Dear Martha

Cooke (right) in Grafton court

Cooke (right) in Grafton court

In 1943, young men from around the United States shipped overseas to fight in World War II, leaving behind community, family and loved ones.  LIFE commissioned Cooke to photograph the Grafton, West Virginia community where Martha had been corresponding with an Air Force soldier.  Cooke, only 22 years old and a recent immigrant himself, shows the sensitivity of one familiar with loss of home in his photographs.

While seeking out images to tell the story, local authorities where warned German spies were planning to blow up the town, and brought Cooke in for questioning. “You can’t take any pictures here because I say so,” the Mayor growled. Ultimately, LIFE officials and common sense prevailed. Cooke was released to continue his story, which, while of a specific time and place, also captured the mood of all small town 20th Century American in the midst of war.

Cooke talks about Dear Martha:

Cooke’s interview:

Yes that’s 1943, that was one of my very first, if not the first big LIFE assignment, Life had gotten a hold of a letter that an American soldier in the Air Force had written to his girlfriend in West Virginia. It described all the things he missed in his home town. Ah this was apparently not a fake. It was a real letter. And they got a hold of this letter somehow, and they sent me down to this little town to photograph all the things he wrote about in the letter, it’s a lovely assignment, and it was a big story.

Life Magazine - Dear Martha

Life Magazine – Dear Martha

It was about twelve pages and a cover. It was called, Dear Martha. The letter started, her name was Martha, saying Dear Martha, and then you know and then, interesting story, she really wasn’t his girlfriend, she was a friend, um but very small town you know, when the Life story appeared somehow it became encumbered upon them to get married, so because otherwise it would have been a scandal, so when he came home, I think he came home on leave or something. And they got married and then they got divorced!

I sort of kept vaguely in touch with her and I got a letter from her saying that they got divorced, and well that was the last I had heard. Now this was taken in 43. in 1993, fifty years later. I decided one day to drive to the Derby. You know I kept photographing the Derby, 43 consecutive derbies, well, I drove to the Derby. I took my daughter along and her fiance. They were getting married that summer. And we drove to Louisville, and we drove through West Virginia and we came upon this town. It was right next to where we were going. So we made a little detour. The town’s name is Grafton. Grafton, West Virginia. It’s a nothing little hole in the wall, you know. It used to be a railroad big switch point, but the railroads long gone. Nothing much there.

We drove along the Main Street, and the girl, Martha was the daughter of the guy that owned the drug store. And there was a drug store and I never figured out if it were the same drug store or not, so next to the drug store there was a furniture store and we walked in and there was an old lady there who was the owner of the furniture store and I told her, you know about this girl and who I was and she said Martha! Yes! She said, I just talked to her! I said where is she? She was she lives in Tennessee, she remarried this guy after they got divorced and she got her on the phone. I talked to her. 1993. She’s living in Tennessee, she had a couple of children, isn’t that wonderful?

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