Category Archives: Otter Lake, NY

1942: Cigarettes, beer and brotherly joshing by Uncle Fred during WWII

Sepia Saturday 705. Eighteenth in a series about letters from my dad’s brother Frederic Mason Charboneau while he was in the US Army during WWII.

Returning to chronological order, my paternal uncle Frederic Mason Charboneau continued his Sept. 25, 1942, letter to his mother, Mary (Owen) Charboneau, with some telling information about a US soldier’s life.

Frederic Mason Charboneau c. 1942. Scan by Molly Charboneau

Given what we now know about the dangers of tobacco smoking, I was dismayed to read the passages below describing the steady flow of cigarettes to the troops during WWII — gifts that were facilitated by the military and the tobacco companies.

Somewhere in England. Sept. 25, 1942, Dear Mom, So far, I have received one carton of cigarettes and from the looks of it you won’t have to send any more for a while, if I get all that is promised me. You say you sent another carton, Franny [Fred’s second oldest brother] wrote and said that he was sending another carton, and also he had put my name in the American Legion for them to send me a carton.

Owen [Fred’s oldest brother] in his letter said he had made arrangements for the Camel Company to send me a carton,” Uncle Fred wrote, “And also for the Smokes for Soldiers organization to send me a carton, so it looks as though I should be well supplied. Anyway, I am able to buy all I need each week at our canteen.

Big tobacco and the Greatest Generation

The American Legion? The Camel Company? Smokes for Soldiers? The Army canteen? Carton after carton? It boggles the mind.

Yet from WWI until the mid 1970s, it was accepted military policy — fueled by big tobacco companies — to keep troops on the front lines supplied with cigarettes as part of the “war effort.”

This left me wondering: How many of the Greatest Generation survived WWII only to suffer later from health conditions brought on by so much cigarette smoking?

On a lighter note, Uncle Fred wrote that he was also supplied with a most welcome beverage that turned his thoughts homeward.

Beer and brotherly joshing

“We are now able to get, once a week, two cans of American Beer which certainly taste swell,” he wrote. “It almost seems like home to be able to get things like this away over here.”

Two US soldiers enjoy a beer while stationed in the UK during WWII. Image:

Uncle Fred was not above some brotherly joking around in his letters, either — such as this passage about my dad Norm [his youngest brother] and their cousin Bud [Albert Bernard Charboneau], who were training to become officers.

“So, we are going to have a couple of officers in the family. I won’t be able to say Boo when this war is over, and I get back home. They will be able to order me around and I will have to obey them. Who I am talking about is Norman and Bud. That is what this ROTC [Reserve Office Training] course that Norman is taking is for, isn’t it. What about the draft. Now that Norman has started into college, will he be subject to it if they lower the age limit, and I see by the papers that they might after the election.”

Concluding with thoughts of home

As always, Uncle Fred concluded his letter with commentary on life back in his Otter Lake, N.Y., hometown — including a reference to his Welsh-Irish mother’s superstitious belief that “bad luck comes in threes.”

“I received a letter from Marion [wife of Fred’s brother Franny] the other day, and she said that you have had some fires up north. The league [Otter Lake Association] had a fire which she said damaged about $1,000,000 worth of property and then a couple of other hotels burnt. Well, there is your groups of three again. I guess that’s all for this time, Love, Fred.”

Up next: Uncle Fred’s take on family news from back home. Please stop back! Meanwhile, please visit the other intrepid bloggers over at Sepia Saturday.

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