The holiday to honor the men and women who fought for the United States is celebrated this year on Monday, May 28. The first Memorial Day was observed more than a hundred years ago, shortly after the end of the American Civil War. An effort is underway to preserve the written legacy left by America's military personnel.
The Legacy Project was created less than three years ago to encourage Americans to seek and preserve wartime correspondence before the letters are lost, damaged, or thrown away. Andrew Carroll, founder of the project, is editor of a book published this month entitled "War Letters." "There was something about the project that struck a chord," he says. "Letters came pouring in from not only around the country but from around the world. We had letters from Australia, England, and Canada. There were these incredible documents. There were eye witness accounts of major battles throughout history, and it was just striking to me that all these beautifully written correspondence were tucked away in attics and basements throughout the country and, again, throughout the world."
In all, Mr. Carroll received 50,000 cards, letters and other forms of written communication. "I wasn't prepared for it, emotionally," he says. "One woman, and this comes up a lot, said 'My grandfather was the biggest curmudgeon when I knew him. But, when I found his war letters and I saw this passionate, whimsical young man. I wondered where was this man? How come I never knew him'?"
One of those letters was written by the man to his newborn daughter, a child he had not yet seen. "I want you to know that God gave you a mother the finest woman of his creation," the letter reads. "I pray that you will grow up to be as fine a person as she. I ask that you follow her guidance and her teachings. I know how much you mean to her at the time I write this letter. Such a love can never be forgotten."
That letter writer survived the war to return to his family. Sid Diamond wasn't even married when he went off to fight in the Pacific theater during World War II. For more than two years he corresponded with Estelle Spero, his fiancee. "Darling, Somewhere in the Philippines In combat again a lot to say but A. very tired B. very very dirty C. Busy, Busy, as all hell. Been moving constantly. Excuse brevity. I love you. You make my foxhole warm and soft, sweetheart," your Sid.
That was the last letter Estelle received. She learned later that Lt. Sidney Diamond was killed in combat.
Some of the letters are not even written by the soldiers. One, sent during the Civil War, is from a Virginia woman caring for a fatally wounded Confederate soldier. It was addressed to the young man's mother. "He suffered so much, but he bore it very patiently, like the rest of our noble sons," her letter reads. "Although your son was a stranger to me, I have shed many a tear over his corpse and now over his grave."
One of the letters was written by Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American general in the United States Army. In a letter to his wife about black and white relations, General Davis said: "What people don't realize is that the civil rights generation really wasn't from the sixties," he said. "It was from the 1950s. It was the men and women who came back from war [World War II] who really built the foundation of the civil rights movement that flourished in the 1960s. That's why it was important for me to put that in."
Andrew Carroll says that editing the book was an emotional roller coaster for him. "You get to see personalities," he says. "You see that they are writing to sisters and brothers, or sons, or parents. You see them in a much larger context. It's hard to read them objectively, or clinically, which is how I thought I would go about this, more from an historical standpoint."
When he looked through a packet of letters, Andrew Carroll says he read them in chronological order. "You'll read a series of letters and you'll be thinking: Please, don't let that telegram appear at the end," he says. "Sure enough, after you read all these letters by a young soldier, writing to his Mom, you'll see that last telegram that she received from the War Department, saying, 'I regret to inform you that your son has been killed in action'. It just hits you in the solar plexus. You just get so wrapped up into it."
Andrew Carroll says that while Memorial Day is one day a year, the Legacy Project which produced "War Letters" is a continuing effort. "Every day is Memorial Day for us," he says. "Not to sound corny, but it's true. Obviously we get a little more attention during Veterans Day and Memorial Day. But that's exactly it. I think there's no better way to remember these men and women then through their own words."
"War Letters" was created as a tribute to those who have fought for the United States, as well as for those who serve in the armed forces today. Andrew Carroll says that people in other nations are preparing similar projects to honor their soldiers. The book is "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars."