By Andrew Carroll
“Dear Sis,” the letter begins. “It’s 9:05 Sunday morning and we’ve been bombed now for over an hour. Our anti-aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship.” Written by a young sailor named William Czako, the letter is a breathless, eyewitness account of what it feels like to be trapped inside a ship that’s come under attack. “I’m on the interior communications and I can hear the various stations screaming at one other,” Czako continued.
A man just brought us our gas masks. I don’t know why I’m writing this because if we’re hit with a bomb they won’t find enough of me—let alone this letter. I imagine it’s to show myself that I can be calm under fire. A few of the boys here are white faced and their voices hushed and choked. They know this is no joke or mock battle, but the real stuff…
The words, which are dramatic enough on their own, become even more electrifying when one sees what is hastily written in the upper right hand corner of the first page: “December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor.” Czako was in the eye of the storm as wave after wave of Japanese warplanes bombed the unsuspecting naval base.
Czako’s letter, which he eventually sent to his sister, was found decades later by a woman who had moved into Czako’s old home outside of Seattle. Today, it is one of more than 100,000 correspondences archived by the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, California.
As the center’s founder and director, I am frequently asked one question: Why letters? Of all the different types of war-related writings and new media—like cellphone pictures and videos—why concentrate on such an antiquated form of communication?
Some might also argue that since letters were often censored—especially in the two world wars—and troops were limited in what they could say, doesn’t that diminish their historical significance?
Initially, my focus on preserving letters came about for personal reasons.
I was a sophomore in college when our family’s house in Washington, D.C., burned down. After the fire, James Carroll Jordan, a distant cousin, checked in to see how we were doing. I told him thankfully, no one was hurt in the blaze, but everything we had was gone and the worst part was losing all of our old photographs and letters, among other irreplaceable items.
Coincidentally, Carroll, as we called him, told me he had recently gone through his old World War II memorabilia and had come across a letter he’d written to his wife on April 21, 1945, while serving as P-51 pilot attached to the Ninth Army.
“I’ll send it to you,” he said.
Carroll’s letter arrived, and as I read it, goosebumps formed.
Dear Betty Ann, I saw something today that makes me realize why we’re fighting this war. We visited a German political internment camp. The camp had been liberated only two days and the condition of the camp has changed very little. … The inmates consisted of mostly Jews, some Russians, Poles and there were six American pilots that they shot almost immediately.
When we first walked in we saw all these creatures that were supposed to be men. They were dressed in black and white suits, heads shaved and starving to death. Malnutrition was with every one of them.
We met one of them that could speak English so he acted as a guide for us. First we saw a German monument that stated 51,600 died in this camp in three years… Then we went down through rows of barbed wire to a building where they purposely infected these people with disease. Human guinea pigs for German medics.
Carroll, only 23 at the time, was relaying to his wife what he had seen after walking through Buchenwald. He enclosed some pictures of the German concentration camp, but the images created by his written description were as searing as any photograph. The three-page letter contained some of the most graphic depictions of Nazi atrocities I had ever read.
After calling Carroll and profusely thanking him for sharing such an incredible letter with me, I assured him I’d send it back right away.
“Keep it,” he said. “I probably would have ended up throwing it out anyway.”
I was stunned that he would even think about trashing something so valuable, but after speaking with numerous veterans, it turned out many had already tossed their wartime letters or lost them to neglect. The majority, it seemed, had done so out of simple modesty.
“I wasn’t a general or senior officer or really anyone of importance,” they said. And yet, these were veterans who had survived the Battle of the Bulge, stormed the beaches of Inchon, or had been under fire at Khe Sanh.
Almost 60 years after William Czako wrote his riveting letter from Pearl Harbor, Sandy Mitten, a Gulf War sailor who was manning a .50-caliber machine gun aboard a Navy warship, endured a similar ordeal.
“Well, we are five days into the war,” Mitten wrote to her family in Wisconsin. “There have been some trying times, and I am sure there will be many more before I leave here. … If I ever had any doubts about whether—”
Mitten’s letter cuts off suddenly and then resumes the next day.
“Back again,” she continues. “In the middle of that sentence, we had a SCUD missile attack…”
Without question, there’s something special and meaningful about holding an original letter and having that tactile connection with the past. And originals often accentuate the life-and-death circumstances under which these troops fought. One letter written by an American soldier at Anzio, Italy, on April 25, 1944, has a bullet hole through the middle of it. He had placed the letter in his rucksack and was shot through the back. Fortunately, he survived.
Some letters in our archive are flecked with mud and blood. On others, the ink is blurred because they were composed during rain or snowstorms. And some letters from the Gulf War have a thin layer of sand on them from the dusty desert environment.
Desert Storm, in fact, represents the last major American conflict in which the only real form of communication was through the mail. By the time U.S. forces were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, troops were increasingly writing home via email.
One of the greatest misconceptions about this transformation is that future historians won’t have troves of correspondences to cull through. Certainly there will be fewer handwritten letters, but millions of emails have been exchanged between troops and their loved ones, and what is paramount is their words, regardless of whether they’re penned by hand or hammered out on a keyboard. James Carroll Jordan’s extraordinary letter about Buchenwald, for instance, was typed, not handwritten.
And one of the overlooked advantages of emails is that we are more likely to have a record of what people on the home front have written as well. In previous wars, letters sent abroad were usually discarded because troops couldn’t hold onto them for long. Now, emails back and forth are easily saved and reflect not only our troops’ thoughts and feelings but those of loved ones at home living in fear that their loved one might be injured or killed at any moment.
On May 2, 2004, Myrna Bein received a phone call that her son Charles, an Army infantryman, had barely survived an ambush in Iraq a few hours earlier. Metal fragments from an IED explosion shredded the lower half of his right leg, and he was ﬂown to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Throughout her son’s recuperation, Myrna emailed relatives with up¬dates about Charles’ progress, as well as her own state of mind. On June 4, 2004, she wrote the following:
A sock did me in a few nights ago, a plain white sock. I’m doing so much bet¬ter with the grief, but sometimes I just get blindsided again in a totally unex¬pected way. Some memory or sharp realization will prick at the places heal¬ing in my heart, and I feel the grief wash over me in a massive wave. Sometimes I almost feel I could double over with the pain of it. That’s what happened with the sock.
I had brought Charles’ soiled clothes home from Walter Reed to wash. Everything had gone through the wash and dry cycles and I had dumped the freshly laundered clothes onto the bed to fold them. It was late and I was quite weary, so I wanted to ﬁnish and get to bed to try for a better night’s sleep than I’ve been having lately. I found one sock… just one.
I folded all the rest of the clothes and still, just one sock. Without even thinking, I walked back to the laundry room and searched the dryer for the mate. Nothing was there. I looked between the washer and dryer and all around the ﬂoor, in case I’d dropped the other sock somewhere during the loading and unloading processes. Still, my tired and pre-occupied brain didn’t get it. As I walked back to the bedroom with the one sock in hand, it hit me like a punch to the gut. There was no other sock. There was also no other foot, or lower leg, or knee. I stood there in my bedroom and clutched that one clean sock to my breast and an involuntary moan came from my throat; but it originated in my heart.
Wartime correspondences today are as profound and eloquent as any written in previous conflicts. Indeed, one of the most remarkable letters in our collection is actually an email by an airman, Parker Gyokeres, who wrote to his friends and family after returning from Iraq. Parker recounted his more vivid memories—some inspiring, many of them horrifying—from his deployment, and then ended by expressing how cathartic it had been for him to share his experiences.
My writing gave me an outlet while I was over there, and it continues to help me now.
I was fortunate not only because I had it easy compared to so many other troops, but because my wife supported me during my angry, confused and sleepless times. I cannot thank her enough for this, and she has always been there for me and never stopped loving me. …
This is perhaps the most important thing any loved one or friend can do. Those of us coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan are not looking for sympathy. We might be reluctant at ﬁrst to talk about what we’ve been through, good or bad, and some troops might never be able to open up, which is cer¬tainly their right. There are also things about war that people will never com¬prehend unless they have experienced them ﬁrsthand. But I hope that those who need to will reach out, and it’s helpful knowing that there are people who care about us and are at least making an effort to understand.
Your support has made this journey an incredible one for me, and I couldn’t have gone through it alone. Thanks for joining me—and thanks, above all, for listening.
Ultimately, these correspondences—whether they’re handwritten missives from the American Revolution and Civil War or typed letters and emails from more current conflicts—remind us all that America’s service members are more than just soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors. They are somebody’s spouse, parent, sibling, child or best friend. Through their words, we see their humanity and individuality and we hear their distinct voices and personalities. These are their stories, as only they can tell them.
–Andrew Carroll is the editor of several New York Times bestsellers, including “War Letters” and “Behind the Lines.”
Stories in this Series
Dec 22, 2014
Finding the Faith and Will to Fight On
While battling insurgents on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, Army Maj. Damon Armeni was severely wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade that nearly killed him. But this isn’t a story about what happened that day; it’s about where he found the strength to recover.
Dec 16, 2014
Constant Challenges Keep Trauma Surgeon Going
Dr. Raymond Fang said he “can’t begin to guess” how many patients he treated directly or whose cases he oversaw. He figures it’s in the thousands—fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who in past conflicts likely never would have survived beyond the battlefield.
Dec 10, 2014
The Little Men of Afghanistan
Afghan children don’t know their country’s history is one long, never-ending tragedy. They don’t know they can only expect to live 45 years, and to live those years in poverty. And no one need tell them they’ll know the sights and sounds of combat before they are teenagers.
Dec 3, 2014
Photos of Smiling Troops are the Story of Roker's USO Tour
Al Roker, the gregarious weatherman-turned-co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” gets hundreds of photo requests from fans standing just beyond the barriers of the show’s outdoor studio in the heart of Manhattan. On a 2014 USO tour, Roker was the one asking for photos.