Bamboo Mailer and a Watercolor Painting

Object Spotlight
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Bamboo mailing container

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"3rd Marine Division Post Office in the Field" watercolor by Pvt. Paul Ellsworth, 1943

Sometimes people make do with wrapping materials at hand. Sometimes the material makes a statement and is part of the message. The hollow segment of bamboo used by Captain E. L. Frase was both readily available and a symbol for his mail to the Chief Post Office Inspector J. M. Donaldson in Washington, DC.

The two-foot length of bamboo enclosed a watercolor of the 3rd Marine Division field post office painted by combat artist Private Paul Ellsworth. Marine Postal Officer Frase added a letter dated December 14, 1943 to the 2-inch diameter bamboo tube. Frase’s letter to the Postal Inspection Service chief expressed his hope “that you will like this painting and will find a place for it with other war souvenirs.” The package conveyed the look and feel of the South Pacific post office and served, in part, as collegial update. It also made a gesture in appreciation for “the service you are giving us out here.” Furnishing mail services to US armed forces serving around the globe during World War II took the coordinated efforts of the Post Office, War, and Navy Departments.

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Major Elva L. Frase at the 3rd Marine Division post office & V-Mail facility, 1943. Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Many of the military service members with postal duties during the war were former civilian Post Office Department employees. They brought ready familiarity with mail handling tasks and regulations. Others were new to the job. This included Private Ellsworth who worked as a post office clerk for V-Mail processing, among other assignments in his career with the Marine Corps (Crane 18). In his painting, Ellsworth captured the activities of clerks laboring shirtless in the close, dark interior of the 3rd Marine postal facility. Frase’s letter gives the officials in Washington, DC a tour of the tropical post office: “On the left looking between two trees is the V-Mail Station, all enclosed with bamboo poles, covered with canvas. The left center shows the outgoing section, and the rear of that, the directory. The upright green poles in the right rear shows the registry enclosure, with the incoming first class section in front of it.”

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3rd Marine Division post office & V-Mail facility, c. 1943. Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service

They were operating registered and first class mail services half-way around the world (as of mid December 1943, the 3rd Marine Division was stationed at Guadalcanal and was concluding operations at Bougainville). Some forms of mail service worked better than others in the extreme conditions: Captain Frase praised V-Mail for its speed and aiding airmail service with the use of 16 mm microfilm and lightweight stationery. He boasted that “During combat, we were able to deliver mail four days after landing was made. Mail was delivered under fire to the men in the fox holes.” But he recognized their limits as well, reporting that: “Unfortunately we are not able to deliver Christmas parcels to the front, but it is expected all will have their parcels on or before Christmas Day.”