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When Books Went to War

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When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II

Did you ever wonder how WW II soldiers filled up the boring days before and after they were terrified by sporadic combat? In movies about the war, they are shown drilling, training, cleaning weapons, peeling potatoes, grousing, gambling, writing letters, reading letters, listening to the radio, drinking, and talking about sex. Seldom if ever are they shown reading books. Few war memoirs mention books either.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn from Molly Manning in When Books Went to War that during and immediately after World War II the U.S. armed forces had printed 1322 books in paperback editions totaling about 123 million copies. In addition, more than 18 million books were donated and sent overseas along with magazines and other printed materials. Since there were about fourteen million men and women in uniform, about eight ASE (Armed Services Editions) books were printed for every one of them. From 1943-47, there was a flood of pocket-sized, paperback, full-text books flowing to G.I.’s, Leathernecks, Swabs, and Flyboys all over the world.

Initially thirty new titles were printed each month on thin but durable paper. This number later increased to forty. Most were fiction, but the second book published was Report from Tokyo by Joseph Grew, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan on December 7, 1941. Prominent authors found their way into paperback ASE’s: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Cather, Haggard, Chandler, Grey, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Plato to name some.

Books had been distributed to American soldiers as far back as the American Civil War, but what emerged in early 1943 was an unprecedented Really Big Idea. It came about when a group of prominent book publishers, the Council on Books in Wartime, was challenged by a U.S. Army Lt. Colonel named Raymond Trautman and his graphic artist, H. Stanley Thompson, to select and print 50,000 copies each of fifty new titles per month, or 2.5 million books each month at a cost of a nickel a piece. The new titles were selected each month in a three-step process intended to create a set of books that would appeal to a broad range of interests and tastes: something for every one. The Council drafted a recommended list of books from the classics or from ones already in publication. Then a readers’ group outside the publishing industry sifted the recommendations for appeal and broad range. Finally, the list went to the Army and Navy for their separate culling. So, along with guns, ammunition, ponchos, K rations, first aid kits, and a dozen other things totaling nearly sixty-five pounds, G.I.’s also found a place in their packs for ASE books thanks to American wealth, production, and logistics. No other country had a similar program.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that soldiers read the books. Manning was surprised to discover instances of soldiers reading during battle, such was the pull of some titles. Ernie Pyle wrote that G.I.’s would read anything that was printed. Still, some books were more popular than others. In the fiction realm, Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby were always in demand. What guaranteed popularity was a book that had mystery, action, and sex. None of these books were sexually explicit by later standards, but when G.I.’s learned that Kathleen Winsor’s, Forever Amber, a racy novel about 17th century England, was banned in Boston, it became an instant classic on the front lines.

The ASE program was important for morale, entertainment, and encouraging the soldiers to use the GI Bill for higher education after the war. Manning’s citation that suggests books ranked second in importance to penicillin is a bit hyperbolic. Even so, Manning tells the story, an inspiring and reassuring one especially for book lovers, with charm and skill. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Molly Guptill Manning: The Myth of Ephraim Tutt, Arthur Train and His Great Literary Hoax.

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