(From TODAY Correspondent, John Yang)
When producer Debbie Pettit, cameraman Wolfie Fraser and I went to interview writer Andrew Carroll at his small apartment off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., we discovered he actually has two apartments. Or, more precisely, he has one apartment that he lives in, and another one down the hall to house some of the 80,000 letters he's collected--all messages from the battlefield to the home front, dating back to the Revolutionary War.
They're piled in boxes, mail cartons and a foot locker. A fireproof box holds a fuel-soaked journal written in Arabic, found beneath an Iraqi tank by U.S. forces during the Iraq war; on one page is a doodle of a woman's face. Inside a Whitman's Sampler box are letters from the Spanish-American War, Cuban postmarks over 2-cent stamps.
Carroll, 37, has edited several collections of the letters into three books: the best-selling War Letters, Behind the Lines and, most recently, Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War.
The seemingly mundane letters tell powerfully dramatic stories, both small and large. There's a Valentine's Day love letter home to a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, retrieved from his dead body on a battlefield by a Union soldier. And a letter carried by a soldier in his backpack near Anzio, Italy, with a charred hole from the heat of a bullet that ripped through it; the soldier survived.
One of the most intriguing is a handwritten letter on cream-colored personalized stationery. The name on the letterhead--"Adolf Hitler"--is crossed out. Handwritten below it: "S/Sgt. Evers." It's dated May 2, 1945--three days after the Nazi leader killed himself and seven days before the war in Europe ended.
The young staff sergeant was part of a patrol going door-to-door in Munich when he found himself in Hitler's apartment in that city, according to Carroll. Discovering the stationery, he sat down and wrote a letter to his parents. Much of it describes the stark contrast between the luxurious setting where he found himself and the horrors he had seen just days before--the liberation of Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp northwest of Munich where more than 31,000 prisoners were believed to have died. Soldiers found 32,000 surviving prisoners jammed into barracks designed to hold 5,000.
Carroll says he asked him why he had scratched out Hitler's name. His answer: "I didn't want my parents to get scared when they got the letter, thinking that Hitler was writing them."
Carroll became interested in letters after fire destroyed his parents home in Washington while he was a student at Columbia University. "The worst part was losing all of our family letters," he says.
He launched the "Legacy Project" to seek out and preserve personal correspondence in 1993, with the help of the columnist "Dear Abby."
"Ever since that column ran, I've been inundated with literally tens of thousands of response," he says. "In many ways I was ready for the war letters themselves, but I wasn't prepared for the cover letters--from the family members or the veterans." They told the personal back-story to the letters and said they hoped they, their loved one and their deeds would be remembered.
By the time we left, I came to understand that Carroll's second apartment wasn't just a storage space. It was a home for thousands of lives, thousands of histories, thousands of stories.
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Anyone interested in contributing wartime correspondence to the Legacy Project can send original letters, a legible photocopy or typed transcript to The Legacy Project, PO Box 53250, Washington, DC 20009. E-mails can be forwarded to: WarLetters2004@yahoo.com