Fist Of History

May, 2012Archive for

Razzle Dazzle – Navy Style!

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

That amazing camouflage pattern you see above is called “dazzle camouflage” and was used in World War I from 1917 through 1918 in an effort by the Entente Powers to protect their shipping from German U-Boat attacks.  (For those confused by “Entente Powers” just substitute “Allies” – you’ll be wrong technically but you’ll probably have the right nations in mind.)  This eye-popping camouflage was used on the theory that U-Boat captains, relying on visual targeting systems, would be thrown off in their shot estimations by the bizarre patterns, specifically they would be unsure of the speed, direction, and actual bow of the ship – all critical data to be able to lead a torpedo shot to have the weapon arrive where the boat would be several seconds after the torpedo was fired.

These designs were created by an assortment of artists working for the British Admiralty (and later the United States Navy) to come up with patterns that would confuse and confound the enemy.  It was an impressive effort in scale and eventually hundreds of warships and cargo transports would be painted in these varied and off-putting patterns.  Artists also played with different contrasting color combinations, efforts semi-lost due to the limitations of photography at the time (although some paintings of colored dazzle patterns exist.)  Just imagine being in harbor in 1917, watching a ship steam into harbor, and seeing that appear over the horizon.  Alternatively you might have seen:

After the war the British evaluated dazzle camouflage and decided they weren’t sure if it had actually done any good.  Although shipping losses went down after it was implemented there were too many other factors playing in the study as well – things like changes in tactics, routes, and modifications to escort methods.  The US Navy though loved dazzle camouflage and believed it had done wonders, leading to its brief use at the start of US involvement in World War II.  However by then improvements in optical aiming systems (and later deployment of radar systems) made the camouflage useless.

But it did leave us a legacy of really weird looking ships and for that I’m personally grateful.

Sources: Wikipedia Entry on Dazzle Camouflage, Google Images, and this article on Dazzle Camouflage (very detailed!)

The Flying Tigers – Mercenaries, Spies, or….Patriots?

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Submitted for your consideration, the interesting story of the founding of the Flying Tigers, otherwise known as the American Volunteer Group, an assembly of US pilots that flew for the Chinese National Air Force prior to the US entering into the war formally on 8 December 1941.  The Flying Tigers flew sorties on behalf of the Chinese government, attacking Japanese fighters and bombers and protecting the Burma Road, the sole supply route during this point in the war for the Chinese military to keep fighting.  (The Burma Road, a fascinating story on its own, was a narrow supply road built by hand that ran through Burma, it allowed British and American supplies to reach China even though China’s own port cities were under Japanese occupation.)  The Chinese Air Force needed the extra fighter pilots, and infusions of American aircraft, to protect the Burma Road and stabilize their military position relative to the Japanese who were still advancing in China.

What makes the founding of the Flying Tigers particularly interesting though is how it was formed, it is an excellent example of indirect warfare between two major powers.  The United States in 1941 was not at war with Japan, nor did the US government want to directly ship US aircraft to China and risk openly antagonizing the Japanese Empire.  To achieve the goal of equipping a Chinese air group with US pilots stealth and misdirection were needed – the first step was to set up a conduit to funnel funds from the US Treasury indirectly to the Chinese government.  This was done through a front-company that ran out of the Chinese embassy in Washington, it was provided with a special government grant of $100 million for acquiring “war material.”  (This was partially necessary because an earlier front company to send aid to the Chinese government was only allowed to send non-military materials to China at the orders of the US Congress, a ruling that proved flexible but not flexible enough to allow fighters to be shipped out.)

The pilots were unofficially recruited to volunteer to fly for the Chinese Air Force, they would be hired by the shell company mentioned above and paid rates roughly triple what they were making in the US military, $600 a month versus $200 a month at base pay levels.  (In addition they were offered a $500 bonus per enemy airplane shot down, incredibly good money at the time.  The Chinese government had no problem offering these high pay rates as they were using US government funds.)  The pilots recruited resigned from their positions in the US Navy, the US Army Air Corp, and the US Marines (the US had no separate “air force” at the time.)  Interestingly at the same time this recruiting was going on all three of these branches of the military, in anticipation of the coming war, desired to hold onto their pilots.  Many commanders in air units protested up the command chain and were told to drop the issue, as this recruiting was of “special interest” to the President.  For those who still proved resistant they got a letter like the one below which explained the situation to them.

The pilots were recruited, traveled to China, and for most of 1941 flew missions for the Chinese Air Force.  They were folded into the regular US military in 1942 after the US declared war on Japan.

But that does raise a fascinating question – what were the Flying Tigers – pure mercenaries, spies, or patriotic volunteers?  The answer is a bit muddy – the US government planned to deny them if any were captured by the Japanese or leave them to be treated as mercenary pilots in the employ of the Chinese government.  They were serving in a clandestine military unit that got US support but only indirectly, flying US equipment sold through back channels and redirected military orders.  (Often British orders that were then “sold” to China.)  The pilots themselves also show that the story is muddied, some joined in to fight Japan in anticipation of the future conflict, others for adventure, and others still for the money.  Most joined for a blend of these reasons.  Which raises the question – how should we in the US remember this unusual military unit?

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the American Volunteer Group, Flying Tigers FAQ, and the Smithsonian History of Aviation Series title “Flying Tigers” by Daniel Ford, chapters 1, 3, 4

Goat Testicles and the Governship of Kansas – the 1932 election

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Ladies and Gentleman, meet John. R. Brinkley, con-artist, quack, and nearly the governor of the State of Kansas in 1932.  His career, both medical and political, and how it links to goat testicles and glandular medicine is one of the more unusual stories of the election atmosphere of the 1930s.  First off though everyone has to understand that, generally, the 1930s were weird when it came to elections, Americans were willing to embrace some unusual electoral solutions to the economic malaise of early ’30s, Brinkley represents one of the really odd political ideas out there.  Basically he built a nearly successful medical and political career out of showboating and spectacle.  But lets start with the goat testicles.

Brinkley’s medical career started around 1912 when he got a questionable (read as fake) medical diploma from a degree mill from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical College, a school so amazingly bad that only eight states allowed its graduates to practice medicine.  Kansas being one of these establishments Brinkley, after working for a meat packing company and a brief stint in the US Army in WWI (where he had a nervous breakdown), opened his own medical clinic in 1918.  Brinkley had a fascination with glands and glandular issues, he thought that advances in that field of medicine would open the door to improving many human conditions.  He hit on the idea of transplanting goat testicles into humans, to improve “sexual potency and fertility” when in 1918 a male patient asked Brinkley if he had any cures for impotence, Brinkley joking offered to transplant goat testicles into the man so he could have the virility of the goat.  The man wanted to try it so Brinkley, using the “what the hell” school of medicine, sewed some goat testicles inside the patients testicle sac.  (Brinkley didn’t hook them up to anything, he just dumped there and sewed the man up, after which the patients body slowly and naturally got rid of them as a foreign object.)

However Brinkley got very lucky, for unknown (non-goat testicle reasons) his first patient with a goat ball infusion actually fathered a child unexpectedly, Brinkley used this as an engine to promote his goat ball cure for all human ailments.  He sewed goat testicles into women (near their ovaries) and into men (testicle sac) and eventually even branched into providing “proprietary treatments” distilled from goat testicles and other sources of hormones.  Brinkley also bought himself a brand new radio station and throughout the 1920s beamed entertaining programs, advertisements for his products, and self-promotion to citizens of Kansas.  During the 1920s at his peak he made $10 million per year from this business, but those who saw him (rightfully) as a fraud attempted to put a stop to his antics.

In 1930 the state of Kansas revoked his medical license and six months later the FCC took away his broadcasting license, he fought the second in court but eventually lost.  But Brinkley fought the first in the political arena, running for governor of Kansas in 1930 as a write-in candidate and coming within a stones throw of winning (the attorney general later admitted the election had been slightly rigged to keep Brinkley from winning, a small matter of tossing out between 50,000 to 90,000 key votes.)  Brinkley ran again in 1932 and his conventional campaign near success is telling – the winner of the election was the Republican candidate at 34.82% of the popular vote, the Democrat took 34.11% of the popular vote, and Brinkley got 30.57% of the total.

Brinkley never really had a solid campaign program – he had some vague ideas of public works spending, broader public education, lower taxes and an old age pension.  But he came close to winning twice, not bad for a fraud who based his success on careful publicity, showy campaigning, self-promotion, and goat testicles.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on John R. Brinkley, Entry on John R. Brinkley by the Kansas Historical Society, and an excellent entry on him in QuackWatch.