Forty-one letters written during World War II have leapt to life in local author James Breig’s first book, “Searching for Sgt. Bailey: Saluting an Ordinary Soldier of World War II.” The book, which chronicles the life of a World War II soldier, was released early this month.
While shopping in an antique store near Fredericksburg, Va., in December of 2008, Breig came across the old letters. Thinking they could be the basis for an interesting magazine article, he purchased them for $1 apiece.
The letters gave him a glimpse into the life of Army Sgt. James Boisseau Bailey of Virginia, who wrote most of the correspondence to his mother while serving as a quartermaster in New Guinea during World War II.
Breig, a retired editor for The Evangelist newspaper in Albany, became inspired as he read the letters and set out on a quest to find out more about the soldier’s life.
Bailey’s hometown, Breig learned, was Prince George Courthouse, Va., which is about an hour from the spot where he purchased the letters.
“He was from a town so tiny that when I talked to people who lived there, they said, ‘Stop calling it a town. It’s a neighborhood,’ ” Breig recounted.
As luck would have it, there is a historical society office in that tiny town. Breig called there and inquired about Bailey. Two days later, he got some good news from the historical society’s director.
Breig recalled the director’s words: “She said, ‘When I hung up, I turned to my volunteers, who are all older women, and I said, “Anyone here ever hear of James Boisseau Bailey?” And the place went nuts. They all knew him. They all started chattering about him.’ ”
Within six weeks of buying Bailey’s letters, Breig was standing in front of the house where the soldier grew up. “At that point, I thought, ‘There’s a book here,’ ” he said.
That book turned out to be a 336-page biography of Bailey.
“I take him from birth to death and did that through people who are still alive who knew him, including people who went to high school with him, including one or two women who dated him in high school,” Breig said.
To supplement what he learned from the letters and from Bailey’s acquaintances, Breig did online research. He also purchased hundreds of letters on eBay written by other World War II soldiers, sailors, Women’s Army Corps members, Marines and pilots.
“What I used those other letters for is to bolster what Sgt. Bailey says, to contradict what he says, emphasize what he says or to fill in what he doesn’t say,” Breig explained.
There were no letters that explained how Bailey crossed the Pacific on his way to serve in New Guinea, so Breig searched out letters from soldiers who wrote about their experiences crossing the ocean during the war. He used that information to describe what Bailey would have likely experienced on his voyage.
While recounting Bailey’s story, Breig introduced many other unsung war heroes. Bailey is representative of all of them, he said.
“Millions of men and women went off to World War II, did what they were asked to do and came back and never said another word, or very few words, about what they did,” he said.
“I think what is lost with these people from that era is they were traumatized and never did anything in most cases to deal with that trauma. They saw things and experienced things that had an impact on them and then they bottled it up. … It had to have an impact, which was then ignored.”
“Searching for Sgt. Bailey” salutes all ordinary soldiers of World War II, Breig said.
Breig has won numerous national awards for his articles, editorials and columns. Most recently, he has concentrated on writing about American history for publications including the Colonial Williamsburg Journal and History Magazine.
“Searching for Sgt. Bailey” was published by Park Chase Press in Baltimore. To promote the book, Breig will make multiple media appearances and local public appearances this month and during December.
The book can be purchased on Amazon.com or through Park Chase Press at www.parkchasepress.com.
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