While the letters are not unrelentingly grim, there is ample description of the rending agonies of war and the pain of separation. For instance, a recounting of horrors found in a Nazi concentration camp, or a tender letter to a just-born daughter who may never be seen. Private First Class Richard King describes the death of a Catholic chaplain blessing the foxholes: "An artillery shell cut him in half at the waist." Staff Sergeant Joe Sammarco tells how he crawled, wounded, across streams and into hills in order to escape the Chinese, propelled by the thought of his wife and his babies. Many of these are "last letters," often received after the news of the writer's death. Lieutenant Tommie Kennedy, a POW on a Japanese "hell ship," wrote his farewells on the only thing he had--the back of two family photographs, which were smuggled back to his parents.
These are, as Carroll writes, "the first, unfiltered drafts of history." His rich sample testifies to the universal and poignant themes of love and honor, courage and rage, duty and fear and mortality. The playful and heartfelt voices grant us the personal perspective all too often lost in news reports and government statements. Taken together, they remind us that, despite the playful good cheer, the human cost of war is far too high. A remarkable contribution to the understanding of war and its impact, and a powerful tribute to those undone by it. --Lesley Reed