October 4, 2023

“Blew it in half, absolutely in half.”

The voice on tape sounded distant, almost laconic, part of a time capsule that describes a bloody day in an eternal war in which countless combatants and civilians were killed.

American forces were stationed in Vietnam when Col. George S. Patton, son of the famous World War II general, recorded this terrifying message to his wife Joanne in 1968. As troops moved east of Lai Khê base to an area called The Catcher’s Mitt, a lone fighter, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an American armored personnel carrier, killing one rifleman and seriously wounding another soldier.

“The tank commander is alive right now,” said Colonel Patton the day after the attack. “One arm is gone at the shoulder, the other arm is gone just below the elbow. The only thing that saved him was his flak jacket. “

Colonel Patton paused when there was an explosion in the background and then said to his wife, “It’s a long, hard war.”

This recording is published for the first time in the collection of a new history museum dedicated to the correspondence of American soldiers during the war. The Museum of American War Letters, as it is known, opened on Sunday, the day before National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

The facility has no address – it is a virtual, interactive museum designed to make visitors feel like they are 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 from military personnel. The first “wing” of the museum is reserved for the Vietnam War, but it plans to expand to other conflicts, with correspondence collected and preserved from the War of Independence to the present.

Mr. Carroll, 51, said he wanted to make the letters he called “America’s Great Undiscovered Literature” available to the widest possible audience.

“These letters humanize the men and women who have served and show their sacrifices,” he said, adding, “They are incredibly well written, they convey exciting events from our past, and they bring history to life in ways that resonates with people who speak to them I guess they don’t like a story. “

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

Visitors to the site use a computer mouse or keyboard to navigate a replica of a long gallery with wooden floors, dark walls, and subdued, recessed lighting. Letters are displayed as illuminated images and accompanied by text that pops up and provides background information about the authors and the context of the war events they described.

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

Colonel Patton’s son Benjamin Patton said he believed his parents’ exchange showed how a military family had dealt with the fear and separation of wartime. In one case, his mother warned his father not to get caught up in what she called “the fury of battle”.

While the Library of Congress and other institutions collect letters, Patton believes Carroll would ensure that his parents’ messages remain generally available to the public.

“Otherwise they’ll end up on the ashes of history,” added Patton. “Somebody told me that when you lose a life it’s like burning a library, but when you have that kind of letters and that kind of audio correspondence, it’s not quite like that.”

Carroll has been collecting messages like this 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 surviving extraordinary events.

He was an English major at Columbia University who didn’t like history until two events in 1989 led him to realize the power of letters. He lost his own collection of photographs, letters, and journals – including one from a friend who had been to Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the Chinese authorities’ brutal crackdown on pro-democracy students – when a fire broke out in his father’s house in Washington , DC, devastated

Soon after, an older cousin gave him a letter he had written decades earlier while serving in the American armed forces during World War II. In it, cousin James Carroll Jordan described his wife Betty Anne as she walked through the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after it was liberated by the US Army in 1945. “He describes the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand,” said Mr. Said Carroll. “The letter made it so much more real.”

In 1998 he asked syndicated columnist Dear Abby to publish a request for Americans to donate war letters for preservation. Thousands of people replied and turned Mr. Carroll’s Washington, DC apartment into an impromptu depot piled with white plastic mail containers.

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

In the future, each wing of the museum will also contain around a dozen letters and videos that are on permanent display and have been selected for their emblematic value. Some items come from the 160,000 bits of historical war correspondence he compiled at Chapman, from an 18th century pen and ink letter urging the British colonies in America to rebel against the Crown, to a letter from 1918 of a soldier sharing a brush with a future writer: “A lieutenant in the Red Cross. named Hemingway, who is from Oak Park. “

The aim is also to record letters that span wars and are organized by topic: love letters, for example those that have been censored by military authorities, and letters that describe the war experiences of well-known participants such as the writer Kurt Vonnegut.

In addition, families of veterans are allowed to set up private galleries that are only accessible to them.

Mr Carroll said he started with one of America’s most controversial conflicts – a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and, according to President Lyndon B. Johnson, up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians were promoted as a heroic struggle against communism. In part because the letters from that period reflected the mix of politics, principles, and emotions that still linger in debates about the use of military force.

“The most important thing about Vietnam is that, unlike World War II and World War I, the letters were not censored so that you could have these complicated conversations,” he said. “In my opinion, the content of the communication was more complex and richer than in previous conflicts.”

The private correspondence in the Vietnamese wing traces the arc of war and shows perspectives for many Americans, including those who questioned the conflict or expressed their fear of violence. In a letter, Warrant Officer John H. Pohlman, a former Peace Corps volunteer, tells a friend that his political views on the war have been summed up by a simple wish for survival.

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

The collection also contains the somber message from Pvt. Ralph Knerem on part of a three-meter-long roll of toilet paper: “My body is numb. Nothing matters to me over here. “

The end of American participation in hostilities is marked by a series of cables dating back to 1975 in which the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham A. Martin, called then Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft for help in evacuating people from Saigon North Vietnamese asked forces advanced. On a cable riddled with misspellings that may reflect the urgency of its composition, Ambassador Martin said, citing the pain of leaving people behind, “Perhaps you can tell me how some of these Americans can leave their half-Vietnamese children, or how that President would look if he ordered that. “

Some of the more scrutinized messages include Bill Clinton’s 1969 letter when he was a Rhodes Fellow at Oxford University thanking a Colonel in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for “saving” it from the draft. Clinton added that governments “rooted in limited parliamentary democracy” should not “have the power to induce their citizens to fight, kill and die in a war they may oppose”.

One of the most haunting is the previously unpublished simple note that Lance Cpl. Arthur Bustamante, a Marine, wrote while he was on watch. The picture of Lance Corporal Bustamante appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, which contained photos of Con Thien, an American base near the demilitarized zone that separated north and south Vietnam. But he wasn’t identified by name in the magazine, Carroll said.

Then, last year, Carroll said he had received a letter from a man named Edward Quesada, who wrote that the Navy was his brother on his brother’s cover, and delivered letters from Lance Corporal Bustamante about Con Thien.

A message carefully written in black pen on yellow-lined paper, dated November 12, 1967, is believed to be his last letter before he was killed in action two months later at the age of 22. Lance Corporal Bustamante wrote to his mother, “It’s 4:00 AM,” describing the incessant rain. He was eagerly awaiting his return to the United States.

“My time here is running out,” he wrote. “I don’t know what to do first when I get home. But i will like it. “