In every American war from the Revolution to the Persian Gulf War, military men and women captured the horror, pathos and intensity of warfare by writing letters home. Many of them were still teenagers at the time. Taken together, the letters form an epic record of wartime events. Read individually, they reveal the deep emotions of people in the midst of a unique — and terrible — experience.
Featured here are excerpts from some of the letters in Andy Carroll's book, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, dramatized in the American Experience film. Read each excerpt to find out more about the letter writer, and what happened to him or her at the end of the war.
A Vietnamese Soldier and young girl
Date: November 18, 1989
Rank: Specialist Fourth Class
Home: Rochester, Illinois
"Dear Sir, For twenty two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I'll never know...Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained..."
Luttrell wrote this letter and left it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. along with the photograph he'd kept. In March 2000, Luttrell travelled to Vietnam to meet with the daughter of the man he met on the trail in Chu Lai.
Morton D. Elevitch
Date: November 23, 1943
Home: Duluth, Minnesota
For the Nth time, thanks for your package. Please don't send me any more underwear, socks or candy... This week they are teaching us to kill... I know how to break any hold or grip and throw a man flat on his face -- They even teach us how to scientifically stomp on a man.... Confidentially, I'm tired."
Elevitch fought under Patton in Germany. He sustained serious injuries from mortar fragments, and was hospitalized for six months. Under the GI bill, he went to college and graduate school after the war. He lived in Europe through the 1950s and 1960s. A writer, professor, and traveller, he published three books of fiction. He also founded a magazine, First Person, that featured personal narratives, including letters and diaries.
Date: June 18, 1918
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Duluth, Minnesota
"We were all subjected to several different kinds of [gas] today, with and without masks... It sure is horrible stuff, honey."
Lukert was wounded in France, but he did return home to his wife. He spent 36 years in the Army and was a regimental commander in World War II.
Date: Letter to Yank magazine, published April 28, 1944
Home: Brooklyn, New York--emigrated from Trinidad, via Wales
"Myself and eight other Negro soldiers were on our way from Camp Claiborne, La., to the hospital here at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. ...We could not purchase a cup of coffee at any of the lunchrooms around there... As you know, Old Man Jim Crow rules. But that's not all; 11:30 a.m. about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on... Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this our country?"
Trimmingham had been very religious until the incident mentioned in the letter. After the war, he worked as an electrician, repairing sewing machines for Singer, and married a librarian. He died in 1985.
Date: December 12, 1862--2 a.m.
Rank: Nurse, Army of the Potomac
Home: North Oxford, Massachusetts
"...the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for as I gazed sorrowfully upon them, I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice... Oh northern mothers wives and sisters... would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow..."
After the war, Barton went on to found the American Red Cross.
Paul E. Spangler
Date: December 17, 1941
Rank: Captain; Chief of surgery, Pearl Harbor naval hospital
Home: Portland, Oregon
"With my Pearl Harbor plates on I had the right of way and I was out there in nothing flat. ...I hurried up to the Surgery and already the casualties were pouring in... It was hell for a while. These 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..."
When the war ended, Spangler headed to the Philippines on a Navy hospital ship to bring back POWs. Then he started a private practice in Portland. Two years later, he returned to the service and finished out his career as a Navy doctor. When he retired, he went to Asia on a hospital ship, the Hope, and later became a prison doctor in San Luis Obispo. He took up running at age 67, and was an avid competitor until he died at the age of 95, racking up 85 national running records for various age groups and distances.
Date: May 28, 1944
Home: Oak Ridge, Tennessee
"Take a combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, disgust, loneliness, homesickness, and wrap that all up in one reaction and you might approach the feelings a fellow has. It makes you feel mighty small, helpless, and alone... Without faith, I don't see how anyone could stand this."
This letter, sent to his younger brother from Anzio, Italy, was the last one Curtis would mail home. Three days later, as the Allies approached Rome, he was killed.
Date: Julu 10, 1969
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Pompano Beach, Florida
"Being a good platoon leader is a lonely job. I don't want to really get to know anybody over here because it would be bad enough to lose a man -- I damn sure don't want to lose a friend... But as hard as I try not to get involved with my men I still can't help liking them and getting close..."
Four days after writing his wife, Allen stepped on a land mine. He died three days later.
David Franklin Embree
Date: February 3, 1862
Home: Princeton, Indiana
"We were all kneeling in among some bush, and every one of us could not refrain from casting a glance at the dying man who lay there trembling in every limb and the blood spirting from his nostrils and the wound in his forehead. In the heat of action such scenes do not much affect one but at a time like this it is awful indeed."
Embree survived the war. He joined his father's law practice and worked there until he died in 1877.
Date: January 18, 1944
Rank: Army Nurse Corps
Home: Wautoma, Wisconsin
"We now have a mix of wounded, medical patients, and battle-fatigued soldiers. ...The wounded were happy to be missing only one arm or leg... I have a terrible earache but as usual I have to work. The patients need me."
Wandrey served in Western Europe and North Africa as a combat nurse, accumulating eight battle stars in some of the war's bloodiest campaigns. At age 81, she was still receiving letters from some of her patients.
Date: November 6, 1918
Rank: Private First Class
Home: Provo, Utah
"Dear Son be strong and have faith in the future and rest assured that all has been done that could be done you have a fine little Baby Girl she is 5 days old to day and is doing well and she will be waiting for you when you return but your dear wife has passed to the other side to day..."
Bott's father wrote to tell him the sad news: his wife had perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 soon after delivering a daughter. Bott would not see his baby girl or visit his wife's grave for another year. After the war he remarried and had two sons. He died while one son was off fighting in World War II.
Date: January 20, 1952
Home: Plattsburgh, New York (Norman); Traer, Iowa (Louise)
"Jan is snoozing in her afternoon nap & Jay is dragging himself blearily about trying to keep awake. He hardly even takes a nap anymore & is really ready for the sack at night... I think it is high time you are coming home because Jan is beginning to call every man she sees in a magazine 'Daddy'."
Duquette's plane was shot down; he spent 587 days as a North Korean prisoner of war. This letter was returned unopened to his wife, Louise. She only found out he was alive after 19 months had passed, via a radio broadcast of the names of released POWs. When Duquette was repatriated, he'd lost 70 of his 170 pounds, had a stomach-length beard, and suffered from a number of diseases and ailments as a result of his ordeal. Duquette continued his career in the Air Force. He returned to Korea in 1998, to visit his son John, a lieutenant colonel in the Army who was stationed in Seoul.
Date: January 19, 1945
Rank: First Lieutenant
Home: Bronx, New York
"Busy, Busy, as all hell -- Been moving constantly -- Excuse brevity -- I love you -- you make my foxhole warm and soft..."
Diamond had proposed to his girlfriend, Estelle Spero, while on a temporary pass home in 1943, a year after he'd volunteered for the army. They never had a chance to get married. Diamond was fatally shot in the Philippines in January 1945, just over a week after writing this note. He was 22 years old.
Date: June 15, 1952
*last name and identifying details withheld by request
"Dear Babe... You tried to 'let me down easy.'...'Be careful,' you tell me. 'Take care.' I almost laughed out loud. We wouldn't want to see me hurt, would we?"
Two days later, Leon charged a North Korean machine gun nest on his own initiative and was killed in action.
Date: August 9, 1968
Rank: Lance Corporal
Home: Waco, Texas
"...Last night one more Marine died. No one will ever hear or care about it except his parents and us... His name was Corporal Lee Clark... He didn't deserve dying in a damn country not worth fightin' for. ...He had about 38 days left in the Marine Corps and in Viet Nam. 38 days to start living again, to see the world, and home... It makes you wonder."
Eight months later, Daniel was killed by a sniper. He was 19 years old.
Timothy G. Robinson
Date: April 14, 1968
Home: Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota
"Remember when we were kids on Easter the girls would be all dressed up in new hats, pretty dresses... and us boys with new shoes and shirts and off to church we would go and after come home to look for our Easter baskets. What good times. I hope God will bring me back home so that I may marry the girl I love, which will be in March if things go OK. Then I can watch my kids get all dressed up and head for church and live that day over again. Holidays are no different than any other day. Every day is Monday in Vietnam."
Five days after writing this letter, Robinson caught his foot on a trip wire, setting off a mine that killed him instantly.
Date: March 8, 1991
Rank: Staff Sergeant
"I can't describe it. I mean the scene on the highway. We all just looked at it in the moonlight as we drove through the now silent carnage going God damn, God damn... There was a dead Iraqi in a car, eyes wide open, frozen in a silent scream... I guess I've played it so much for the last ten years that it just didn't seem much different than the training. I've had field problems that were tougher. The waiting and worrying before we did it were worse than doing it. ...It's only been the last couple of days that I've come to realize the horror that has taken place here. ...And I think it's taken so long because with only the small number of exceptions on our part, it was almost entirely theirs..."
After the war, Welch developed asthma, memory and equilibrium problems. He has since retired from the military
Date: May 2, 1945
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Home: Riverhead, Long Island, New York
"A year ago today I was sweating out shells on Anzio Beachhead -- today I am sitting in Hitlers' luxuriously furnished apartment in Munich writing a few lines home. -- What a contrast. -- A still greater contrast is that between his quarters here and the living hell of DACHAU concentration camp only 10 miles from here. -- I had the misfortune of seeing the camp yesterday and I still find it hard to believe what my eyes told me..."
Evers took time to write home while he and his men were setting up a command post in Munich. Finding themselves in the apartment of Adolph Hitler, they discovered some sheets of Hitler's personal stationery. Evers wrote home on this stationery, gold-embossed with an eagle, swastika, and Hitler's name at the top. When he returned home, he resumed working for the U.S. Postal Service. For years, he never discussed the war with his family, but when his parents passed away and he received a number of his old letters in the mid-1990s, he assembled albums of his experiences in the war. His collection includes a love letter he sent home to his wife, also on Hitler's stationery.
Lloyd Brewer Palmer
Date: November 15, 1918
Home: Cleveland, Ohio
"November 11th 1918 will always be remembered by yours truly...At 10:45 the order came to cease firing... That was absolutely the happiest moment of my life. The rest of the day little groups of smiling Germans came up to the line with tobacco and wine..."
Palmer returned home after the war and played for the Western Reserve University football team.
Date: November/December 1952
Rank: Private First Class
Home: Hackensack, New Jersey
"I'm coming home! It's official as of this morning. ...That little house is going to look like a palace to me. ...Is it true some people eat three times a day, or more? And they sit on a chair, by a table. What's the matter, can't they dig a hole in the backyard like everybody else? ...There were times I would have traded my soul for a drink of cold water, or a cup of hot coffee. But I am coming home now. Chuck isn't. He's listed M.I.A. If he's on this side of the line I hope he makes it. If he's on their side I hope he's dead. He'd wish the same for me. ...I am going to tell you now. You'll need a lot of patience with me. Patience, and, understanding. We all will."
When he returned from Korea, Puntasecca was stationed in Lewiston, New York. At a local YMCA dance one night, he met a woman from Niagara Falls. They got married a month before Puntasecca was discharged. He went to work in his father's construction business, and started a family. He has two children and three grandchildren.
Date: December 31, 1945
Home: Waco, Texas
"This is the last day of the last month of the year, and this should be the last letter that I shall write to you... So long, honey, and pucker up -- 'cause here I come."
On leave from Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, New York, Hoffman met Evelyn Giniger just days before he was to go to Europe with the 12th Army Division, in October 1944. After five dates with Evelyn on five consecutive nights, Nathan was restricted to camp, as were all the soldiers who were about to leave. He sent her an orchid with a note that read, "I'll be seeing you," taking his words from the popular song of that name. Nathan began writing Evelyn in between bouts of seasickness on the transport ship to Europe, and she wrote back. As the 12th advanced through France and Germany, Evelyn and Nathan's correspondence continued, running to thousands of pages -- which they both saved. When Nathan came home in January 1946, Evelyn was already in Waco, waiting for him. They were married a month later.
Date: February 3, 1919
Home: Pomona, California
"Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home, others remain behind forever on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. There was a war, a great war, and now it is over."
Plush was honorably discharged from service on February 15, 1919. He returned home and homesteaded property in the coastal mountains. He married in 1923, planted apples and raised turkeys on his ranch, and died in 1956 at age 63.