Fooling the Censor, by Larry Chabot

Bryn Smith was holding a box of her dad’s memorabilia from World War II. She reached in and pulled out a letter.

“Here’s a letter about a Bob Hope show; he even wrote down one of Hope’s comedy routines,” she said. “There are pictures of my dad with the stars of the show.”
She handed over an album.
“Here’s one of him with Carole Landis.”
Sure enough, there was Charlie Bannon of Negaunee posing with the famous actress on a South Pacific island, and another of him watching Landis autograph a torpedo.
“He saved everything,” said Smith, who is head of programs and art services at Peter White Public Library in Marquette.
Bannon had a lot to save. For one thing, his family received and preserved a steady stream of humorous and sometimes risqué drawings of fun-loving sailors sent from wherever he was at the time. He sent a patch he designed for his PT boat crew. And there were the letters to his sister Gladys revealing his location, based on a secret code known only to them. He directed his letters to Gladys because she was raising his siblings in the absence of their mother, who had perished in an explosion at the family dry cleaning business in Negaunee back in 1924. One of her sons died with her in the blast.
On December 7, 1941, Bannon was a junior at Negaunee High School and busy shooting at bottle caps on a bridge north of Negaunee when he heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We didn’t have the slightest idea where Pearl Harbor was,” Bannon later told an interviewer.
He joined the Navy after his 1942 high school graduation, eventually serving on Motor Torpedo Boat No. 249 (better known as a PT boat). As a motor machinist’s mate, his prime job was taking care of the boat’s three engines. PT boats were small, fast, heavily armed wooden craft, about eighty feet long with a crew of up to fourteen men. Bannon liked the crafts because “they were fast and pretty.”
This was chancy work, though. He was stationed in or near battle zones around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. As a scout boat, PT 249 patrolled enemy waters for mines and equipment placements before the main fleet sailed in. Bannon earned three Bronze Stars for his efforts.
“Ninety percent of the war was waiting because nobody tells the soldier anything,” he said. “In combat, you get a chilling feeling…Bullets seem to go by in slow motion.”
The letter that Smith handed over was written on August 7, 1944 from somewhere in the Pacific war zone. In it, he agonized over the disappearance of his close friend Robert “Speed” Holman of Negaunee, who was reported missing on a bomber flight over the Palau Islands east of the Philippines the previous April.
“I’m glad to hear that he went down on or near land…They have a wonderful system worked out for taking men out of enemy country none the worse for wear.”
According to information compiled by Loraine and Jim Koski, Holman’s body was later recovered and buried in Negaunee in 1949.
In response to an inquiry about his financial liquidity, he responded, “No, I’m not broke.” He would have sent money home earlier, but the Navy offered money order service only once a month. He had plenty of cash on hand—$245—and “speaking of capital, my war bonds must be piling up” to a value at maturity of about $900.
He went on to deliver a favorable review of a USO show featuring GI favorite Bob Hope and a troupe of Hollywood entertainers.
“In spite of the rain and a bad sound system, they put on a good show,” Bannon wrote. “He put on a bunch of shows all over the island and was gone before you fully realized that he had actually been here.”
Responding to a query from home about the upcoming elections back in the states, Bannon wrote: “I’m all fixed up…the squadron handed out application blanks for us to fill out and said we would have our ballots in plenty of time for the election.” He guessed that most of the men would be voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was seeking his fourth term as president.
Although Bannon lacked formal art training, his daughter said her dad turned out a lot of art work while in high school, so it was natural for him to continue the hobby in the service. His dozens of funny cartoons are preserved carefully in an album. He often provided drawings-to-order for his buddies to send home, which made him a few extra bucks.
Among his creations was a patch for his PT boat, which he had manufactured for each of the men. He kept three for himself and sent one home, asking Gladys to keep it on hand in case he had to order more.
For the amusement of his family and the post office, each of his envelopes home was adorned with a catchy cartoon. Smith said the mail carrier always waited to see what news was inside her dad’s envelopes.
Bannon courted trouble when he devised a way to let his family know where he was. National censorship, which included service mail, began in early 1942 because the government believed that “loose lips sink ships.” Local newspapers were cautious about what they printed because the enemy was known to gather American papers found on the battlefield and piece together an accurate picture of American military setups. GIs were not to tell their families about their ships, divisions, locations or any other tidbits that could help the enemy.
The Navy was particularly fussy about what the boys put into their letters, warning them against homemade codes to circumvent censorship. Military data in the wrong hands, the Navy said, could mean loss of life and property.
“Some [codes]…are so simple as to be obvious, some are the work of pranksters, and [some] are ingenious. Navy experts can figure them out easily,” according to a U.S. Navy Advisory.
The offending writer could be severely punished, even though innocently motivated. The Navy cited the case of a serviceman whose secret family code earned him a six-month prison sentence.
Bannon and his sister did it anyway. Each had a small, detailed map of the Pacific theater. After completing a letter to his sister, Charlie would place it under the map, poke a hole in the letter corresponding to his island location, and send it to Gladys, who then laid his letter on top of her identical map to reveal where he was. No one ever caught on.
Back in the U.P. after the war, Bannon attended a dry cleaning school under the GI Bill of Rights, but later left the business to work as a repairman for Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company at its Brownstone shops. His wartime experiences surfaced again in a humorous way during the 1960 presidential election, when PT boat veteran John F. Kennedy was the Democratic nominee. Kennedy also had served in the Solomon Islands, where the Japanese sunk his boat. His sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was campaigning on his behalf in the Marquette area, so Charlie accompanied Gladys and her husband John “Piggy” MacNamara to a reception for Shriver.
According to Smith, when Bannon was introduced to Shriver as a PT boat sailor, someone standing nearby said condescendingly that while PT veteran Kennedy was running for president of his country, Charlie Bannon was “only a dry cleaner.”
“Yes,” Bannon said. “But at least I kept my boat afloat!”
While others gasped, Shriver was so amused by the statement that she directed an aide to write it down so she could pass it on to her brother.
Charlie wasn’t the only Bannon involved in the war effort. His future wife, Betty Oie of Ishpeming, whom he married after the war, was eating ice cream at the Creamland shop in Ishpeming when somebody said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. By the following September, she was in nursing school in Chicago, and a year later was having her tuition, books and uniforms subsidized under a cadet training program. As a student nurse, she worked at both Vaughn Army Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital in Illinois. She put in eight-hour shifts six days a week.
While Bannon and his sister were communicating in code, Oie had her own unique system to enjoy pasties and other goodies while nursing in Chicago. Her mother put them on the night train to Chicago at 6:00 p.m., and Oie had them by noon the next day.
After the war, she worked off and on at Bell Memorial Hospital while raising a family of five. Bannon died in 2000; Betty still lives in her family home in Ishpeming.
For more information on the Bannons, readers are directed to the 1995 issue of Red Dust, the remarkable booklets prepared by the students of Aspen Ridge School. This issue has colorful interviews with Charlie (“A Man With 2,000 Tales” by Leeann Pellow) and Betty (“Life at the Army Hospital” by April Vivian).
—Larry Chabot

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