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Massive collection of war letters coming to Chapman University

Historian Andrew Carroll's Legacy Project took off in '98 after 'Dear Abby' ran his request for letters. Now he has over 90,000, some from the Revolutionary War.

December 24, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Historian Andrew Carroll holds a letter written by U.S. Army Pvt. John P. McGrath from Anzio, Italy, to his high school friend Dick Treanor on April 25, 1944. A bullet ripped through the unmailed letter, which McGrath had been carrying in his backpack. McGrath survived the shooting and the war. The letter is one of more than 90,000 Carroll has collected as part of his Legacy Project. The collection is to be displayed at Chapman University in Orange County.
Historian Andrew Carroll holds a letter written by U.S. Army Pvt. John P.… (McKenzi Taylor / Chapman…)

For years the stories of pain and patriotism, of loss and heroism, have been locked away in a storage facility in Washington, D.C.

But now a massive collection of American wartime correspondence from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is on the verge of finding a permanent home that will provide greater access for students, historians and the general public.

Author and historian Andrew Carroll, who has gathered 90,000-plus wartime letters since 1998, has reached an agreement to donate the ever-growing collection to Chapman University in Orange County. Only a tiny fraction of the letters have been used in documentaries, a Smithsonian Institution display, or Carroll's three anthologies.

Chapman Chancellor Daniele Struppa is eager to have selections on display and the full collection available in archives. "It's a way for us to build a memorial to people who have served this country," Struppa said.

Struppa said he can envision a display of letters from World War I as part of next year's lead-up to the centennial of the war's beginning. And possibly later, displays may center around the Korean War and Vietnam.

"It's going to be a tremendous resource for students and faculty," Struppa said.

Carroll hopes to digitize the letters and make them available on a website and possibly produce a guide for teachers.

Carroll has edited three widely acclaimed anthologies from the letters: "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars," "Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters — and One Man's Search to Find Them," and "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families."

Most of the letters are in a storage facility near Carroll's home. Some of the more historically precious missives, such as a letter written by an American G.I. on Hitler's stationery, are in a safety deposit box.

A history graduate from Columbia University, Carroll began his quest, dubbed the Legacy Project, in 1998. His request for letters, published in the "Dear Abby" column on Veterans Day of that year, brought more than 15,000 letters, some originals, some copies.

A decade and a half later, Carroll believes he is still in the early stages of collection. "There are a million of these letters out there, tucked away in people's attics, basements and closets," he said.

More letters — and recently, emails and DVDs — are being collected daily at Carroll's website, http://www.HereIsWhere.org. The name comes from Carroll's latest book, centered on an effort to find unmarked locations in America linked to important events.

At Chapman, the letters' project will be renamed the Center for American War Letters. If all goes well, Carroll hopes the transfer can begin this spring.

Carroll's connection with Chapman dates to 2010, when his play based on the letters, "If All the Sky Were Paper," was staged on campus, with professor John Benitz directing. The play was staged at Chapman again in November.

Included in the collection are letters from military personnel who never returned home, and from their grieving loved ones.

One letter is from Lt. Tommie Kennedy of Maricopa, Calif., who died in a prisoner of war camp in World War II. He sensed his doom as he wrote to his family:

"Hold a nice service for me in Bksfld and put head stone in new (cemetery). Take care of my nieces & nephews, don't let them ever want anything as I want even warmth or water now. Loving & waiting you in the world be on. Your son."

DeEtte Wood contributed a letter that she wrote to her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Nathan Wood, of Kirkland, Wash., six months after he was killed in November 2004 in Fallouja, Iraq:

"I wish I could spend another summer at the cabin with you. I know that when you were there you were in heaven. When I think of you now I know you are on the lake fishing with your friends, and I know that someday I can join you. Until then little man, I love you and I hold you close to my heart."

One lesson of the collection, Carroll said, is that feelings of longing and loss are universal in times of war, regardless of the location or century.

"The language may change but the sentiments are the same, whether it's the close-in fighting of the Civil War or the battle for Baghdad," Carroll said.

tony.perry@latimes.com


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