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Books, Wars, and the ASEs

September, 2004
By Roy Meador

If you experienced military life during wartime, peacetime, or anytime, you know the all-service dictum that dominates isn’t semper fidelis, “now hear this,” “hit the beach,” “anchors aweigh,” “off we go,” or even “get the lead out.” The standing order of a military day, every day, is “hurry up and wait.”

My recollection from a number of U.S. Navy years is that there were often hours, days, aye, aye, sir, entire weeks of waiting. And while one waited—and waited—more welcome over the long haul than chow, drink, pipe tobacco, shooting the breeze, scuttlebutt, or goofing off was having books, preferably good books, forever ready in a handy pocket, knapsack, or locker. Naval officer Tom Keeler spoke for readers who faced tedium aboard ships or ashore in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Around Keefer’s desk and bunk on the destroyer-minesweeper Caine“were crammed volumes of poetry, fiction, and philosophy.” “This life is slow suicide, unless you read,” declared Keeler. Roger! Wilco! You betcha! Indubitably.

In Tales of an Army Life, Leo Tolstoy, denouncing war, observed, “War! What an incomprehensible phenomenon.” In spite of his reputation as a literary warrior, Ernest Hemingway warned about war in “The Malady of Power” (Esquire, November 1935): “…no good ever comes of it.” There is still alas no cure for war, yet books definitely help reluctant participants endure the “Madness! Madness!”

Need I remind you that in War and Peace, for Russian general Michael Ilariónovich Kutúzov, who led the comeuppance of Napoleon, reading novels was part of “life’s customary routine.” Noah Ackerman in Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions stored books by Joyce, Eliot, and Shaw in a footlocker with his underwear and reaped contempt from a bullying captain who called Ulysses“a filthy, dirty book,” ordered all the books removed, and ludicrously decreed, “This is not a library, soldier. You’re not here to read.”

Maybe the title gave War and Peace a big military following. In James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Ensign Bill Harbison tried reading it two days in his sack before giving up. When nurse Nellie Forbush mentioned that “lots of people read that book out here,” determined nurse Dinah Culbert replied, "I’m going to be the one that finishes it.”

The habit of reading lingers with some book-based soldiers long after their wars. World War I veteran Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge sought to justify his survival by reading his way out of ignorance on a quest for a better reason to live than money. He planned to drive a taxi and settle in New York "because of its libraries.”

Books in war books and films don’t always come across as an unmitigated blessing though. The 20-year old narrator, Paul Baumer, in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front quoted a fellow soldier: “The war has ruined us for everything.” Paul noted of his World War I generation that killing “was our first calling in life.” He feared coming home from the business of killing might prove impossible. On leave in the presence of his once cherished books, he found them beyond his grasp: “Words, Words, Words — they do not reach me. Slowly I place the books back in the shelves.” And strange to admit, books could actually be unwelcome. Maybe you recall how in Jean Renoir’s film classic Grand Illusion, Russian prisoners of the Germans received a large crate from their Czarina. Expecting vodka, caviar, and comparable pleasures, they invited French prisoners to share the delights. Expectantly opening the box, they found books, mainly textbooks! “The Cossacks aren’t happy, let’s get out of here,” quickly suggested a Frenchman as disappointed Russians set about burning the crate and its contents.

Books, Books, Books for the Grabbing

My wartime experience of books arriving aboard ship is precisely opposite that of the Grand Illusion Russians. If a parcel held caviar and vodka instead of books as promised, I’d have denounced the supply officer, questioned fate’s fairness, and cussed a blue streak. Our book lines were shorter than chow lines, yet I remember where eager book lines did exist; and I had the duty of accommodating them at the tiny book nook of a Destroyer Escort (DE) where my favorite job was Ship’s Librarian. Our home port was Pearl Harbor. In port I’d drive a jeep to the Naval District warehouse and stock up on books for the crew (never neglecting my favorite reader’s current cravings).

The bulk of the books I took back to the ship were always Armed Services Edition (ASE) paperbacks, those surprisingly tough, pocket-size, rectangular-shaped, two-column paged book marvels printed on stock a couple of grades higher than newsprint. Many who served in Europe, Korea, the Pacific islands, or the world’s oceans will remember ASEs with affection. They helped countless service people get through dull patches and hang on through hazardous hours. A soldier in New Guinea called them an antidote against “becoming a slave to self-pity.” He mentioned seeing ASEs in the pockets of his buddies from landing boats to bulldozers and noted that “having so many books available helps us to fill in that time when there are no shows and no letters to answer.”

ASEs are now over half a century old and scarce. When I recall their ready availability during wartime, I regret my collecting antennae weren’t focused on saving more of these unique volumes from extinction. The general practice was to treat them as expendables, handle them freely, and pass them along to others. Multiple readings of ASEs was one military policy we actually implemented after a fashion. I saved a few dozen by mailing them home. Wish I’d saved more. Now the unexpected discovery of an ASE in a secondhand bookstore can awaken memories and provide another rare memento of mid-20th century wars.

Giving Away Books by the Millions

Lets agree the most inherently peaceful item, contention about content aside, is a book. During a war, a book is both a symbol and reminder of peace and an ideal companion for bored, weary, lonely, scared, or recuperating soldiers and sailors. U.S. service personnel during World War II and the Korean War were exceptionally well supplied with good books, thanks largely to the Council on Books in Wartime, a U.S. volunteer group of publishers, booksellers, and librarians organized in 1942. Wherever battles were fought, ships sailed, beaches were hit, or the wounded treated, the services had access to nearly 123 million free copies of 1,322 different books, most entertaining, many excellent, some great in the remarkable Armed Services Edition series.

Concerning ASEs, Lieut. Col. Ray L. Trautman, Chief of the Army Library Service, confirmed, “The Army has discovered that there is as great a market for good books as for light stuff and trash. Veterans of World War II will have been accustomed to the best books.” The colonel was also on target for the Navy. ASEs were issued in vast variety, and their ubiquitous availability transformed countless nonreaders into readers. Many who hadn’t read a book since school allowed light into their sad, bookless dark by grabbing, stowing, and reading ASEs.

Joseph Brandt, Director at the University of Chicago Press, stated, “The armed forces have combined education with reading for recreation to an admirable degree. American publishers have cooperated handsomely with them through the Council on Books in Wartime and, notably, the Editions for the Armed Service...Perhaps the armed forces have rescued a lost generation of readers.” Mildly optimistic maybe, since throughout the military a steady flood of comic books and vicarious eroticism helped the fighting boys preserve their stateside way of life.

Still my experience was that numerous new readers of worthwhile books were indeed recruited by good quality ASEs taken up as possible antidotes to stress and boredom. Specific examples abound. For instance, 155,000 copies of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (ASE 862) were distributed. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benét, and others were represented in the series by special collections of their writings. ASE collector Mathew J. Bruccoli points out, "These qualify as first-and-only editions and are mandatory items in an author collection.”” If you are such a collector, chances are you won’t find it easy to track down missing ASEs, but good hunting to us all.

The New Yorker correspondent A.J. Liebling reported from an infantry landingcraft crossing the Channel to a 1944 D-Day beachhead in France that soldiers lay about the deck “reading paper-cover, armed services editions of books. They were just going on one more trip, and they didn’t seem excited about it.” Planning for the invasion of Europe included giving an ASE to every man boarding a vessel for the Channel crossing. The books were accepted enthusiastically, and most were kept while other nonessential possessions were jettisoned. The ASEs were compact, convenient, easily stowed, essential companions for the liberators of a continent. Liebling met one of those G.I.s deep in Candide, ASE c-64. The G.I. viewed Voltaire’s satire as “kind of unusual, but I like it,” and Pangloss was an interesting if odd old guy with notions about everything being for the best which might just be a useful way to think for Europe-bound tourists that June. The G.I. told Liebling, “These little books are a great thing. They take you away.”

The “little books” with a big job grew from an idea initiated by the Army’s Ray Trautman to produce and distribute low-cost books overseas. Early in 1943 the Council on Books in Wartime adopted the idea for their books as “weapons in the war of ideas” campaign and as a practical publishing contribution to the war effort. This anticipated observations by Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress, that “the spoils of war for which the Nazis fight are men’s minds” and that among the principal defenses of a free nation are books.

The Council and the armed forces worked fast so 50,000 copies each of 30 different titles were ready by September 1943. The honor of being ASE A-1 went to The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n by Leonard Q. Ross (Leo Rosten), humorous sketches about his exertions and frustrations teaching English to immigrants. It was a dandy number one, and Rosten was proud it came first “out of the cookie jar.” Copies of A-1 in Morocco cases were sent to President Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest King, and General George Marshall. The book’s a delight, no matter your mamaloshen.

The initial 30 books established the scope and variety that characterized the entire 1943-1947 program with no potential reading appetite, except maybe pornography, overlooked. My small collection includes A-11, My World and Welcome to It by James Thurber. Other familiar author names in the opening 30 are Ogden Nash, Dickens, Steinbeck, Mencken, Forester, Saroyan, Fast, Greene, Melville, Conrad, Sandburg, and Hervey Allen. After the “A” list came the “B” list of 30, and so on.

Philip Van Doren Stern, one-time executive editor at Pocket Books and author of The Greatest Gift (basis of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life), was named project manager of the nonprofit Armed Services Editions, Inc. Most ASEs were 5-1/2 by 3-7/8 inches, printed in pairs "two-up”” on rotary presses formerly used to print magazines. ASE four-color covers emphasized uniformity. Back covers contained book details similar to enticing information on dust jacket flaps. The fronts held title/author data, ASE logo, photograph of the original hardcover or simulated hardcover for ASE originals, and a bottom panel statement about book contents whether complete, selected, or condensed. Since less than a hundred books were abridged (e.g. Oliver Twist; Moby Dick; Look Homeward, Angel; Forever Amber), a vast majority carried the guarantee THIS IS THE COMPLETE BOOK—NOT A DIGEST. Some longer books were 6-1/2 by 4-1/2 inches. Due to their horizontal layout, the books were bound on the short side using waterproof glue with a rust-resistant staple added for greater durability.

The result was a stout, hearty paperback built for hardship, desert sand, tropical damp, rodents, insects, coffee spills, cigarettes, whatever. Well maybe not bayonets and bullets. Some copies proved hardy enough for the six readings per volume the Army and Navy hoped to achieve. That depended naturally on a lot of philanthropic sharing among readers, never exactly conspicious aboard my DE.

With production in full swing, thirty titles initially appeared monthly, and 155,000 copies of each were printed. They were delivered in 30-title parcels wherever the armed forces waited overseas. Eventually ASEs also logically went to wounded veterans in hospitals across the U.S. To achieve economies in the use of cover paper, the number of books per month expanded to 32, and the number grew again to 40 books monthly near the end of 1944.

The agreement was for the Army and Navy to pay manufacturing costs which averaged 5.9 cents a book during the 1943-1946 productions phase and 10.9 cents a book during the program’s second phase to September 1947 as printers drastically reduced their normal profit margins. Authors and publishers divided a one-cent per book royalty. John Steinbeck and Irving Stone were among those who patriotically offered to forgo their royalties thus enabling more books to be produced. This largesse was applauded but not encouraged on the grounds some authors needed the half-cent remuneration. As an earnest friend of royalties, I salute the ASE position.

The books were chosen by an advisory committee of prominent literary and publishing volunteers — including my Columbia professor Mark Van Doren. To become an ASE, a book needed committee approval and acceptance by Ray Trautman for the Army and Isabel DuBois for the Navy. Recreational diversity was the primary goal. With entertainment as a broad and flexible objective, the series featured a diversified range of fiction and nonfiction from popular titles to serious works. The series had a stimulating effect and lasting impact on paperback reading according to William Jovanovich. “Paperback books were given a great impetus when the Armed Services Editions distributed 122,500,000 copies of books on license from American publishers,”he wrote. If you want to be fussy about it, the reported number of ASEs delivered to the Army and Navy according to official figures was 122,951,031.

Delighted to Be Banned

With the Army and Navy carefully screening the choices made by a committee of literary volunteers, a seemingly formidable lineup of potential roadblocks existed. Yet exclusion of good books seldom occurred, and political or prudish censorship reaped plenty of vigorous indignation. Books critical of democracy, or bashing wartime allies, or overly friendly to enemies were not among the 1,322 ASE winning selections. Books offensive to ethnic or religious groups were also rejected.

Thus, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey which gave Mormons a hard time was not included, though eight other Grey westerns became ASEs. By the way, pardner, as you might expect, a leading category was westerns. They were quickly grabbed, much traded, and read to tatters. Poet Frederick Faust (good luck finding his Dionysus in Hades) writing as Max Brand contributed 16 ASEs, traditional shoot-’em-ups except one book from his Dr. Kildare series; and as Evan Evans he had two ASEs. Notable western author Ernest Haycox, who wrote the story filmed by John Ford as Stagecoach, ran second with 14 titles; while Hopalong Cassiday’s creator Clarence E. Mulford was present in the list with nine ASEs. My favorite western wordslinger, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, had five titles, though his finest book Pasó Por Aquí regrettably was not among them.

Politicians being politicians, there were a few inevitable run-ins with zealous, eager-to-get-you legislators. Michigan Representative George Dondero loudly attacked the Council, ASE Inc., the Army, and all the ships at sea for distributing Louis Adamic’s The Native’s Return (ASE b-54) since it contained passages friendly to communism which could corrupt the sensitive minds of young servicemen with leftist propaganda. It turned out all passages upsetting the Congressman were removed from the book by the author in 1938, and none were present in the 1943 ASE. So much for zealous watchdogging.

A more troublesome attack on the series resulted from Senator Robert Taft’s amendment to the Soldiers’ Vote Act of 1944 which decreed anything potentially affecting a federal election must be excluded as well as any views on history or politics that might influence a serviceman. The Bill allegedly evolved from the Senator’s fear President Roosevelt might benefit from propaganda supportive of a fourth term. The resulting pressure led to the withdrawal of several books, among them two books by historian Charles A Beard, E.B. White’s essay collection One Man’s Meat, and Catherine Drinker Bowen’s biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Yankee from Olympus. Another of the books pulled was an Army Air Forces guidebook because it contained a picture of FDR.

A considerable furor resulted. Norman Cousins in a July 1, 1944 Saturday Review editorial “Censoritis,” called the Voting Act law “incredibly bad” and denounced the rejection of Yankee from Olympus as an ASE because it contained a conversation between Holmes and FDR. The editorial argued, “If this is ‘political propaganda’ then so’s your ‘World Almanac’” and called “even more preposterous” the exclusion of Beard’s The Republic, “brilliant papers on the nature of the American state.” Cousins praised the ASE program for fighting with books of our own the book that started the war, Mein Kampf, and lamented that “a handful of vociferous Congressmen has been bullying officials into pathetic passivity.” The magazine on August 11, 1945 reported “The Saturday Review Award for Distinguished Service to American Literature has been given to the Council on Books in Wartime for its Armed Services Editions” and a duplicate award to ASE manager Philip Van Doren Stern.

Essayist E.B. White relished having a book publicly excluded and enjoyed the memory. He thought being banned flattered a book: “It shows somebody has read it.” In July 1976 I sent White a letter about finding a signed copy of his The Wild Flag at a Fourth Avenue store on July 3 and carrying it as I walked the length of Manhattan with a companion on Bicentennial Day, July 4. Along with gift copies of his ASE titles, he mailed me a charming reply with this paragraph: “Did you know that the Armed Services Edition of ‘One Man’s Meat’ was banned, early on? Too political. Then the military had second thoughts and it was circulated. Only time I ever had a book banned. I was tickled.” Thirty-two years earlier the New York Times, June 18, 1944, reporting on book banning due to political content, quoted the Council on Books in Wartime view of this as “an alarming encroachment on freedom.” E.B. White, named as a target wrote, “The boys can pick up their presidential preferences from the comic strips, and other reliable American sources. I am beginning to feel a little more like an author now that I have had a book banned. The literary life, in this country, begins in jail.”

Stung by the critical reaction, Congress and the military wiped the egg off, liberalized the Voting Act, and cleared the way for impetuously banned titles. The ASE “P” List included One Man’s Meat (p-26), The Republic (p-29), and Yankee from Olympus (p-32). Service morale held, war went on, the nation didn’t topple.

E.B. White was proud of his four ASEs and the many letters he received from grateful soldiers and sailors. A book he wrote with James Thurber became ASE 1016 and had a title men at war found hard to resist: Is Sex Necessary? Concerning his temporarily banned and subsequently accepted book, he wrote, “One Man’s Meat, was, I believe, a favorite,” White added what could be a coda for the enterprise and a summation of attitudes by most participating authors: “ASE…sent books where they were desperately needed. I was very glad I was a part of it.”

Facts and Feedback

On August 9, 1942 The New York Times began its weekly list of best selling books. In 1943 as the ASE book innovation for the military was methodically organized, among #1s was Walter Lippman’s weighty, spice-free U.S. Foreign Policy. Lippmann’s sober analysis became ASE c-73.

Dumbfounding cynics dubious about their ability to read beyond comics and sports, the armed services proved eager for thoughtful, informative, even “heavy” books. Through ASEs they got them. Bennett Cerf anticipated this reception in an April 3, 1943 Saturday Evening Post article, “Books That Shook the World.” Cerf wrote about the Council on Books in Wartime, books as weapons, and designation by the Council of crucially relevant books as “Imperatives.” Cerf speculated that the “singing army” of 1918 had changed to a “reading army” in 1943: “The boys are reading good books, too — not trash — and the post exchanges and libraries tell us that the demand for poetry and philosophy titles is increasing steadily.” The Council, the advisory committee, and ASE organizers paid attention.

Philip Van Doren Stern’s experience as an executive at Pocket Books and his work early in the war as an editor for overseas publications at the Office of War Information (O.W.I.) made him highly qualified to set up and run ASE operations. The assignment was a doozy and no doubt made him for a time the world’s busiest publisher. In 1943 to get books selected, printed, and delivered, he had to oversee a staff of ten while dealing with typesetters, paper mills, printers, the advisory committee, the Council on Books in Wartime, the Army and Navy, and participating authors. Considering the complexity of Stern’s juggling challenges, it might seem by comparison, the generals and admirals overseeing the war had it easy.

Here’s a literary sidebar to Stern’s ASE struggles. During the ASE organizational months of 1943, he dug out an unsold 1938 fantasy story that occurred to him while shaving. Stern rewrote it as he was translating the ASE idea into a functioning reality; and he gave it a new title, “The Greatest Gift.” His agent failed to sell it to a magazine. So he printed the story in pamphlets for use as Christmas 1943 greetings. One pamphlet went to an agent in Hollywood who sold the movie rights for $10,000, and millions now see it annually on home screens. The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, consider 1943 and the story’s genesis while the ASE story was unfolding. In 1996, Stern’s daughter Marguerite Stern Robinson recalled, “Many who returned from the services after the war told my father how much those books had meant to them, and how they had helped to keep up morale.”

Stern’s compliance with the ill-advised Soldiers’ Vote Act led to hiring poet/anthologist/editor Louis Untermeyer for the ASE reading staff. ASE readers policed books for political passages or other renegade material that might scandalize, provoke, or rile politicians. Untemeyer was valuable to the project in other ways than simply as a trouble snooper. He displayed versatility for many useful jobs along with identifying culprits while Vote Act myopia obligated vigilance

He chose stories and poems for ASE anthologies and compiled “made” books of selections by specific authors; and he wrote introductions for several ASEs. His introduction to a book of poems by William Wordsworth (ASE 736) shared Tennyson’s comment that Wordsworth’s poetry conveys “a sense of the permanent amid the transitory.” That expression covers the whole ASE experience. What’s more permanent than a book or more transitory than a war’s insanity..

The ASEs brought us a sense of durability and permanence in the midst of a grim reality we had to believe was brief or blow our tops. Furthermore, without Untermeyer’s introduction to Selected Poems of John Masefield (ASE 820) I doubt I would know, or you either, that Masefield at seventeen tended bar in Luke O’Connor’s Greenwich Village saloon. Then a year later he discovered Chaucer and decided to be a poet.

Such revelations are tiny sparkles that light our way along the reading road. Untermeyer also saw to the abridging of books too bulky for the ASE format. One was Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain (ASE n-32). Stegner recalled the trauma of text cutting after Untermeyer informed him of the need. Stegner removed 50,000 words before giving up. Then Untermeyer and Stern eliminated another 50,000 words. “I never dared look at the result,” wrote Stegner, “though I have a couple of copies on my shelf.”

As an enthusiastic reader on a DE (between bridge watches and decoding duties) many ASEs became special friends. One stormy night it was James Thurber’s My World—And Welcome To It (I still have it too). I’m not complaining, mind you, but I missed out on the excitement of perusing an ASE with enemy bullets close above. A soldier after D-Day wrote his wife about being pinned down in a ditch as shells whistled by and while crouching reading the ASE of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. He finished it at a hospital in England.

Writers generally were enthusiastic about having their books in the series. Thousands of servicemen wrote authors to convey appreciation of particular books. H. Allen Smith received over 5,000 letters. Her ASE novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn generated for Betty Smith ten times more mail than the novel inspired from civilian readers. Though ill, Willa Cather scrupulously answered the mail she received from enlisted men; and she wrote the parents of those killed or wounded. Howard Fast overseas was greeted eagerly by readers of his ASEs. A homesick teenager thanked Erskine Caldwell for a novel in which he seemed to know every scene and all the people. A G.I. informed Helen MacInnes that her ASE novel While Still We Live taught him to enjoy reading. He earned a Ph.D. after the war and dedicated his dissertation to MacInnes. Irving Stone had letters from servicemen stating his ASEs were the first books they ever finished.

Such tributes underscore two great accomplishments of the ASE program, helping soldiers and sailors pass the time and cope with bad times, and encouraging many to develop the liberating habit of reading.. Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic, October 11, 1943, speculated that ASEs might even expand the book market “by spreading the habit of reading books.” Irving Stone called ASEs “one of the most significant accomplishments of our war effort.” Wallace Stegner observed, “I give the original idea my gratitude and my applause. I think it did something important.”

Collecting ASEs, a labor of sentimental nostalgia for veterans, is also a labor of great frustration due to their extreme rarity. Paul H. North, Jr. in American Book Collector, March 14, 1964, called them “the incunabula of the American ‘paperback revolution.’” According to North, “Of the 1,322 books issued, the first 100 are very scarce, the next 900 are scarce, and the last 300 very, very scarce.” The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and a few other institutions are reported to have complete sets. Matthew J. Bruccoli wrote about his pursuit of ASEs in bookstores, junk shops, etc. He wrote, “I never hit the mother lode, although for a long time I was convinced that somewhere I would find a warehouse full of them. I still fantasize that there are Quonset huts filled with them on Pacific atolls.” Could be. There were tons of them at Pearl Harbor.

After World War II and the Korean War, tens of thousands of returning veterans, men and women, attended college on the G.I. Bill. Count me among them. ASEs were a significant factor in this rush to learning. Books read aboard ships or landing crafts or beachheads or hurry-up-and wait lines endowed many with the permanent impulse to keep learning, to keep reading. Thank you, Armed Services Editions, may you never be needed again.