This Page Intentionally Left Blank

I was, as regular readers know, in the U.S. Air Force. I was a crypto specialist. Top Secret stuff, code words, all that. Part of the job required reading and maintaining super secret books, documentation on the machines which we fixed.

A couple of times a year we were required to go through these books, each one, and page count them. That is, we opened the books, turned the pages one by one and made sure the Russians were not able to sneak onto the base past the sentries, then into our fenced, barbed wire, windowless building, and then break into the locked and passworded room where the locked cabinets were and to steal a page, then sneak back out.

I page counted hundreds of books and, thank the Lord, never found a missing page. Nobody ever did. But it was in this capacity that I first saw these words:

This page intentionally left blank

printed on blank pages—no longer blank, and therefore a self-defeating message—but put there to tell us that the Russians had not learned a way to suck all the ink off one side of the paper.

Anyway, since I am still busy, I have nothing to offer today except to say, in the same vein,

This page intentionally left blank.


  1. Did you ever check that the number of pages that said “This page intentionally left blank.” did not increase over time?

    If a spy were cunning enough to have sneaked in, as you described, he/she would surely have replaced the page they stole with one that said “This page intentionally left blank” – indeed, I’m wondering whether the books ever included any of these pages when initially published …


  2. Tim Fitzgerald

    I am an AF alum as well. This page intentionally left blank appeared in flight manuals as well. I always wondered if it occurred to any of the “authors” of those pages that it was sort of a self-nullifying thing to say. After all, it wasn’t really blank any more once they wrote that.

    Thanks for your service–good day to you.


  3. j ferguson

    It seemed to me that Jeppesen Approach Plates used to have these pages. I always thought they could have put jokes on them, or sections from the FARs, or phone numbers of hot dates in the cities served by the respective approaches.

    BTW, the trombone parts on broadway musical scores used to be where you could find written in pencil, city names, and phone numbers of girls discovered to have an interest in musicians. i wonder if they still do.

  4. dearieme

    When I was an undergrad I once rose from my table in the Maths Reading Room and took a strolling break. I paused at a notice-board and read what seemed to be a job advert. The wording was a bit odd so I pondered and then the penny dropped. Her Majesty’s Government was advertising for spies. Code-breakers, perhaps, at GCHQ. Or maybe MI5 or MI6. I was impressed – they would only be interested in students who could see what the message must mean. Hats off to them. But I didn’t apply – I sought advice about working for what I referred to as the Scientific Civil Service and was told that I was entirely unsuited to government work.

    How did you find it?

  5. Big Mike

    That phrase has appeared on otherwise blank pages in IBM documentation for decades. It was useful in the days when IBM issued updates to printed manuals called Technical News Letters (TNLS), which comprised replacement pages. It helped keep page-numbering consistent, and made sure that the beginning of a new major division of a manual appeared on the right-hand side of the manual, rather than the left. I always interpreted “blank” to mean “nothing of interest is to be found here”.

    I’m probably explaining the obvious, but I think I owe it to posterity. My daughter has no practical experience with vinyl LPs, and I think it’s possible that her as yet unborn kids will view printed books as anachronistic as well.

  6. GoneWithTheWind

    My brother entered the service 5 years before I did and was “selected” for “security service”. His abysmal assignments alerted me to the risk and his advice helped me avoid a similar fate. It’s not the AFQT they look at but a simple meaningless test they give you in basic. Kind of a fun test for anyone who likes to read or write. Make sure you fail it.

  7. DAV

    I was at a presentation once where an otherwise blank slide contained in a lower corner (in about size 1 type): “‘This slide intentionally left blank’ intentionally omitted”.

    Sneaking in might not be as hard as you think. NSA has had cars stolen out of its parking lot by kids attending the adjoining reform “school”. And there was a report in the paper that some woman tourist was discovered wandering the very Sanctum Sanctorum there. Weren’t you in Kirkland?

  8. Dennis Dunton

    This was done with aircraft Tech Orders as well for the reason that the complete T.O. was of a loose leaf config. The supplements would be issued as individual pages with the entire thing being reprinted only occasionally. As of the late 1960’s supplements were STILL being issued for the C-47 which had been around since WWII.

  9. Bruce Foutch

    Not sure why, but this reminds me of the message that used to be on head gaskets for automobile engines. On the top side was printed ‘This Side Up’. After many failed installations, it finally occurred to someone that, if you pulled the gasket from the package upside down, you would never see the ‘This Side Up’ message. From then on, head gaskets were printed on the bottom side with ‘Other Side Up’.

  10. Ray

    Dr. Briggs,
    You were so lucky. I was a comsec materials officer at a navy installation. There were two of us so we could watch each other and make sure we weren’t spies. Our office was a vault. I spent many happy hours in the vault counting pages. I can’t think of any other way I would prefer to spent my time unless it’s hitting my finger with a hammer.

  11. j ferguson

    Bruce Foutch,

    “Other Side Up” is really good. It would be wonderful to find out who thought of it. If i had understood the discussions in the symbolic course I very briefly audited, maybe I would know the technical distinction between the two markings – there has to be one.

    At the same time, I can’t remember any engine i worked on (-40s thru early ’60s) that would accept a downside up gasket – topologically impossible.

  12. My favorite is the fine print typically found on questionaires (often employment applications) below the section asking about your race:

    “This question is for statistical purposes only”

    What are those mysterious statistical purposes? I wish some statistician of stature would come clean. Hey Briggs, what are your purposes really?

  13. j ferguson

    We’re (Well I am) drifting here, but the marriage license form in Virginia in 1985 had a field for Race. I wrote down Marine Marathon thinking that was a good one. It wasn’t what they wanted. I was told that we could not be married in Virginia without an “appropriate” entry on that line.


    In my own military career as a user of crypto-pages we would be ordered, at time intervals I’m not allowed to disclose, to destroy the old pages that had been replaced.

    The material used for crypto was a specially treated paper that was especially easy to destroy. It would easily burn. It was so thin many pages would fit thru a shredder. It dissolved in cold tap water fairly quickly. It dissolved in warm salt water, such as urine, VERY quickly. If buried in damp dirt, it dissolved more slowly.

    Our platoon sergeant considered the disposal order an opportunity for training. We would use ALL the methods. We shredded the pages. We took the shards out and burned them. We then poured a pitcher of water on the ashes. We then unbuttoned (BDU’s had buttons, not zippers) and urinated on the mud. Then we buried the stinking mess.

    I suggested we drive a wooden stake thru the burial mound and circle it with gloves of garlic, just to be sure.

    I was admonished not to be such a smart – ass.

    I must report that when Ronald Reagan sent me to Europe the Evil Empire still ruled half that continent. By the time I returned to “CONUS”, that situation — (here I usually breathe on my fingernails and buff them on my lapel) no longer applied.

  15. Jack Bunce

    Back in the mid-sixties I was part of the commissioning crew on a fleet ballistic missile submarine attached to the reactor control division. We received 16 copies (8 copies for each crew) of the reactor plant manual each copy of which took up about 5 to 6 feet of shelf space. We were about the 16th boat in the class so each manual came with at least 16 sets of changes needing to be made which totaled another 5 or 6 feet of shelf space for each copy of the RPM. One of our first tasks was to bring the RPM’s up to date. Since we worked for Admiral Rickover we had to do each change separately and then page check the entire RPM after each change was completed, sign off on it, properly dispose of the classified materials removed from the manuals, and then repeat it for the next change. Simply counting the pages would not do. We had to read the legend on each side of each page (if there was a change on one side of a page it would only be noted on that page side!) And of course we did it the Navy way: 16 sailors all together, turn to the first page, remove that page and hold it up in the air while a senior Petty Officer walked by and verified it was the correct page. Put it in the burn bag. Pick up the page to be inserted. Have it verified. Insert the page. Verify the insertion. Turn the page. Etc. It took a week of 10 hour days to bring those manuals up to date.

    After that we only got a couple of changes per year but we still page checked the RPMs before each patrol right after the crew turnover.

  16. View from the Solent

    Perhaps the documents were published in Crete ?

  17. Doug M

    One acquantence of my was sitting for a professional examination. The last page of the exam booklet truly was blank. He was convinced that there had been some sort of printing error, and he was going fail to answer questions and not be certified.

    Other side up — I have a friend who is an OR nurse. They will get into surgery to do, for example, a knee replacement and on examining the patient’s knee will see written in sharpie. “other knee.”

  18. Cris

    Was there some reason to believe the Russian spy wouldn’t just bring a Minox?

  19. Matt

    I have seen the “This page intentionally left blank” in published books, both fiction and non-fiction.

  20. tld

    There is at least one report in DTIC (Defense Technical Information Center) that has a page marked: “This page unintentionally left blank.” Made it through all the reviewers in the 80s.

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