Collecting The Letters Of Wartime

Letters written in a time of war reflect almost universal longing and loss, no matter the century or the enemy. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Andrew Carroll, the director of the Center for American War Letters, about his personal collection of wartime correspondence from every American conflict, going back to 1776.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the age of instant communication, our interactions are so often reduced to tweets and texts, which means a handwritten letter holds a special kind of mystique. You can hold it in your hand, tuck in a pocket, pull it out and read over and over. That's even more true for letters written in a time of war - those letters seeped with longing and loss, no matter the century or the enemy. Historian Andrew Carroll has been collecting correspondence from American wars, going back as far as 1776. He now has more than 100,000 of these letters, which he'll donate for the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University. We reached Andrew Carroll in California, and I asked him how this whole project got started.

ANDREW CARROLL: My sophomore year of college, my father's house in Washington, D.C. burned down. You know, losing that family memorabilia, all the letters, the photos, which are obviously irreplaceable, was really traumatic. And not long after the fire, a distant cousin of ours, who had served in World War II, was checking in just to see how we were doing. And he said, you know, I'd just been going through my old World War II letters and I came across something I want to send to you. And I received in the mail this thin, onion-skinned paper. It was the original letter dated from April 1945, and he was describing to his wife - he was only 23 years old at the time - the concentration camp Buchenwald, which he had just visited after it was liberated. And it's this incredibly powerful letter. And I called back. I said, Jim, I really appreciate your sharing this. I'll send it back to you. He said, you know what, just keep it. I probably was going to throw it out anyway.

MARTIN: Wow.

CARROLL: And it just seemed to me that we would've lost something so valuable. And so over the years, I just, you know, would talk with other veterans and say what did you do with your old letters from Korea or Vietnam or wherever they served? And so many of them had said the same thing. You know what? I threw them out or they got lost in a move. And that was really the inspiration to start this effort to preserve America's war letters.

MARTIN: So, where do you get the letters then? Are you going around asking families to donate them? How do they come to you?

CARROLL: You know, a lot of it's word of mouth. I've worked with veterans groups and done a lot of speaking across the country at schools and, you know, various historical societies and libraries. We really want to grow this collection. This is not the end, even though I'm donating the letters. To me, it's really just the beginning.

MARTIN: I have to say you're making realize that I need to go back to my parents' house and retrieve my grandfather's letters from World War II. He was on a boat on his way to Pearl Harbor before it was bombed. And I've seen those letters. But I don't know where they are anymore. I don't know if we're keeping track of them.

CARROLL: Well, and you mentioned Pearl Harbor - you know, I think we have this perception that letters, these, like, quaint little artifacts that have sentimental value but not much more, but the history that's captured in these correspondences is just breathtaking. We have a letter written from inside a ship at Pearl Harbor. And you look at the upper right-hand corner. It says December 7, 1941, USS New Orleans. And the first line, the sailor says: Dear Sis, it's 9:05 a.m. Sunday morning. We've been bombed for an hour. We're trapped here down in the forward engine room. He's literally in the eye of the storm writing to his sister about what it's like to be there at Pearl Harbor as the bombs are falling.

MARTIN: Anything in there that surprised you? Any patterns that started to emerge?

CARROLL: I think what surprised me the most was that although the language has changed over the generations, but whether it's a letter from Lexington and Concord or an email from Fallujah, the emotions are timeless and very universal. In many ways, they transcend the subject of war. They're really about human nature itself - hope, grief, courage, reconciliation - all these themes that we can all relate to but because they're written in these life and death circumstances, they're just much more intense. The love letters are more passionate, a lot of the letters are very philosophical and profound. And it's just incredible what they capture.

MARTIN: Soldiers in today's wars are communicating with family back home with email or Skype. Have you started to think about collecting and archiving email, electronic communication?

CARROLL: These letters and emails really humanize the men and women who serve. They remind us that they're not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They're somebody spouse, sibling, child. And I think nobody can tell their stories better than they can.

MARTIN: Andrew Carroll is the director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University. You can check out his project at WarLetters.us. Andrew, thanks so much for talking with us.

CARROLL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Our show's theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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