What to do with those war letters

Several years ago during a visit to my husband’s family in Tennessee, his mother showed me a stash of letters her father had written home while he was in WWII naval service. The fragile, faded letters were tied in bundles using white string and had been found among Granny’s possessions when she died long ago. No one had really looked at them, and probably no one ever would. No one knew what to do with them, but no one wanted to throw them out either. I got permission to take them home with me to study the best way to save them and make them interesting.

Fortunately, the letters were all in order by date. I created section titles: The Journey Begins (for training), Riding the Waves (first deployment), Holding in San Pedro (return to U.S.), Back at Sea (deployment again). The letters end abruptly several months after the War was over, as Pawpaw landed back in Oregon and awaited release home, so I ended the book with my mother-in-law’s memory of her daddy’s return to his family’s waiting arms.

I did not include all the letters. Instead, I used only the interesting clips from interesting letters interspersed with pertinent details, many I had to research. Perhaps surprising to us at home, military duty is not all excitement and danger. Depending on branch of service and location of service, days can be pretty boring and spent doing menial chores, waiting for mail call (the big event of the day), playing cards, hoping the movie that night is a good one. Edit, edit, edit. We saw some of this from Bruce Brodowski’s book last week – and we saw that even in the throes of battle, we may not hear a word of it in the letters because of censors or because the men (or women) didn’t want to worry their families at home. This is one reason why you may need to include some bits of what was going on in the war at the time of the letters.

How would I show the edited text? I used ellipses (…) to show where words or sentences were left out, although I had to be careful to capture the full meaning of the remaining text used. I used [redacted] to indicate where censors had clipped. I also chose to fix some basic punctuation so that readers could easily understand the writing. I used (sic) to indicate where I left important words misspelled (ex., …one of the yowmans (sic)…). I left as much as possible of the chosen text unchanged to capture the essence of Pawpaw’s personality and his writing style and skill. After all, he was a young, southern farmer from way out in the country, so I wanted that to shine through. And I certainly did not edit for political correctness.

(text seems to be “swimming” because it’s hard to photograph pages out of a book!)

I included an introduction to give the front end of the story—who was this man, when was he drafted, what did he leave behind. I gave an overall summary of what I found in the letters, including that he was a devoted family man who wrote home almost daily and who desperately missed his wife and babies. It ends with the statement, “Following are sections taken from Alvy’s letters, unchanged for the most part, with some punctuation added for understanding.  Spelling is generally left as written.” On the inside cover page of the book I included, “Edited by Linda Austin.”

When putting a book of letters together, I’d suggest adding a lot of photos to make things more interesting. I was able to include scans of a ship newsletter, a ship menu, a celebratory newspaper clipping, postcards, money from Korea. Be sure to scan some of the actual letters so readers can see the handwriting. I scanned some of the canceled postage stamps, too. At the beginning and end of the book are family photos with PawPaw in his naval uniform.

The book I created is for family only, easily done (see post on using Lulu.com.) If you intend to publish war letters for the public, you will need to find the big story in them and write that yourself, incorporating bits of war history and bits of the letters that go along with that over-arching story. Last week’s post with Bruce Brodowski shows how he did this in The Dad I Never Knew, although letters play the major part of his book. Inman’s War, by Jeffrey S. Copeland, also uses letters to tell a love story. Hope those of you with a bunch of old letters are inspired!

About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
This entry was posted in letters, war stories, WWII. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What to do with those war letters

  1. janmorrill says:

    What a gift of love for you to take the time and effort to make a book. I would love to come across such a treasure. It’s not only a piece of the nation’s history, but of family history.

  2. Thank you for the inspiration, excellent suggestions for sharing family treasures.

  3. chris says:

    Great post, Linda. I like that you elected to leave the spelling as written, and that you included some scans of the cancelled postage stamps. Nice that you had a ship’s menu to include, too!

  4. Linda,
    What treasures these letters hold. They capture the essence of a time gone by from a family member’s POV. My paternal grandfather sent letters to my aunt when she and her husband were stationed in Texas during WWII.For a period of about four months , he sent updates of life back home about three times per week. They are stapled in construction paper covers with cartoons drawn by my other aunt. They need to be preserved ,if only for the family for they reflect not only the times but the day to events and personal stories of dear family members. Thank you for sharing these family treasures. Excellent post!

  5. Thanks all. Yes, the family was happy to have this done and I was very happy with how well it turned out. And it really illuminates the man he was. It’s kind of a shame we don’t write letters anymore. Emails are just not the same – does anyone save those? Chris, it really was a good idea to take photos of the postage stamps because they are historical, too. Kathy, I hope you can make a book out of those updates – how creative!

  6. Oh my. This is how my book started out, although I didn’t know it would evolve into a book at the time. My father, a WWII veteran, gave me more than 400 pages of letters on his 81st birthday. I decided to transcribe them for my children. And that’s how it all began…lol.Over the course of what would eventually be years, my curiosity got the best of me, and I had to start asking questions, and doing research. I did exactly as you did when I finally had a publisher. Each chapter has 2 or 3 of the original letters – mostly intact, except for the few things you mentioned. I even kept some of his grammar like “tho” for “though.” But I have to say, the hardest part of it was cutting so many letters out. To me, everything seemed important. But from a writer/reader’s standpoint, I had to ask myself, “Does this move the story forward?” If it didn’t it was cut. But in the end, it turned out pretty good – if I do say so myself…and I do. I LOVE what you did! Makes me want to start another project! Oh dear! ~Karen

    • That’s right, Karen, and yours turned into waaay more than letters! You discovered a story that was worth publishing for the public and is still so pertinent as we are still in wars resulting in PTSD. I mentioned Karen’s “Breaking the Code” in the previous post of March 18, and that links to a Dec 4, 2011, post in this blog all about her book. Cutting (editing) can be painful but has to be done to end up with something people will want to read through (think about what it’s like watching other people’s home movies!).

  7. I am glad I came across this. I have 4 years worth of letters my grandfather wrote home from WW11 and I want to put them into a book to at least share with my family. I started scanning the letters but then I realized it might just be easier to type most of them myself.

    • Great, Sarah! Yes, better to type them, and seriously consider not including everything, just the more interesting letters, or pieces of letters. Use some scanned bits, though, to show his handwriting for that personal touch and because that’s important to save. Letters fade and can disinegrate. Best wishes!

  8. sheila shulltz says:

    I too have a stack of letters written home by my Father. He was just a young farm boy from Kansas and when he left home for basic at Camp Polk Louisiana he left behind his Mother and Father and three Sisters. Before he reach basic training the train he was on was stopped and he was sent home because his Father had passed away. His Mother was very young when she married about 16. She did not drive and the family lived a ways from town. She had two children quite a bit younger than my Dad top care for and a one who was a teenager. He swiftly became the sole support for his family. During the times I read about he had a girlfriend when he left for Europe and along the way he received the Dear John letter. He was in five major battels. He trained at Ft. Bragg North Carolina and the letters tell of the hardships of becoming a Paratrooper and how many young men washed out of training. They tell of his bus trip to the West Coast before he was sent overseas, He had specialty training that just about broke everyone in this group but it made the ones who made it through very much prepared for the coming hardships they would all face. There were funny things too but you knew if you read between the lines that these things were said to ease the fear his Mother lived with daily, with so many young men never coming home. My Father was also color blind and this had its own significance because many of his paratrooper group were also color blind. He was dropped behind enemy lines and he never said but I can only imagine the fear the each and every one of our young men must have felt almost daily. Then I have the Christmas Card that was sent home to their families. Christmas In Hell was the title. My Fathers Unit was called The Battling Buzzards and there are pictures of this group on the 517th Paratrooper Infantry Web Site. I have added my Father’s picture in his uniform to this group page. I received a beautiful Diploma with the landing at Normandy superimposed on the paper from the French Government thanking my Father for being part of Liberating the French from the Nazi Regime.

  9. Hi Sheila, it’s fun to read those old letters and learn more about what your father was like in his younger days, plus you’ve got some WWII history in those letters!

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