- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

A museum exhibit of wartime letters — some dating back to the Civil War — is giving the public rare insight into soldiers, their loved ones, and what their lives were like during war.

The display at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, features 15 original letters written during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War that were lost or discarded, then found.

“What we see from these letters, too, is not just the combat but the sacrifice that goes way beyond the battlefield — the father who cannot be there when his children are born, the people whose relationships were strained because of the distance,” said Andrew Carroll, founder of the Legacy Project, the organization that provided the letters.

Mr. Carroll is on 50-state tour promoting the book “Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters — and One Man’s Search to Find Them,” which he edited.

During a lecture and book signing at the museum yesterday, he said the letters ultimately have little to do with war and history.

“They’re about human nature, the emotions that every one of us can relate to — faith, resilience, fear, determination, hope, anger, joy,” said Mr. Carroll, who also edited the 2002 “War Letters,” a New York Times bestseller and the basis of a PBS documentary.

On Friday, the Legacy Project and the museum began the joint exhibit, which will remain on display for a year. The focus of the exhibit is the lost or abandoned letters that were discovered by strangers years or even decades later.

The seven-year-old volunteer organization seeks out and preserves wartime letters and e-mails. Since its inception, the organization has amassed about 75,000 letters from conflicts in U.S. history, some found in unlikely places.

The letters were discovered in old barns, houses being rebuilt for new residents, garbage bins, flea markets and estate sales.

One letter, from a World War II medic on bedside duty with Japan’s Prime Minister Hideki Tojo after his suicide attempt, was bought at a yard sale for less than $1.

Another letter from a soldier in the Korean War was found discarded decades later in a trash can at a bank in Chicago. In the two-page letter, dated February 1951, “Paul” vividly describes a brush with death.

“Just a line to let you know I have been wounded and am in the hospital in Japan,” he wrote. “I was shot [by] a single sniper bullet. … I am thankful to be alive.”

Lynn Heidelbaugh, the curator of the exhibit, calls the letters “universal stories.”

“We hope this exhibit raises awareness that extraordinary history is being discarded on a regular basis and encourages people to take an interest in preserving their own letters and documents,” she said.

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