World War II slogan, Loose Lips Sink Ships

       The novel Immigrant Soldier is interspersed with letters Herman writes to his mother.  These letters are based on actual correspondence treasured by our family. One of these letters, the one Herman wrote during his Camp Ritchie training, is notable because it is composed on special stationery with the slogan, “Idle gossip sinks ships” printed at the bottom. (Page 218, Immigrant Soldier).
       As a child of World War II, I was familiar with a similar slogan, “Loose lips sink ships,” a phrase that has evolved to carry the more general meaning that gossip can cause harm.  Many similar phrases were used on US government propaganda posters in the 1940s. At least two posters show an upended sinking ship and large print saying, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships” on one version, and “Loose Talk Costs Lives” on the other.  These posters and many others that encouraged self-censorship appealed to the fears and emotions of US Citizens.
      During wartime, concern for national security always escalates, and during World War II, perhaps because of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, this concern was especially intense.  German and Japanese submarines patrolled off our coastlines and fear of another attack on US soil pervaded the home front, especially during the early months of the war.  Great emphasis was placed on maintaining secrecy regarding military training and troop movements.
         To the Office of War Information, silence meant security. Posters and other media, including newspaper and magazine ads and film shorts played at movie houses, warned civilians and military to avoid careless talk concerning information that could be of use to the enemy–one never knew if a spy might be eavesdropping on the conversation.
        This is why, on the day of their arrival at Camp Ritchie for training, soldiers were cautioned not to write home about their location or their activities.  During World War II, millions of men volunteered and millions more were drafted into the US armed forces. These citizen-soldiers had little, if any, previous military training and had little idea about the necessity of military security in wartime.
        To educate the new draftees, the Office of War Information created a document that set forth rules for letters home. This document was given to each soldier when he entered the battle area.  It listed ten prohibited subjects soldiers should not mention – everything from their actual location to how they were transported, from their orders to information they might know about casualties. The document also detailed rules for general conversation, which the men were told to guard more carefully than letters as no mistakes could be eradicated by censors.  Special instructions covered what to say if captured. A soldier going into an area where he might be captured was cautioned not to carry personal letters which often said much about him. It was stated that the envelope could be especially dangerous as it would disclose his unit and organization.
       Of course, these types of precautions were not exclusive to the US military.  Soldiers of all the countries of both the Allies and Axis would surely have received similar instructions.  The campaign against unguarded talk was not the only US government propaganda campaign that used graphic emotional posters during World War II.  Entire series of posters and media ads encouraged men to join the military, women to get jobs in vital industries, families to grow and preserve their own food, children to conserve and collect resources such as rubber, gasoline and metal, and everyone to hate Fascism and buy War Bonds.
        Children who grew up in the 1940s were very much aware of the messages that government propaganda posters spread throughout the United States.  Even into the 1950s, we continued to follow many of the behaviors encouraged by these poster campaigns.  We collected tinfoil (even the thin coating of foil that was used to wrap individual sticks of chewing gum).  We saved rendered fat and took it to the butcher to be recycled into soap or to grease bullet casings (I was never sure which). We saved tin cans and repurposed them into holiday decorations.  And we were cautioned by our parents not to gossip or share personal information about our families.
       If you are from this generation, what posters or poster-inspired activities do you remember?


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