CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

Do Loose Lips Really Sink Ships?

Original image
Getty Images

In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, I keep hearing people roll out the old World War Two phrase “loose lips sink ships.” How literally, I wonder, are we supposed to take that? Have intelligence leaks ever led directly to the loss of a U.S. naval vessel before?

Maybe. Over the course of our naval history, there have been security breaches. At the same time, there have been ships and boats and lives lost. Most of the time, it’s very hard to draw a straight line from an instance of the former to one of the latter. There’s often correlation, but not clear causation. In one of these cases, the lips that might have sunk the ships were attached to a congressman.

During WWII, concerns about national security were probably higher than ever before in U.S. history, and secrecy was paramount to security and the war effort. Civilians were reminded of this through the “loose lips” posters, and many soldiers serving overseas were issued pamphlets that reminded them that…

Silence means security — If violation of protective measures is serious within written communications it is disastrous in conversations. Protect your conversation as you do your letters, and be even more careful. A harmful letter can be nullified by censorship; loose talk is direct delivery to the enemy.

If you come home during war your lips must remain sealed and your written hand must be guided by self-imposed censorship. This takes guts. Have you got them or do you want your buddies and your country to pay the price for your showing off? You've faced the battle front; it’s little enough to ask you to face this "home front."

If only someone had given a copy of that to Andrew J. May. The Kentucky democrat served in the House of Representatives from 1931 to 1947 and chaired the House Military Affairs Committee during the war. During the summer of 1943, May and other House members visited sites in the Pacific Theater and received briefings on operations and intelligence. Upon his return home, May gave a press conference and shared a little too much of what he learned.

Americans didn’t have to worry about the safety of their submarines, he explained, because the Navy had found that the Japanese were setting their depth charges—a type of anti-submarine explosive—to detonate at shallow enough depths that the subs could avoid them. May’s comments were reprinted in various newspapers, including ones in Hawaii and other Pacific coastal areas where subs were operating.

Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, blamed May’s leak for leading to improved Japanese tactics and American casualties. “I hear Congressman May said the [Japanese] depth charges are not set deep enough,” Lockwood wrote in a letter to another officer. “He would be pleased to know [they] set 'em deeper now." Lockwood estimated that May’s “indiscretion” directly led to the loss of ten subs and 800 seamen.

Lockwood’s accusations and estimates might not be water-tight, though. The Navy’s “Enemy Anti-Submarine Measures” report, a summary of the Pacific fleet’s experience with Japanese anti-sub weapons, makes no mention of a change in depth charge deployment after May’s leak, and says that the Japanese were never able to figure out the full depth capabilities of American subs. Even if the depth charges were set lower, the Japanese still didn’t know how low they had to go before the subs couldn’t maneuver below them. The Naval History Division’s report of submarine losses in the war, meanwhile, does mention the use of depth charges in the attacks leading to the loss of ten subs, but the reports also couldn’t conclude the exact reasons for the loss of each of those subs. The events surrounding some losses were only learned years after the war from enemy reports or other second-hand information, and may not be entirely accurate or definitive.

Representative May, meanwhile, suffered no consequences for his big mouth except some bad press. He was later caught up in scandal, though, and convicted of accepting bribes and using his position to secure contracts and favors for a munitions company. He served nine months in prison and was pardoned by President Truman, but his political career was sunk.

Original image
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
Original image
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
Original image
Getty Images

English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios