Staying in touch with family and friends stationed overseas was just as important in World War II as it is in current military undertakings. Fast, free, and difficult for the enemy to intercept, victory mail (or "V-Mail") played the same role 60 years ago that email is playing today in keeping lines of communication open between loved ones.
Later to become "V-Mail" when adopted by the United States, the Airgraph Service was first developed by the British Post Office in response to the Italians closing of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea to Allied forces. Seaborne traffic was rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope. This 12,000 mile detour could mean delays of anywhere between three and six months for mail destined for British soldiers stationed in the Middle East and the Far East. Alternatives to the route around the Cape were considered, eventually settling on transport by aircraft-however, space in any aircraft was extremely limited. Microphotography was deemed the best solution to the problem of space.
The United States adopted the Airgraph Service, renaming it "victory mail" or "V-Mail," on June 15, 1942, and it was in use until April 1, 1945. Where it had taken up to a month for standard mail delivery by ship, V-Mail delivery could take as little as twelve days or less using aircraft. Air transport also had the added benefit of minimizing the likelihood of enemy interception, although censors still insured that any potentially useful or damaging information was deleted from all messages. One final benefit was that letters could never be "lost in the mail"-with serial numbers on the forms and originals held on file, any message that was lost in transit could be reproduced and sent to the addressee.
A person who wanted to send a letter by airgraph or V-Mail would obtain the standard, pre-printed form from the local post office or five and dime store on request. The form contained space for a letter of about 100 to 300 words, the address of the serviceman or -woman to whom the letter was to be delivered, the address of the sender, and a circular area for the censor's stamp of approval. Once the message was written, the form was to be folded and sealed. It then made its way to a processing center where the form was re-opened and fed through a machine that photographed the letters on 16mm film. A continuous roll of this film (100 feet long by 16mm wide) could hold up to 1700 messages and, with the metal container it was housed in, weighed 5.5 oz (154g). A sack of mail holding the same number of regular letters would have weighed 50 lbs. (22.5kg). When the V-Mail reached the destination, it was sent to a local processing facility that reversed the process, printing photographs of the letters to be sent to the intended recipient in a three inch by four inch envelope.
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Written by Cassie Messner