War Letters Reveal Signs of the Times

"Myself and eight other Negro soldiers were on our way from Camp Claiborne, La., to the hospital here at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. ...We could not purchase a cup of coffee at any of the lunchrooms around there... As you know, Old Man Jim Crow rules. But that's not all; 11:30 a.m. about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on... Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this our country?"

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BiblioMania: The Fine Art of Books

This Month: Armed Service Editions - A Legacy of Literacy Returns
In September of 1943, during World War II, the United States Council on the Book in Wartime published the first Armed Services Editions. "ASEs" were inexpensive paperback books that were shipped overseas to service men and women in an effort to help maintain their morale. More than 123 million were handed out -- the largest free distribution of fiction and non-fiction books in the history of the world.

Between 30 and 40 different titles were published each month in editions of 50,000 to 100,000, with a total of 1322 books printed in this format by the war's end. Genres included mysteries, biographies, crime stories, adventure novels, and classic works of literature by such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Melville.

The Armed Services Editions measure approximately 4 by 5.75 inches and fit easily into the pockets of service uniforms. Their unusual horizontal format is the result of economics -- four books were printed at a time and then trimmed and separated from each other. The books were produced quickly and cheaply by borrowing press time from magazine and digest publishers.

The original ASEs were discontinued in 1947, but in November and December 2002, Hyperion, Simon & Schuster, and Dover Publications joined together in publishing and distributing free ASEs to American troops throughout the world and on U.S. warships. Over 100,000 copies of the following four titles were sent to troops abroad:

Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present, by Allen Mikaelian, with commentary by Mike Wallace (Hyperion, 2002).

Henry V, by William Shakespeare (Dover, 2002).

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu (Dover, 2002).

War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll (Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster, 2002).

The idea for the revival of ASEs came from Andrew Carroll, editor of War Letters, the book used for the first "trial run" in May of 2002. The books were re-formatted in the same "cargo pocket" size and have the same vintage appearance as the original ASEs from World War II.

"I got interested in ASEs after I found one at a used bookstore in 1999," says Carroll. (The title he found was Steinbeck's Cannery Row.) I'd never seen one until then. Now I've collected about 700 of them."

Carroll says the trial run was a great success, and that troops overseas are for more. "They've told me, 'no offense, but we need titles other than yours.' They're really clamoring for Medal of Honor. In the future we'll continue to try and publish a classic along with a new title."

Why continue to publish the books in the odd, horizontal format? "Two reasons," says Carroll. "First, as a tip of the hat to the original format, and second, so that the troops know these books are produced just for them."

Books will continue to be distributed as long as funds hold out, and ideally, new titles will be added to the list. Unlike the original ASEs, these new books are being paid for entirely with private donations and no government funding is being used. Carroll has gotten some interest from Penguin, Random House, and Oxford University Press, and he is seeking funding from various sources such as corporate sponsorship.

To find out more about the American Service Edition books, click here to see the virtual catalog of an exhibition held in 1996 in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Andrew Carrol's book, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, resulted from The Legacy Project, a unique publishing concept launched on November 11, 1998 to honor and remember those who have served this nation in wartime. The project seeks out letters sent home by members of the armed forces during wartime.

The project is an all-volunteer, independent, nonpartisan initiative. They are not affiliated with any museum, archive, historical society, government agency, or university, although they do collaborate with many nonprofit organizations and institutions also working to preserve wartime correspondence. The Legacy Project does not, under any circumstance, buy or sell war letters. Their sole mission is to encourage Americans to safeguard these letters themselves or donate them to a reputable museum, archive, library, or historical society so that future generations will have access to and can learn from these irreplaceable documents.

The Legacy Project focuses on these letters because they believe they offer unique insight into warfare and its effect on those who experience it firsthand. Letters also serve as powerful reminders of the human cost of war, and they record the thoughts and observations of common servicemen and women, whose individual voices are so often unheard.

The Legacy Project is looking for letters from all of America's wars and on any subject matter. They prefer previously unpublished correspondence, but letters from local newspapers, self-published books, and/or family web sites are all acceptable.

If you would like to submit a war letter (or letters) to the Legacy Project, please send a legible photocopy or typed transcript of the material to:

The Legacy Project
PO Box 53250
Washington, D.C. 20009


Please include information on the serviceman or woman who wrote the letter (e.g., where he or she served, his or her rank, and any other important personal and/or background information), and include your phone number and an address where we can contact you.