On 15 October 1942, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) activated the Military Censorship School at Fort Washington, Maryland. In sixteen months, the school graduated nearly 2,500 censorship officers, who toiled both stateside and overseas to prevent “loose lips” and pens from compromising the operations of Allied forces.

As America’s inevitable entry into World War II approached, the Army accepted responsibility for wartime censorship of international mail to and from the United States as a critical counterintelligence requirement. In February 1940, MID published Basic Field Manual 30-25 Counterintelligence, nearly half of which was devoted to censorship activities in combat theaters and, in early 1941, the division sent a few officers to Bermuda to learn the ropes from British censors. Still, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, MID could round up only seventy-five partially trained reserve officers. Its own censorship office was manned by just two officers.

On 18 December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of Censorship under the leadership of Mr. Byron Price, the executive news editor of Associated Press. Col. (later Maj. Gen.) W. Preston Corderman, a 1926 graduate of West Point who had attended the Signal Intelligence Service School, assumed the position of chief postal censor. By 15 March 1942, he supervised approximately 10,000 military and civilian postal censors fluent in more than 100 languages, who looked and listened for information deemed potentially harmful to American and Allied security and military operations. On a weekly basis, the office’s personnel read one million pieces of civilian mail and monitored 350,000 overseas cables and telegrams and 25,000 international telephone calls. Corderman, who declared it was relatively easy to determine “by the tone of a letter whether it conceals some hidden meaning,” also employed code and cipher analysts and chemical analysts, the latter of whom looked for messages written in invisible ink. Corderman continued to work for the Office of Censorship until late 1942, when the War Department withdrew all military officers on duty in civilian government agencies.

While the Office of Censorship focused on civilian communications, the MID estimated it needed 2,500 officers trained in the art and science of censorship for both stateside and overseas duty with the troops. On 15 October 1942, it activated a censorship school at Fort Washington, Maryland. The post already hosted the Adjutant General’s School, which provided administrative support to the censorship school, while the MID’s Censorship Branch oversaw the selection, instruction, and assignment of personnel attending censorship courses. The school’s staff included fifteen officers—nine of whom were either principal or alternate instructors—and eight enlisted men. All twenty-three men had previously worked under Corderman at the Office of Censorship.

The school began its first three-week class with 200 students on 2 November 1942. Initially, only commissioned officers were enrolled, as FM 30-25 considered censorship an officer duty. Given the desperate need for trained censors, however, warrant officers eventually attended the course along with a few enlisted personnel. Other measures instituted to meet the urgent demand included an officer candidate course that graduated 484 lieutenants in about four months and four two-week special courses, each of which turned out ninety-five personnel destined for unit censorship duties overseas. By the time the school closed on 10 February 1944, it had graduated nearly 2,500 censorship specialists.

These trained sensors were assigned both to the Corps Areas headquarters in the United States and to the intelligence sections of units overseas. Both performed the same functions. As all mail to and from service members passed through the censors, references to the locations or movements of military personnel, units, and equipment were diligently stripped out before the letters, postcards, and packages were dispatched to their recipients. In February 1944, responsibility for censorship activities and training transferred from the MID to the Army Service Forces.


This piece is written by Lori S. Stewart from the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence. Want to feature your story? Reach out to us at [email protected].