Friday, July 11, 2014

Raising Morale: Letters Home During the World Wars

“There is nothing better than to come in from a hard day and find a letter waiting. Of course, I never get enough because letters from home are so welcome.”
                                    -Bill Insley, 1945
Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the armed forces. There are also countless e-mails being written by active duty troops serving in countries throughout the world right now. These letters are an irreplaceable record of the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families.
Many of these letters are also historically significant, offering eyewitness accounts of famous battles, historic events, or encounters with prominent military leaders. But even the more personal correspondences, such as heartfelt expressions of affection or words of support and encouragement between separated loved ones, offer valuable insight into the wartime experience.
Geary County is a community with a long history of military involvement. Families from this area have sent sons and daughters into the military from the founding of Geary County in the 1800s to the present day, and the letters and souvenirs they sent home helped their family and friends, and now us, connect to their wartime experiences.
Delivery of mail was particularly vital during both World War I and II, and soldiers and the army as a whole relied on letters to keep up morale.  Receiving well wishes and gifts from home was one of the few comforts a soldier had on the Western Front. The majority of them spent more time fighting boredom than they did the enemy, and writing was one of the few hobbies available to them. For some, it was a welcome distraction from the horrors of the trenches and battlefields.
V-Mail Packaging during World War II
During World War II, wartime mail became too much for the Post Office to send between the soldiers stationed abroad and their family at home, but because it was such a vital part of morale upkeep, the War Department looked for new ways to get letters to their soldiers.  As a way to cut back on the bulk, a new type of mail rose: V-Mail. Short for Victory Mail, V-mail was a unique type of messaging system. Soldiers write on standardized stationary, the letter was censored, and then microfilmed. The microfilmed letter was shrunk down, shipped overseas and then magnified and reprinted on American soil. By using V-mail, the postal system saved huge amounts of shipping space, and the 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail bag.
V-mail sent by Artie O'Donnell

Letters from serving soldiers had a powerful role, not just in keeping families informed of the well-being of their loved ones; they also helped to sustain popular support for the war across the home front.  So, while mail was encouraged between soldier and family, censorship was a serious issue during both World War I and World War II.  In part this was a way to prevent the enemy finding out secret information, but it also prevented bad news from reaching the home front and lowering national morale.
            Artie O’Donnell, the son of local doctor Art O’Donnell, mentioned this challenge in a letter to his brother, “…maybe I’ll be able to fill this letter out with news about that, Lord knows that with censorship and all that we have to go thru, its darn hard to think of anything worthwhile to write about…” Artie knew that each letter was read and censored by the army before it was mailed, a stamp placed on it to show that it didn’t reveal any important information. If the censor felt that too much was said, the words were either blacked out or physically cut out before the remainder of the letter was sent, which meant that a soldier had to be very careful about what he said! 
Whether the soldier was on the battlefield at Gettysburg, in the trenches of World War I, or in the jungles in Vietnam, the mail service has long provided serving men and women with a way to connect to their loved ones. And now at the Geary County Historical Society, we are sharing local military stories through their personal letters written to and from the war front.
            Stop by the Geary County Historical Society to see our new exhibit “Letters Home,” now open! See examples of V-mail and censorship, read letters of hope, fear and love written by our local soldiers from 1890-1990 and then tell us where your soldier has been. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-4pm, admission is FREE.

Check out this interesting youtube video for more information: