‘Dear John Letters’ — A History of Wartime Breakups

February 3, 2023Matt Fratus
Dear John letter

Dear John letters were not exclusive to World War II. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die.

Before soldiers could send texts and emails from war zones, long-distance chats were written on postcards and sent in the mail. For Americans serving overseas during wartime, letters from loved ones were a rare reminder of what — and who — was waiting at home. Except when they weren’t.

Sometimes American GIs, expecting love notes from a special Valentine sweetheart, opened their mail and read: “Dear John, Sayonara.”   

These so-called Dear John letters became prominent during World War II and a public symbol of “female betrayal” in wartime. Although most letters written to a soldier far from home were cherished, few physical Dear John letters exist today, which should come as no surprise. Honestly, who wants to preserve a heartbreak for the sake of posterity? 

Valentine’s Day isn’t always about chocolate and roses for those nursing a broken heart, so what better way to prepare than by looking at the origin of Dear John letters and reminiscing on past romances gone bad?

Love-ly Gear: Stock up on mugs, coffee, and apparel

What’s in a Name: ‘Dear John’?

Dear John letters

Mail call was an exciting time for most American GIs serving during World War II. Despite the occasional Dear John, not all mail was bad news. Pfc. Sumner Grant sent the illustrated envelope, left, to his fiancée, Helen. Right, soldiers at Fort Belvoir in 1943 receive their mail. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress. Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die.

Precisely how Dear John letters got their name is a mystery. However, there are some working theories. According to Susan L. Carruthers, the author of Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America, Dear John was “a synonym for a breakup note sent by a woman to a man in uniform.” 

Carruthers suggests one early inspiration could have been the nationally broadcast radio serial The Irene Rich Show. “This anthology of mini-dramas used the epistolary form as its hook, each episode beginning as though Rich were reading aloud a letter she penned,” Carruthers wrote. “(Hence the show’s alternative name: Dear John.)” 

It may be just as simple as that huge numbers of GIs were named John. From 1900 to 1972, John was a top five baby name in American households.

Related: A Commander’s Letter Home to a Worried Mother in 1944 Led to Long-Delayed Silver Star

Who Popularized ‘Dear John’ Letters?

Dear John letters

The newspaper clipping of Milton Bracker’s story was published in the New York Times Sunday magazine in October 1943 with the headline, “What to Write the Soldier Overseas.” Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die.

In October 1943, 24-year-old war correspondent Milton Bracker wired a story for publication from Allied Headquarters in North Africa. His featured headline in the New York Times Sunday magazine read, “What to Write the Soldier Overseas.” According to Carruthers, the news story marked the first time an influential newspaper detailed the Dear John letter phenomenon.

Bracker’s story discussed the prevalence of “Dear John clubs” throughout the Army. These clubs — also called brush-off clubs — were formed by sympathetic GIs and officers for mutual support. Separation from the things they held dear, their families and hometowns, as well as lovers, was nearly unthinkable during peacetime for those growing up with traditional American upbringings.

Bracker provided an example of a letter that a GI might receive, which held a twist:

“Dear John: I don’t know quite how to begin but I just want to say that Joe Doakes came to town on furlough the other night and he looked very handsome in his uniform, so when he asked me for a date—”

Bracker included the name “Joe Doakes” as one many GIs would have recognized in the 1940s. Joe Doakes was the fictional name of an “average guy” featured in a series of short films shown in high schools of the time that taught students basic skills.

Bracker’s fictional Dear John letter, then, might be the origin of the mythical military figure known to generations of soldiers as the hometown rival waiting to steal your sweetie away: “Joe D.”

But Bracker also noted that soldiers would rather receive lousy news than no news at all. Troops would stash letters from home in their footlockers and retrieve them to be read at the mess table. “Their faces light up when letters come,” Bracker wrote, “and drop when they don’t.”  

Sweet Gear: Check out BRCC’s Valentine’s Day collection

Dear Jane & Letters Beyond World War II

Dear John letters

Deployments often leave soldiers missing loved ones. A soldier of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, deployed to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in support of Operation New Dawn, Oct. 12, 2011, writes a letter home. US Army photo.

Men were not the only unlucky ones. Women serving during World War II and in wars and conflicts thereafter received their own ego-shattering letters, dubbed the “Dear Jane.” Toby Newman, a Women’s Army Corps veteran, told the Library of Congress in 2015 that her loving boyfriend dumped her in this manner. “You wanted to be free, now you’re free,” the Dear Jane letter read. Unlike most of her male peers, Newman never destroyed the note bearing the bad news, even after some seven decades. 

The Dear John or Dear Jane letters outlived World War II. In 1953, country musicians Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky performed a duet of their hit single, “A Dear John Letter.” The song, set amid the Korean War, was so popular that it topped Billboard magazine’s country music charts. In Vietnam, mail calls were sometimes called the “Dear John roundup.” Steven Curtis, a US Marine Corps photographer between 1968 and 1970, recalled witnessing mixed reactions. 

According to Curtis, he would counsel other Dear John letter recipients by stating this was a blessing in disguise. “Any woman who didn’t have enough strength of character to stand by her man in his time of need wasn’t worth going back to anyway,” he’d tell them.

After the Vietnam War, handwritten love letters remained common until about the early 1990s. With the arrival of cell phones and smartphones, there was a new preferred method of communication, relegating the Dear John letter to the past.

Read Next: Romeos, Red Sparrows, and the Art of the ‘Honey Trap’

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US: War Crimes on All Sides in Ethiopia's Tigray Conflict

The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

March 20, 2023Associated Press
military pilots cancer rates
Higher Cancer Rates Found in Military Pilots, Ground Crews

In its yearlong study of almost 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft b...

March 20, 2023Associated Press
whiskey pour
Veterans Lead the Way Among America’s Growing Craft Distilleries

American veterans are taking the lessons they learned in the military and changing the craft distilling industry.

March 20, 2023Mac Caltrider
military suicide veteran suicide
Military Moves To Cut Suicides, But Defers Action on Guns

In a memo released Thursday, Austin called for the establishment of a suicide prevention working gro...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
us military drills japan-south korea
US, Partners Stage Military Drills Amid Japan-South Korea Talks

The Sea Dragon 23 exercises that started on Wednesday will culminate in more than 270 hours of in-fl...

March 17, 2023Associated Press
leo jenkins a word like god
‘A Word Like God’: New Book From Army Ranger Leo Jenkins

In his latest poetry collection, Ranger-turned-writer Leo Jenkins turns away from war to explore cosmic themes of faith, fatherhood, and art.

March 16, 2023Mac Caltrider
us drone
Pentagon Video Shows Russian Jet Dumping Fuel on US Drone

The Pentagon on Thursday released video of what it said was a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a ...

March 16, 2023Associated Press
10th Mountain Division
‘Climb to Glory’ — A History of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division

From the mountains of Italy to the mountains of Afghanistan, the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division built its legendary reputation by fighting in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.

March 16, 2023Matt Fratus
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved