Some of the more interesting — and seldom understood — bits of WWII ephemera are actually hybrids, part home front, part militaria. The Armed Services Editions (ASE) was a series of 1,322 paperback books totaling more than 122 million copies, printed between 1943-1946. The series was conceived, edited, and printed by the Council on Books in Wartime, a non-profit organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and others. The Council saw the opportunity to have a positive impact on the well-being of our men and women in uniform by forming an organization to print and distribute books, and to communicate why we were fighting. They chose as their motto ““Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas.”
Originally, the Council on Books promoted a book collection effort, but this proved impractical. Far too much time was spent collecting and sorting books. Publishers and authors agreed to accept just 1/2 cent per copy, and the books were sold to the military at cost for distribution to men and women in uniform free of charge.
Although paperback books had been around for several centuries, they were by no means a mainstay in the publishing industry. In December, 1941, paperbacks were a very small percentage of total books published, and in general they were only used for cheap thrillers, such as westerns, detective stories, and science fiction novels. “Fine” literature was published almost exclusively in hardback editions. With the ASE series, that began to change.
Armed Services Editions are readily distinguishable from other paperbacks. First, they are not bound on the long edge of the book, like modern paperbacks, but on the narrower end. This had the added benefit that they could be carried in a dungaree pocket, but the binding wouldn’t break when the soldier sat down. The cover of each book was clearly marked with “Armed Services Edition” in a 1-inch circle. Most of the books were marked “This is the complete book - not a digest.” Most covers showed a small representation of the book jacket that appeared on the original hardcover release. Inside, each page held two columns of type, for easier reading. Several sizes were printed, including 3.875 inches x 5.5 inches, and 4.5 inches x 6.625 inches.
At first, a set of 30 titles were selected each month, with 10,000 sets copies designated for the navy and 40,000 for the Army. Special shipments were directed to American troops in German POW camps. By 1944, all branches of the service were much bigger, and every month 42 books were selected and more than 155,000 sets were printed. Shipments were eagerly awaited by the troops. When demand was high, books were sometimes ripped in half. Some troops read the second half first, and then swapped for the first half of the book. Books that were considered well written and educational were selected, although not exclusively so. Fiction, history, science, politics, and poetry were also were selected. Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had four of his books in the series. Pyle didn’t survive to see his last book printed as an ASE. He was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on Ieshima shortly before Home Country appeared as the last book in the ASE series.
Armed Services Editions deserve a place on the shelves of militaria collectors, and especially in the footlockers of WWII re-enactors. They are sure to spark conversation. ASE books can be hard to find. They are usually filed on bookstore shelves by genre. For example, Tom Sawyer will be found in the classic fiction section, and The War of the Worlds will be found in the science fiction section. Few bookstore owners are familiar with the ASE series. Bookstore catalogs seldom record whether books are in the ASE series, and a question to the owner is usually met with a blank stare. As a result, collectors must resort to luck, perseverance or eBay to find them.
A small library of ASE books related to WWII could be collected, and would include several by Ernie Pyle, “Sad Sack” (the cartoon), “Miracles of Military Medicine”, “Dynamite Cargo: The Convoy Gets to Russia”, “Moscow Dateline 1941-1943”, “Bushido: The Anatomy of Terror”, and others.
Most ASE book prices are low, from $3-$15. Science fiction and fantasy books such a “The War of the Worlds”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Tarzan of the Apes”, and the “Adventures of Superman” are difficult to find in good condition, and are more expensive. Expect to pay $20-$50 for these. Although “Webster’s New Handy Dictionary” was reprinted multiple times, copies are very rare, as the dictionaries were simply read to pieces.
Virtually every genre of book was represented in the series: mysteries, biographies, humor, westerns, detective novels, nature books, history, science, self-help, popular fiction and classics. The series even included poetry. One measure of the popularity of the ASEs is the number of letters received by the authors. H. Allen Smith, a humorist who saw three of his books printed in Armed Services Editions (two of them printed twice), estimated that he may have received as many as 10,000 letters in response to the ASE editions.
One shipment, scheduled for April, 1944, was intentionally delayed so that it could be handed out just before ships were boarded for the D-Day invasion. That’s how thousands of copies of “Tom Sawyer” happened to go ashore on D-Day. Soldiers were faced with deciding between extra socks, candy bars and books. The books often won. The soldiers and sailors preparing for the invasion of France found room for thousands of copies of “Tom Sawyer”, “Paul Revere” and the “World He Lived In”, by Esther Forbes, and “The Robe”, by Lloyd C. Douglas. Some of the books were read aboard landing craft and destroyers as they crossed the channel, and aboard airplanes, presumably to distract airmen from what was coming.
There are relatively few of these books still around. They were simply read to pieces. Although more than 123 million books were printed and distributed between 1943 and 1947, they are hard to find, although not always expensive.
In prewar America, paperback books struggled for a foothold. In part as a result of the ASE series, book publishing industry would never be the same. By 1950, in part through the Armed Services Editions, paperbacks had become a mainstay in the book industry, and were no longer reserved for cheap thrillers.
Millions of uniformed men and women, who may not have read a book in years, eagerly waited each new shipment. Among the most popular titles were books by Jack London, such as “The Call of the Wild”, and “Tarzan”, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ninety-nine books that were particularly well-received were issued more than once, and “Webster’s New Handy Dictionary”` was reprinted four times. Although most of the books were reprints of popular hardback books, the series included several first editions.
Because ASE books were so eagerly sought after, and because they passed from hand to hand in battlefield conditions, most copies did not survive the war. But with diligence, they can be found, and they represent an affordable collection opportunity.
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