The Effort to Preserve a Million Letters written by U.S. Soldiers during the World War II

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tags: World War II, letters

Andrew Carroll is a bestselling author, historian, playwright, and public speaker, and he is currently the director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University. Andrew has edited two other New York Times bestselling books, WAR LETTERS and BEHIND THE LINES, both of which feature hundreds of previously unpublished correspondences from American conflicts. WAR LETTERS was the basis of the critically acclaimed PBS documentary of the same name, and the audio version of the book was nominated for a Grammy in the “Spoken Word” category.

Andrew Carroll is never far away from the slim black portfolio he calls “the football.” Inside are more than two dozen original letters, creased and faded, bullet-torn and tear-stained, spanning 225 years of American war history, from the early days of the Revolution to 9/11. Each page is sheathed in a protective plastic sleeve, and for added security, there are the handcuffs. Carroll locks the case to his wrist when he travels, which he does almost constantly. By his own count, he was on the road almost 200 days last year, using this remarkable sampling of letters to convince anyone who will listen how important—and ephemeral—such documents are. It’s all part of the historian’s ambitious effort to rescue these eyewitness accounts from attics, basements, garage sales and trash bins.

The letters he carries to make his impassioned plea—and the tens of thousands more he donated to establish the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California—are the personal stories of war, intimate descriptions of the battlefield and the home front that often get overlooked by history books focused on troop movements and casualty counts. They are also a democratization of history: Hundreds of handwritten missives of a World War II Air Force pilot remembered only by his family will be preserved as carefully as the previously unheard audio recordings created by then Army Col. George Patton IV, of the famed Fighting Pattons, in his command tent in Vietnam. 

“These letters are America’s great undiscovered literature. They give insight into war and into human nature,” says Carroll. “We can’t lose this kind of history.” He calls his project the Million Letters Campaign—but he still has a long way to go.

The first letter in Carroll’s collection arrived about 30 years ago. In December 1989, a fire destroyed the Carroll family home in Washington, D.C. No one was injured, but everything they owned was lost, including family photos and other mementos. “That’s the hard part,” Carroll, then 20 years old, told a cousin he barely knew, who had called to check in on his relatives. His cousin, James Carroll Jordan, responded by sending a surviving piece of family history, a letter Jordan himself had written as a pilot in World War II. It was dated April 21, 1945, three weeks before Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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