WHEN PRESIDENT Clinton and Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon go aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in Pearl Harbor on Sept. 2, they will dedicate the final set of stamps in a remarkable series that is most likely to be remembered by the stamp that isn't there -- the atomic bomb stamp.
Even without the stamp, which Runyon dropped last December under White House pressure, the 50-stamp World War II series that the Postal Service launched in 1991 would have been noteworthy. Despite the extensive research and effort that went into the series, the stamps became stealth stamps, rarely seen on the mail.
Initially postal officials were delighted, arguing that unusually high retention of the stamps -- 90 percent were being saved -- meant the agency had discovered a new stamp format that could bring large amounts of added revenue into the postal coffers. But the public's failure to use the stamps also created public relations problems -- including Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) who took to the Senate floor to denounce the agency for ignoring the nation's 26 million veterans.
If the furor over the A-bomb stamp did anything, it should fulfill the wish of retired Army specialist Thomas J. McCullough of Albuquerque, N.M. Since 1992 McCullough has been running a one-man campaign to make more people aware that the stamps are available and should be used for postage. In an effort to make the stamps more readily available, the Postal Service has decided to place them on sale at all post offices Sept. 2. Otherwise the stamps would not have been available until Sept. 5, which McCullough, editor of a World War II newsletter, had denounced as a "delaying tactic." Many veterans would have preferred the stamps be sold earlier in the year.
The final 10 stamps in the series, painted by Bill Bond of Arlington, mark events of 1945, the final year of the war. President Harry S. Truman announces the Japanese surrender in the stamp that replaced the atomic bombing stamp. The other stamps show the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, the fighting to free Manila, the battle of Okinawa, the link-up of U.S. and Soviet forces at the Elbe River, the liberation of the Holocaust survivors, the German surrender, the uprooted survivors of the war, the victory celebration on Broadway and hometown honors to the veterans.
As in the previous World War II stamps in the series, the stamps are printed with a map showing the key events of 1945, the year that marked "Victory at Last." The Postal Service is also selling a commemorative book that features two sets of the 1995 stamps along with an overview of the final year and an introduction by Runyon, who served in the war. The book sells for $15.95 including stamps and will be available at most philatelic sales windows.
If the U.S. approach to the war has left veterans groups unsatisfied, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific that was in the middle of much of the fighting there, has taken a more comprehensive approach. It marked the 50th anniversary of the war with 157 stamps -- more than 3 times the number the U.S. issued -- in 100 sets. That's more stamps on a single subject than the U.S. has ever issued, but then the Marshall Islands were aiming their stamps at collectors around the world.
Using many of the world's best-known stamp artists, the tiny country attempted to tell the entire story of the war -- not just the U.S. involvement in the conflict. Its philatelic effort began in 1989 with a stamp marking the German invasion of Poland and, yes, it included an stamp marking the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
"To the best of my knowledge there has been no complaint lodged by the Japanese government with the Marshall Islands government," said James A. Helzer, president of Unicover Corp., the Cheyenne, Wyo., firm which printed the stamps and is the Marshall Islands' philatelic agent in the United States. The $1 stamp shows the "Enola Gay" bomber flying over the city with a mushroom cloud rising in the background.
Sales of the Marshall Islands stamps have been strong in both Germany and Japan, he said. "And they have not been received by collectors there as being either anti-German or anti-Japanese, but anti-war, which is as was originally intended."
The Marshall Islands series, seven years in the making, has been assembled in a 64-page "coffee table quality" book titled "The One Hundred Epic Events of World War II in Stamps." The book which contains stamps with a face value of more than $67 is being sold for $99 until Sept. 2, when its price will rise to $150.
INDIVIDUALS seeking first-day cancellations of the World War II stamps should purchase the stamps at their local post office and place them on addressed envelopes. These should be mailed in a larger envelope to World War II Stamps, Postmaster, Honolulu, HI 96820-9991. Requests should be postmarked by Oct. 2.
INFORMATION on Marshall Islands stamps and the World War II commemorative book is available from Fleetwood, One Unicover Center, Cheyenne, WY 82008-0001. Call 800/443-4225. CAPTION: The last 10 stamps of the World War II series debut Sept. 2.