WWII – Packages from Home

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These Marines were fortunate to have mail call out in the Pacific during WWII. A package from home – with new socks perhaps being the ultimate gift – provided huge emotional uplifts.

During WWII, receiving a package from home was the ultimate morale booster for our boys in uniform.  These packages brought tremendous joy to the men, especially when they were near or at the front, subjected to the brutality and extremes of environments.

Upon experiencing the joy of receiving a parcel, very little could surpass finding the lingering scent of their girl’s perfume on a knitted muffler; candy and gum ranked up there, too.   Socks were also in high demand as socks wore out much more quickly than sweaters or mufflers and dry socks were essential necessities to ward off trench foot.  Indeed, trench foot¹ and frostbite took their toll on our boys in battle more than being wounded by bullets or shrapnel.

While machines produced millions, there were even “knitting parties” where women knitted socks, scarves, vests and “fingerless” mittens.  In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt just months before Pearl Harbor founded a “Knit for Defense” effort in the US.

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But within today’s capsule of electronic bliss, many of us civilians in all walks of life see no difficulty with a family trying to communicate with their loved one who is not at home because he/she is in uniform.

Cell phones.  GPS.  Email.  “Facetime”.  Skype.

Even packages from home are viewed as no big thing anymore by the general public.  They are taken for granted by many civilians because the packages leaving the front porch seem to be riding on a beacon radiating from a soldier’s open palms now – think FedEx.  Perhaps this could be one possible reason why so many Americans seem to feel gifts from home are “no big deal”.  They see our men in uniform as being as close as a laptop.  That is far from reality as are many TV shows.  They still long for home.

One thing hasn’t changed from World War II: the morale-boosting smile that erupted on a soldier’s face when he received a package from home.

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Operation Gratitude

So what got me thinking about these now long-forgotten packages from home that brought so many smiles to GI Joes on a WWII battlefield?

My oldest daughter Robyn spearheaded an effort with family and friends to bring together hundreds of donations to be sent anonymously to our military through the efforts of a non-profit organization called “Operation Gratitude“.  Among many other essentials, there were razors, hand wipes, sunscreen, foot powder, Chapstick and most importantly, letters from students thanking the unknown recipient for their service to our country.  In addition, Robyn purchased thousands of yards of “paracord“.  It had to first be cut in 7.5 foot lengths; then, the open ends have to be sealed with a small flame.  These were then hand braided into survival bracelets – 300 of them.

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My oldest daughter applauding her three siblings on their effort to braid survival bracelets after Thanksgiving Dinner. A total of 300 were eventually made.  Survival bracelets can be quickly unraveled then used for many situations while deployed: bundling, strapping down equipment, securing netting… and in the worst scenario as a tourniquet.

 

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My youngest son Jack the morning before heading off to volunteer for the day at Operation Gratitude. The items were donated by my oldest daughter, family and friends.

 

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Jack and Brooke taping together boxes at Operation Gratitude. Jack kept count of the number of rolls of tape he used. With four rolls used, he taped together about 280 boxes. Photo from http://www.operationgratitude.com.

 

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A volunteer is transferring bags of personal items donated by donors. These were then taken to the “assembly” line where volunteers stuffed Priority Mail boxes with them and other items. Photo from http://www.opeationgratitude.com.

 

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There were HUNDREDS of volunteers this day. It was Operation Gratitude’s first assembly day at their new location in Chatsworth, CA. Photo from http://www.opeationgratitude.com.

Through their volunteers and generous donations from the public, Operation Gratitude has delivered over 1.4 million parcels so far!

These smiles make it all worth it, yes?

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The Journey of a WWII Package

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During WWII, a package sent from home took weeks if not months for a soldier to get it…  Or in the worse possible scenario, the young man would never receive their package from home because they were either killed or missing as this photo below graphically shows.  It would exponentially worsen for the family as they would have likely received the infamous telegrams only to have the battered package marked “DECEASED” left at their doorstep many weeks later:

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All of these packages – many for Christmas of 1944 – were returned as they were undeliverable. All are marked “Deceased” or “Missing”, visible if you enlarge the picture. I cannot imagine how the sender felt having the package being returned. National Archives.

The packages from home would make their way via ship.  For the European Theater of War and before D-Day, a number of supply ships were likely attacked or sunk by U-Boats.  After surviving the voyage and unloading at a European port (permanent or man-made like at Normandy), the packages, along with sacks of mail, would be transferred to trucks.

Europe did have mapped roads making delivery somewhat more certain but the trucks were subject to destruction via enemy air attacks, shelling or road mines.  I understand mail pieces were primarily sorted at battalion headquarters then filtered down to a company or OP level which could be moving in the course of battle.

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These soldiers were lucky to be able to use a jeep to reel off phone line. My thought would be the area was pretty secure. Otherwise, foot soldiers would have to work through the combat zone and quietly lay down then cover up the phone lines. Signal Corps photo.

Making it to the individual soldier was not a sure thing.  The package would have to make its way to the platoon then to the individual soldier’s last known position.  Perhaps there was a makeshift “post office” but if the front was fluid, their location would be a question mark.  Communication with a unit on the move was by field radio with an average range of five miles or so until actual phone lines could be reeled off (above).

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Wire reel can be seen next to field radio. Signal Corps photo.
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A corporal receives firing orders via a field phone for a mortar crew. National Archives.
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When close to or in a combat zone, walkie-talkies with a maximum range of about a mile (under ideal conditions) were used to communicate with units. Signal Corps photo.

It was MUCH less certain for Marines serving on those islands scattered about in the Pacific.  For example, the package may never get there as a ship would be sunk or damaged, would rot in humid cargo holds exceeding 130F, or the Marine just couldn’t be located because they kept moving, especially if in combat.  Communication was a wild card and without it, finding the Marine’s location was difficult.

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Marines ford a river, laying down phone wire on Guadalcanal, 1943. Imagine the luxury of cell phones in combat today. USMC photo.

On these sweltering Pacific islands and unlike Europe, few or no roads were the norm until the engineers came ashore to build them.  Mud greeted the Marines.  Any dirt road became mud rivers and muddy hills made it worse.  When mail did reach their island, the mail drops on many an occasion were truly drops – they were pushed out of cargo planes with parachutes at low altitude:

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In some Pacific battles, mail would be delayed as there were no “front lines” on these islands for some time.  Iwo Jima was a typical one as the enemy for the most part were hidden underground and would pop up out of holes and caves to kill.

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A Marine tries to communicate with HQ using a field phone while hunkering down for dear life in a foxhole. Communication woes made for difficulty in mail delivery.  USMC photo.

 

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A long awaited mail call for Marines on Tinian, 1944. USMC photo.

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“CARE” Packages

Today, we frequently call packages sent either from home or from efforts like Operation Gratitude “CARE packages”.

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A sample WWII Red Cross package, sent to POW’s in German POW camps. Source unknown.

During WWII, the American Red Cross spearheaded monumental efforts (below) to produce Prisoner of War packages.  They were not called “CARE” packages as of yet.

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National Archives

More than 27 million parcels were prepared by over 13,000 volunteers and shipped by the American Red Cross to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, for distribution in the POW camps.

These packages may have included:

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The sample contents of a Red Cross Prisoner of War Package No. 10. Source unknown.

Prisoners held by the Germans did better than those in the Pacific.  While many packages were intercepted by Nazis and used for their own use, the Japanese provided almost no cooperation to the International Red Cross efforts.  In some cases, the prisoners in German POW camps would keep only the cigarettes and chocolate then “volunteer” the rest of the food articles to the Nazi camp cooks.

However, the actual term of “CARE Package” did not pertain to these life-saving parcels.  Instead, “an organization called CARE was founded in 1945, when 22 American organizations came together to rush lifesaving CARE Packages to survivors of World War II. Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, contributed to the effort. On May 11, 1946, the first 20,000 packages reached the battered port of Le Havre, France.”²

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All in all, Operation Gratitude fulfills both roles: the precious package from home combined with the CARE package concept.  With the economy the way it is and coupled with the unacceptably low budget for our military, I feel these packages do bring smiles to our men and women in uniform.  It tells them that in spite of how the media chooses to report on mostly negative incidents involving them, it shows millions of us support them 100%.

A crisp salute to Operation Gratitude, my daughter Robyn and of course, our men and women wearing our country’s uniforms so proudly and valiantly.

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The GI in the driver’s seat shares his cherished Christmas package from home. National Archives.

 

NOTES:

  1. During WWII, there were about 60,000 trench foot casualties requiring removal from the battlefield.  85% of these casualties were from rifle companies.  Only about 15% made it back to the field.
  2. Source: CARE

27 thoughts on “WWII – Packages from Home”

  1. A really interesting article, thank you. My Grandfather had trench foot from WW1 and it was nothing trivial. When he went into hospital for the final time aged over 80, young doctors came from all over the building to see his feet as trench foot was by now unknown in 1970. Ten years later, in 1982, the complaint reappeared in the Falklands War.

    1. Your story about your grandfather is so true, sir. Many lost toes or entire feet to the illness. They could do so little at times for their feet while out in the sub-freezing temps in muddy foxholes. And yes, it was not much in the news until the Falklands. I hope they all recovered. I hope your grandfather did the best he could coping with its aftereffects.

    1. Out there your way, the knitting efforts were enormous compared to the efforts here in the US. Of course, England had been under attack for a couple of years before “we” got called in. Your country folks gave all and then some!

  2. I’ve been following Operation Gratitude and feel they do a lot for the morale of our troops – this article of yours, Koji will do even more to get the word out!!

  3. This is a wonderful post, Koji. You must be so proud of your children and all their work. I was very pleased to see some field photos of Signals men at work. They don’t usually get much coverage, yet the work on whatever is going on overhead.

    1. Yes, the men laying down communication wire were so vital yet overlooked in our history books. It fades even more today as we expect instant communications when you turn on your cell phone. I think I recall one of your stories when men when putting up telegraph lines when they encountered wasps?

  4. A great story, Koji. Of both the past and present. Kudos to your family for participating in this effort. I remember when we used to send Gummi Bears to Tony when he was fighting in Iraq. It was by far his favorite treat. –Curt

  5. Absolutely kudos to Robyn, and it’s clear she’s learned a lot about sensitivity to the needs of our men and women serving overseas. I’m so impressed, Koji. I had a small part in sending packages to Iraq seven or eight years ago when my friend’s son was serving. I was very involved at the time and admit I haven’t done more since he returned home. I’d really enjoy participating in something like Project Gratitude. And I enjoyed reading about the “Care Packages” during WW II. I wonder how many never reached their intended destination. We had the immediate gratification of an email telling us when they arrived!

    1. We forget these days the uncertainties of a package reaching its recipient now as you question. If you are curious about Op Grad’s efforts, they do have a website. They also have an “assembly day” each month. I was hoping to go this month to take photographs for them but since I am to have the kids that week, it will have to wait until April. It is really a gratifying experience and yes, my daughter is a good kid!

    1. That is the least we can do for our deployed troops. We have the comfort of showering each day and sleeping in soft beds. Because of the media coverage and biased nature, we see very little of the enduring our boys experience out in Afghanistan or Iraq. For example, they have to continually ward off scorpions and such when they are confined in shallow foxholes. Small things like that are now unknown to the public because of “restricted” coverage by the media.

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