The nature of the volunteer work done by the American Field Service volunteer ambulance corps is well documented in the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs.  Materials in the available collections depict the challenging work AFS volunteers engaged in throughout World War I and World War II, mainly in the rescue and transport of injured soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war.  However, as is evident from materials in the newly-processed Balderston Family Collection, AFS volunteers did receive respite from their wartime duties in the form of leave.  Correspondence and photographs in the collection document the sightseeing trips some volunteers were able to take.  These vacation-like breaks amid war included exciting intercultural experiences for many of the young American volunteers. Moreover, these trips prefigured the international educational exchange work that AFS would take on in the post-war period.

AFS volunteers on a sightseeing trip to Rome in 1944. Courtesy of the AFS Archives.

Frederick “Fred” Balderston and Robert “Bob” Balderston were AFS volunteers during World War II.  The materials in the Balderston Collection detail both the day-to-day responsibilities of the brothers and their occasional moments of leisure.  While the contents of the collection certainly reflect the harsh realities of their wartime service, some materials, particularly several exchanges between the brothers and their parents, describe happier moments during the leave they took with friends in their unit.

In one such letter to his father and stepmother, Bob describes in detail a trip to Ischia, an island near Naples, Italy, while on leave in the spring of 1944.  He recounts the time spent with his commanding officer and fellow AFS volunteers bicycling, mud bathing, and dining.  Bob also describes his experience scaling the 2,589-foot-high Mount Epomeo with a friend and their visit to a remote monastery carved into the mountain at its peak.

Later that same year, Bob took another trip with a friend to Naples and Rome.  In a letter addressed to his grandmother, he describes his excitement at seeing the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Opera House in Rome.  He also recounts viewing several newly-released films, including Home in Indiana and The Seventh Cross, a drama starring Spencer Tracy as a prisoner who escapes from a concentration camp.

The house in Tracento, Italy, where Bob lived with other AFS volunteers in June 1945. The river wasn’t adequate for swimming, due to the many hand grenades and broken bottles. Courtesy of the AFS Archives.

Though Fred also traveled during his leave, his excitement for sightseeing was often tempered by a sense that he needed to return to the war effort.  Despite this anxiety, in a letter to his father and stepmother he fondly describes his stay at a thirty-room palazzo in  Italy in August 1944, which had been spared any bombing damage.  In the fall of 1945, he also briefly recalls a trip through India, Pakistan, and Palestine.  He mentions his excitement at being able to explore Jerusalem, a city he had for some time wanted to visit.

These experiences likely had a lasting impact on the brothers and their fellow volunteers.  Fred would remain involved with the American Field Service as the organization transitioned into an international cultural exchange program after World War II.  He became a trustee of AFS in 1969.  For much of his life he would champion cultural exchange as a way of breaking down borders and promoting, as he said, “understanding and affection” between people of different nationalities.

This article was written by Pratt Institute graduate students Chelsea Cates, Emily Ordway, and Greg Sato in May 2018. Click here for more information on viewing the Balderston Family Collection or other materials in the AFS Archives.