From the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm, combatants’ correspondence is personal and revealing.
William Czako began a hastily written letter to his sister, Helen, on a winter day from a U.S. warship. Czako wondered whether he—or his letter—would survive, but he continued:
Our anti aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship. Again a bomb. We’re helpless down here in the Forward Engine Room because our main engines are all tore down.…I am on the interior communications telephone and I can hear the various stations screaming orders at one other. A man just brought us our gas masks.…
What makes this moment-by-moment description of an attack all the more compelling is the date in the letter’s upper right-hand corner: “Dec. 7, 1941”; William Czako was trapped inside the docked USS New Orleans at Pearl Harbor.
Czako’s riveting account is one of 80,000 previously unpublished missives sent to the Legacy Project since the initiative’s launch 10 years ago. From handwritten notes penned during the American Revolution to e-mails sent from Iraq and Afghanistan, the letters illuminate the full spectrum of emotions in wartime—terror, grief, passion, courage, resilience—all made more vibrant through the lens of warfare. They offer firsthand glimpses of the unfolding drama accompanying major world events.
Following are a handful of letters and e-mails from the Legacy Project archives, all written by men and women who found themselves, if only briefly, at the epicenter of history. Please visit [www.historynet.com/letters-from-thefront.htm] to hear readings from some of the letters.
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Personal letters by common soldiers from the revolution are particularly rare. Writing paper was scarce, there was no reliable postal service, and many of the troops were barely literate. A private from New Jersey named Henry Johnson was, however, able to send the following to his parents on June 13, 1780, from the Basking Ridge Hospital after being wounded in May 1780. (The letter is transcribed as written with only minor commentary. The word “Etacted” is believed to mean “attacked.”)
Bascon Ridge Ospitreal
I have taken this opertunyty to let you know what misfortue I met with on the seventh Ult A party of the Enemy Came to Elisebeth town [and] ma[r]ched to the Conecticut Farms We lay at Newark Mountain A Bout twelve oclock at Night we was Alarmed and Marched to the farms and about Sun Rise We Etacted them the Jersey Berguade and there was a Bout five thousand of them we kept up a hot fire about fore hours and in the atact was wounded Col Ogden of the forth Regt and a number of Soldiers kild and wounded and I got a Wound in the head very Bad But I am in hopes With the Assistance of god that I Shall git wel again.…
Sonomore at preseant
But Remain your Loving Son
Henery Johnson But I desir to Be Remembered to all Enquirering friends
Johnson survived the war and eventually became a shoemaker.
Of the 100,000 soldiers who clashed at the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh, named after a local Methodist Episcopal meetinghouse, a quarter were killed, wounded or captured—about the same number of casualties as the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War combined. Andrew DeVilbiss, a Confederate soldier, offered his perspective on the battle in a letter to his wife on April 16. (DeVilbiss self-censored his epithet concerning Northern soldiers.)
I hurriedly write you a few lines to let you know that I am well.…
I am afraid the wounded man may have been detained at the Hospital at Holly Springs and mails are uncertain. I am anxious you should hear from me. It is given up to be the hardest fought battle on the American Continent.
The Yankee camps, that we took were beautifully located with fine springs running down in branches, but on Monday morning I saw those branches having their waters all colored with blood. O Mary you could never form an idea of the horrors of actual war unless you saw the battlefields while the conflict is progressing. Death in every awful form, if it really be death, is a pleasant sight in comparison to the fearfully and mortally wounded. Some crying oh, my wife, my children, others my Mother, my sister, my brother etc. any and all of these terms you will hear while some pray to God to have mercy and the others die cursing the “Yankee sons of b_____s.”
It is a grand and awful sight to and one that can never be forgotten.
My leg is yet a little black from the spent minnie ball that struck me, as I told you in my letter before. I am thankful to God for bringing me safely through. Go to the Church and thank him also, and pray for my preservation, and tell my boys to do the same. The man waits. Good bye. God bless you.
WORLD WAR I
About half of the Americans killed in combat during World War I lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in northern France, which comprised three successive assaults against entrenched German forces, beginning in September 1918. The third attack, which began on November 1, battered the enemy into a full surrender a week and a half later. The offensive lasted 47 days and involved 1.2 million Allied troops. One of these soldiers described to a former Army bunkmate several vivid incidents he witnessed in the final days of the war. (The writer, whose name cannot be determined, sent the letter after censorship was lifted.)
Cote D’Or France
Dear Old Bunkie,
Now don’t go into epileptic fits or something like that when you read this letter, that is because I sent one to you as I know I haven’t written you a letter for some time. Too busy with Uncle Sam’s affairs just now and am working to beat hell.
I guess you would like to know of a few of my experiences over here while the scrimmage was on so I’ll give you a few little yarns.
We were in the line up at Thiacourt (St. Michel Sector) at first and although we did no actual fighting as we were in reserve at first and then in support, we got a lot of strafing from Jerry in the nature of Artillery fire and Air raids.
But in the Argonne Forest was where we got in it in earnest and even if I do say it myself, the good old Lightning (78th) Division will go down in history as second to none for the work they did there.
It was here, old man, that I got my first Hun with the bayonet. That was on the day prior to taking Grandpré and we had just broke through the enemy first line defenses when this happened.
We were pressing through a thicket when this big plug-ugly Hun suddenly loomed up in front of me and made a one-armed stab at me with his bayonet. You can make a hell of a long reach this way, but it’s a rather awkward thrust as the bayonet makes the rifle heavy at the muzzle when you’ve got hold of your rifle at the small of the stock like this guy had. A homelier guy I never saw before in all my life and he’d make two in size compared to Dad and you know what a big man my old Dad is.
Well you can imagine that this bud did not catch me unawares.
I was ready for him. I thought I was going to have a pretty stiff one-sided fight on my hands, with the odds in his favor, but he was a cinch. Before I even realized it myself I parried off his blow and had him through his throat. It was my first hand to hand fight.
It was all over in a second, that is it for Jerry. He never even made a shriek. He went down like a log.
It was hand to hand all the way through that section of the woods as it was considered a vulnerable point, but we finally cleared them out and opened up the way for an attack on Grandpré itself.…
While sneaking about the ruins of Grandpré “Mopping Up” we came across a Prussian Chap in a ruined building with a rifle. He was a sniper, alive and the reason he was still there was because he could not get out although the opening was big enough for him to crawl through. During the bombardment the roof of the building had fell through in such a way as to pin him there by the feet and although he was practically uninjured he could not get himself free. I’ll explain better when I see you, as I can tell it better than I can write it. He begged us to help him and although we had been cautioned against treatury one of the fellows who was with me put down his rifle and started to crawl through to free him. The moment he got his head and shoulders through the hole which had been smashed by a shell, by the way, this Hun hauls off and lets him have a charge right square in the face.
Poor Dan never knew what happened. His face was unrecognizable. We didn’t do a thing but riddle that hole, we were that furious, and we didn’t stop shooting until our magazines were empty.…
Well I guess this will be all for just now so with best regards and good wishes to you, Elmer, Mother Sutters, Pop, Mutt, and all the kyoodles. I close.
Your Old Friend and Comrade in Mischief
WORLD WAR II
Beginning on Feb. 13, 1945, Allied warplanes carpeted Dresden, Germany, with thousands of tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, creating an ocean of fire that ultimately killed tens of thousands of civilians. Ironically, a group of U.S. prisoners of war detained in the city lived through the firestorm virtually unscathed. On May 29, 1945, one of these POWs, a 22-year-old Army private first class, wrote the following letter to relatives back in Indiana about his capture and eventual liberation.
I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do—in precis:
I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium.…The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.
Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations—the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood.…We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. I didn’t.
Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time:— one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. Their combined labors destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.
After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.
When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to Hellendorf on the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.
Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.
I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient.…
I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.
Kurt – Jr.
Kurt Jr. is, in fact, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who had been captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and returned to the United States in the summer of 1946. Vonnegut went on to become one of the world’s most esteemed and influential writers, and his experience in Dresden inspired the literary classic Slaughterhouse-Five.
General Douglas MacArthur’s “Home-by-Christmas” Offensive (as the media had dubbed it) fell to pieces under fierce Chinese resistance in late November and early December 1950. As temperatures plunged to 30 degrees below zero, 15,000 members of the 1st Marine Division and 3,200 soldiers with the U.S. 7th Infantry Division found themselves surrounded at the Chosin Reservoir by 10 Chinese divisions. It was a bloodbath. After recovering the use of his frostbitten hands, a 17-year-old private named Bob Hammond related to his father how he and his fellow Marines and soldiers struggled to survive.
Dad, you asked me to tell you what I went thru.…I have never seen anything like what I just went thru. The “Vets” of World War II agree also, that this is the worst they have seen.
On Nov. 27, we went into a new position. That night everything was quiet until about two o’clock the next morning. Then Hell broke loose. They charged the Infantry, went thru their lines and came right down into the Artillery position.…
We ran for it. My feet were numb from the extreme cold and I fell down. Three bullets hit a yard from me. I jumped to my feet, fired once and killed one and then ran back to “B” Battery. Five hours later we came back and took our position back.
Three days and nights of bitter fighting went on with heavy losses on both sides. We were outnumbered 10 to 1. We were also trapped and surrounded. We had over 200 wounded guys. I watched a good buddy of mine die of wounds and lack of medicine. I cried, I felt so utterly helpless. On Dec. 1, 1950, we were ordered to fight our way back.…We went about 2 miles and suddenly a slug ripped thru my knee and chipped the bone. I got into an ambulance which had 16 men in it.
We moved slowly and passed a few roadblocks and before I knew it, it was dark. They were on all sides of us and we were masecured. Our driver got killed and the ambulance crashed into a ditch. Machine gun slugs tore thru the ambulance killing a G.I. and a Capt. sitting across from me. He slumped on me and I shoved him back in order to get the rear door open. It was jammed, but I jarred it open in a few minutes and fell out.
Pain shot thru my leg, but I crawled into a ditch and then got up and ran. I ran about 3/4 mile and then slowed down to a fast walk.…We then went over a few more mountains and saw the 1st Marine Division. I felt tears come into my eyes, and I realized we were safe now. My pants leg was ripped wide open and I saw my leg was a mass of dried blood. I could hardly walk by then, and a couple of Marines came out and carried me in. The wounded were taken to a plane and flown back to a hospital in Japan. I stayed there two days and then took a train ride to Osaka Army Hospital, the one I’m in now. For the first week I was on my back, but in a while I could walk on crutches. Now they put me back to bed and put a traction on my leg to straighten it out.
But, I’m okay now and I feel great. Don’t worry about me.…Well, take care of yourself Happy New Year.
Your Son, Bob
“Dear Folks,” 29-year-old Chaplain Ray Stubbe wrote to his parents back in Milwaukee on Jan. 21, 1968, from the Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh. “First, I’m okay, not even a scratch. The casualties have been comparatively small. So don’t worry.…” Unbeknownst to Stubbe, January 21 marked the beginning of an 11-week siege that would leave hundreds of Americans dead and 1,500 to 2,500 wounded. On March 5, having been safely transferred from the base, Stubbe told his parents how harrowing the attack turned out to be.
Goodness, it seems like ages since I’ve written.…
So many things happened at Khe Sanh—it’s good I didn’t write earlier—practically anything I might write would either sicken or scare you. But that’s all past now. I must say the good Lord was very merciful and gracious. I didn’t even receive a cut or bruise. But there for a while I was having very close calls every day. One noon, while eating brunch in my hooch, an incoming round went into my wall— through four feet of dirt, 3 feet of sandbags, and bent my steel walls held up by U-shaped engineering stakes—it was a dud!
One evening at midnight, a rocket round—100 pounds—exploded just 2 feet from my hooch entrance.
One day I was walking through an excavated trench about 10 feet deep, a mortar round exploded on the top edge, just above. I’ve been pinned down on the perimeter by automatic sniper fire—and so on.…
Things were very ghastly. I stayed one night at a hooch on the perimeter. It was a bunker for the men manning a 106 gun. One afternoon they took two incoming rounds—only one lived; all the rest were killed. One man’s head was never found—pieces of finger, hand, flesh, blood, all over. One man came into our medical area. He’ll lose both legs, his right arm and be blind. Our medical area took quite a few hits, but fortunately no one there was hurt.
The slogans the men have on their helmets and flak jackets changed from KILL, KILL, KILL and IN MANY A STRIFE WE’VE LOST OUR LIFE AND NEVER LOST OUR NERVE, etc., to MOM AND DAD FOREVER, and YOU AND ME, GOD, and PLEASE, MR. CONG, I DON’T WANT TO DIE, and crosses.
Many times our water supply would get shot up and we’d go several days without water.
There was always fear of incoming—it might come in anywhere; it might land anywhere. No place, no bunker, was absolutely safe.…
I keep thinking of home all the time. I had the tune of “Speak to me of Love” going through my mind recently. Memories are so rich and meaningful things!
Stubbe returned to Wisconsin in January 1969 and stayed in the military for another 16 years. He still preaches occasionally at his old church and ministers to the homebound and others in need.
PS1 Sandy Mitten served aboard a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat in the Persian Gulf, manning (for lack of a better word) a .50-caliber machine gun. On Jan. 22, 1991, Mitten wrote her mother the following letter.
Well, we are 5 days into war. Amazing isn’t it? There’ve been some trying times in the past 5 days, and I’m sure there will be many more before I leave here.…
I’m fine, and I plan on staying that way. We’ve had some pretty close calls. Two nights ago, the Patriots went off right from our Port which is about 1 mile from our compound. I thought that the missiles landed right in our courtyard. There was a terrible BOOM when it took off and a second BOOM when it broke the sound barrier. There was debris all over.
If I ever had any doubts about whether
Back again. In the middle of that sentence, we had a SCUD attack. You should have seen it. One of my people called me outside to tell them what was coming toward our tower. I ran outside and when I looked I saw these flashes in the sky. They looked like tracer shells off of a weapon being fired.
People are really doing strange things now and emotions are high. Tempers short. Iraq ended up putting a missile or two into Israel again. That country isn’t going to hold back much longer. I can’t blame them. That bastard Hussein is trying to kill civilians. He doesn’t care. Rumor has it that his people are also uprising against him. He needs to be killed. That is how this whole thing will be eased.
Before this all came about, I wondered if I would really be able to use my weapon against someone else. I have no question now. You know, like so many others, I prayed for a peaceful end before this. But, now that it isn’t peaceful & it won’t be, I just want to do whatever has to be done to get this whole damn mess over with. It’s now become a situation where you shoot if someone shoots first and they say shoot to wound. Bull, if I shoot and I end up killing someone, if they were trying to do me in, that’s just too bad. I really thought I wouldn’t ever say that, but it really does put a different light on things when you’re right here, not knowing what to expect next.
Well, Mom, take care & God Bless You. Keep praying. Every little bit helps.
Your daughter, Sandy
Known as the “Gulf War Granny,” Sandy Mitten, 68, was, in fact, a grandmother at the time of her deployment. She had joined the Navy in 1959. In 1974 Mitten entered the Coast Guard Reserve, finally retiring in September 2001.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.