By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Linda Oxford never really wanted to read them. The letters her dad wrote to her mom before he left for war and while he was overseas. But, she didn’t want to throw them away either.
So, when the Delray Beach resident found out New York Times best-selling author, historian and war letter collector Andrew Carroll was coming to the Delray Beach Historical Society, she brought the stacks of letters with her to donate to his project “The Center for War Letters,” which honors veterans and active duty troops by preserving their wartime correspondences.
Several Delray residents took their turns waiting to show Carroll their family’s letters. Porter Beermann was visiting her mom in California for Thanksgiving when she found a letter her grandfather James Montgomery Moore wrote from France in 1944.
The West Point graduate was a captain in WWII. She said he would send letters to his father’s office so his mother wouldn’t see what he was describing. His letters talk about capturing Germans and a time where he was under fire by two drunk American soldiers who were ransacking a French town and began shooting at him. Her grandfather survived the war and continued to serve in the Korea War.
“I never met him,” she said of her grandfather. But she named her son Montgomery after him.
She donated the letter, which ends asking his parents for nuts and candy, to the cause, which has an overall goal of collecting 1 million letters in order to preserve war-related correspondences.
Carroll doesn’t come from a military background nor did he study history. It was a house fire that sparked his interest in collecting war letters. When he was a sophomore in college, his childhood home caught on fire. Everyone escaped unscathed, but the family heirlooms, letters and pictures did not survive the blaze.
A cousin called to check in on the family. When Carroll explained they were all OK, but the letters and items were gone, the WWII veteran James Carroll Jordan sent a letter to Carroll.
It was a letter he wrote to this wife while serving in the war. The letter dated April 21, 1945, explained what he saw while walking through Buchenwald, a concentration camp. That letter piqued Carroll’s interest once he read it. And so did the remark he cousin made about the letter.
He told Carroll to keep it because he “probably would have thrown it out anyway.”
It was that moment that Carroll thought how many letters like this one are sitting in peoples’ garages, attics and in boxes just covering dust, or worse being tossed in the trash.
So in 1998, he launched what was then called “The Legacy Project” to encourage people to save their letters.
He then wrote to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren better known as Dear Abby asking her to share his cause with her audience. Several days after her piece appeared in the newspaper, the P.O. Box he purchased for people to submit letters to was inundated.
Since then, he has teamed up with Chapman University and the project has changed names to the “Center for American War Letters.” Carroll serves as the Center’s Founding Director.
He estimates they have more than 150,000 unpublished letters in the collection.
He has traveled to all 50 states and 40 countries seeking out letters from the American Revolution up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has turned the letters into several New York Times bestsellers, including War Letters, Letters of a Nation, and Behind the Lines. War Letters inspired the critically acclaimed PBS documentary of the same name. The audio version of the book was nominated for a Grammy in the “Spoken Word” category.
During his Delray visit, he received a donation he had never seen before, colorful postcard letters. Sharon Koskoff donated hundreds of the postcards her father wrote to his then fiancé, who was not her mother. The postcards were saved even though the relationship failed. Now, they will be preserved in the collection.
The second day of his trip to Delray featured his “Behind the Line” presentation of some of the letters and their stories. The lecture was made possible with help from the Delray Beach Historical Society, Honor Flight, Florida Atlantic University, The Delray Beach Public Library and Old School Square.
The Crest Theatre was packed as Carroll took center stage with a small black folder of letters.
He shared the letters and stories of soldiers. Though he has repeated the stories hundreds of times, he still choked up and visibly became emotional as he shared their fears, victories and wishes to return home.
One letter is from Staff Sergeant Horace Evers to his family. It was one of the first letters Carroll received. It came from a donor in Florida. It is dated May 2, 1945 and is written from Munich. Evers stumbled into an apartment complex nicer than any of the others he had seen. It was Hitler’s private residence in Munich. He walks up to Hitler’s desk and he begins to write a letter on Hitler’s stationary.
Still clearly visible is a strikethrough the sergeant made through Hitler’s name, which he replaced with his own. He did not want to his parents to think they were getting mail from Hitler. The note describes what he saw at Dachau.
Another WWII note in the collection starts out with a simple, standard salutation “My Beloved.” The marine pens his wife asking about certain relatives.
But with the letter is a code that he left at home. The relatives don’t actually exist. The names are actually places the Marine is located or thinks he will be moved to, something that would have been removed by censors. The last name on the cheat sheet is Uncle Jack, which stands for Japan.
There are letters from the Revolutionary War that looked as if the ink just dried. There are Civil War letters found in jacket pockets of dead soldiers and saved by the solider who ransacked him as a souvenir. There is a letter from a grandmother serving in the Gulf War. There is a collection of letters from a Marine who served in three wars, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Carroll said a tragic story is one of the highest ranking general in American history, six star General John Pershing, also known as Black Jack. He was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas from Presidio, San Fransisco to quell tensions on the Mexican border when he received a call from an Associated Press reporter Norman Walker in August 1915.
The reporter called for a comment on the fire in Presidio where Pershing’s wife and three daughters died. His 6-year-old son Warren survived the blaze. Soon, the reporter realized he was not speaking to Pershing’s aide, but to Pershing himself and he was informing him of the death of his family for the first time.
A Dec. 1915 letter from Pershing to his deceased wife’s best friend explains that he doesn’t know how to tell Warren that his mother and sisters are not visiting relatives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The letters are raw, first hand accounts of war. Carroll said they give insight to what soldiers are feeling. He said letters are his focus because they never go out of style like VHS tapes, cassette tapes and other forms of communication.
“You don’t need a machine to read them,” he said.
The project does accept all forms of letters, including emails.
For more information on the project or to get involved, visit warletters.us