Framed by dark wood features inside a West Duluth home, Joe Westerberg can be found typing away on a laptop as the Star Wars movies replay in the background. It is the picture of modern-day social isolation.
“I’ve seen them enough times,” he said of the movies. “I’ll be typing and listening and just working on the letters.”
Westerberg is in the final stretch as he transcribes his father’s letters home from the Second World War. Now more than 350 pages in, “I’ve got five months of letters to go,” he said. “I can do a week’s worth of letters in a day.”
Westerberg works for United Healthcare in Duluth and went to the College of St. Scholastica. He grew up awed by World War II history — a passion he said "kicked in" during a family trip to Pearl Harbor when he was 10.
“I was always the World War II guy for my dad,” said Westerberg, the youngest of three siblings. “I remember when he said, ‘Yeah, I got all my letters,’ and I said, ‘You do?!' I started looking through them like, ‘Oh my god,’ and made the decision to start typing them.”
That was more than 12 years ago.
Allen Westerberg was from Dassel, Minnesota, and trained to be a signalman after he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. For most of his service in WWII, he semaphored from a conning tower on the LSM-392 — one of countless supply and transport vessels that served in the Pacific theater.
“I hope the rain doesn’t last too long for I again have a four to eight signal watch in the morning,” Allen wrote July 15, 1945.
The letters were always addressed “Dearest Mother, Dad and Annette,” for his younger sister and parents, Freda and Hjalmer. The handwriting is cursive and tiny but on an impeccably straight rule.
Interpreting the handwriting, two-fingered typing and the work of censors add up to make Joe’s work difficult, he said. He held up one letter last week that looked like Swiss cheese with phrases and words scissored out.
Allen wrote letters home almost daily, extending from boot camp in March 1944 until September 1946, making for two-and-a-half years’ worth of letters and hundreds of missives home. The communication was important to him. One time, he went three weeks without receiving mail and his letters home grew progressively more irritated.
"You can see he's getting more and more ticked off," Joe said, before reading from the page, "'No mail today. I don't know where it is. Is it in Yokohama? Is it following us?'"
Most of the letters reflect a closeness in the warm dialogue between Allen and his family.
“About my room and the possibilities of Annette’s invading it — the answer is yes!!” Allen wrote March 30, 1945.
Stay-at-home time necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded Joe the opportunity to finish the letters, having done several months of letters since the start of what he called "the lock down."
Allen had meticulously archived the original letters, which have emerged in mint condition.
“The only people who have touched these letters in 75 years were my dad writing it, grandma, grandpa and aunt Annette reading it, and me,” Joe said, poetically leaving out the censors.
Laura Westerberg has been married to Joe in a blended family for eight years. She fully supports his project.
“I love it,” Laura said. “His father was such a great man.”
Allen Westerberg died last October, at 94. He retired from the Navy before going to work as a hospital admittance director in Edina.
Joe always loved his dad, but the letters give Allen a dimension Joe would have never seen otherwise.
“I think it’s just watching him grow up,” Joe said. “At the time he's writing these letters, he’s 19, almost 20, when the war ended.”
Allen writes about coconut trees and other paeans to Pacific islands’ vegetation throughout his letters — a prelude to becoming a horticultural judge for the state of Minnesota.
Allen gave a paragraph on the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “a truly great man,” and mused about the atomic bomb in another letter, “It seems like such a very destructive and powerful weapon that its use would be very dangerous,” he wrote.
In his writings, Allen reserves special fondness for his ship — a smaller landing ship with a low draft that allowed it to run all the way onto the beach, open its bay doors, lower the ramps and discharge cargoes of men, tanks and supplies.
Allen was assigned to the LSM-392 when it was commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia, making him a plank owner.
“He talks about that,” Joe said. “‘We’re the plank owners, the rest of the guys are just passengers — and we make sure to let them know it.’”
The LSM-392 wasn’t an obvious target like the capital ships and destroyers, but, because of its low draft, it bounced and pitched along on the water and caused Allen to monitor the weather closely in his letters.
After Allen left San Diego to embark on his journey at sea and war, the censors started to remove his location from the letters. So he employed a code using the first letter of each sentence to spell out where he was.
“Pearl Harbor, Enewetak, Philippines,” Joe said, rifling through a few of the decoded letters. “That was his way to get around the censors.”
Joe said he plans to turn the massive transcription effort into a book for family members, including Allen’s seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Asked about the letters from home that Allen would have received, Joe lamented he didn’t have those. Allen didn't see a lot of combat at sea, but bobbing around like a cork on the ocean, he wasn’t able to save the letters he'd received.
“We don’t have those unfortunately,” Joe said. “I wish I had some of them, so I could tie-in. But he was moving around a lot.”