When the United States entered the Second World War, millions of Americans were sent to the far-flung corners of the world to defend the country. Add the women who, although not allowed to fight, were sent close to the conflict to help in the war effort in various ways serving in capacities as varied as being nurses and ferrying bombers and fighter planes across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  These millions men and women were separated from their parents, husbands and wives, children, friends, and lovers. As expected, a massive amount of letters flooded the US postal system, with an unprecedented number of them being flown back and forth internationally. With that, the US military postal service conceived what was called the V-mail service.

Delivering Morale Boosters

In the days of “Snail-Mail” which did not end until the advent of email and ready access to computers aboard ships and bases in the field, mail was a essential to maintaining good morale. At one time, the words, “MAIL CALL!” would draw a crowd of sailors, soldiers, Marines or airmen hoping to get a letter or package form home. If you got nothing, it could be crushing.  Since an officer in the unit would be the censor of mail going out to make sure classified information on movements or objectives didn’t get out, they were also in the position to know how much mail a service member was getting and sending out.  A sharp eyed officer would report if a service member wasn’t writing home or not getting mail and their senior NCO would speak to them about it to make sure they were staying in touch with family back home or figure out why we wasn’t. Especially dreaded was the “Dear John” letter coming from a wife or sweetheart back in the states that signalled a break up.

In 1945 alone, a staggering 2.5 billion letters went through the Army Postal Service, and 8 million more went through Navy post offices. During the war, it was estimated that an average soldier wrote six letters per week. These letters were addressed to their loved ones to assure them that they were still alive. To the soldiers, receiving mail from back home was a major morale booster: letting them know that they were missed and loved and that people were waiting for them to come home and resume their peacetime lives after the war was over.

All v-mail originals in the retake department
All v-mail originals in the retake department. (The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

These bulk letters were moved by Army post offices, fleet post offices, and US post offices but transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean posed a daunting logisital challenge. Th mail sent via cargo ships were a slow process, taking up to a month before they reached the intended recipients. In the Atlantic cargo ships were being sunk by U-boats by the dozens losing tons of mail in the process. Once it arrived in the theater of operations, it then had to be sorted and shipped again by truck or train to units in the field. In the Navy, mail would literally chase the ships of fast moving task forces around the Pacific and be delivered at sea from refueling and replenishment vessels or be sent to the ships homeport to await its return.  Pilots delivering new planes to aircraft carriers would be given bags of mail to take with them out to the ship as well. A quicker alternative was to send the mail via cargo planes which would only take less than two weeks. The problem with this was that apart from it being expensive, cargo space for planes was allotted for critical weapons and supplies. There were never enough planes, pilots and fuel for the war and there were higher priorities. Mail in bulk was both heavy and bulky. The military postal service had to innovate and come up with something to solve the issue.

From Aerograph to V-Mail

In the 1930s, the Eastman Kodak Company, in conjunction with Imperial Airways (now called British Airways) and Pan-American Airways, invented something called the Aerograph.

"Keep Him Posted...Make it Short...Make it Cheeful...Send it v-mail"
“Keep Him Posted…Make it Short…Make it Cheeful…Send it v-mail” (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Aerograph was a means of reducing the weight and bulk of mail carried through planes. How it worked was that the letters would be premade on forms before they were censored and scanned onto microfilm. The little microfilms would be the ones to be transported by plane. Upon arrival, they would be printed onto photo paper and then delivered.

“V-MAIL IS SPEED MAIL. YOU WRITE. HE’LL FIGHT!” (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States postal service adopted the Airgraph’s process and renamed it “Victory Mail,” which was shortened to “V-Mail” from June 1942 to November 1945. This idea proved to be nothing but brilliant.

Pros and Cons

The main advantage of  V-mails, of course, was that the space that these letters took was drastically reduced. A lot of space was freed for other valuable war supplies: about 25000 pounds of paper letters that would usually take 37 mail sacks could be compressed into a very light 45 pounds of film in just a single mail sack. As the “Army Micro Photographic Mail Service,” War Department Pamphlet No. 21-1 described V-mail,

“…an expeditious mail program which provides for quick mail service to and from soldiers overseas. A special form is used which permits the letter to be photographed in microfilm. The small film is transported and then reproduced and delivered. Use of V-mail is urged because it greatly furthers the war effort by saving shipping and airplane space.”

Another advantage of the V-mails was that the letters were not usually lost in transit, just like regular letters would, and in case they were, they could just reprint the letters since each had its own serial number.

The US also decided to print the letters at a 60% scale to reduce bulk even further. While it was quite a good move, the print proved too small to read at times, and some stores sold special “V-mail readers” magnifying glasses that enabled civilians with less than 20/20 vision to actually be able to read the letters from their relatives serving over seas.

Paper reproductions of V-mail microfilm are inspected and then cut into individual letters by a “chopper.”
Paper reproductions of V-mail microfilm are inspected and then cut into individual letters by a “chopper.” (US Army via rarehistoricalphotos.com)

The V-mail system lasted until November 1945, with over 1 billion items processed through it since its use was branded as a patriotic duty, and many picked up the service over the years. There were still those who sent their letters and packages the traditional way. In fact, the US government had millions of pieces of undelivered mail for members of the US military, US government personnel, and Red Cross workers, all serving in the European Theater. The letters piled up in the warehouses in Birmingham, England. Fortunately, these mountains of mail were systematically sorted out by the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion and delivered. The 6888th happened to be the only all-black, all-female battalion of WWII. Read their fantastic story here.

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