New Caledonia and the New Yorker?

August 4, 2011

From time to time I’ve talked about the little World War II-vintage booklets produced to familiarize Army and Navy personnel with various places around the world that the fight against the Axis might compel them to go. Some of those places are still hot spots, like Iraq. Others were obscure then and remain so today, unless you’re a specialist or someone with an inordinate curiosity about things in general (me).

For out of the way places, you can’t beat New Caledonia. This large island in the Southwest Pacific, a French territory only now looking towards a future referendum on independence, is populated by Melanesian Kanaks and French settlers and has an economy centered on nickel mining. During the war, however, it was the island’s strategic position that made it the subject of a Pocket Guide to New Caledonia. Not long after the fall of France in 1940, the French colonials on the island revolted against their pro-Vichy governor and declared for the Free French, so the island and the harbor at Noumea, the colony’s capital, became a huge naval repair, troop transit, and logistical nexus for America’s armed forces. TheU.S. presence had a huge and generally positive economic, political, and cultural impact on the Kanak population, but stimulated an almost paranoid reaction among Free French officials, who saw the American “occupation” as a threat to their colonial dominance. Clearly, our soldiers and sailors needed some guidance on how to handle these complicated crosscurrents!

Pocket Guide to New Caledonia does a very good job of outlining New Caledonia’s history and cultures, with an emphasis on tolerance and understanding of the customs and faiths of others, whether French or Kanak. It also manages a light touch when discussing some topics, to wit:

“People living in the tropics or subtropics are likely to be exposed to       hookworm and other intestinal parasites, and to be bothered by dysentery. To check this latter ailment, the natives eat a certain grass which is called ‘dysentery grass’ and is supposed to have a herbaceous effect. Our troops have made not a few noble experiments with this particular variety of hay, and up to date nobody has been hurt, though the record is confused as to whether anybody has been helped. So if you see a creature eating grass inNew Caledonia, don’t shoot! It may be the corporal.”

Like other wartime publications, this booklet also benefited from the work of a well-known artist. While Dr. Seuss handled malaria prevention, the great New Yorker cartoonist George Price drew theNew Caledonia short straw (see left) and provides a comic glimpse at GI life in the tropics.

I enjoyed browsing through Pocket Guide to New Caledonia. The Government did a good job of prepping folks for trips to places that most of them never imagined going, and now we can make the same visit thought these little time capsules. You can read it here or in a library.


“Now, when I was in Baghdad” – A Short Guide to Iraq

May 11, 2010

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a World War II booklet illustrated by Dr. Seuss. It was one of a cache of such booklets that had belonged to one of my uncles during his wartime service as a Navy pilot. Although not collector’s items, these little guides to China, India, Burma, West Africa, and even New Caledonia, fascinated me as a kid. As an adult, both before and after my discovery that the Dr. Seuss booklet was a collector’s item, I didn’t give them much thought.

Several years ago, though, they were brought to mind by a call from the person who was then in charge of GPO’s public relations office. Every so often we get calls about long out of print Government publications, and this was one of them. A reporter was asking about A Short Guide to Iraq and did I have any information about it? “Well, yes. Oddly enough, I own a copy.” I explained the background and said I’d rummage around at home and find it.

Within a few hours, I was in her office doing a telephone interview with a wire service reporter with a British accent. She seemed fascinated by how I had come to own a copy of the booklet she was seeking. As far as I know, the story never went anywhere, but I’m still amazed at how much excitement these old documents can stir up.

As for A Short Guide to Iraq, what seems to engage people is that American troops were sent to Iraq during the Second World War and that so much of the advice it provides seems relevant even today. A university press has reprinted a facsimile under the title “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during World War II” (the cover looks different but it’s basically the same book). It’s a quick read and very well done for its purpose, which was to give a quick overview of Iraq and its people for the average GI or sailor. It’s similar in intent, although less elaborate in execution, to the Afghanistan and Pakistan Smart Books I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Click here to read this neat little booklet.


Dr. Seuss, U.S. Army

March 31, 2010

When I was a kid, I loved to rummage through a bunch of pamphlets that had belonged to my Uncle Teddy. I never knew my uncle because he went missing in action in the Pacific during World War II, so for me his memory was perpetuated mainly by these little U.S. Government booklets about getting along in China, North Africa, Iran, and other wartime hot spots. One of my favorites was “Meet Ann…She’s Dying to Meet You,” a 36-pager about the perils of contracting malaria from the Anopheles mosquito. The illustrations were cartoons, usually showing some poor sap (it’s easy to fall back into the slang of the era) getting bitten by Ann or failing to employ mosquito netting.

Fast forward a good many years to a Federal depository library conference featuring a talk on “Government Publications as Rare Books.” The presenter said, “This booklet goes for $600 and up” and flashed the cover of “Meet Ann” on the screen. Yikes! The cartoonist was Dr. Seuss when he was Captain Ted Geisel, U.S. Army, and this little pamphlet is one of his hardest to find publications. The author of the text was no slouch, either: Munro Leaf, author of “Ferdinand the Bull.” As soon as I got home, I put my little pamphlet in a safer place! My copy probably would be worth even more if I hadn’t “autographed” it on the back cover when I was about 10. Oh, well…

 If you’d like to take a peek at “Meet Ann” online, try this USDA site.


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