(This page published December 1, 2023)
This article is a slightly revised version of one that appeared in the June 2022 issue of Pen World Magazine. It s presented here by the kind permission of the author.
Microfilm technology and the stationery industry sped millions of letters to and from war zones while saving vital cargo space during World War II.
|The three stages of a V-Mail letter. The letter (center) written by the sender on the 8" × 11" letter sheet form. The form, when folded according to the instructions, became its own mailing envelope (left). Once microphotographed, shipped to its destination, and printed on a 5" wide roll of photostat paper for delivery, the letter had become a 5" × 6" facsimile. In this photo, these are laid on an officer’s leather stationery portfolio from World War II. The pen and pencil are a 2Q1945 Parker “51” Vacumatic and a Parker “51” pencil, circa 1944.|
By early June 1942, the United States of America had become fully involved in the Second World War, allied with Great Britain, its Commonwealth, and the Soviet Union. In the wake of devastating Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor and other installations across the Pacific Ocean, and Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S., all aspects of daily American life had been turned to the war effort on a scale never before seen. The Arsenal of Democracy, as coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1940 radio fireside chat, had to produce and provide a vast amount of food and war matériel not just for American forces but for the Allies as well if victory against the Axis forces was to be possible. Getting those goods to points all over the globe required convoys of slow-moving cargo ships. Space in those ships’ holds was always at a premium.
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|A simple, graphically powerful poster, likely for use in Post Offices, that also gets the message across to the public.|
Between 1942 and 1945 more than 16.5 million American men and women served in uniform. The services knew from experience in the First World War that regular communication with families and friends was vital to maintaining servicemen’s morale. In those pre-mobile telephone/Internet days, that meant writing a letter on paper with a fountain pen, pencil, or typewriter and putting it in the mail. The sheer volume of correspondence going out to distant locations and, from there, coming back to domestic addresses created severe challenges to war planning. With food, fuel, ammunition, tanks, vehicles, and all the other necessities of the war, very little space remained for the interminable number of mailbags stuffed with letters and packages. The slow speed of convoys also meant long periods could pass between the sending of a letter and its receipt in either direction. Six weeks’ time was not unheard of. Such delays in receiving regular mail could have disastrous effects on morale and fighting effectiveness.
Cognizant of the potential problems and of the probability that the U.S. would be drawn into a world war, the Post Office Department, the War Department, and the Navy Department (as they were known at the time), had begun to make plans in this area in the years before America’s involvement. They looked at the British experience.
A year after the war began in 1939, the British were facing a similar dilemma. With German and Italian forces in control of major portions of Southern Europe and North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was denied them for safe, regular passage of shipping. Goods, matériel, and mail to and from Egypt, the Middle East, and even India had to make an arduous twelve-week-long voyage around the African continent.
|An example of the Type 3 British Airgraph letter sheet.|
Working with Eastman Kodak U.K., the British subsidiary of the American film and equipment company, the Royal Mail came up with a system that Kodak licensed as Airgraph. Simply put, a standardized, printed form was the medium on which a letter was written. At a processing center, the letter, along with thousands of similarly written correspondence, was photographed onto 16-mm microfilm using Kodak’s Recordak machine. The reels of film were then transported by air to their destination. At the local Airgraph lab, each letter was printed on photographic paper at about 60% the size of the original Airgraph letter. Each facsimile letter was folded, placed in an envelope, and dispatched to the addressee.
|Both sides of a V-Mail letter sheet. On the letter side (to the right), the tab was coated with lickable adhesive for sealing. The back side contained usage and folding instructions and the address section of the mailing envelope.|
The Recordak machine, which for Airgraph was about the size of an office photocopying machine of the 1970s, had been invented in 1925 by banker Charles McCarthy to microfilm cashed checks to forestall fraud. The Checkograph and related technology was acquired by Kodak in 1927. It wasn’t long before microfilm technology was being used in other applications, including microfilming daily newspapers, starting with The New York Times.
Airgraph was initiated in August 1941 with the dispatch of a letter from Queen Elizabeth, the mother of the late Queen Elizabeth II, to General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commanding British general in the Middle East.
The American departments looked carefully at Airgraph and developed a similar system. The Government Printing Office (GPO) designed and patented a standard form that would serve as both the letter and, when folded, its own envelope. The service was called V-Mail, short for Victory Mail, a name that was eminently marketable to inspire widespread usage at home and in the field. In advertising copy the dash was often replaced with the Morse Code symbol for the letter V ( · · · — ). All through the war it was heavily advertised in print and in newsreels.
|One of the many ads promoting V-Mail use that proliferated in magazines and on Post Office walls during World War II.||This 1943 poster doesn’t say the word, but delivery of V-Mail was guaranteed.||This advertisement for V-Mail consciously tugged at the heartstrings of servicemen’s wives and sweethearts.|
The first use of V-Mail came on June 2, 1942 when two V-Mail letters were delivered to President Roosevelt at the White House. One was from Major General James E. Chaney, then U.S. theater commander in Great Britain, the other from the U.S. ambassador in London, John Gilbert Winant. V-Mail service officially began for everyone else on June 15th. The first roll of microfilm, containing only 212 letters, was flown to Europe on June 22nd.
So vital and popular did V-Mail quickly become that stationery and pen companies also contributed to the effort. The GPO printed the 8½" × 11" V-Mail letter forms, first in black ink on 20-lb. paper and later in red ink on an improved 16-lb. paper, to stock the individual post offices across America. These sheets were available to the public for free at the rate of two sheets per person per day. Demand very quickly outstripped availability. The GPO also licensed stationery firms that already held a postal permit to print the same forms in the same manner. Two such companies were the Wessel Company, of Chicago, Illinois, and the Wolf Envelope Company in Cleveland, Ohio.
V-Mail was, of course, a two-way system. Servicemen and women wrote home to family and friends to assure them that they were well and tell them what they were seeing and doing, within limits, of course. All letters were reviewed and edited by military censors, and classified military information, such as the locations of servicemenbers and the names of military operations, was removed. And delivery was absolutely guaranteed. Each original letter received a unique number, and the originals were filed and retained until after notification was received that the photocopies had been delivered to their addressees. Thus, V-Mail that was lost in transit could be rephotographed and sent again.
|A mostly used V-Mail Envo-Letters package and forms printed and distributed by the Wessel Company, Chicago. Available in stationery stores, department stores, general stores, and, possibly, drug stores (such as the Rexall chain), V-Mail letter sheet kits were purchased both for personal use at home and to be sent to a serviceman or servicewoman to write home with. This set belonged to Capt. Chester C. McCollough, Jr., of Knoxville, Tennessee. He served with the 26th Infantry Division, U.S. Army, in Europe, 1944 – 1945.|
|This advertisement for Sheaffer’s Voyager V-Mail kit appeared on the inside cover of the May 24, 1943, issue of Life Magazine.|
The Sheaffer Pen Company came up with a useful all-in-one kit: a mail-ready cardboard tube that contained 50 V-Mail letter sheets, a bottle of V-Mail Black Skrip ink, black Fineline leads, a pen wiper, calendar, ruler, and a pen care instruction card: everything needed to encourage return mail but the pen.
At least three other pen companies produced inks especially for V-Mail. Parker had Micro-Film Black Quink. Waterman sold a Permanent Black ink; the bottle was marked “Ideal for V-Mail.” Carter’s, not to be outdone, offered three inks: Raven Black, American Blue, and Midnight Blue-Black.
After V-Mail letters were sorted, censored, and each stamped with a unique number for tracking successful delivery, they would be fed into a Recordak machine at the rate of 40 sheets per minute until 1600 letters had been photographed on a 100-foot reel of 16-mm film. The processed films would be collected in bags by destination and shipped by airplane. At the other end, the rolls of film would be enlarged onto photographic paper at 60% of the original size, cut into separate 5” x 6” facsimiles, and delivered to the addressees.
On average, a V-Mail letter could reach its destination anywhere in the world in a week or less. The U.S. Army Signal Corps was responsible for V-Mail operations for the Army and Army Air Forces, some 806 APO’s in all. The Navy handled V-Mail by way of their network of 4,869 Fleet Post Offices.
How did V-Mail stack up? Did it accomplish its goals? The short answer to both questions is yes. Every two pounds of microfilmed letters replaced 100 pounds of letters and the bulk that represents. As the microfilm transited by air, tremendous amounts of space on ships were saved. Between 1942 and 1944, over 1 billion V-Mail letters, according to one statistic, were processed. The Office of War Information’s 1944 Fact Sheet stated, “V-Mail has saved 4,964,286 cargo pounds since its start in 1942.”
|A humorously “censored” V-Mail Christmas card from Cpl. Ben Nathan to friends in Brooklyn, New York, dated December 25, 1943, and featuring a cartoon drawn by Sgt. Dave Breger. The V-mail form, with the cartoon printed on it, was made available to thousands of soldiers serving in Europe. (Breger signed as “Lt. Dave Breger,” wishful thinking that the Army did grant before he drew his last Army cartoon on August 25, 1945.) In reality, unlike letters sent through regular mail, V-Mail letters were censored by blacking out rather than cutting out in order to prevent paper jams in the Recordak machines.|
Microfilming V-Mail sheets ended on November 1, 1945, two months after the Japanese signed the surrender documents on the battleship Missouri. However, letters written on V-Mail sheets continued to be sent via regular mail until the post office supply was exhausted in March 1946.
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.