A week before the battle of Bull Run Sullivan Ballou, a Major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife in Smithfield….
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington DC
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.
If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name…
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been!…
But, 0 Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…
In every American war from the Revolution to the Persian Gulf War, military men and women captured the horror, pathos and intensity of warfare by writing letters home. Many of them were still teenagers at the time. Taken together, the letters form an epic record of wartime events. Read individually, they reveal the deep emotions of people in the midst of a unique — and terrible — experience.
Featured here are excerpts from some of the letters in Andy Carroll’s book, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, dramatized in the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film. Read each excerpt to find out more about the letter writer, and what happened to him or her at the end of the war.
12. Sidney Diamond
Morton D. Elevitch
Date: November 23, 1943
Home: Duluth, Minnesota
For the Nth time, thanks for your package. Please don’t send me any more underwear, socks or candy… This week they are teaching us to kill… I know how to break any hold or grip and throw a man flat on his face — They even teach us how to scientifically stomp on a man…. Confidentially, I’m tired.”
Elevitch fought under Patton in Germany. He sustained serious injuries from mortar fragments, and was hospitalized for six months. Under the GI bill, he went to college and graduate school after the war. He lived in Europe through the 1950s and 1960s. A writer, professor, and traveller, he published three books of fiction. He also founded a magazine, First Person, that featured personal narratives, including letters and diaries.
Date: June 18, 1918
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Duluth, Minnesota
“We were all subjected to several different kinds of [gas] today, with and without masks… It sure is horrible stuff, honey.”
Lukert was wounded in France, but he did return home to his wife. He spent 36 years in the Army and was a regimental commander in World War II.
Date: Letter to Yank magazine, published April 28, 1944
Home: Brooklyn, New York–emigrated from Trinidad, via Wales
“Myself and eight other Negro soldiers were on our way from Camp Claiborne, La., to the hospital here at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. …We could not purchase a cup of coffee at any of the lunchrooms around there… As you know, Old Man Jim Crow rules. But that’s not all; 11:30 a.m. about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on… Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this our country?”
Trimmingham had been very religious until the incident mentioned in the letter. After the war, he worked as an electrician, repairing sewing machines for Singer, and married a librarian. He died in 1985.
Date: December 12, 1862–2 a.m.
Rank: Nurse, Army of the Potomac
Home: North Oxford, Massachusetts
“…the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for as I gazed sorrowfully upon them, I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger’s wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice… Oh northern mothers wives and sisters… would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow…”
After the war, Barton went on to found the American Red Cross.
Paul E. Spangler
Date: December 17, 1941
Rank: Captain; Chief of surgery, Pearl Harbor naval hospital
Home: Portland, Oregon
“With my Pearl Harbor plates on I had the right of way and I was out there in nothing flat. …I hurried up to the Surgery and already the casualties were pouring in… It was hell for a while. These poor devils brought in all shot up and burned. Many of them hopeless. We gave them plenty of morphine and sent them out in the Wards to die. The others we patched up as best we could…”
When the war ended, Spangler headed to the Philippines on a Navy hospital ship to bring back POWs. Then he started a private practice in Portland. Two years later, he returned to the service and finished out his career as a Navy doctor. When he retired, he went to Asia on a hospital ship, the Hope, and later became a prison doctor in San Luis Obispo. He took up running at age 67, and was an avid competitor until he died at the age of 95, racking up 85 national running records for various age groups and distances.
Date: May 28, 1944
Home: Oak Ridge, Tennessee
“Take a combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, disgust, loneliness, homesickness, and wrap that all up in one reaction and you might approach the feelings a fellow has. It makes you feel mighty small, helpless, and alone… Without faith, I don’t see how anyone could stand this.”
This letter, sent to his younger brother from Anzio, Italy, was the last one Curtis would mail home. Three days later, as the Allies approached Rome, he was killed.
Date: Julu 10, 1969
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Pompano Beach, Florida
“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… But as hard as I try not to get involved with my men I still can’t help liking them and getting close…”
Four days after writing his wife, Allen stepped on a land mine. He died three days later.
David Franklin Embree
Date: February 3, 1862
Home: Princeton, Indiana
“We were all kneeling in among some bush, and every one of us could not refrain from casting a glance at the dying man who lay there trembling in every limb and the blood spirting from his nostrils and the wound in his forehead. In the heat of action such scenes do not much affect one but at a time like this it is awful indeed.”
Embree survived the war. He joined his father’s law practice and worked there until he died in 1877.
Date: January 18, 1944
Rank: Army Nurse Corps
Home: Wautoma, Wisconsin
“We now have a mix of wounded, medical patients, and battle-fatigued soldiers. …The wounded were happy to be missing only one arm or leg… I have a terrible earache but as usual I have to work. The patients need me.”
Wandrey served in Western Europe and North Africa as a combat nurse, accumulating eight battle stars in some of the war’s bloodiest campaigns. At age 81, she was still receiving letters from some of her patients.
Date: November 6, 1918
Rank: Private First Class
Home: Provo, Utah
“Dear Son be strong and have faith in the future and rest assured that all has been done that could be done you have a fine little Baby Girl she is 5 days old to day and is doing well and she will be waiting for you when you return but your dear wife has passed to the other side to day…”
Bott’s father wrote to tell him the sad news: his wife had perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 soon after delivering a daughter. Bott would not see his baby girl or visit his wife’s grave for another year. After the war he remarried and had two sons. He died while one son was off fighting in World War II.
Date: January 20, 1952
Home: Plattsburgh, New York (Norman); Traer, Iowa (Louise)
“Jan is snoozing in her afternoon nap & Jay is dragging himself blearily about trying to keep awake. He hardly even takes a nap anymore & is really ready for the sack at night… I think it is high time you are coming home because Jan is beginning to call every man she sees in a magazine ‘Daddy’.”
Duquette’s plane was shot down; he spent 587 days as a North Korean prisoner of war. This letter was returned unopened to his wife, Louise. She only found out he was alive after 19 months had passed, via a radio broadcast of the names of released POWs. When Duquette was repatriated, he’d lost 70 of his 170 pounds, had a stomach-length beard, and suffered from a number of diseases and ailments as a result of his ordeal. Duquette continued his career in the Air Force. He returned to Korea in 1998, to visit his son John, a lieutenant colonel in the Army who was stationed in Seoul.
Date: January 19, 1945
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Bronx, New York
“Busy, Busy, as all hell — Been moving constantly — Excuse brevity — I love you — you make my foxhole warm and soft…”
Diamond had proposed to his girlfriend, Estelle Spero, while on a temporary pass home in 1943, a year after he’d volunteered for the army. They never had a chance to get married. Diamond was fatally shot in the Philippines in January 1945, just over a week after writing this note. He was 22 years old.
Date: June 15, 1952
*last name and identifying details withheld by request
“Dear Babe… You tried to ‘let me down easy.’…’Be careful,’ you tell me. ‘Take care.’ I almost laughed out loud. We wouldn’t want to see me hurt, would we?”
Two days later, Leon charged a North Korean machine gun nest on his own initiative and was killed in action.
Date: August 9, 1968
Rank: Lance Corporal
Home: Waco, Texas
“…Last night one more Marine died. No one will ever hear or care about it except his parents and us… His name was Corporal Lee Clark… He didn’t deserve dying in a damn country not worth fightin’ for. …He had about 38 days left in the Marine Corps and in Viet Nam. 38 days to start living again, to see the world, and home… It makes you wonder.”
Eight months later, Daniel was killed by a sniper. He was 19 years old.
Timothy G. Robinson
Date: April 14, 1968
Home: Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota
“Remember when we were kids on Easter the girls would be all dressed up in new hats, pretty dresses… and us boys with new shoes and shirts and off to church we would go and after come home to look for our Easter baskets. What good times. I hope God will bring me back home so that I may marry the girl I love, which will be in March if things go OK. Then I can watch my kids get all dressed up and head for church and live that day over again. Holidays are no different than any other day. Every day is Monday in Vietnam.”
Five days after writing this letter, Robinson caught his foot on a trip wire, setting off a mine that killed him instantly.
Date: March 8, 1991
Rank: Staff Sergeant
“I can’t describe it. I mean the scene on the highway. We all just looked at it in the moonlight as we drove through the now silent carnage going God damn, God damn… There was a dead Iraqi in a car, eyes wide open, frozen in a silent scream… I guess I’ve played it so much for the last ten years that it just didn’t seem much different than the training. I’ve had field problems that were tougher. The waiting and worrying before we did it were worse than doing it. …It’s only been the last couple of days that I’ve come to realize the horror that has taken place here. …And I think it’s taken so long because with only the small number of exceptions on our part, it was almost entirely theirs…”
After the war, Welch developed asthma, memory and equilibrium problems. He has since retired from the military
Date: May 2, 1945
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Home: Riverhead, Long Island, New York
“A year ago today I was sweating out shells on Anzio Beachhead — today I am sitting in Hitlers’ luxuriously furnished apartment in Munich writing a few lines home. — What a contrast. — A still greater contrast is that between his quarters here and the living hell of DACHAU concentration camp only 10 miles from here. — I had the misfortune of seeing the camp yesterday and I still find it hard to believe what my eyes told me…”
Evers took time to write home while he and his men were setting up a command post in Munich. Finding themselves in the apartment of Adolph Hitler, they discovered some sheets of Hitler’s personal stationery. Evers wrote home on this stationery, gold-embossed with an eagle, swastika, and Hitler’s name at the top. When he returned home, he resumed working for the U.S. Postal Service. For years, he never discussed the war with his family, but when his parents passed away and he received a number of his old letters in the mid-1990s, he assembled albums of his experiences in the war. His collection includes a love letter he sent home to his wife, also on Hitler’s stationery.
Lloyd Brewer Palmer
Date: November 15, 1918
Home: Cleveland, Ohio
“November 11th 1918 will always be remembered by yours truly…At 10:45 the order came to cease firing… That was absolutely the happiest moment of my life. The rest of the day little groups of smiling Germans came up to the line with tobacco and wine…”
Palmer returned home after the war and played for the Western Reserve University football team.
Date: November/December 1952
Rank: Private First Class
Home: Hackensack, New Jersey
“I’m coming home! It’s official as of this morning. …That little house is going to look like a palace to me. …Is it true some people eat three times a day, or more? And they sit on a chair, by a table. What’s the matter, can’t they dig a hole in the backyard like everybody else? …There were times I would have traded my soul for a drink of cold water, or a cup of hot coffee. But I am coming home now. Chuck isn’t. He’s listed M.I.A. If he’s on this side of the line I hope he makes it. If he’s on their side I hope he’s dead. He’d wish the same for me. …I am going to tell you now. You’ll need a lot of patience with me. Patience, and, understanding. We all will.”
When he returned from Korea, Puntasecca was stationed in Lewiston, New York. At a local YMCA dance one night, he met a woman from Niagara Falls. They got married a month before Puntasecca was discharged. He went to work in his father’s construction business, and started a family. He has two children and three grandchildren.
Date: December 31, 1945
Home: Waco, Texas
“This is the last day of the last month of the year, and this should be the last letter that I shall write to you… So long, honey, and pucker up — ’cause here I come.”
On leave from Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, New York, Hoffman met Evelyn Giniger just days before he was to go to Europe with the 12th Army Division, in October 1944. After five dates with Evelyn on five consecutive nights, Nathan was restricted to camp, as were all the soldiers who were about to leave. He sent her an orchid with a note that read, “I’ll be seeing you,” taking his words from the popular song of that name. Nathan began writing Evelyn in between bouts of seasickness on the transport ship to Europe, and she wrote back. As the 12th advanced through France and Germany, Evelyn and Nathan’s correspondence continued, running to thousands of pages — which they both saved. When Nathan came home in January 1946, Evelyn was already in Waco, waiting for him. They were married a month later.
Date: November 18, 1989
Rank: Specialist Fourth Class
Home: Rochester, Illinois
“Dear Sir, For twenty two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I’ll never know…Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained…”
Luttrell wrote this letter and left it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. along with the photograph he’d kept. In March 2000, Luttrell travelled to Vietnam to meet with the daughter of the man he met on the trail in Chu Lai.
Date: February 3, 1919
Home: Pomona, California
“Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home, others remain behind forever on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. There was a war, a great war, and now it is over.”
Plush was honorably discharged from service on February 15, 1919. He returned home and homesteaded property in the coastal mountains. He married in 1923, planted apples and raised turkeys on his ranch, and died in 1956 at age 63.
In 2000, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE asked users to submit their own stories, which you can browse below. Today, we continue to encourage our viewers to share their stories via our My American Experience feature.
My brothers and I have over a thousand of my Dad’s love letters written to our mother. They start before he left the States and continue thru the end of the war. He landed at D-Day and he writes a lot about that. My Brother had them copied and bound for us and my friends and family are finding them most interesting. …It is a beautiful love story. They married as soon as my Dad came back from the war and were married for 54 years. They even died within 28 days of each other.
Thank you so much for your site on the letters. It reminds me of my father’s letters that we have now read after his death. God I miss him and am so proud of his service to our country. He was a POW in Germany. Shot down over the raids on Schweinfert Ball Bearings factory. Never talked about it, never mentioned it. What a shame.
Raymond F. Hottenstein, Jr.
Sgt E-5 Viet Nam
I have many letters or actually v-mail as written by my grandfather every day to his sons. He had four sons in the service at the same time during WWII. The letters are well preserved because they are actually film copies that had been censored. They speak to family parenting and patriotism, along with fear and pride.
When my great aunt passed away we found letters and belongs of her son Kenneth who was in World War II, he was a pilot an his plane went down. We found several letters, his wallet, and two diaries that he wrote in. I read the diaries and began to know a little about someone who I never would get to meet. My great aunt must have never went through his things that the government sent her, or if she did she left it as she received it. The thing that affected me the most was what Kenneth wrote on November 11th, 1943. Here it is:
“After breakfast read a little & then went back to my bunk & did a little day dream. Loafed the afternoon away. Mission going out early this evening for Ambon hope they don’t have too much A/A. Also rumors of a suicide (practically) mission going out in several days. Wonder if it’s time for me to get the GI’s? Why in hell don’t the American learn to stay in their own back yard – general opinion not mine. Second diary I’ve filled wonder what about the 3rd one in fact what am I going to use? And how much more space can I use???”
This was the last entry — there were no other diaries because the mission he spoke of was his last — he was shot down. It seemed to me like he knew something might happen — unfortunately.
He received a purple heart which his mother kept in the box with all the letters & effects.
My God! I have chills! My mother passed away in November and I was given her private letters. She kept every one of her letters from her first husband (killed on his way home!) and every letter she sent to him. They are filled with history and so special. I’ve wanted to know what to do with them in order to preserve them so that others can appreciate their significance. Do you have any suggestions? I have begun going through them and have started storing them in a 3 ring binder in archival page protectors. An idea that came to mind was to write a book using these letters. From beginning to end they are a phenomenal love story and historical documentation.
I would appreciate any advice you could give me for the most appropriate way to preserve and present these letters.
Sincerely, Janice Kelsey
[American Experience replies: For more information on preserving family letters and objects, watch a demonstration by Linda Edquist, conservator at the National Postal Museum.]
I was in North Africa, Sicily, Landed at Utah Beach, through France, Belgum,and Germany untill we met the Russians on the Muse River. My wife has every letter that I wrote her during the war.
Dyer Elmus Honeycutt
In a small village north of Lille, France during WWll a group of French citizens after the battle to free Lille, welcomed us with food and drink. During that time — 3 or 4 days — I met a wonderful French family. Afer we left the area to travel on to Belgium, we corresponded. I treasure the letters which I saved for some 58 years and some wonderfull memories of my French family.
Philip A Palese
East Williston, NY
Our family has letters from my uncle, Pvt. Richard Hilliard, who was from Veblen, South Dakota and stationed in the Philippines during WWII. We also have post cards from him from Japanese Prison Camp #8. Pvt. Hilliard was in the Philippines, Headquarters Company, when he was captured, probably in April of 1942. He was on the Bataan Death March and saved the life of a man from Browns Valley, Minnesota, who injured his leg and could no longer walk. My uncle picked him up and carried him the remainder of the way. Pvt. Hilliard lost his life in the South China Sea while being transported on the Japanese ship, Arisan Maru, when it was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine.
My uncle sailed for the Philippines in March of 1941. I was born in February of 1942. A letter that my mother wrote to her brother, in which she told about me as a baby, was returned. I do not know if he ever received word that he had a niece.
I grieve when I read his letters, but I am grateful for them, since it gives me a glimpse of his personality. I mourn the fact that I never had the opportunity to meet my uncle, a very brave and caring person.
Mary Lou Francis
My brother wrote a story about Guadalcanal in 1942. I just rediscovered it a few months ago and I think it’s worth sharing. There were also many letters in his footlocker and newspaper clippings about a war bond tour he went on with Gloria Stewart (Titanic). There is also a letter from him to my parents about why he was back in the United States only two months after he went overseas. He describes how he was wounded. There is also a program from the world premiere of the movie Guadalcanal and one of Pride of the Marines about Al Schmid who was blinded in the Tenaru River Battle where his machine gun unit killed 200 Japanese soldiers. This was the same battle where my brother was wounded. Sincerely,
Joseph V. Gorman
Somers Point, NJ
Grandpa Nash always sat quietly in the office corner, where his favorite portrait of General MacArthur watched him work for many years. When my Dad inherited the business, he proudly adopted the corner desk and its “five-star” overseer. I never quite understood why they both liked that picture so well and neither my Grandpa nor Dad ever really talked about their wartime experiences.
I was 14 years old when Viet Nam was news. That’s about the time Dad gave me my MOWW “Member in Perpetuity” card. He had been holding it for me since I was four years old. Later when I was old enough for service, I was too caught up in the easy, citizen life to consider it. Through the years I watched Dad regularly muster with his MOWW friends, suck in his gut an snap a crisp salute to our Red, White and Blue. He seemed to be more at home in the ranks than anywhere else. When he was getting older and we would share a cold one, he used to tell me that his time in the military was the most interesting time in his life and that, if he had it to do over again, he would have made it a career. He never did tell me the story about how he was wounded and received the purple-heart, or what the other medals where for that he kept stashed way in the back of his dresser drawer.
It was this vacuum of information that recently piqued my interest. Upon cleaning out an old desk in the house, I stumbled across a small box of my Grandma’s letters. A few were from my Grandfather dated from 1916 to 1919 and a few from my Dad from 1944 and 1945. As far as fuel for the plot of a new movie of the week, they won’t make it. They didn’t break any state secrets or divulge any earth shattering war strategies. They spoke mostly of life in the training camps and of being anxious about how they were scoring on the tests they had to take in officer’s training school. About playing cards and visiting town on Saturdays. How they really enjoyed the candy and cigars that Grandma sent them and how “if she could find the time,” would she run this errand and chase that special item down for them. Even though their letters were separated by 25 years, both their camp lives seemed to be filled with the common schedule of eating, drilling, going to officer’s class and sleeping. All while they were preparing for their respective conflicts.
When I read them I found they really helped me think back and identify with my family. The relationships between the individuals, their desire to serve for the noblest of reasons and how their lives were an integral part of the American dream. I learned that my Grandpa loved Charlie Chaplin and found those newfangled “moving pictures” with the weekly cliffhanging “serials” exciting, can’t miss entertainment. I learned that my Dad loved cigars and that he thought it was one of life’s inequities that he, being single, was often stationed behind the lines while his brother, being married, was on the front. Also, with Dad being stationed in the Southern Pacific and Philippines, his link with General MacArthur now makes sense. After reading, I decided to start documenting these letters by scanning and typing them into my computer. I now have them posted on my website for my daughter and the rest of my family to read.
The business is gone, but I kept Grandpa and Dad’s desk. I also kept General MacArthur’s portrait, which now oversees my work. The General’s image now means something more to me. I can imagine that my Grandpa and Dad respected the General for his duty, honor and courage. Now when I look at his portrait, I also see my Grandpa and Dad’s images standing beside him. All three of them standing guard, watching over me.
Grandpa: Captain Edward Nash Mathews
Dad: Lt. James Francis Mathews III
View these letters at http://www.selectivecollectibles.com/warletters-enm.htm.
Michel B. Mathews
I have a war letter wrote to my mother by her brother — dated 1943 WWII. He was killed in action a few months later. He tells my mother how he misses home and wishes he had fish to eat.
West Monroe, LA
I have a hundred or so letters from ancestor Galen Hamilton Osborne to his family. He was war correspondent for the NY Herald and died near end of Civil War of pneumonia. Some envelopes exist, most of them with tiny sketches of battle scenes.
I also have a copy from me to my parents dated Dec. 7, 1941, from Honolulu to them in San Fran. (mailed before mail was held up). I sailed from SF on Dec. 1 and was sailing into Honolulu Harbor the morning of Dec. 7 on the Jagersfontein making an unscheduled stop with 150 passengers on the bow, and ackk-ack on both sides, (some falling near us) everybody (including captain) thought it a practice raid with horizontal columns of smoke dead ahead and planes dropping thru the spaces between the columns. Arrived in India a couple months later after exciting voyage. good work, thank you Harold (now 85)
Harold Fowler Lake
Forest Park, WA
From December 1967 until December 1970 I worked at a weekend job in first, a record shop, and later, a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia. I met many Americans while they were on R&R. Although, on a scholarship to university, I failed my first couple of years, choosing to show them around Sydney while they were there instead of attending lectures, and choosing to write letters when they left rather than do my assignments. What goes around comes around. Twenty five years later the collection of over three hundred letters written both from Vietnam and the US on their return became the research for my master’s thesis, Resistance: Authoring my Own Teacher Education, which was a narrative study that attempted to identify what is important in education and life. I have recently completed the nonacademic version of that story. I am very mindful of the precious gift of those letters received over thirty years ago and of the importance of connection.
After listening to a program on our local NPR station, I was moved to play a record made of a message sent by my uncle, John H. Hay, from a prisoner of war camp in Japan.
His message is one designed to assure his family at home of his good health and well-being. In fact he was subjected to terrible conditions and was lucky to have survived at all.
This message was sent by radio with some hope that it would be heard and sent along to my grandparents. It was recorded by someone in San Francisco who had the equipment to do so. I wonder if a recording like this is at all unusual. I listened to it today for the first time in years. My uncle passed away about eight years ago after a career in shipping that had him living at one time, ironically enough, in Japan.
San Mateo, CA
When I was young, I loved to visit my grandparents in Melrose Massachusetts. I was particularly intrigued by a painted photograph of a chubby young man, dressed in the style of the 1860’s, in an oval wooded frame. His name was Harry Stewart and he was the brother of my grandfather’s grandmother, Virginia Stewart. The Adjutant to the Colonel of the 2nd Maryland Regiment in the Army of the Potomac, he was killed assaulting Burnside’s Bridge on September 17, 1862. Hidden in the back of the picture were two letters he had written. It was always an incredible feeling of connection to hold and read those letters, written while he was in camp in 1861. My great-grandfather, Harry Stewart Thompson, my grandfather, Kenneth Stewart Thompson, and my father Douglass Stewart Thompson, each learned a little more about Harry and his family and his military service. My father used to take me to Antietam, to Harry’s grave there in the national cemetery. We would clean his stone. It would stand out like only a few others in the rows upon rows of headstones.
Ten years ago my father died and then my grandmother — my grandfather had died 10 years before that. As I sorted through my grandmother’s papers, I found 14 other letters from Harry Stewart. I don’t think my grandmother knew she had them. In toto, they tell the story of a young man from Medford New Jersey who enlisted with his best friend, the brother of his girlfriend. The letters were to his mother, Hattie Stewart, and his sisters Virginia and Mattie. Mostly he wrote about camp life and about his efforts to visit Amanda, his girlfriend. In 1862, he was shipped with his regiment to New Bern North Carolina, where he saw action and fired on the “Secesh.” George died there of dysentery and Harry became despondent.
He was one of the most literate men in the regiment, so he was promoted to Adjutant to the Colonel. He railed in his letters against the hypocrisy of a drunken clergy man and he witnessed the pain of the colonel, who learned that his only son had perished.
He looked forward to being made an officer in reward for his diligence.
A recent book on Burnside Bridge noted that the regimental Adjutant got closer to the bridge then anyone else before he fell. He was unarmed in the book. Tragically, that was Harry.
There is a poem I have, published in a local paper in Medford in 1862, written by the sisters, I think, that describes the anguish the family felt.
My eldest son is named Harry Stewart Thompson. He is the fifth eldest son to carry that middle name and the second to be named Harry. When he was 7 or 8 years old, he and I charged the bridge on a beautiful late summer day. Near the bridge, Harry tripped and fell. But he got up unhurt and ran on. I felt a surge of sorrow and joy. This place of tragedy had released its grip just a bit and the future overwhelmed it.
Kenneth Stewart Thompson
When my grandmother was put into an assisted living facility, our family had to sell her home & most of the contents. In the contents we found letters from my grandmother to my dad during WWII. It included all the letters she had written over a six month period. What was even more special was the fact that this covered the time that my mom & dad were dating. My grandmother kept wanting to know if Dad would be home for Christmas and Dad was not responding to the question because he knew he was going to spend it with with his future wife. There was so much family history covered in those six months that I was overwhelmed at the precious gift my grandmother has given me by keeping those letters all those years.
Fruitland Park, FL
My father died last December and among his possessions we found his WWII letters. Some were touching love letters written between he and my mother. Most complete, however, were the letters he had written almost every day to his parents between December 1942 and December 1945. I am transcribing the letters to share with my family and hope to eventually add scanned photographs and other memorabilia. I surprised my sisters and our children with the first installment on his birthday last month. I can hardly wait to work on the letters each weekend. I’ve learned about my father’s hopes and fears as a young man, his feelings about being in the military, my parent’s courtship and marriage, and even my own birth. Dad was stationed in Saipan until I was 8 months old, so the letters tell the story of my mother’s pregnancy and my first months of life. The letters make me laugh outloud, cry, occasionally grimace, and, often, simply smile in recognition or amazement. Ironically, the war seems simply a backdrop for my father’s own story. But isn’t that what any event really is — the collective life stories of each individual touched by it? With each letter I type, more of Dad’s story unfolds. The letters are a wonderful gift from the past and a treasure for our children’s children.
My father, James Borg, died recently at the age of 80. He was on the USS Missouri during World War II, and was present at the signing of the treaty in Tokyo Harbor. He wrote many letters home on military stationery from the ship. I am a poet, and am using some of these letters to write poems about his experiences and mine, about my process of coming to understand him as a father and an American. Some of the letters are funny and mundane; some are melancholic or angry. Many are censored. I would like to be able to share them with others!
“With the first aerial bombing mission flown, the novice becomes a veteran, and the veteran an old soldier. As you fly on, and accumulate a number towards 35, you ask trembling, ‘will it ever end?’ ‘How will the end come?’ ‘Will I suffer on death’s threshold?’ All of this punctuated with the mumbled phrase, ‘please God protect me.’ ‘I don’t want to die, I want to go home.’ At times the fear is so great, you stand open mouthed crying in disbelief. Your legs too weak to support your body’s grief. Some missions so physically draining you vowed to the Lord you’d never go back, yet you found yourself repeating that target as ordered by Airforce Command. We met for the first time in 1943, ten young men none older than 21. All assigned to Army Aircorp to perform a task better suited to mature men twice that age. Still, without question we were the aircraft crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. We entered into the routine of war like naive children believing that pockets crowded with photos of girl friends, mothers, fathers or an amulet for luck would bridge the risk between death. Our commercial backgrounds varied from farmer to forman, some of us drafted some volunteered, each intent on completing a patriotic requirement of military duty for the United States in World War II. As a bombardier, I flew 35 missions over Nazi Germany involving flights long and short to targets of varing kinds. At most flak came up to 32,000 feet like black rain falling from a leaded sky enticing the unsuspecting airman with a ghoulish invitation to join the enemy in death. Jokingly, I would say, ‘I’ve been to Berlin twice, but never on the ground!'”
Sadly … Lee E. Sacherman passed away May 25, 2001 … he will always be remembered as our hero! During his tour of duty, Lieutenant Sacherman wrote more than 200 love letters in 6 months to his beautiful wife and confident Mary Ann. He used to say “these letters of love and devotion provided proof that emotions of the heart can prevail over the horrors of war!”
Woodland Hills, CA
I was looking a the War Letters web site and I don’t have letters from the war but I have something a little different. My grandfather was in WWII,and when he was 62 he sat down and started writing down his life story about growing up in Kentucky and serving in the war. He finished his writing when he was 67 and passed away two years later. I don’t have war letters but I have hand written stories and memories of his. He talks about leaving for basic training and he talks about different things that he experienced while in Europe in the war and he talks about coming home. I am in the process of sorting out his stories and putting them in my computer so that I can make a little homemade book for his grandchildren. So that we will have something to remember him by. Sort of like a family keepsake. He had hopes of seeing his stories published but he never saw that happen.
Rhonda McKee, KY
One day, in 1996, my mother casually mentioned that she had saved all of the letters she exchanged with my father when he fought in Vietnam. I was stunned! He had never spoken about his tour of duty there (he served in 1969-1970 as an Army chaplain).
I have since written a fictional novel which revolves around those letters, called “When Duty Calls.” My two favorite letters are: the one to my older brother when he was a little boy, especially when he says (on 24 April 1969), “Everything is going well for me. I am safe and I don’t think I will be hurt so you and Mommy try not to worry, O.K?” and: on 19 May 1969 which begins, “Today is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday so everyone has been very apprehensive that we might be attacked.”
I have donated copies of “When Duty Calls” to VA Hospitals across the country, and to The Legacy Project. Reading the letters has given me a newfound respect for my parents.
Pvt. Elmo Reidy Vichy France Nov, 20, 1918
My Dear Aunt- Just a few lines this afternoon to let you know that I am still well and my wound is healing fast.
Just one month ago to-day I was wounded and in a couple of weeks I think my wound will be entirely healed, although it may bother me a little for a while after that.
I can certainly consider myself fortunate in getting off as lucky as I did and now that the war is at an end I feel very fortunate in being out of it in one piece.
Of course it is needless to say that all we Yanks are happy, especially we who have had to do the fighting in the front lines. We know more than anyone else what it means for it is a great relief to know that we do not have to face those shells again…
When at the front this last time I had a taste of sleeping in a shell hole in the rain.
The American people can certainly be proud of their fighting Yanks, for they put up a great battle and in four short months they were the ones who did a whole lot towards saving these suffering countires and wrestling the power from Germany. We may have been green and untrained but we showed those Dutch blockheads how a real American fights and that when he goes after anything he gets it!
Well all I think of now is the homeward trip. Am in hopes of being home for Easter.
Sarah A. Flemming
A letter written by my father in France in 1918 to my mother–
June 1st 1918
Dearest: Recv’d a letter from you yesterday, also one from momma and Ruth. You may not be able to read this as I’m using the butt of my gun for a writing desk. Great paper too, it’s French. The 2 pieces of cloth are off the wings of a German aeroplane that was shot down this afternoon, came down in flames and still burning.Two young Germans in it. Some got buttons off their clothes, but I didn’t care for any of them. I didn’t feel like touching them. Sure a great sight to them get search lights on them after dark and watch the shells burst around them. They throw all kinds of light but it isn’t so nice when they go to dropping those big bombs.
Be sure and write often as it sure makes a fellow feel good to get a letter over here. Give my regards to all the folks. With love and kisses
I have a book of my father’s WWII memories he had put on tape 4 yrs before his death in 1990, entitled “Medic.” I also have the tapes he made that the book was transcribed from. I have his medals, a scrapbook I have put together of all of his letters, letters from a Dutch family he stayed with, pictures, gum wrappers, USO show ticket stubs, etc.
And finally this:
A folded sheet of paper containing this prayer was found on a Confederate soldier. His name is unknown.
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed…”