An online museum shows life during wartime

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An online museum shows life during wartime
Andrew Carroll’s home office in Washington, where he is assembling an online museum, in conjunction with Chapman University, dedicated to letters from servicemen and women from the 18th century to the present, seen on his laptop, March 25, 2021. The new Museum of American War Letters is making a range of communications from battle zones available. Jared Soares/The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Blew him in half, absolutely in half.”

The voice on tape sounded detached, almost laconic, part of a time capsule describing a bloody day in a forever war that killed untold numbers of combatants and civilians.

U.S. forces were stationed in Vietnam when Col. George S. Patton, the son of the famed World War II general, recorded that chilling message to his wife, Joanne, in 1968. As troops moved east of the Lai Khe base into an area called the Catcher’s Mitt, a lone fighter fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. armored personnel carrier, killing a gunner and grievously wounding another soldier.

“The tank commander is alive at this moment,” Patton narrated the day after the attack. “One arm is off at the shoulder, the other arm is off just below the elbow. The only thing that saved him was his flak jacket.”

Patton paused as an explosion sounded in the background, then went on to tell his wife, “It’s a long, hard war.”

That recording is being made public for the first time in the collection of a new history museum dedicated to wartime correspondence by U.S. service members. The Museum of American War Letters, as it is known, opened Sunday, a day before National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

The institution has no street address — it’s a virtual, interactive museum that was designed to give visitors the sense of traveling through a physical building with a floor, ceiling and walls.

Its founder, Andrew Carroll, is the director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, California, and has edited four anthologies of letters by people in the military. The first “wing” of the museum is set aside for the Vietnam War, but he plans to expand to other conflicts, with correspondence he has collected and preserved from the Revolutionary War to the present.

Carroll, 51, said that he wanted to make the letters, which he called “America’s great undiscovered literature,” available to as wide an audience as possible.

“These letters humanize the men and women who served and show their sacrifices,” he said, adding: “They’re incredibly well written, they convey riveting events from our past and they bring history to life in a way that resonates with people who think they don’t like history.”

The cost of creating the museum is covered by a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to Chapman University, earmarked for this project. There is no admission fee.

Visitors to the website use a computer mouse or keyboard to move through a replica of a long gallery with a wood floor, dark walls and dim, recessed lighting. Letters are displayed as illuminated images and are accompanied by text that pops up, offering background on the authors and context for the wartime events they are describing.

The gallery includes short videos on the hit 1966 song “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” military nurses, the experiences of African American troops, the My Lai massacre, the shooting at Kent State and the Pentagon Papers.

Patton’s son, Benjamin Patton, said he thought his parents’ exchanges showed how a military family handled the anxiety and separation of wartime. In one, his mother cautioned his father not to become caught up in what she called “the rage of battle.”

While the Library of Congress and other institutions collect letters, Benjamin Patton said he believed Carroll would ensure his parents’ messages remained widely accessible to the public.

“Otherwise they end up on the ash heap of history,” Benjamin Patton added. “Someone told me that when you lose a life it’s like burning down a library, but you don’t entirely when you have these types of letters available and these kinds of audio correspondence.”

Carroll has been collecting such messages for more than two decades, motivated by their intimacy and immediacy, their value as historical artifacts and how they illuminate the lives of ordinary Americans enduring extraordinary events.

He was an English major at Columbia University who disliked history, he said, until two events in 1989 caused him to see the power of letters. He lost his own collection of photographs, journals and letters — including one from a friend who had been in Beijing during the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square by Chinese authorities against pro-democracy students — when a fire ravaged his father’s home in Washington, D.C.

Soon afterward, an older cousin gave him a letter he had written decades earlier while serving with U.S. forces during World War II. In it, the cousin, James Carroll Jordan, described to his wife, Betty Anne, walking through the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after it was liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945. “He’s describing firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust,” Carroll said. “The letter made it so much more real.”

In 1998, he asked syndicated advice columnist Dear Abby to publish a plea to Americans to donate war letters to him for preservation. Thousands of people responded, turning Carroll’s apartment in Washington, D.C., into an impromptu repository stacked with white plastic postal bins.

These days a corner of that apartment has been turned into an ad hoc design studio, with schematics for the museum and other drawings displayed on four wooden boards.

In the future, each wing of the museum will also include a dozen or so letters, and videos, on permanent display, chosen for their emblematic value. Some items will come from the 160,000 bits of historical war correspondence that he has assembled at Chapman, ranging from an 18th century quill and ink missive urging the British colonies in America to revolt against the crown to a letter in 1918 from a serviceman who describes a brush with a future novelist: “a Red Cross lieut. named Hemingway, who comes from Oak Park.”

The aim is also to include letters that will span wars, organized by topic: love letters, for instance, those censored by military authorities and letters describing wartime experiences by well known participants, like writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Beyond that, families of veterans will be allowed to create private galleries, accessible only to them.

Carroll said that he started with one of the more controversial American conflicts — a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and, by some estimates, up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians, and was promoted by President Lyndon B. Johnson as a heroic struggle against communism — partly because the letters from that time reflected the mix of politics, principles and emotions that are still present in debates over the use of military force.

“The key thing about Vietnam is, unlike World War II and World War I, the letters weren’t censored, so you could have those complicated conversations,” he said. “The content of the communication was, I think, so much more layered and so much richer than in previous conflicts.”

The private correspondence in the Vietnam wing traces the arc of the war, and displays perspectives from many Americans, including those who questioned the conflict or expressed anguish over the violence. In one letter, Warrant Officer John H. Pohlman, a former Peace Corps volunteer, tells a friend that his political opinions on the war had been subsumed by the simple desire to survive.

“I developed this mental tunnel vision during a mortar attack the first night I was here,” he wrote. “Something happens to your mind when you realize there are people out there who don’t like you.”

The collection also includes the bleak message inscribed by Pvt. Ralph E. Knerem on part of a 7-foot scroll of toilet paper: “My body is numb. I don’t care about anything over here.”

The end of America’s involvement in hostilities is marked by a series of cables from 1975 in which the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham A. Martin, pleaded with Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security adviser, for help evacuating people from Saigon as North Vietnamese forces advanced. In one cable, pocked with spelling errors that may reflect the urgency of its composition, Martin, citing the pain of leaving people behind, said: “Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half Vietnamese children, or how the president would look if he ordered this.”

Among the more closely examined messages is Bill Clinton’s letter in 1969 while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University thanking a Reserve Officers Training Corps colonel for “saving” him from the draft. Clinton added that governments “rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy” should not “have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose.”

One of the most haunting is the simple note, previously unpublished, that Lance Cpl. Arthur Bustamante, a Marine, wrote while on watch. Bustamante’s image appeared on the cover of a Life magazine in 1967 that included photographs from Con Thien, an American base near the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam. But he was not identified by name in the magazine, Carroll said.

Then, last year, Carroll said he received a letter from a man named Edward Quesada, who wrote that the Marine on the magazine cover was his brother and provided letters from Bustamante discussing Con Thien.

A message carefully composed in black pen on yellow lined paper and dated Nov. 12, 1967, is believed to be his last letter before being killed in action two months later, at age 22. Bustamante wrote to his mother that “it is 4 o’clock in the morning,” and described the incessant rain. He eagerly anticipated his return to the United States.

“My time here is getting short,” he wrote. “I don’t know what I am going to do as my first thing when I get home. But I will like it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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