The carton was in a back corner of an attic in Westchester County, buried beneath dresses and other boxes.
It was marked “Wellington Mara Navy Memories,” and inside was a shoebox full of letters written to the parents of a 28-year-old Navy lieutenant and radar officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Randolph in the Pacific Ocean in 1945.
And there was another folder beside it, one full of more detailed — and frank — letters to his older brother, Jack, about day-to-day life and fears as a bombing attack of Tokyo neared that February.
Powerful stuff for any family, but as Susan McDonnell went through her parents’ attic a decade ago in search of material for a “Legacy Club” planned for the Giants’ new stadium, she knew it had to be preserved.
McDonnell, one of Wellington and Ann Mara’s 11 children, asked her mother about the box, and she said she did not know about it. (Ann and Wellington did not marry until 1954. She died in 2015; he died in 2005.)
“She said, ‘Get rid of all this,’ ” McDonnell recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m not getting rid of this. It’s history.’ . . . So I took it home with the thought that someday I was going to try to make sense out of all this, because my brothers and sisters and children need to see this.
“I started to read some of the letters, and it became very emotional for me.”
After putting it off for years, this past summer she decided to organize and publicize the letters during the NFL’s 100th season and asked the Giants for help.
The result, for now, is a 4½-minute mini-documentary that was to be posted on the team’s website on Friday and shown on its weekly television shows on Channel 9 and MSG Network this weekend.
John Mara, Wellington’s eldest child and the current president of the Giants, reads portions of the letters aloud in the piece.
“It was kind of emotional thinking about what he must have been going through onboard ship, wondering whether they’re going to be attacked or not, wondering whether they’re going to get back alive or not,” John said.
Like many World War II veterans, Mara did not talk much about his experiences in the decades after the war, but his letters home tell volumes.
The ones to his parents — his father, Tim, founded the franchise in 1925 — mostly sought to reassure them that he was eating well and/or needed items such as new boxer shorts.
The ones to Jack, who died in 1965, were so poignant that in March of 1945, Arthur Daley, The New York Times columnist and a close friend of Jack’s, published a long excerpt to give readers a window into life on the front.
McDonnell said one that stuck with her read, “I’m sorry I haven’t written in a couple of days. I’m just so miserable because I’m so homesick and I didn’t want anybody else to be as miserable as me.”
Even amid the war news, though, Mara inevitably had his mind on the team with which he would be closely associated for the final 80 years of his life.
Almost every letter included a reference to the Giants, or to NFL people he would run into, including Bears coach and fellow Navy veteran George Halas.
“There was a 14-page letter to his brother that included almost every player on the team and what he thought of them,” McDonnell said. “He’s literally in the Pacific and he’s thinking about the team.”
On the day he learned of the Japanese surrender, Mara compared his happiness with a Nov. 12, 1944, game in which the Giants scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to tie the Eagles, 21-21, and a Dec. 5, 1943, game in which Bill Paschal’s 53-yard run in the fourth quarter beat the Redskins, 14-10.
In an earlier letter, he wrote of the scene on the ship, “The clouds are low and there are plenty of them, and they cover us like [Howie] Livingston covered [Don] Hutson — like a blanket.”
And this, the night before the attack on Tokyo: “It’s pretty near kick off now and the nerves are getting a little tense.”
"The team was so integral to his life, and I know he thought about it all the time,” John said. “The reference to covering Hutson like a blanket, that really was funny, but it didn’t surprise me.”
Mara wrote of being “home alive in ’45,” emphasizing for John the point that such a happy ending had been far from assured.
“I think [the war correspondence] certainly demonstrates that there was a lot more to him than just being the co-owner of the Giants,” John said. “He had a history before that and it’s one that his family is certainly very proud of, and I think he was also.”