War Letters: The incredible memories they mailed home

Phil Briggs
November 09, 2018 - 11:32 am

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While towering monuments pay tribute to veterans with every inspiring word etched into their granite and marble walls, there is something even more magical about Andrew Carroll’s collection of war letters.

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Carroll is the Director of The Center for American War Letters, and his collection gives us a glimpse of what life was like for previous generations dating all the way back to the American Revolution.

“You can tell the story of America at war through these letters,” Carrol says, holding up a yellowish letter encased in a protective plastic sleeve. “This is one of my favorite letters ... It’s dated 1775, and this is the original paper and the original letter .. and it’s as legible and clear as the day it was written.  It’s a very impassioned plea to his friend about why they had to fight for freedom.”

The author indicates he has been gone for a long time as he opens his letter by saying, "Brother Philips,  How shall I address you after such a long silence ... "  He also describes his will to fight for freedom as a, "conviction in my own breast."

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Above and Below: Letters from a soldier fighting in The American Revolution. He is writing a friend whom he refers to as “Brother Philips”

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Carroll goes on to explain the lengths he will go to, in order to acquire these historical gems, “ I’m sort of the historian who makes house calls … I spend my life traveling to all 50 states and go to people’s houses who say they have a letter.  I went to one individual’s house in Illinois- he had been saving World War II letters his entire life as a hobby … he gave us 15 thousand letters.”  

But what makes every one of these letters incredible is the true story each one contains.

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From the Civil War soldier whose letter (above) appears to include the line, “pithy old Abe Lincoln” to the Staff Sergeant who was able to send a letter home on Hitler’s personal stationery. (below) Each letter invites you to imagine the details of the writer’s life and the scenery around him at that moment in time.

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The collection includes an iconic Pearl Harbor letter from a Sailor aboard the USS New Orleans, who writes to his sister, “It’s 9:05 Sunday morning and we’ve been bombed now for over an hour.”  One can only imagine the heart-pounding drama unfolding all around him.  A quick check of history reveals that as the shipyard lost power from the docks,  engineers worked frantically to raise steam power as men were forming lines to manually bring ammo topside so the anti-aircraft guns could be fired manually at the deadly Japanese aerial attackers.

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Some of the most emotional letters include ones from a legendary American General and the man who led our troops to victory in WWI, Gen John J Pershing.  Prior to the United States joining World War I, Pershing was stationed in Texas (defending American territory from clashes with Mexican troops) It was there he learned that his wife and daughters had perished in a fire at his San Francisco Presidio home. Carroll shared with us one of the most poignant parts of his letter (below), where Pershing wrote about his 6-year-old son Warren, the fire’s the only survivor, “Warren does not yet know of his loss, but I just cannot tell him.  He thinks they (mother and sisters) are in Cheyenne, Wyoming with the grandparents.” 

This event would be the greatest tragedy of his life and is what likely fueled the fire which made him one of America's most inspirational leaders and the man who led us to victory in WWI.

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Below: A post World War I letter from General Pershing.

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Other incredible letters show the resilience of the American soldier.  Like the one below from John McGrath, who was near Anzio, Italy in 1944

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He told his friend about a near-death experience he had when a mortar shell landed near him but didn’t explode. “By the grace of God I’m still alive,” wrote McGrath. 

Carroll describes the drama that unfolded next, “So he writes the letter, puts it in his rucksack and moments later heads into battle.  He is shot through the back …  and that’s the bullet hole!  Now miraculously he survived and later came home.” 

As with all war stories, heroes often make the ultimate sacrifice, as documented in a letter returned to a soldier’s finance. 

"She was a member of the Women’s Army Corps and the writing on the envelope is sadly how she first learned of his death," explains Carroll.

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Other love stories had happier endings.  While we sat with Carroll he opened a package (below) which he recently received in the mail.  It contained dozens of letters, which traced the correspondence between 1st Lt. William Sells and his finance Ms. Dulcie Clayden.  As we dug deeper into the stack of letters we followed their journey from engagement to their eventual marriage. His words were nothing like the words exchanged today, "I cannot bear the thought of being away from you for one more day my love," wrote Sells. 

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Sometimes the letters showed humor. Like the letter below, from a pilot who had a promising career as a Disney cartoonist ahead of him.  He desperately wanted to stop flying supply missions, which he called “God damn milk runs” and get back to dropping some serious bombs.  

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Other letters not only expressed the soldier’s feelings in words but on the paper, they were written on.  As in the case of this letter from Vietnam, penned on the only available form of stationary- toilet paper.

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There are letters like the yellow one, written from the front lines of Desert Storm. (below)

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To the moving 9/11 era letter from a helicopter pilot who survived combat, but died in a training mission.  "This was a letter he wrote while in Afghanistan, and it was donated along with his entire uniform by his family," Carroll said. Look closely and you can see how he describes going on a mission to "flush out 600 Taliban soldiers from the mountains."

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Though today's letters likely come in the form of emails, “Their words and expressions of love are just as moving,” says Carroll.

To see these letters in person is like going back in time. 

To read words like, “My darling, It has been too long since I have seen your face.  I long for your touch and sweet embrace,” make us realize just how beautiful the love stories of previous generations were.

And to explore these letters, whether it’s Veterans Day or not, helps keep the memory of these great Americans alive forever.

For more information on The Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, click here

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