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Voice for Veterans: One man collecting thousands of war letters

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-11 23:16:44-05

Our goal at WMAR-2 News with the Voice for Veterans is to preserve history through the stories of war time heroes and give them an opportunity to share what life was really like during battle.

Andrew Carroll, the Founding Director of the Center for American War Letters has a similar mission. He’s been collecting war letters for about 22 years. So far, he has more than 150,000.

He collects letters written to and from soldiers to also show what life was like on the home front during these times.

“They make it real. They make it personal,” said Carroll. "What I most hope comes out of this project is that we can humanize these men and women who serve. They’re not just soldiers, sailors airmen and marines. Every single one of them has a loved one, has a spouse or a sweetheart. They’re a child. They’re a parents. Just to remind people that these are not statistics that go off to fight and to remember the actual names and stories of these incredible people.”

In just one week, he collected about 1,000 to 1,500 letters. Because of the pandemic, he said more people are home searching through their belongings and finding letters from family members.

"We do feel the sense of urgency because we hear from people who said we just threw out our families war letters because we didn’t think anyone wanted them and if we just knew about your way project we would have given them to you," said Carroll.

The stories are endless in these letters. He showed us just a few.

“This young sailor was inside a ship, the USS New Orleans, during the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Carroll said as he pulled out the letter. He added, “all of these are incredible for one reason or another.”

Carroll described one letter written from a woman to her fiancé, a combat solider.

“She sent the letter off, a beautiful love letter. It’s returned to her with the envelope unopened with one word written on the outside deceased. That’s how she found out the love of her life was gone forever just abrupt returned to sender deceased," said Carroll.

Another letter was written from a soldier to his mother. He read it to us.

In part it said, “I just hope I made you proud and if I don’t come home for any reason I just want you to know always I will be with you.” They soldier survived the war but died after returning home.

The earliest letters Carroll has are from the American Revolution.

“This is the oldest letter in our collection,” said Carroll. "This is hundreds of years old and yet I’m holding the actual paper that this service member wrote during the war for independence. To have that tangible connection to history makes it all the more real, all the memorable.”

He even has emails from recent battles.

“This is an email from Iraq about the battle of Fallujah,” Carroll explained. "There are emails that are just as profound and poetic and historic as letters that were written generations ago.”

So letters range from the American Revolution until today and every conflict in between.

“This is without question one of our most stunning letters and it really gives you the sense of life and death circumstances under which these troops were serving,” said Carroll as he held up a letter with a bullet hole through it.

The bullet went through the soldiers backpack, through the letter and into him. Luckily, he survived.

The most historic letter he has was written by an American soldier in Munich.

Carroll explained, “as soon as I opened this up I got chills because I could see the gold embossed letter head that said Adolf Hitler.”

The letter was written two days after Hitler committed suicide. The American soldier found himself in Hitler's apartment near the end of the war. He wrote on Hitler's stationary about the luxury the Nazis were living in and the devastation of the concentration camps.

Over the years, letters became censored. One marine made his own code system.

“These are all names of aunts and uncles who don’t exist. But each person had a significance. In this case, when he referred to aunt Ruth it meant they were still in the Hawaiian islands training,” said Carroll. "When he mentioned Aunt Henrietta they were in Guam, all the way down to Jack, final entry Japan. This was his way of letting his wife know where he would be.”

Thousands of letters and Carroll is constantly amazed by the generosity of the donations. They don’t buy or sell any items, everything is given to the Centers for American War Letters.

“What they share with us is so personal and so extraordinary like this is an entire trunk we got from a family,” said Carroll. "That trunk was full of hundreds of letters, a wallet and watch. The man survived the war but when he came home, his plane crashed during a routine flight."

Carroll showed us the watch, “this is the watch he was wearing, stopped at moment of impact.”

The project is focused on war letters but memorabilia like this and pictures, helps you connect with the person even more. That’s Carroll’s main goal, to really humanize these people.

This project was started by him in DC. Carroll is in DC now but most of the letters are in California at Chapman University. They have archivists and librarians to preserve and handle the letters.

“This is a very personal project for me and I just want people to know that they’re not just, when they send it letters, it’s not just going to some institution it’s going to a group of people who feel very passionately about this, who love this project who want to see this succeed and to really wanna honor and remember all of these troops these veterans and they’re families,” said Carroll.

If you would like to donate any letters, head over to the Centers for American War Letters’ website.

If you don’t have letters, Carroll asks for you to spread the word because this is something he doesn’t plan on stopping.