Letters Home: Chapman University’s Immense Collection of American War Letters

The collection offers a glimpse into the minds of troops writing from battles throughout history.
Letters Home: Chapman University’s Immense Collection of American War Letters
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

One letter was written by a Black soldier fighting for the Union Army to the woman who had enslaved his daughter. Another, written by a Confederate soldier, was pulled off the soldier’s dead body. A sailor, trapped aboard a ship, dashed off a note as Japanese planes were bombing Pearl Harbor. A prisoner of war during World War II scrawled a message on the back of a family photo, shortly before his death. An army sergeant who had pilfered Adolf Hitler’s personal stationery, emblazoned with a swastika, crossed out the name at the top, inserted his own, and penned a letter to his family.

Some of these war letters are stained with blood, dusted with desert sand, encrusted with mud, or pierced by bullets. They are from troops that span the Revolutionary War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and are part of a growing collection of more than 150,000 housed at Chapman University’s Center for American War Letters, the largest private collection of its type in the nation.

This remarkable epistolary history of American warfare was donated to Chapman by Andrew Carroll. Many universities and museums had been vying for Carroll’s collection, but he decided Chapman was the ideal repository because he knew the letters would not be stuck in a corner of a library, gathering dust; they would be a resource for students and faculty, in addition to scholars and the general public. Chapman professors employ the letters in various departments. Graduate students in the War and Society program and undergraduates in history and Holocaust studies classes use the letters as source material for projects. Theater students have acted in a play based on Carroll’s collection. 

“I said to Chapman that I’ll give you the entire collection for no payment, but I have only one request: I don’t want them locked in an archive,” Carroll says. “I want them accessible, and I want the project to be ongoing so it will continue to receive letters. The students have been so respectful of the material and the professors so supportive, that I feel Chapman is the perfect home.”

The project, Carroll says, has no agenda. The letters neither glorify war, nor are they anti-war. They represent a multitude of views and perspectives: eyewitness accounts of storied battles, letters to sweethearts, heartfelt feelings of patriotism, reflections of mortality, skepticism of a war’s purpose.

“This is America’s undiscovered literature,” says Carroll, whose passion for the project has remained undiminished during his 23-year quest. A brief question often precipitates a lengthy monologue, an animated recitation of the project’s origins and an enthusiastic recounting of recent gems he has uncovered. “Some are so profound and beautifully written. They remind this generation of the sacrifices the troops made and what this country has been through. If you stripped away the dates and location, you might not know the war. The emotions are so timeless and universal.”

It is pretty hard to check out this way without a fighting chance, but we can’t live forever. I’m not afraid to die, I just hate the thought of not seeing you again. Take care of my nieces and nephews. Don’t let them ever want anything as I want even warmth or water now.

Lt. Thomas R. Kennedy, who was aboard a Japanese prison ship, died soon after he wrote to his parents.

While there is a universality of emotion among troops throughout history, the writing styles during the various periods of war are distinctive. The language used by soldiers in the Revolutionary War and Civil War was often flowery and distinctively eloquent, Carroll says, because during that time most people’s reading was limited to the King James Bible. The language during and after World War I was more conversational. Troops from Iraq and Afghanistan sent mostly emails. Because so many troops served in World War II, these are the most varied and represent the largest portion of the collection, but they differ from those in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which were more candid and sometimes critical because they weren’t censored.

Dean Allen letter; Photograph courtesy of Andrew Carroll

Being a good platoon leader is a lonely job. I don’t want to really get to know anybody over here because it would be bad enough to lose a man—I damn sure don’t want to lose a friend.
Dean Allen wrote to his wife from Vietnam, four days before he was killed stepping on a land mine.

Carroll’s pursuit of war letters stems from a fire that gutted his family’s Washington, D.C., home while he was a sophomore in college. He was most distraught by the loss of photos, memorabilia, and letters. A distant relative, James Carroll Jordan, who had been a pilot during World War II, responded by sending a piece of family history: a letter he had written to his wife in April 1945. Jordan described in graphic detail the horrific scene his squadron had observed at the Buchenwald concentration camp, which had recently been liberated. “I saw something today that made me realize why we’re over here fighting the war,” Jordan wrote. When Carroll promised to return the letter, Jordan told him to keep it.

“This is what sparked the whole project,” Carroll says. “I was shocked he was going to get rid of it. I’ll never forget holding the thin, onion-skin paper and thinking how fragile the paper was compared to the enormity of the words. This is what really made me realize that these letters reflect the human side of history, and how many people don’t realize how important it is to preserve this history.”

Carroll spent the next decade asking friends, family, teachers, and acquaintances for war letters. The project was merely an avocation; his vocation was co-founder with Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, a nonprofit that distributed free books of poetry. What began as a desultory quest was immediately transformed when his plea for wartime corre-spondence was published as part of the Dear Abby column on Veteran’s Day 1998. Carroll had hoped to receive a few dozen letters. Four days later, a postal clerk called and told Carroll his P.O. box was full. He said he’d hop on his bicycle and head right over. The clerk told him he should bring a car.

“There were hundreds of letters, just bins and bins,” he recalls. “Within a few months there were thousands. Some sent one letter. One couple sent 2,000 they’d exchanged.”

The correspondence continued to grow and eventually evolved into Carroll’s life’s work. He compiled several bestselling anthologies, including “War Letters” and “Behind the Lines”—the profits from which he donated to veterans’ organizations—and collaborated on a number of documentaries, all of which spawned more letters. Soon his apartment was overrun with file cabinets and crates of letters, and he ended up renting another unit in his building for storage.  His most valuable letters were stored in a safety deposit box.

Spotswood Rice letter; Photograph courtesy of Andrew Carroll

I want you to understand … that where ever you and I meets we are (enemies) … When I get ready to come after Mary, I will have … a power and authority to bring (her) away and to execute (vengeance) on them that holds my Child. Then you will know how to talk to me.
Spotswood Rice, a freed man who had joined the Union army, realized he was only a few miles from his former slave owner’s home. He wrote to the man’s wife, who had enslaved his daughter, Mary. (The project has a copy of this letter, not the original.)

Carroll’s connection to Chapman began more than a decade ago when theater professor John Benitz contacted him. Benitz believed the story of Carroll seeking the letters interspersed with actors and actresses reading them could be the basis of a play. Carroll wrote the script and Benitz offered guidance. The play, “If All the Sky Were Paper,” premiered at Chapman in 2010, was directed by Benitz, and students in the theater department were cast. The play was later performed at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and other theaters across the country. Renowned actors, including Annette Bening, Laura Dern, and Ed Asner, have played featured roles.

Andy Harman with a letter inscribed on a coconut; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Carroll was impressed that Daniele Struppa, then a chancellor at Chapman and now the president, was so enthusiastic and insightful about the project. Their rapport was immediate, Carroll says, which eventually led to his donation. Struppa now hopes the collection eventually becomes the largest repository of war letters in the world. “I thought this was such a fabulous collection that it was a pity it was kept in someone’s closet,” Struppa says. “A university can do so much with these letters, even more than a museum, because we have students and faculty who can value and study them. I reached out to Andrew and the idea was born.”

Ensign William Czako letter; Photograph courtesy of Andrew Carroll

We were just struck by a bomb near the bow. I don’t know why I am writing this because if we are hit with a bomb here they won’t find enough of me … let alone this letter. I imagine it is to show myself that I can be calm under fire.
Ensign William Czako wrote to his sister from Pearl Harbor as Japanese bombers roared overhead. He survived the war.

Carroll splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Orange County, but he has remained on the East Coast since the pandemic, so archivist Andy Harman provided a reporter with a tour of the Center for American War Letters, which is housed on the ground floor of Chapman’s Leatherby Libraries. The letters are stored in acid-free folders and the hundreds of boxes, shelved in chronological order, are housed in the archive room. The collection includes letters written on wallpaper, a coconut, and toilet paper, and one includes a shard of wood peeled off Hitler’s desk from his Berlin office.

The spacious reading room is lined with tables and chairs for classroom activities as well as posters, display cases, and bookshelves filled with Carroll’s collection of Armed Service Edition paperbacks that were sent to the troops during World War II. Before the pandemic, the reading room featured frequent exhibits, including one about the 100th Anniversary of the World War I Armistice, “California in the World Wars,” “War in the Pacific,” one on love letters, and another about Christmas overseas. One poignant exhibit remains: “The Casualty Corner,” which includes last letters sent from soldiers and sailors before they were killed in combat, condolence notes sent by commanding officers to surviving family members, and telegrams informing families that their sons were missing in action or killed.

Removing a letter sent by a family member from an envelope and perusing it is often quite moving, Harman says. “You can feel what the letter writer felt—that sense of emotion—and you realize the sacrifice they made. The sense of history is amazing. When I have a Civil War letter, I can literally feel the history of the country in my hand.” 

A year ago today I was sweating out shells on Anzio Beachhead. Today I am sitting in Hitler’s luxuriously furnished apartment in Munich writing a few lines home. … I can’t shrug off the feeling of utter hate I now hold for these people.
Horace Evers writing to his mother

The project also contains correspondence from the home front, including letters from parents to children and husbands and wives to spouses serving overseas, and from nurses serving in war zones. Carroll eventually embarked on a seven-month journey meeting with veterans and historians and collecting letters in numerous war-torn cities around the world, including Baghdad, Kabul, and Hiroshima.

Included in the collection is a letter sent to the surviving family members of six people, five of them children, who were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb while on a church picnic in Oregon. They were the only Americans to die during World War II in an attack on the continental United States. Tetsuko Tanaka was 16 years old when she was pulled out of school and sent to a munitions plant to construct the bombs. She wrote the letter 42 years after the incident, and included 1,000 folded paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of peace and reconciliation.

We learned for the first time about what is known as “The Oregon Tragedy,” involving the loss of six lives. … Such a realization truly sent a chill down my spine. My heart pains. … These 1,000 cranes were folded one by one by some of us who made the balloon bombs, seeking forgiveness, and with a prayer for peace and a vow that the error of the past shall never again be repeated. We pray from afar in Japan that the six victims rest eternally in peace.
Tetsuko Tanaka

Facebook Comments