Encouraged to write letters to service members overseas, Americans heeded the call and sent massive amounts of mail to their loved ones. The U.S. Postal Service was quickly overwhelmed as the volume of correspondance skyrocketed. So in 1942 the government decided to implement Victory Mail, or V-Mail as it was known, which was a version of the British “Airgraph” system. The Smithsonian explains how the British came to develop Airgraph.
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.
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.
Email is amazing and all, but nothing is better than getting a physical letter. The process of Airgraph and V-Mail really intrigues me. The idea of putting massive amounts of mail on microfilm (3000 lbs of physical mail would be 45 lbs of Victory Mail), flying them all over the world and reprinting them is amazing. Further reading about V-Mail at the National Postal Museum.