Long Before E-Mail, There Was V-Mail

I have a family keepsake from World War II that I treasure – a V-Mail sent to my grandmother from my father, a soldier stationed in the Philippines. Long before E- (Electronic) Mails, there were V- (Victory) Mails that grew out of a critical need that developed during the war years.

In the early stages of the conflict, military personnel sent and received sizable quantities of letters, such correspondence greatly boosting troop morale. It was said that morale and mail were one and the same. However, a massive letter jam eventually caused interference on ships and planes that carried critical supplies for the war effort.

Mail was frequently delayed by being temporarily stored in warehouses until space could be acquired on cargo vehicles. To combat this dilemma, the post office and the military jointly devised an innovative process that reduced mail delivery abroad from several weeks to about 12 days.

Between June 15, 1942 and April 1, 1945, the military processed over a billion V-Mails – single 4.25 by 5 inch one-sided sheets of paper, containing a gummed edge along one side, which folded into ready-to-mail letters. The outside envelopes displayed a large “V …- Mail,” the three dots and dash being Morse code for the letter “V.”

These “five-minute furloughs,” as they became known, contained explicit instructions on the back with this caveat: “The only V-Mail that is undeliverable is that which is not properly addressed.” They sold for a dime a dozen and were readily available at post offices and stores – stationery, drug, department and 5 & 10 (cent). The writer’s message could not exceed one page; additional pages had to be sent as separate V-Mails.

The sender was directed to write neatly and, as an extra precaution, to print the “To” and “From” information in the blocks at the top so as to insure readability for delivery. The left top of the letter contained the censor’s stamp. This individual had the authority to cut out or blacken information that was considered classified. After the letter was written, it was folded, licked, sealed and deposited in any regular mailbox.

Members of the Armed Forces were granted gratis delivery, but others required a 3-cent stamp for ordinary mail or a 6-cent one for airmail. The post office microfilmed each war letter, reducing it to thumbnail size, onto a continuous roll of film containing other V-Mails. The paper copy was then destroyed.

The rolls were summarily sent overseas to one of several processing centers where each letter was converted back to its original paper size and forwarded to the designated military person. This clever process reduced 37 mailbags weighing 2575 pounds to a single one of only 45 pounds. An ad from that era proclaimed that 1700 V-Mails could easily fit inside an empty cigarette pack.

Dad’s 17-line handwritten note expressed his sincere desire for a speedy conclusion to the lingering hostilities: “I am hoping to hear good news about Germany one of these days soon. It seems that everything depends on her surrender. Sometimes I wish I were over there. I’d get a more satisfying feeling about it all.”

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces, bringing both the war and the V-Mail program to a much-celebrated finale. The unique little letter patriotically served our country well.