When 1,400 letters from World War II soldiers turned up last September in an old library basement at Bryant University, the discovery unleashed a torrent of memories and emotions.
Mary F. Moroney, director of library services, and a student stumbled upon a box of dusty scrapbooks while doing research on an unrelated project. Out of curiosity, the pair perused the pages of aged, crisp letters and realized they were holding something untouched for decades.
"It was unbelievable," Ms. Moroney says. "Here they were all this time and nobody knew."
The letters were addressed to members of the Bryant Service Club, a student-run organization that sent gifts and notes to alumni fighting in the war. Immediately after her find, Ms. Moroney e-mailed Judy B. Litoff, a professor of history at Bryant who just happens to specialize in World War II correspondence. "I knew about the club and had been looking for letters like these at the university for 20 years," Ms. Litoff says.
To locate veterans and former members of the club, the university notified alumni who graduated from what was then Bryant College between 1927 and 1947. People from as far away as Australia responded. "It really brought tears to many of their eyes," Ms. Litoff says.
She engaged students in a research project called Bryant College Goes to War, in which they helped digitize the entire collection and interview local alumni. That's when Kurt Spear, a rising senior and quarterback of the football team, met Howard Peach, a veteran and author of four letters from the collection. "Mr. Peach and the others don't see themselves as heroes," Mr. Spear says. "But to me and everyone studying this, they are."
The letters describe an array of experiences, from Harry I. Golub's story of stumbling upon the charred remains of American soldiers in the Philippines to Nicholas C. Corac ci's chilling account of exploring a concentration camp just days after it was liberated.
"How any of God's creatures can become so diabolically inhuman is beyond my comprehension," Mr. Coracci wrote.
In a letter dated January 9, 1945, John S. Renza apologized for being so slow to thank the club for the hand-knitted sweater he had been sent a month earlier. The reason, he explained, was because he had lost all of his belongings in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. "The only gift which was saved was your sweater, and only because I was wearing it," he wrote. "I'm so glad now that I had it on my person, otherwise I would have lost it too."
Mr. Renza, a co-founder of the Bryant Service Club before being drafted, is going strong today at 87 years old. He was shocked to hear that the letters had survived.
"A letter to a soldier means so much," he says. "When they receive a letter, it's like being back at home again. And then to be reminded of these letters, in my case, after over 60 years, wow. That's something."