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USS Midway love letters reveal surprising similarities of military service past and present

Kathryn Butler Avatar

In October 2012, Navy Spouse Peyton Roberts relocated with her husband to a new duty station in Virginia Beach. The move, which followed tours at tight-knit communities in sunny Coronado and tropical Guam, left her feeling out of place and unattached to their chilly new home on the East Coast. 

Shortly after the moving dust settled, her mom brought a stack of letters that had been stashed away in a fireproof box at her grandparents’ house, presumably for decades. Their contents proved remarkable. The letters began in May 1951, just weeks after her grandfather, Bill Holston, married her grandmother, Bea, and departed for sea duty as a trumpet player on the USS Midway.

Roberts, who lost her grandparents in 2007 and 2011, immediately recognized the letters as an unexpected gift. “I could instantly hear my grandfather’s voice again,” she said. “One minute I was missing my grandparents, and the next, I was getting to meet them as lovestruck newlyweds. It was surreal.”

Also unexpected was the address on the envelopes. The letters were originally mailed from the Midway to her grandmother, Bea, in Norfolk – just seven miles away from where Roberts sat reading the same pages six decades later. 

A letter addressed from Bill Holston to his wife, while on the USS Midway. Photo courtesy Peyton Roberts.

“I knew my grandfather served in the Navy Band, but I had no idea my grandparents were married during his active duty service,” Roberts said. “So in addition to meeting my grandparents as a Navy couple, the letters also showed me that we shared a duty station.”

In the years that followed, Roberts transcribed the letters to share with family and friends. Revisiting her grandfather’s words every so often, she was struck by the similarities of her grandmother’s experience to her own military journey, especially in the minutia. 

Bea and Bill Holston. Photos courtesy of Peyton Roberts.

“I saw a glimpse of what my grandmother’s life was like as a Navy spouse 60 years before mine,” Roberts said. “It was wild seeing how many of their stories and struggles I could relate to just because of the role we shared as military spouses.”

As a Navy spouse of 18 years, Roberts saw the potential insight and encouragement this realization could offer today’s military members and spouses. So she compiled these heartfelt letters into a book, My Dearest Bea: Love Letters from the USS Midway.

The cover of “My Dearest Bea.” Photo courtesy of Peyton Roberts.

Within the collection of 21 love letters written aboard the carrier, U.S. Navy Band member Bill Holston’s letters tend to start with updates about ship life or stories from the current port call, not unlike an email between couples might today. Other topics cover things like the weather, daily duties on board, and responses to news from home. 

The letters often end with affectionate sign-offs and a countdown to homecoming. Whether it’s a story about a lost ID card, the excitement of receiving new orders, or the explanation of a military term, these narratives from 1951 will resonate with today’s service members and spouses. 

Interspersed between chapters of letters, Roberts’ heartfelt reflections bring Bea and Bill into the narrative as grandparents, which will tug at the heartstrings of any grandchild carrying the dull ache of missing a beloved grandparent. 

Peyton Roberts with her grandparents. Photo courtesy of Roberts.

Though a short season in a devoted 56-year marriage, Bea’s role as a Navy wife was brief but formative. The letters offered Roberts a fresh perspective during her own challenges as a military spouse, as she read about her grandmother’s struggles with finding a new job, settling into a new duty station, and coping with family loss, all while her husband was deployed.

“My grandfather’s letters showed me that so many of the challenges we face as military spouses aren’t new. They have existed throughout history,” Roberts said. 

Through Bill Holston’s letters and Roberts’s reflections in My Dearest Bea, today’s military couples will find encouragement for a season apart. Better still is a rare opportunity to relive what prompted the separation in the first place—their own love story.

“All I can say, my darling, is that I love you. With a love as such no person has ever known.” –Bill Holston, USS Midway, 1951