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At the beginning of the 20th century, dreams of flying morphed from science fiction to reality. From the Wright Brothers’ early expeditions in Kitty Hawk, to the World War I fighter pilots in Europe, the airplane generated excitement around the world. Yet despite intense interest and publicity, the airplane’s practicality was still in doubt. Although people were enthralled at the prospect of aviation, most had no intentions of leaving the ground. Luckily, the fears surrounding aviation were quelled by an unlikely government agency, the United States Postal Service.

De Havilland Plane, one of the first used to carry mail (28-MS-1C-63)

Early aviation was not for the faint of heart. Most aircraft did not have enclosed cabins, which subjected pilots to freezing temperatures and treacherous winds. Planes were not always equipped with wheel brakes, and small engines often led to disastrous results. Many pilots were forced to abandon ship while many others tragically went down with their planes. Serviceable runways were scarce and established airports with lights and radio services were even scarcer. These conditions made air travel, especially commercial flight, a dubious agenda.

Yet the prospects of flying were too great to ignore. Backed by government funding, the Post Office began an experimental air mail route from Washington D.C. to New York in 1918.  Additional funding was given to improve navigational aids, radio communication, and provide weather information. Through the 1920s, the original mail route expanded to incorporate “feeder routes” that connected major cities across the country.

Aerial view over Washington Monument (28-MS-1A-55)

The Post Office’s role in aviation changed when Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1925. The Air Mail Act, also known as the Kelly Act, mandated that the Post Office contract out their air mail routes to independent companies. Senator Clyde Kelly, the bill’s congressional voice, hoped that airlines would reinvest profits earned from carrying air mail into establishing passenger services.

Many companies bid for the right to fly the mail.  By 1929, there were 44 separate companies flying 53 different routes. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation, for example, won the bidding for Contract Air Mail Route 2 from Chicago to St. Louis. Robertson’s chief pilot was a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh. During his time with the post office, Lindbergh was forced to bail out of his plane on two separate occasions.

Charles A. Lindbergh Loading Cargo, Lambert Field, St. Louis, 1925

Yet the large number of small mail carriers was not profitable and companies did not reinvest in commercial aviation services. In 1930 Congress passed another Air Mail Act.  The act gave the postmaster general the authority to grant contracts to large, well financed companies. Small companies morphed into giant corporations. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation merged with other small companies to form what would eventually become American Airlines. These giant conglomerates created more efficient mail delivery systems, and for the first time, efficient passenger services.

Air mail display at the Post Office in Manteca, California. Dec. 15, 1939. (28-MS-3B-5)

Yet the formation of huge airline companies raised suspicions. A scandal mounted in 1934 when the former Postmaster General, Walter Brown, was accused of colluding with the airlines. Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that Brown, a Republican, created a monopoly within the aviation industry and favored Republican airline owners. As a result of the scandal, all government contracts were cancelled, and, for a brief time the United States Army carried the air mail.

The Army, however, was ill-equipped to carry the mail. Planes were unable to fly in inclement weather and many inexperienced pilots died in the attempt. The Army’s mail delivery system was short-lived.  Only a few months after the scandal, contracts were returned to the large airlines.

Air mail plane on display in Times Square, New York (28-MS-1C-115)

Had it not been for the Post Office and early air mail services, the commercial industry would not have prospered in the manner that it did. Government subsidies allowed airlines to build a customer base and gradually incorporate passenger service. The decision to invest in large airlines had lasting effects on the commercial airline industry. Furthermore, the consistency in which the air mail was delivered helped assure the public that flying was safe. During a time when imaginations soared, the Post Office was soaring along side.

The photos above all come from Record Group 28-MS. Records of the Post Office Department of Mail Services. In addition to the pictures from the Air Mail services, the Still Pictures division has a large number of photos pertaining to individual Post Offices, Post Office artwork, and Post Office construction.  The Motion Picture division has recently digitized a film from 1938 celebrating the 20th anniversary of air mail which can be viewed here.



For the release of a new short film about Austria’s Lipizzan horses, Universal-International, the maker of Universal News, staged a special publicity event at a drive-in movie theater.

From the release sheet:

“HORSE NIGHT” AT THE DRIVE-IN, CALIFORNIA – “Horse night” at the drive-in. An enterprising theatre manager sets up oats and rye on the rocks and invites the equine crowd in for a special showing of Universal-International’s short subject, “Stallions On Parade.”

horsedrivein-3

Movie-goers enjoy the drive-in with their horses.

You may view the complete newsreel, which includes stories about a deadly typhoon in Japan, daring parachuting tricks in France, the opening of the World Series, and others, on our YouTube Channel.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.

A Mitzvah to Serve

by on September 23, 2014


This post was written by Marcia Kolko. Marcia is an archives specialist in the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch.

September represents one of the holiest months of the year for members of the Jewish faith, as it includes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is worth noting then, that the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch has within its holdings a 1969, color film entitled A Mitzvah to Serve.

Wikipedia will tell you that the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is often defined as a moral deed performed as a religious duty. A more cultural description of the word might be an act of human kindness. Either use of the word is apparent in this orientation film which presents the meaning, responsibilities and value of Jewish lay leadership in the armed forces. Scenes examine how American Jewish servicemen participated in (and, in the absence of a rabbi, often led) holiday and weekly religious services in Vietnam, as well as other postings around the globe. According to documents in the production file, the film was intended to recruit servicemen of all faiths to participate in the lay leadership program, as well as serve as a resource for Christian Chaplains who had “the prime responsibility for the spiritual life of Jewish soldiers.”

mitzvah-3

A Jewish lay leadership volunteer conducts a religious service for soldiers stationed overseas. (Still from A Mitzvah to Serve.)

In interviews throughout the film, soldiers relate how the services they attended strengthened their Jewish identity and provided a community for them in an otherwise gentile environment. The film’s title A Mitzvah to Serve is undoubtedly making a reference not only to the importance of volunteering for military service, but also to the responsibility and kindness of leading others at a religious gathering in the absence of a rabbi.



Long considered an essential accessory, this week’s featured Universal News story shows us the latest in hat fashions for the 1956-1957 winter season.

From the release sheet:

HAT FASHIONS
In New York, creations of the country’s foremost milliners for the November to January season are previewed. Ranging from chic miniature pillboxes to resplendent toques and turbans, the mood is appropriately festive.

hats-3

 A range of the latest hat fashions are modeled.

You may view the complete reel, which includes stories about Hurricane Flossie, and the death of athlete Babe Didrikson, known as the world’s greatest woman athlete, among others, on our YouTube Channel. The soundtrack for this reel no longer exists.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.



Today’s post was written by Burton Blume, a brand consultant/creative strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. He contacted us last year when we featured footage shot by his father, Lt. Wilbur T. Blume. In part one of this series of posts, Blume traced his father’s story up to when Lt. Blume was assigned the task of producing a film about the training of 340th Bomb Group air crews. In part two, Blume discussed Catch-22 author Joseph Heller’s involvement in the film. In this final installment, Blume looks to the 340th Bomb Group War Diaries for more evidence of the inspiration for Heller’s classic novel. 

The War Diaries

Literary scholars should note that during the time Training During Combat was being produced from July-September 1944, the airmen of the 340th were flying some of their most critical and dangerous missions over targets in northern Italy and southern France. For my father, Joe Heller and the other men of the 340th Bomb Group, this would have been a period of intense exhilaration and fear.

The War Diaries are a series of daily observations about life in the group. Composed by an officer in Group Operations, they are often no longer than a paragraph long and are written in an informal manner. The 57th Bomb Wing Association has made these documents available online.

WTB & Flak Fodder II Crew

Lt. Blume (3rd from left) with the crew of Flak Fodder II.
Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

During the second half of 1944, the War Diary of the 340th Bomb Group provides additional insights that help us understand Col. Cathcart’s PR program and the themes that Heller exploits for satirical effect in Catch-22:

“Squadrons are trying to get as many medals and decorations for their men as possible, and seem to be heroicizing many a routine action in the process. Each unit in the 340th group is trying to raise its bombing efficiency above the other, and the 340th is doing its best to outdistance the other two B-25 groups. Public relations, as a result of Colonel Chapman’s interest, is trying to turn out more pictures and stories on personnel than it ever did before.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, June 10, 1944

Wing PRO, 1st Lt. John W. Dillon, Florida, arrived to analyze and inject some adrenalin as well as converse with Colonel Chapman regarding the PRO situation here in the Group. Principalling [sic] the endeavor will be to boost the Group’s production of PR material several thousand percent, and to attempt equaling the volume of output of other Groups in this wing. If necessary, though far from his preference, the Colonel agreed to permit what he referred to as “Rubber Stamp Stories” so as to meet the desired volume…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 3, 1944

Bombardier’s skills and training were subject to special scrutiny:

Captain Eggers, Group P.I. Officer continues to be pestered by grieved lead bombardiers claiming that their pattern of bombs were not the bombs to overshoot the target etc. But photographs seldom deceive the trained eye and so long it is known what order the boxes bombed in their run over the target, there is little ground for argument…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 7, 1944

Nose_down_B-25

Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

Provisioning the 340th often involved special logistics and negotiating skills:

The Catania Mission returned partially successful with a total of 200 Litres of Assorted beverages for the Enlisted Men’s club and an endless assortment of fresh vegetables including some 1800 eggs for headquarters’ mess…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 13, 1944

As the mission limit was raised, the stress of combat began to show, and some men took their complaints to the CO:

Something entirely new in the way of disciplinary problems cropped up today. The up-cropping is the result of the recent order of this Wing that the men are to fly till they can fly no more. So many of the men having come into combat with a seeming understanding that at fifty they would be entitled to furloughs or rotation back to the States, and later to have the ante raised to 53 and now raised indefinitely find themselves grumbling quite loudly. On the morning of the completion of their 55th mission two gunners and several officers turned to the Squadron C.O. telling him that they thought they had had enough flying and hoped to be taken off combat status. The two gunners are now in the guard house under charges of misbehaving before the enemy. Actually all that was involved was their telling the C.O. their intentions to no longer fly. It is apparent that the Group Commander and Wing Commander are both interested in having the charges pressed if for no other purpose than to have a test case upon which to base further action. Other combat members of the Group have grievously resented this reaction of the Colonel and have lost much of the respect previously held toward him. The matter is now under investigation…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 20, 1944

Blume&Karner_TDC

Filming Training During Combat. Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

Through the following interweaving diary entries that mention Training During Combat, the mission limit being raised and medals being awarded, the imaginary world of Catch-22 begins to come into focus.

“The 340th Group, it appears, will get into the motion picture business to a greater extent than ever before, in the near future. In the past the Group has carried newsreel and combat film cameramen on missions, and much movie footage has also been taken of our personnel on the ground, our planes and installations, but now the Group is to help make an orientation or general information film on the extent of training undergone by air crews while flying combat. The Story and “shooting script” have already been produced by 2nd Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of Oxford, Ohio, commander of the Ninth Combat Camera detachment here, and Tech Sergeant Hickey, of Group Public Relations. The film will be called “Training During Combat” and will show how a replacement crew arrives at the 340th base and continues training throughout an entire tour of combat duty. The project still requires the perusal and approbation of Colonel Chapman, Group Commander, but apparently he will be very happy for the opportunity to “plug” the Group, his organization…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, September 7, 1944

“Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of Ohio and the 9th Combat Camera Detachment of which he was C.O. and which had been with us for some time, moved out lock, stock and barrel, destination Florence. Before leaving he completed his motion picture of the Group. Lt. Blume worked hard and long at this, covering every aspect of this Group from an operational, social and administrative point of view…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, October 8, 1944

“Men with sixty combat missions are no longer automatically placed on rotation to go home. From now on sixty missions merely qualifies a man to appear before the medical Disposition Board and certainly with no assurance that they will be found needy of a rest…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, October 29, 1944

“1st Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of 9th Combat Camera Unit dropped in to see the PRO today and tell him “Training During Combat” was given a favorable review in New York where all combat camera films are sent for processing, review and distribution. The production mentioned was made by Lt. Blume last summer at the 340th group and showed how our crews continue training activities while they are flying combat missions.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, December 26,1944

“A special medal awarding formation was held today for combat crew members who are awaiting orders to go home after finishing their missions. General Knapp made the presentations, as usual.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, December 28, 1944

Set against this background, one can’t help but wonder whether the discrepancy between the PR film’s view of the war and the reality of combat-induced stress stimulated Heller’s fertile imagination to create the situations and characters that would come to life when he began writing Catch-22 nine years later.

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