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.”
September 3, 1942
Dear Mother, Dad, Katharine, and John:
Yesterday we got our first mail, the best birthday present possible for me. After mail call everybody would be nice and quiet when suddenly somebody would curse in a loud voice and shout, “Alice got married.” It really was funny. Cherokee got word that he is out in the cold and really surprised us all. One fellow in our squad got a box of cookies that had been reduced to dust and the dust was soon reduced leaving an empty box�.
Daddy! You absent-minded prof. When you write to mother, you better mail it to her and not accidentally put it in my letter. I destroyed it and didn�t show it to the boys though, just to show what a sport I am�
Tell everybody hello for me�
“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.
December 24, 1944
It’s the evening before Christmas, but it’s quite hard to realize this. I’ll just sort of skip this year and we’ll all celebrate twice as much next year. We stayed in a fine building last night. And may tonight. It’s funny how much a building can mean. This is the first one we’ve been in since our arrival on the continent. Most of the people here seem to be quite glad to see us. They throw fruit to us. I don’t think they’re throwing it at us. And we wave quite happily. I hope you and Dad and Grandma all have a happy holiday and that you don’t worry too much about me. I’m really quite all right. And even enjoying my little trip up to now very much.
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.
Dear Mother and Dad:
As you may have already learned from the official telegram, I have been slightly wounded. A piece of shrapnel hit my right thigh, between the knee and the hip, but did not break the leg. Another piece hit my back, on the left side, but didn’t go in very far. Both have been removed. I am now sewed up, no bones were broken, and I feel OK. They were really very slight wounds, and nothing at all to worry about. I should be up and walking around shortly, and enjoying these white sheets and nice beds. I’m in a general hospital. It is luxurious, to say the least. Don’t worry.
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.
Dearest Tony and Vic:
I am in the best of health and I hope to hear the same from you and the babies always. I think of you always even though I don’t write as often as I should. I could just picture us all sitting down together eating talking and enjoying ourselves as soon as this war is over and that won’t be long now. Don’t worry about writing to me because Olga does a very good job writing. Take good care of mom for me and I will send you a souvenir from Italy as soon as I get the chance. I guess I have said enough for one day, so give my love to Mom, Teresa, Olga, Tommy, Donna, Thomas, Jr. and give my regards to all the relatives and friends.
Your loving brother always,
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.”
Dearest Mom and Family:
Last night I received about ten letters. It was certainly good to hear from all of you and also the good news about Dom getting 6 months (deferment). Boy I almost broke down myself hearing all the good news.
I’m glad you enjoyed yourselves Easter. As for myself, I had a good time. Don’t worry about my money situation, because there isn’t a thing to spend it on here in Anzio.
I’m not in Cisterna because the Jerries still got it, but we were pretty darn close. This afternoon I might go swimming in the Tyrennian Sea the salt water will do me good.
Tell Aunt Lucy that there is nothing to worry about, because it is safe here and the ocean is very, very safe. Well, I’ve said enough for one day so take care of yourselves.
“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.
“After a while, Corregidor fell. Then all the big guns were quiet. We listened to the radio when General Wainright spoke to all American and Filipino soldiers to give themselves up. His voice sounded tired and he was made to repeat the speech over again two and three times. Mother said, ‘Sascha Jean, you are listening to history.’ ”
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:
“Daddy is now out of tobacco he dries papaya leaves on the roof and smokes that. People use anything to roll their cigarettes. Some even use pages from the Bible because the paper is so fine. Every day I hear of some person doing strange things. A Catholic priest did a mortal sin by going around with a lady, then falling in love with her, acting so mushy in front of everybody that he was kicked out of the church. I heard a husband and wife fighting loudly she yelled at him, ‘ If I hadn’t married you, I wouldn’t be in this camp now!’ ”
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 .
November 10 1943
This afternoon, while we were south of Bougainville. we came across a raft with four live Japs in it. As the destroyer Spence came close to the raft, the Japs opened up with a machine gun at the destroyer. The Jap officer then put the gun in each man’s mouth and fired, blowing out the back of each man’s skull. One of the Japs did not want to die for the Emperor and put up a struggle. The others held him down. The officer was the last to die. He also blew his brains out. The Spence went in to investigate. All the bodies had disappeared into the water. There was nothing left but blood and an empty raft. Swarms of sharks were everywhere. The sharks ate well today. We went to battle stations. and at 10PM we were attacked by enemy planes. Later darkness descended and the rains came.
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.
NEXT: Words and images became weapons of war.
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.