Smithsonian Magazine - 11.2019

(Joyce) #1


18 SMITHSONIAN.COM | November 2019


until the fall of 1998 that he turned his attention fully
to the letters he was amassing and envisioned another
enormous undertaking. He wrote to Dear Abby, ask-
ing the syndicated advice columnist to promote what
he decided to call the Legacy Project.
Her column, which appeared on Veterans Day
1998, described Carroll as “a young man on a mis-
sion” and the project an “all volunteer, national ef-
fort,” which was true, though Carroll was the only
volunteer. The columnist asked readers to send cop-
ies of war letters to a post offi ce box in Washington,
D.C. Four days later, the post offi ce called Carroll:
There were bins of letters everywhere. Many peo-
ple had sent original family heirlooms to a stranger
they knew only through Dear Abby. Carroll wasn’t
prepared for that kind of trust—or for challenges of
storing thousands of letters.
Over the next 15 years his collection ballooned—
5,000 letters, then 10,000, then 50,000. Carroll pub-
lished a small percentage of the letters in a series of
books, which have helped to fund the endeavor. A
handful was featured in a documentary; others ap-
peared in a play; a few more were exhibited at the
Smithsonian National Postal Museum. But most of
the letters remained crammed into storage crates in
the basement of Carroll’s D.C. apartment tower. By
2013, there were an estimated 100,000 letters down
there—the largest nongovernmental collection of
war correspondence in the country.
Today, the bulk of the archive is stored at the Leath-
erby Libraries at Chapman University, where Carroll
now serves as the director of the Center for American
War Letters. The school has dedicated storage and
exhibit space to the project, as well as the resources
to process the collections. Each letter is opened and
read. Sometimes the archivists uncover a surprise: “I
went out with a Red Cross lieut. named Hemingway,
who comes from Oak Park,” Army Lt. Walter Boadway
wrote in 1918 of a 19-year-old, fi rst name Ernest. “He
has been here in the hospital 4 months and has some
time to go yet. He was out in the trenches one night
when a trench mortar shell blew their cover away and
left them exposed to machine gun fi re. He got 247
wounds from the mortar shell and machine guns. He
has a couple of pounds of metal they have carved out
of him. Luckily he got most of it in his legs and not in
a vital spot.” Carroll believes it to be among the fi rst
references to Hemingway’s World War I service.
After archivists open every envelope, the of-
ten-fragile pages are both scanned and physically
preserved. Taken together, the letters can tell the sto-
ry of economic changes on the home front or of ad-
vances in the postal infrastructure, to name just two
research projects. But it is time consuming. About

The 1942 letter
that Gene
Sobolewski, of
the Women’s
Army Auxiliary
Corps, mailed to
her fi ancé, Pvt.
John Harshbarg-
er, was returned
to her. That is
how she learned
of his death.

In April 1945, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Bert Drennen wrote
a letter to his wife, Ethel, on stationery from Camp Lejeune
in North Carolina—but that’s not where he was. He could
not reveal his true location, says Lynn Heidelbaugh of the
Smithsonian National Postal Museum, because of wartime
procedures for censoring the outgoing mail of service mem-
bers overseas to prevent the release of sensitive information.
But Drennen had found a way around the censors. Before he
deployed, Drennen took the unusual step of leaving Ethel a
code sheet (below, in red, now archived along with the note
at the Center for American War Letters). The “Aunt Ruth” he
mentions in his letter didn’t exist. His concern for her meant
he was stationed in the Hawaiian Islands.


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