Some History Long Neglected

In the recent past, what was the most welcome thing a serviceman could receive, particularly when overseas? Something equally precious to Privates and Seamen, Generals and Admirals?

Something that, upon getting, could lift you out of a deep depression?

Or occasionally put you into a depression?

Mail Call

I can remember (if you were lucky), mail coming once a week, and a Sgt would grab handfuls of letters out of the bag and like a lottery, call out the lucky names.

The (generally) lucky recipients who won would then retire and read, no I should say, savor, the treasures. What people back home thought were every day common things were precious to those overseas.


Those who lost the lottery would leave dejectedly at the end of mail call.

Mail call could either be a pick-me-up or let-you-down.

Imagine being in a combat zone and learning that your wife was going to have your baby. It was something to live for.

Or, she was going to leave you. Thankfully I don’t think there were many of those. But those letters earned their own name.

As letters to servicemen from wives or girlfriends back home would typically contain affectionate language (such as “Dear Johnny”, “My dearest John”, or simply “Darling”), a serviceman receiving a note beginning with a curt “Dear John” would instantly be aware of the letter’s purpose.

A writer in the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY, summed it up in August 1945:

“Dear John,” the letter began. “I have found someone else whom I think the world of. I think the only way out is for us to get a divorce,” it said. They usually began like that, those letters that told of infidelity on the part of the wives of servicemen… The men called them “Dear Johns”.

But mail call was almost always generally good for morale.

The letters coming back from servicemen to their families have been generally ignored.

Except, apparently, for one man.

Andrew Carroll is never far away from the slim black portfolio he calls “the football.” Inside are more than two dozen original letters, creased and faded, bullet-torn and tear-stained, spanning 225 years of American war history, from the early days of the Revolution to 9/11. Each page is sheathed in a protective plastic sleeve, and for added security, there are the handcuffs. Carroll locks the case to his wrist when he travels, which he does almost constantly. By his own count, he was on the road almost 200 days last year, using this remarkable sampling of letters to convince anyone who will listen how important—and ephemeral—such documents are. It’s all part of the historian’s ambitious effort to rescue these eyewitness accounts from attics, basements, garage sales and trash bins.

I don’t have the letter; it probably left with my grandmother’s death in 1965. But a letter from her brother, LT Peter Zouck, told of the filthy trenches and rats, and he wrote of the misery of not having a simple bath.

He was killed October 11, 1918, exactly 1 month before Armistice,  at the Meuse–Argonne.

Who are better historians – at least at the micro level – than the ones who lived through that history?


Some History Long Neglected

Courtesy of the November 19, 2019 issue of Smithsonian Magazine: Staff Sgt. Horace Evers wrote about the horrors of Dachau on Hitler’s stationery while sitting at the dictator’s desk. (Greg Powers)

Not only should the “letters to home” be saved and appreciated, but some “letters from home”.

On my recent drive through the Southwest, I stopped at the Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX.

What I found fascinating about this museum was not only the displays, but so many displays of personal artifacts, from Ens. George Gay’s flight jacket he wore while at the Battle of Midway to…….this personal letter from Mrs. Alleta Sullivan to the Navy Dept, hoping that the rumors of her 5 sons being killed were false.

Some History Long Neglected1

Sadly, a few days later Mrs. Sullivan would receive the news that all 5 of her sons were killed on the Juneau. The Navy changed it’s policy about siblings serving together in combat after this. (Exhibit from the Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, TX)

At the time, they are just correspondence but as the years go, they are pieces of history.


01/08/20 2305 :  This post reminded me of a link I referenced 2 years earlier. It is the memoirs of a former pilot of a Grumman C-2 Greyhound (COD, for Carrier Onboard Delivery plane. Some parts are humorous, about the crew living a somewhat vagabond life delivering people, parts, and the mail to various crews on carriers in an ancient (50,000 hours) plane. 

It was probably the most welcomed plane on the carriers!  

It’s a bit of a long read, but I think well worth your time. 

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