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Victory book campaign brought reading to WWII troops

(Photo submitted)

Men and women in service have many needs, including recreation and education. For thousands of American troops in World War II, the Victory Book Campaign covered both.

Though forgotten today, the campaign was a wildly successful national program to collect and distribute reading material to the armed forces. Millions of books, including many from Minnesota, were enjoyed by the troops, providing a welcome respite from the drudgery and stress of daily military life.

Andrew Brozyna, a California-based freelance book designer, has studied and written on the Victory Book Campaign, and he believes the campaign had a happy effect on men in the field.

"I'm sure they enjoyed having something to read," said Brozyna. "There's a lot of downtime for servicemen, and the boredom that comes from having nothing to do. The campaign gave them piece of home, wherever they were from."

Collection of books began on Jan. 12, 1942, as citizens were asked to donate suitable books for the enjoyment of servicemen and women. Only books of good quality were accepted.

Locally, the campaigns were directed by a city librarian, a library board member or a prominent citizen. The statewide effort in Minnesota was led by Ruth Rosholt, the head of the catalog department at the Minneapolis Public Library.

In her calls for donations, Rosholt said that "everyone who gives a book should ask himself if it is one a man would enjoy. A safe rule to follow is to give only books which you have liked yourself. Don't send old, worn-out books to our soldiers. They are giving us their best. We can't do less."

Minnesota residents donated a total of 319,216 books in the two years of the campaign, the eleventh-highest total in the nation.

"The reaction from the public was very enthusiastic," said Brozyna. "The organizers made it easy to participate and anyone, even children, could donate a used book. Everyone wanted to pitch in, and do their part for the war effort. They may not have been able to afford war bonds, but they could donate a used book."

Books were shipped to military camps in nearly every state in the nation and were received with tremendous enthusiasm. In highest demand were Westerns and mysteries, in addition to current best sellers, recent technical books, joke and cartoon books and pocket-sized publications. Cash contributions were also received to buy books. Pocket Bibles proved a popular choice for purchase.

One woman donated a copy of "Gone with the Wind" with a letter attached: "If the first boy that reads this book will write to me, I will send him a chocolate cake." Ralph McCoy, the director for the campaign in Illinois, hand-delivered the book to the librarian at Fort Sheridan, "who agreed to plant the book where it would be found by a cake-hungry soldier."

The librarian at a training base in Washington declared that "the Victory Book Campaign is wonderful ... (the men) are mad for reading material. If a five-minute break comes, out come the books and magazines."

Many books were used in academic pursuits. The Washington librarian stated that the soldiers wanted "to return home with knowledge of the world ... textbooks! We can't keep them on the shelves." The demand included "every branch of mathematics" as well as foreign language texts. The writer concluded that books were "even more popular than poker."

Nationally, The Victory Book Campaign collected over 10.8 million books by the end of 1942. The campaign was renewed in 1943, with increased involvement from national organizations such as Rotary, 4-H and Lions clubs. Another 7.6 million books came in, but a high number of books were deemed unusable. In those two years, some 8.1 million books were not used.

The national effort closed later in 1943. In all, some 10.3 million usable books nationwide were donated to the Victory Book Campaign during its existence.