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Sworn to Secrecy: The Notarial Act That Helped to Win WWII

Tags: Notary
December 19, 2018
By: Ian B. Everhart, Assistant Counsel, Pennsylvania Department of State, Office of Chief Counsel

Sworn to Secrecy: The Notarial Act That Helped to Win WWII

As counsel to the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, I have plenty of opportunities to think about oaths and affirmations.  

For instance, on the elections front, candidates must submit affidavits with their nomination petitions, and because BCEL also issues commissions to every Pennsylvania notary, I get plenty of questions about whether those affidavits are properly notarized. 

While visiting Chicago over this past Fourth of July holiday, though, I got to see a notarial act that was both unusual and historic. 

The German submarine U-505, captured by the U.S. Navy off the coast of West Africa on June 4, 1944, during World War II, is on exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry

Because the sub contained critical military secrets on U-boat torpedo guidance systems, communication codes and attack tactics, and an Enigma encryption machine used by the Germans to transmit coded messages, its capture— the first of an enemy vessel taken at sea by the Navy since the War of 1812 — was deemed classified. 

The German sailors aboard the sub, who became prisoners of war, were kept incommunicado, lest they reveal to the enemy that the United States had taken possession of U-505 and its valuable information.  

Likewise, the American sailors who captured the sub had to sign a secrecy oath— a copy of which, signed by sailor Robert W. Cozens, is what caught my eye at the museum display.

In place of the venue of a normal affidavit (showing county and state), this oath says that it was given aboard the U.S.S. Flaherty. Cozens swore to tell "no one until the end of the war," adding that "no one includes my closest relatives, friends, … even an Admiral unless I am directed by my Commanding Officer to tell him."

The oath closes with the familiar language still used in many notarizations today:

"Subscribed and sworn to before me this 8th day of June, 1944."  

Two days before Cozens took that oath, the protracted "end of the war" had already begun with the launch of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Though today the stakes are still high in notarizations — which accompany important documents like election paperwork, land transfers, and powers of attorney — I've never seen one quite like this come across my desk!


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