WWII: The History of V-Mail
As I prepare to transcribe the V-Mail letters I have from my uncle to my grandparents and mother – I became interested in its history.
V-Mail stood in short for “Victory Mail” and was developed by Eastman Kodak, along with Imperial Airways (British Airways) and Pan-American Airways; first known as the air-graph. It was developed in the 1930’s for Britain, a way to reduce the bulk and weight of mail carried by air. Their letters were written on forms and photographed, then the rolls of negatives were sent on microfilm for printing and mailing.
Before the British Air-graphs, the primitive carrier pigeon was used during WWI. The pigeons carried microfilm strips across the German lines with a success rate of 95% safely delivering messages. Pigeons were carried extensively in battle on in backpacks and proved to be the best way of sending messages back to the French headquarters.
These highly trained birds were known for their speed, strength and great homing instinct. They were almost impossible to shoot down as they flew with great speed; it was against the Defense of the Realm to kill, wound or molest homing pigeons – and punishable by a six month imprisonment or fine. In most instances, a pigeon always succeeded in getting through because of their speed, homing instinct and strength. It was only a bird of prey, like a falcon, that could bring it down; it flew too fast for a marksman.
Cher Ami on display at the Smithsonian Institution
Can you imagine your life in the hands of a pigeon? That was so on October, 1918 when 194 American soldiers were trapped by German soldiers. Their only chance was to send a written message of their co-ordinates. They strapped the information to the leg of Cher Ami – a pigeon they entrusted – and sent him off. The bird flew 25 miles behind German lines to the Americans headquarters; those 25 miles were covered in a short 25 minutes; hard to believe this bird could fly a mile a minute. A rescue unit was sent and all 194 men were saved. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal (Cross of War medal) for its extreme bravery and swift flight. For more interesting on the famous Cher Ami, go to http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/3b_cherami.html
V-Mail launched on June 15, 1942
V-Mail became the only way of communication other than Air Mail, which was more expensive and often taking much longer; urgent messages even through Air Mail often took too long. It was V-Mail that soon became the fastest and less expensive for the soldiers. In as, all letters were censored before filmed to microfilm, it soon became the most secure method of communication.
During World War II one of the most famous posters “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was actually created for the Seagram Distillers Corporation by Seymour R. Goff – which translates to “beware of unguarded talk.”
The soldiers purchased kits of V-Mail letters to write their families on and after mailing their letters to certain stations, they were filmed and the negatives later blown up to full size and printed. The small microfilm saved the military postal system tons of shipping space and weight; you could fit the equivalent of 37 bags of letters into just one mail bag. Quite a difference!
The V-Mail letter sheets were printed on papers sized at 7 x 9 1/8 in. These smaller sheets of paper reduced the weight of possibly 2,575 pounds to a one bag of 45 pounds – what a savings! This created space needed for war materials on the planes – not having to leave off the correspondence.
V-Mail played an important role in postal history as it carried the written words home to waiting families. They wrote their thoughts and dreams of returning home and anxiously waited for a return letter.
From the several letters I have, my uncle Leroy’s written words speak of so wanting to hear the news from home and his longing to see home again.
The soldiers were forbidden to include any enclosures within the letter, but eventually, photographs of infants less than a year old, or a child born after the soldier left were allowed. Imagine being the censor – you read their thoughts and sorrows – and if you deemed it a security issue – you blacked it out.
After censors read the letters, opened by machines at V-Mail stations, they were then filmed at a rate of 2,000 to 2,500 an hour. Roughly about 1,600 letters could fit on one single roll, which reduced the weight to approximately three percent of its original weight. If the letters had never been reduced, our soldiers would not have received the news from home that they waited for daily. Mail was the one thing thought of every day; their thoughts were always of that letter or package waiting for them. It was the job of the Signal Corps’ who ran the postal service.
V-Mail was usually delivered in about twelve days or less, while the standard post office mail often took a month or more. The one thing V-Mail had over standard mail delivery was that it was “never lost in the mail.” Attached to each V-Mail form was a serial number – the original was held on file, so a reprint could be made if necessary.
The V-Mail forms were bought from a local post office or five and dime store if you were sending to a soldier; the cost was around one dollar and that included to also mail. Soldiers usually got their forms from Supply. The forms contained enough space for about 100 to 300 words with a space reserved for “from” and “to” addresses. In reading through the V-Mail letters I have, I did notice they were written in short sentences as space and words were limited.
Once your letter was written, you folded and sealed it in its own envelope and it headed to the processing center, where it was re-opened and photographed on 16mm film. The film was then enclosed in a metal container and sent to a local processing facility, which in turn reversed the process. The letters were printed and sent on their way to the intended family in a three by four inch envelope.
As I researched the history of V-Mail, I found it quite an interesting process. How ingenious they were to develop and implement it into such a timely procedure. It wasn’t only just the time saved in sending and receiving, but the tonnage saved money, and allowing more room for valuable war items. If V-Mail had not been available, our service guys would have had little contact with their family and visa-versa; having contact with the family at home made a big difference in morale.
There are many people today collecting these very V-Mail letters; they preserve a great wealth of WWII information. The majority of V-Mail letters found today are the ones from the soldiers to their loved ones. The rare V-Mail letters, are the ones written to them from their families. The are considered rare because the soldiers were suppose to destroy them due to security issues. I do have one V-Mail letter written from my grandmother to her son, so I now consider that one more treasured heirloom; it will be documented in my V-Mail stories as I share them.
Do You have V-Mail letters in your family? I’d love to hear about them.
© 2016 Jeanne Bryan Insalaco