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From war with love: Christmas letters home span centuries but hit same notes

Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Gen. Sidney Berry offered a Christmas update to his wife from Vietnam in 1966.

Across three pages — typed on Christmas Eve 1966 from a village in South Vietnam — the soldier’s words to his wife dance seamlessly from a description of singing carols in the jungle to his latest enemy kills to, finally, a vow of eternal affection. 

“Last night we had a candle-lighting ceremony ... Gasoline drums welded together end to end with a white Noel on the side. Electric light on top covered by red cellophane ... Reindeer and Santa Claus at front. It was raining,” Army Gen. Sidney B. Berry wrote to his wife. He next reveals how he recently had perched in a helicopter door, firing his rifle at men below: “We all were shooting. And we killed several ...”

“Lovely Anne, I love thee,” Berry closed. “Perhaps the best aspect of this whole period of separation is our increased appreciation and understanding of each other. I love thee, and I will devote the rest of my life to making love to thee.” He signs off: “Thy wearied professional, Sid.”

This time of year, communication from combat lines has long provided a poignant piece of Christmas.

Today's troops, for the most part, send their holiday wishes via email or Skype video chat sessions. But life was much different before technology began shadowing  service men and women so far from home.

At the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pa., thousands of notes, authored by service members from conflicts past, are painstakingly stored in acid-free folders, tucked inside protective boxes, and categorized by family, forming numerous narrow rows flanked by shelves 10 feet high. Many of the correspondences, once jammed in attic boxes, have been donated to the archive. Museum directors retrieved several dozen Christmas missives for NBC News to review.


From the Civil War to the Vietnam War, troops ranging from privates to a general struck the same literary chords — no matter the success of their conflict, their era, or the location of their last battle. They often chronicle violence during a moment meant to celebrate peace. They typically express humor, perhaps to put families at ease. And they reveal yearnings to be back with gathered families and friends.


“A lot of people wrote letters to their mothers at Christmas. I guess it’s a time you really start to think about home, really start to think about where you come from,” said Conrad Crane, chief of historical services at the Army Heritage and Education Center.

Some of the letters offered to NBC News were were originally mailed to nieces, parents and wives. 

Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

John T. Cheney, an officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, wrote to his wife from Mississippi in 1862.

On Dec. 28, 1862, five months before the U.S. Army’s siege of Vicksburg, 1st Illinois Light Artillery Capt. John T. Cheney sat at a humid encampment, he wrote, near the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi and scribbled some lines to “My Dear Wife.” Her name was Mary. He also had two children at home at the time, including an 11-year-old son, military archives show. On now-yellowed paper in cursive style, Cheney mentioned to Mary that he was, “waiting to retreat” — revealing, however, he believed his unit “ought not to be compelled to do so.” He told her that he and his men were living off of half bread rations and three-quarter meat rations but he reassured her that he was “not yet out of medicine.” And he acknowledged that on Dec. 24 he had procured three gallons of whiskey for his men: “We had a very pleasant Christmas Eve.”

“I am quite well and could I only know that you were well at home I would be thankful,” Cheney wrote. Less than two years later, he would accompany Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous march on Atlanta. “I wish I could step in and stop with you all tonight ... Give my love to all of the friends and kiss the little ones for me a time or two ... Good night.”

Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

While training to head to combat in World War I, Adam F. Glatfelter offered some soothing words to a niece.

Not surprisingly, the intended audience of each letter, Crane said, generally shaped the tone of words from the front. The museum has “steamy” notes from husbands to wives, he said, and fatherly notes to children. 

On Dec. 26, 1917, Adam F. Glatfelter penned some thoughts to his niece, Carrie, from Camp Gordon in Atlanta. The training center was built to prepare men to head to the trenches of Europe to fight during World War I. In cursive hand, using a pencil, he told her of spending Christmas Day playing music with his military orchestra for the local bishop. He joked that his ensemble was quickly becoming “pretty popular” with folks in Atlanta. He listed his holiday meal: two turkey dinners. And he thanked her for sending a spool of thread.

“Do not worry about me,” he wrote, signing as “Uncle Frank.”

Holiday menus — and pleas not to fret — color many Christmas letters home. On Dec. 25, 1944, Navy Pfc. Clark S. Crane dashed off a one-page note to his parents in a V-mail, short for “Victory Mail.” The system offered troops templates bordered by red ink. Their words would be censored by the military — a stamp in one corner validated the content had been approved — then copied to film and printed back to paper before being placed in the U.S. mail.

Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

A V-Mail from Navy sailor Clark Crane, sent at Christmas 1944 to his parents.

Crane was anchored near the Philippines at the time, according to the Army Heritage and Education Center, although his letter notes he was “Somewhere at Sea.” He tells his parents how he had “just finished extending season’s greetings ... good natured but well felt” to other men on board via a Christmas poem that he authored with another sailor. He offered one line for his folks. 

“‘Shed a tear in your Christmas beer since there ain’t gonna be no egg in it this year.’ Pretty corny, eh?” Crane wrote, noting that was his third Christmas spent at war and away from his parents’ house at 285. N. Maple Ave. in Kingston, Pa.

“Lined up ... for Christmas dinner with tender turkey and cranberries on the menu,” he wrote. “All of it was very good but there was a deficit of brown skin and the savory smell of a Christmas turkey at good old 285 North Maple. Lots of Love, Clark.”

Another poem — albeit a modern, bloody take on the classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — formed a Christmas letter home from Douglas G. Anderson, then stationed in Korea. Neatly hand-written on green paper, the note contained no date or location. Records show he was an Army sergeant who would have been about 23 at the time.

Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

A Christmas poem - about a battle - penned by Douglas G. Anderson from Korea.

“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the tent was the odor of fuel oil. The stovepipe was bent. The shoe pacs were hung by the oil stove with care in hope that they’d issue each man a new pair. The weary GIs were sacked out in their beds. Visions of sugar babes danced through their heads,” Anderson wrote.

“When up on the ridge-line there arose such a clatter, a Chinese machine gun had started to chatter. I rushed to my rifle and threw back the bolt, the rest of my tent mates arose with a jolt.” Staying in rhyme, Anderson described the orders shouted by his platoon sergeant, Kelly.   " 'Get up on that on hilltop and silence that red and don’t you come back till you’re sure that he’s dead.' Then putting his thumb in front of his nose, Sergeant Kelly took leave of us shivering Joes. But we all heard him say in a voice soft and light ‘Merry Christmas to all, may you live through the night."

After the birth of the Internet and as modern service members waged war in Iraq during two conflicts and, now, in Afghanistan, the art of the Christmas letter home has largely been replaced by Skype sessions, said Col. Matt Dawson, director Army Heritage and Education Center.

In historic missives from combat zones, “people bared their souls,” Dawson said. Some of the authors couldn’t be sure that those words wouldn’t be the last their families would receive from them.

Today, such intimate moments are shared during one-one-one cyber chats that rarely, if ever, are saved — unless the troops use a new service called TroopTree.com in which they can record, upload and send personal video messages for family or friends, and do so at no cost.

In most cases, however, sweet sentiments shared during Skype sessions from war zones are simply here and gone.

“So in 20, 30 or 40 years," Dawson said, "when we’re looking for this kind of stuff from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, it will be more difficult to find," — unless a service member takes time to mail a post card home, as Marine Sgt. Brian Snell did this month. He sent the card to his wife Liz and their two daughters. The front shows a red Christmas ornament stamped with an “Operation Enduring Freedom” logo, atop an American flag.

"Hey love, Hope you girls have a Merry Christmas and New Year. I miss you all,” Snell, 30, wrote to his family, who live in the San Diego area. This is his first deployment. He was sent to Afghanistan in autumn.

“There is something about being able to read his handwriting to make the world feel a little smaller, like he isn't on the other side of it,” Liz Snell said. “Unlike a phone call, a letter lingers. You can have a bad day, pick up the card, and he is here.”

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