It all started with a "Dear Abby" column. Nearly 20 years ago, the famed advice maven wrote about Andy Carroll, a historian who had just launched an endeavor to collect and preserve old war-related letters. Carroll, according to an April 2017 Dear Abby follow-up, was "deluged with responses." Today, Carroll has collected more than 100,000 wartime correspondences. "I didn't like history — I was an English major," says Carroll, "and I didn't have any military connections. But when I started to find and read these letters, the stories really came to life."
From sloppily penned, fraying at the edges WWII POW letters to lengthy present-day email threads, the correspondences Carroll has collected and continues to collect bring to life the lives of the men and women affected by war at home and abroad. "When I was in college my house burned down," says Carroll. "I knew how inherently valuable these items [war letters] were. Veterans threw them away, lost them." Carroll knew that if he didn't proactively seek out and save these letters, they may be lost forever.
As a lover of words, Carroll valued both the writing, but also the feeling, of holding these letters — some as old as the Revolutionary War — in his hands. In the collection there is a letter from a 9/11 eyewitness, and a letter from a sailor on a ship at Pearl Harbor. "A facsimile just doesn't have the same effect," says Carroll. Carroll jokes (we think) that he carries some of those really old letters in a suitcase hand-cuffed to his wrist. "It's like I have the nuclear launch codes," laughs Carroll, "really, they're that important, and priceless."
When Carroll started this project, which has taken the form of the Chapman University Center for American War Letters and, since April, the nationally touring Million Letters Campaign, he was actively seeking out letters. Now, they come to him in every city he visits, from people who forget, until they're reminded, that they have thousands of words from a relative overseas, dating back years, even decades. "These letters came to us by people going through their own material," says Carroll. "I'm meeting vets and troops in-person at tour stops. We had a guy I just met in Nantucket and he had several hundred pages of WWI letters. He handed me a big box of letters, the cover letter said 'you or the garbage can.'"
These letters destined for the trashcan, or attic, or some other non-place are sent to the repository at Chapman University in Californina. Carroll recognizes that for many, it is difficult to give up originals, but, as he says, "A lot of folks think if they don't do something with them they might get tossed." The plan is to digitize the entire collection, so that those who donate letters can access the words of their loved ones at any time. And if someone can't bear to part with an original? That's OK, Carroll accepts photo copies, because even though facsimiles aren't as moving, the words still matter.
One American prisoner of war writes his parents during WWII, "I'm not afraid to die, I just hate the thought of not seeing you again." Years later, a soldier named Dave emails his father from Fallujah: "It would seem as if the final reckoning was coming ... If there is another city in the world that contains more terrorists, I would be surprised ... The enemy has fooled itself misinterpreting our humanity and restraint for lack of will and courage. For eight months, we have watched Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors maimed and killed by invisible cowards hiding behind some wall or in a canal as he detonates another IED." And the letters don't all come from Americans, either. One letter is penned by a British solider who described the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. Some letters are from civilians, like the Okinawans treated so viciously by Japan during WWII.
Carroll says that this campaign has reached tens of millions of people around the world. "Everyone from scholars to writers to musicians and filmmakers want to use these letters," he says. There's even a play, written by Chapman professor John Benitz, If All the Sky Were Paper, that is based on Carroll's travels from around the globe, detaling his trip to more than 40 countries, looking for letters from anyone, anywhere touched by war.
For Carroll's Charleston Library Society visit, local officials, including Mayor Tecklenburg, will read excerpts from some of the letters. Lowcountry residents with letters to donate will be able to do so at the event, and a light reception will follow. In November, Carroll will be returning to Charleston for an event with the USS Yorktown. "I want to spread the word about the campaign so when I come back in November people will have letters to donate. That's the whole spirit of this project."