This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, ArchivesAWARE brings you an interview with Washington Post journalist Dan Lamothe on his work on WaPo‘s Letters from War, a podcast about the World War II combat experiences of the Eyde brothers of Rockford, Illinois. The podcast is centered around the four Eyde brothers’ letters – one for almost every day of the war – which are read by voice actors who are themselves military veterans.
AA: How did the Eyde brothers’ letters come to your attention?
DL: The Eyde letters first came to The Washington Post’s attention through Joseph Alosi, an Arizona businessman who bought them at auction some years ago. As we detailed in the Letters From War podcast and complementary newspaper special section, he was interested in seeing whether it would be possible to find related family members. I made a trip to Arizona in 2016 to view the letters at a pizza shop at which Joe’s wife is a manager, and spent hours going through them. He agreed to loan them to The Post afterward so we could do additional research and put together the project.
AA: What was it like to see and read the letters for the first time?
DL: I found it stirring. For one, their condition and appearance immediately makes them feel like a part of history. The pages of many of them are tissue-paper thin, and the envelopes bear the markings of Army Post Office (APO) processing used to deliver mail to the troops at that time. Some of the letters are mundane, with basic descriptions of routine life in the military. Others are gripping, especially when Frank Eyde describes the U.S. invasion of Tulagi, a Pacific island, and Ralph Eyde describes being wounded both on the Alaskan island of Attu and the Pacific island of Kwajalein. The letters ripple with excitement, anger and sadness as they recount what they saw.
AA: What made you decide to share the Eyde brothers’ story with a wider audience through the medium of a podcast?
DL: The sheer volume of letters – there are hundreds of them written over a span of several decades – and the way in which they capture the voice of each member of the Eyde family presented us with some unique opportunities. We also were fortunate to pursue this project with no specific timeline, allowing us to seek documents from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act that provided additional context, including illuminating information about Frank’s struggle to transition home after the war. The brothers Eyde undertook an epic adventure, and a podcast seemed like an excellent medium to capture that, with old broadcast clips and period music providing a sense of time and place as voice actors shared their words.
AA: The podcast’s voice actors – all themselves military veterans – provide great readings of the Eyde brothers’ letters. How did you find military veterans who were such skilled actors, and how did you go about working with them on the readings?
DL: The Post sought veterans through organizations like the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit with a stated goal of helping veterans integrate in their communities through the arts. Scores of veterans expressed interest, and we cast the parts based on their experiences, comfort with public speaking and ability to connect with the characters in the story. They are Michael Ball, who served in the Marine Corps and Air Force; Zachary Burgart, who served in the Marine Corps; Jeffrey Chiang, who served in the Navy; Brendan Wentz, who served in the Army; and Rachel Ziegler, who served in the Air Force.
AA: What were some of the major challenges you encountered?
DL: One of the first challenges was processing the letters and making sure we were not missing anything important. That took reading virtually every piece of mail in the boxes that Joe Alosi found, and sorting them in a way where we could synthesize what we knew and sort it into workable information. I had significant help on this from Jessica Stahl, the Post’s director of audio; Carol Alderman, a podcast producer; and Julie Vitkovskaya, a digital enterprise editor. We also had to transcribe the most important letters word-for-word, an effort that took several of us to complete. Another significant challenge and mystery was figuring out how the letters came to be abandoned in the first place, and who the closest surviving family members might be. I did that through a combination of searching through old obituaries, phone calls and asking help from the public library in Rockford, Ill., the brothers’ home town.
AA: Where are the Eyde brothers’ letters now? Do you know if there are plans for them to be donated to an archives where they can be preserved and accessible to others?
DL: The letters are back with Mr. Alosi, who purchased them more than a decade ago and loaned them to The Post. At last check, he was researching options for what might come next. As you might expect, several museums have inquired about them.
AA: Do you have any advice or tips for others who may be interested in bringing archives to life through podcasting?
DL: This project came to life because of organization, first and foremost. By knowing what we had, we were able to build around the central element – the letters themselves, as voiced by the veterans – while Carol layered in music, sound effects and audio from the time period. I narrated, but as a general rule, I spoke in places where we did not have another method to tell the story. Additional reporting also was really important, so I’d definitely recommend looking beyond archival material to enrich your story. In this case, obtaining the military personnel files of Frank Eyde through FOIA and details about the battles in which the brothers participated from the Marine Corps History Division and the Army Center for Military History helped a great deal.
AA: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience working on Letters from War?
DL: It was powerful meeting Vicki Venhuizen, a cousin of the Eydes who remembers them from when she was a child. Interviewing her as primary source about the Eyde family helped fill in gaps in the story, and also underscored an important point: this was a family of real-life people who sacrificed for their nation at an extraordinarily difficult time in which loved ones sometimes went years without seeing each other. I’m grateful for her willingness to meet with me, a stranger, and share details about herself and them.
More information on the Letters from War podcast is available on the main podcast website, as well as Dan Lamothe’s background column and long-form special section story on the Eyde brothers and their letters. Lamothe has also authored a piece on Edythe Eyde, the brothers’ trailblazing cousin who started America’s first lesbian publication.
Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on the Pentagon and the U.S. military. He joined The Post in 2014, and has traveled extensively since then on assignment. Lamothe has embedded with U.S. troops in combat in Afghanistan multiple times, and also has reported from the Aleutian Islands, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Spain and the Republic of Georgia. Further information about Lamothe is available at his WaPo profile page.