Letters from the past

What if we could hear, first-hand, what it was like to be on a ship in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese raid on December 7th, 1941?

What if one of your family-members had an eye-witness story about the November, 2004 Battle of Fallujah in their email? Are you a U.S. veteran with a stack of war letters in a shoebox?

Andrew Carroll’s work with American war letters was recently profiled on NPR. (Listen to the story here) He is a historian and author who collected thousands of pieces of wartime correspondence written by American servicemembers (ranging in dates from the Revolutionary War to the present day), and then donated them to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.

What do war letters contain?

Servicemembers who are away from home, especially during wartime, often down-play the seriousness of the events they are experiencing, but important details can also come through. In Carroll’s NPR interview he said the letters – whether they were written in the 1700s or last decade – shared a particular flavor of human expression in common. War, in all eras, is one of the most tumultuous events people can experience, and the whole range of human emotions can be found in war letters. Specific details about battles or engagements, and even daily life for soldiers (food, clothing, camp routine), are useful for researchers.

“Troops are very modest about what they write and often do not think that their messages are significant. But even their most seemingly ‘mundane’ e-mails can offer some small insight into what they are going through while far from home.”

Why are they important?

War letters are primary sources. This means that they are first-hand accounts, the substance of historical research. When historians are looking at a particular moment in history, they rely on the people who were living in that moment to tell them the details of what happened. In the case of World War II, it is a good idea to start researching Winston Churchill’s account of how he perceived the war, but his perspective on a specific skirmish in Northern France would be limited. To get the full story on that battle, we have to look at the description provided by the soldiers who experienced it.

How can you use this info?

Even if you are not a researcher, you can help in the process of preserving history. If you have war letters at home, keep them. Try to keep them in a way that they will last for generations. Here are some tips from the Center for American War Letters (by the way, these apply to all types of historic documents):

“Regarding original handwritten or typed letters, one of the best ways of keeping them in mint condition is to handle them as little as possible. For example:
•Do not staple, paper clip, or use glue on the letters
•Do not laminate letters
•Do not put post-it notes on them
•Do not secure them with rubber bands”

If you want to share a document with family and friends, it is best to make a photocopy or scan and share that.  Then store the original and avoid handling it if possible.

Find more information at http://www.chapman.edu/research-and-institutions/cawl/index.aspx

If you want to donate letters or emails, send them to:

The Center for American War Letters
c/o Char Williams – SMC
One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866

(Photo credit, Val Wuthrich)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Val Wuthrich says:

    The picture that you are using of mine is of Sp4 Bell writing a letter home during one of our platoon’s short down times. Unfortunately I don’t remember his first name. Some of the guys in our squad called him Tinker Bell. Thanks for using it on your website and linking my name back to my blog. I would love to send you photo copies of the letters that I sent home to my family. I will need to scan them first. I will get them done as soon as I can.

    Thank you,
    Val ‘Woody’ Wuthrich

    1. Zach Morgan says:

      My pleasure! The photo just worked perfectly for this article.

      I would be fascinated to see your letters – I could listen to veterans’ stories for hours on end and never get tired of it – but be sure to send copies to the Center for American War Letters. The letters will find the best home there, I think.

  2. Val Wuthrich says:

    Okay, thanks Zach. I will start making copies soon. I will let you know my progress.

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