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This article is about those Hip-sized pocket books
Huddled in a muddy foxhole on Leyte with a hole in his ankle, Corp. Erwin Rorick spent the hours before help came reading Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. He had grabbed it the other day believing it was a murder mystery but he discovered, that he liked the book anyway.
A colonel inspecting an ack-ack pit under heavy fire from Nazi 88-mm. batteries heard a group of soldiers laughing. At first he thought the men had cracked under the heavy shelling. He then realized that it was sane and nostalgic laughter, brought forth by the passages from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which one solider was reading between outbursts.
Pinned in ditch in France, Pvt. Christian Jonassen drew out a copy of Queen Victoria, and sat down and read. He later recalled, "I lay there with all hell bursting loose and nothing I could do about it and so I read about Victoria's dear, dear, beautiful Albert and his soft flowing mustache she admired so much."
These are just a few of the 50,000,000 paper-back, hip-sized, pocket books. Ranging from the latest Westerns and mystery's to histories and essays. All these books were issued and created by the non-profit organization called Editions for the Armed Services Inc. Copies of these books went with the men everywhere, to D-day, Alaska, and Anzio. They flew the Hump into China and were some of the earliest items to travel the Stilwell Road.
The books were issued to troops just before they went overseas and to men about to go into battle. At one point in the Italian Campaign, several score were brought right up to the front line. Word passed and men quickly left the safety of their foxholes and crawled forth to get the books. The books are read by the Army and Navy, and are usually read until they are tatters. Although, the World War Two solider prefered magazines because of the variety of articles printed, more did read then such a cross-section of American men ever read before. Some were reading for their first time since childhood.
The books are distributed for free to the men. The cost of the taxpayer to produce each book is about six cents. It includes the one-cent-per-book royalty split between the author and original publisher. It does not, however, include the distribution costs. They are issued on the basis of forty titles a month to every fifty hospital beds or to 150 men on active duty.
The armed services knew from the start they would nee large quantities of hip-sized-pocket-books. The English, Russians and the Germans had already discovered that books available not only at post and hospital libraries were vital to morale. The problem was how to produce mass units of books cheaply and swiftly. The Nazis never solved that problem. Their books were so bulky that production was limited, shipping space wasted and they were an annoyance to men already overburdened with equipment.
To solve the problem, the Book Publishers Bureau turned it over to the existing Concil on Books in Wartime, who in turn created the Editions for the Armed Services in 1943 and dumped the entire puzzle into the lap of Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern instead of designing the books first and casting machinery to make the books went the opposite way. He created the books to fit existing machinery. He discovered that on certain days of the month, magazine plants were idle. Their presses could turn the mass quantity needed, but the books would be set in a large and awkward magazine style. Stern's solution was beautifully simple. He would print the books in pairs. This meant on the top part their would be thrilling western and on the bottom, a collection of Emerson essays. But when the small magazine-sized double-headers were chopped in two by machines, two hip-pocket-sized books are born.
The troops enjoyed the Westerns, of which about 534 titles were printed. Troops showed interest in books about the human mind and books with sexual situations were grabbed up eagerly. One solider said that books with "racy" passages were as popular as "pin-up girls". The Navy loved the C.S. Forester series and books by Herman Melville were favorites. Books with humor were in such demand that whole collections had to be created to supply the demand by our troops in the field. Entire collections of books devoted to the classical and serious sides were printed up too. Like Plato, Edgar Allen Poe, the plays of Eugene O' Neill, books on science and even a short history of the Arabs.
The selections are made upon the basis of popularity as shown in by reports from camps and requests made by the troops. But the Army and Navy have the final say in what is printed. The Army did turn down books. It turned down The Story of Philosophy on the grounds that it was too dated; Tactius as too scholarly; Mind of the Primitive Man as too specialized and Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers because the title was confusing.
Some books became banned in the summer of 1944 because of Senator Taft's amendment to the soldiers' vote bill. This bill imposed penalties on any military officers helping anything containing "political argument or political propaganda of any kind designed or calculated to affect the results of any federal election." that would reach the men in the armed forces. The Army took it literally, banning several books on American History and even the Official Guide to the Army Air Forces issued by the army itself. It ultimately withdrew 15 books from circulation. Eventually, a loud and raucous public forced a relaxation of the restrictions.
When these books arrived overseas it was a major event. Lt. Col. Ray Trautman reported seeing men leave the chow line to get the books. In the marshaling areas in England were men assembled to go into Europe, the men abandoned shoes, blankets and souvenirs, but a single book was left behind. Reporters have told of seeing men in LCI's and LST's crossing the Channel on D-Day engrossed in the paper-bound books. Men would break the books in half and read them, even if they had to start from the middle. On a transport flying to England 16 of the 21 passengers were reading Editions for the Armed Services books. A solider in Italy was so captivated by the book he was reading that he failed to salute a colonel at a command post. Trautman, has even seen MP's in the final days of the Bulge standing in the snow reading from the tiny books. Officers approve of this as long as it doesn't interfere with alertness or duty. At one place in India, the books were forbidden. A sign read : "Absolutely no reading matter may be taken into this w.c."
"They helped in no little manner to preserve my sanity," wrote a sailor from the South Pacific. "They made us feel part of civilization," declared a corporal in New Guinea. "It would be a bad bargain to win territories, but lose that magic kingdom which you defend," said a Pfc. in a letter in the Southwest Pacific pleading for more books. Finally, a marine captain on Saipon sums up the books, "Whoever made 'em hip-pocket size showed a stroke of genius. I can't say my current copy is next to my heart, but it is treasured."
1. Wittels, David G., "What the G.I. Reads", p.11, 91-92. The Saturday Evening Post, June 23rd, 1945.