What we are really talking about are the wartime letters exchanged between both the front lines and the families at home. Letters go both directions in about the same number. Letters sent during wartime are among the most significant memorials a person can leave behind them. Some families have kept letters written by several generations of soldiers. Mine has letters written from before the Civil War through Vietnam.
If you read soldiers’ letters from different eras, they are remarkably similar. While some older letters talk about horses and more recent ones about helicopters, all of them communicate the writer’s feelings of fear, survival, boredom, and loneliness. Some offer eyewitness accounts of historic events. Others convey love and affection that under normal times may not be expressed as openly. Taken together, they represent a unique record of the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families at home.
They need to be preserved. Too many are discarded by people who either do not appreciate their significance or, sadly, do not want to recall those distressing times. Other letters, while being saved, are not preserved in a way that will make them available to future generations.
After the beginning of the 20th Century, letters home rarely contained as much of a historical nature. Security and censorship was increasingly enforced during conflict. But some of the most interesting letters were written after a conflict ended. Soldiers were not sent on their way home as soon as the last bullet was fired, but were freer to write about things that they couldn’t communicate earlier. Foreign postcards, photographs of themselves and their buddies, and stories about battles and liberations were more common.
Following is a brief summary of how soldiers’ letters home have changed over our history. The final section will give you some guidelines for preserving your treasured letters.
During the Civil War soldiers wrote an unprecedented number of letters home. Over the course of the war, some regiments were capable of producing 40,000 letters or more. This made the Civil War one of the most documented events in American history.
Between battles there were many hours of idleness. Sometimes they described the battles, but more often they wrote about their daily routine and desire to be home.
When you read their letters you will get a sense of what the soldier was like and what they thought about while so far from home. But writing letters home was only part of the process. Soldiers wanted letters from their family also. The arrival of mail in the camps was a cause for celebration. For many it was the only reminder of the normal life they had left behind.
It was very typical for a soldier to plead for their family to right back on a regular basis. There were few delights greater than receiving mail from home. One letter said, “Joseph, if you are able to write me a letter, I want you to do it. I have only gotten one letter since I left Camp Chase. I would like to hear from home every week. If you could see the men running when the mail comes in, you would write often. If I could hear from home more often, I would be satisfied.” (Harrison Clawson, 180th Ohio Infantry, 1864)
Occasionally a soldier would get a package from home. It might contain clothing, candy, soap, or more writing paper. If their package contained cookies or a cake, that soldier would become the most popular man in camp. Home cooked food was more prized than any other item except a photograph.
In addition to holding a letter, envelopes could have a special purpose. Many were printed with patriotic or political statements. These were generally known as “covers.” Some private companies even printed envelopes for a specific regiment which listed all of the battles in which the regiment participated up to that point. In the later parts of the war, organizations gave out free paper and envelopes to the soldiers. The U.S. Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission were known for this.
While all soldiers attempted to write letters home, not all of them could write very well and spelling skills were poor. The average soldier in the Union Army had a fourth grade education which did not allow them to master grammar, if they could write at all. Some poor writes would ask their buddies to write the letters for them. Today it can be difficult to transcribe some of the letters home. Spelling was frequently phonetic which made for interesting, and comical, interpretation. Letters from Confederate soldiers if read phonetically even reveals their southern drawl.
The practice of mail censorship began during the Civil War but was limited to mail that might cross enemy lines.
World War I was a massive conflict with millions of soldiers participating. The battles were enormous but during periods between them, the men in the trenches had time to reflect and write letters to their families. Many expressed their thoughts on being away. The folks at home wrote letters of support and updated the soldier on family events. And of course there were the “Dear John” rejections letters too.
With America’s entrance into World War, I things began to change. Military censorship of soldiers’ letters started in earnest. If specific information about troop locations fell into enemy hands, there would be serious consequences. Censors looked at two things; was there information that would benefit the enemy or would weaken morale (either the soldier’s or the people at home). Letters written in languages other than English were routinely intercepted.
There was no organized group responsible for censoring mail. Usually unit officers were assigned that duty. Some, opposing the practice, just ignored the task.
The British handled the issue of censorship more sternly. The British government passed the Defense of the Realm Act in 1914 which ordered that letters written by members of the armed forces to their families were to be read and censored by the authorities. Punishment for writing about the war could include imprisonment without trial. Still, British soldiers were encouraged to write home, but to conceal the horrors of war.
Many families have saved the letters sent home during World War II. They were read around the dinner table, everyone sharing the news at the same time. The letters reflected a diversity of emotions from anger to humor to determination. And they were written by soldiers in places new to Americans - in a military hospital in a foreign country, the belly of a flying B-17, a bunk on a submarine, or in a prison camp.
Enemy intelligence was much more pervasive that in any previous war, and coded communication was an ever present concern. Written communications from soldiers were only allowed to be sent via the Army Postal Service. Any attempt to avoid this restriction by using civilian postal systems resulted in severe disciplinary action against the sender.
The U.S. War Department issued a list of ten subjects that were prohibited:
Don’t write about any military units including location, strength, material, or equipment.
Don’t write about military installations.
Don’t write about transportation facilities.
Don’t write about convoys, their routes, time in route, or incidents occurring en route.
Don’t disclose movements of ships, naval or merchant; or aircraft.
Don’t mention plans or orders for future operations (even if you are guessing).
Don’t write about the effect of enemy operations.
Don’t tell of any casualty
Don’t use any code, cipher, or shorthand to conceal the true meaning of your letter.
Don’t give your location in any way.
Military senders would have their message read by a censor before it was processed. This was a common practice in most countries. Information of a sensitive nature related to troop locations and activities was obliterated, sometimes physically cut out of the sheet. Oddly, enlisted men, who knew little, were censored more severely than officers, who knew a lot. After a specific war-related event had been completed, and news of it already published in the newspapers, the censors would not delete it from the letters.
My mother saved every letter that my father sent home from Europe during World War II. When I was old enough, I read them. Among the various written pages were some small, funny looking letters that looked more like those office message pads that people used before e-mail. They were from my father and sent to my mother, but I didn’t know why they were different.
The V-mail letter-sheets were sent to a processing location and microfilmed. Each message was reduced to the size of your thumb-nail. We think of microfilming as a fairly recent invention but it isn’t. It’s as old as photography itself. It was invented in 1839 by the British scientist John Benjamin Dancer, and the first microfilm strips were patented in Europe twenty years later. During the First World War, microfilm strips were carried by passenger pigeons.
The rolls of microfilmed messages were loaded onto aircraft, flown to a receiving station near where the addressee lived, or was stationed if the message was originated in the U.S. An exact copy of the message was reproduced and enlarged, printed on photographic paper, then delivered. This method of mail processing was first invented ten years before World War II as a commercial venture by Eastman Kodak, British Airways, and Pan-Am Airways working together. It was called “Airgraph.”
The first use of V-mail began in mid-1943. After two years, over 500 million pieces of mail were sent from the U.S. to service people overseas, and another 500 million messages were returned home by the soldiers and sailors. There were significant benefits for the military which flew all messages. It took 37 mail bags to hold 150,000 one-page regular letters but only one mail bag to carry the same number in microfilmed form. The weight reduction corresponded; from 2,575 lbs to just 45 pounds. The space and weight saved on each flight was now free to move war supplies.
In spite of this, V-mail met its anticipated advantages. It was more secure than first class letters because invisible inks and other covert methods could not be microfilmed. It was fast, it was inexpensive, and it freed up cargo aircraft space for other needed materials. All in all, it was a success.
Korea and the Vietnam Era
Letters home written during the Korean War and Vietnam War frequently contained more vivid descriptions of combat as censorship was less stringent during these times.
I remember that on my first full day in basic training our group was literally ordered to write a letter home letting our families know we had arrived safely at camp. We sealed the envelopes ourselves. There was no censorship, but then we knew nothing at all anyway.
Censorship became less of an issue during the Vietnam War. G.I. letters were reviewed and censored but to a lesser degree. Soldiers’ were generally free to write about their experiences and what they had seen in the field. Even hand drawn maps showing the soldier’s location were not generally deleted.
Popular items sent to a soldier in Southeast Asia were magazines and pre-packaged snacks. Most of these were available near the combat zone through the U.S. military, however, so personal letters and photographs continued to be the most important thing to a soldier.
When the Gulf War began in 1991, new types of communications with the folks at home also began. Hand writing of letters was largely replaced by electronic messaging, either by phone or e-mail. These have grown in popularity since. The internet is available to most soldiers serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Service people in all branches of the military have been instructed not to send certain types of information over the internet. But experts are not too concerned about security as the military’s sensitive operations information is restricted to a network that is not connected to the publicly accessible internet.
Packages of course do follow the normal mail route. While most necessary personal items are available through the PX system, soldiers abroad still love to receive packages from home containing photographs homemade snacks, and special interest magazines. Since 9-11, all packages that go through the military mail are screened for chemical and biological weapons and explosives.
It may be sad for some to realize that the era of handwritten letters from the front is almost a thing of the past, but the nearly immediate nature of electronic messaging provides a greater option for staying close to your loved ones serving during wartime.
Preserving Your Letters
Letters home from a soldier is part of your family’s heritage. They deserve to be preserved just like your Family Bible, marriage or death certificates, and old photographs.
In preserving your letters from the front for future generations, there are two overriding rules: (1) Find the letters, where ever they are. (2) Keep the originals safe.
1. FIND THE LETTERS.
If they were kept at all, they could be almost anywhere. Check your family bible, old trunks and luggage, desk drawers, closets, attics, and basements. Yes, even old shoeboxes. Ask others if they have seen the letters. Some people keep the old letters with the family genealogy materials.
2. KEEP THE ORIGINALS SAFE.
Avoid handling them.
Handling the original letters too much will always end with damage. The paper can be torn, pages can get lost, and the oils in your skin can harm the document.
Don’t use any method of attachment that could damage the letters. This includes stapling, paper clipping, or rubber banding. Discoloration or rust spots are likely consequences. Even post-it notes will leave an adhesive residue.
Don’t glue the letters into a scrap book or album. The best method of holding an old handwritten letter is in its original envelope.
Don’t write notes on the originals under any circumstances. If notes had been made earlier, don’t try to erase them now. It only causes more damage.
Always keep the letter with its corresponding envelope.
Envelopes are originals too. The writer may have neglected to put a date on the letter so the postmark on the envelope will help you identify the time it was written. Sometimes a return address on the envelope might help put the letter into context.
Don’t pass the originals around and never put them in the mail.
Remember, never circulate the originals. These valuable documents could get damaged or even lost forever.
If the letter was originally e-mailed, print it out; never leave it only in your computer.
This should be common sense. Computers can crash and your e-mails may be inaccessible. At the very least, they may be accidently deleted. Don’t take the chance. A clear, chemical-free plastic page holder would be suitable to hold the printed e-mail letters.
Store the originals safely.
After you have assembled the letters and put them in the sequence you desire, enclose them in a sturdy container that closes securely. Whatever container you use, make sure it is clearly labeled as important memorabilia - not to be discarded. Keep it in a cool, dry place. Prepare a list of the contents and keep that in a separate location.
Make sure that others in your family know that you have saved the letters, and tell them where you put them.
3. PREPARE THE INFORMATION IN THE LETTERS FOR OTHERS, INCLUDING YOUR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
This third step requires more time and effort but it is certainly worth it.
Copy the original letters for distribution to others in your extended family.
The best way to make the letters available to others is to scan and print, or photocopy, the originals. Keep the originals safe and under your control.
Transcribe the content of very old letters for the reading ease of others.
Transcription is especially useful for very old letters such as those from the Civil War. Many times, the originals are difficult to read. The paper may be crackled, the ink faded, or they could be written in pencil. We recommend that you first transcribe the letter exactly as it was written. Include all spelling and grammatical errors, you need to preserve it just as the writer created it.
Second, you might consider an additional version written with all original mistakes corrected. This will make the letter’s content much easier to understand by others in your family. But never make corrections on the original document.
Research the historical context in which the letter was written.
This will be much easier if the letter or envelope has a date on it. From the Civil War onward, histories have been written about almost every military unit that has existed. They frequently exist for units down to the size of a single regiment. Many larger military units, such as divisions, have social/fraternal organizations that meet and publish their own histories. They can be easily found on the internet. Army histories are usually published in books, but can be quite specific.
Some histories are so detailed that they delineate where the unit was, and what they were doing, on a daily basis during military campaigns. If you correlate the date on the letter or envelope to the unit history, you can determine where your soldier was and what circumstances he was under at the time he wrote the letter. The results of this can be very revealing.
Creating a short biographical sketch of the soldier writing the letter can also be valuable to others.