Before E-Mail There Was V-Mail: War Letters in WWII

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It is not uncommon to find letters written during wartime–either in archival collections or in personal collections kept within the family.

During World War II, you might have received or sent a letter in the “V-mail” (“Victory mail”) format. Letters were written on special paper and then microfilmed to reduce space. The microfilm rolls were shipped and reproduced at another location, and then delivered to the intended recipient.

Although traditional first class mail was preferred, over 1 billion pieces of V-mail were sent and received during WWII!  We have a few pieces of V-mail in the Berks History Center’s Research Library. The letter pictured above was written to thank a local group for producing newsletters and sending them to Berks servicemen around the world.

​(V-mail letter, Berks History Center Library, AC 80)

Researched & Written by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik

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Please Welcome Guest Blogger…Joshua Blay

I receive many emails and letters of inquiry from individuals and institutions looking for museum objects to study or loan for exhibit. One of our more popular inquiries regard the USS Reading, the only ship of the United States Navy to be named after Reading, PA.  One of eight identical ships, she was christened and launched on August 28, 1943 in Sturgeon Bay, WI, by Mrs. John C. Butterweck.  Her son Russell M. was among the first killed at the Battle of Guadalcanal, a decisive and successful campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II.  The ship reported for fast convoy escort duty between the United States and European and North 818African ports.  A silver service, consisting of a coffee urn, a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, a tray, and a waste bowl was presented to the officers and crew of the ship at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel on January 25, 1945 on behalf of the city’s business and civic leaders.  She made only two round trips across the Atlantic before the end of the war.  In May 1945 she was converted into a weather ship.  Six months later, the Reading was decommissioned and was later sold to Argentina and renamed Heronia.  Deemed obsolete, she was scrapped in 1966.

We have many artifacts in t5521110bhe museum collection directly related to this ship.  These include the original champagne christening bottle, donated by Mrs. Butterweck in 1983.  The silver service was returned to the area in December 1947.  All the items except for the tray and christening bottle are currently on exhibit.  In the archives of the library are many pieces of original paperwork including newspaper articles and the original programs from the presentation made in January 1945. Incidentally, the silver service remains the property of the United States Navy and the records between the HSBC and the Navy are in the process of being updated.  For more on her history please see Vol. 50, Issue 3 of The Historical Review of Berks County.

In the midst of my research on the USS Reading, I happened to stumble a54515cross a record for object #54-5-15.  What is this object you might ask?  Well, it happens to be a ship’s badge from another naval vessel called Reading, the HMS Reading.   Formerly the naval destroyer USS Bailey, it was one of fifty obsolete destroyers, inactive since the conclusion of World War I, which was transferred to the English Royal Navy through the lend-lease program of World War II.  The USS Bailey had been named after Rear Admiral Theodorus Bailey, a naval officer during the Civil War, who was instrumental in developing thruster systems that many ships use today.  Upon delivery to England, all fifty ships were renamed after both British and United S
tates towns, and because of this, they came to be known as the Town class.

Commissioned on November 26, 1940 the HMS Reading was assigned to escort duty for two years.  From 1942 until the end of the war in 1945, this ship was used for target practice.  Sold for scrap in July 1945, the ship’s badge and a book on the Town class destroyers passed from The Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to the citizens of Reading, England, to Reading, PA, and finally to the HSBC.  According to the Royal Naval Museum, there was never an official directive as to where on a ship its badge should be mounted. The most common location would be somewhere on the centerline of the bridge, though some classes of ship had the badge mounted on the funnel. A copy of the badge would also be mounted on the ship’s “honors board” (a plaque listing the battles in which the vessel had served), which would have been displayed next to the gangway when the ship was in harbor.  The book may easily be found in the library and archive collection.  The badge is currently mounted above the entrance to the director’s office on the first floor of our main building at 940 Centre Avenue.

Joshua K. Blay is an Associate Director and Museum Curator for the Berks History Center.  Volunteering in museums since he was thirteen, Joshua is most interested in industrial and transportation history.