Letters were terribly essential to keeping up the morale of the soldiers and they were the one thing the Army couldn’t provide, so both the government and private industry encouraged letter writing, calling it “a five minute furlough” for the soldier, and before long the phrase “Writing is Fighting too,” became a familiar mantra of those on the home-front.
With modern technology so commonplace, its hard to imagine what things were like back then. Today, you simply pick up your cell phone and instantly talk to your loved ones, even if they are on the other side of the world. Or you can twitter, tweet, text, and e-mail, and while these forms of communication are letter-like in their own right, the content is generally lost in cyberspace, so nothing remains to give us a time capsule for history. Therefore the letters of WWII were not only very important then, but they now remain a wonderful source of historical information.
In the early 1940’s, some people didn’t even have a phone, if they did it might be a party-line, and making a long distance phone call was usually reserved for a dire emergency. So just imagine how traumatic it was to have your loved one, torn from your embrace only to have them sent thousands of miles away into a hostile environment where they could be injured or killed, with absolutely no way of communicating with them other than writing a letter. No way of knowing for months on end if the person you loved was okay, or even alive.
And think of the soldier, sitting in a fox hole in the freezing cold, or enduring tropical heat never before experienced. He’s in a foreign land, again thousand of miles from home, strangers are now his best friends, and he’s waiting for that all important letter. Soon, Army Post Offices (APOs), Fleet Post Offices (FPOs), and the U.S. Post Office were flooded with outgoing mail.
But a problem arose, because the bulk and weight of parcels and letters began competing with military supplies for space in the transport vehicles. How could they save room for equipment and still deliver the mail?
The answer was V-mail, V for victory, and at that time it was every bit as technically amazing as today’s E-mail.
Between June, 1942 and April, 1945, over 556,513,795 pieces of V-mail were sent from the
to military post offices and over 510 million pieces were received from military personnel abroad. And this did not take into account the regular 1st class mail still being sent by many. U.S.
V-mail was a miniaturized message reproduced by microphotography from 16mm film, all based on the use of special V-mail letter-sheets, which were a combination of letter and envelope.
The Post Office, responsible for domestic handling of the mail, divided the continental
into the three regions, U.S. , New York , and Chicago funneled all the V-Mail through these locations. At the ports of embarkation the War and Navy Departments took over, and the Kodak company ran the V-Mail photography operations. San Francisco. They
By using microfilm, the letters were reduced to thumb-nail size, then the rolls of film were flown across the world to a destination closest to the soldier's position. Here they where finally reconstructed into a V-mail letter about one-quarter the original size.
With the development of the V-Mail system, the time it took a soldier to receive a letter was reduced from six weeks by boat, to twelve days or less by air. One roll of film weighing about 7 ounces could hold over 1,500 letters. Or in other words, two pounds of microfilm replaced 100 pounds of letters!
Here is a poster advising families to send their soldier a V-mail kit so he would have all the necessary items with which to easily write home.
During the Civil War, in 1864, the Post Office agreed to deliver, for free, any mail marked “for a soldier”. However, the instructions seen below, indicate that delivery was free coming from a soldier, but the mail going to them should have postage paid by the person on the home front.
It also appears standardized cards for certain occasions, such as Mother's Day, were supplied to the men so they could easily celebrate special days.
The women writing letters at home were encouraged to recount only cheerful information and not dwell on their own struggles such as the hardship of suddenly becoming single parents, or the shortage of food, clothing or gasoline. Also S.W.A.K. or sealed with a kiss, could often be found on or in the letters. One source stated the origin of SWAK was goes back to at least 1918, when homesick Doughboys in WW I wrote to their sweethearts, and the tradition continued through the Second World War.
Sadly, this last photo indicates no system is perfect. What a heartbreaking picture. It brought tears to my eyes and prompted half a dozen scenarios as to whatmight have happened or who this soldier might be. I hope he found the letter he was looking for.
Why not take a moment sometime soon and sit down and write a “real live letter” to someone. I bet they would cherish your efforts, and who knows, in 70 years some one could find that letter and it would be a time capsule snippet of your life.