Last week I wrote about the “Service Men Clip Column,” a weekly feature in The Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper during 1944 and 1945. (It was probably featured before 1944, but my research focused on those two years.) For those columns to get to their intended recipients, they had to be clipped (i.e., cut out) and mailed in an envelope. (In 1944, first class postage was three cents for surface mail and eight cents for airmail, up from six cents the year before.)
The volume of mail that was processed during World War II was staggering. According to Google, there were 16,112,566 Americans serving in the Armed Forces during the war. Families wanted and needed to communicate with loved ones all over the world, and the only way they could do that (besides sending telegrams and occasional phone calls) was to write letters. Some people were diligent, writing regularly once a week or more often. I'm sure our soldiers, sailors, and airmen did their best to write home as often as they could. (I would wager that both military and civilian women were more consistent letter-writers than military and civilian men, but I could be wrong.)
As I’m sure you can imagine, mail was critical for morale. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, military postal system personnel quickly determined that they needed a better system for moving mail around the world. “Efficiency” was the Word of the Day, and by June of 1942, V-Mail, short for Victory Mail, was the wartime postal system used by almost every American, both at home and overseas. The main concern was space. The less space needed for moving mail, the more space there’d be for moving critical supplies and personnel.
Here’s how it worked.
Special V-Mail forms, one sheet of paper that combined both letter and envelope, were developed by the Government Printing Office and could be obtained at the local post office free of charge (two forms per person per day—not sure how they kept track of all that). Instructions printed in red on each form told the letter-writer to use a typewriter or dark ink and stay inside the lines, then fold and seal and print the recipient’s address and the return address in the appropriate spaces on the outside. The forms could be dropped in any postal system mailbox. Civilians were required to affix the appropriate postage; Armed Forces personnel could send theirs without postage.
There were three enormous V-Mail processing centers in the United States: in New York City, in Chicago, and in San Francisco. The U.S. government hired the Kodak Company to train processors to film V-Mail forms using their Recordak machines. One of those machines could film forty letters per minute, and up to 1,600 letters would fit on one roll of microfilm. All rolls of film were sent overseas via military aircraft. (My dad, a Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific at the end of the war, told me he flew mainly cargo and mail—could have been V-Mail.) Using V-Mail was usually a much faster and more secure way to send letters to loved ones who were serving.
Censors were also involved in this process. Before filming, each letter was read, and sensitive material was blacked out. I can understand why this was necessary for letters coming from Corporal Johnny Smith somewhere in France, but I wonder how much “sensitive material” was found in Grandma Smith’s letters to her grandson Johnny? I don’t think the enemy would care too much about Grandpa Smith’s gout flaring up again, or Cousin Jimmy’s bicycle’s flat tire. Then again, that could be code, right?
When the rolls of film arrived at the receiving station, workers there reproduced each V-Mail form onto photographic paper. They were then sent on to the recipients.
V-Mail wasn’t a perfect solution for communicating with loved ones during the war. A girl couldn’t write a 2,000-word love letter to her boyfriend on one of those forms. Also, the photo prints processed at the receiving stations were only one quarter the size of the original letters. If the print was too small on the original, the photo print was unreadable. Initially, enclosures weren’t allowed in V-Mail letters, so I guess some of those “Service Men Clip Columns” had to be sent in regular envelopes.
Occasionally, a V-Mail letter couldn't be filmed because it was somehow damaged in the process. If it wasn’t in too bad of shape, it was sent on as a regular letter. Believe it or not, I found a front-page article about this in the June 27, 1944 issue of The Algona Upper Des Moines. Headline: “V-Mail Letters Come Without Being Filmed”.
“. . . had some interesting letters from his son, Bill, recently. They were written on V-mail paper but came through on the original paper without being filmed and developed on the small size paper. None of the letters bore a post mark of any kind and all were double censored. He wrote that the weather is cold and that he had lost all his sun tan. He had been in England, but it is believed he has been sent elsewhere to a colder climate, because he had not been heard from for six weeks and is in the habit of writing to his father two or three times a week.”
Maybe I’m wrong about military men not writing letters home consistently.
By the end of 1945, over 2.5 billion pieces of mail had been processed by the military postal system during the war. Over one billion of those were V-Mail letters.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.