Old letters open a poignant window on war

Like most people, Horace Evers didn't think that the letters he wrote during World War II would be of interest to anyone outside his own family.

He kept them tucked away in a trunk until he read of the War Legacy Project - a volunteer effort by a young man in Washington to collect and preserve letters from America's wars - and sent one in.

It was written at the end of the war to his mother and stepfather, and tells of the horrors American soldiers encountered at the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation.

That eyewitness account is enough to make it significant as a historic document, says Andrew Carroll, who runs the project. What makes it even more special is that Mr. Evers wrote it while sitting at Adolf Hitler's desk, two days after Hitler's suicide.

Evers penned the letter on sheets of Hitler's personal stationery, embossed with a golden swastika and the dictator's name, which Evers crossed out and replaced with his own.

"The proximity of that is chilling," Mr. Carroll says. And it is just one example of how letters bring history alive as textbooks usually cannot.

Carroll's project is an appeal to Americans to preserve their war letters, from parchments penned during the Revolution to e-mails typed from Kosovo. Ones that include such detail or illustrate the effects of war will be made public by the War Legacy Project.

"We're trying to bring out the humanity of war. We often think of war as a clash between these two faceless armies," Carroll says. "But these are individuals with children and siblings and friends - you multiply these stories by the millions and it's overwhelming."

Carroll first realized the worth of letters when his house burned down in 1990 while he was in college and he lost all of his letters. He started to pay more attention to other people's letters, and over the next seven years he put together what turned into a bestselling book, "Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters."

Seeing the movie "Saving Private Ryan" last year motivated Carroll to launch the project to preserve war letters before more veterans pass away and their correspondence is lost.

"We're losing our most cherished personal possessions," he laments. "Kids go through their parents' houses and throw out boxes of letters without realizing what they're throwing out."

He appealed to Abigail Van Buren to write a "Dear Abby" column asking readers to send him copies of their war correspondence, and within a week he had received bins of letters.

A year later, Carroll estimates the collection is at about 15,000 letters. Some arrive as packets of entire correspondences over years.

"People write and say, 'There's nobody left but me, and I want someone to remember what my father [or husband or whoever] did. Please hang on to these,' " Carroll says.

Part of the project's aim is to get others to realize the value of these letters.

"These are eyewitness accounts of battles, personal accounts of encounters with generals, love letters that show the destruction of war," he says. "We have Civil War letters that are marked with flecks of mud and blood. There are 'Dear John' letters that these guys have kept their whole lives and still say, 'The war tore us apart.' "

A Civil War soldier wrote describing a deserter being executed by firing squad. A long series of letters between a mother and son ends with her asking, "And when are you coming home?" The young man had already been killed.

Carroll, whose main job is director of the nonprofit American Poetry and Literacy Project, runs the war-letters project out of his one-bedroom apartment with the help of other volunteers.

He spends many nights immersed in strangers' wartime dispatches, and he reads every letter that is sent to him. Right now he is organizing the letters by category and chronologically. Some he plans to publish in a book, the royalties from which he says he will donate entirely to veterans' groups. Others may go into a Web-based archive, and some originals will be donated to museums or other collections.

In going through the papers, Carroll has become something of a historian.

"War letters are really peace letters," he says. "Nobody writes about the joy of war. It's all about the horrors. Letters, along with diaries, are the best resources we have for understanding that drama. When letters are lost, we all lose. Society at large loses.

"People say, 'Well, my husband wasn't famous, he was just a common soldier.' But that's exactly the perspective we want," he says.

Although Carroll encourages families to keep all their letters for their personal collections, not every note from the front is of interest to the public. "For a project like ours, we're looking for something that's either so beautifully written or philosophical or vivid in its description that it gives the average reader insight into what war does to an individual and a society," he says.

Carroll is especially looking for letters from pacifists and war resisters, letters from the homefront (which were harder to hang onto and so are scarcer), and letters "by those who haven't gotten their due: women who served as nurses or spies, African-American servicemen and women, Japanese-American troops, native-American soldiers," he says.

He would also like to illustrate the un-dramatic side of war through humorous letters, ones that gripe or talk about life at base or during the downtimes.

"We want to show as complete a picture as possible about what it's like to be at war," Carroll says. "That downtime is as much the war experience as the time in combat or battle."

Tomorrow, an exhibition of soldiers' last letters will open at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington and run for six months. They are some of the toughest letters to read, Carroll says. "Most of these guys didn't know they were about to be killed.

"They're writing, 'Everything's fine, I'll be home by Christmas' and, boom - that's it."

What to do with your family's war letters

The most important way to preserve war letters is to make sure they are not thrown away, says Andrew Carroll, founder of the War Legacy Project in Washington, D.C.

To prevent damage, do not use paper clips, staples, or sticky notes on them. Laminating will ruin them in time, archivists caution. "Just keep the letter the way it is, in a safe, dry, dark place," Mr. Carroll says. Preferably in acid-free folders, he adds.

To contribute letters to the War Legacy Project, send photocopies and your phone number to:

The Legacy Project

PO Box 53250

Washington, DC 20009

*A documentary on the War Legacy Project will be featured on A&E tomorrow (check local listings).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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