US Stamps

By John M. Hotchner

Censored domestic mail and the secret Manhattan Project

May 20, 2014 07:00 AM

  • Figure 1. Why would domestic United States mail be censored? The clue is in the post office box number in Santa Fe, N.M., which is associated with the Manhattan Project.

  • Figure 2. This 1¢ postal card shown front and back, canceled in 1935, informed the St. Petersburg police of unsafe or illegal driving. It was sent by “Secret Traffic Operator No. 75.”

Why would a domestic letter within the continental United States be censored?

The answer for the Michigan-to-New Mexico cover in Figure 1 is tipped by the mailing address.

Covers mailed during and after World War II addressed to post office boxes 1663, 1539, 180, 527, 169 and 1036 in Santa Fe, N.M., are all associated with the Manhattan Project, the ultrasecret American effort to develop the atomic bomb.

The project began late in 1942 at the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys, located 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

In addition, there were Manhattan Project post office boxes in Washington, D.C. (2610), and Los Angeles (5370, Metropolitan Station).

But it was Box 1663 that was used for the great majority of mail to and from the more than 5,000 people who were working on the project.

The mail volume was sufficient to require twice daily pickups and drop-offs by an armed postal clerk accompanied by an armed military police officer.

Censoring was formally imposed for both incoming and outgoing mail effective mid-December 1943, until Dec. 3, 1945. All mail passed through the station’s resident censors.

The censors used circular handstamps saying “Passed by Examiner” with a base number.

These numbers equated to individual examiners. The numbers used were 2030 through 2039, 2295 through 2299, and 3051 through 3053.

All Manhattan Project covers are scarce, but such mail addressed to other than Box 1663 is rare to nonexistent.

The Box 1663 example shown here in Figure 1 is the only one I have been able to find.

The cover is franked with a plate number single of the 1935 3¢ Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam) stamp (Scott 744).

Secret police

Traffic cameras today tell police when motorists break the law by speeding, or bend it by not coming to a full and complete stop at a stop sign.

Before that innovation, a policeman had to catch a motorist in the act before he could issue a citation.

That is, unless your locale had deputized citizens to watch for illegal behavior and report it to the authorities.

An interesting example of that practice is exemplified by the 1¢ green Thomas Jefferson postal card from 1935 shown back and front in Figure 2.

I have not seen evidence of the formal program that obviously existed in St. Petersburg, Fla., but it is plain from the postal card that the police there did use “Secret Traffic Operators” to increase their ability to catch scofflaws.

In this case, Secret Traffic Operator No. 75 reported a Florida-licensed car speeding (going 40-45 mph) at 6 p.m. on March 18, 1935, and recorded the license number.

These days it is still possible for a citizen to report improper driving, and to do so more efficiently by phone or text message.