Remember to Write: 150 Years of Letters Home
Writing home has always been a part of the National Guard’s history tracing back to the colonial militias. Letters and packages from love ones are a crucial factor in maintaining high spirits and morale. They provide a brief escape to normalcy during times of conflict or disaster as well as reassurances that both deployed Guardsmen and families or friends at home are doing well. The newest temporary exhibit, Remember to Write: 150 Years of Letters Home, at the National Guard Memorial Museum explores the journey of Guardsmen’s words home.
Remember to Write covers the time from the late 1890s to the ending of World War II (WWII). The earliest letter in the exhibit is from the Spanish-American War (April 1898-August 1898) from Major Charles Dick (OH) to his wife. What visitors will notice is that this letter starts the same way it ends with Major Dick expressing his love for his family: “My Darling Wife and children….a thousand kisses for you and the children.”[i] From there the exhibit jumps to the era of the World Wars and the censorship regulations formalized both at home and abroad.
While censorship regulations were strict, the United States (U.S.) Government recognized the effect letters had on troops deployed. During his deployment in World War I (WWI), Private Thomas Reno (PA) wrote home every opportunity he had. Many of Reno’s letters were asking his parents to write often as well as to tell others to write because “Mail is appreciated more than anything else I can think of.”[ii] In the following decades when the U.S. entered World War II (WWII), Guardsmen sent more than just letters home and communicated with photographs, too. While deployed, Corporal Harold Reed Cooper (TN) gave his loved ones a visual story with every photograph he sent home. Some of the pictures came with a short description, thus communicating just as much if not more than written letters. Nevertheless, no matter how much Guardsmen wanted to inform their loved ones, they were always aware of censorship.
During WWII, the U.S. War Department provided Guardsmen with manuals covering a variety of topics. One such manual contained protective measures for individuals and small units. This manual outlined scenarios of what information needed to be censored. Although there were strict regulations of what Guardsmen could write home, the U.S. War Department made every effort to ensure letters to and from home were frequent. The U.S. War Department successfully adapted the process of Victory-Mail (V-Mail) from the British system. V-Mail solved the logistical issues of WWI, not having enough space for other war supplies and the amount of mail sent to deployed loved ones. Most letters home included updates on the Guardsman’s well-being, a request for luxury items, and what information about daily activities that could be included. However, sometimes letters home had to be physical altered before reaching a loved one. Letters from Private Reno (WWI) have a seal over the envelope stating “OPENED BY CENSOR.”[iii] If any information in the letter were determined to violate the censorship regulations, the words were cut with some type of blade or blotted out.
Frank C. Walker, former U.S. Postmaster General between 1940 and 1945, reported, “It is almost impossible to over-stress the importance of this mail.”[iv] Since WWII, all branches of the military have repeated this sentiment. Further methods of delivery have developed to ensure mail reaches Guardsmen deployed around the world as quickly as possible. Despite communication advancements, letters continue to remain essential because they can reach Guardsmen serving in places where phone and email are unavailable.
[i] Letter to Mrs. Charles Dick from Maj. Charles Dick, July 12, 1898.
[ii] Letter to Mrs. H.B. Reno from Pvt. Thomas Reno, June 6, 1918.
[iii] Envelope to Mrs. H.B Reno from Pvt. Thomas Reno, June 6, 1918.
[iv] Frank Walker, “The Postal Service at War,” United States at War, December 7, 1942 – December 7, 1943 (Washington: Army & Navy Journal, 1943), as reproduced by Kurt Greenbaum in “Wartime Postmaster Details the Work of Mail Delivery in WWII,” accessed October 26, 2017, http://www.igreenbaum.com/2012/04/02/wartimepostmaster-details-the-work-of-mail-delivery-in-wwii/