 1952, arriving in Korea on March 16 with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment.
While on night patrol on June 26, 1952, Presley’s platoon came into contact with the enemy. Three Canadian soldiers were wounded. Presley died after receiving a fatal wound to the abdomen. He was 25.
Presley is buried in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea.
To Burtch, the story of Presley’s letters shows there are still plenty of people who want to learn more about the Korean War.
“I think that people experience history first through their families, and it’s through these sorts of connections where we see the most human face of warfare,” he said.
Ontario Morning5:35Long lost Korean War letters found by Cornwall area couple.