WWI Centennial: Nightmare – Passchendaele

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 284th installment in the series.

July 31-August 2, 1917: Nightmare – Passchendaele

For all the terrors of the Western Front, exemplified by the First and Second Battles of Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, Arras, and Messines, many ordinary British soldiers seemed to agree that none compared to the florid horror of the Third Battle of Ypres, from July to November 1917 – now remembered for its final phase, the nightmare of Passchendaele (pronounced “passion-dale” or “passion-doll”).

This is a map of what the Western Front looked like on July 31, 1917.
Erik Sass

Named for the small Flemish village that became one of the main objectives of the battle, the Battle of Passchendaele was supposed to be the culmination of a larger campaign to clear the Germans from Flanders, depriving the German Imperial Navy of its U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but things didn’t go quite as planned.

The preparations began well enough with a British tactical victory at Messines in June 1917, giving the attackers an advantageous spot south of Ypres for artillery observation during the battle. However British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig waited a month and a half before launching the main attack northeast of Ypres, giving the Germans plenty of time to reorganize their defenses.

This is a map of what Ypress looked like during the Third Battle of Ypres on July 31, 1917.
Erik Sass

The British plan received another setback on July 10 with a “spoiling attack” by the German Marine Corps against the British XV Corps, consisting of the 1st and 32nd Divisions, at the mouth of the Yser River on the Belgian coast north of Nieuport, putting an end to “Operation Hush,” a planned amphibious landing on the coast behind German lines that was to have coincided with the later stages of the Ypres attack.

Nonetheless Haig was determined to proceed with the main attack at Ypres, in order to maintain pressure on the Germans while the French Army recovered from the mutinies of the spring and summer, and Russia was afflicted with chaos following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive. Haig and his advisors also knew they couldn’t expect the United States to make a major contribution anytime in 1917, despite some early signs of progress. Finally, still they held out hope for a major advance into Belgium (if not an outright breakthrough) through a series of rapid incremental gains, each reinforcing the others, known as the “bite and hold” strategy; on that note, they were also encouraged by the success of the “creeping barrage” technique, in which several waves of bombardment preceded the infantry across the battlefield, obliterating trenches and forcing defenders to take cover until the attackers were upon them.

“MONSTROUS AND OVERWHELMING TUMULT”

The British attack at Passchendaele was preceded by two weeks of the heaviest bombardment yet seen in the war, beginning on July 16 and continuing without a pause until the early morning hours of July 31, during which over 3,000 guns fired an incredible 4.5 million shells – or more than three shells per second for fifteen days (below, original footage of the battle):

The sound of the bombardment was audible many miles away, even across the English Channel, according to the British diarist Vera Brittain, who recalled hearing the guns in southern England while she was on leave between volunteer nursing stints:

At St. Monica’s, one July afternoon, I became aware of a periodic thumping, like a tremendous heart-beat, which made one parched corner of the games-field quiver; the sound might have been a reaping-machine two hundred yards away down the valley, but I knew it for the echo of the guns across the Channel, summoning me back to the War… There was no way of escaping that echo; I belonged to an accursed generation which had to listen and look whether it wanted to do so or not, and it was useless, at this late hour, to try to resist my fate.

The British bombardment included liberal use of poison gas, but as always this sword cut both ways, as the enemy replied in kind with their own counter-bombardment. In fact, during the summer of 1917 the Germans introduced a new chemical agent, mustard gas, actually an oil-based compound dispersed by shells in fine droplets which clung to clothing and skin for hours, making it even more long-lasting and dangerous. On July 25, 1917 Julia Stimson, a nurse with the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, noted its effects in her diary:

We have been receiving patients that have been gassed, and burned in a most mysterious way. Their clothing is not burned at all, but they have bad burns on their bodies, on parts that are covered by clothing… The Germans have been using a kind of oil in bombs, the men say it is oil of mustard. These bombs explode and the men’s eyes, noses, and throats are so irritated they do not detect the poison gas fumes that come from the bombs that follow these oil ones, and so they either inhale it and die like flies, or have a delayed action and are affected by it terribly several hours later… We had a very bad case the other night who had not slept one hour for four nights or days, and whose coughing paroxysms came every minute and a half by the clock.

Meanwhile the relentless bombardment with high explosives had some unexpected effects – most notably the destruction of the ancient, fragile drainage systems painstakingly built by Flemish peasants over the centuries to make the low-lying, waterlogged soil of Flanders arable. This would prove disastrous when unusually strong rains hit the battlefield on the first day of the attack.

Of course the prolonged bombardment also removed any element of surprise, alerting the German Fourth Army under General Sixt von Arnim to expect a major attack on the Ypres front and allowing them to move up reinforcements before the British assault began. Gerhard Gürtler, a theology student from Breslau, described the advance to the front just before the British attack in a letter home:

We spent the whole of the 30th of July moving up to the wagon-lines, and that night, at 2:30 a.m., we went straight on to the gun-line – in pouring rain and under continuous shell-fire; along stony roads, over fallen trees, shell-holes, dead horses; through the heavy clay of the sodden fields, over torn-up hills; through valleys furrowed with trenches and craters. Sometimes it was as light as day, sometimes pitch-dark. Thus we arrived at the line.

Finally, in the early morning of July 31 the shelling reached an insane crescendo, as described by the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs, who also noted the industrial scale of the effort needed to keep the guns supplied with ammunition:

Our gun-fire had never stopped for weeks in its steady slogging hammering, but shortly after half-past three this ordinary noise of artillery quickened and intensified to a monstrous and overwhelming tumult. It was so loud that twelve miles behind the lines big houses moved and were shaken with a great trembling… The red flashes were from our forward batteries and heavy guns, and over all this battlefield, where hundreds of thousands of men were at death-grips, the heavy, smoke-laden vapours of battle and of morning fog swirled and writhed between clumps of trees and across the familiar places of death around Ypres, hiding everything and great masses of men. The drum-fire of the guns never slackened for hours. At nine o’clock in the morning it beat over the countryside with the same rafale of terror as it had started before four o’clock. Strangely above this hammering and thundering of two thousand guns or more of ours, answered by the enemy’s barrage, railway whistles screamed from trains taking up more shells, and always more shells, to the very edge of the fighting-lines, and in between the massed batteries, using them as hard as they could be unloaded.

According to another observer, the French translator Paul Maze, the bombardment was so intense it sent terrified rats fleeing from no-man’s-land into the trenches:

When the barrage finally opened, its violence was such that we looked at one another aghast. I climbed up the stairs into the night. The wind caused by the displacement of air was terrific – I might have been standing on the bridge of a ship during a typhoon and held on to the side of the trench like to a weather rail. Gun-flashes were holing the sky as though thousands of signal-lamp shutters were flashing messages… At every report I felt as though my scalp were being removed. An uninterrupted succession of shells of every calibre was whirling through the air. This bombardment exceeded anything I had ever witnessed before… Suddenly I imagined I was seeing things when the top of our parapet seemed to move. But it was only the terrified rats fleeing in an army of their own.

FIRST PHASE: PILCKEM

The first British attack aimed to recapture much of the ground northeast of Ypres taken by the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres, with the main assault to be carried out by five divisions of the II Corps from General Herbert Gough’s Fifth Army, across the Gheluvelt Plateau in the direction of St. Julien. To the north the offensive would be supported by an attack by the French First Army, as well as attacks by the British 39th, 51st, 38th, and Guards Divisions in the direction of Langemarck, in order to pin down the defenders and prevent them from sending more reinforcements. Further south, the British Second Army including the ANZAC II Corps would attack German positions along the Lys River and around Warneton, where the Battle of Messines had previously concluded.

At 3:50 a.m. on July 31, as a heavy mist lay on the battlefield, the first wave of British infantry went over the top, soon followed by several more waves, all shrouded by the low-lying clouds. Thomas H. Floyd, a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled going over the top in one of the later waves at 8:30 a.m. on July 31, 1917:

Shells were bursting everywhere. It was useless to take any notice where they were falling, because they were falling all round; they could not be dodged; one had to take one’s chance: merely go forward and leave one’s fate to destiny. Thus we advanced, amidst shot and shell, over fields, trenches, wire, fortifications, roads, ditches and streams which were simply churned out of all recognition by shell-fire. The field was strewn with wreckage, with the mangled remains of men and horses lying all over in a most ghastly fashion… Many brave Scottish soldiers were to be seen dead in kneeling positions, killed just as they were firing on the enemy. Some German trenches were lined with German dead in that position. It was hell and slaughter.

The ferocious British bombardment and creeping barrage had done their work well, and German positions to the north were relatively lightly defended, allowing the attacking infantry to advance over a mile and a half, capturing the town of Boesinghe and the neighboring village of Pilckem, from which the first phase of Passchendaele took its name. In the center the attackers advanced over two miles in places, taking the town of St. Julien and advancing beyond the Steenbeck River – but the mist hid the advancing troops from their own artillery, making it much more difficult for the gunners to continue supporting the attack. Then in the afternoon the Germans counterattacked in strength, driving them back with heavy casualties equal to over half of the their total strength (below, British soldiers with wounded comrades). Then on the afternoon of July 31 nature made a surprise intervention.

This is an image of wounded British soldiers from the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"CONDITIONS ARE AS BAD AS I HAVE EVER KNOWN"

While Flanders is known for its bad weather, both sides were taken by surprise by torrential rains which coincided with the opening of Passchendaele, in the normally hot and relatively dry late summer, continuing for a week from July 31 to August 6. The unseasonable downpour turned the Flemish fields into a sea of mud, now without their delicate drainage systems, making it almost impossible to bring up rations and evacuate wounded, let along move heavy guns or ammunition (top, British stretcher bearers attempt to evacuate a wounded soldier). Many wounded soldiers drowned in flooded shell holes or due to exposure. Brigadier General Alexander Johnston wrote in his diary on August 1-2, 1917:

My poor fellows had an awful time, and many wounded sank in the mud and were drowned in it before assistance could reach them or before they were discovered – one officer who had practically sunk into the mud out of sight was found only half an hour after I had been speaking to him, such a good chap too. We had about 120 casualties in the day, and besides this there were men dropping from cold and exhaustion. The stretcher bearers could not compete with the number of casualties, and in any case it required about 6 men to carry a stretcher as each man sank into the mud at least up to his knees besides which most of the men were too done up to be able to carry the weight… the men had just to make the best of things and spent the night in mud often up to their waists… The rain still continues, and conditions are as bad as I have ever known.

Although it was cold comfort, the British could console themselves that the Germans had it just as bad. Gürtler, the theology student, described conditions at Ypres in early August:

The whole place is in the middle of arable fields reduced to a sea of mud, churned up to a depth of 15 feet or more by the daily barrage of the English 6- to 8- and 11-inch shells, one crater touching another. To this the never-ceasing rain adds a finishing touch! Nothing can be seen far and wide but water and mud… We can’t have a proper dug-out because the ground is so soft and wet, only a sort of rather superior wooden hut, covered with tarred felt, sand and leafy branches, so that when it rains, as it generally does, we simply have to lie in the water.

Gibbs, the war correspondent, spoke to German prisoners of war who had endured the British bombardment, infantry attacks, and then the rain and mud:

They had the look of men who have been through hell. They were drenched with rain, which poured down their big steel helmets. Their top-boots were full of water, which squelched out at every step, and their sunken eyes stared out of ash-grey faces with the look of sick and hunted animals. Many of them had cramp in the stomach through long exposure and hunger before being captures, and they groaned loudly and piteously. Many of them wept while being interrogated, protesting bitterly that they hated the war and wanted nothing but peace.

This is an image of soldiers traveling through Chateau Wood.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Among other effects, the mud helped cancel out any tactical advantage that might have been gained from the participation of over 100 British tanks in the attack. After contributing to the British advance around St. Julien and to the north, the tanks soon fell prey to the quagmire: although designed to cross trenches, deep ditches and other rough terrain, the tanks were not especially well-suited to operating in waist-high mud, and many of them became immobilized, as described by Gibbs (below, an abandoned tank):

… by that hour in the afternoon the rain had turned the ground to swamp, and the Tanks sank deep in it, with wet mud half-way up their flanks, and slipped and slithered back when they tried to struggle out. Many of the officers and crews had to get out of their steel forts, risking heavy shelling and machine-gun fire to dig out their way, and in the neighbourhood of St.-Julien they worked for two hours in the open to de-bog their Tank while German gunners tried to destroy them by direct hits.

This is an image of a Derelict Tank that's stuck in the mud.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By August 2, 1917 the rain forced Haig and Gough to temporarily put the rest of the offensive on hold, but with every intention of resuming the attack as soon as weather permitted. Meanwhile the pause in major infantry attacks didn’t mean that rank and file troops were left safe (if cold, wet, and miserable) in their hastily improvised trenches – far from it. Indeed both sides continued heavy shelling and gas attacks, according to Gürtler, who described the fighting at Ypres in his final letter home on August 10:

Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The earth trembles and shakes like a jelly. Flares illumine the darkness with their white, yellow, green and red lights and cause the tall stumps of the poplars to throw weird shadows. And we crouch between the mountains of ammunition (some of us up to our knees in water) and fire and fire, while all around us shells upon shells plunge into the mire, shatter our emplacement, root up trees, flatten the house behind us to the level of the ground, and scatter wet dirt all over so we look as if we had come out of a mud-bath. We sweat like stokers on a ship; the barrel is red-hot; the cases are still burning hot when we take them out of the breech; and still the one and only order is, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ – until one is quite dazed.

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Facts About Japanese Internment in the United States

Portrait of internee Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943
Portrait of internee Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943
Ansel Adams, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // No Known Copyright Restrictions

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the removal of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese heritage from their homes to be imprisoned in internment camps throughout the country.

At the time, the move was sold to the public as a strategic military necessity. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the government argued that it was impossible to know where the loyalties of Japanese-Americans rested.

Between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were relocated to internment camps along the West Coast and as far east as Louisiana. Here are 12 facts about what former first lady Laura Bush has described as "one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history."

1. The government was already discussing detaining people before the Pearl Harbor attack.

In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt—who was concerned about Japan’s growing military might—instructed William H. Standley, his chief of naval operations, to clandestinely monitor "every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships [arriving in Hawaii] or has any connection with their officers or men" and to secretly place their names "on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble."

This sentiment helped lead to the creation of the Custodial Detention List, which would later guide the U.S. in detaining 31,899 Japanese, German, and Italian nationals, separate from the 110,000-plus later interred, without charging them with a crime or offering them any access to legal counsel.

2. Initial studies of the “Japanese problem” proved that there wasn’t one.

In early 1941, Curtis Munson, a special representative of the State Department, was tasked with interviewing West Coast-based Japanese-Americans to gauge their loyalty levels in coordination with the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Munson reported that there was extraordinary patriotism among Japanese immigrants, saying that "90 percent like our way best," and that they were "extremely good citizen[s]" who were "straining every nerve to show their loyalty." Lieutenant Commander K.D. Ringle’s follow-up report showed the same findings and argued against internment because only a small percentage of the community posed a threat, and most of those individuals were already in custody.

3. The general in charge of Western defense command took nothing happening after Pearl Harbor as proof that something would happen.

Minidoka Relocation Center. Community Store in block 30
National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Despite both Munson and Ringle debunking the concept of internment as a strategic necessity, the plan moved ahead—spurred largely by Western Defense Command head General John L. DeWitt. One month after Pearl Harbor, DeWitt created the central ground for mass incarceration by declaring: "The fact that nothing has happened so far is more or less ... ominous in that I feel that in view of the fact that we have had no sporadic attempts at sabotage that there is a control being exercised and when we have it, it will be on a mass basis."

DeWitt, whose ancestors were Dutch, didn’t want anyone of Japanese descent on the West Coast, stating that “American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

4. Almost no one protested internment.

Alongside General DeWitt, Wartime Civil Control Administration director Colonel Karl Bendetsen avowed that anyone with even “one drop of Japanese blood” should be incarcerated, and the country generally went along with that assessment. Some newspapers ran op-eds opposing the policy, and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies created pamphlets to push back, but as historian Eric Foner wrote in The Story of American Freedom, "One searches the wartime record in vain for public protests among non-Japanese." Senator Robert Taft was the only congressperson to condemn the policy.

5. Supporting or opposing internment were both matters of economics.

White farmers and landowners on the West Coast had great economic incentives to get rid of Japanese farmers who had come to the area only decades before and found success with new irrigation methods. They fomented deep hatred for their Japanese neighbors and publicly advocated for internment, which is one reason so many of the more than 110,000 Japanese individuals sent to camps came from the West Coast. In Hawaii, it was a different story. White business owners opposed internment, but not for noble reasons: They feared losing their workforce. Thus, only between 1200 and 1800 Japanese-Americans from Hawaii were sent to internment camps.

6. People were tagged for identification.

Children in a drawing class at Minidoka Relocation Center
National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Moving entire communities of people to camps in California, Colorado, Texas, and beyond was a gargantuan logistical task. The military assigned tags with ID numbers to families, including the children, to ensure they would be transferred to the correct camp. In 2012, artist Wendy Maruyama recreated thousands of these tags for an art exhibition she titled "The Tag Project."

"The process of replicating these tags using government databases, writing thousands of names, numbers, and camp locations became a meditative process," Maruyama told Voices of San Diego. “And for the hundreds of volunteers, they could, for a minute or two as they wrote the names, contemplate and wonder what this person was thinking as he or she was being moved from the comforts of home to the spare and bare prisons placed in the foreboding deserts and wastelands of America. And could it happen again?”

7. Not everyone went quietly.

Directly combatting the image of the “polite” Japanese-Americans who acquiesced to internment without protest, collections of resistance stories paint a disruptive picture of those who refused to go to the camps or made trouble once inside. Among those who were considered "problematic" were individuals who refused to register for the compulsory loyalty questionnaire, which asked questions about whether the person was a registered voter and with which party, as well as marital status and "citizenship of wife" and "race of wife."

“A broadly understood notion of resistance represents a more complete picture of what happened during World War II,” David Yoo, a professor of Asian American Studies and History and vice provost at UCLA's Institute of American Cultures, told NBC News about collecting these resistance stories. “Because these stories touch upon human rights, they are important for all peoples.”

8. The government converted unused buildings into camp facilities.

For the most part, camps were set against desert scrub land or infertile Ozark hills bordered with barbed wire. Before getting on buses to be transported to their new "homes," detainees had to go through processing centers housed in converted racetracks and fairgrounds, where they might stay for several months. The largest and most noteworthy center was Santa Anita Park, a racetrack in Arcadia, California, which was shut down so that makeshift barracks could be assembled and horse stables could be used for sleeping quarters.

9. Ansel Adams took hundreds of photographs inside the most famous camp, as did an internee with a smuggled camera.

Wooden sign at entrance to the Manzanar War Relocation Center with a car at the gatehouse in the background
Ansel Adams, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Approximately 200 miles north of Santa Anita Park, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, was Manzanar—which, with its 11,000 internees, was perhaps the most famous of America's 10 relocation centers. It was also the most photographed facility. In the fall of 1942, famed photographer Ansel Adams—who was personally outraged by the situation when a family friend was taken from his home and moved halfway across the country—shot more than 200 images of the camp. In a letter to a friend about a book being made of the photos, Adams wrote that, "Through the pictures the reader will be introduced to perhaps 20 individuals ... loyal American citizens who are anxious to get back into the stream of life and contribute to our victory."

While Adams may have successfully offered a small glimpse at life inside Manzanar, Tōyō Miyatake—a photographer and detainee who managed to smuggle a lens and film into the camp, which he later fashioned into a makeshift camera—produced a series of photos that offered a much more intimate depiction of what everyday life was like for the individuals who were imprisoned there between 1942 and 1945. Today, Manzanar is a National Historic Site.

10. Detainees were told they were in camps for their own protection.

Japanese-Hawaiian hula dancers on an improvised stage during one of the frequent talent shows at Santa Anita (California) Assembly Center
U.S. Signal Corps, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just as the justification for internment was an erroneous belief in mass disloyalty among a single racial group, the argument given to those incarcerated was that they were better off inside the barbed wire compounds than back in their own homes, where racist neighbors could assault them. When presented with that logic, one detainee rebutted, “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”

11. Internees experienced long-term health problems because of the camps, and children had it the worst.

Internment officially lasted through 1944, with the last camp closing in early 1946. In those years, Japanese-Americans did their best to make lives for themselves on the inside. That included jobs and governance, as well as concerts, religion, and sports teams. Children went to school, but there were also dances and comic books to keep them occupied. But the effects of their internment were long-lasting.

There have been multiple studies of the physical and psychological health of former internees. They found those placed in camps had a greater risk for cardiovascular disease and death, as well as traumatic stress. Younger internees experienced low self-esteem, as well as psychological trauma that led many to shed their Japanese culture and language. Gwendolyn M. Jensen’s The Experience of Injustice: Health Consequences of the Japanese American Internment found that younger internees “reported more post-traumatic stress symptoms of unexpected and disturbing flashback experiences than those who were older at the time of incarceration.”

12. A congressional panel called it a “grave injustice" ... 40 years later.

Japanese Americans going to Manzanar gather around a baggage car at the old Santa Fe Station. (April 1942)
Russell Lee, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It wasn’t until 1983 that a special Congressional commission determined that the mass internment was a matter of racism and not of military strategy. Calling the incarceration a “grave injustice,” the panel cited the ignored Munson and Ringle reports, the absence of any documented acts of espionage, and delays in shutting down the camps due to weak political leadership from President Roosevelt on down as factors in its conclusion. The commission paved the way for President Reagan to sign the Civil Liberties Act, which gave each surviving internee $20,000 and officially apologized. Approximately two-thirds of the more than 110,000 people detained were U.S. citizens.

This list first ran in 2018.

The Disturbing Reason Schools Tattooed Their Students in the 1950s

Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Paul Bailey was born at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah on May 9, 1955, it took less than two hours for the staff to give him a tattoo. Located on his torso under his left arm, the tiny marking was rendered in indelible ink with a needle gun and indicated Bailey’s blood type: O-Positive.

“It is believed to be the youngest baby ever to have his blood type tattooed on his chest,” reported the Beaver County News, cooly referring to the infant as an “it.” A hospital employee was quick to note parental consent had been obtained first.

The permanent tattooing of a child who was only hours old was not met with any hysteria. Just the opposite: In parts of Utah and Indiana, local health officials had long been hard at work instituting a program that would facilitate potentially life-saving blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack. By branding children and adults alike with their blood type, donors could be immediately identified and used as “walking blood banks” for the critically injured.

Taken out of context, it seems unimaginable. But in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its apex and atomic warfare appeared not only possible but likely, children willingly lined up at schools to perform their civic duty. They raised their arm, gritted their teeth, and held still while the tattoo needle began piercing their flesh.

 

The practice of subjecting children to tattoos for blood-typing has appropriately morbid roots. Testifying at the Nuremberg Tribunal on War Crimes in the 1940s, American Medical Association physician Andrew Ivy observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried body markings indicating their blood type [PDF]. When he returned to his hometown of Chicago, Ivy carried with him a solution for quickly identifying blood donors—a growing concern due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict was depleting blood banks of inventory, and it was clear that reserves would be necessary.

School children sit next to one another circa the 1950s
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

If the Soviet Union targeted areas of the United States for destruction, it would be vital to have a protocol for blood transfusions to treat radiation poisoning. Matches would need to be found quickly. (Transfusions depend on matching blood to avoid the adverse reactions that come from mixing different types. When a person receives blood different from their own, the body will create antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.)

In 1950, the Department of Defense placed the American Red Cross in charge of blood donor banks for the armed forces. In 1952, the Red Cross was the coordinating agency [PDF] for obtaining blood from civilians for the National Blood Program, which was meant to replenish donor supply during wartime. Those were both measures for soldiers. Meanwhile, local medical societies were left to determine how best to prepare their civilian communities for a nuclear event and its aftermath.

As part of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee, Ivy promoted the use of the tattoos, declaring them as painless as a vaccination. Residents would get blood-typed by having their finger pricked and a tiny droplet smeared on a card. From there, they would be tattooed with the ABO blood group and Rhesus factor (or Rh factor), which denotes whether or not a person has a certain type of blood protein present.

The Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health endorsed the program and citizens voiced a measure of support for it. One letter to the editor of The Plainfield Courier-News in New Jersey speculated it might even be a good idea to tattoo Social Security numbers on people's bodies to make identification easier.

Despite such marked enthusiasm, the project never entered into a pilot testing stage in Chicago.

Officials with the Lake County Medical Society in nearby Lake County, Indiana were more receptive to the idea. In the spring of 1951, 5000 residents were blood-typed using the card method. But, officials cautioned, the cards could be lost in the chaos of war or even the relative quiet of everyday life. Tattoos and dog tags were encouraged instead. When 1000 people lined up for blood-typing at a county fair, two-thirds agreed to be tattooed as part of what the county had dubbed "Operation Tat-Type." By December 1951, 15,000 Lake County residents had been blood-typed. Roughly 60 percent opted for a permanent marking.

The program was so well-received that the Lake County Medical Society quickly moved toward making children into mobile blood bags. In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana enrolled in the pilot testing stage. Children were sent home with permission slips explaining the effort. If parents consented, students would line up on appointed tattoo days to get their blood typed with a finger prick. From there, they’d file into a room—often the school library—set up with makeshift curtains behind which they could hear a curious buzzing noise.

When a child stepped inside, they were greeted by a school administrator armed with indelible ink and wielding a Burgess Vibrotool, a medical tattoo gun featuring 30 to 50 needles. The child would raise their left arm to expose their torso (since arms and legs might be blown off in an attack) and were told the process would only take seconds.

A child raises his hand in class circa the 1950s
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

Some children were stoic. Some cried before, during, or after. One 11-year-old recounting her experience with the program said a classmate emerged from the session and promptly fainted. All were left with a tattoo less than an inch in diameter on their left side, intentionally pale so it would be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the same time that grade schoolers—and subsequently high school students—were being imprinted in Indiana, kids in Cache and Rich counties in Utah were also submitting to the program, despite potential religious obstacles for the region's substantial Mormon population. In fact, Bruce McConkie, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, declared that blood-type tattoos were exempt from the typical prohibitions on Mormons defacing their bodies, giving the program a boost among the devout. The experiment would not last much longer, though.

 

By 1955, 60,000 adults and children had gotten tattooed with their blood types in Lake County. In Milford, health officials persisted in promoting the program widely, offering the tattoos for free during routine vaccination appointments. But despite the cooperation exhibited by communities in Indiana and Utah, the programs never spread beyond their borders.

The Korean conflict had come to an end in 1953, reducing the strain put on blood supplies and along with it, the need for citizens to double as walking blood banks. More importantly, outside of the program's avid boosters, most physicians were extremely reticent to rely solely on a tattoo for blood-typing. They preferred to do their own testing to make certain a donor was a match with a patient.

There were other logistical challenges that made the program less than useful. The climate of a post-nuclear landscape meant that bodies might be charred, burning off tattoos and rendering the entire operation largely pointless. With the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear arsenal—1600 warheads were ready to take to the skies by 1960—the idea of civic defense became outmoded. Ducking and covering under desks, which might have shielded some from the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, would be meaningless in the face of such mass destruction.

Programs like tat-typing eventually fell out of favor, yet tens of thousands of adults consented to participate even after the flaws in the program were publicized, and a portion allowed their young children to be marked, too. Their motivation? According to Carol Fischler, who spoke with the podcast 99% Invisible about being tattooed as a young girl in Indiana, the paranoia over the Cold War in the 1950s drowned out any thought of the practice being outrageous or harmful. Kids wanted to do their part. Many nervously bit their lip but still lined up with the attitude that the tattoo was part of being a proud American.

Perhaps equally important, children who complained of the tattoo leaving them particularly sore received another benefit: They got the rest of the afternoon off.

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