Microfilm is not the recent invention that we might imagine. In fact, its use dates back to World War II! Jock Thompson, long time Queensland Processing manager for Kodak (Australia) recalls his wartime experiences with the new process:
“With the fear of an imminent Japanese invasion, a large American force was sent to Australia to aid its Australian ally. Supplying mail to the US servicemen was a major problem, and Kodak (America) was asked to come up with a solution. This they did by borrowing a new invention of the British navy – Microfilm. They called their version V-MAIL.”
When General Macarthur set up his South Pacific Headquarters in Brisbane, the V-MAIL was set up immediately opposite in the upper floors of the Kodak building in Queen Street. Jock Thompson, because of his previous civilian photographic background, was placed in charge of the 150 staff required to man its operations. There was a similar unit set up in San Francisco.
When an American soldier wrote to his girl back home, he would have to do so on a specially issued pad of a particular size. This letter would then be forwarded to the Brisbane V-MAIL office where it would be sorted into one of three grades according to the way it was written: light ink, dark ink, or pencil. Then it would be sorted into batches of 100 similarly written letters, and photographed onto 16 mm film – each page occupying one frame of film. 1700 such copies were possible on each roll of film. After processing, the films were sent under strict security to Amberley Air Force Base where they were flown to San Francisco for enlargement onto long rolls of photographic prints, which were then cut up into individual numbered photographs of the original letters. These ‘letter photos’ were then given to the army for distribution. The same enlarging process applied in Brisbane for films received from San Francisco. A test strip was placed at the beginning of each film. This helped the print operator adjust the printer’s focus and exposure time to ensure clear pictures, which were of correct brightness.
Statistics for the amount of V-MAIL handled by Jock’s employees were impressive – even by today’s computer-generated standards: Total production of enlargements and copies from April 1943 to arch 1945 was 90 million! Production averaged 5000 per hour or 120,000 per day. The highest monthly output was in May 1944 when 3,671,399 copies and 3,730,461 enlargements were produced. The highest daily total also occurred during this month (on May 5th) when 129,420 copies and 194,258 enlargements were produced. There must have been many homesick American Troops in Brisbane at that particular time! It was a 24-hour, 7 day a week job, and the 150 workers were divided into three shifts to keep the mountains of mail under continuous process.
“Quality control was of the utmost importance,” Jock recalls, “for to ruin even one film would mean the loss of 1700 letters!”
Jock remembers that after 18 months of continuous ‘on call’ supervision at V-MAIL, he was given a well-earned holiday. However, when he came back to work, he was greeted with 10,000 feet (3 kilometres!) of film that had been ruined during processing. Pin pointing the source of the problem was difficult, with one department blaming the other. “I thought back to my apprenticeship days and the importance my boss placed on the purity of the processing chemicals,” says Jock. “So, despite protests from the experts, I drained all the tanks and used fresh chemicals. The next batch of film we processed reproduced perfectly.” Further investigations into the offending chemicals revealed a high proportion of salt. Then the truth became clear: the original chemicals had been sent from Sydney to Brisbane in Hessian bags as deck cargo on a coastal freighter. On the journey, the ship had run into a storm and the deck cargo had been saturated with seawater from waves breaking over the decks. The Hessian bags being porous had let in the contaminating salt – hence the 3 k of ruined film!
When V-MAIL finished in 1945, Jock’s services were retained at Kodak, and he was made Queensland’s processing manager, a position he retained for many years until his retirement and move to Bribie Island.
(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)