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War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars

Publisher: Scribner • 1998 • 512 pages

“War Letters” is an unforgettable collection of deeply personal letters from those who fought America’s wars — from the Civil War to Bosnia. These 200 letters give you riveting, previously unpublished accounts of Gettysburg, Meuse-Argonne, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Khe Sanh, Desert Storm, Somalia, and more — all written as these world-changing events were unfolding.

Some of these letters have long been preserved as heirlooms. Others were rescued from attics, basements, and rummage sales. All have been painstakingly gathered by Andrew Carroll’s Legacy Project, an initiative designed to honor our veterans by seeking out and preserving their correspondence. In each of these letters, history comes alive as never before: soldiers move through the great battles of history, have encounters with great men and women, comfort their loved ones back home, receive and react to “Dear John” letters, and struggle with the horror and loneliness of war.

A revealing new sidelight on history – from common soldiers:

  • Marcus Morton’s letter of support to Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, in his “hour of imminent peril”
  • Lt. Ai B. Thompson’s account of the Union Army’s “disgraceful” loss at Bull Run
  • Imprisoned Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow accuses Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward of establishing a “Military Dictatorship”
  • Pvt. John Burrill’s brief but graphic description of the battlefield at Gettysburg
  • Maj. William Child after a night at Ford’s Theatre: “I have seen the murder of the President of the United States”
  • A prophetic view of Hitler from a man who became a Rabbi and an Army Chaplain – and who died in 1943, arm in arm and at prayer with three Christian chaplains on board a ship hit by a German torpedo
  • Lt. Tommie Kennedy’s heart-rending last letters to his family, smuggled off a Japanese “hell ship”
  • Capt. Ed Land, an American flying with the Royal Air Force, describes the exhilaration and risks of being a fighter pilot defending England from the Luftwaffe
  • Lt. Walter Schuette’s letter to his newborn daughter, to be read to her if he does not come home alive
  • Pfc. Dom Bart’s moment-by-moment account of going ashore at Normandy on D-Day: June 6, 1944
  • Staff Sgt. Horace Evers writes from Hitler’s Munich apartment (on the Führer’s personal stationery) to tell his family about the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp
  • Capt. Richard Easterbrook writes to his parents from the hospital bedside of Hideki Tojo, who has just tried to commit suicide
  • The sister of a man killed in Vietnam to JFK: “If a war is worth fighting – isn’t it worth fighting to win?” (Plus Kennedy’s response)
  • Lt. Col. Gerald Massy’s firsthand report on the Tet Offensive, as it unfolds around him
  • Staff Sgt. Frank Evans on the anxious first hours of the air campaign against Iraq

Plus new, personal revelations from some well-known figures:

  • Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman defends himself against Southerners who call him a “barbarian”
  • Mrs. Robert E. Lee: the North “has achieved by starvation what they never could win by their valor”
  • Gen. John Pershing explains to his nine-year-old son why he and his troops are fighting in France
  • Col. George S. Patton to his father, 1918: “we have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped”
  • Journalist Ernie Pyle’s salty, colorful (and sometimes profane) letter to his old friend Paige Cavanaugh
  • Lt. j.g. George Bush updates his parents on his recovery after being shot down and nearly killed during a bombing mission in the South Pacific
  • Surprise! 1st Lt. George McGovern to his friend Bob Pennington on election 1944: “I’m going to be more than disgusted if Dewey doesn’t win”
  • Lt. Cdr. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Steinbeck offer condolences to the widow of their friend John Kremer, killed in a kamikaze attack
  • Gen. Douglas MacArthur defends himself against the “radical fringe” maligning his leadership
  • Capt. Richard Hornberger, M.D., later creator of M*A*S*H, describes the antics in a real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
  • The Cold War: Whittaker Chambers reflects on the Alger Hiss spy case twelve years after it was first reported
  • Francis Gary Powers writes to his parents from Moscow after his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union
  • General Colin Powell responds to a withering onslaught of questions about Desert Storm – from a class of first graders!

EXCERPT — Lt. Cdr. Paul E. Spangler’s eyewitness account of the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

I was resting peacefully in bed when I noticed rather more “practice fire” than I had heard before and then I realized that it was strange to be practicing on Sunday morning. . . . Then I saw the smoke from the several fires and saw the antiaircraft shells exploding. . . .

There was one big Jap bomber in the sky flying over Hickam Field and Fort Kamahamaha but no one seemed to be doing anything about it. One Jap plane was down in flames at the Hospital and it had fired the Laboratory and one of the quarters which fortunatley had been vacated because they were starting a big new dry dock. I met the Exec. at the door and he told me to go up and take charge of the Surgery. I hurried up to the Surgery and all ready the casualties were pouring in. I did the first operation on a casual in this war if that is anything.

I spent the next 72 hours in four hour shifts at the operating table. During my first shift we were under almost constant bombing and the A-A fire kept up a constant din. They didn’t actually hit the hospital but one explosion was so close it blew all the windows out of the work room which was right next to the room I was operating in. I thought my time had come for sure. It was hell for a while. Those poor devils brought in all shot up and burned. Many of them hopeless. We gave them plenty of morphine and sent them out in the Wards to die. The others we patched up as best we could. . . . It was all a nice party but personally I dont want to see any more like it.

I only hope the country will now take off their coats and go to work. We have the ability and skill but it is going to mean many sacrifices for all and a long hard pull.

“In the sweep of history, the experience of the lone soldier is often lost, but in this breathtaking collection the individual voices of the men and women who have served this nation come to life with a power and an eloquence that is both gripping and unforgettable. I can think of no better way to understand the horrors of war than to read the words of those who have been caught in its grasp, and these extraordinary letters offer some of the most dramatic eyewitness accounts of war imaginable. Quite simply, this is one of the greatest, most riveting books of war letters I have ever read.” – STEPHEN AMBROSE, author of The Good Fight and Citizen Soldiers

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