Since I started this project, I have been interested in how a letter from a mother in a small upstate New York village can find its way across the ocean and land on the lap of her son in a camp in North Africa or some other theater of war. It strikes me as miraculous.
I emailed the Military Postal History Society to find out and got a terrific reply from Dave Kent, editor of the Military Postal History Society Bulletin. Below is his reply.
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During World War II the Army and the Post Office Department realized that mail was very important to the morale of servicemen and devoted a great deal of effort to it. The Army developed its own internal postal system in 1940 and when sending troops overseas, created post offices for each major unit.
These were known as Army Post Offices, or APOs, and each was numbered, partly to keep the location secret, and partly because they realized that many of them would move around a lot. Mail addressed to APOs in Europe was routed through the post office in New York City. Officially, the address would be, for example, APO 123, care of Postmaster, New York, N.Y., although eventually this was often abbreviated APO 123 New York.
Through most of the war, mail to Europe was sent to an Army sorting center in Sutton Coldfield, England, where they kept a current list of where each APO was located.
The Army was then responsible for routing the mail onward to the individual units. At times it could take weeks for a letter to reach a soldier. Mail coming back was handled similarly, but in reverse: the unit mail clerk would postmark it and send it back to the rear area, and eventually it got back to the States, where it was turned over to the Post Office Department for delivery.
Incidentally, there were similar routing centers in San Francisco, for soldiers and sailors in the Pacific, Seattle (Alaska), New Orleans and Miami (the Caribbean), and even Portland, Maine, for sailors guarding convoys in the North Atlantic.
The volume of mail eventually grew so huge that the post office in Manhattan could no longer handle it, and they built a sorting facility on Long Island called the Postal Concentration Center. I think it’s long gone, but the same type of system is still in use, and the old APO numbers have been merged into the modern ZIP Code system.
Today if you wanted to mail a letter to a solder in Afghanistan, you would address it, for example, “APO AE [Armed Forces Europe/Middle East] 09312,” and a postal sorting clerk would know to route the letter to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where it would be turned over to the Air Force to be flown to Afghanistan.
His letter coming back would come into McGuire and there be turned over to the Postal Service for delivery.
There is a book that outlines some of this history, titled simply Post Office, New York, N.Y., by Albert Goldman, who was the postmaster in New York during the war. Of course it concentrates mostly on what was going on in New York rather than overseas.
If the original envelopes from your uncle’s correspondence were still there, you could see a lot of this history on them, but unfortunately some families throw the envelopes away. Our organization is usually more interested in the envelopes and postal markings than the contents of the letters, if they are still there.
Mailing envelopes from overseas would also show a censorship marking, for as you have discovered, mail was censored. You gave your letter, unsealed, to the censor, usually one of the officers in the unit, and he would read it first to make sure you weren’t sending any classified information. He would then seal the letter, add the censorship stamp, and give it to the postal clerk for postmarking and forwarding.