In the aftermath of the traumatic blaze, Carroll heard from a distant cousin who served in World War II. Hearing of the irreplaceable loss of the family’s personal effects, the veteran sent along one of the original letters he wrote from the warfront in April 1945. “I’ll never forget holding the thin onion-skinned paper in my hand and reading his account of walking through a liberated concentration camp,” Carroll says. “It was a personal, but also a very historical, account, and he told me to keep it because he probably would have thrown it out anyway.”
That moment sparked Carroll’s quest to collect and preserve the letters written by the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces along with those of their families to ensure they wouldn’t end up at the bottom of trash cans or lost forever. In 1998 he launched the Legacy Project, and when “Dear Abby” ran his request for wartime letters in a Veterans Day column that year, the endeavor took off. More than 15,000 letters—some originals and some copies—flooded his post office box in the project’s first year.
In the ensuing years, the collection has swelled to nearly 100,000 pieces of correspondence from every war in American history. The collection spans the centuries from finally scripted handwritten letters from the Revolutionary War to e-mails sent from 21st-century combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The project is about creating a memorial to these men and women through their own words and stories,” says Carroll, who has edited three anthologies and written a play, “If All the Sky Were Paper,” based on the letters.
The letters are repositories of personal memories as well as powerful eyewitness accounts of famous battles and military leaders that can be invaluable to historians. One of the most striking letters in the collection was penned in the waning days of World War II by young American G.I. Horace Evers on Adolf Hitler’s personal stationery. Beneath an embossed swastika, the soldier crossed out the Fuhrer’s name, scribbled in his own and recounted the scenes of horror he had witnessed the day before at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. “When people see the Hitler letter, they gasp,” Carroll says. “It was an actual letter written from Hitler’s desk and that it was written about Dachau makes it more poignant.”
As the Legacy Project grew, it became too large to be managed as an all-volunteer effort, and Carroll decided to donate the bulk of the collection to Chapman University in Orange, California. Earlier this year, the precious cargo was moved from a storage facility near Washington, D.C. across the country. The move to an academic institution will aid in the gathering, preservation, cataloging and exhibition of the collection, and it will provide greater access to researchers and the public. While privacy issues are being worked out, the process of digitizing the collection and making it available online has begun.
Along with the collection’s new home comes a new name. This Veterans Day, the Legacy Project will formally become the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University. With the centennial of the start of World War I approaching in 2014, Carroll is making a special push to collect letters from that conflict, but he says there is a sense of urgency in collecting communications from all American wars. “We are always focusing on letters from overlooked servicemen, such as Japanese Americans, African Americans or war nurses. So many individuals who served heroically haven’t gotten their due, and those are the priorities.”
The center is also engaged in the collection of e-mails, both in digital form and hard copies. “We really want to preserve those e-mails,” Carroll says. “Some are as beautifully composed as letters written during the Civil War.” Strange as it may seem, Carroll says the need for preservation may be greater than ever in the digital age in which computer viruses, fragile hard drives and delete buttons can easily wipe out correspondences. “One of the ironies of letters,” he says, “is that they are one of the most durable forms of communications.” Carroll, who is also the author of Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History (Crown Archetype, 2013), points out that as reel-to-reel audio dispatches from Vietnam veterans and VHS tapes recorded by Gulf War soldiers have become technologically obsolete, their contents are threatened to become lost to time as well.
One thing that hasn’t changed with the war letters project’s new home and new name is its mission. “Letters are being thrown out and lost to neglect,” Carroll says. “Our priority is to get as many of them as possible.”
For more information on the Center for American War Letters, visit www.WarLetters.us. War-related letters and printed e-mails can be sent to:
The Center for American War Letters
c/o Char Williams – SMC
One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866