LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Letters and postcards dating back to World War II have been unboxed in New Jersey.
Decades later, they tell the story of how a now-101-year-old woman helped bring peace to families of prisoners of war.
“Imagine not knowing where your son is and then you get a letter that he’s alive,” Lacey Township resident Agnes Joan Negra said.
She couldn’t imagine it any other way, so during World War II, that’s what she did to let families know their soldiers, American prisoners of war, were OK.
“She got a short wave radio and listened to Radio Berlin every night, and she would jot down the name of the prisoner that was mentioned and his home address and she would write a letter to the family,” said Ron Negra, Agnes’ son.
She would take down five names announced each night, hoping to hear one name in particular — her brother-in-law, Sgt. John Negra, missing in action.
“She never heard that, but she continued listening, and she would send to families all over the country a note, hoping that she would relieve their emotions a little bit by saying your son is alive,” Ron Negra said.
Agnes grew up in Massachusetts and her father was a deep-sea fisherman. When she was young, her family was told her father’s boat capsized and he was presumed dead. They held a funeral mass for him, believing he was gone, only to three weeks later be surprised with his return home after he found safety on an island.
Her son believes this played a part in her quest to let POW families know their loved ones were OK.
“She told me that when her father was missing and then presumed dead, that her family was so devastated, they were such a close-knit family,” he said. “She said when the war started: is there anything I can do to bring hope to people going through emotions?”
She wrote more than 300 letters and got back more than 200 responses.
One response she received in 1943 read, “The news of his safety was like the happening of a miracle after five weeks of extreme anxiety.”
“They were happy to hear from me,” Agnes Joan Negra said. “That made me do it more.”
“A number of the letters that came back said you’ve given us hope that maybe we’ll see our loved one again,” Ron Negra said.
Despite all the letters being written by Agnes, she signed many of them with her husband’s name, Mr. Negra.
“A woman’s credibility wasn’t as strong as a man’s credibility, just the way it was, it was the times, so when she started the letters, she said I’m gonna start signing my husband’s name because she felt that would give more credibility,” her son said. “Finally, towards the end she said, I’m gonna put my name on these now.”
Agnes told her son her one regret was that she never learned what happened to those prisoners.
“Did they make it back? Did they die?” her son said. “She was really torn because she said, I wanted to communicate back with those families, but it was a personal thing and if they didn’t make it back, I didn’t wanna bring more grief or emotion to them.”
“She never released the names or these letters at all, she just felt it was private, so I did research on the people she wrote to, the letters she got back and they’re all gone. I looked up every name I found obituaries and she feels a little bit easier now talking about these things because she doesn’t feel like she’s invading anyone’s privacy,” Negra continued.
The letters and the hope they gave families were a secret to her family. She tucked them away after the war, only showing them to her son in 2019.
“So decades went by and you had no idea your mother did this?” CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis asked.
“No idea. They never discussed the war. I knew my father was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge … but other than that, they never discussed it with me at all,” Ron Negra said.
So for her 100th birthday, he compiled the letters into a book he got published, titled “Waves of Hope,” including how her brother-in-law was found.
Now, the letters are forever etched in history.
“I’m happy that Ronnie made the book. I really am, it brings it all back,” Agnes Joan Negra said.
A published book is hard to top, but her family found a way. For her 101st birthday, they created photo albums with pictures of people reading her book around the world.
Now that’s a story.
For more information about “Waves of Hope,” visit ronaldedwardnegra.com.