The 300-plus wartime letters in the tattered cardboard box traveled fairly well in their time, on mail trains, some across an ocean, through family homes and finally into a forgotten corner.
But while cleaning out his late father’s home, David Allison and his wife Diane discovered that box of wartime correspondence written by David’s late father, who served in the 65th Infantry Division under Gen. George Patton. The letters range from Sgt. Allison’s descriptions of life at Camp Croft before shipping out, to his haunting days witnessing the liberation of
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. They include descriptions of sweethearts, each in her turn called “the one.” There’s even a clutch of black-and-white snapshots, most notably of a cave where the Nazis were furtively assembling a jet engine.
Saving the letters
In addition to founding a volunteer war letters preservation effort through the Legacy Project, Andrew Carroll joined Chapman three years ago as a Chancellor’s Fellow. His play, If All the Sky Were Paper, draws from many of those letters. Under the direction of John B. Benitz, associate professor and co-chair of the Department of Theatre, the award-winning play has been staged at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The letter collection continues to grow and includes correspondence from every American conflict, beginning with handwritten missives composed during the Revolutionary War and continuing up to emails sent from Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to being available to scholars and historians, select pieces of the collection are occasionally showcased in special exhibitions at Leatherby Libraries. To learn more, visit the Center for American War Letters.
After discussing it with family, the Allisons felt it was time to share that history. So the letters traveled again, from Bucks County, Pa., across the continent as carry-on luggage in David Allison’s hands and finally this week to the door of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.
Handing over the box on Monday morning to Andrew Carroll, founding director of the center, was a big step for David Allison.
“They’re part of my dad,” he said. But he added, “I’m ecstatic that they have a new home that’s permanent. You want them to be somewhere where they’re really accessible.”
Carroll has written several anthologies drawn from Americans’ wartime correspondence, including in his New York Times bestseller
War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars
. He said the donation was remarkable for both its content and size. Letters from the theatre of war are unique because they capture war experiences in the moment and in a way that surpasses even the best oral histories collected after the fact.
For Diane Allison’s family, the letters are fascinating. She transcribed all those written by her father-in-law from his active deployment in Europe. They’ve spent many hours poring over the letters, particularly marveling over several that had been edited by military security censors. While her father-in-law had been relatively willing to talk about the war, she said he never mentioned the letters.
“When I transcribed them, I thought, ‘I’d love to ask him this. I’d love to ask him that. I’d love to ask him which pictures go with which letters,’” she said. “But that’s how we found them.”