Love letters from the front

A collection of letters from the Civil War to Bosnia shows how the words of soldiers preserve history's extraordinary moments.

Published November 9, 2001 8:22PM (EST)

In 1945, 21-year-old Lt. Tommie Kennedy, captured at Corregidor and imprisoned on a Japanese "hell ship," wrote a letter that was the rough equivalent of today's desperate last "I love you" cellphone call. In what he must have felt were his last moments, without any paper to write on, he took two family photos and scrawled a note of farewell to his family on the back of them. He lived for a few more days after, found some actual paper and wrote:

Dearest Momie & Dad,
I am writing this so that you will know exactly what happened and won't be like so many parents. I guess I really made a mistake in not listening to you & coming over here. If I could only have been killed in action, its so useless to die here from Disentry with no medicin.

He wrote about the death of a close friend from dysentery. He asked that they contact his friend's mother. He also asked that his parents please apologize to Patty, who appears to be his girlfriend:

Tell Patty I'm sorry, guess we just weren't meant to be happy together. I weigh about 90 pounds so you can see how we are. I will sign off now darlings and please don't greave so much. These are my bars & collar ensigns ...

(When one POW died, the others made sure that his letters and medals were passed to another, and then another, until they eventually were smuggled home to the boy's family.)

The letters that make up the book "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars" range from the Civil War to the Persian Gulf War and the war in Bosnia. But in many ways, they are interchangeable.

"War letters transcend the subject of war," says Andrew Carroll, 31, who founded the Legacy Project to preserve historically significant letters after his house burned down and he lost all his own. He compiled the letters in "War Letters" and edited the book. "They cover every emotion and every sentiment and every theme you can conceive of -- they are just through the prism of warfare." Plus, he adds, "You tend not to mince words in a foxhole."

After a plug in the newspaper advice column "Dear Abby," the response to his book has been tremendous, says Carroll. People from all over America have sent him their family letters in their original form (many have ripped pages, are smudged with mud, or have water damage). They are "the greatest tangible connection we have to the past," says Carroll.

Today we have e-mail, which is faster and feels safer. But letter writing is an art unto itself. "You can't hit delete," says Carroll. "There's something about putting pen to paper that's more conducive to thoughtful expression. It's spontaneous prose with its own rhythm." Anyone can do it, anywhere -- all you need is something to write on and something to write with.

After he went off to war, Clark (not his real name) wrote his love Theresa (not her real name) almost every day. His letters were rarely under three pages long and many were more than eight pages. When he enlisted in 1942, Theresa was furious. "I was very angry and hurt and I kept letting him know it," she says in a recent phone interview. "But of course I assured him I loved him -- he was worried I would stop."

They had already talked about marriage before he left and he hadn't been gone long when he asked her to make it official. He wrote: "I know I love you. I know things have not changed as far as I'm concerned -- a little dubious, perhaps, about fitting in to the scheme of civilian living when this is over -- but I imagine I'll get into the swing of things after a few weeks ... Here's the story and let's settle it once and for all -- I want to marry you -- to spend the rest of my life with your telling me to stop biting my fingernails -- when?"

While he was still in the U.S., Clark was able to get a pass to come home and visit his love, where he proposed properly, on one knee, presenting her with a ring. At the beginning, Clark's letters to Theresa were sweet, and often hilarious. He sent one playful note, in the form of a mock military memo, teasingly using jargon to describe their relationship as a "combat team." He talked about Theresa's "assets" -- her "irresistible lips ... long, flowing hair ..." He listed her ears in a category of joke warning: "Be careful of these. They are usually hidden and well camouflaged -- If you get too close you will be caught by booby trap M2 EARRING." He ended the letter with the following mock recommendation: "We recommend this equipment be requisitioned for Lt. ____'s organization and that they get married at the earliest possible moment -- Despite Lt. ___'s demonstrated lack of skill in handling this equipment we feel he is sufficiently interested to study and learn this instrument -- its nomenclature, its functions, its use, its quirks and needs. He will be responsible for the care of this instrument."

"At one point he said that he loved me so much he thought of breaking off because he didn't know what he could promise me," Theresa says today. "And I was burning with this love and anger together and I said I should find someone else." But neither of them really meant it, because they were truly in love with each other. He wrote her about girls he met that were interested in him, but he never strayed. She wrote in her diary at the time that he said he told the girls, "My love and money are for someone else."

Clark's letters began to lose some of their humor as he was immersed deeper in battle. His patriotism also was diminishing. He was lonely at Christmas without her. He was seeing death up close. He was losing friends. He described the white crosses he saw in cemeteries and asked, "Are these the men who have finally 'arrived'?" He wrote about a cheerful, 20-year-old friend who was now suddenly gone. His spirits were fading. He wrote: "Don't mind this morbid nonsense. Sometimes the loneliness overwhelms me -- the noises of the insects, birds, small creatures seem to crowd into my tent crushing against me. It is terrible to live with memories only. The soldier doesn't think of the future, His [sic] 'present' just exists and the Past is all he can think about."

Looking back now, Theresa says the past for her is never really past. "It's always present. There are times when it seems more real to me than the present. You put these things in a space in your heart and then something happens -- like this book ["War Letters"] that reactivates it." She begins to weep.

Back in 1945, there was one month when Theresa did not receive any letters. Then, while living at a boardinghouse in graduate school, she received an envelope with only a newspaper clipping inside. It said that Clark had been shot in the stomach, killed north of Manila. He was 22 years old.

These letters "remind us that the casualties of war are more than just combat," says Carroll. Lovers were torn apart from each other, marriages were destroyed, children grew up without parents. One soldier, Capt.George Rarey, wrote to his wife when he learned she had given birth to their first child. He managed to get his hands on some cigars, he wrote, and "all of the boys in the squadron went wild" when they heard the news. "Junie if this letter makes no sense forget it  I'm sort of delirious  Today everything is special  This iron hut looks like a castle ... I'm a father -- I have a son! My darling Wife has had a fine boy and I'm a king - ... Oh, Junie, I wish I could be there -- Now I think maybe I could be of some help -- There are so many things to be done -- What a ridiculous and worthless thing a war is in the light of such a wonderful event. That there will be no war for Damon!"

Less than three months later, Capt. Rarey was killed when his plane was shot down over France. He was 26. His son, Damon, knew his father only from the letters that were saved.

"This project was created to remind us of the horrors of war and to honor those who served," says Carroll. "We don't need a reminder now, but it's still abstract. It's happening overseas. It's remote." The war against terrorism, or the Taliban, or whoever, has just begun. Americans are united in patriotism, hanging flags from cars and windows. In the air is a feeling of country, and a surge of justice in wanting to unite against an enemy who invaded and murdered on our own soil.

But if the past is any indication of what's to come, morale changes. Carroll sees a clear pattern in the letters. At the beginning, there is an enthusiasm about "going off to war." Then, after a little while, comes questioning. Idealism starts to slip when death is all around. Finally, desperation, and sadness, and all that matters are the ones you love. Which is not to say that soldiers lose their patriotism or sense of purpose; for many, it intensifies.

They are young, and they grow up quickly. One 15-year-old boy, who lied about his age so that he could go fight in World War II, begs his mother to send his birth certificate, so that he can get out and go home. Then after a year, the letters change. The "Get my Birth Certificate as soon as you can. Please" in his letters stops at one point, and he no longer asks to go home. Instead, he writes "If you can spare it, please send me some smokes."

These letters, no matter what war they are from, make war real; they give it a human face. Says Carroll, "Hundreds of years of war letters express the same emotions over and over." A Civil War soldier writes in 1862, "You are associated with every thought and every action of my existence ... Patie, I sometime think of our Government affairs and the way they are carried on until I am half crazy ... I do so much wish I were at home with you and little Joel. I know he looks mighty funny in his little trousers. I can imagine I see him tottering around."

Not all letters were of love. Distance and the stress of war also led to infidelities on both sides of the ocean. One WW2 soldier responded to his wife's letter about a tryst she had while he was away: "Forget it -- it's not going to change anything. ... We have evolved some relationship between ourselves which far transcends the mere physical contacts of sex. ... This, of course, doesn't mean that I shall condone or even put up with any more nonsense like that ... "

He forgives her, tells her he loves her and asks that she "Kiss the boys for their Dad." He wrote her again, telling her that "each day apart from you is only a half a day lived." Shortly after, he was flying over water, when there was a problem with his plane. He managed to get out in time and into a life raft, but was never seen or heard from again. His wife never remarried.

Theresa eventually fell in love again after years passed. This time she married, had children and now she has grandchildren. She saved more than 500 letters from Clark. And in many ways, the past is still present. "I can't say anything that isn't a cliché," says Theresa. "It's missing someone's company. It's wanting the person you can talk to. And it's feeling duress when that person is not available." She stops and takes a thoughtful moment before continuing. "Love means a lot of things. There is no such thing as one love. Some love strikes you like lightening. And then there's the love that grows like the roots of a tree. And that's the kind we had." She stops again, taking short breaths through her quiet weeping. This time she is not able to continue her sentence.

By Cole Kazdin

Cole Kazdin is a writer in New York.

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