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A letter to Dada

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Joseph 'Dada' Sabino, second from left.

It is the greatest form letter ever written. One was sent to Joseph “Dada” Sabino in late 1945, arriving at his mother’s house on Pitcairn Street in Braddock, just after he returned from war. He was a broken young man, destined to remain in his government’s care until his final day.

But the arrival of the letter on “The Secretary of the Navy” stationery honored those homes where citizen sailors had returned to rest and heal. And the signature of James Forrestal, in blue ink, made it official.

The words endure, crafted so that each recipient could believe that they were meant for him alone. Although millions must have been sent, each one was personal.

“My dear Mr. Sabino,” it began. There would be plenty of letters and telegrams from the bureaucracy in the years to follow. But even those that required delicacy lacked that heartfelt salutation.

“I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always.”

The secretary reminded Dada that he had served “in the greatest Navy in the world” and briefly summarized the accomplishments that had led to victory. Then, he concluded:

“No other Navy at any time has done so much. For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.

“The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life. Good luck!”

Dada’s letter was found in a box of treasures, carefully folded and pressed between the faded photos of smiling shipmates, years after his 1953 death at the VA hospital in Aspinwall. The unexpected graciousness of the letter had touched him in those bewildering days just after the war and it is still cherished by those who are left, who read it throughout the year, especially on Veterans Day.

Nearly identical letters occasionally make the news. Children and grandchildren stumble across them as they tie up the loose ends of veterans’ lives, some marveling that the secretary of the Navy would write a personal letter to their loved ones. It is that good.

Forrestal struggled, too, along with those veterans who had just barely made it home. He died in 1949, falling from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was being treated for depression. It was officially a suicide but conspiracy theories linger.

This much is not theoretical: With a one-page letter in the winter of 1945, Forrestal touched the hearts of brave Americans who simply needed to hear that we noticed, that we care, that we are grateful. And that is just as important today.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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