V-Disc : The story of the American military record label during WWII
V-Disc (“V” for Victory) was a morale-boosting initiative involving the production of several series of recordings during the World War II era by special arrangement between the United States government and various private U.S. record companies. The records were produced for the use of United States military personnel overseas. Many popular singers, big bands and orchestras of the era recorded special V-Disc records.
These 12-inch, vinyl 78 rpm gramophone recordings were created for the Army between October 1943 and May 1949. Navy discs were released between July 1944 and September 1945. Twelve-inch discs were used because, when 136 grooves per inch were cut, they could hold up to six and a half minutes of music. Not all releases were pressed of vinyl, many were of the much less durable shellac compound used for standard 78 RPM records of the day.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Musicians, under the leadership of James Caesar Petrillo, were involved in a major recording ban against the four major record companies. This continued until the intervention of recording pioneer George Robert Vincent, who was at that point a lieutenant. On October 27, 1943, Vincent convinced Petrillo to allow his union musicians to record sides for the military, as long as the records were not offered for purchase in the United States. From that moment on, artists who wanted to record now had an outlet for their productivity — as well as a guaranteed, receptive, enthusiastic worldwide audience of soldiers, sailors and airmen.(The “V” stands for “Victory” although Lieutenant Vincent was quoted later to say that the “V” stood for “Vincent)“.
The V-Discs were an instant hit overseas. Soldiers who were tired of hearing the same old recordings were treated to new and special releases from the top musical performers of the day. The selection was very varied – it included big band hits, some swing music, classical performances from eminent symphony orchestras, jazz, and some military marches. Radio networks sent airchecks and live feeds to V-Disc headquarters in New York. Some movie studios sent rehearsal feeds from the latest Hollywood motion pictures to V-Disc. Artists gathered at several V-Disc recording sessions in theaters around New York and Los Angeles, including CBS Playhouse No. 3 (currently the Ed Sullivan Theater), NBC Studio 8H (the current home of Saturday Night Live), and CBS Playhouse No. 4 (reborn in the 1970s as Studio 54). V-Discs were pressed by major civilian record companies like RCA Victor and Columbia Records.
Many V-Discs contained spoken-word introductions by bandleaders and artists, wishing good luck and prayers for the soldiers overseas, and their hopes for a swift and safe return. Glenn Miller, for instance, introduced V-Disc 65A, issued in December, 1943, with the following message: “This is Captain Glenn Miller speaking for the Army Air Force’s Training Command Orchestra and we hope that you soldiers of the Allied forces enjoy these V-Discs that we’re making just for you.” V-Discs also featured one-of-a-kind performances, as artists who were not shackled by restrictive record company contracts could now perform special versions of the 1940s’ most popular hits.
After the V-Disc program ended in 1949, the Armed Services set out to honor the original AFM request that the records not be used for commercial purposes. Original masters and stampers were destroyed. Leftover V-Discs at bases and on ships were discarded. On some occasions, the FBI and the Provost Marshal’s Office confiscated and destroyed V-Discs that servicemen had smuggled home.
An employee at a Los Angeles record company even served a prison sentence for the illegal possession of over 2500 V-Discs.
Nevertheless, the Library of Congress has a complete set of V-Discs, and the National Archives did save some of the metal stampers. Today, several compilations of V-Disc records are now commercially available on compact disc collections. V-Discs are readily available although discs from later series are scarcer than those from earlier series.
Army V-discs were issued in series A-Z, AA-ZZ and AAA-FFF. Navy V-discs were issued in series A-N.
Today, V-Discs are very collectible, with some titles by Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday garnering $50–$75 apiece.
It is no longer illegal to buy and sell V–Discs.
During the United States occupation of Japan, the V-Disc collection in the Service Club at the NYK (Nihon Yusen-Kaisha) office building-barracks had several discs by various artists that carried the subtitle “Fluffs at a Record Session.” All of these contained tunes played in full by the regular, famous American V-Disc artists. The fluffs records were unusual in that each contained some egregious error—usually in the lyrics—by the performer. Most of those were humorous and seemed to be intentional as is not unusual in recording sessions. The soldiers used to seek out the fluffs and play those first.
V Disc 65A from December, 1943 features a message by Glenn Miller:
“This is Captain Glenn Miller speaking for the Army Air Force’s Training Command Orchestra and we hope
that you soldiers of the Allied forces enjoy these V-Discs that we’re making just for you”