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Monday, April 27, 2015

Censoring the Mail at Base Hospital 46

The last post explored mail service for the American Expeditionary Force in World War I through the lens of letters unanswered by nurse Norene Royer due to her death from influenza in September 1918. The fact that her mail, and the mail of all personnel in the unit, was censored raises some important questions about life in a military medical unit during the conflict. What was it like to have one's mail censored, and what might this tell us about women's experiences at Base Hospital 46 in World War I?

The military and the Wilson administration were worried about mail that might reveal information such as the position of a particular unit or letters that contained military secrets. Myron Fox of the Military Postal History Society, in an interview for The American Experience film series on war letters, noted that letters and packages could be censored if they contained military specifics but also if they used sexually explicit language or were written in a language other than English. Censorship was, Fox explained, a job for an officer of a particular unit and was "considered an unimportant job and often someone like the chaplain or the dentist would get saddled with the job."

That's just what happened at Base Hospital 46. The person selected to be the base censor was Captain James H. Johnson, a 1909 dental graduate of North Pacific College and a member of the four-person Dental Corps of Hospital 46. (Wight, On Active Service, 19, 38)

Fox also detailed the hierarchy of censorship and the possibility of an alternate censor: "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."

Nurses were not officers (more in a later post about rank for nurses) and were therefore subject to the unit censor, with perhaps the opportunity to use a "blue envelope." But recall that Base Hospital 46 was made up primarily of Oregon and Washington staff who knew each other and who lived in this rather small community with an entire web of social connections and relationships. Certainly a letter writer could be circumspect, but the censor would also know to whom you were writing and how often, and all about the letters you received. It could certainly be an uncomfortable situation. And it could be just as challenging to ask for a "blue envelope" -- what might you have to hide?

Base Hospital 46 censor and dentist James H. Johnson contributed a brief entry to On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 titled "The Censor."

J. H. Johnson, "The Censor," Wight, On Active Service With Base Hospital 46, 174-75.
Johnson affirmed that being a censor was hard work and being the target of the "wrath of the entire populace" of the unit. With humor he complained about a "truck-load" of mail to go through each evening. "Censoring is an irksome, but necessary duty and all concerned will hail with gladness its abolition."

But Johnson also addressed the challenges of dealing with personal letters and packages and the intimacy involved in this surveillance. "Articles submitted to the censor are numerous and varied," he wrote, "everything from ladies' dainty combinations of pink and blue silk to those cute little French locomotives" (teapots, according to Paul Dickson, War Slang (2011), 102.]. "It is very difficult, especially for the young unmarried officers, to pass judgment upon some of these articles, so in many instances they are referred to older and more experienced married men." Johnson, writing here for publication, found a way to write about confronting gender and sexuality as a censor. It would be so interesting to have more information from participants on both sides of this process.

This glimpse into ways that censorship shaped women's experience at Base Hospital 46 leaves more questions than answers, but certainly points to the complications of wartime service.

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