Letters in antique shop lead retired editor to write tribute to ‘ordinary soldier’

James Breig retired in 2008 after 37 years at The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., where he had been a staff writer, assistant editor and then editor (for the last 25 years of his tenure). But retirement meant he had time for a new project — researching and writing what turned out to be a 332-page nonfiction book. The book idea was sparked by his discovery of a soldier’s letters in an antique shop three years ago. That find resulted in “Searching for Sgt. Bailey: Saluting an Ordinary Soldier of World War II.”

“Dearest Mama,” begins a letter written by Army Sgt. James Boisseau Bailey on Aug. 8, 1944. “I know that you have begun to think that I have forgotten you but that will never happen. … Will do anything to get this damn war over and to get back home.”

Bailey sent that letter from New Guinea to his mother in Virginia, according to Breig. It and others like it inspired Breig to “search between their lines for telltale clues to the soldier’s entire life and for hidden hints about his fears and his worries, his hopes — and his love for a mysterious woman named Jane.”

Breig’s books also introduces many other ordinary men and women who, as he puts it, “went off to war, dutifully did what they were asked to do and returned to anonymity.” He drew on hundreds of letters home from Marines, sailors, WACs and soldiers, and he conducted interviews with WWII veterans and experts on the history of the war.

He notes that “heroes of the ‘Greatest Generation’ have been rightly honored for their exploits on Normandy’s beaches, along Iwo Jima’s sands and in the air above Germany,” but he wanted to focus on the “other kinds of heroes,” he said, “the unnoticed millions who deserve to be saluted because they did their duty, regardless of what it was, well and faithfully.”

“If the stories are allowed to fade,” writes Breig, “so, too, will the men and women who lived them. So, too, will the history they made.”

The book covers what life was like in an Army training camp as well as New Guinea’s significance “in the string of fierce battles to reclaim the Pacific”; the creation of V-mail; the role of quartermasters, engineers and mechanics; and the demobilization of troops at the end of the war.

Since the book was published in November, Breig has been busy. He told CNS he has had a chance to promote the book on national radio, via “The Jim Bohannon Show.” He’s talked about it on at least 15 radio stations in local markets around the country,  has made some TV appearances and been the subject of newspaper articles in the Albany area and in Virginia, Bailey’s home state. He said he’s also given at least 20 presentations “to libraries, senior clubs and fraternal organizations.”

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