15. A Question of Security

"We will track you down… even if the war is over!"

Capture by the Japanese

After remaining in the area east of Luzon for about a week, the Essex returned to Ulithi for more permanent repairs and for R&R for the crew. During this period, as the Pacific campaign intensified, all hands in Air Group Four were assembled in the Wardroom for a special briefing on security. One of the ship's officers introduced an Army intelligence officer to conduct this briefing.

The intelligence officer stated that on one occasion a Naval pilot had been shot down during a strike, ditched near one of the islands, and was captured by the Japanese. During the interrogation that followed, the captured pilot supposedly revealed the D-date and H-hour for the invasion of one of the Pacific targets.

"This classified information in enemy hands cost the lives of hundreds of Allied troops," he said. The intelligence expert then threatened all of us with the statement "If any of you are captured by the Japanese and, if under interrogation, you reveal any information about the location or planned action by Allied forces in the Pacific, we will track you down and prosecute you, even if it takes ten years after the war is over!"

He repeated this statement several times so that we could not forget. And he may have accomplished his objective. However, these threats made all of us very angry. Here we were out in the middle of the ocean trying to fight the enemy and now we were threatened by our own people.

At the time of this briefing, we had received very little advice on how to resist revealing information when subjected to physical abuse. For myself, I wondered just how long I could hold out under torture. Could I comply with the strict orders to reveal only my name, rank, and serial number?

During WW II even the experts knew very little about brain-washing techniques or truth serums. We only knew that the Japanese tortured and mistreated POWs. The details of the Bataan Death March, which began on April 9, 1942, were not revealed until after the Japanese surrender. There were, however, credible stories coming from neutral sources which prompted President Roosevelt to issue a statement on April 21, 1943, about criminal responsibility.

"This Government has vigorously condemned this act of barbarity in a formal communication sent to the Japanese Government. In that communication this Government has informed the Japanese Government that the American Government will hold personally and officially responsible for these diabolical crimes all of those officers of the Japanese Government who have participated therein and will in due course bring those officers to justice." (1)

This set the course for the postwar trial of war criminals in Japan.

Aboard the Essex, we kept hearing stories about the pilots and crew members who were shot down and captured by the enemy. Every pilot agreed, "If we are hit, try to stretch the flight path to reach the water! Keep away from shore! Maybe a friendly rescue sub or picket destroyer will get a position report on the downed flyers and attempt a rescue."

Some of the details of Japanese torture were reported by Robert Sherrod, correspondent with Time and Life. He called this section in his book "A Study In Depravity." (2) Sherrod's comments were based upon the Proceedings of a Military Commission on War Crimes convened by US Pacific Fleet on Guam in 1946, which cited several cases of confirmed torture, body dissection, and cannibalism by the Japanese on Chichi Jima. (*)

"Not only had American prisoners on Chichi been tied to stakes and bayoneted, but… a Japanese officer had ordered his medical officer to remove an American flyer's liver, which was served at a sake party."
"On 4 July 1944, a Naval aviator who parachuted during the second carrier raid on Chichi was captured… interrogated… and bayoneted to death."
"…it had been determined that the eating of prisoners was a stimulant to morale…."

The records show that no word of these atrocities ever reached the Japanese people. It is hard to estimate the value of complete control of the press to a nation dedicated to an all-out war.

Not too long after this major security briefing, our commanders developed a much better approach to the protection of classified information. This technique was simple and straightforward: Don't tell the pilots and crew of the strike groups anything that they don't need to know to carry out the mission of the day--no future plans, no D-Day information, no fleet tactics.

Most of us were happy to see the policy change, although in some cases, a little more information might have helped with survival if we had been shot down over enemy territory.


Since the Navy worried a great deal about security--particularly the position, composition, and tactical plans for fleet operations, we were subjected to rather strict censorship and security regulations. We had several examples of "Promulgation of Deck Court" for smoking while the "Smoking lamp was out" or otherwise breaking blackout rules. Other security restrictions were also imposed on us.

Implementation of the rules of censorship for outgoing mail was the responsibility of the officer component on the ships. We each took our turn

checking the letters to make certain that no information was leaked that had value to the enemy. Wardroom discussions revealed that some officers cut heavily into the letters they were assigned. Some even cut out personal or sexual references intended only for wives or sweethearts back home. I let those kinds of comments stand and concentrated more on locations, ships, or planes. As for my own letters, I took the easy way out.

"Torpedo Squadron Four"
"July 27, 1943"
"Dear Walter,"
"Boy, am I happy!! Just got back to blank, USA, from a long and tedious session on the blankety-blank sea between the coast of blank-blank and blank, where we spent most of our time in the harbor between blankety cruises. Sure is good to be back on good old terra firma, USA once more--and the change in climate does remarkable things for a person. Makes a fellow feel like a good turn at the pitchfork, or maybe a session at cultivating spud. And would I like to climb on the top rail of the round corral and look over that bunch of horses you brought in from Deep Creek!!"
"…But before you start meeting the trains and busses, I had better tell you that I won't be able to make Idaho this time since me and the Admiral aren't very chummy as yet. Should get three days tho--maybe time enough for me to look up Delbert in Maryland. Hope so anyway. He said my last letter to him was cut to ribbons by the censor so don't know what I said but reckon I'm okay, which is true."
"Don't forget to write,"

It was two months after the Norway strike before I felt free to talk about my tour of duty on the Ranger. OPERATION LEADER took place October 4, 1943, and my letter to my folks dated Dec. 5, stated "Since this letter won't be censored I can tell you of my activities for the past four months…."

(1) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(2) Sherrod, Robert Lee. 1952. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Combat Forces Press.
(*) Lt (jg) George Bush was shot down over the coast of Chichi Jima on September 2, 1945.

Previous Top Next

Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas