'Loose Lips Sink Ships'

Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh.  She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives.

During World War II, as with other conflicts before and after it, the United States military censored letters and photographs that the troops sent home to friends and family members. Censorship could include anything from blacking out short phrases or key words in letters to confiscating photographs or packages.

Anything that could aid the enemy in discovering where troops were located or what future plans of attack the Allied Forces had could be censored. Most letters would have been stamped and initialed by a censor before being placed in the mail and sent home to friends and family. Personnel assigned to postal censorship could expect their duties to include:

  • censor outgoing mail from enlisted men and women
  • reviewing for a second time a certain percentage of letters that had already been reviewed once
  • inspecting packages and personal belongings and
  • reporting on and looking for trends in censorship violations

A letter to Elmer Gibson from a military censor.Often times, censors were highly trained to recognize codes that soldiers used to try to alert their families of their locations or when they thought they would be coming home. Using the first letter out of every sentence to form another word or using seemingly random words to distinguish months of the year were all common tactics. 

However, in just as many cases, soldiers had no intention of revealing confidential details, but would accidentally give out information in their letters or photographs without even realizing it. Many times soldiers would express frustration in their letters home because they did not feel like they could really write anything to their loved ones for fear of having a violation. During World War II the phrase “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was used in British propaganda to illustrate the point that gossip and rumors can quickly spread to enemy ears even if that was the not the original intent.  

When going through the Elmer P. Gibson collection, I ran across a government issued letter sent to Gibson in 1947 stating that some photographs he had sent home during the war had been held by the War Department Board of Review and were now being returned to him. When I found this letter, an envelope containing two negatives was attached to it and I got very excited. Obviously my first thought was that these negatives would contain highly confidential information that I would get to uncover.

Unfortunately, my excitement quickly faded when I realized they were only photographs taken of the landscape, presumably in the area that Gibson had been stationed. I assume that these were confiscated by postal censors because they felt that if the photographs reached the wrong hands, the enemy might be able to discover the location of the Allied troops. 

From my understanding, this type of mistake on the part of soldiers was not uncommon. Most of the time the men and women did not even realize they were violating the rules when they wrote home. Something that they thought was so simple or unimportant could be seen by the censors as delicate information. 

Could you imagine not knowing where your son or daughter was stationed? Or not being able to tell your wife when you would be allowed to return home? I imagine that this type of censoring was incredibly difficult to handle for both the soldiers involved as well as the recipients of their letters.

Thanks to Rusty Edmister whose generosity is making this project possible.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.