Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen anxiously awaiting mail delivery is a familiar scene from movies, newsreels, and documentary photographs. Mail call is the moment when the frontline and home front connect. This exhibition tells the history of military mail from the American Revolution to 2010: How does this mail reach its destination? What roles does it play? Why does it influence morale? The exhibition explores the great lengths taken to set up and operate postal services under extraordinary circumstances. It also features letters that reveal the expressions, emotions, and events of the time. On the battlefront and at home, mail provides a vital communication link between military service personnel, their communities, and their loved ones.
As our nation first began its fight for freedom, George Washington understood the significance of acknowledging meritorious actions in combat. However, it was Abraham Lincoln on July 12, 1862, who signed statute 10 U.S.C. 3741 authorizing the first Medal of Honor to “be presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.”
Through personal correspondence written on the frontlines and home front, this centennial exhibition uncovers the history of America’s involvement in World War I. The compelling selection of letters illuminates emotions and thoughts engendered by the war that brought America onto the world stage; raised complex questions about gender, race and ethnic relations; and ushered in the modern era. Included are previously unpublished letters by General John Pershing, the general who led the American Expeditionary Forces and a person who understood the power of the medium. In his postwar letter that begins “My fellow soldiers,” he recognized each individual under his command for bravery and service. My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I was created by the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in collaboration with the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.
Eighteen-year-old Ruth Estelle Woodworth joined the US Navy on March 30, 1917, the same month the military opened enlistment to women for the first time. It was all possible because of an unintentional loophole in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916. The act authorized the enlistment of qualified “persons,” but did not specify any gender requirement for volunteers.
While working on the In Her Words: Women’s Duty and Service in World War I exhibition, I read many documents belonging to the four featured women. None quite resonated with me as much as the diary of Army nurse Lulu Belle (Wolfe) Smith.
Morale is one of the main factors that can help or cripple an army. Thus when the US joined World War I, the YMCA set out to work alongside the US Army to keep up morale - feeding soldiers, providing comfortable spaces for them, and otherwise keeping them entertained.