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War letters home

Saving the stories of our vets

Created date

May 10th, 2016
David Allison (far right) and wife Diane meet with Andrew Carroll about the more than 300 letters David’s father wrote home during World War II.

David Allison (far right) and wife Diane meet with Andrew Carroll about the more than 300 letters David’s father wrote home during World War II. They are now part of The Center for American War Letters archive.

Most of them were penned in the midst of filth and violence: In the fire trenches of a ravaged French pasture; the foxholes of a Belgian forest; the jungles of Vietnam; and the parched sands of Iraq. Letters to and from home have been a source of comfort for military personnel in every American war from the Revolution to present-day operations in the Middle East.

For the fighting men and women who write and receive them, they are an essential link to the family, friends, and civilized world so far from the battlefield. For everyone else, they are ground-level accounts of the trials and privations that make war hell and servicemen and women heroes.

Too often, these letters end up neglected, kicked to the curb, or tucked away in attics and basements. But one man is tirelessly working to stop this unfortunate trend.

Founding director of The Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., Andrew Carroll has spent nearly two decades scouring the United States and more than 30 foreign countries in search of correspondence between troops and their loved ones. To date, the archive includes over 100,000 letters that span 250 years of history.

Yet, Carroll ironically was never a history buff. The project that has become his life’s mission has deeper roots.

“I didn’t like history when I was in school,” he admits. “My obsession with war letters started when I was in college, but not in the classroom.”

While a student at Columbia University, Carroll received a phone call from his parents in Washington, D.C. Their house had burned down in an electrical fire and everything was lost.

“Our family photos, letters, and heirlooms were gone—all of our personal history,” he recalls. 

Out of the ashes

Then a distant cousin called him to see how he was doing after the fire. Knowing how much the family had lost, Carroll’s cousin offered to send him a letter he’d written home during World War II.

“My cousin was a fighter pilot in the war,” Carroll explains, “and he wrote this letter while a prisoner in a German concentration camp called Buchenwald. He told me I could keep it, since he was going to throw it out anyway.”

When Carroll finally received the letter, he realized it was full of incredible historical perspective.

“I couldn’t believe anyone would throw something so historic in the garbage,” he says. “I began thinking about letters like this all over the place that people are tossing into the dump. I couldn’t let that happen.”

So he decided to save as much war correspondence as he could. He wrote a letter to national columnist “Dear Abby” asking for her help in spreading the word about his noble enterprise. 

After the column ran on Veterans’ Day 1998, thousands of donated war letters poured into Carroll’s P.O. box. Eventually, it reached the point where he needed to find a permanent home to preserve the growing collection for future generations.

Eighteen years later, The Center for American War Letters is open to researchers, serving as a clearinghouse for the voices of those who witnessed some of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

“Although we have letters from well-known figures like Gen. John Pershing, the bulk of the archive consists of the correspondence of ordinary troops and civilians,” notes Carroll. “Their letters are very important because they provide a bottom-up alternative to the traditional top-down view of the past.”

Poignant words

The men who declare wars are rarely, if ever, the ones who fight them. Carroll’s archive keeps the common man’s story alive—soldiers like 25-year-old John Pohlman, whose last letter home from Vietnam is among the archive’s documents.

A pilot in the Army’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Pohlman wrote a girlfriend in California on April 15, 1970, expressing his opinion of the conflict now that he was part of it.

He didn’t care about the politics behind the war, he told her. He just wanted to survive.

“When somebody shoots at me, I take it personally,” he confessed. “It’s a weird experience.”

A few hours after signing off with a simple “To be continued,” Pohlman was dead, killed in a hard landing as his chopper took enemy fire.

“When you hold these letters and read their words, you feel like you’re right next to the men who wrote them,” says Carroll. “It alters how you look at the past; more importantly, it reveals the full scope of the sacrifices our armed service members make to preserve our freedom.”

Left in attics and basements, a troop’s correspondence is a family heirloom, a forgotten keepsake. In The Center for American War Letters archive, it’s a piece of history.


How you can take part

If you’d like to donate war letter copies or originals, please contact The Center for American War Letters at warletters or by mail at The Center for American War Letters, c/o Andrew Carroll, One University Drive, Orange, CA 92866.