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War Letters Take the Stage and Cover the Gallery Walls in Ashtabula

meeghan humphrey
Ashtabula Arts Center Executive Director Meeghan Humphrey put out a call for local war letters and curated the display in the center's gallery.

A play opening this weekend in Ashtabula is based on an archive of letters written home from every war in U.S. history.

“Dear Folks. I’m sorry I haven’t wrote you in quite a while. Saigon was hit heavy.”

A letter from Vietnam read from the stage of the Ashtabula Arts Center is one of many that have made rehearsals for “If All the Sky Were Paper” emotionally draining for both cast and crew.

cathy lawson
Veteran actor and teacher Cathy Lawson has directed many productions at the Ashtabula Arts Center.

Director Cathy Lawson felt the play’s impact just reading the script.

“I could not get through without getting a lump in my throat. There are many things in this that are funny. There are many that are just warm-hearted, but there are many, many things that are just sad.”  

The soldier serving in Vietnam goes on in the letter to tell his parents, “We were fired at and I seen some men running with rifles. So I opened fire on them, and one of them fell to the ground. Not too many of the guys write home about it, but the pressure builds up in me, and I just have to tell somebody.” 

Global search
Playwright Andrew Carroll crossed six continents finding stories he thought had to be told.

As founder and director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., Carroll travelled to 30 countries to find letters written to and from Americans at war.

He found more than 100,000 letters that had never before been published. Included are eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg and the D-Day invasion. Uncovered in attics, closets and basements, in foot lockers and tattered photo albums, they were written in bunkers, foxholes and on battlefields from Lexington and Concord to Fallujah.

andrew carroll
Credit CHRIS CARROLL / Center for American War Letters
Playwright Andrew Carroll is also a historian and author. Tom Brokaw has called Carroll's book "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars," "a priceless treasure."

An actor reads a letter sent by a Confederate soldier to his brother in the Union Army.

“May 1st, 1861, Savannah. My Dear Percy. Defend the soil of Pennsylvania if you must. And you and I will never meet as armed foes. But you cross the southern boundary, and we shall face each other as brothers never should. Give my love to our dear old mother. Thomas F. Drayton.”  

The valiant and the victimized
Most of the letters are from soldiers and their families. But playwright Carroll found one from a victim of war, a 14-year-old boy who smuggled it out of a Nazi concentration camp.

“He’d sort of slipped it through a fence to a Polish farmer, and it eventually got to the boy’s parents.”

Carroll reads a line from that letter that he took for the title of his play. “If all the sky were paper and all the sea an inkwell, I could not describe my suffering to you.” 

Carroll says his play is neither pro nor anti-war.

“We have letters by service members that express their deep pride in serving, fighting for their country. But we also have one from a service member in a town in Japan that’s been annihilated by fire-bombing, and he’s looking around saying, ‘What on earth is this all for?'”

Spectrum of emotions

jonathan rose
The backdrop behind actor Jonathan Rose shows a bullet-punctured war letter retrieved from the backpack of a fallen soldier.

There’s fear, anger and anguish, but sometimes joy is expressed in these letters. In one, a soldier responds to good news from home.

“Junie, if this letter makes no sense forget it. I’m sort of delirious. This iron hut looks like a castle, and the overcast sky is the most beautiful kind of blue I’ve ever seen. I’m a father! I have a son! Sweet dreams my sweet mother. Love George. March 22nd, 1944.”  

Actor Jonathan Rose draws on personal experience when he reads the letters on stage. He served in the Navy during the Iran hostage crisis.

“1980 we were gone out at sea 10 months out of that year. So letters were so important to us. I get some very strong feelings for some of these letters. I tear up. First couple times I read some of them it was kind of hard to perform.”

It was the loss of his own family’s letters that led Carroll to his project. He was still in college when their home in D.C. burned to the ground.

“Everything was destroyed. Nobody was hurt, which is of course the most important thing. But the worst part of it was that all of our letters went up in flames, just irreplaceable family memoirs, and it got me thinking about the importance of letters.” 

Defying censorship

drennan letters
Bert and Ethel Drennan of Ashtabula defied the censors by using a code. Bert used the names of family members to let Ethel know where he was in the Pacific theater during World War II.

Very important to Bert Drennan of Ashtabula are letters his parents exchanged during World War II.

“I always knew that my parents were very much in love, and this just exemplified it.”    

Drennan’s dad was a professional musician.

“He would talk about, ‘Remember when we used to listen to this as we laid in the cot in the trailer?’ He would say ‘Don’t forget to play music for my new son.’” 

Bert and Ethel Drennan were high school sweethearts from Trumbull County who married the year before he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. While he was island-hopping in the Pacific, they found a way to get their letters past the censors.

“They cooked up a code so that even though she didn’t know exactly where he was, she would know approximately through this code.” 

The names of Ethel’s sisters mentioned in the first line of Bert’s letters stood for locations. “Hazel was the Solomons; Esther was the Marshall Islands; Gladys was the Gilberts; Ruth was Hawaii; Henrietta was Guam; Martha was Saipan, you know, on and on down the list.” 

“It’s just really fascinating,” says Carroll, “to see how he got around censorship by using this code.”

The playwright is grateful to the Drennans along with all the veterans and their families who’ve contributed to the archive.

“People will bring letters to donate to us right before the performance or afterwords, and that’s really the spirit of the whole project is to get these letters saved.”

Ashtabula embraces the project
In that spirit, Meegan Humphrey, executive director of the Ashtabula Arts Center, put out a call. “By asking local people to contribute war letters to our gallery exhibit, we now have hundreds of letters that will be on display through the end of October.”  

One was from a soldier who fought and died in Afghanistan. There’s a park in Ashtabula named for Kevin Cornelius.

“His mother called me a couple of weeks ago and said she was really pleased we were doing this, but she didn’t feel that she could come to see the play. And I understand why she can’t come, “ says Humphrey. "I have two sons myself."

kevin cornelius
Letters from fallen soldiers are included in the display. An Ashtabula park is named for Kevin Cornelius who fought and died in Afghanistan. His mother contributed his letter.

Cornelius’s letter is not the only one displayed on the arts center’s walls from soldiers who never returned.

“And those kinds of things are heart-wrenching because it connects this community to the kinds of things that are portrayed in the play.” 

It has played in theaters around the nation including The Kennedy Center in Washington, but the Ashtabula production is the first time “If All the Sky Were Paper” is being performed by a community theater. And Humphrey says Ashtabula has embraced it.

“When the call first went out we had a number of people including 91-year-old people from World War II coming and saying, 'We’re just so glad you’re still interested in this.'”  

Playwright Carroll is coming in from California for tomorrow’s opening night, joining audience members touring the exhibit in the arts center gallery.

“I’m hoping that when they come to see the play, they come early because there will be hundreds of letters and it takes some time to even read two or three of them.”