A Soldier’s Letters Reveal Hardships and Hope in World War II
By Rachael Reynolds-Soucie
Dalton Bunting Sr. never spoke much to his children about serving in World War II, especially not about being on the front lines.
It wasn’t until after his death that his children learned what a hero their father was, a narrative pieced together through a series of Dalton’s letters found in an old cedar chest, written to his love back in North Carolina.
This is a story about love and war, about a country boy who grew up on a farm in Dwight, a Southern beauty who had never left home, and a courtship that developed over air mail as a soldier fought for his life in the European theater.
Dalton “Ed” Bunting Jr., of Dwight, and his sister, Becky Bunting, of Bloomington, discovered the collection of World War II-era love letters a few years after the death of their parents, Dalton Sr. and Purnell Bunting, who spent their lives on a farm in Dwight. There were hundreds of them, bundled together and tied with ribbon. But one nine-page letter stood out among the others. It begins:
May 25, 1945
My Darling Love,
Well censorship has been ceased. We can write almost anything we want to now. So I will try and tell almost everything I have done since I have last seen you.
Dalton Bunting Sr. enlisted in the Army at age 20 and was sent to boot camp at Camp Davis, near Burgaw, N.C., where Purnell Powell lived and worked at her family’s general store. While on leave, soldiers from Camp Davis would come in for cigarettes, candy and the like. Dalton Sr. walked in one day, took one look at the 16-year-old Southern beauty, and was completely smitten.
The first letter he ever sent her was in September 1943, before he went off to war, and they continued back and forth for the next three years. Purnell was just as smitten, and nicknamed him “Bunny,” having replaced “Bonnie” while she sang “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” while he was away at war.
The letter dated May 25 was especially revealing. You can almost follow Dalton Sr.’s time during the war, which landed him near Normandy and, later, on the front lines in Belgium during the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front.
In the letter he talks about leaving New York City on the Queen Mary along with 20,000 fellow soldiers. The boy from Dwight had never been away, and he wrote about sticking his head out the porthole to see Lady Liberty. He described the voyage over the Atlantic, the sea sicknesses the soldiers experienced, feeling uncertainty and alone. Sgt. Bunting was a “non-com” — a non-commissioned officer — trained in radar and new technology.
By Christmas, 1945, they had arrived in Scotland and by New Year’s Day they were stationed at Camp Blainfield in England. He wrote about the bombers that flew overhead and the heavy raids that rained over war-torn England. But that was only the beginning of what he would see.
The letter is somewhat vague, but seems to put him near the Normandy landings and Battle of the Bulge toward the end of the war, said
Becky and Ed. By the summer of 1944, they had crossed into France. Tuesday, June 6, was D-Day.
June 10 I found myself wading out of the English Channel on the French side. Everything was a mess. Bodies and junk was everywhere. They were fighting a mile and a half inland.
Battling with the Germans, he describes them “shelling us with guns twenty four hours a day. … We were strafed many times a day by planes. Mostly at night. Then the worst happened.”
A storm blew in and for 11 days they were unable to get equipment off the boats. He endured freezing, rainy nights in a foxhole with another soldier, no blankets, just their rain coats.
As the fighting continued inland, “the Germans followed close, sometimes much too close,” he wrote. “Many a time I hit my fox hole head first.”
The troops continued east and they arrived in Belgium a few days before Christmas 1944, most likely part of the Battle of the Bulge.
In Belguim, they almost had our number, too. When the breakthrough came. Just a few days before Xmas. Our orders were to destroy our equipment and get on the air field and fight. No man was to retreat. The only thing that saved our neck was the Air Force. And if the weather had been bad for one more day, that couldn’t have
helped us either. But everything came out all right and from then on we just kept moving.
The letter ends with uncertainty, him and fellow soldiers wondering whether they’d be shipped to Japan or sent home. But Sgt. Bunting was honorably discharged on Dec. 9, 1945, and went straight to North Carolina to see Purnell, wanting to marry her and bring her back to the family farm. But Purnell was unsure about leaving everything she had ever known.
Dalton Sr. headed home to Dwight and fell deep into love sickness. After a month, Purnell’s parents bought him a train ticket back to North Carolina. It was January 1946, and after a few days being with Purnell, he made her a promise: “If you marry me and move back to Illinois I promise to go to North Carolina every year so you can see your parents.”
That afternoon, on January 28, Dalton and Purnell were married in front of the fireplace at her parents home. A few days later, they drove home to Dwight.
He kept that promise, and Ed and Becky, two of five children, remember summers with their grandparents in North Carolina.
Purnell died in 1997, just a few months after their 50th wedding anniversary. Dalton Sr. died in 2004. A few years later Becky found the letters. She was unsure whether to open them, feeling as though it was an invasion of her parents’ privacy. But there was a reason Purnell had kept them all, and Becky eventually untied the envelopes and opened the delicate notes inside. She cried her way through each one as they revealed her father’s hardships during the war, his never-waning love for her mother, and the hope that helped carry him through the war.
”It was the best history lesson. It was the best novel. It was the best love letter,” Becky said.
Becky and Ed believe their mother may have written more than a thousand letters back to him during the war, but they were never saved since soldiers often had to burn them. But there was something about that nine-p
age letter that struck a chord not only with the family, but others. Dalton Sr.’s uniform and a copy of the letter has been on display in the Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach, N.C., for several years. Copies of the letter have been stolen nearly half a dozen times.
Dalton Sr. may have believed it was mundane, but Becky believes it had been stolen for a reason, that being its candid, compelling contents. It ends:
I hope you haven’t gotten too tired and bored reading this dear. Maybe you will be interested in what I have been doing. I left out a lot of things, but I am planning on telling you them in person.
Well good night my dear. I am waiting to come home to you my darling.