When the United States entered World War II after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American industry got cranked up and began producing fantastic amounts of planes, ships, tanks, boots, uniforms, K-rations — and books.
The books were part of a campaign, initiated by librarians, to provide soldiers overseas with entertainment and to provide a contrast with book burnings that occurred in Germany.
A “victory book” campaign was launched in 1942, with citizens donating books, libraries donating books and celebrities helping promote the drive..
“But as anyone who has been involved in a library book sale knows, not all of the books donated are any good,” noted former Oregon State University librarian Karyle Butcher in a talk Wednesday at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library.
“I mean you can’t send books on knitting to the troops overseas.”
So book publishers got involved, both out of the genuine mood of American support for the war effort … and to continue their business of producing books.
Thus was born the Armed Services Editions (ASE) project, which ultimately produced more than 20 million volumes of more than 1,300 titles. Molly Guptil Manning wrote “When Books Went to War” about the little-known campaign, and Butcher discussed the book at the final Random Review session of the season before a crowd of 100 people.
“The book publishers wanted to do something,” Butcher said. “I don’t want to be cynical, but I don’t know if we have the same kind of idealism these days.”
Because of wartime materials shortages, the books were published in small formats that also fit in the breast pocket or back pocket of a soldier’s uniform. They were stapled together, produced in a two columns per page format and had the synopsis of the book on the back for easy understanding of what sort of book you were getting into.
Butcher’s talk included slides of soldiers reading the free books in cramped quarters aboard ship, in a camp setting and in one hilarious scene a soldier is shown reading a book on a cot surrounded by floodwaters.
Butcher also noted that the ASE project, which ran from 1943-47, also helped fuel the paperback book industry, which was flourishing by the end of the war.
“Paperbacks were considered trashy,” Butcher said, “with titles like 'Kiss Me Deadly' by Mickey Spillane. My mother didn’t want me to read it … so I did.”
Titles in the project were issued in a wide range of genres, including classics, best-sellers, westerns and mysteries. The ASE project helped spark renewed interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which did not sell well when it was first published in 1925.
Soldiers would swap books and read them aloud to each other. They also became popular with British troops because many of their publishing houses had been heavily damaged by German bomb attacks.
Butcher said that humorous books were among the most popular for servicemen who sought escapism.
“They just needed to find a way to get somewhere other than where they were,” she said.