A soldier’s 1944 V-Mail Easter card
I quickly directed my auction buddy Janet to the box-lot room at the auction house so she could bid on a Pennsylvania map she had seen earlier. It was soon to be sold and I wanted to make sure she didn’t miss the chance to get it.
As I sat waiting for her in another room, I realized that she was taking much too long to get back. Soon she returned, not with a map but with a frame bearing six greeting-card-sized sheets with crudely drawn cartoons. These are from World War II, from the Aleutian Islands, she said. She had been out-bidded on the state map, but found an equally good treasure.
They were Easter greeting cards – more sheets than cards – sent from a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 42nd Engineer Regiment stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. He had sent them to a woman in Philadelphia on almost consecutive days from March 20 to March 27, 1944, and she apparently had framed them. There was also a censor’s stamp on each of them.
These were not your American Greetings cards: stiff paper with colorful rabbits, eggs and perfect script. They were all hand-drawn in black and white, and looked like photographic copies rather than originals. At the bottom of each was a “V…-MAIL” symbol. Each card carried a single message; a few were comical, and one actually contained a cheerful rabbit with Quonset huts buried in the snow in the background.
I had not seen cards like this before, so obviously I was curious about how this American soldier ended up in the Aleutians in a war that was being waged in Europe, and the story behind the cards.
The Aleutian Islands are situated in the Northern Pacific Ocean about 1,200 miles west of Alaska. The Japanese invaded two of the islands in 1942. The United States, which had gotten the islands as part of the purchase of Alaska in the 19th century, reclaimed them in a military action that lasted about 14 months. This battle was the only one of the war on U.S. soil.
Once the Japanese were expelled, U.S. troops remained and the soldier who wrote the auction card apparently was one of them. On the web, I found photos of soldiers and equipment based in the Aleutians in 1944, along with African American soldiers. At least three all-black Army engineer units helped build the Alaska Highway in 1942 (supplied with only picks and shovels while white soldiers got bulldozers and other heavy equipment).
Soldiers corresponded with families and friends back home through a system called V-Mail, or Victory Mail, instituted by the U.S. military in 1942 to save on cargo space that was used to transport tons of regular mail. The military figured that the space could be used instead to haul war materials.
The servicemen wrote on special letter sheets that could be folded into an envelope and sealed. The letters were censored, and then put on 16mm microfilm reels where they individually were reduced to the size of a postage stamp.
The microfilm was shipped to the States, where the letters were blown up to about 60 percent of their original size (4 ¼” by 5 3/16″), printed at special stations and mailed to the addressees. Families and friends in the States could also use the special letter sheets for their mailings to GIs.
The V-Mail system was developed in the 1930s by the Eastman Kodak Company along with two airlines to help reduce the weight of air mail. Called the Airgraph, it was first used militarily by the British in 1941, followed by the United States the following year.
In the Aleutians, American soldiers were subject to a climate that was windy, foggy and very very cold. Some drew cartoons to get them through the ordeal, such as these (scroll down on the page) by an African American artist named Don Miller. His cartoons are included in the 1945 book “Wind Blown and Dripping: A Book of Aleutian Cartoons,” which he co-authored. Even the V-Mail itself was the subject of cartoons, like this one by Yank magazine illustrator George Baker featuring the Sad Sack character.
Some cartoons were created as Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other greeting cards, and according to one site, became very popular. Some were drawn by soldiers for their own personal use, while others were created by soldiers and distributed to fellow GIs.
I found several cards on the web that sons and daughters had discovered among World War II mementos. The adopted daughter of western writer Harry E. Chrisman published a book of the V-Mail illustrations he created for himself and other soldiers while in the Pacific Theater. In another case, a grandfather’s V-Mail included a photo of him and other soldiers along with the inscription “cards we made 1944.” A reference to another solder noted that he designed Christmas cards that the chaplain printed and distributed.
Four of the cards from the auction bore the signatures of people other than the sender, who signed his name “Dick” and “Dickie.” Two of the cards bore only his name as sender, but the illustrations were too different to have been done by the same person. I’m sure a lot of soldiers did not sign their drawings.
As for value, one site offered V-Mail greeting cards for $15 to $50 each. Tons of V-mail items – letters, cards, unused sheets and more – were sold on eBay both singly and in lots from 99 cents up to $200 or more for large lots.