Getting My Arms Around the Process of Delivering Wartime Mail

A portion of a diagram illustrating mail movement along the supply chain. The letters refer to V-mail, air mail, ordinary mail and packages.

Throughout this project, I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of how the mail actually makes its way from the hands of an infantryman in World War II to his mother and father’s mailbox in a small town.

Maybe I’m over thinking it, but seems like a little bit of a miracle to me. The people are constantly moving, the facilities, I assume, are often temporary, supply lines are not always reliable and there are the realities of war that affect mail delivery: ships sink, cargo planes get shot down, soldiers are wounded, hospitalized and die.

Little by little, I think I’m getting a handle on it.

The latest pieces of the puzzle come to me from two correspondents: First, I’ve heard from “Charlie Sherpa,” chief cook and bottle washer for the Red Bull Rising blog I’ve mentioned before. Then, I heard from Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the National Postal Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. I wrote an email to the museum on its feedback page and Lynn was kind enough to reply.

Lynn sent along two flowchart diagrams from 1947 (.PDFs linked here) that spelled out anywhere from 14 to 18 steps a letter or package took from a solder’s hands to his parents’ home. Some of those steps depended on whether it was a conventional letter, a V-mail letter or a package.  Going the other way, there were anywhere from 11 to 14 steps.

I asked Lynn where individual troops might be, relative to the location of the Army Post Office, or APO, where families addressed their letters. For example, my grandparents addressed their letters to Babe like this:

Pvt. Frank Mauro, 32810329 (his serial number)
A.T. Co. 168 Inf., 34 Div.
APO 34, c/0 Postmaster, New York, N.Y.

Lynn’s reply:

Army Post Offices were set up near headquarters, in the field or near the unit they served; looking at the location list for APO 34, it looks likely that would have been associated with the headquarters. Units and troops could be miles away from the headquarters. Where a unit was located in relation to its associated APO and where that was located in relation to the Base Post Offices all added up to how long it took mail to travel along the supply chain. Depending on what the forward unit was doing (and where) shaped when and how often their mail clerk went to drop off and pick up mail at the APO.

That’s that part of the puzzle I hadn’t really understood. The 34th Infantry Division had a headquarters based somewhere in Italy during this period of Babe’s service. At this moment in the progression of Babe’s letters, the division is based in Caserta, Italy. Babe himself might have been miles and miles away with the 168th Infantry, Anti-tank Company. And some poor mail clerk would have been tasked with schlepping bags of mail between the division HQ and the forward troop locations.

Red Bull Rising’s Charlie Sherpa had some other interesting insight for me:

In the modern Army, the APO can be a military unit or civilian contract business through which military personnel (and U.S. civilians, I believe) can access the same services as available via the U.S. Postal Service. Mail filters up from/down to the individual soldier through his/her chain of command, his/her unit’s appointed mail personnel, the APO, and the USPS stateside. The APO postmark might reflect the time that a letter had to travel from platoon, to company, to battalion, etc. Might also reflect pocket-time.

All this, and especially the diagrams that Lynn sent, helps me put the pieces together. But there was more interesting background on how the process worked in some of the other material Lynn sent me. More on that in a later post.

4 thoughts on “Getting My Arms Around the Process of Delivering Wartime Mail

  1. Thanks for your extensive info with diagrams. I have been trying to do the same thing you are doing. In this case tracing my dad’s letter’s from his foxhole in France to his parent’s supper table on farm in Minnesota. in 44, 45. I am still trying to find out the stops from NYC to the APO. How far did the planes fly? Did they refuel in the Azores and then to England, then France, Germany?

    1. Keith: Thanks for your note and for taking the time to visit my site and comment. Ya know, it hadn’t even occurred to me to ask about how far the planes fly, but of course, that would have been a factor. They certainly couldn’t have flown as long or as far as planes today. I’d love to hear if you come up with any info about that. Thank you again.

      1. Kurt I am working on the routes now and not having much luck. I know some USA planes refueled in the Azores and Bermuda. That will be my next search area after air mail routes WW 2. You have great info. My dad doesn’t recall details of mail call but has a treasure trove of day to day episodes which are backed up some from what he could say in his letters. The “censors” were his platoon leaders as evidenced with the signatures on the envelopes. We doubt the Lts had time to read each letter. Nothing needed to be censored from my dad’s letters.

        1. Best of luck on the search. Yeah, a very few things were censored from my uncles letters, but based on what the context is, they were questionable.

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