In the hours leading up to D-Day, war correspondent A. J. Liebling observed an unexpected sight aboard the landing craft as it cut across the English Channel headed for the French coast. Rather than anxiously discussing the perils ahead, “...the soldiers were spread all over the LCIL [Landing Craft, Infantry Large] … most of them reading paper-cover, armed-services editions of books.” During the voyage, one serviceman explained to Liebling, “These little books are a great thing. They take you away. I remember when my battalion was cut off on top of a hill at El Guettar [Tunisia], I read a whole book in one day ...This one I am reading now is called Candide. It is kind of unusual, but I like it. I think the fellow who wrote it, Voltaire, used the same gag too often, though.” (“Cross-Channel Trip I: A Report from Normandy,” The New Yorker, June 23, 1944.)
American servicemen overseas, many of whom had never heard of Voltaire and rarely opened a book prior to their military service, found themselves devouring every book they could get their hands on during World War II. Armed Services Editions (ASEs) were created to feed this hunger for reading material. ASEs were designed to be lightweight, disposable, and to fit into the pockets of American military uniforms. Due to their immense popularity, ASEs were passed from person to person and read until they literally fell apart. As a result, only a fraction of ASEs outlasted the war.
UNLV offers public access to a collection of these rare historical books thanks to the generosity of Beverly Rogers, who donated her collection of more than 400 Armed Services Editions to UNLV University Libraries Special Collections and Archives.
Ultimately, more than 120 million ASEs were distributed to United States servicemen during World War II. ASEs provided a welcome diversion for them as they rode transports to unfamiliar destinations, waited for action, sat pinned in foxholes, lay wounded in the field, or recovered in hospitals. Hundreds of servicemen wrote heartfelt letters to the Council for Books in Wartime and to the authors of the ASEs, thanking them for the books and sharing very personal stories of how particular books created a haven for them amid the devastation of war.
The titles published as ASEs include humor, classics, contemporary fiction, biographies, history, science, and military life — an eclectic assortment of subjects intended to appeal to the broad reading interests of civilian soldiers who had volunteered or been drafted from all walks of life. ASEs brought laughter, learning, and even hope. They provided much-needed distraction in times of boredom, tension, and trauma. Essays, poetry, and short stories could be read aloud in camps or finished quickly during brief breaks in action. Books of science and medicine were educational and sparked interest in careers that might be pursued when the war was over. Novels, such as Chicken Every Sunday, filled the servicemen's minds with scenes of family and home-cooked meals, and reminded them of what they were fighting for.
In the spring of 1944, the Council for Books in Wartime puzzled over crates of ASEs that had not been shipped as scheduled. The Council worried that the delay meant the books were unwanted. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The ASEs had proven to support morale and the Army viewed the ASEs as essential to the kit of every soldier. Unbeknownst to the Council, the Army Special Services Division, with the approval of General Eisenhower's staff, held back almost 1 million ASEs in the C and D publication series. The "delayed" shipment was reserved for distribution to the men marshalled in Southern England preparing for the secret mission code-named Operation Overlord, which was launched on D-Day.
June 6, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the day the Allied forces breached the defenses of Nazi-occupied France on the beaches of Normandy and established a foothold for the Allies to enter Western Europe. Eleven long and costly months stretched between D-Day and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on V-E Day on May 8, 1945. That ultimate victory was unquestionably built upon the valor and sacrifice of the 160,000 sailors, soldiers, and airmen from the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S. who carried out the first phase of Operation Overlord on D-Day.
In the narrative of D-Day, these tiny books are appropriately little more than a footnote. Nonetheless, they hold a very tangible connection to World War II and the men who served in it. The UNLV University Libraries invites you to visit Special Collections and Archives on the third floor of Lied Library to experience the Beverly Rogers Collection of Armed Services Editions first-hand. As you hold one of these worn little books, you can only imagine where it has been. One of the books from the C or D series, such as Candide or The Grapes of Wrath, may have been in the hands of an American serviceman 75 years ago as he sped toward the beaches Normandy, by air or by sea, carrying "the hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere." ("Order of the Day" June 6, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.)
For further reading, see Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II.