Join the Army, See the World: World War II edition

"This isn't a tourist guide, full of the delights of moonlit nights, tropical seas, and lovely maidens. Its purpose is to give you information, concisely and without frills, about the people and their land..."
United States. War and Navy Departments, A Pocket Guide to Netherlands East Indies Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943.

During World War II, many young men traveled abroad for the first time, courtesy of the U.S. Army and Navy. The Special Service Division of the War Department, a kind of educational and morale-boosting public relations agency, issued a series of small travel guides that were part Fodor's and part Why We Fight. They were intended for the use of soldiers and sailors, describing the U.S. mission in each location, explaining cultural differences and local customs, and even suggesting leisure-time activities. Many of these pocket guide books are available online, at the sites like the Internet Archive and the Navy Department Library (scroll down the alphabetical list to "Pocket"). If you prefer paper, we have a good-sized collection available to look at in the Reference Services Department at the Central Library. In recent years a number have been republished, under various titles, by commercial publishers.

The writing and pictures in these small volumes are captivating. The tone is casual and direct, and the descriptions of life on the ground for Americans and the native population make the time and place come alive. The illustrations are fascinating examples of the graphic styles of the period, some by well-known artists. The New Yorker cartoonist George Price drew a cartoon for the Pocket Guide to New Caledonia, and Milton Caniff, who drew Terry and the Pirates, illustrated the Pocket Guide to China. I highly recommend these as primary sources for students and for others interested in World War II and historic travel literature.

As a longtime depository library for government documents, DPL has a great collection of War Department publications. They can be a great resource for information about army life, and for American military history. I will feature other gems of this collection in the coming months.

Written by bwhalen on December 5, 2013


Lisa on December 6, 2013


In the "The People Down Under" section of the Pocket Guide to Australia, you'll find the lyrics to "Waltzing Matilda," since "Australians, like Russians, are natural group singers."

Elaine C. on December 6, 2013


I'm so glad to see you have these little booklets. Who would've known? They are just some of the things I've found at the library that really make things come to life, especially if you're looking to learn about earlier generations. They capture a sense of the perspective our young men and women had as they shipped off to do battle on foreign shores. No smart phones in the field for them! And those handmade woolen socks itched! My Dad spent a lot of long, cold nights in a bedroll in Algeria, and these little booklets kind of take me there with him, even if it is 70 years ago.
Thanks for keeping a collection of these unique resources!!

Leave a comment