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Letters From The Front Lines: Historian Collects Wartime Correspondence

Andrew Carroll makes stop in Houston to accept World War I letters.



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Marian Cones found a stack of letters when she was cleaning out her parents’ home after they had died.

They were handwritten by her grandfather, Paul Sheldon Johnson, and sent to his mother from France in 1917 and 1918. Johnson served as a chaplain there during World War I.

Cones read an excerpt from one of his letters.

“You are my best pal. I think of you because I owe it to you.  I think of you because I am more to your life than I am to anyone else’s life, because if I do not come back, you, even as you have said, will remember me after all the world has forgotten.”

Now, Cones is giving the letters to historian Andrew Carroll.

“We’re so grateful to you for giving up something so incredibly powerful and historic and it means a lot to us as well,” Carroll said. “And I promise you that we will safeguard these for posterity.”

Carroll is on a tour through all 50 states to pick up letters written from the front lines of American wars.

He started to preserve wartime letters in 1998 and has since received more than 100,000 of them. The collection is now called the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in southern California.

“This is actually a very personal project,” Carroll said. “It all started when our family’s house burned down my sophomore year of college, and we lost everything. And it was losing all the photos, the letters that really kind of inspired this passion for preserving the past. And it was talking with veterans I knew. I was like, what do you guys do with your old letters, and they were like, oh, we threw them away. It just seemed that we were losing something to history.”

Marian Cones first heard about the Center for American War Letters in a PBS documentary. She said donating her letters to the project made sense.  

“You know, I guess everyone’s houses are getting so full of things and I said I want this to be in a safe place and I want to make sure that it doesn’t end up on the trash heap on the curb,” Cones said.

The letters Carroll has collected range from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan. For those last two wars, the collection also includes emails, which of course is now the preferred means of communication.

But Carroll said some GIs still send letters on stationery.

“Every so often, a service member will sit down and handwrite a letter to a child or to a mom or a dad,” he said. “It’s not as frequent as it used to be, but one of the things I hope this project will do is also inspire people to write letters more often, because it really is so meaningful to family members to have that piece of paper in their hands.”

But regardless of the format, Carroll said these personal accounts from wartimes are important because they tell history from the perspective of the people who were there.

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