During WW II the U.S. Army found several ways to protect its Soldiers. Steel helmets guarded their heads against shrapnel and flying debris, socks and boots kept feet warm and covered, while coats and wool caps kept the cold away. There were bibles issued that chaplains provided to keep souls safe and secure and there was, occasionally, warm food to fortify the stomach. Despite all of these efforts, the only thing that could protect a Soldier’s heart were loved ones back home and even there the Army tried to help—with the aid of the US Postal Service. The National Museum of the United States Army has in its collection a small letter written on authorized stationery called V-Mail.
The V-Mail process was based on efficiency and a need to save valuable cargo space for an army deployed across the globe. Instead of sacrificing cargo space to ship whole letters, the process involved microfilming specially designed letter sheets and then shipping the microfilm to an overseas postal center where they would be “blown up” before being delivered to a Soldier in the field. V-Mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. The weight of that same amount of mail was reduced dramatically from 2,575 pounds to a scant 45 pounds. The first large U.S. Army-operated V-Mail station overseas was opened on April 15, 1943, at Casablanca, North Africa. Hastily set up in a field following the Allied invasion of North Africa, this makeshift station continued to operate until September 15, 1943. It is here that our artifact comes into play.
The letter was written and mailed, with approved V-Mail stationery, on March 22, 1943, by a young Army wife named Delores Letourneau. Her husband, Private Vincent P. Letourneau, was assigned to Company F, 47th Infantry Regiment of the
9th Infantry Division. Mrs. Letourneau’s compact, gentle script weaves a wonderful story about their newborn son, Vincent Jr. She notes she is leaving the house for the first time since his birth and that the neighbors have been coming by with small
gifts for young Vincent Jr. She closed her note with “love and millions of kisses” and added little Vince’s name along with hers.
While Mrs. Letourneau penned her loving note, the 9th Division was operating in Tunisia against Germany’s Afrika Korps and moved to El Guettar. Here, as part of General Patton’s II Corps, the division launched a series of attacks on the Gafsa-Gabes axis
to relieve the pressure on General Bernard Montgomery’s British force to the south.Because the 9th had detached Regimental Combat Team 60 to fight elsewhere, much of the fighting fell on the 47th Infantry. To make matters worse, Major General George Patton’s Corps lacked adequate maps of the area. The attack was launched on the morning of March 28th, 1943, and for the next 11 days a bitter battle was waged for Hills 290, 369, and 772. The 9th Infantry Division’s introduction to combat near El Guettar was neither easy nor cheap. Two regiments were deeply engaged and in the desperate fighting lost 120 killed, 872 wounded, 316 missing, and 318 non-battle causalities in just ten days of fighting. Five out of six infantry battalion commanders were out of action and Private Vincent Le-
tourneau lay injured on a stretcher.
Mrs. Letourneau’s letter does allow for wonderful insight on the early phases of U.S. involvement in WW II and to Private. Letourneau’s fate. Letourneau’s Army Service Number tells us that he was an early draftee from the Great Lakes region. Postmarks on the front of the letter note that it left Minnesota at 6:30 p.m. on March 22. Because the Army Post Office in Casablanca was not yet operational the letter remains at full size, something rarely seen again as the war ground on. The letter moved to the front lines where a harried company clerk or hard-worked first sergeant scratched a single, determined line through the address “Co. F 47th INF APO#9” and scrawled “To 8th Evac Hosp.” The Evacuation Hospital saw to it with a crisply penciled box that Letourneau was moved to an in-theater Army Base Section Hospital where he was placed on a troop ship that carried him from North Africa to Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island, NY. A quickly scrawled mark through the base hospital box by someone with the initials “MZ” passed on to Halloran where yet another clerk inked across that name and forwarded the letter to F. O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Mo., Letourneau’s new home. There, the trail runs cold as it appears that each time Private Letourneau was transferred to a new hospital his letter followed just a little too late. The story does, however, have a happy ending. Private Vincent P. Letourneau was medically discharged in early 1944 and he returned home to St. Paul, Minn. There he assumed a normal, quiet life raising Vincent Jr. and eventually passing away at the age of 81, still a proud Soldier.