Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and entered the largest full-scale war in history. As war raged around the world, countries divided into Axis and Allied powers and battlefields spanned across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Members of the armed forces were deployed to the far reaches of the globe and were separated from their families.
In a days before email, cell phones, and text messaging, letters served as a vital link between loved ones and friends. Army Post Offices (APOs), Fleet Post Offices (FPOs), and U.S. post offices alike were flooded with mail sent by service members and sweethearts. According to the 1945 Annual Report to the Postmaster General, mail dispatched to the Army in that fiscal year reached 2,533,938,330 pieces compared to the prior year total of 1,482,000,000 and fiscal 1943 sum of only 570,633,000 items. The Navy received 838,644,537 in fiscal year 1945 whereas the prior period saw 463,266,667 mail items sent. The bulk and weight of parcels and letters was competing with military supplies in transport vehicles. Officials from the Post Office, War, and Navy Departments faced a large problem: Was there a way to save room for equipment and still deliver the mail?
Mailing to the frontlines: American soldier finds lost letters near Auw, Germany; February 1945. National Archives (111-SC-200677).
The Post Office, War, and Navy Departments worked together to ensure V-Mail for civilians and service members around the world. Numerous personnel, expensive pieces of equipment, photographic supplies, ships, and planes were needed to process and deliver V-Mail. The volume of mail and supplies was such that all three departments were needed to keep the network operational and keep the mail moving.
The Post Office Department was responsible for domestic dispatch and handling of mail. The Post Office sorted V-Mail by respective Army and Navy post offices and delivered it to the V-Mail stations in the United States. Postal authorities divided the continental U.S. into three regions and funneled the incoming and outgoing V-Mail to three facilities: New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. At the ports of embarkation the War and Navy Departments took over postal duties and Kodak ran the V-Mail photography operations. The military was responsible for the transportation of mail destined for overseas personnel. Getting V-Mail to and from the field depended upon a network of V-Mail plants at key locations in the European and Pacific theaters.
Technology was the linchpin in this inter-agency, international network. At the center was the Recordak machine that was initially developed by the Eastman Kodak Company for bank records. The microphotography equipment was designed for ease of use and mass production of recorded materials. Great Britain’s Airgraph Service relied on Kodak for shrinking letters onto microfilm for shipment. Following that lead, the U.S. War Department entered into a contract with the Eastman Kodak Company on May 8, 1942 to use Recordak machines to process V-Mail.
Kodak coordinated the photographic operations in the continental U.S. When it came to the far-flung overseas V-Mail stations, the processing was in the hands of the U.S. military. There, staff relied on the Recordak’s straight-forward design and function to process mail quickly. Captain James Hudson, trained by Eastman Kodak Company, operated V-Mail in Cairo, Egypt, described the machine’s actions:
“It accepted a stack of regular size sheets of paper, about 8 x 11, and fed them one at a time through this machine that was about the size of a small chest of drawers, or today’s paper copier. Cleverly, a light scanned the sheet through a narrow, transverse slot and exposed one frame of a 16 mm motion picture film that was synchronized with it, so that one tiny frame had the image of the full sheet of paper. For those days, that was a lot of compression and tremendous synchronization to make it happen. Kodak gets all the credit for that innovation” http://postalmuseum.si.edu/VictoryMail/operating/flipbook_flash.html
V-Mail letter sheets were designed to make the microfilming process easy. The distinguishing marks and uniform size of V-Mail stationery helped workers gather the folded letter sheets for their special processing. All sheets were set to standard dimensions, weight, grain, and layout.
The materials were produced by the Government Printing Office as well as printing and stationery firms that had been issued permits by the Post Office Department. Multiple suppliers were used to get the V-Mail forms to the people quickly.
The Post Office Department provided customers with special stationery for free. Correspondents could obtain two sheets per day from their local post office. Others opted to purchase the materials that were readily available in neighborhood stores.
V-Mail stationery functioned as a letter and envelope in one. Once the sender had completed her message, she put the recipient’s and return addresses at the top and then folded the sheet into a self-mailing piece. This set of addresses was essential to the final stages for delivery because only this side was reproduced from microfilm to photographic print.
The sender repeated addresses a second time on the opposite side of the sheet. This set, on the “envelope” side of the form, was used to carry the mail along its first stage of the journey from a mailbox to a processing center.
You can print out a copy of a blank V-Mail form (http://postalmuseum.si.edu/VictoryMail/images/vmail.pdf) to use as stationery. If you want to mail it, be sure to use first-class postage.
Letter Writing in World War II
For members of the armed forces the importance of mail during World War II was second only to food. The emotional power of letters was heightened by the fear of loss and the need for communication during times of separation. Messages from a husband, father, or brother, killed in battle might provide the only surviving connection between him and his family. The imminence of danger and the uncertainty of war placed an added emphasis on letter writing. Emotions and feelings that were normally only expressed on special occasions were written regularly to ensure devotion and support.
Military personnel felt the most connected to home through reading about it in letters. Civilians were encouraged to write their service men and women about even the most basic activities. Daily routines, family news, and local gossip kept the armed forces linked to their communities.
Wartime romances adjusted to long distances and sweethearts and spouses separated by oceans used mail to stay in touch. Couples were married on furlough and babies were born while their fathers were away at the battlefront. Letters kept America’s troops informed about home life and detailed accounts allowed them to be in the war and have that critical link back to their families. Others wrote to kindle new relationships and fight off the loneliness and boredom of wartime separation.
Mail played a significant role in maintaining morale on the battlefront and at home, and officials supported that role by working to ensure mail communications during wartime. V-Mail service could ensure this communication with added security and speed. The Office of War Information and the Advertising Council worked with commercial businesses and the community to spread the word about this new service and its benefits.
V-Mail was promoted as patriotic with advertisements emphasizing contributions to the war effort, such as saving cargo space and providing messages to lift spirits. To allay the fears and misconceptions of would-be V-Mail writers, news reports explained how the letters were processed and sped to military personnel.