“Terry and the Pirates” Spreads the Word on Security During World War II

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

From August 28, 1943 to February 6, 1944, the plot line of one of America’s most popular daily comic strips, “Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff, included as one element the issue of information security.  Even though the action in the strip took place within the context of military operations in China and its environs, this was no incidental plot line.  It was all part of an organized governmental effort to alert the American public to the need for security; an effort in which Milton Caniff was intimately involved.

In late summer of 1942, after the U.S. had formally been at war for several months, senior representatives of the Army, the Navy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), met with a representative of the Office of War Information (OWI), the U.S. World War II-era propaganda agency.  They met to discuss the need for some sort of action to educate the public about the need for security for military information such as troop movements, production, and shipping activities.  While the three agencies agreed on such a need, there existed no mechanism for them to work together on that.

Recognizing the need for such an information program, OWI agreed to take on that task.  The result was the establishment of the Security of War Information Campaign, sometimes referred to as the “hush-hush campaign,” and the Security Committee, which cleared all plans for that effort.  The Committee included representatives of OWI, the Army, the Navy, the FBI, and other agencies.  The Committee’s first meeting took place in October 1942.  As a result of those actions, in addition to telling America’s story, OWI had responsibilities for preventing useful information from reaching the Axis enemy.

During the first eight months, the work of the campaign focused on generally educating the public about the need for security using the themes “Careless Talk Costs Lives” and “Think Before You Talk.”  In addition, all U.S. Government agencies were asked to instruct their employees about the program, too.  The campaign spread the word through posters, billboards, leaflets, radio broadcasts, the creation of local Security Committees, cooperation with advertisers who incorporated themes into their ads, stories and articles in magazines and newspapers, news releases, and movies.

In mid-1943, OWI expanded the security program to include other avenues for spreading the word.  While it is not clear exactly why, it reached out to Caniff, probably because “Terry and the Pirates” was a very popular strip and Caniff was known to be partial to American servicemen and women.  In June, OWI wrote to Caniff indicating an interest in talking with him “about a project on which we feel you could be of great assistance.”  Eventually, representatives of OWI and the Military Intelligence Division had an all-day meeting with Caniff.  During that meeting, they asked Caniff to weave into his strip an information security thread.  Caniff enthusiastically agreed with the result that from August 1943, to February 1944, the plot of “Terry and the Pirates” included the issue of information security.

Terry and the Pirates strip of December 2, 1943
© Tribune Content Agency, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The story demonstrated how a seemingly-innocent comment overheard by the wrong person can potentially lead to disaster.  The action involved a cross-dressing female spy posing as Free-French pilot Captain H. Midi (her real name is Sanjak). Captain Midi overhears the hero, Terry Lee, talking about the flight of a transport plane carrying important Chinese finance officials.  Lee is given the information to take to the flight operations staff and is told that it is “absolutely hush-hush.”  Later, he mentions their presence on the airplane in front of the spy.  His commanding officer quiets him and says “you can never afford to forget security regulations for any reason.”  But, too late, the information is already in the wrong hands.  Midi informs the Japanese through his local contacts and the airplane is ambushed.  In the end, things turn out well and the spy is uncovered but because of the careless mention of sensitive information, people die and more people are put in danger.  While the action in “Terry” took place within a military setting, the message was still the same: loose lips can sink ships or, in this case, shoot down airplanes.  The important thing was that Caniff made the security point in the story without it seeming to be out of place.

At the same meeting that Caniff agreed to incorporate the security line into his strip, he suggested eight other leading cartoonists to approach about doing the same.  Subsequently, in September 1943, letters went out to Harold Grey, writer of “Little Orphan Annie”; Frank King, writer of “Gasoline Alley”; Zack Mosley, writer of “Smilin’ Jack”; Chester Gould, writer of “Dick Tracy”; Martin Brannan, writer of “Winnie Winkle”; Chick Young, writer of “Blondie”; Ham Fisher, writer of “Joe Palooka”; and J. R. Williams, writer of “Out our Way.”  Each letter was customized to a particular strip.  For example, the letter to Harold Gray noted “We’re writing you this personally because we believe that if you know of the importance of the problem there is some way in which Annie, Daddy Warbucks, the Asp and Aunt Sally and Uncle Spangle can figure out a way of getting across this message.”  Each letter also noted that “we believe that cartoon strips like yours are so widely read that a message contained therein will probably register as effectively as through any other known channel.”  Evidence indicates enthusiastic responses from at least some of these writers.

To acknowledge Caniff’s time and effort on the project, Elmer Davis, the OWI’s director, sent him the following note:

note from Director of OWI thanking Caniff for his efforts in aiding the security campaign
Letter from Elmer Davis to Milton Caniff, 09/22/1943

Source:  RG 208: Records of the Office of War Information, Records Concerning War Information Programs (Entry NC-148 59), files “History” (NAID 4733064) and “Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff” (NAID 4732989).

For more information about Milton Caniff and his influence on American cartooning, see MEANWHILE …: A Biography of Milton Caniff Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon by Robert C. Harvey (Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, WA: 2007).

I once again express my appreciation to Linda Teegen and Julie Brown of The Permissions Group for their help in securing approval to use the image from “Terry and the Pirates.”

2 thoughts on ““Terry and the Pirates” Spreads the Word on Security During World War II

  1. I found the letters at the Archives from Major General George Veazey Strong to the OWI, giving the background as to how the cartoonists got called into the secrecy campaign . Took scans of all of the letters. The incorporation of the cartoonists into this campaign became a chapter in my recent book Cartoons for Victory

    1. Thanks so much for reading! We’re happy to hear when the records are used for various projects and publications. Hope you enjoy all the other posts about cartoons and comics!

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