Featuring Research Volunteer Contributions

World War II (1941-1945)

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Pearl Harbor 8 a.m. cover

The seeds of World War II were sown in the aftermath of World War I. Extremism, border skirmishes, expansionism, and political unrest erupted in Europe and Asia. By the mid-1930s, Japan was entrenched in Manchuria, Germany had adopted Nazism, Italy had become fascist, and Spain was divided by a bloody civil war. Then on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, igniting the war in Europe. Germany's blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics were initially very successful, and Germany pushed westward through Europe.

In the Pacific, Japan launched attacks throughout Asia and the Pacific, overtaking Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma, and bombing America's fleet in Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war with Japan and a few days later declared war on Germany as well. The European conflict had become a global war that lasted until 1945.

Every aspect of World War II can be tracked with philatelic materials. Eighty-six million Axis and Allied military personnel were activated. Mail to and from these service personnel track troop movements and special projects. Many of the nations in the world imposed strict censorship of the mails and marked letters that had been examined by censors.

Civilian and military prisoners had limited mail service and used very specific formats for the transmission of messages sent and received, usually through the International Red Cross.

Mail service was frequently suspended because of battles or interruption of transportation routes. Patriotic and anti-enemy sentiments were graphically expressed in designs printed on envelopes. Mail sent to soldiers might have been returned to senders with the heartbreaking news that the recipient was killed or missing in action.

All of these postal artifacts help tell the human story of World War II.

Janet Klug

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5-cent Army on "Returned to Sender, Service Suspended" cover

Expansionism, border disputes, and political upheaval on a global scale marked the 1930s. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. A few days later, Great Britain declared war on Germany.

In December 1941 Japan executed attacks throughout Asia and the Pacific, continuing an expansionism that had begun with Japanese occupations in Korea and China in 1930. These events and others launched a second global war.

Most of the nations involved quickly initiated stringent censorship that affected newspapers, radio broadcasts, telegraph messages, and mail. Censorship of both military and civilian mail was deemed necessary to prevent dissemination of sensitive information across enemy lines. Trained civilians or military officers conducted the censorship. They opened, screened, and, if necessary, blacken or cut away questionable portions of the written communications. The letter would be resealed and marked with an examiner or censor handstamp.

Janet Klug

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"Valentine Greetings to Mary MacDonald" watercolor drawing

Letter writers with an artistic sense and talent sometimes capitalize on the blank spaces of an envelope, filling them with sketches or doodles. The mail they create extends self expression beyond just the words of the enclosed missives. The artists use various media, but their artwork is constrained by the need for postage and addresses. The original illustrations on such covers are also subject to the whims of postal clerks in their application of postmarks, cancellations, and auxiliary marks.

The following thirty-three illustrated covers by Sergeant Jack Fogarty were sent to his friend Mary MacDonald between 1944 and 1947. His captivating watercolor, ink, and pencil sketches feature self portraits as well as events and landscapes of the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Lynn Heidelbaugh, National Postal Museum

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V-Mail letter sheet

When America's sons and daughters are stationed overseas, especially during wartime, contact with loved ones back home becomes an essential part of life. During the Second World War, a new mail processing method was introduced to handle the increased amount of overseas mail exchanges.

"V" for "Victory," a popular WW II symbol, was the inspiration for the name of the new-fangled correspondence style. V-Mail used standardized stationery and microfilm processing to produce lighter, smaller cargo. Space was made available for other war supplies and more letters could reach military personnel faster around the globe.

The government in cooperation with commercial advertisers promoted the use of V-Mail service as patriotic: Letter writers could simultaneously boost morale with words from home and help save vital shipping space. Mail usually came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and weight, but V-Mail required standardized stationery. The single-page letter sheet was specially designed so the uniform size and weight paper could be photographed onto 16 mm microfilm. Reduced to thumbnail size, between 1500 and 1800 letters could fit on a 90-foot long roll of film. Each reel weighed only four ounces.

The rolls of film were flown to prescribed destinations for developing at a receiving station near the addressee. Finally, each frame was "blown up" to about one-quarter the original size and facsimiles were printed for delivery. The microfilmed V-Mail offered such a drastic reduction in weight that officials estimated V-Mail saved up to 98% on cargo weight and space. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 ordinary, one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack of V-Mail microfilm with the same number of letters. The weight was reduced dramatically from 2,575 pounds to a mere 45.

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.

The Army reported that 1.25 billion V-Mail letters were microfilmed in the 41 months of operation between June 15, 1942 and November 1, 1945. In spite of the patriotic draw of V-Mail, most people still sent regular first-class mail. Military personnel received over 3.3 billion pieces of all types of mail in fiscal year 1945 alone. In that same time period, 333,327,952 V-Mail letters were dispatched overseas.


  • www.postalmuseum.si.edu/victory-mail
  • Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1945. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1946.
  • United States Army Service Forces. Adjutant General's Office. Army Postal Service During World War II. December 31, 1945.
  • United States Post Office Department. A Wartime History of the Post Office Department: World War II 1939-1945. Washington, DC: Post Office Department, 1951.
  • Walker, Frank S. "Mail Service for Our Armed Forces." The Postal Bulletin Vol. 63 No. 18450 (June 15, 1942): 1-5.

Lynn Heidelbaugh, National Postal Museum