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When “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” Went to War

June 29, 2017

The pocket-sized Armed Services Edition of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

And now, a brief timeout from my travels to share a bit more of the story surrounding Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

In December 1942, when Cornelia’s and Emily’s book was published, America had been at war for over a year, and the country was galvanized to not only supply the troops and arms needed to defeat Germany and Japan, but to support in any way they could the soldiers fighting on those fronts.

A number of New York’s largest publishing houses had formed the “Council on Books in War”, as a response to reports that had been coming out of Germany for almost ten years of state-sanctioned book burnings.  The Nazi campaign to obliterate any literature they deemed “un-German” was so pervasive that it is estimated, by the end of the war, Germany had destroyed over 100 million books.

The Council on Books came up with a plan to supply American soldiers with books, not only for entertainment and to boost morale, but to fight against Hitler’s “war on ideas”.  Working within the severe paper rationing restrictions which had been in place ever since the US entered the war, the Council designed small paperback versions of popular books which could be sent overseas.

Printed on magazine paper, the books, known as Armed Services Editions (ASEs), could withstand damp weather conditions and rough handling better than traditional books.  They were lightweight and cut to the exact measurements of a soldier’s uniform.  Smaller books were designed to fit into a soldier’s pants pocket, while larger books fit exactingly into the shirt’s breast pocket.

Beginning in September 1943 and continuing until 1946, the Council printed and the US government supplied over 123 million copies of 1,227 different book titles to the troops.  The selections included both fiction and non-fiction books, with genres ranging from history to humor, thrillers to romance, great works of literature to current bestsellers.  Instantly, they became widely popular with the troops, as Molly Guptill Manning explains in When Books Went to War:

“… Armed Services Editions… were everywhere:  servicemen read them while waiting in line for chow or a haircut, when pinned down in a foxhole… They were so ubiquitous, one sailor remarked that a man was ‘out of uniform if one isn’t sticking out his hip pocket’… Books of humor made them laugh when there was nothing funny about their circumstances.  Tales of life back home transported them to the places they missed and hoped to see again.  By reading, the men received the closest thing to a respite from war.”

“With books in their pockets, American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked to the Rhine and liberated Europe; they hopped from one deadly Pacific island to the next, from the shores of Australia to the backyard of Japan.” — Molly Guptill Manning

Having spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List at the beginning of 1943, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was selected as one of the titles to be printed in the second series of books being sent to the soldiers in October 1943.  Emily would write to the Council on Books to thank them for the honor, stating that she and Cornelia were more proud of the Armed Services Edition than of being chosen as a book of the month.

And do you know, as it would turn out, this sweet, funny story of two girls traveling to Europe in 1922 would be such a hit with the battle-hardened GIs that it would be reprinted and sent to the troops again in February 1945?

What’s more, there would be, not just one, but two anecdotes which would emerge from the war about the ASE version of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  The first was recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion.  On returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, he came across a fallen soldier, his arm outstretched, and just a few feet from his hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

On the other side of the world, a similar story would come from Saipan, by a Captain J.H. Magruder, who wrote to the Saturday Evening Post about coming across a fallen marine with an ASE sticking out of his pocket.  The book was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This incident would later be taken up by Hollywood, and fictionalized in the John Wayne movie, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”.

It’s astonishing that, with over 1,200 different books distributed to the soldiers, there should be two of these accounts involving Cornelia’s and Emily’s book and, as far as I could find, no similar anecdotes about any of the other ASE titles.

Especially given that, on its surface, Cornelia’s and Emily’s book seems like an odd choice to send to the soldiers.  But then again, in between those most-welcome, laugh-out-loud moments, the book must have also served as a reminder of better times, of what the boys were fighting for.  And the lively, lovely England and France that Cornelia and Emily had captured was very much worth fighting for, a world very much worth saving.

Which is what those young men did.  We can never thank them enough for that, but we can try.  Thank you, boys.

It’s amazing where a story can take you.  When I started out to follow the journey of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I was completely unaware of its compelling connections to World War II.  I use the plural “connections”, because there is a strange flip-side to this tale, which involves that mysterious trip to the Bletchley Park archives.

I will divulge the rest of that story in my next post.

 

(With many thanks to Molly Guptill Manning, author of “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”, for telling this little-known story.  Many of the details I’ve included here are taken from her beautifully written book.)

Left: A first edition and an Armed Services Edition, both complete books.  The pocket-sized ASE is 3/4″ thick.

Right: A display case at the American Cemetery in Normandy, captioned “What They Carried With Them”, containing copies of Armed Services Editions.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Know Where You Stand: In the Footsteps of Heroes - Adrienne Crow June 18, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    […] an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and […]

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