Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in World War II. Few things mattered more to those serving abroad than getting letters from home, “mail was indispensable,” one infantryman remembered. “It motivated us. We couldn’t have won the war without it.” The mail, whenever it arrived, also helped reassure the worried families of servicemen back home.
“You’re right,” Al McIntosh wrote in his Dec. 18, 1941 Rock County Star Herald editorial. “Mrs. Etta Dehnilow did look as if she wanted to dance in the streets for joy. She just received one of those Navy censor cards from her son, Larry, crewman on a submarine. It didn’t carry any postmark but it was the message that thrilled Etta – “Okay” (was all it said but) that’s enough to gladden the heart of any mother. It was dated December 8.”Private Sid Phillips celebrated his 18th birthday on September 2, 1942, on Guadalcanal. The next day, he got his first letter from home since he had landed on the island nearly one month earlier. It was, he wrote back, “the best birthday present possible.”
“We wrote to all the boys we knew,” Anne DeVico said. “And they loved getting the letters because they said at roll call they wanted their name to be called over and over because they said it was so wonderful.”
“Our mail came up to us in canvas bags, usually with the ammo and rations,” Eugene Sledge noted in With the Old Breed. “It was of tremendous value in boosting sagging morale.”
At first, delivery was slow and erratic. Too bulky to be given precious space aboard aircraft, sacks of mail were loaded into the holds of cargo ships and often took more than a month to reach the front.
Then, in the late spring of 1942, the military began encouraging Americans to use V-mail, a simple but ingenious space-saving system devised by the British. Letters were addressed and written on a special one-sided form, sent to Washington where they were opened and read by army censors who blacked out anything the though might give useful information to the enemy, then photographed onto a reel of 16 mm microfilm. The reels — each containing some 18,000 letters — were then flown overseas to receiving stations. There, each letter was printed onto a sheet of photographic paper, slipped into an envelope and bagged for delivery to the font.
V-mail eased the delivery of letters in both directions, raising spirits not only overseas but also at home.
“We thought it was marvelous that they could write as if they were just off to college or something,” DeVico said. “I mean, they told us what was going on at whatever village they happened to be at. One of them was in France and that’s what he was saying, ‘Oh, this France is beautiful.’ And all he’s doing is talking about how beautiful it is there and the beautiful buildings. And, of course, the beautiful girls and everything. But they’re over there fighting. You knew that.”
In one of his letters home, infantryman Burnett Miller focused on the strangeness of being in a foreign country over the holidays.
Soldiers who had been wounded wrote home as soon as they were able, hoping to counter the shock of the telegrams they knew their families had undoubtedly already received. Paul Fussell wrote home from France after being hit by shrapnel in March of 1945.
Mrs. Martina Ciarlo, a widow in Waterbury, Connecticut, had three sons and two daughters. The oldest boy and the youngest were exempt from the draft and safely at home. But the middle son, Corado, known as “Babe,” fought with the Fifth Allied Army in Italy. His letters home were the most important thing in his mother’s life.
“There wasn’t a day that we didn’t write. Or he didn’t write,” Babe’s sister Olga Ciarlo said.
Strict censorship governed the letters servicemen sent home from overseas, and the men sometimes chafed under its restrictions. But they also censored themselves, careful to keep from worrying their loved ones back home.
“Most of the information that we got which was practically nothing was through Babe’s letters,” his brother Thomas Ciarlo said. “He never mentioned a word about what he was doing, where he was. Course, at the time, you couldn’t say much about where you were anyway. But it was always the up side. ‘I could only write a few lines right now because I’m, I’m going to chow and I don’t have time.’ This is in the heat of the battle and he’s going to chow line. I mean, there’s no such thing as a chow line when you’re in. ... But you don’t realize at the time, until years later, you get a little smarter and you go, ‘Geez, you know, how can you be going to a chow line when you’re in the middle of a battle or your in a foxhole or someplace?’ But he always had that upbeat outlook about him.”
“We were censored pretty heavily and about all the things I could write was that we were all safe and sound and after a mission or something that it turned out OK and I’m OK and that’s about all I ever did. I didn’t want to worry ‘em,” Sacramento’s Harry Schmid said.
Officers were required to read the enlisted men’s mail and black out anything that might help the enemy. In the process, as Tom Galloway recalled, they also got to know the men in their units intimately: “If I was not forward, then I had to read the mail. I do recall one fellow that, I just didn’t read his letter to his girlfriend — it was ten pages every day. To be perfectly honest it was boring. And it just wasn’t any sense to it. He was only writing his wife about a page.”
Many kept diaries of their experiences during the war.
Sascha Weinzheimer recorded her impressions of life in the Philippines under Japanese occupation.
She continued to keep her diary after she and her family entered the Japanese prison internment camp at Santo Tomas University, and conditions went from bad to worse:
Although it was forbidden for combat personnel to keep diaries, seaman James Fahey secretly recorded his obseravtions of life aboard the light cruiser the USS Montpelier. Many years after the war, his brutally honest and graphic journal would be turned into a book, Pacific War Diary.
Throughout the ten months he was overseas, pilot Quentin Aanenson and Jackie Greer, his girlfriend back in Louisiana, exchanged letters every two or three days, each trying to keep the other’s spirits up until they could be together again.
Aanenson survived a bad fire in his plane, was haunted by the fear that he had once mistakenly fired on British or American troops and nearly died when his plane hurtled toward its target so fast his instruments froze. When he managed to pull out of his dive at 600 miles per hour, blood vessels in his eyes burst and blood trickled from his ears. Meanwhile, his friends kept dying.
On December 5, 1944, the impact of all that Aanenson had seen and experienced overcame him and he started writing Jackie a very different kind of letter from the ones he had sent before. “I have purposely not told you much about my world over here, because I thought it might upset you. Perhaps that has been a mistake, so let me correct that right now. I still doubt if you will be able to comprehend it. I don’t think anyone can who has not been through it ... I live in a world of death ...”
When he had finished his letter, Aanenson folded it up and put it away in his foot-locker. Mailing it home would only have been cruel to the woman he loved and hoped to marry — if he happened to make it through what was still to come.
At first the delivery of mail was slow and erratic. Then the military began encouraging Americans to use V-mail. Letters were addressed and written on a special one-sided form, sent to Washington where they were opened and read by army censors, then photographed onto a reel of 16 mm microfilm.
The reels – each containing some 18,000 letters – were then flown overseas to receiving stations. There, each letter was printed onto a sheet of 4-inch by 5-inch photographic paper, slipped into an envelope and bagged for delivery to the front.
A single mail-sack could hold 150,000 one-page letters that would otherwise have required 37 sacks and weighed 2,575 pounds. Between June 15, 1942 and the end of the war, more than 556 million pieces of V-mail were delivered to servicemen overseas — who sent some 510 million pieces in return.