One of the Best Items to Include in a Care Package in 1943 or 2018: It's Not What You Would Expect

One of the Best Items to Include in a Care Package in 1943 or 2018: It's Not What You Would Expect

Posted by Rachel Basinger on Aug 29th 2018

If I asked you what soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who fought during World War II liked receiving the most from the States, you might say food or cigarettes. The unexpected answer is books! As the kids go back to school, it’s an apt time to consider why books were so popular in 1943 and why you ought to send your service member a book in 2018.

Molly Guptill Manning’s New York Times Bestseller When Books Went to War , published in 2014, examines the appeal of sending books overseas in World War II and the positive response of the service member recipients. Manning details how the book purging of the Nazis spurred Americans at home to read even more and to desire to send books to their loved ones overseas.

In fact, a 1943 U.S. propaganda poster showed a picture of the Nazi book burnings on May 10, 1933 with the caption: “Ten years ago: The Nazis burned these books…but free Americans can still read them.” The Nazis had burned or banned over 100 million books, but free Americans were ready to fight for the right to consider ideas.

Book propaganda poster

What turned into the Armed Services Editions began as an initiative from librarians in 1942 to send free books to American troops overseas. Originally called the National Book Defense Campaign, it was renamed the Victory Book Campaign. While the campaign gathered 20 million hardcover donations, they did have to cull through submissions to make sure they were suitable for troops overseas. For example, the campaign did not send over the countless children’s books they acquired and instead donated them.

The Victory Book Campaign certainly did good work in 1942, but it became most well-known when the War Department and some publishing companies stepped in, creating the Council on Books in Wartime. Known for the Armed Services Editions (ASE), the Council was launched in the spring of 1943 and clearly communicated its goal in the motto: “Books are the weapons in the war of ideas.”

The ASE program, which ran from 1943 to 1947, ended up producing 120 million lightweight paperback copies of over 1,000 different books that troops read while preparing to land in Normandy, recuperating in hospitals in the Pacific, or passing the time on long flights.

Designed to fit easily into a cargo pocket, the Armed Services Editions were bound on the short side—due to the printing presses used—and printed on digest and magazine presses. Almost all of the books were unabridged—the 79 that were abridged stated something similar to the slogan “Condensed for wartime reading”—and featured authors from Zane Grey and Jack London to Mark Twain and H.G. Wells.

Service Member Reading Armed Services Edition

The ASEs were extremely popular, as service members would sometimes divide books into sections to allow several readers to read t hose books at the same time. Even if the books stayed intact, copies were shared and re-read. One sailor encapsulated the feelings the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had about the books: “To heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother.”

Countless authors like Betty Smith, who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, received letters from service members about how much their books had meant in keeping up morale. As one sergeant describes to Smith, “When I first picked up your book, I was down in the dumps, a sad sack, as the boys say.” But through her book, he found himself quite happy: “I haven’t laughed so heartily since my arrival over here eight months ago.” Most authors like Smith were absolutely thrilled about how they had unknowingly assisted in the war effort, and many of them responded to every letter they received from service members.

As a side note, the ASEs did more than just encourage the troops and give them a way to avoid boredom and stress. They also rescued F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from oblivion and turned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn into a national classic.

Armed Services Edition

In the end, the Council succeeded in its motto of books as the weapons in the war of ideas. The Nazis had banned or destroyed 100 million books, but Americans had sent 120 million books to its service members. In fact, some soldiers even credited the ASEs in encouraging them to use the G.I. Bill after the war to go to college.

What is perhaps really surprising is that today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines still enjoy receiving reading material, whether it is books, magazines, or even copies of the local newspaper. As we noted in an earlier article about what to send in a military care package, service members love to read!

As one Marine noted, “I used to read through a couple of Sports Illustrated issues in my bunk every night. Even though some of the issues were old, I didn’t really care. It was nice to think about something other than work.” My fiancé, also a Marine, enjoys the Stackpole Military History Series. The most recent one he started reading is Hitler’s Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia in WWII.

You ought to take a page from the Council on Books in Wartime and the Armed Services Editions and send your loved one a book! When you’re working on your next care package for your service member, consider what book or magazine that he or she might enjoy.

Just as the tastes varied widely for the soldiers in World War II—some liked the classics while others wanted westerns—you are going to know what book your service member will like best! You could even include an Amazon Kindle loaded with a few books, if you want to really save space. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even send one of the original Armed Services Editions like Oscar Levant’s A Smattering of Ignorance .

As you think about what reading material your service member will most enjoy, consider reading Manning’s When Books Went to War for yourself in your free time, and leave a comment below about what books, magazines, or newspapers your service member really enjoys receiving in a care package!

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