In the diary that he kept while serving in France during World War I, Private First Class James Rudolph Sorenson made short entries describing each day’s most notable events. On August 11, 1918, he wrote, “Fired [gun barrages]. Valley was shelled heavily twice by the enemy. Our battery lost some horses and had one man wounded.” The entry for the following day, August 12, 1918, was just four words: “Fired. Mail from home.”
Though brief, these entries pack a punch: They clearly illustrate the profound importance of correspondence to Sorenson. His decision to keep a diary while fighting a war meant remarking only upon the most noteworthy events of the day, resulting in a terse writing style. On August 12, the guns were fired, and letters were delivered, and Sorenson’s entries make clear that both events warranted being recorded. It is not hard to imagine why: to a war-weary soldier slogging through the mud of France, letters from home provided the only tenuous link to the outside world, one that was not filled with gun barrages, casualties, and death. As another World War I veteran, Army Corporal William Bean, remarked to his mother, “Your dear letter arrived yesterday, and it sure did bring a ray of sunshine.” Bean’s more poetic description of the mail calls to mind the same point made by Sorenson’s diary: Keeping in touch with loved ones at home is a central part of the military experience.
After returning home from France, Sorenson went on to serve stateside as well as in the Philippines during World War II, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel. His Veterans History Project (VHP) collection includes over 400 letters that he exchanged with his wife, Betty. These letters are among those featured in “Please Write Often: Wartime Correspondence,” the newest installment of VHP’s Experiencing War online exhibit. Spotlighting the collections of 18 veterans who served throughout the twentieth century and around the world, this exhibit explores the role played by personal correspondence during wartime, and what original letters can tell us about the experience of war.
Private First Class Robert L. Barber‘s letters speak to this second point, telling us volumes about his individual experience of war. A Georgia native, Barber wrote to his mother while serving with the 1st Marine Division in Korea during the winter of 1950-1951. Unlike many servicemen and women writing to their families, Barber chose not to censor his descriptions of combat and conditions. His letters provided vivid details of what he saw, felt, and experienced, including during the infamous Battle of Chosin Reservoir–such as frozen feet, transporting dead comrades, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Though his writing was unpoetic, he included poignant details that convey his utter exhaustion and homesickness, as when he writes on April 17, 1951, “I sure would like some boil[ed] shrimp and my beautiful bed.”Like many correspondence collections, Barber’s letters offer a personal and individual perspective on a historical event, narrating it from the point of view of a typical Marine Corps private. However, the experience of reading through these letters transforms them into more than simply rich historical texts. As I went through Barber’s letters one by one, I was sucked into his world at that moment. Exploring these letters lets one see the Korean War through Barber’s eyes in a profound way. Such is the case with all of the collections in this feature. Even in the case of veterans who did not describe combat or harsh conditions, but focus on their loved ones on the home front, the same sensation occurs–that of having rare access to someone’s very private experience. We get to know the cast of characters that populated these veterans’ worlds, from wives and children to annoying sisters-in-law and meddlesome neighbors, and, thus, can empathize with the veterans’ loneliness from being away from these friends and loved ones.
Take a moment to be pulled into the correspondence collections included in the online exhibit, and give us your feedback in the comments below. For more on the role of correspondence in VHP collections, please see some of our previous blog posts.