This Valentine’s Day, many will search the greeting card aisle for a glitter-covered piece of poetry to perfectly express their love.
But, these cheesy expressions of love (and/or lust) pale in comparison to the heart-melting words sent home by service members, fighting wars on distant shores.
The Center for American War Letters (CAWL) has collected hundreds of thousands of these letters.
“The majority of them are love letters,” explained Andrew Carroll, CAWL Founding Director. “The letters between sweethearts, spouses, etc. I find the most moving of all the ones in our collection.”
The impressive collection includes letters from every era dating back to the Revolutionary War. The ornate cursive handwriting, the vintage postage and bullet hole burned through one WWII era letter make these little paper pieces of history truly magical.
Carroll explained that magic still happens in modern letters. Only now instead of arriving in the mailbox on a handwritten piece of paper, they usually appear as an email in the recipient’s inbox. “One of the emails I absolutely love is something Petty Officer Edwin Garcia-Lopez, wrote to his wife while fighting in Iraq. He had been up all night long, guarding an oil rig off the coast. Desperately missing the woman he loved, he wrote some pretty incredible words.”
It is zero four-thirty. I again awoke thinking of you. It makes me smile when the ﬁrst thought I have when I awake is of you.
As I now gaze out across the sea, the horizon has become thin strands from sea to sky of dark haze, a shy red, a yellow gold and ﬁnally a light blue. I look behind my shoulder and the coast of Iraq is still dark. I turn forward as the haze succumbs to a soft orange rising Sun.
Behind me, as minutes grow; the Iraqi coast turns a quiet blue with the increasing light. And once again, slowly, another cloudless day awakens. I have watched dawn not break, but blossom.
I can’t resist telling you a dream I had some nights ago. I am walking alone on a beach and I feel as if I am searching my heart for something to give you. I sense the distance and am angry at the expansive Oceans and Continents that separate us.
In the dream I remember cursing in two languages on why I could not lift and carry myself to you, to offer you something that would make all things right and happy. Later that day as I remembered the dream, I promised myself that given the opportunity I intend for you and me to accumulate many pleasant memories that in the retelling, will keep us warm in our old age.
My love, I wish I could offer you more.
Of course, many of these letters would be bittersweet. One letter from a woman serving in the Army Auxillary Corps, lovingly describes how she thinks of her finance all the time and in a line that captures the prose of the 1940s, she describes how she loved it when he called her, “The swellest girl in the world.”
“So she sent the letter off in the Fall,” Carroll said. “ But what we also looked at was the envelope, that was eventually returned to her. And on the cover of the envelope was one word, written in red ... ‘deceased’. And that’s how she found out that the love of her life was gone forever.”
As the couple was not married, she was not officially notified by the military.
Carroll also explained that this collection included a third letter that was equally moving. “It was a letter from the finance’s commanding officer that read, ‘It’s impossible for me or the boys in the company to express in words the feelings of sympathy for John’s parents or loved ones’ … This is the kind of sacrifice we sometimes overlook.”
So this year, as we search for the perfect expression of love, maybe we should all draw inspiration from the letters of the past, and offer the timeless gift of a handwritten note- it may just live forever.
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