BALTIMORE, Md. — Veterans Day is the perfect time to focus our attention on the lives, the families and the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.
And for one man, every day for the last 20 years has been Veterans Day. Andrew Carroll, director and founder of the Center For American War Letters, is committed to a mission of preserving the legacy of our warriors from our nation’s beginning to present day.
In the end, he collected what is likely the largest collection of war letters ever assembled.
“This is all in the past week,” he says, rifling through letters. “You’re talking about well over 1,000 to 1,500 letters in this batch alone.”
The letters are written to and from service members. Carroll has been collecting them and preserving them from the donations of thousands of American families. Nothing give him more pleasure than to share what he’s received.
“This young sailor was inside a ship the USS New Orleans during the attack on Pearl Harbor," he said about one letter.
What he’s really doing is bringing America’s history to life.
“They make it real,” Carroll said. “They make it personal and, ironically, I hated history growing up.”
“What I most hope comes out of this project is that we can humanize these men and women who serve," he said. "They’re not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Every single one of them has a loved one. Every single one has a spouse or a sweetheart. They are someone’s child, someone’s parent. I want to use this project just to remind people that these are not statistics that go off to fight. And I want to help us all to remember the actual names and stories of these incredible men and women.”
Carroll has been collecting letters for more than 20 years.
“All of these are incredible for one reason or another,” Carroll said as he grabbed another letter from a box. “This is a letter written by this woman, Jean Sublowski, addressed to her fiancé who was a combat solider. She sent the letter off, a beautiful love letter. It’s returned to her with the envelope unopened and with one word written in red on the outside — 'deceased.' That’s how she found out the love of her life was gone forever."
Carroll pulled out another letter.
“This is a handwritten letter Josh wrote to his mom," he said, and read it outloud. "'I just hope I made you proud and if I don’t come home for any reason, I just want you to know always I will be with you.'”
The War Letter project has collected the attention of thousands of families hoping Carroll can preserve their family’s history of service and sacrifice. About 150,000 letters have arrived so far. Some date back to the American Revolution.
“This is hundreds of years old and yet I’m holding the actual paper that this service member wrote during the war for independence,” Carroll said about one of the letters.
He is also receiving hundreds of printed emails between soldiers and their families from more modern conflicts. Whether hand written or electronic, Carroll said they are all filled with passion, love and, oftentimes, tragedy.
He holds up another letter, this one with a hole directly through the center.
“This is without question one of our most visually stunning letters," he said. "That’s the bullet hole that went through the letter and into him. Now, fortunately, he survived but you really get a sense of these life and death circumstances these troops are under.”
The next letter is equally telling and equally stunning.
“This is probably the most historic letter we have. As soon as I opened this up, I got chills because I could see the gold embossed letter head that said Adolf Hitler," he said. "This letter was written by an American soldier sitting in Hitler’s desk in Munich.”
Carroll is constantly amazed by the generosity of the donations.
“What they share with us is so personal and so extraordinary,” Carroll said, while pointing to a large wooden box. “This is an entire trunk we got from a family. These are all his World War II letters.”
That man survived the war. However, when he came home, he died in a plane crash during a routine flight.
“This is a very personal project for me and I just want people to know that when they send the letters, it’s not just going to some institution," he said. "It’s going to a group of people who feel very passionately about this, who love this project, who want to see this succeed and to really want to honor and remember all of these troops these veterans and their families.”