Letters Home – From a WWII B-17 Crewman

During World War II, letters from home helped increase the morale of our country’s soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting around the world. The amount of mail crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans each day was remarkable. In 1945, nearly three billion letters were exchanged between service members and friends and family.1 “Mail call” was one of the most cherished rituals of the military serving abroad. I can personally attest to this fact recalling the exhilaration of “mail call” when it was announced on the ship’s 1MC system during my twenty-two years in the U.S. Navy.

The process of sending a letter home from the front in World War II was quite interesting. First, letters were reviewed, censored and subsequently stamped “Passed by Army Examiner”. Military commanders wanted to ensure that no useful information would fall into enemy hands should mail be intercepted. In particular, censors checked that no geographic location or troop strength was noted in letters heading home. Censors would either physically cut out sentences or redact portions of the letters with heavy ink. 

In World War II, the United States used the Victory Mail (V-Mail) system modeled after the British Airgraph service partnering with Eastman Kodak. Letters home from troops were called “V-Mail”. Following the censor review, letters were microfilmed and then transported to the states. Once stateside, the microfilmed letters were printed and delivered to their addressees. By ship, mail could take up to a month or more to be delivered. However, V-Mail delivery typically took twelve days or less using aircraft. Here’s a quote from the U.S. Postmaster General showing how critical mail was for morale during World War II.

The Post Office, War, and Navy departments realize fully that frequent and rapid communication with parents, associates, and other loved ones strengthens fortitude, enlivens patriotism, makes loneliness endurable, and inspires to even greater devotion the men and women who are carrying on our fights far from home and from friends.

1942 Annual Report of the U.S. Postmaster General

Letters Home From My Uncle Bob

SSGT George Robert Spaulding (my Uncle Bob) was a radio operator and aerial gunner aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. He was assigned to the 301st Bombardment Group, 419th Bomb Squadron. He flew 50 combat missions, totaling over 240 hours with the Eighth Air Force out of England, Fifteenth Air Force out of Italy and the Twelfth Air Force out of North Africa. My Uncle Bob’s (1920-1979) story is like many others of the greatest generation – a story of sacrifice, heroism and love of country. 

B-17 Avenger crew in North Africa (1943)
(SSGT Bob Spaulding in front row, 2nd from left)

Recently, my cousin George Spaulding (SSGT Bob Spaulding’s son) gave me copies of some of the letters his father (my Uncle Bob) wrote home to his parents George and Eva Spaulding (my grandparents) during World War II. Here are some excerpts from those letters which give a glimpse to what life was like for a young man to be fighting a war so far away from home:

May 15, 1942

I want to take this page to tell you that I hadn’t forgotten you on Mother’s Day. You have been my guidance and help as long as I have been on this good earth. I am so happy and proud of you, Mom that I could shout and tell the whole world about it, only I can’t do that because I am supposed to me a man. So I just cheer inside. When I get blue, I think of you at home and then I know that I am here for a reason. And I will make you proud of me dear Mom.

August 25, 1942

God only knows when this letter will reach you. For it must go quite some distance. Two nights ago, I had my first air raid experience. About 11:00pm, the whistle blew and then we heard the drone of the plane as it came nearer and nearer. Then there was a terrific explosion and the earth shook beneath our feet. Now that the moon is full, we look out for Jerry almost anytime.  

NOTE: “Jerry” was an allied nickname for the German military used in World War II.

December 7, 1942

I am wondering just what you and the family are doing on this day just one year from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Do you remember? Here we are sitting under the wings of Gibraltar and it is so warm that I am sweating in my shirtsleeves standing here. I had my first orange and saw my first lights burning in quite some time when I arrived here. I do wish that I knew where we were going, but that cannot be divulged – yet. The first thing that I want when I get home is a nice steak dinner with French fried potatoes and a nice piece of pie for dessert, and oh, lots and lots of fresh milk. I miss all those things, but I haven’t forgotten them.

May 26, 1943

Now it can be told. Finally, I can tell you of some of our experiences during the African Campaign. We arrived here about a week after the initial assault. We had no ground men at all so we loaded fuel, bombs and ammunition by ourselves and then flew missions almost every day. I flew the “Daisy Chain” eleven times during the campaign which was something in itself. 

We operated from Oran for almost a month and then moved down on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was nice there, warm during the days and cool at night. But Jerry’s visits were frequent and it made sleeping hard. The feeling one gains when you here that horrifying screams of those planes diving down on you. And then when they released those bombs, you can hear the coming straight for you and then the whole earth seems to tremble. But we continued on operating without delay hitting Gabes, Souse, Sfax, Tunis, Bizerta, La Gaulette and all of Jerry’s airdomes.

When the heat and dust became too much, we moved north to a small town named Ain M’Lila. There we hit Kasserine Pass when the Americans were pushing them back through and continued our onslaught on docks and shipping. We moved further north hitting Bizerta, Tunis and went on shipping sweeps over the sea bombing and destroying Jerry’s supply lines. With the fall of Tunis and Bizerta we were able to view our work. Hundreds of planes were found and captured in fields which had been damaged by our fragmentation bombs. In the harbors lay plenty of ships that were sunk and could not be moved. All of the docks and warehouses of any military importance were leveled. Our onslaught continues. I think this letter may be able to clear up a lot of things that I couldn’t tell you before. 

June 5, 1943

At last we know when we will be home. And some of the boys left the first of the month. Two of them were sleeping in our tent. And one of them said that he would call you when he arrived home. That way you can ask questions and the answers will not be censored. I may be home soon. My hospitalization in England has slowed my leaving considerably. But it can only be a matter of weeks now before we will be together again. 

Distinguished Flying Cross

In 1943, my Uncle Bob was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic actions during World War II. The Distinguished Flying Cross is a military decoration awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces who “distinguish themselves by single acts of heroism  or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.” Here’s the story from that day:

SSGT Bob Spaulding onboard B-17 Bomber (1943)

Staff Sergeant Bob Spaulding was on a bombing mission over Foggia, Italy when his aircraft began taking fire from enemy fighters. The waist gunner on his aircraft was struck in the back by a 20-mm shell which also knocked the charging handle off his gun. Staff Sergeant Spaulding quickly responded from the radio compartment to the aid of his fellow airman. He provided first aid treatment and carried the wounded gunner to the radio room. Staff Sergeant Spaulding then took position on the .30 caliber machine gun. He ingeniously fashioned a new charging handle from an empty shell casing and engaged the enemy aircraft until his B-17 was out of danger. 

By the end of 1943, Staff Sergeant Spaulding had flow 50 combat missions and was then transferred back to United States to be an instructor for future aircrews. In 1944, my Uncle Bob was interviewed by the local newspaper in Sioux City, Iowa. In the interview, he recalled one of his most challenging missions:

The toughest one was a mission over Laspezia, Italy. Our intelligence had reported two German battleships in the harbor and when the formation of our B-17’s arrived we found out they weren’t kidding. The flak those 16-inch guns on the battlewagons tossed at us was so thick you could walk on it. All our aircraft took a beating and on the way back, five fighters came in and shot down a few cripples at the tail end of the formation. The mission was successful, though. The 2,000 pound bombs we dropped caused both battleships to nose-dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean.

SSGT Bob Spaulding, The Flying Sioux Newspaper Interview (1944)

You can read more about the remarkable life of my Uncle Bob (Staff Sergeant Bob Spaulding, U.S. Army Air Corps) and others in my family who courageously served in each of America’s conflicts going back to the American Revolution in my book Fortitude: Preserving 400 Years of an American Family’s Faith, Patriotism, Grit and Determination.


  1. Hoover Institution, Letters Home: Wartime Correspondence from the Natale Bellantoni Papers,https://histories.hoover.org/letters-home/ (accessed July 9, 2022). 

Published by Dale Spaulding

Family historian and author of Fortitude.

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