Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A word about cenXXXXhip in World War II

While going through some old interviews with the veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion and researching a chapter on the Falaise Gap for a book I'm writing, I came upon a passage from a somewhat impromptu interview I conducted in the hospitality room of a 1994 reunion with Ellsworth Howard. Howard was the executive officer of A Company but became the company commander when Clifford Merrill was wounded on July 13, 1944, in Normandy. Howard was wounded on August 18 in the Falaise Gap, and while in the hospital, being an officer, he was assigned the duty of censoring letters.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of my interview with Howard in which he discusses censorship:

Interview with Ellsworth Howard
    Bradenton, Fla.
    January 1994

Ellsworth Howard: All the mail that was coming back to the States had to be censored, not for what personal things people had on their mind but what conceivably could be military things, so that the way it was done, it was taken to wards in the hospital that had wounded officers in them. So as we were in bed,  we'd have a stack of mail dumped on us, and you had to read through all of it. You had to look over it for, a lot of times people tried to code things, had a little secret message of some kind. So you scan those things. And then you're looking for anything that has to do with military action or people being killed or wounded or anything; nothing personal could be said.
   In order to find it you had to read the whole letter, and I'll tell you, the things people put in some of those letters. it's just repulsive. You couldn't censor that because it was personal, I mean it had nothing to do with the military whatsoever, but, intimate things. And in the most unbelievable ways that they'd express it.

Aaron Elson: Almost like pornography?

Ellsworth Howard: Oh, golly. Pornography's mild compared to this sort of thing. And, yes, they were just unbelievable, you just don't realize that there's as many people whose minds think like that, I guess. But it was an experience for me. Of course, people would think that they have no business reading that, but it goes in one ear and out the other, you don't retain any of that, you don't even know who the people are. If on the rare occasion you'd get a letter from who you might identify a name, you'd give to somebody else, so that you're dealing with unknown, at least that was our experience. I don't know how other people did it, but if I would ever run across a piece of mail from somebody that I knew I would let somebody else handle it, I wouldn't look at it.
   But then we would just have to X out or blot out those things that had to do with what division or unit or anything that had to do with the military.

Aaron Elson: Did you see examples of disillusionment? I know Jim Rothschadl said he wrote a letter home from the hospital to his brother and his brother wanted to sign up, his kid brother, and he said in his letter that he tried to tell him what hell it was and that half the letter was blotted out. But the message got through. Did you see examples of...

Ellsworth Howard: Oh yeah, you could expect anything in there. There's, people would try to disguise their locations, and they would make some kind of a reference point, or something, and a lot of times you let it go on through, it didn't have any particular meaning. But if it got down to where it was a pretty specific thing or explicit, why, we'd cut that out.

Aaron Elson: Can you remember finding any things that looked like code?

Ellsworth Howard: No, it wouldn't be code regarding military action or anything like that.

Aaron Elson: Like a secret code.

Ellsworth Howard: Yes, somebody trying to tell their wife something, or this, that and the other. Those kind of things. Judging by the contents of the letter, you'd decide whether to X it out or what to do with it, but no, it was rare that we had to do any real censoring, because most of the letters that we saw didn't go into anything specific that would be of any value to anybody if they intercepted a letter.

Aaron Elson: What did they talk about in the letters?

Ellsworth Howard: Oh, everything. They'd talk about everything from their food and how it's fixed and how they prepare it, and what their 10-in-1 rations are like, or they might have had a letter from somebody else and they talk about family affairs and like that, even to the point of one guy telling his wife that I've found somebody over here that I'm having sex with so I hope you've found somebody. Stuff like this.

Aaron Elson: That's oddly honest.

Ellsworth Howard: Sure. Of course that didn't have any concern to us.

Aaron Elson: You didn't censor that?

Ellsworth Howard: No.

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