This article first appeared in the January/February 2022 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Hayley Noble, LCHS Curator
Following the last edition’s Latah County Historical Society article on Christmas Cards, we are continuing to look at written correspondence. Letters are one of my favorite types of primary sources. They provide the reader with an inside glimpse into the lives of the writers, and depending on the relationship, very valuable information that would be difficult to obtain elsewhere. For historians, correspondence is a treasure trove of nicknames, inside jokes, and in this case, details an entire family’s World War II experience.
Potlatch parents Thomas and Virna Kobrasky (sometimes spelled Kobierowski or Kobierouski) sent two sons to war: Robert and Donald. Robert, the eldest, was the first to join the war effort, receiving his selective service notice in July 1942, and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.) on October 3, 1942, at age twenty-three. Stationed at Camp Moran in Olga, Washington, on December 20, 1942, he writes to his mother thanking her for the Christmas package he received. That same month he sent his parents a postcard with his photo on it, posing next to Lake Chelan. Not long after Robert joined the Coast Guard, Donald received his draft card and enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 16, 1943, at age eighteen, writing from basic training in San Diego, California. During training and stateside service both sons wrote voraciously, sending multiple letters each month back home to Potlatch. Even when the letters lack significant detail, the envelopes provide return addresses and postage dates and locations, offering clues as to where the letters came from, and that they cleared the military censors, devoid of compromising intelligence.
A postcard of Robert at Lake Chelan. LCHS Archives.
By early 1944 both brothers were fighting the Japanese, but in vastly different circumstances. Robert sent his mother a postcard as he passed through Victoria, Canada, on his way to be stationed at Excursion Inlet in Alaska. Meanwhile, Donald was in the South Pacific, promoted to Corporal. Excursion Inlet served as the Army’s main Alaskan logistical location, building a barge port to service the cargo ships bringing supplies to troops. Those supplies supported the ongoing efforts to liberate the Aleutian Islands after a small Japanese invasion on June 3, 1942. The Aleutian Campaign came to a close on August 15, 1943, with Japanese withdrawal and U.S. control of the Aleutians once again. The Pacific was a major theater during the war with the military deploying thousands of Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers. Islands in the Pacific were key to Japanese forces because Japan contained so little natural resources. The Japanese required the raw materials and airstrips of these islands, which is why the Allies “island hopped” their way closer and closer to Japan, to isolate and cut them off from much-needed resources.
Donald disparages the delayed overseas military postal system, but always thanks his mother for the letters and packages and asks about life back home. Robert continues to write diligently, with multiple letters sent every month, but Donald’s correspondence lessens when he is sent overseas, as can be expected and shows how differently their time was spent. Troops in the Pacific were so far away from home that mail, as well as other essential supplies, required a robust logistical chain to support the number of men deployed, leading to long postal delays and lost packages. Donald often told his mother not to send packages while he was in the Pacific precisely for this reason.
Assigned to Squadron 217, we know that Donald was part of the mechanics team repairing aircraft while participating in the Solomon Islands, then the Mariana Islands Campaigns from January to November 1944. Then from February to March 1945, Squadron 217 was aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, before returning stateside in May 1944. But his family knew none of that at the time since men were prohibited from revealing their location, with all mail checked by Navy censors. His family did know that he broke his ankle in December 1944 when his unit commander, Lt. Stivers, wrote Virna Kobrasky informing her of Donald’s injury. The next month Donald wrote saying that he only needed crutches for a little bit longer, but there’s trouble with the girlfriend, stating that, “I guess she drinks and smokes now. She sure wasn’t like that when I knew her.” Scandalous. Long distance relationships are hard enough, and I can’t imagine trying to do it with letters during a war. We know that everything works out with a different lady in the romance department because Donald married after the war in 1953.
By 1944 Robert was in Craig, before transferring to Ketchikan, Alaska. Robert writes about the happenings of the war, asks after Donald, and inquires about the weather. He often worries that his parents work too hard on the farm, especially his mother. He knew the challenges his parents had to contend with running a farm without sons to help and rationing of necessary supplies, such as gasoline. Trying to farm is challenging in any time but without enough labor and fuel, it would have been difficult for the Kobrasky’s to keep the farm afloat. Robert constantly mentioned the weather, crops, and how hard his parents worked. Like any big brother, Robert also worried about Don, knowing what the marines were up against in the Pacific. In May 1945 he wrote his mother stating, “Yes, we are all thankful that Germany is licked but you are right. How can we celebrate when so many got killed or crippled for life?” He astutely mused that Russia is the one we should worry about, hinting at Cold War tensions beginning not long after the war ended. One of the most uttered sentiments was that Robert wished he could see the orchard trees and wildflowers of the farm and Potlatch in the spring and summer.
An example of a rationing book issued to civilians for things like gasoline and sugar. LCHS Small Collection RAT – 1.
After months without a letter, Donald finally wrote to say he arrived at Cherry Point, North Carolina, in April 1945, where he stayed until his discharge in October. While waiting for his discharge, he remarked about the strictness of the base, lamenting that “They bust a guy for not saluting an officer if they catch him. Boy I always have my arm moving.” Stationed in Alaska, Robert continued to serve until his discharge in October 1946. The brothers persisted writing their mother well after their military service. Pvt. Robert Kobrasky returned to the family farm in Potlatch and died there on June 27, 1992. Sgt. Donald Kobrasky thought he would work at the mill after the war but ended up living in Alaska with his wife and three children until his death on September 11, 1997.
Reading these letters, I wonder how archives will contend with all the digital documents that are now much more prevalent than hard copies. In a world of email, text messages, and Instagram will the 21st century have a gap in written records? Of course, one nice thing about typed correspondence is that the reader does not have to contend with illegible handwriting. The lanky cursive scrawl can be challenging for those not practiced in deciphering it, but there’s something oddly personal about handwritten notes. As a historian, I find it fascinating to see these varied stories of the war from two brothers serving in different branches of the military who came from Potlatch. After reading through these letters received by Virna Kobrasky I feel like I know the sons a little, and I’m thankful they made it through the war. Who knows how many countless other mothers received letters from children, and how many more stories are out there. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I implore you: save letters written to you. You never know what information they might hold for the future.
Half-brother Dale Wilson (from Virna's first marriage) with Robert (middle) and Donald (right) Kobrasky. Courtesy of the Potlatch Historical Society.
“LC World War II Correspondence.” Latah County Historical Society Community Archive. Moscow, ID.
Ancestry.com: Marine Corps Muster Lists, Draft Cards, Social Security Index, Washington Marriage Licenses.
Tillman, Barrett. US Marine Corps Fighter Squadrons of World War II. Osprey Publishing: 2014.