Brain Pickings

Dear John: Rare Recording of a Vietnam War Soldier Reading a Breakup Letter from Home

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“Dear John I love you so, Dear John you’ve got to go.”

Some months ago, I shared a train ride with Jezebel founder and all-around great gal Anna Holmes who, upon finding out about my obsession with love letters, told me about a book she’d written nearly a decade ago: Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), a magnificent collection spanning several centuries of breakups, both famous and ordinary. Naturally, I hunted down a copy, in which I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite missive of “dry sadness.” But Anna also mentioned something she’d discovered over the course of her research that never made it, for obvious reasons, into the book: A rare recording of a Vietnam War soldier nicknamed Johnny Smack-O reading a lengthy “Dear John” letter — the blanket term used to describe “I’m leaving you letters,” common in the military — sent to him by the woman with whom he’d been living for two and a half years prior to the war. The letter’s author, who remains unknown, had just found out that Johnny had another relationship and the two women, in having discovered each other’s existence, had bonded over Johnny’s despicable deceit.

Anna, who is on Twitter and has a new book in the works, has kindly sent me the recording — enjoy. The full transcript, including snippets of Johnny’s conversation with fellow serviceman David Syster, who taped the audio, and another man on the same radio frequency who overheard the two, appears in the book.

Oh, Jonny, when I sit here at my desk, writing this letter, looking at the walls and my desk covered with your pictures and I feel an intimacy but, for some reason, it seems to be melting right before me, and I feel like throwing up. Why? Because I’m such a fool, such a fuckin’ fool, to have fallen for such a lowly bastard as you.

Anna contextualizes the peculiar subculture of such letters:

Gordon Angus Mackinlay, a veteran of the British and Australian armies, claims that the term [Dear John] came from a music-hall song popular just prior to World War I whose chorus went:

Dear John I love you so
Dear John you’ve got to go
Dear John I love you so
Dear John you must go

[…]

Stories of Dear John letters abound, but, for obvious reasons, the actual letters themselves are difficult to find. Michael Lee Lanning, an author and army veteran, says he remembers ceremonies in the service in which Dear Johns were burned or flushed down toilets. (Another veteran claims that Dear Johns were used as toilet paper.) Vietnam War veteran Guy Hunter says that some of his fellow marines posted their Dear Johns on the walls in the platoon headquarters, where they remained to either fall apart or be ripped down and thrown away.

Hell Hath No Fury is a treasure trove from cover to cover and features stirring, scathing, sad, and satirical letters from common people and literary greats alike, including favorites like Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin.

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