One hundred years ago today, the Allies were a little more than a month away from the armistice that would end the fighting and mark their triumph in World War I. The Americans had just shown their mettle and proved decisive in victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
One of them was an Army artillery captain, Harry Truman, who led Battery D and didn’t lose a man in combat. On this date 100 years ago, he wrote home to Independence, to his fiancee, Bess Wallace.
“The great drive has taken place,” he wrote, “and I had a part in it, a very small one but nevertheless a part. The experience has been one that I can never forget, one that I don’t want to go through again unless the Lord will but I’d never have missed for anything.”
Such letters to loved ones at home tell countless stories that add up to the broader story of service and sacrifice by generation after generation in America’s wars. Andrew Carroll is out to collect and preserve as many of them as he can.
“There is this history still out there,” said Carroll, founding director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, California. You might have seen him recently on “The Great War” on PBS.
He’s in Independence today promoting a project called the Million Letters Campaign. He’s looking for correspondence from every war the country has fought.
He’ll talk from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Truman Library, 500 W. U.S. 24, Independence.
“The point is this is what’s out there in people’s attics and basements,” he said.
Carroll makes his appearances with some of the more compelling letters in the collection – one with a bullet hole, one written on toilet paper by a Marine in Vietnam, and one written in the closing days of World War II by an American sergeant on Hitler’s personal letterhead – the sergeant struck a line through his name – written at Hitler’s own desk and describing the horrors of Dachau. Those are carefully protected by plastic, but visitors to Carroll’s presentations can see and hold them.
Carroll started this 20 years ago next month with a letter to Dear Abby. Jeanne Phillips, aka Dear Abby, remains a supporter.
“She’s the reason this is all happening,” he said.
It’s all about getting the word out, looking for more correspondence that people are willing to give and “seeking out the little-known stories that are hidden in letters,” Carroll said.
His latest book is about a Missouri native, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American effort in World War I. The book is “My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War.”
There is a Truman story, told in letters.
One soldier Truman served with was Vic Householder, who saved Truman’s life. Truman’s horse had fallen during an artillery attack, and he was trapped underneath, suffocating. Householder pulled him free.
Jump ahead to the end of the next war, and Truman is the nation’s new president. Householder has a son who’s a P-51 pilot, and he’s missing. He writes to Truman, who had through the years stayed in close touch with his comrades. Back then, they called him Captain Harry.
Now Householder picks up on that idea and begins his letter, “Dear President Harry.”
He knows the president is incredibly busy, but can anything be done? Truman goes through channels and has the War Department make inquiries. Householder’s son, Tom, has been killed, but the effort helps in locating the body and getting word to the family.
There is always more to find out and, as Carroll puts it, “these incredible stories about people we think we know.”