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V-Mail

60 years before E-Mail there was another way of sending compressed text messages across the world...

Original V-Mail

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The V-Mail –
The US unique way of transmitting a soldier’s mail in WWII
by Bob Crookes
Nov. 04

One of the most important points in a field commander’s list of things to do is make sure the mail gets through. Getting mail from home, from wives, children, girlfriends and family plays a very important part towards a soldier’s morale and is as important today as it was in WWII.

Indeed the setting up of e-mail facilities for troops in Iraq, so that they might keep in touch with home, was considered of prime importance.

Before email the handling of thousands of letters going in both directions from the battlefield to home was a particularly difficult challenge in times of war.

Suitcase with V-Mails on top
Communicating with home from their billets was considered vital for soldiers morales..

Back in the 1940s the US military took advantage of modern technology to speed up the process of getting mail to and from the European theatre of war – the technique was called V-Mail and there’s a thought that this was short for Victory Mail although a victory was then not assured and still a long way off.

Audio Clip 1: Davy Fitzsimons -Why V-Mail was needed...

 

 

 
The tiny printout of the V-Mail
The printed V-Mail was light and compact.
There was no real secret to the v-mail process; in fact it was simple, the soldiers wrote their letters on a form provided and it was then photographed onto microfilm which was simply flown to the USA. A reel of 16mm microfilm could contain 18,000 letters and in terms of bulk and weight the roll of film took up only a fraction of what 18,000 real letters would take. Upon arrival in the USA the letters were printed from the film and then posted onward to the addressee.

This clever method was employed at the suggestion of the US Army Postal Director Col. Bill Rose who actually copied the idea from a system then currently in operation in the British services which was called an ‘airgraph’.

The process might seem to be laborious with the collection of mail, the actual photographing of thousands and thousands of letters and a similar process at the other end of re-printing the photographs, addressing envelopes and mailing them on. It did really all boil down to a space issue and it is on record that for every 150,000 letters microfilmed like this over a ton of shipping space was saved.

V-mail was also for families to use to send mail to the soldiers and there were major publicity campaigns in USA to persuade families that using v-mail was a patriotic thing to do. Its take up after inauguration in June 1942 was slow – only 35,000 letters that month - but, a year later, in June 1943, some 12 million letters were v-mailed. All corresponsence in both directions still had to be censored in case sensitive information was conveyed.

Extract from a personal letter to home
Extract from a soldier's V-Mail to home showing where the Censor has blacked out potentially sensitive content.


 

V-Mail in its tiny envelope.
How V-Mail looked when it arrived in its tiny envelope
Families were generally quite dubious to start with; they didn’t like the idea of someone else opening their mail but there were also rumours that some of the 16mm reels had been projected in cinemas by mistake – it was, of course, a myth.

The V-mail, which went by air, speeded up the point-to-point delivery of mail to a week, from USA to Europe, whereas ordinary mail, which had to go by sea, could take months and had to be paid for! Great care was also taken to register, number and track the reels and a master copy was kept of every reel and the very few times reels were lost in air crashes, duplicates were issued almost instantly. One wonders if any of those reels still exist in some US archive today?

 

In the European theatre of war the processing of microfilm was done by the US Signal Corps but back in USA the Kodak Company had contracts to handle mail. By the end of WWII there were nineteen military v-mail stations and nine under civilian contract.

As well as plain letters to home, some soldiers used the V-Mail form quite creatively and before long the cartoon v-mail was highly popular.

 

 

Davy Fitzsimons - collector of WWII memorabilia
WWII Collector, Davy Fitsimons
Today there are avid collectors of v-mail particularly because every letter is unique. One such collector is Davy Fitzsimons from Caledon, whose impressive collection of WWII memorabilia numbers into thousands. He says it is very rare to find a v-mail sent from home to a soldier because troops were usually obliged to destroy all personal material, which might be of intelligence value if captured. Thus V-Mails had to be destroyed before offensive operations. Thus the only mail available is that which the soldiers sent to their loved ones at home.


Audio Clip 2: Davy Fitzsimons -V-Mails from home are very hard to find.

 

Although V-Mail helped to keep troops in touch with wherever they called home, it was nonetheless a very common thing for soldiers to become homesick. This was particularly true of the US servicemen who came here to Northern Ireland. Many of them were just teenagers and they were thousands of miles from home and passing time here on their way to the Normandy beaches. A frightening situation to be in for anyone.

Davy tells how it wasn't uncommon for rural and country families to take a soldier into their home and give him a bit of kindness. Many of the US soldiers who passed through Northern Ireland were lost in battle but a great number of those who did survive kept in touch with their "new" families for many years after returning to civilian life in the USA.

Audio Clip 3: Davy Fitzsimons -how we 'adopted' young US soldiers..

 

YOUR RESPONSES

Patrick Morrison - Feb '08
Thank you for posting this information about V-Mail. Yesterday, out of the blue I received a V-Mail that my father had originally sent in December 1944. My father was serving on the battleship USS California which had been in several Pacific battles in 44 and early 45. In January 1945 his ship was hit by a kamikaze (killing 44) only a few weeks after this V-Mail Christmas greeting had been sent. Prior to this week I didn't know about V-Mails. Thanks again

Bill Senkus - May '07
Thanks for an interesting and informative presentation on the topic of V-Mail. One correction, though. A single roll of the microfilmed letters held 1,500 to 1,800 letters. A single frame on the film measuread about 1 inch square, so an entire roll was about 120 feet. You can see photos of a collection of V-Mail material, including the film, at this URL - http://alphabetilately.com/V2.html - happy surfing.

Laurie Kipp - Apr '07
Is there a museum that is collecting mail and scrapbooks from WW II? I have many letters that my Dad sent to his mother and my mother plus pictures, postcards, cocktail napkins from overseas, etc. that were collected into a scrapbook. Unfortunately, I didn't find this collection until after my father died two years ago. Consequently, when cleaning out the attic I came upon it too late to get his first hand account to tell me about what I found.

Joe - Mar '07
Thank you so much for this web page!

Anyone who finds a stash of V-mails or letters of the World War conflicts, will be truly amazed at the memories that are contained within. Despite sometimes hawkish censors, the important stuff, of the goals, life struggles, love interests are still very much there. They read, although almost always with incorrect punctuation, with more intensity than the best the literary world has to offer.

So, dust off those old letters, sit in a quiet room, open them gingerly and wollow a few hours away getting to experience your grandpa when he was full of life.

PLEASE REMEMBER TO BE CAREFUL AND SEAL YOUR OLD LETTERS IN A AIR TIGHT CONTAINER, (A BISCUIT TIN CAN BE IDEAL). WE ARE ALL OBLIGATED TO PROTECT THEM FOR OUR CHILDREN.

Tammi Morgan - Nov '06
My mother has recently passed away. While going through her things, I founs letters and V Mails from her brother. These letters are dated from 1941 to 1944. On the V mails, the postage only has The date, time and NO 3. printed on it. I was wondering if there was any way that I could find out what V Mail station they went through? Thank you for your help.

Violet C.Lynch - Nov '06
I am trying to find information about a cartoon Vmail posted to my Dad Captain Duncan Cook from Cartoonist Phil Benrube in 1944.
Know anything?

Russell Kirk - Nov '06
Sir,
I have been doing some research on my grandfather's WWII service. He was in he 18th v-mail detachment in France. He is now 86 years old and I am trying to get information on his old unit and their contribution to the war effort. Thanks for your informative website.

Janet Barnes - Oct '06
My parents passed away a few months from each other in 2004. As I was going through their household items I found hundreds of letters written by Daddy to my Mother from various places during WWII. The letters had been kept by my Mother for over 60 years. I found telegrams and a number of small letters but I did not know what they were until I discovered your website. I now know they are V Mail. I am delighted to find out what they are. My plan for the letters is to incorporate them into a book, beginning with my parents as teenagers when they first met.

Doreen Flahety Morales - July '06
While going through a filing cabinet I found a folder filled with old letters - including V-Mail - from WWII. There are quite a few of them, numerous ones to and from my father and his three brothers who were also in the service at that time. There are also many, many V-Mails from family members at home to my father overseas! From what I have been reading, this is a rarity. I have letters from here in the states, the trip overseas, North Africa (5th. Army) Northern Italy/the Italian Front, Scotland - not to mention the pictures (I don't know any of these people and only a few are identified).

Bruce Wright - USN WWII - July '06
I find this very interesting. I censored mail for the U.S. Navy in World War II, and I'll be giving a lecture about it at a WW II museum in a couple of weeks. Your text and illustrations will help, and I just found a WW I - One, that is - censored post card at an antique shop here!

Jean - June '06
I am currently looking for anyone who has information about the V-Mail station in Chicago, IL USA during WWII. I am researching my grandfather and have learned that he may have served at the V-Mail station in Chicago after being room from the PTO due to the Sullivan Act. I have found it difficult to find info on V-Mail or the station.
I have collected a few pieces of V-Mail but really want to find out if they may have passed through my grandfather's hands.

If you have info or ideas where I might find info please e-mail at jipfbutter@yhoo.com
Thanks!

Estelle Evans - March '06
You might be interested to know that my father was the first to go out to Egypt to inaugurate the Airgraph(British) / V (American) system .

William Loftin - March '06
I was in the army postal service and I helped process v mail sent from the United States. We were in New York City.

Brittany Nesbitt - March '06
This was a wonderful web page. I will definitely require this page for other people who want to learn about V-mail!! I will be interested in what my history teacher thinks of this page!! Thank you so much for helping me understand!!!

Sallie Lou Morris Nelson - Feb 06
This is so interesting - I have a v-mail that my uncle sent me Sat. 27 may 1944. I was 10 years old and had written him a letter. He talks about the great easter we all had together and how much bigger it would have been if he could have been with us.

He was a guard working at night and sleeping days. I know he was in Guam, not sure if he was there when he wrote this to me. I cherish this v-mail-it has worn well even tho it is almost 62 years since he sent it.

Sallie Lou Morris Nelson, San Benito TX via Logansport/Deacon Indiana.

Hester Giddings - Feb '06
My uncle and I had lively exchanges during the war. I was 10 and 11 years old. He wrote long letters and there were times I'd have to wait for a week or more to get all of the pages. For his 80th birthday in 1989 I was determined to find a V-Mail form to send him greetings. I tried the US Postal Service, the US Army and various military museums with no luck. Then I went to the Smithsonian Museum--the American History branch--and found they were setting up a display of V-Mail for grade schoolers. The museum personnel were kind enough to send a copy of a form to me and I in turn sent it to my uncle with appropriate greetings. Thanks for the memories.

Marc - Germany - Feb 06
Great project! Showing people the feelings of soldiers who had to shoulder so much agony is very important. Especially in times of computer games and "high tech war" many people forget that war is different from what the media tries to make us believe.

Thanks a lot for these mails.

Michael Donahue - Feb 06
My dad, who died in 1983, worked for Kodak in Chicago, and told me that this was one of the things he did during the war. He was born in 1911, but my oldest sister was born in '41; between his age, his child, and his job he was not drafted. I am very happy to see some information about Dad's part in the Great War.

Lane Zatopek - Feb '06
Thanks to Buster Simmons for passing this site on to me. I have my dad's V-mail letters home to his parents and my mother, but there are no letters to him from home.

Every effort to preserve WWII history is greatly appreciated- thank you!

Ima Mae Moreland - Feb '06
Thanks so much for the article. I remember v-mail from my brothers to my mother during WW 2, but never knew how it was done. I still have one of the old letters.

Chris Meisenzahl - Feb '06
What a great story and interesting piece of history!

I've read about vmail before but never in such detail. For those of you that still have some, I hope you are able to maintain it for future generations to learn about.

Buster M. Simmons - Feb '06
Thanks for bringing to an uninformed generation of people some of the really "important" history of World War II!!

V Mail was a real blessing to the guys away from home. I know, I was in the ETO for 22 months.

Thanks a bunch!!

Susan L. Rogers - Feb '06
Fascinating! This is the first I have ever heard of this. Thank you for sharing.

Edward Hoyenski - January '06
Thank you for this website. Our Rare Book Room is accumulating examples of V-Mail for research ("accumulating" rather than acquiring since there's no money to purchase!). This site has helped me in the cataloging of the V-Mail in our collection, and understanding of the process. We will be presenting programs on WWII to various school groups, and showing V-Mail will be part of the program. In going through the V-Mails we have, I have realized we have a chance to show these students what life was like through the eyes of the men who served in WWII. It is quite an experience.

Thank you again.

Edward
Edward Hoyenski,
Assistant Curator,
Rare Book & Texana Collections
Univ. of N. Texas Libraries

David Fitzsimons - Jan '06
Hello and thank you very much to everyone for responding to my article on v-mail. If any one would like to write to me, please e-mail me at david@davidfitzsimons4.wanadoo.co.uk thanks again. Yours Davy Fitzsimons.

Joanne Popkin - Dec '05
My uncle was one of the first Army personnel to work on V-Mail. He was stationed in Hawaii. I have a lot of letters written to him on V-mail, and some V-mail artificats, including:
pictures of him and his buddies working on V-mail a roll of what he said was the first run of V-mail column from the NY Post which mentions his involvement in the first V-mail effort cartoons on V-mail. V-mail in the original envelopes
I think he saved all his letters, so I have what must be hundreds of letters. I also have letters sent to my father when he was in Oran and then in the Battle of the Bulge. Some of these are V-mail. I also have letters sent from my father to my uncle in which my father expresses doubt about the V-mail enterprise.

The interesting thing about these two collections is how it records the war experience all the writers. You can read about their girlfriends, when they get drafted and where they go.

There is an absolutely remarkable V-mail that a friend of my uncle's sent to my grandmother after my uncle was killed in Hawaii in a traffic accident during the war. In this V-mail the young man writes about the horrors he has seen in war, and about the concentration camps he's seen and why it was so important to fight this war. He ends by saying that my uncle did not die in vain. (What a different time, what a different war.)

I will eventually need to find a home for this collection.

Gary W. Baker - Dec '05
I have a collection of v-mail sent to my late aunt by her first husband who served as a Naval Officer aboard ship during World War II. His handwriting is impeccable, his prose romantic, and his v-mails prolific as I have dozens of them most in mint condition.
What are they worth? Please post this question to Davy Fitzsimons and other V-mail collectors.

Barbara Crowder - August '05
I have 2 V-Mail Christmas cards - one from each of my dad's two brothers who served in WW II - sent, we believe, in 1943. I recently took the cards to our family reunion to share. Neither of my uncles could recall the V-Mail process. So I came home and began searching the internet. I've enjoyed learning about V-Mail. I look forward to sharing what I've learned with my family.

Chris Briggs - June '05
If you go on E-bay you can order V-mail.

Joan Hug - May 05
Hi, I have all my Dad's V-mails to my mom - 1944-45. They are great. I will see if Mom has any sent to him. The ones with drawings (drawn by US - not Dad) are especially cute. The Happy Anniversary and Merry Christmas from the 5th Army etc. And my older brother's 1st birthday card (1945). Wonderful keepsake.

Sandy Sorenson - March '05
Hello, I recently inherited a couple of V-Mails after my father died. He was in the US Air Force during WWII & his kid brother wrote to him from South Dakota to somewhere in Europe. Somehow my father was able to keep those two tiny letters & it's a thrill to read about how V-Mail started after having come across them. Thanks for the great article and photos about this method of communication during a difficult time in the world's history.

Richard Pelletier
My brother-in-law sent us several hundred old photos. I spotted one V-mail, dated May 7, 1944, where my father-in-law wrote to his mother. Thank you for the information on V-mail. I guess we learn something new every day.

 

 

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