Censorship ~ Did you ever wonder who blacked out those letters?

warletters_film_landing

There was some censoring in the Civil War because letters sometimes had to cross enemy lines. Most of the censoring came from the prisoner-of-war camps. For example, if someone was writing a letter from Andersonville [a Confederate prison camp where many Union soldiers starved] those at the camp didn’t want people to know what was happening, so the prisoners wouldn’t be allowed to say anything bad about a camp. The first heavy censorship of U.S. soldiers took place during World War I
The censors were looking out for two things in World War I and World War II. They didn’t want the soldier to say anything that would be of value to the enemy, such as where they were. They always wanted to camouflage how strong the troops were. “Loose lips sink ships” was the phrase that was very prevalent in WW II and that was the theory in WW I as well.

Officers also were looking to see any weakening of desire among the troops. It’s very important in wartime for officers to know about morale issues.
One of our researchers recently found over 500 confiscated and condemned letters at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. They included letters that used graphic language dealing with sex. Our member also found that in some cases the same writer would keep having his letters confiscated and apparently didn’t get the message. These letters were never delivered and apparently the sender was never sent a notice of the offense.

Letters that were sent in foreign languages were also intercepted. Many members of the armed forces were immigrants or the children of immigrants and they were more comfortable communicating home in their native language. A letter written in Polish or Italian usually wasn’t delivered because the typical censor didn’t know what it said.
In general, in the Revolutionary War and Civil War the letters have much more information. The writers would say, ‘We’re outside of Fredericksburg’ or ‘I’m in the 12th division,’ and that’s important information that was often cut out in World War I and World War II.

In WW II, it’s common for a soldier to write, ‘I can’t say much or the censors will cut it out.’ Early in World War II, the soldiers couldn’t say where they were. People back home didn’t know if they were in the Pacific or the Atlantic. You’ll see letters where the soldier will say where he is — it’s cut out — and how many people are in the building — and that’s cut out too. People would do very simple things to get around the censor like write on the inside of the flap but they were usually unsuccessful. So the World War letters often just include just Mom and Pop stuff.

WWII poster

WWII poster

Who did the censoring?
The enlisted soldier was censored by an officer in his unit. It was considered an unimportant job and often someone like the chaplain or the dentist would get saddled with the job. If the enlisted man did not want his officer to read his mail — if he had been giving him a hard time, let’s say — the soldier could use what was called a ‘blue envelope.’ The writer would certify that there is nothing in here that shouldn’t be and the letter would go up to the next level where it might be looked at a little more kindly.

The officers were self-censored. They didn’t have anyone looking at their mail regularly, although the higher level staff or base censors would randomly check officers’ letters to keep an eye on them. Officers seemed to say more in their letters. Whether it was because they knew better what was allowed or whether they were more brazen or whether their mail often was not censored is debatable.

If the section they wanted out was very big, they would confiscate the letter. If it was small, they cut out the words or obliterate it with ink. If they had to use special chemicals to check for invisible writing — something they did when they suspected a spy — they would confiscate the letter because they didn’t want people to know they were doing it.

The censors returned very few soldiers’ letters. They confiscated them; they didn’t send them back. They didn’t necessarily give the word back to the soldier that his or her letter was withheld. It depended where it was stopped and how fast the troops were moving.

From the soldier’s perspective, you often didn’t know if it was going to get through. The soldiers were all given guidance on what they could say, so you would think they would know how to avoid getting their mail intercepted, but not all did.

Information is from ‘The American Experience.’

 

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Military Humor – Private Sanfu

"Well, the way I figure it ____, and ___!"

“Well, the way I figure it __ _ __, and __ _!”

ww2_censorship_300

 

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Farewell Salutes –

Louis Adriano – Albertson, NY; US Navy, WWII

Jacques Cayer – Cap-de-la-Madeleine, CAN; RC Air Force, Captain (Ret. 30 years)

Margaret Dover _ New Plymouth, NZ; WRNS # 55532, WWIIth-jpg1

H.L. Hungate Jr.  – Roanoke, VA; US Navy, WWII, USS Iowa

Ward ‘Bud’ Johnson – Idaville, IN; US Army, WWII, ETO, 773rd Tank Destroyer

Ellen Keener – Evans, GA; US Army WAAC, ETO

Jack Levin – Philadelphia, PA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, B-17 pilot

Mark Parsons – Spokane, WA; US Coast Guard, WWII, PTO

William Reinhard – Chicago, IL; US Navy, WWII, Korea & Vietnam, pilot

David Woolley – Boston, MA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 11th Airborne Division

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on November 21, 2016, in Home Front, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 119 Comments.

  1. Good read here… as always though 🙂 semper!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Twentysomething Social Recluse

    I didn’t know that! Very interesting.

    Like

  3. Wow never knew that WW1 and WW2 surely ha smarmy secrets in it.
    Great post, loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating subject. My father had to censor his soldier’s letters (in 1941 before capture), I know because he mentions this to my mother. He had set up a system to get the men’s letters back to Britain from Malaya using the fast, but expensive, Clipper Mail. So for a few pence his men could write a half or even a quarter sheet and he would fill the envelopes up to the weight limit, post them to my mother, who posted them on to the relatives in Britain. He was able to tell her where he was because he simply said he had visited his aunt and uncle (who lived in Singapore).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As always, fascinating post….I hadn’t really thought about who exactly censored letters…very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting post! Letters weren’t the only things censored. We have some photos of planes with the nose guns cut out, although it didn’t seem to be nearly as common as censored letters.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very interesting (and timely) post GP. Makes you think about where we’ve been, where we are…and where we’re headed in this area. I agree we can’t put the “genie back in the bottle.” Technology and the current climate has changed the landscape quite a bit. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s fascinating how they censored letters during WWI and II. It seems like they were very worried that letters might fall into enemy hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not like we think of today by way of hacking into emails. When troops ships, etc were sunk, we picked up any papers that could be found as well. We have received information that way and assumed that the enemy could do the same.

      Like

  9. I can remember being told as a child that “loose ilps sink ships.” Who knows what I had said that I wasn’t supposed to, but being born in 1946, the phrase still had currency.

    The letters I have that were sent between my dad and his brother exhibit a sensitivity to the censor. Expressions like, “I know you can’t tell us…” are common. There aren’t any blackouts in the text — they were pretty good at it!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. War letters were verry important but never known the letters in foreign languages are censored.Poor people

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  11. Reblogged this on KCJones and commented:
    Yes, Always Wondered

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I admit I had no idea about this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, today things are so high-tech there would be no way to keep much of anything secret – what people don’t write or text about, the media broadcasts and then Wiki-leaks picks up the slack of anything else and we know You Tube will have a video of it!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Just been reading a book on Kindle – “The Somme: Through The Eyes Of A Foot Soldier Who Survived The Battlefield May…” Written in his 70s and edited by his son it has details of his feeling about having his letters in 1916, though it didn’t stop him writing home about his disenchantment, and despite this he was still promoted when he was expecting to get into trouble.

    The grandfather of a friend of mine was a career naval officer and he didn’t write a single letter home between 1939 and 1945. His reason – he was busy commanding a ship, and if there was anything they needed to know at home the Admiralty would send his wife a telegram.

    There’s probably a whole book to be written about censorship and letters in wartime.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post…especially since we were just talking about this the other day. I love the information about how and why the censoring happened. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post. Very, very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m surprised your witty Dad didn’t compose a letter simply to wind up the censors – but then, perhaps he did…….:)

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Poor Snafu, always had to learn the hard way 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Very interesting information ! So , officers self-censored ? Wow .

    Liked by 1 person

  19. You know I’ve never ever given a thought to the censorship, ever. But one can readily understand why it was done, thanks for givin a wake up call GP

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Censorship today would involve confiscating everybody’s everything. Even their electric razor or toothbrush might be suss.
    But some buffoon will always find a way to make illicit electronic transmissions, and possibly later on wonder why he’s dog-paddling in the middle of the night in sharky waters …

    Liked by 1 person

  21. In the book ‘Battle Cry’ the marines get sent to New Zealand as a staging post before going on to Guadalcanal. One of the guys sends his letter home, to the effect … “It’s been great to hear from you. As for us, things are good—we have a lot of new zeal and anergy …”

    “PFC Jones, did you write this letter?”
    “Yes, Sir.”
    “You may go, Private Jones …”

    Ouch …

    Liked by 1 person

  22. That’s a really interesting tale! In WW1, the British army had postcards with set sentences and you just ticked what was true. “I am / am not well. I have / have not received a parcel.” and so on. The officers, of course, could write what they wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems in every Army, the officers could pretty much write what they wanted, I’ve heard. I suppose they expected them to censor themselves. Thanks for coming by, John.

      Like

  23. I never knew it. My only knowledge about censorship comes from Catch 22. Thank you for this very informative post – you cover every aspect of war.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. This was very informative and enjoyable. If history was taught in this way in schools we’d have a much better educated population. After all fun is better than drudgery.and in spite of the stereotyping the cartoon is actually pretty accurate about how information leaks with unintended consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. From Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

    All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games.

    Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation “Dear Mary” from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, “I yearn for you tragically. A. T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.” A. T. Tappman was the group chaplain’s name.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Even though the letters were censured, they served a very important purpose.
    At least the recipients, usually Mom and Dad, would know that their son was still alive. Thanks for a most interesting post, CP Cox!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Very interesting article and good to know. I often wondered how much they edited out.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Very interesting! And the censorship goes on with no end.

    Like

  29. That’s fascinating GP. I had no idea about any of this.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. So interesting, GP. I guess I understand the worries about intercepted information on troop movements and size, and it was interesting to me that the letters were also read to assess morale. Censoring for sexual content? A sign of the times, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. That was all so fascinating, learned a lot. Can you imagine the pain some of those Soldiers experienced when reading their letters from home, with what well may have been innocent remarks, blanked out. How Soldiers in all Wars depend so much on those letters. I take it the same applies now, censoring phone calls/internet messages.

    Nothing to do with your most interesting blog, here the other day it was announced by the Government that the Queen is to receive Millions and millions of pounds to do up Buck Palace, taxpayers money. I found it so ironic just around the corner from the Palace are Soldiers from the Gulf/Afghanistan Wars – homeless, forgotten by the very people who sent therm to do their “bloody Wars”. Forgotten like Korea like Vietnam, and the list goes on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you liked the article, but I’m upset hearing about your veterans. So much money going for a palace when it could be going to troops that protected your freedom – not much different here.

      Liked by 1 person

  32. Given the CYA attitude of the military, I’ll bet those who got the job of censor tended to edit out more than was necessary. But I’m not sure if that would be a boring job, or perversely interesting.

    I loved the Private Snafu cartoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Snafu is always a hit, just love to have an opportunity for his appearance to fit the article! I would imagine it was a rather boring job after a while, and what info to delete was basically a personal interpretation.

      Liked by 1 person

  33. This is a very revealing post! Can’t imagine how these veterans in the thick of war couldn’t send word to their loved ones. Paranoid much! Sadly, similar tactics of censorship still exists today for our vets through the information highway. Great job researching!! Excellent material.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. I own a very old book titled CORRESPONDENCE OF CONFEDERATE ARMY in1863 (mostly sent by officers). One thing that’s striking is how much more formal the letters of the Generals are compared to letters of lower-ranking officers.
    For example, a letter dated Sept. 25 1863 from a Major General to Brig. Gen. W.R. Boggs, Chief of Staff, begins: “GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the communication of the lieutenant-general commanding, 23d September, and accompanying documents.”
    Compare that to this opening sentence from a Lieutenant Colonel to a Captain: “CAPTAIN: I have again to request that pay-funds may be immediately sent this post to pay off the troops of this command.” It goes on to express “the great dissatisfaction that exists in consequence of no money having been furnished for the payment of these troops for so many months.”

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Very interesting! I wonder how they control these things in today’s world with instant communications by phone and email available all over the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. As a history buff, especially WWI & WWII, I was fascinated by your post. Great history lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  37. silviadeangelis40d

    Il bisogno di scrivere, anche in momenti in cui la vita è estremamente difficile
    Un saluto,silvia

    Like

  38. Great post! You always have the best historical stuff…kudos….chuq

    Liked by 3 people

  39. What an interesting post! I had always wondered about wartime censorship, particularly who did it, but never looked into it. Thanks for the insight!

    Liked by 2 people

  40. I can only imagine how hard it is today, with all the means of communication that are available. I’m glad Smitty’s letters got through, they been fun to read.

    Liked by 2 people

  41. This answered many questions, some of which hadn’t occurred to me till I read this. As usual, a very informative post, GP!

    Liked by 1 person

  42. I once read a book containing letter sent home by British officers in WW1. Many of the senders were famous writers in later life, or became so because of their writings about that war. It was remarkable how much detail they went into, and the information they were allowed to send to home.
    Some even wrote to the newspapers in Britain, complaining of the conditions in the trenches, or the running of the war by the General Staff. By contrast, the letters from the other ranks mainly spoke of comradeship, managing as best they could, and urging their relatives not to worry about them.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  43. Thank you very much!

    Like

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  2. Pingback: Censorship ~ Did you ever wonder who blacked out those letters? | Pacific Paratrooper | First Night History

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