From The Wall Street Journal:

Moving On: Efforts mount to preserve soldiers' letters, emails

Thursday, May 05, 2005

By Jeffrey Zaslow, The Wall Street Journal

In past wars, after a soldier died, his kid sister could cling to letters written home, finding solace in whatever loving words were left behind.

But 10-year-old Jessica Ellsworth is a victim of her times. Her 20-year-old brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, died while trying to defuse a bomb in Iraq last November. Back in Wixom, Mich., his family had only a handful of letters, and didn't know his Internet password, so they couldn't retrieve emails he'd written to friends and family, many of which had been deleted by recipients.

Justin's father, John, went to court last month to petition Yahoo Inc. to share his son's emails. "I wanted to capture the essence of Justin, from his last words," he says. He hoped the emails could be bound in a scrapbook, something Jessica could hold onto.

Given the changed nature of war correspondence today, and the passing on of so many veterans of World War II and Korea, there is a growing network aimed at collecting war letters before they are lost or discarded. Military and preservation groups are encouraging families of today's soldiers to print out emails before hitting the delete button. The National Endowment for the Arts is hosting writing workshops on military bases, bringing in authors such as Tom Clancy to help soldiers craft their observations. The all-volunteer Legacy Project asks vets and civilians to search their attics for old letters and to learn methods to prevent them from deteriorating (

War writings, of course, are crucial touchstones for those on the home front. My mother was a---year-old kid sister when her brother's B-17 bomber was shot down over the Baltic Sea in World War II. Though other U.S. airmen saw a parachute open, my uncle's body was never found.

His letters had been loving and cheery. "I'm working around planes. Everything's quiet." But his diary, sent home with his belongings, told the full story. He described flaming planes as "10 more good men gone." He wrote of counting 35 holes in his plane after one mission -- "every gun in Germany seemed to be shooting at us" -- and of kissing the ground when he returned to England.

My uncle's letters and diary are just about all that my mother has of him now, and she cherishes them. Jessica Ellsworth will not be so lucky.

At age 10, she has trouble comprehending why her brother's emails were kept from the family. Yahoo had declined to hand them over, citing privacy concerns, but then accepted a court order to do so.

Searching a disc Yahoo provided, Justin's dad waded through 1,500 spam emails that arrived after Justin's death, and made a disappointing discovery: Justin saved almost none of his outgoing messages.

Mr. Ellsworth now hears from others hoping to access email accounts of loved ones killed in action. He advises military families: Ask soldiers to share passwords before they head overseas.

Legacy Project director Andrew Carroll has traveled to 35 countries to collect 75,000 war letters dating from the American Revolution to the present. Some of the most compelling correspondences appear in his new compilation, "Behind the Lines," a sequel to his 2001 best seller, "War Letters."

Many soldiers wrote of feeling disconnected from the home front. Training in Florida, a pilot saw vacationing civilians "who didn't give a damn about the war." They just wanted to "spend their money and have a good time." His letter was written in 1945.

More recently, an Army nurse in Afghanistan wrote to her family in Ohio about her "utter sadness" watching grieving servicemen as they "sat with their dead comrades for hours in our triage area." She described soldiers who felt forgotten because Americans consider the Afghan front "last year's war."

One letter tracked down by Mr. Carroll came from a U.S. Army private captured by the Germans in 1944. The soldier was a POW in Dresden. His letter described the horrific Allied bombing of that city. He survived it in an underground meat locker. Afterward, German officers put him to work carrying corpses -- "women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire, suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres."

That soldier, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., turned his Dresden memories into the classic 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Today, his letter reminds him of his belief that the Dresden attack didn't end the war any earlier, or liberate any death camps. Only one person benefited from it, he says, "and that's me." He sarcastically figures "Slaughterhouse-Five" royalties translated to "$200 for each person killed."

I first heard from Mr. Carroll in 2003, when I mentioned in this column that my dad, a World War II vet, was a liberator of Dachau. My father wrote hundreds of war letters, and Mr. Carroll picked one for his anthology. In it, my father, then 20, describes entering a "slave camp" and finding Russian teens who had been sex slaves for German soldiers. Many had babies as a result. "The mothers' faces were weary and they were feeding their babies with what they had left of themselves," my father wrote.

For decades, he never looked at his old letters, bundled up long ago by my grandmother. Lately, though, he has pored through them, leading to a cascade of memories he keeps sharing with loved ones. But we can't fully understand his emotions.

Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the victory in Europe. On that day in 1945, my dad sent his parents a letter, mentioning news reports he'd heard about mobs of drunks celebrating VE Day in Times Square. On his side of the world, the mood was more sober, 05/16/2005 19:50>

Last modified date and time: 05/16/2005 19:47