“With books in their pockets”: Armed Service Editions at Special Collections

By Nancy Noble, Archivist/Cataloger at the Maine Historical Society

Selection of Armed Services Edition books in Special Collections

It is not often I get to be on the other side of the research desk. For the past 20 years I’ve been tucked away at the garden level of the Maine Historical Society’s Alida Carroll and John Marshall Brown Library, happily cataloging and hoping that my catalog records will assist a future patron. But recently I got my chance to be a researcher at Bowdoin College Library’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives.

The research quest that brought me to Bowdoin began with my work cataloging the World War I pamphlet collection at the Maine Historical Society. Much of that collection is propaganda, but also included are letters from the American Library Association’s War Service Committee, located at the Library of Congress, asking for librarians to go into the Library War Service, and for book donations to establish libraries for the soldiers. I found this fascinating, so when I came across the book When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, I was hooked. Author Molly Guptill Manning’s amazing work introduced me to the Armed Service Editions, books which soldiers could take into the trenches during World War II. As Manning describes, “with books in their pockets, American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked to the Rhine, and liberated Europe; they hopped from one deadly Pacific Island to the next, from the shores of Australia to the backyard of Japan. Some read to remember the home they had left behind, others to forget the hell that surrounded them.” Wow! I wondered if I could find any of these books in Maine, which is how I ended up at Bowdoin’s Special Collections one beautiful October morning. Special Collections has a lovely collection of these Armed Services Editions. I was eager to see them and find out their condition (did they actually see action?) and how they ended up at Bowdoin College.

But first, what exactly are Armed Services Editions? Prior to World War II, soldiers would receive donated books through the Victory Book Campaign.  Beginning in the early 1940s, the Council on Books in Wartime began printing ASEs (as they were known) specifically for the soldiers. ASEs were among the first mass produced paperbacks ever created. The books needed to be lightweight and small enough to carry. Two sizes were printed– a larger edition, which would fit into a pocket of a soldier’s pants, and a smaller edition, which would fit into a breast pocket. Overall, 123 million ASEs were published, compared to about 18 million books donated through the Victory Book Campaign.

Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” as issued for the armed services

So, back to the editions in Special Collections, which owns at least 19 ASEs in both sizes and of great variety of titles, both fiction and non-fiction. There is a western novel (Trail’s End, by William MacLeod Raine), classics (by James Thurber, Somerset Maugham, C.S. Forester, Henry James, and even Plato), a reference book (Webster’s New Handy Dictionary), biographies (about George Washington Carver and Adolf Hitler, an interesting pair to be represented in this collection), and historical and maritime fiction. I was especially interested in the books by Maine authors: Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, and Kenneth Robert’s The Lively Lady. It made sense that these books would be found in this collection, especially Henry Beston, who received an honorary degree from Bowdoin. (Other Maine authors can be found in Armed Services Editions, including books by Mary Ellen Chase, Katharine S. White, Ben Ames Williams, Louis Dickinson Rich, and Gladys Hasty Carroll). But how did the other editions come to exist in Special Collections?

The owner of many of these books left a wonderful clue by inscribing his name: David L. Chewning. Fortunately, this is an unusual name, so I could find, thanks to Google, his obituary (at least, who I think is the same person). According to the article, Major David Lee Chewning, of McLean, Virginia, who died in 2014 at the age of 94, “served as a communications officer in the Army Air Corps (later U.S. Air Force) during World War II.” He later served in various roles in government and economic development programs. I was hoping to discover that he attended Bowdoin College, which would explain how his books ended up in Special Collections, but instead I learned that he graduated from Emory University with a degree in journalism. All the books except for two were gifts of Richard Harwell, the former Librarian of Bowdoin College from 1961 to 1968. Perhaps Harwell knew David L. Chewning? While it is tempting to speculate, it is possible we will never know the full story behind these Armed Service Editions.

The condition of the volumes varies, some are a bit worn so you could imagine that they did see some action. Mostly I was delighted to be able to personally touch these books – for anyone who believes in the power of the written word to change lives, learning about this fascinating aspect of fighting wars with books is sure to move you.

To learn more about the Armed Services Editions at Bowdoin College or other special collections, please contact scaref@bowdoin.edu.

2 thoughts on ““With books in their pockets”: Armed Service Editions at Special Collections

  1. paul daniels

    I am a collector of these books and have about 300 duplicates. Could have some trading?
    high regards
    Paul

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