Censoring Letters Home – Jim Ross

As an eleven-year-old in the late 1950s, I stored my clothes in the two top drawers of a marbled mahogany dresser that used to be Mom’s and Dad’s. One day, bored, I explored a lower drawer filled with black and white photos. There I found a three-inch stack of letters in their original envelopes sent to Mom by men in combat during World War II. Many were marked “free,” meaning postage wasn’t required. Others bore various U.S. stamps from the 30s and 40s, some of which were new to me. Seeing no reason why I shouldn’t, I decided to open and read the letters. It looked like somebody had drilled holes through them. So many words had been cut out, it was hard to make head or tail of what the writer intended.

I went downstairs and asked Mom, “Why do these letters look like Swiss cheese?”

Mom said, “The censors snipped every word that looked suspicious.”

“Why?” I asked.

“If someone told where their ship was located, that had to be removed. If they said something that just might be secret code to give something away, snip snip snip,” Mom answered, scissoring with her fingers in the air.

“Did the censors think your friends were spies?”

“They assumed anyone could be. You never knew. Every country tries to infiltrate, to get information that gave them an advantage. The Germans did it, so did the Italians, the Japanese—and we were doing it and so were our allies. That’s what war looks like.

“Did the Germans have censors?” I asked.

“I didn’t know anybody from the countries we were fighting so I didn’t get any letters from Germany. But, war is war, I’m sure they did,” Mom said.

“Can you make sense out of the Swiss cheese?”

Mom answered, “We were kids together. We went to the same church. We sang together,
danced together. We knew each other’s secrets. That helped me guess what silly things these guys might be saying. But, sometimes, I had no clue, and starting in 1943 your father wasn’t around to help.”
“Was he at war?” I asked.
“At war, yes, but he didn’t go Germany or the Pacific, like most of them.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Oh,” I said.
“No. Oh, hi, yo.”
“Huh? If you couldn’t understand the letters, why did they matter?” I asked.
“Because if I got a letter from Uncle Al, that meant Uncle Al was still alive. If I got a
letter from Snoozie, it meant Snoozie had something he wanted to tell me.”
“Why do you still keep them?”
Mom said, “Because those were our boys. And some of the men who wrote me didn’t
make it home.”
“Are those guys in those pictures?”
“I have pictures of every one. Would you like me to show you?”
”Maybe later. Can I tear off the stamps?”
“Sure, just put the letters back where you found them.”
“I wish you’d gotten some German stamps.”


Jim Ross jumped back into creative pursuits five years ago after leaving public health JRossresearch. He’s since published poetry, nonfiction, and photography in over 100 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Based on one story, he’ll imminently appear in a televised, high-profile, limited documentary series. He and his wife split their time between city and mountains.