When I first read through the Wilson family WWII letters, I found a few small tan envelopes, each with a tiny address peeking through an oblong window.
The first one was from Dale Wilson, the middle brother, sent to his parents from Hawaii the summer of 1943. He and his crew had just completed the first leg of island hopping in a new B-25 to Australia, headed into combat. His folks must have needed a magnifying glass to read the short letter, the writing was so small.
In it Dale reported that the bomber’s two good engines “purred out there on each side of us like two well-oiled sewing machines for the 13 hrs.”
What were these miniscule V-Mails? During WWII, there was no email, no Skyping. Letters were the only way to communicate with someone overseas, but bags and bags of mail take up precious cargo space. The Post Office Department started encouraging V for Victory letters, where 37 bags of 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail bag. So Dale’s mother and other family members got V-Mail stationery so they could write him the way the authorities had urged.
Dale found a typewriter to send his next V-Mail, making it easier to read but still very small. He was allowed to say he was somewhere in the southwest Pacific. The one written November 24 announced that he was “SOMEWHERE IN NEW GUINEA.”
A letter writer used a V-Mail form, a one-sided standard-sized paper with a box for the receiver’s address, and mailed. At a V-Mail station it was checked by a censor, photographed, and sent overseas on a roll of film, which could carry about 1600 letters. Overseas each letter was printed onto a 4” x 5” photographic paper and folded into a special envelope with the address showing through a window.
It certainly reduced weight and bulk, but most people, including Dale Wilson, went back to regular mail. Even using a typewriter–which he did on his cot under mosquito netting–there just wasn’t enough room for his thoughts. He couldn’t tell about his combat missions but he had a lot to say about the New Guinea mosquitoes and humidity, and his dreams of the future after the war was won.
I came to a V-Mail letter that hadn’t been opened. It was to Dale from his sister Doris, from Marfa, Texas, where her husband was stationed. The little tan envelope had a red stamp on the back, “Missing,” and was signed in black on the front, “Missing in Action Curtis E. Swan 1st Lt AC.
With a sense of awe, I was the first person to open this precious V-Mail. It was dated December 8, 1943. Doris didn’t yet know that Dale and his crew were missing when she sent it. After some news, including that their mother had found a service flag with five stars, for five sons in the military, she revealed, “I’m going to let you in on a secret. We haven’t told anyone yet, but we are going to have a boy (I hope) next May.”
Soon she learned that Dale was Missing in Action, but because their younger brothers were in intensive pilot training, Wilsons decided not to tell them about it yet, fearing that the news would affect their work. They also thought that Dale and his crew could be finding their way back to base through the jungle, as they’d heard of other airmen doing.
But when Doris’s V-Mail was returned with “Missing” on it, she knew it would be more of a shock for her brothers to received the terrible information that way, so she quickly wrote both to break the news.
Decades later, the baby boy that my mother Doris had hoped for turned out to be the daughter who was the first to open that poignant little V-Mail.