For years during World War II, U.S. Army soldier Harry Chrisman sketched one comic after another, sending them home from his wartime posts in the Pacific by victory mail to either his wife or, in some cases, his mother.
His cartoon chronicles began Nov. 29, 1942, while in basic training with a quick letter to his “Dear Wife” Catherine, who served in the Woman’s Army Corps.
“I cannot say much except to tell you I am well, alive and like my new home fine,” he wrote above a cartoon of him in a tent underneath palm trees on an island in the Pacific. “I cannot write as often as before but don’t let that keep you from writing. My best love always to you and regards to all at home. Use address above to reach me. Love and kisses, Harry!”
From that drawing to his final one in 1945 in which he drew a self-portrait of a “broken down dogface ready for discharge,” he had mailed home hundreds of single-panel comics that chronicle the war from the perspective of a soldier rising up the military ranks from private to sergeant.
Nearly 200 of Chrisman’s comics have now been published in a book by his adoptive daughter, a Winter Texan from Arvada, Colo., who volunteers at Sea Turtle Inc. and spends part of every year on South Padre Island.
“Harry was 37 when he enlisted so he was older than a lot of the others,” said Sheryl Jones, the author of “This is the Army, Mr. Jones!: The WWII V-Mail Cartoons of Harry E. Chrisman.”
“There’s one cartoon where an officer said, ‘Could you please not tell people how old you are, because they’ll think you know more than I do.’ The officer was younger.”
For Chrisman — who died in 1993 — and Jones, who inherited the rights to the comics, efforts to secure a publication deal lasted for decades before Hellgate Press decided to publish the comics in a series of volumes.
Jones plans to publish two more volumes of Chrisman’s wartime correspondence, and each book will be named after a popular song from that era, just like the first one, which was named after an American marching song.
Book two will emphasize his love messages, and the third book will focus on the political cartoons, the author said.
“I think you’ll find it helpful to read it all the way through, because (his v-mails) shows you what Army life was like,” Jones said.
During WWII, victory mails, or v-mails, were a cutting-edge microfilming process used by the military to minimize the bulk of letters from the troops. Soldiers would write a letter on a form, which was photographed. The microfilm — rather than the original letters — was transported by plane, and then the images were printed at their destination, making the transfer of bulk mail efficient for the military.
“They could mail on a plane a hundred thousand of these instead of a thousand letters. The letters were coming from Honolulu and the Pacific,” Jones said. “They quit doing the v-mail service in mid-1945.”
Interestingly, Chrisman’s cartooning had a way of getting past Army censors, who reviewed all mail. Because the comics were funny, they got stamps of approval even as they sometimes mocked the military brass.
That was the case for Jones’ favorite of Chrisman’s comic v-mails: In “Song of the Engineers,” Chrisman mocked a commanding officer who had ordered Army engineers to deepen a latrine trench on an atoll island so that visiting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would not see the heads of soldiers popping up from the pit. The high water table on the island meant that deepening the latrine would be a mistake, as the engineers argued to the officer, who insisted on doing it despite the warnings.
As a result, the heavy grader dug into the atoll and sank into the mire. Two tanks and another grader were required to recover the sunken grader, Jones said. In the end, the troops put up a curtain to block Roosevelt’s view of the latrine, and Chrisman’s comic made it past the censors, getting a stamp from the U.S. Army Examiner despite the mockery.
After his service in the military, Chrisman went on to become a newspaper journalist and an author and editor of more than 14 books.
“Boy, he could do just about anything. He could write or entertain. He was a delightful man and absolutely the apple of Catherine’s eye. She never wanted anything else but to be married to Harry,” Jones said. “And this story will come out in the next book to be released in November.”