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Victory Mail: The WWII Program that Significantly Reduced the Cost and Time of U.S. Military Postal Service

Soldiers and sailors stationed overseas relied on letters during World War II. On average, soldiers wrote six letters every week. It took between 1 and 4 weeks for those letters to cross the ocean to the United States. The letters received at home assured loved ones that the serviceman was still alive and well when he wrote them. Letters from home boosted morale for the troops, and a fighting force with high morale fought better.

Sending and delivering these letters proved quite a logistical challenge, especially when the mail had to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Cargo ships took up to a month to deliver mail. In contrast, sending mail via cargo planes, which took less than two weeks, was much more expensive. In addition, cargo space on these planes was limited (for critical weapons and supplies), and letters were heavy and occupied a lot of room. The military postal service turned to the British “Airgraph” in search of a solution.

Eastman Kodak Company developed the airgraph in collaboration with Imperial Airways (now British Airways) and Pan-American Airways in the 1930s to reduce the weight and bulk of mail carried by air. The letters would be written on premade forms, censored, scanned onto microfilm, transported by plane, and then printed onto photo paper and delivered.

The U.S. military postal service adopted this process and renamed it “Victory Mail” or “V-Mail” for short, proving extremely successful. This system saved enormous amounts of money; 2500 pounds of paper letters in 37 mail sacks could be consolidated into only 45 pounds of film in a single mail sack. As a result, more material could be used to supply the war effort. The U.S. reduced waste by only printing the letters at a 60% scale. V-mail prevented espionage inadvertently; as only photocopies of letters were being sent, invisible ink and microdots were rendered useless. Even though the V-mail system was only used between June 1942 and November 1945, over 1 billion items were processed.

The V-mail system used standardized stationery, which combined the letter and envelope into one piece of paper. Even without microfilming, this was an excellent space-saving measure. The Post Office provided two free sheets per person per day and a form specially designed by the Government Printing Office. How one wrote the letter also influenced whether one could read the reduced version. V-mail users were instructed to use a typewriter, ink, or dark pencil. The original forms could accommodate up to 700 typed words. If the writing is faint or small, it cannot be photographed.

There were some drawbacks to V-Mail. There were a limited number of words that could be used. Since the photo prints were printed at 25% of the original letter size, the final product would be unreadable if the print was too small. Some stores sold “V-mail readers,” magnifying glasses so that readers could read the reduced print. The downside of V-mail was that one could not send enclosures (at least initially) or leave a personal imprint on the paper by kissing it. Since lipstick gummed up the machines used to film letters, it was called the “scarlet scourge.” Despite its shortcomings, V-mail benefited from marketing that branded the use of the service as a patriotic duty and grew in popularity over time. V-mail saved crucial shipping space without a doubt.

#1

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#2 A courier delivers letters for filming and reproducing at the official photo mail station at the Pentagon.

A courier delivers letters for filming and reproducing at the official photo mail station at the Pentagon.

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#3 Letters to be microfilmed for V-mail are registered, sorted and prepared for photographing.

Letters to be microfilmed for V-mail are registered, sorted and prepared for photographing.

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#4 Letters to members of the armed forces overseas are photographed and transferred to V-mail microfilm.

Letters to members of the armed forces overseas are photographed and transferred to V-mail microfilm.

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#5 V-mail is inspected for flaws on an enlarging reader.

V-mail is inspected for flaws on an enlarging reader.

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#6 V-mail letters are printed onto paper using a continuous enlarger.

V-mail letters are printed onto paper using a continuous enlarger.

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#7 Paper reproductions from V-mail microfilm are developed, fixed, washed and dried on a continuous paper processing machine.

Paper reproductions from V-mail microfilm are developed, fixed, washed and dried on a continuous paper processing machine.

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#8 Paper reproductions of V-mail microfilm are inspected and then cut into individual letters by a “chopper.”

Paper reproductions of V-mail microfilm are inspected and then cut into individual letters by a “chopper.”

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#9 Finished V-mail letters are sorted and prepared for forwarding to recipients.

Finished V-mail letters are sorted and prepared for forwarding to recipients.

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#10 A V-Mail letter.

A V-Mail letter.

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#11 Here is a section of the opening and targeting operation.

Here is a section of the opening and targeting operation.

Targeting is simply preparing each group of letters with a State target so mail for each group of States can be sent to its proper finishing station in the States. Here also, are withdrawn all letters which will not photograph well. These, of necessity, must be sent by regular mail, which in this case means by air.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#12 The recording operation, using Recordak machines.

The recording operation, using Recordak machines.

These operators photograph approximately seventeen hundred letters on each 100-foot roll of film, and can be done in about three-quarters of an hour.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#13 The next step is the processing of the film, which is done both on automatic machines which do individual rolls.

The next step is the processing of the film, which is done both on automatic machines which do individual rolls.

In this shot, the operator has completed the development and is pouring in the hype or fixing bath, after which the film will be subjected to a water spray to wash it thoroughly.It is then fed onto the upper reel which it is thoroughly dried by means of a warm air stream.

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#14 After processing, the film is taken to inspection where it is carefully examined on a projection machine, for any flaws which may have occurred either during the recording or in the development.

After processing, the film is taken to inspection where it is carefully examined on a projection machine, for any flaws which may have occurred either during the recording or in the development.

These bad letters are then punched out and tallied, so they can be re-photographed on a later roll.

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#15 Following this, the density of the film is measured on a densitometer and the density noted on its carton, just prior to dispatch.

Following this, the density of the film is measured on a densitometer and the density noted on its carton, just prior to dispatch.

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#16 The retake department where all the originals of V-Mail are stored until destruction orders are issued by the States.

The retake department where all the originals of V-Mail are stored until destruction orders are issued by the States.

Destruction orders are not issued until the States stations have satisfactorily reproduced every letter on a roll. Should the States advise that certain letters must be rephotographed, the proper bundle must be located and the letter withdrawn to be recorded again.”

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#17 Initial step in the Receiving section is this operation of checking the postal dispatch sheets and logging in the rolls received from the States.

Initial step in the Receiving section is this operation of checking the postal dispatch sheets and logging in the rolls received from the States.

This section is now receiving and completely processing an average of seventy rolls per day.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. 1944.

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#18 View of the continuous enlarger on which the image on the film is enlarged to regular V-Mail size of 4 1/4 x 5 inches.

View of the continuous enlarger on which the image on the film is enlarged to regular V-Mail size of 4 1/4 x 5 inches.

Sensitized rolls of paper, 825 feet in length are used. Here, the operator is adjusting the voltage to secure proper exposure. This is determined by consulting a chart which suggests certain voltage and lens aperture settings for any given film density.”

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#19 Paper inspection. At these tables, each roll of finished work is inspected letter by letter and all badly reproduced letters are marked out.

Paper inspection. At these tables, each roll of finished work is inspected letter by letter and all badly reproduced letters are marked out.

Where possible, an attempt is made to produce a better print in the Reprint department. Letters which cannot be satisfactorily reproduced are either sent back to the States to be rephotographed or to be sent via regular mail.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#20 Paper chopping. At these choppers, each letter is handcut from the roll and here the culls or bad letters are pulled out.

Paper chopping. At these choppers, each letter is handcut from the roll and here the culls or bad letters are pulled out.

Approximately twenty minutes is required to completely chop a full roll of V-Mail.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#21 On this machine, the letters are folded to correct size for insertion into V-Mail envelops, an operation which requires about eight minutes per roll.

On this machine, the letters are folded to correct size for insertion into V-Mail envelops, an operation which requires about eight minutes per roll.

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#22 This is a view of the inserting and sealing.

This is a view of the inserting and sealing.

At the long table, the girls must hand-insert each letter, after which all the envelopes are fed through a sealing machine. In the rear, the sealed letters are then bundled and bagged for dispatch to the Post Office.

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#23 “Finished V-Mail bundled, bagged, and ready for dispatch through the APO to the troops.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

“Finished V-Mail bundled, bagged, and ready for dispatch through the APO to the troops.” Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#24 The final act at the airstrip with the mail truck, containing letters for the States and for the troops, pulled alongside the plane. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

The final act at the airstrip with the mail truck, containing letters for the States and for the troops, pulled alongside the plane. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1944.

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#25 An example of a “long-form” V-Mail, sent through as-is, without being photographed and reproduced, a common practice due to damage or lack of V-Mail facilities.

An example of a “long-form” V-Mail, sent through as-is, without being photographed and reproduced, a common practice due to damage or lack of V-Mail facilities.

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#26 V-mail from Bill Stover to his family commenting on V-mail’s reputation as a speedy service.

V-mail from Bill Stover to his family commenting on V-mail’s reputation as a speedy service.

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#27 Heavily damaged, thus un-processed V-mail. (Photo gifted to National WW2 Museum in Memory of Col. R. B. Rordam).

Heavily damaged, thus un-processed V-mail. (Photo gifted to National WW2 Museum in Memory of Col. R. B. Rordam).

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#28 Explanation of V-Mail System in Display aboard USS Alabama (BB 60), Mobile, Alabama.

Explanation of V-Mail System in Display aboard USS Alabama (BB 60), Mobile, Alabama.

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#29

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#30

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#31

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#32

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#33 V-mail envelope with V-mail symbol, March 1943.

V-mail envelope with V-mail symbol, March 1943.

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Written by Benjamin Grayson

Former Bouquet seller now making a go with blogging and graphic designing. I love creating & composing history articles and lists.

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