A Book for D-Day

June 6th will mark the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, when a combined American and British force landed in Normandy to liberate France from the Nazis.  One of the soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach that day was a recent NYU graduate named David Goldsmith.  Just turned 22, David was in the Signal Corps.  He adored sports of every kind, no matter how obscure.  In college he had covered NYU teams for the University newspaper. His articles had been published in the New York Sun.  After the war, David would join the family business because at the time a nice Jewish boy in search of a wife did not become a sports journalist. The business was Empire Shield.  David’s father, Julius, had hoped to spin gold from bodily fluids.  In 1924, Julius had patented a “catamenial garment.” The patent description boasted that the design could also be used as baby pants. The problem was that Kotex had launched in 1920.  Julius then turned to dress shields, an item that protected dresses from underarm perspiration. However, the formulation for modern antiperspirants was patented in 1941. Then it was back to baby pants until Pampers in their current form were introduced in the 1970’s. Licked by disposables again.  In theory there’s always demand for a product that absorbs human secretions.  The reality is that someone can build a better mousetrap.  At least Empire Shield had the virtue of being green before it became fashionable.

David was my father, but I know little about his war.  I knew he had a small shrapnel wound.  I knew he had been in a foxhole.  I knew that he had enlisted rather than wait to be drafted to improve his pick of assignments.  David never showed any sign of PTSD even when I played with toy guns or pretended our car was being chased by Germans.  He sometimes recited ditties about army life, such as this one:

The infantry for bravery,

The cavalry for grit,

The medical corps for slavery,

The signal corps for s—t.

He also had his own version of the old World War I song “Mademoiselle from Armentières“:

Mademoiselle she milked a cow, parley vous,

Mademoiselle she milked a cow, parley vous,

She pulled the tail instead of the teat

And all that came out was a bucket of s—t,

Inky, Dinky, parley vous.

The policy of the 1950’s and 60’s was don’t ask, don’t tell: war experiences, sexuality, frustrations of homemakers.  It’s as if people lived double lives, an unruffled surface and a true life buried beneath.  That boil burst by the 1970’s, a D-Decade of another sort that liberated folks to become who they were.

Recently I learned one additional fact about David’s war.  I learned that David most likely landed on Normandy Beach with an Armed Services Edition in his pocket.  General Eisenhower wanted ASE’s distributed to each person in the marshaling area.  My father loved to read, and the small pocket book must have provided him with a helpful distraction.

In September, 1940, following the fall of France, the United States began its first peacetime draft.  Military authorities were anxious to maintain morale.  Studies showed that during their downtime, trainees preferred solitary pastimes such as reading and letter-writing to sports and poker games.  The American Library Association spearheaded the largest book drive in American history.  It collected ten million books in 1942.  This laudable effort had the same infirmity of all book drives and one important additional one.  They say that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.  Too often, however, one man’s garbage is also everyone else’s garbage.  Many books were also topically unsuitable.  Books about knitting or 1870 theology just did not cut it.  Most importantly, paperback books had only just entered their infancy.  Toting bulky hardcovers was simply impractical in wartime.

The Council of Books in Wartime, composed of booksellers, publishers, authors, and librarians, created special armed service editions.  The ASE’s were printed on extremely thin paper.  They were sized to fit pants and shirt pockets.  The larger version was 6.5” x 4.5.”  The smaller was 5.5” x 3 3/8”.  No ASE was thicker than ¾”. To save paper, two ASE’s were printed on  each page and then the pages were cut in two.  ASE’s were bound on the short side and the text was printed in two columns for easier reading. The ASE’s were sold to the government at cost plus a one cent royalty divided between the author and the original publisher.

With one exception, there was no censorship. The Council selected titles with an eye toward variety: bestsellers, classics, biography, history, poetry, short stories, and technical books.  Books that slurred ethic groups were ineligible.  This was not the time for divisiveness. Even books that were “banned in Boston” on account of their raciness found their way into ASE’s to the enjoyment of the troops.  The one exception:  during the 1944 election, Republicans (who else?) sponsored a law that barred distribution of books paid for in government funds that contained political argument or propaganda.  The law was so vague that the Council pushed back, and the statute was modified.  The freedom to read represented by the ASE’s contrasted starkly with Nazi book-burnings.

In all, over 120 million ASE’s were printed consisting of more than 1300 titles.

The first ASE:  The Education of Hyman Kaplan.

The most beloved: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

Biggest beneficiary: The Great Gatsby. The now classic novel had had a tepid reception when it was first published in 1925.  The ASE version introduced Fitzgerald’s novel to new readers and made it part of the American canon.

Second biggest beneficiary: The paperback book industry. As a result of paper rationing, the industry exploded.  In 1939, fewer than 200,000 paperback books had been sold in the United States.  By 1943, the number had soared to over 40 million.

For more: Molly Guptill Manning, When Books Went To War (2014).

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