Primary Source: Remembering Service Members in Letters

“All the men of the Company loved him as they did a brother.”

“The tires kissed the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base,” former Army Ranger Luke Ryan writes, “The plane taxied to a stop, and the jaws of the C-17’s rear door opened up to announce our arrival.” Ryan was on a special mission home, though this one would not be filled with triumph or glory. It was to deliver the body of his best friend, Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, to Hawkins’ family.

Special Agent Joseph Peters, Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, Pfc. Cody Patterson and First Lt. Jennifer Moreno, killed in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army)

Hawkins had been killed on October 6, 2013 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. This Memorial Day, Ryan wrote a beautiful tribute to his friend in the New York Times.

As I sat in the cargo plane, my thoughts drifted gently to his wedding, and to his wife and parents. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t terrified, I was just sad. Sad that it happened and sad that for Patrick’s loved ones the years ahead would be filled with so much pain. . . .

Then the sun poured in, illuminating the flags draped over the coffins. It shone on those dark corners of my mind, and a part of me knew that beyond the nights of heavy drinking and the throbbing headaches afterward lay a whole host of other things, both good and bad. If I just put one foot in front of the other, I could move toward an education and countless books, to having my heart wrenched by rejection, to having it restored as I fell in love, to hiking mountains and to holding precious things. My legs understood what needed to happen, so they stood me up and carried me forward.

I’m currently reading Andrew Carroll’s Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters, in which Carroll has collected and presented letters from service members as far back as the French and Indian War of the 1750s. On Memorial Day, which began as an official commemoration of the fallen on April 25, 1866, we look at some of those letters and how those soldiers confronted the loss of their comrades and friends.

Marines honor their fallen comrades at the division’s cemetery in Hamhung, North Korea, 1950. (Department of Defense)

A loss in one of the colonies’ first hostilities.

Twenty years before the British colonists revolted against Britain in the Revolutionary War, they fought side by side against the French. The great rivalry between the two European powers exploded in 1754. On July 21, 1759, Reverend John Ogilvie penned one of the first condolence letters in American history to David Johnstone, the brother of Col. John Johnstone. Col. Johnstone was shot during the siege of Fort Niagara that month.

Dear David:

I am extremely unable to express what I feel upon this melancholy Occasion: Nothing but the most perfect Resignation to [the] Will of God, I am sensible, can support you under the loss of so worthy a Brother, who fell yesterday in his Country’s Cause universally lamented by the whole Army: I sympathize with you, with the most intire Affection, & mingle my Tears with your’s. But what shall I say to your dear Mother! I cannot write to her, you must therefore introduce the heavy Tydings in the most prudent manner. I pray God support her. . . .

I am persuaded that the Consideration of the Cause in which your Brother fell, & his own good Character thro the Course of his Life, will afford you Matter of Comfort under this afflictive Dispensation. His Name will be embalmed to Posterity & always mentioned with honour by every true lover of his Country, but I hope he is in the fruition of a glorious Immortality.

Native Americans ambush British soldiers in the French and Indian War.

One brother mourns another in the Civil War.

The American Civil War featured brothers who fought together and brothers who fought apart. In this May 16, 1863 letter home to his father, Union Capt. Maschil Manring broke the news that his brother, Union 2nd Lt. George Manring, had fallen at Champion Hill, Mississippi.

Dear Father:

I am called upon to perform the mournful task of informing you of the death of my dear brother George W. Manring, who was killed in battle on the evening of the 16th of May, near this place. . . .

I lay by his side on the battle field all that night. Early next morning we finished the grave. I had him carried to it, and after impressing two kisses upon his cold temple — one for his aged father and one for myself — I laid him in his cold, silent resting place. . . .

Surely if there was any person that was in possession of all the virtues possessed in this life, it was him. I never knew him to be at fault in any instances. There was not an officer that knew him but respected him. All the men of the Company loved him as they did a brother. He always did his duty well; his affections were divided between his God, his country, and his friends. If I ever get home I intend to come after him. I wish you would select a place for his burial near where mother is buried, as I believe it would be his choice to be buried by her side.

Maschil and George Manring’s parents. (Gallia Genealogy)

Agonizing the abandonment of hard-fought ground.

From 1950–1953, the United States and United Nations fought in Korea to take back land captured by the Communist North Koreans and Chinese. After numerous back-and-forths, the fighting ground to a bloody stalemate. Marine Robert Wada lamented the military strategy after the death of his close friend Robert “Bat” Banuelos Madrid.

I loved [“Bat”] like my own brother and I never let him leave my heart and I never shall forget him — I think of him everyday and still can not believe he is gone — We are now waiting for the peace talks to either go through or blow up — We are preparing to move back 10–15 miles — Goddamn Rudy, we are leaving the ground we just took, the hill “Bat” was killed on and everything — F — — it, let’s go on — It hurts me, It really does Rudy, to leave the ground so many guys died on — Especially “Bat.”

A soldier comforts his fellow infantryman in Korea, 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lessons from a tough loss.

On March 23, 2003, while the U.S. military was preparing to invade Iraq, Sgt. Hasan Akbar, who had a history of mental illness, shot at members of his own division and tossed four hand grenades into the tents of his sleeping comrades. Army Cpt. Chris Seifert and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone were killed while fourteen others were wounded. Seifert was good friends with Army specialist Chris Hurd, who wrote to his mother afterward mourning his loss. He also tried to take something positive from the pain of his experience.

Hey mom,

The loss of Cpt. Seifert has left a void, not only in our little group, but within our hearts as well. As soldiers and men we seldom if ever let our peers know how much they mean to us, until it is too late. I loved Cpt Seifert, as a soldier, as a man and as a friend. . . .

I wept a great deal when I found out we had lost Chris. I was working late when it happened, I remember saying good-night to Cpt Seifert, and making some off handed joke, just to get one of those Chris Seifert smiles (anyone who knew him knows the smile I’m talking about); never once thinking that would be the last time I would ever see him. The events of that night will live with me forever, as well as the good friend that was lost to me . . . to us.

However if one flower sprung from the ashes of that night, it is for me this: never let the love you hold for someone go unappreciated, for life is too damn precious and short. Do not shelter that love until it is too late, for what good is a candle if you shield the light, instead let the light out feel the warmth and let it illuminate your way. Chris will live with me in my heart for the rest of my life, and so will the lesson of these events.

Captain Chris Seifert. (Lehigh Valley Live)

I am currently working on a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.