Loose Lips Sink Ships!: When a Congressman Blurted a World War II Secret

Kentucky Congressman Andrew J. May

In 1939, as the prospect of war drew ever nearer for the United States, Representative Andrew J. May (D-Ky.) became chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. This was a powerful committee and major decisions were made about the allocation of war funding as well as who got war contracts. The latter part plays a significant part in the story of Congressman May, which I shall get to later. On the outbreak of World War II, members of this committee, particularly the chairman, were privy to classified information. In June 1943, May thought it would be a good idea to brag about American naval capability at a press conference after he had returned from a tour of naval bases. In the process, he revealed that submarines could go lower than the Japanese had thought and thus they placed their depth charges too shallow. Many newspapers reported this information, and the Japanese responded as you’d expect. The consequences were estimated by Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, who commanded the Pacific submarine fleet, to be the loss of ten submarines and 800 lives. He commented, “I hear Congressman May said the Jap depth charges are not set deep enough. He would be pleased to know that the Japs set them deeper now” (Blair, 397) . If his estimate is correct, this amounted to 20% of submarine casualties during World War II.

This was not the only place of trouble for May – in 1946 a scandal broke that he had accepted bribes and steered munitions contracts to the inexperienced Garsson brothers. The Garsson brothers shipped out mortar shells with defective fuzes, resulting in the deaths of 38 soldiers from premature detonations. May lost reelection and was subsequently convicted. Both him and the Garsson brothers went to prison for bribery. May was pardoned by President Truman in 1952, but was unable to relaunch his political career.

References

Blair, C. (2001). Silent victory: The U.S. submarine war against Japan. Annapolis, Md: The Naval Institute Press.

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