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Dead medium: V-Mail
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From: staun@subroutine.de staun
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2001 06:46:57 -0800 (PST)

(((Thanks Harald for an excellent story! I only wish the source(s) were more persistent than websites, too may of the Archive's Notes now contain unreachable URLs... the beauty and horror of the internet illuminated! --tomj)))

Mail communication with one's family and friends has long been a critical factor in maintaining servicemen and womens morale during wartime. Military commanders acknowledge that frequent contact between families separated during war helps strengthen fortitude, makes loneliness endurable and provides needed reassurance. Of course, all those letters take up space. During World War II, the military and Post Office Department looked for a way to reduce the bulk of mail, conserving badly-needed space.

The answer was V-mail, pre-printed envelope sheets that could be photographed and transferred to microfilm for shipping. V-mail originated in England where it was used for exchanging personal mail with British armed forces in the Middle East. The system was adopted by the United States Post Office Department and put into practice on June 15, 1942. V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. The weight of that same amount of mail was reduced dramatically from 2,575 pounds to a mere 45. The blue-striped cardboard containers held V-mail letter forms.

V-mail consisted of miniaturized messages reproduced by microphotography from 16mm film. The system of microfilming letters was based on the use of special V-mail letter-sheets, which were a combination of letter and envelope. The letter-sheets were constructed and gummed so as to fold into a uniform and distinctively marked envelope. The user wrote the message in the limited space provided, added the name and address of the recipient, folded the form, affixed postage, if necessary, and mailed the letter. V-mail correspondence was then reduced to thumb-nail size on microfilm. The rolls of film were sent to prescribed destinations for developing at a receiving station near the addressee. Finally, individual facsimiles of the letter-sheets were reproduced about one-quarter the original size and the miniature mail was then delivered to the addressee.

The first large Army operated V-mail station overseas was opened on April 15, 1943 at Casablanca, North Africa. Hastily set up in a field following the Allied invasion of North Africa, this makeshift station continued to operate until September 15, 1943. Between June 15, 1942 and April 1, 1945, 556,513,795 pieces of V-mail were sent from the U.S. to military post offices and over 510 million pieces were received from military personnel abroad. In spite of the patriotic draw of V-mail, most people still sent regular first class mail. In 1944, for instance, Navy personnel received 38 million pieces of V-mail, but over 272 million pieces of regular first class mail. From: http://www.si.edu/postal/learnmore/vmail.html

During the latter years of World War II, V-Mail became a popular way to correspond with a loved one serving overseas. V-Mail letters were written on forms that could be purchased at five and ten cent stores or the post office. These special forms were photographed, put on film, flown across the world and then reproduced at the mail center closest to the recipient's position. The development of the V-Mail system reduced the time it took a soldier to receive a letter by a month - from six weeks by boat to twelve days or less by air. However, the main advantage of V-Mail was its compact nature. Reduction in the size and weight of the letters translated into more space for crucial military supplies on cargo planes; one advertisement explained that 1,700 V-Mail letters could fit in a cigarette packet, while reducing the weight of the letters in paper form by 98%. Transport of the letters by plane minimized the chances that the enemy would intercept the letters, although writers were reminded to delete any information that might prove useful to the enemy in case some V-Mail was captured. Americans on the home-front were encouraged by the government and private businesses to use V-Mail. Letters from home were compared to "a five minute furlough," and advertisements that instructed how, when, and what to write in a V-Mail reached a peak in 1944. Letters were to be cheerful, short, and frequent. V-Mail made it possible for servicemen halfway across the world to hear news from home on a weekly basis. From: http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/adaccess/vmail.html

During World War Two, mail and morale were one and the same, and early in 1942 the military devised a simple method to deliver millions of pieces of very important news from home to the servicemen serving in the ETO. It was called V-Mail, and, of course, the V meant Victory (The hyphen in the phrase "V-Mail" was printed as three dots and a dash as at right Morse code for the letter "V"; see the graphic at the bottom of the Skylighters feedback form for a clear example.) It was a simple photographic system. The letter writer wrote the letter on a V-Mail form, a one-sided, regular-sized piece of paper with a box on the top for the receiver's address. The letter was sent in, and after it was cleared by the censor, the mailroom photographed the page onto 16-mm black and white camera film. The reel of V-Mail film was then flown or shipped to a processing center in the addressee's general location where a copy of the letter was printed onto a piece of 5" x 4" black and white photographic paper. This then was folded, slipped into an envelope and dropped into a mailbag for delivery. The V-Mail system was necessary because mail had to vie with food, fuel, ammunition and supplies for precious overseas cargo space, and V-Mail allowed thousands of letters to fly from America to France in the place of only a few hundred bits of regular mail. During the war over 1.5 billion (yes, b as in baker) V-Mail letters were processed.

In Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, one of the more poignant images of World War II is that of a GI laying in the middle of a street. He is alone, dying in the rain, holding out a letter to his dad and calling out to his buddies who are still under sniper fire. Later that night, the medic transcribes the GI's letter onto a clean, unbloodied V-Mail form with detached, quiet emotion. V-Mail is an important part of postal history, and a remembrance of the 20th Century's pivotal years. V-Mail carried the thoughts and dreams of privates and generals to those back home, and brought comfort to those at the front. Books and movies can help bring the past to life, and mementos of that past help revive the memories of our history. This is especially true in the case of V-Mail. Today it helps us to preserve their memory. (The vintage advertisement below depicts a V-Mail writing kit.)

A "V-Mail" was comprised of a single sheet of paper measuring 4-1/4 by 5 inches. During World War II cargo space and weight on ships was at a premium and the hundreds of sacks of mail weighing tons took up too much valuable space. Mail was often held up in favor of supplies. To overcome the demoralizing effect of not getting the mail delivered,the post office came up with a standardized size paper and envelope. Letters were written and then microfilmed. The microfilm was then sent in place of the letter, saving valuable space and still getting letters to our troops and home to soldiers families. The letters were printed on the receiving end and then delivered. V-Mail was sent and received from June 1942 through November 1945. From: http://www.skylighters.org/encyclopedia/vmail.html

Harald Staun