Armed Services Editions

Armed Services Editions were pocket-sized editions of literary works distributed to service members during World War II. There was a book written about them that has been on my TBR list for way too long: When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win WWII (2015) by Molly Guptill Manning.

Publisher’s blurb:

Published December 2nd 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned 100 million books. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks for troops to carry in their pockets and rucksacks in every theater of war. These Armed Services Editions were beloved by the troops and are still fondly remembered today. Soldiers read them while waiting to land at Normandy, in hellish trenches in the midst of battles in the Pacific, in field hospitals, and on long bombing flights. They helped rescue The Great Gatsby from obscurity and made Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, into a national icon. When Books Went to War is the inspiring story of the Armed Services Editions, and a treasure for history buffs and book lovers alike.

Spotted in the wild

Earlier this month, I came across an Armed Services Edition while helping to process a donation at the Coast Guard Academy Library Special Collections where I do volunteer archival work. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover one in the wild.

Photo taken by me at USCGA Library, September 2022

My Heart Leaps Up and Other Poems by William Wordsworth is the edition that I came across while accessioning a box of files. Louis Untermeyer selected the poems and also wrote an introduction.

While scrolling through my photos this week looking for something unrelated, I noticed two other Armed Services Editions that I had photographed.

Photo taken by me at Newberry Library, January 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, published 1944. The bottom text reads, “This is the complete book–not a digest.” This must be one of the thicker Armed Services Editions, but still pocket sized. I wonder about the font size. I photographed this one at The Newberry in Chicago when it was on display for their exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth in 2019.

The Armed Services Edition of Moby-Dick was one of over 1,200 different
titles produced for free distribution to United States troops during World
War II. One of the Council on Books in Wartime’s main “weapons in the war
of ideas,” the books were chosen for entertainment and educational value,
but also to promote and demonstrate American ideals of freedom of thought
and expression. Moby-Dick (slightly abridged for this edition) almost
certainly found its widest readership to date in this edition. Soldiers and
sailors could find a mix of relevance and relief in its short and eclectic
chapters, scenario echoing the circumstances of men at war, and explorations
of tyranny, madness, and destruction.

from Melville Exhibition Checklist
Photo taken by me at J.F.K. Library and Museum, March 2019

Selected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1944). I saw this one on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA when I visited with my Book Cougars cohost Emily. We talked about the experience on Episode 71.

I was tempted, for a minute, to start collecting these editions. But then I thought about money and space. I came to the conclusion that it might be just as fun to simply snap a photo when I come across one and add it to this post. So for now, that’s the plan.


  1. Moby Dick was abridged; the “Complete Book” banner is incorrect. Surprisingly little was actually excised, though. I like your plan to create a photographic collection; this would have saved me thousands!

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. I was curious about that because the Newberry writes that it was “slightly abridged.” It makes me wonder why they would bother to make a statement about it being the complete book and not a digest on the cover. Do you know if they did that for any other titles? Had there been a controversy or confusion?

  2. The Hemingway and Wordsworth collections were called “made books,” compilations created just for Armed Services Editions. That also means that the thumbnail book depicted on the cover was made up by the ASE folks; it’s not a depiction of a real book. Most ASEs were versions of actual books, unabridged and depicting the civilian edition, and most feature the stripe reading “This is the complete book–not a digest.” A few books were shortened for length (never for content, they insisted), and the banner reads something like “Condensed for Wartime Reading” or “Slightly Condensed for Rapid Reading.” The banner on Kenneth Roberts’ book Northwest Passage reads, in much smaller print, “Due to limitations of space 150,000 words have had to be cut from the original text for this special Armed Services Edition.” I’m pretty sure Moby Dick’s banner was just a mistake. I can send you a scan of Northwest Passage (or any other ASE you’d like, and I can say much more than any sane person wants to know about the cover illustrations, made books, production mistakes, etc.

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