Recently I was prowling the book donations at the thrift store where I volunteer and I came across a copy of War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll. The Legacy Project, which is the source from which these letters came, was founded in 1998 as a gathering place for veterans and their families to donate correspondence written by members of American armed forces to and from their families while on active duty. Since its founding the Legacy Project’s name has been changed to “The Center for American War Letters,” and it’s collection is housed at Chapman University in Orange. California. War Letters was made into a documentary on PBS’s American Experience, which can be watched on YouTube. Unless otherwise noted, the excerpts quoted below come from War Letters which was copyrighted ©2001 by Andrew Carroll.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States armed forces were already fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic Ocean trying to protect conveys supplying Great Britain. The Japanese aggression made it clear American service men and women would be scattered around the globe, especially after Germany declared war on the United States. How were families who had relatives stationed abroad going to stay in touch with their loved ones? And vice versa how were members of the armed forces going to get letters from remote parts of the world delivered to their families at home. Confederate women who were left in charge of the southern plantations couldn’t rely on their postal service to deliver letters to their husbands in a timely fashion, but times and technology had changed immensely in three quarters of a century.
Writing from Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was doing basic training, Morton D. Elevitch wrote to his mother: “This week they are teaching us to kill. Now you probably looked away and shuttered. Well, Mom, I don’t like the idea, either, but we all know its for our good….By the way everything is done in double time this week . We move in place and from place to place on the double — puff puff.” (War Letters, p. 196)
Tracy Sugarman to his wife June, from Great Britain, March 1944: “Reading material, Junie. Things like Reader’s Digest – Coronet, Cosmopolitan maybe. When you send them pooch – *have them in a package* – otherwise some news hungry soldier or sailor will swipe them & they’ll never get here I’m told”.¹
During World War II, the United States Post Office made it easier for service and their families to stay in touch with each other. Victory Mail, or V Mail as it was commonly known made use of standard size stationary and microfilm to speed servicemen’s mail.² Sugarman occasionally used VMail to write to his wife. An example is here.
Servicemen would receive correspondence from home about siblings also in the service. For example, Bill Lynn’s mother wrote to him in September 1944 giving him news about his older brother Bob: Dear Billie, will drop you a few lines as I haven’t from. and I have good news, from the last letter I sent you. Bob will back in the States at the last of this month. I sure was happy when I read the telegram from the government last night. I hope you are well and O.K….well I didn’t know what to send you for xmas but you can be looking for a box, and I hope you will like it. so write me soon.” Lynn was killed in the Pacific in 1945, three days after his nineteen birthday. (War Letters, pp. 222-223)
Some American servicemen were abroad when their children were born. Lt. Walter Schuette wrote a letter to his daughter: “You arrived in this world while I was several thousand miles from your mother’s side. There were many anxious moments then and since. This message comes to you from somewhere in England. I pray to God it will be given to you on or about your tenth birthday. I hope to be present when that is done. It shall be held in trust by your mother or someone equally concerned until that time….With this letter you will find a war bond of $2500 maturity value, and list of names. A list of names to you, honey, buddies to me. Men of my company, who adopted you as their sweetheart when you came into the world. It is these men who bought you the bond as a remembrance of when they were soldiers with your daddy…” Happily, Walter Schuette was able to read that letter to his daughter, Anna Mary, in 1953! (War Letters, , p. 227)
After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 and the United States dropped two Atom bombs on their homeland, peace barely lasted five years. The Cold War was between the Communist world, primarily the Soviet Union, its European allies, and the Chinese; and the western democracies centered around NATO. In East Asia, counties such as Korea and Vietnam were split: Communists to the north and NATO allies to the south. On June 25, 1950, forces of North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. President Truman sent American military forces, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, under the auspices of the United Nations to help the South Koreans. MacArthur’s force quickly drove the Communist North Koreans back to the border with Chinese Manchuria. But that victory didn’t last long because Chinese forces made a surprise raid into North Korea and defeated the American and South Koreans at the Chosin Reservoir, eventually driving them back to to the 38th parallel.
In a letter to his father, Pvt. Bob Hammond describes the bitter fighting at Chosin from his hospital bed in Japan: “Three days and nights of bitter fighting went on with heavy losses on both sides. We were outnumbered 10 to 1. We were trapped and surrounded. We had over 200 wounded guys. I watched a good buddy of mine die of wounds and lack of medicine. I cried, I felt so utterly helpless. On Dec. 1, 1950, we were ordered to fight our way back to the Marine Div. which was 8 miles back. We had about 30 trucks which were carrying the wounded. We went about 2 miles and suddenly a slug ripped thru my knee and chipped the bone. I got into an ambulance which had 16 men in it. We moved slowly and passed a few roadblocks and before I knew it, it was dark. They were on all sides of us and we were masecured (sic). Our driver was killed and the ambulance crashed into a ditch. Machine gun slugs tore thru the ambulance killing a G.I. and Capt. sitting across from me. He slumped on me and I shoved him back in order to get the rear door open. It was jammed, but I jarred it open in few minutes and fell out….” (War Letters, p. 335)
In the 1950’s it was Korea, in the 60’s and the 70’s it was Vietnam. The following is an except from a letter from a young demoralized American Marine, L. Cpl. Stephen Daniel writes to his parents telling about the death of a close friend: Mom and Dad: Well its Friday morning. Last night one more Marine died. No one will ever here (sic) or care about it except his parents and us. A good Marine has died and there is no nation to mourn for him or fly our flag at half mast. Yet in this one night this Marine did more for his country than any President or Senator ever did. His name was Corporal Lee…He was a good Marine and a better person. He didn’t deserve dieing in a damn country not worth fighting for. He didn’t deserve diein’ for people who won’t even fight for themselves.” (War Letters, 412-413) Eight months later, on Easter Sunday, 1969, Daniel fell victim to a sniper’s bullet and died on the spot.
War correspondence, as we seen in the few excerpts above, dealt with many concerns. Most important it created a lifeline to connect the service person with a touch of home when they serving far away.