Editor Andrew Carroll has scoured the world for war letters and collected them in a book called "Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters and One Man's Search to Find Them" (Scribner). He stood onstage Tuesday night at the New York Society for Ethical Culture and introduced readings from the book.
During the past three years, he has visited 35 countries and uncovered letters — some chilling, some heartwarming — dating from the French and Indian War to e-mails from Iraq. The anthology of letters he has collected is arranged thematically rather than just chronologically. It includes letters of love, family, and friendship; letters about combat; letters by and about civilians; and postwar letters.
Mr. Carroll directs the Legacy Project, a volunteer effort to preserve war correspondence before those letters are lost or thrown away. To audience applause, it was announced that the Legacy Project will deposit its immense collection of war letters at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which was hosting the evening. Mr. Carroll is donating all the royalties from his new book to veteran's organizations and similar nonprofits.
Mr. Carroll said his book would enable a better understanding of warfare. He opened the evening by reading from a letter from a 14-year-old boy in a concentration camp. The letter, smuggled out, said if all the sky were paper, "I could not describe my suffering."
Mr. Carroll also read from an eyewitness account of the attack on Pearl Harbor from a worried soldier next to a loaded oil tank. He read a letter from a private in 1953 coming home from Korea, telling his family that he's not the boy they remember: "You'll need a lot of patience with me," the soldier wrote. In one letter there's mention of the mother who "keeps your room exactly as you left it."
Speakers on Tuesday included Jane Pauley, who noted that women put themselves in harm's way in every conflict. She and her husband, Gary Trudeau, read contrapuntally a letter from a couple: Perhaps to save paper, the man would type succinct remarks on the woman's letter and return it. Mr. Trudeau also read from other letters, including one with a drawing of a cat balancing himself on the muzzle of a German gun.
Humorist Christopher Buckley read from a section of the book that contains humorous and unusual letters, some showing how soldiers cope under adverse events. One letter had the line: "I'm on my honeymoon, so like you I'm in captivity." Another from a girlfriend read, "Darling, I married your father. Signed, Mother." There was a long letter from a California man to his local draft board, describing paragraphs of ailments: "Right eye effected & ear by bells paulsia. Right eye discharges white matter. Both eyes water on contact with wind. Left great toe not active of operation from secondary infraction from bad case of athletic feet. Left great toe develops fever on too much pressure on it and fever's left leg to knee. Left chins bone pains from sunburn two years ago … 95% of my aquaintancies claim that I'm mentally unbalanced. Worries me at times if its not so. Was kicked on head by a horse when very young." The P.S. adds, "am patriotick man & don't want you should think I'm trying to get out of draft. If was would exagerate a litle."
Animal activists notwithstanding, the audience laughed at a letter Mr. Buckley read by a Harvard scientist, Earl Stevenson, regarding an idea for the National Defense Resource Council presented by "an eccentric dentist/inventor from Irwin, Pennsylvania" for using bats to carry incendiary bombs. "The original proposal was to release these bats, for example, some hundreds of miles off the shores of Japan at such a time would permit the bat to travel to land, arriving shortly before daylight. The habit of the bat is such that with light it would seek a refuge by crawling into crevices under roofs, thatching, and generally into small places where conceivably fires could be very easily started by means of a bat-borne incendiary weighing approximately one ounce."
According to the book, the proposal was not a complete failure, but a 1943 memo pointed out problems with Chemical Warfare Service testing. "These tests had shown that the bats were not as easy to catch as had been supposed" and once in hibernation were not as easily aroused. The audience laughed when Mr. Buckley added, "In the latter stages of the experiment, there was a disaster in which the hangers and outlying building of the small airport used burned down. The cause of the fire was never ascertained, but it served to discourage the group."
Mr. Carroll later said the audio version of the book has "Batman" actor Adam West, reading from this batty correspondence.
Frederick Douglass IV read a Civil War letter involving treatment of Black soldiers. He also read a letter from 1848 that his great-great grandfather wrote to his former slave master, saying he was his fellow man, not his slave. "I intend to make use of you as a weapon against slavery," Douglass wrote.
Another moving letter was read by TimeWarner's director of process and technologies, Sean Harapko, from his brother Josh, then a 23-year-old sergeant and platoon leader with the 10th Mountain division, fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan. He died a year later, when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a training mission at Fort Drum, N.Y.
The audience paid rapt attention to Kurt Vonnegut, a former private first class who hailed from Indianapolis, Ind. He was among a fortunate group of American prisoners who survived the Dresden bombing in a meatlocker under a slaughterhouse. That experience later formed the basis of his "Slaughterhouse Five." Germans had captured him during the Battle of the Bulge and returned him to America in summer 1945.
Seen in the audience were businessman Byron Wien; Herman Badillo; John Elko, who was Andrew Carroll's teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.; scholar Elizabeth Powers; and Charisse Jones, author of "Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women" (HarperCollins). A highpoint of the evening was Mr. Douglass's wife B.J. Douglas singing "America, the Beautiful." The New York Sun later learned that she was in a group in the 1960's called "Les Chansonettes," which issued records on a soul label founded by Motown founder Barry Gordy's wife.