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V-Mail and "Free" Franks from World War II, 1944

During World War II, just like every conflict from the Civil War forward, the delivery of mail from the home front to the battlefield and vice-versa was critical to maintaining morale. (For a fascinating account of the extraordinary measures the Union undertook to deliver mail during the Civil War, check out Delivered Under Fire: Absalom Markland and Freedom's Mail by Candice Shy Hooper.)


The importance of mail during World War II was recognized by the U.S. Armed Forces, but they also knew that mail could take up precious room on cargo ships carrying personnel and supplies to the front. That lead to the development of V-Mail, "V" standing for "Victory."


Using standardized stationary designed by the Government Printing Office and provided free of charge by the U.S. Post Office Department (USPOD) at the rate of two sheets per person per day, correspondents would write or type their letters as usual and mail them with the appropriate postage (3-cents for surface mail for civilians) or franking (military personnel were granted free franking by the U.S. Congress in early 1942).


Those letters would be opened at a V-Mail station (the largest were in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco) where they would be microfilmed. The film rolls would then be shipped to a V-Mail destination station where a censor would read each letter and black out any sensitive information. The censor-passed letters would then be reproduced onto four-inch by five-inch photographs, which were then placed in War & Navy Department official business envelopes for delivery. The film was destroyed once it was known that the letters reached their destinations.


According to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the volume and weight savings were significant. A 2008 history of V-Mail by the USPS states, "Roughly 1,600 letters would fit on one roll, reducing them to approximately three percent of their original weight and volume. For example, 150,000 unmicrofilmed V-Mail letters weighted 1,500 pounds and filled 22 mail sacks. When microfilmed, they weight 45 pounds and filled on mail sack - a great space saver on crowded transports."


Not only did V-Mail save space, it also was faster. The National Postal Museum (NPM) in a story on V-Mail notes that standard mail delivery could take up to a month by ship, but V-Mail could take 12 days or less using aircraft.


V-Mail was far from ideal. First, the letters had to be brief. Second, if the correspondent's handwriting was poor, the reduced size letter could be difficult to read. (That may be why of the five V-Mails I have in my collection, three are typed.) Third, you couldn't have any enclosures (although that restriction was lifted later in the war specifically for baby pictures). Another bugaboo for the processors was lipstick on a letter. Lipstick was referred to as the "scarlet scourge" because it would gum up the photographic machines.


V-Mail operated between June 15, 1942, and November 1, 1945, and during that time period, the Army reported that 1.25 billion V-Mail letters were microfilmed. While that is a huge number, it was still just a fraction of all the mail military personnel received during the war. For example, relying on USPOD data, the NPM states that military personnel received over 3.3 billion pieces of all types of mail just in fiscal year 1945!


Figure 1 is one of the five V-Mails in my collection. All five were sent by U.S. Navy Seaman Paul Joseph Boyce, a 20-year-old from Harriman, New York, to Miss Mary Sendall, who at the time lived in New Paltz, New York. Harriman is about 50 miles north of Manhattan. All from 1944, they are dated April 4, 9 and 12 and May 2 and 5. The one in Figure 1 is from April 4. This envelope is the most roughly opened of the five I have, but the V-Mail is the best centered and also shows evidence of a censor's work.

Figure 1 - V-Mail Dated April 4, 1944, Envelope Postmarked April 13, 1944.


Paul completed the V-Mail according to the instructions, namely he kept his message within the margin lines and included his complete address and Mary's. The censor's mark is in the upper lefthand corner, and that individual crossed out something in Paul's letter - perhaps the length of time his ship was at the location where he took liberty. The film reel that held this letter arrived in New York about a week after Paul typed it. It was then printed, and based on the postmark, it was dispatched to Mary on April 13, 1944. She probably received it at her home a day or day later.


This letter from Paul, as well as the other four, doesn't say a great deal. He writes about wishing he received more mail (a constant refrain from military personnel), watching a movie, pining for a current newspaper, not having a great deal to do, etc. He sounds bored, which he probably was at the time. (This definition of war first appeared during World War I: "War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.") He also is learning to be sensitive to the censors. In one letter he writes, "It has been a couple days since the last time I wrote to you. I have written a lot more letters to you than you have actually received because the censor has sent about every other one back to me for one reason or another. From now on, I'll have to be a little more careful about what I say."


While Paul had no idea what was up, 80 years later we know exactly where he was and what his ship was doing, and it was significant. I suspect he no longer found himself bored.


Paul served on the USS Achernar, an armed cargo ship that was commissioned on January 31, 1944 (Figure 2). On March 30, just five days before Paul typed this letter to Mary, the Achernar arrived in Swansea, Wales. For the next two months, the ship transported cargo and personnel between various ports in the United Kingdom in preparation for D-Day and the Normandy invasion.


Figure 2 - USS Achernar


On June 1, 1944, the Achernar was designated as the command post for General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army. On June 6, D-Day, the Achernar took up position in the Bay of the Seine River just off the beaches of Normandy. After the First Army headquarters disembarked on June 11, the Achernar had a short respite before it was back in action, experiencing several German air attacks.


In early July, the Achernar sailed to the Mediterranean where it supported the invasion of southern France. After a stop in the U.S. for repairs in the fall, the Achernar sailed to Pearl Harbor arriving there on January 10, 1945. During the spring of 1945, the Achernar supported the seizure of key islands in the Pacific including Okinawa. It was at Okinawa that the Achernar was hit by a Japanese suicide plane killing five crew members and injuring 41. She then sailed back to the U.S. for repairs. After the war in the Pacific ended in September 1945, the Achernar transported military personnel back to the U.S.


I don't know when Paul (Figure 3) enlisted in the Navy. He was just 16 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and he turned 18 on September 25, 1943. He must have been discharged sometime in the first half of 1946 because he submitted his draft card on May 6, 1946, and where he was supposed to put his employer's name and address, he typed, "Registered upon discharge from the U S Navy."

Figure 3 - Paul Joseph Boyce (1925-1991). Source: Ancestry.com.


Paul's relationship to Mary is unknown, but if it was romantic, it was short lived. Sometime after the end of the war, Paul married Jennie Schaper, a clerk in the War Department during World War II. They had three children and lived in New York, New Jersey and Ohio before retiring to Florida. Paul worked for the Erie Railroad, while Jennie worked as a bookkeeper and switchboard operator. Paul passed away at age 65 in 1991. Jennie lived until 2015.


As for Mary Sendall, she was born in Cornwall, New York, about a dozen miles from Harriman, in 1924. Married in 1951 to Carl Bargisen, she had two children and lived her entire live in New York. In the 1950 U.S. Census, her occupation was listed as grammar schoolteacher, but I don't know if she continued in that profession after her marriage. She passed away in 2007, age 82.


Interestingly, I have one other letter addressed to Mary when she was in New Paltz, but this one is from an Army Air Corps member by the name of William Joseph Lynas (1918-2006) from Brooklyn. The cover is pictured in Figure 4. It was a domestic letter and was not sent via V-Mail. It is postmarked May 18, 1944, from Stewart Field in Newburgh, New York and is an example of a World War II "Free" frank (see the upper righthand corner). From the enclosure, it sounds like William met Mary only briefly. He talks about going on furlough "to clear up his affairs at home" and wishes he could see Mary again. He even mentions a dance scheduled for May 25 in New Paltz and regrets that he will be gone by then.


Figure 4 - Military Free Frank Example.


It would be interesting to learn more about Mary. Did she volunteer at a USO and offer to write to military personnel that she met? Whatever the connection, her letters from home were mighty appreciated by both Paul and William.


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