Pvt. Wesley Woodbury

This page and the letters that are appended to it concern my uncle “Woody,” Wesley Roland Woodbury, and his 1952 death during the undeclared war in Korea.  

If you don’t anticipate reading through everything about him here, let me recommend right now that you jump to A Parting Tribute. You can always come back to the letters later.

A more complete account of Wesley’s history can be told some day, but the pages that follow, beginning with WRW Letter 1, tell of his brief life as a soldier.  I’ve provided a transcription of each letter along with scans of the originals.  (High definition scans are available on request.)  Without the transcriptions one might give up on trying to read the handwriting, but seeing the original letters conveys so much more than the mere words.  How do you describe an envelope with rubber-stamped imprints saying “VERIFIED DECEASED” and “RETURN TO SENDER”?  (WRW Letter 4 and WRW Letter 5)  The letters say it all, and I don’t presume to explain or embellish over-much.  There is nothing left at the end of the last pages but the hollow, ringing emptiness that remains when a soldier doesn’t come home alive.

Menu: Woody – WRW Letter 1WRW Letter 2WRW Letter 3WRW Letter 4WRW Letter 5WRW Letter 6WRW Letter 7WRW Letter 8WRW Letter 9WRW Letter 10WRW Letter 11WRW Letter 12WRW Letter 13WRW Letter 14WRW Letter 15Brenda Woodbury – A Parting Tribute

Wesley R. Woodbury

My father, Victor Walter Woodbury, was born in 1927.  His younger brother, Wesley, was born in 1930.  They spent much of their childhood living at 40 Baldwin Street in Livermore Falls, Maine, and shuttling to their grandmother Goldie Jensen’s home in Fairbanks and their great-grandparents’ place, the Sweet camp on Porter Lake in New Vineyard.  Besides his younger brother, Wesley, Victor had an older brother, Donald, and two older sisters, Dorothy and Virginia.  Their mother, Clarice (Hines) Woodbury had divorced their father, Everett Hugh Woodbury, (called Hugh), around 1936.

Incidentally, long before Wesley’s death, my great-grandmother, née Goldie Sweet, was divorced from my great-grandfather and her first husband, Ralph Hines, and had married Walter Jensen, an immigrant from Denmark.

When Wesley, the youngest of the family, was about 11, his father, Hugh, left his wife and five kids in Maine and went to work in Massachusetts.

When I was a kid, there were stories told about my Uncle Woody, even though he had been killed in Korea during the war there and his memory was fresh for several years afterward.  While it wasn’t OK to talk about my grandfather, Hugh, it was apparently comforting for the adults in my world to talk about Woody.  I knew he had made the news several times as a 12-year-old runaway, usually accompanied by Wags, his dog.  Even though he had made it to Boston at least a couple of these times, (always with a fabricated story of where he was headed and why), he did not reconnect with his father.

By the time he was 14, Woody was a resident at Good Will-Hinckley, then a school for troubled boys, and he ran away from there at least once as well.  When Woody was four months shy of his 15th birthday, his father, Hugh, was driving a small dump truck in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when it was struck at a railway crossing by the Minute Man Express at full throttle.

I heard the stories about Woody (always Woody, never called Wesley) up until I was, say, ten years old, and then not much after that.  (My parents were having more kids, until the sixth one appeared in 1964 — Hey, Laura!  The world was changing and along with it our worldly cares.  So over time, he was not forgotten, but there was less and less said about him.)

Among the stories I heard was one about Woody thinking he was going to get into amateur boxing and challenge Rocky Marciano, who was just getting started in his career after WWII, when Woody was in his late teens.  Rocky lived in the Boston area and was making his boxing start there, an area with which Woody was possibly familiar.  Apparently Woody never went anywhere in amateur boxing, though, so there was nothing more to the story.

Besides being sent to Hinckley, it appears from other letters I hold that he also was held in another “reform” school in Portland when he was about 17.  The only objective enlightenment I have now on the subject has come from the following five newspaper clippings.


My father’s and Wesley’s sister, Virginia, recalled that Victor and Wesley would sneak out at night and steal cars and drive them around until they ran out of gas.  Dad was the older of the two, but it was Wesley who was always in trouble for the things they did together.  This may help account for his term at Hinckley.  Dad was already deaf by then, having lost his eardrums to infections as a boy, and that may have bought him some sympathy with the authorities; I don’t know.

For all his troubles and miss-starts, Woody did manage to get the attention of a girl from Vermont, and by the time he was 20 and after a suitable courtship, they were married.  A few months after that, Woody was a new recruit in the US Army and, all too quickly he was shipping out for Korea.  But, for a few days after she was born, he had the chance to hold his baby daughter, Brenda, and then, following orders, he went west to San Francisco to board the USS General W.M. Black for transport to Korea.

Since he had married Dorothy Rutledge of Concord, Vermont, Wesley enlisted in the Army in Vermont.  His funeral was held there, which explains the preparations being made in WRW Letter 9, and his grave is near the top of the cemetery on Route 2 outside Concord.  My father told me Woody was blown up by a mine, but I don’t know whether ours or the enemy’s.

There are 15 pieces to this correspondence, some many pages long, others just brief.  My grandmother, Clarice Woodbury, had hoarded hundreds and hundreds of letters, postcards, clippings, newspapers, legal documents, certificates, and related paraphernalia.  When she died in 1969, apparently that stuff all found its way into my father’s hands, and then into mine.  My parents added their own family papers to the mix — and a mix it was when I began to explore it.

I found these letters, as I had found so many other things, among boxes of papers that my mother had left with me at one time or another.  Unlike some other things, though, I had these in my possession before my father died.  I brought them to a family reunion in New Sharon in 1996, thinking I might show them to Dad or to my cousin, Danny, but I came away without having done so.  There was too much else going on, and it’s just as well that I didn’t bring them out then.  If 40 people had all handled them, the lot would likely not have stayed together or even stayed in my hands.  It almost certainly never would have appeared in published form.

Dad died two years after that reunion.  At the time, I had considered photographing them and sharing them around the family.  But my own immersion in worldly cares interfered with that.  Wesley’s daughter, my first cousin, Brenda, was living I knew not where at the time.  After seeing her when she was about 18, I hadn’t laid eyes on her or been in contact with her in over 25 years when that family reunion came around.  I knew she had married a doctor in California, at one point, and they had bought a house that had previously belonged to José Feliciano.  I suspected I could find her mother, Dottie, who is present in this correspondence.

In 1999 I started the web site, DamnYankee.com, and it took years before I contrived to make good quality scans of all the letters.  Some day…  Some day I would transcribe them and publish them on the internet.  Then Brenda died on St. Patrick’s Day 2007, apparently of a heart attack.  This shook me; she was 54 years old, two years younger than I.  So I made the search and I found Wesley’s widow, Brenda’s mother, now known as Dottie Shippee, who had later re-married and raised two more girls as well, Cindy and Gail Shippee.  I had had sporadic encounters with Dottie and her younger daughters over the years, but decades had passed between times.

By phone in 2007, I told Dottie about the letters you see here.  She said, quietly, “I would love to have them.”  I bundled them up and sent them to her.  Too late to reach Brenda, whom I should have passed them on to, I hoped it wouldn’t be too late for Brenda’s son, Michael Merriam, whom I have never met, but I am glad to say I have heard from him.

Woody was Michael’s grandfather, who may be of interest to him some day, just as my grandparents through several generations have intrigued me.  In 2014, Dottie died.  Within a few months I contacted Cindy Shippee to see whether she might know what had become of the letters.  She didn’t know and suspects that they were not saved when her mom’s small apartment was emptied — they had to move things out in a hurry to avoid continuing to pay rent.  I don’t regret sending them to Dottie, though.  It may have given some much-needed closure in her last years.

I’m told that I knew Woody, and that I saw him regularly until I was two years old and he shipped out to Korea.  I believe it, although I can’t recall an image of him or a setting when we were together.  But my earliest memories include the knowledge of him.

My great-grandfather, George Hugh Woodbury, died in February, 1953. While I don’t have memories of Woody, I do have a distinct recollection of sitting in the tall grass in front of the house in North Belgrade, Maine, where George had lived — sitting in the grass with my sister, Ann, who was by then barely a year old. My parents had brought us from Ohio to Maine probably in the spring or early summer of 1953, so I would have been two and a half years old. I have another memory of sitting in the woods with Ann just off our camp road, both of us crying over the inconvenience, while some repair was being done to our grandmother’s car — a flat tire perhaps. Same trip to Maine, for certain, and only a few months after I last saw Woody.

  All the while I was growing up I had a flop-eared stuffed brown dog that Woody had given me and which I have always treasured.  While I didn’t remember him in any distinct way, I seldom went a day, from my earliest memory until I was grown and left home, without seeing that dog.  My oldest daughter now has it and knows its provenance.

So, like the aging memory of steam whistles across the valley on cold winter nights, I cling to what I can of Woody, and I offer up, at last (in 2013), what I would have shared, if I had known how, nearly 15 years ago.  Here, starting with the first letter, is the haunting exchange of correspondence that tells the story of Woody’s last days and the aftermath.

Menu: Woody – WRW Letter 1WRW Letter 2WRW Letter 3WRW Letter 4WRW Letter 5WRW Letter 6WRW Letter 7WRW Letter 8WRW Letter 9WRW Letter 10WRW Letter 11WRW Letter 12WRW Letter 13WRW Letter 14WRW Letter 15Brenda Woodbury – A Parting Tribute