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Before email there was V-Mail

In World War 2, Allied troops sent and received a lot of mail. So much mail it became a headache for military authorities to handle the huge quantities. But nobody wanted to impose overly strict limits on mail, since being able to communicate with loved ones at home was a massive prop to the morale of troops.

In 1941 the British came up with a solution. The idea was to photograph letters, send the negatives to an area close to the intended recipients and then print them out again. The reduced-size negatives took up a lot less precious space in cargo aircraft than full-size letters would have, leaving room for more vital war materiel to be transported. The system took advantage of technology developed by film company Kodak, and the British version used Kodak’s proprietary name, “Airgraph”.

In 1942 the Americans followed suit, introducing their own system – using the same technology – and calling it “V-Mail” (short for Victory Mail).

I’d never heard of either Airgraph or V-Mail until recently, when I bought a small US-published wartime booklet on aircraft recognition in a Newcastle bookshop. Tucked inside the booklet was a small piece of paper that was initially tempted to regard as rubbish. On closer inspection this shiny little piece of paper became more interesting to me. It was labelled V-Mail, and it was evidently a letter from an American serviceman to an Australian friend who was serving in Canada.

I’m assuming the Australian – Martin Leslie Waddington (known as “Les”) – was in Canada as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme under which air force personnel from across the British Empire were trained in various air force roles. I’m also assuming that the writer of the letter, Dwight Fiske of the US Navy, later sent the little booklet to his Aussie pal. The booklet itself is very interesting. It’s titled “Know Your War Planes” and it was published by the Coca Cola company, which commissioned well-known artist William “Bill” Heaslip to paint the illustrations. Adding to the charm of the booklet is the fact that Bill Heaslip signed this copy, dedicating it to Martin Waddington and wishing him “happy landings”.

The V-Mail letter from Dwight Fiske to Les Waddington

Dwight Fiske was serving on the escort carrier USS Nehenta Bay at the time he wrote the letter. That was June 14, 1944. The letter is a chatty one:

Hi Les! It’s been so long since I’ve written you – so much time passed since I should have answered your swell V-Mail of Nov 6 1943, that I’m almost ashamed to write now! But I think of you often, wondering where you are and what you’re doing! Probably you’re a long ways from Ottawa now, but will hope you receive this wherever you may be! Imagine you’ve had thousands of thrilling experiences – sure hope you are still well and smiling as ever! Certainly hope that some day we shall meet again – I want you to meet my wife and baby (who is nearly 11 months old now and as healthy a picture as you ever saw!) They are living on a ranch in a small town outside Los Angeles Cal now and enjoy the sunny climate very much! Haven’t been near your home – would sure like to spend a pleasant evening like the one with your folks last year! They were so swell to me! Will you be able to tell me if you’re flying bombers or fighters – or are you as restricted by censors as we are? I am on a carrier now, but do no flying – am still in the navigation dept. Don’t know what rank to put on your address – so excuse me for using the one I have – and congratulations on whatever rank you have reached! Also the best of luck always Les – Happy Landings and I sure hope to hear from you or see you soon! Dwight.

Les Waddington was a leading aircraftsman (LAC). I haven’t been able to find much about him, but his obituary was online. It seems he was born on July 22, 1921 and died on February 2, 2017. The obituary reads:

10th Squadron RAAF Sunderland
Loved son of Alfred and Margaret (both dec). Loved brother of Peggy Louise. Beloved husband of Barbara (dec) and Betty (dec). Treasured father of Deidre, Michele and Trish. Respected father-in-law of Kevin and Bob. Proud Opa of Emma and Tess. Special father to Erna and Rashid.
Aged 95 years Peace activist, Reconciliation supporter, eco-warrior, animal lover, farmer and rock wall builder. Friend to all for all his long life.

You can read more about Airgraph here:

You can learn about V-Mail here:

And also here:

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