WWI Centennial: “The Black Day of the German Army”

David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 315th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

AUGUST 8, 1918: “THE BLACK DAY OF THE GERMAN ARMY”

The failure of the final German offensive on the Western Front in July 1918 was the decisive turning point of the First World War. Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch had unleashed his first major counterattack with French and American troops at the Second Battle of the Marne, forcing outnumbered German armies to withdraw from the Marne salient thanks in part to American heroics at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. This retreat effectively marked the end of German offensive capability on the Western Front, but the Germans remained dug in across northern France and Belgium, meaning the war was far from over. To achieve victory, the Allies would have to mount a series of massive offensives of their own—the greatest campaign in military history to that point.

On August 8, 1918, the British Expeditionary Force took the first swing with an all-out attack against enemy forces around the historic Somme battlefield. They needed to free the strategic Paris-Amiens railroad; alleviate the threat to the channel ports including Boulogne and Calais, which served as key British supply bases; and liberate coal mines critical to French industry, per the plan agreed by Foch and BEF commander Douglas Haig on July 24, as the final German offensive petered out.

Maps of World War I positions in August 1918
Erik Sass

The Battle of Amiens from August 8-12, 1918, was a decisive Allied victory, crushing the German Second Army under the mighty hammer blows of the British Fourth, Third, and First Armies. They were supported by overwhelming artillery firepower, close air support for observation and ground attacks, with over 1,400 Allied planes facing less than half that number of German machines; and hundreds of tanks advancing ahead of the infantry to smash enemy strongpoints (top, British troops preparing to fire). The defeat was so devastating that German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff rued August 8, 1918 as “the black day of the German army.” It marked the first day of the fateful “Hundred Days’ Offensive” by the Allies, which culminated in the final collapse of the German Empire.

The Allied plan emphasized surprise, beginning with the stealthy concentration of attack troops along a 20-mile stretch of front around Amiens, requiring hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of artillery pieces and tanks to move only at night to conceal their locations from enemy spies and aerial observation. Edward Lynch, an Australian private, recalled a miserable march to the front on the night of August 7, 1918:

“Two nights later, we did another rotten night march. It took us six hours to march 12 miles as the roads were so congested with traffic. Motor traffic had the center of the road whilst the slow-moving horses and mules kept to the outside edge of it. We were anywhere we could get, walking, running, dodging, and shoving our swearing way in and out between motor wheels and horses’ legs, abusing and being abused; swallowing dust, motor fumes, and the smell of dirty mules.”

Inclement weather only added to their woes. Another Australian soldier, W.H. Downing, left a vivid impression of conditions as his unit moved up to its staging position under enemy fire:

“Every night the cobblestones of all the roads of all the countryside resounded with the clatter and the roll of many parallel streams of transport. The highways were crowded with tanks, with field guns, with motor lorries carrying war material of every kind, with 9.2 howitzers, with gargantuan siege guns whose mammoth barrels were borne on tractors, while their bodies rolled behind them on their giant iron wheels—all going the same way, making the hillsides vibrate with their thunder. Among these packed columns, strings of horsemen and laden infantry wound their way. It began to rain. The boom and flickering of guns were nearer and nearer. At length there were shell bursts on the road, a derelict tank, a dead mule or two. We had marched 20 miles. That night we lay in the rain, on the side of the railway embankment, under heavy shellfire.”

Modeled on the short-lived victory at Cambrai in November 1917 and the success of the French Tenth Army counterattack in late July, the Allies launched the attack without a preliminary artillery bombardment, relying instead on hundreds of tanks advancing under cover of darkness to catch German defenders unaware. The only artillery preparation was the standard creeping barrage, unleashed at the last minute to provide a protective moving wall of fire in front of infantry and tanks. Downing recalled the sudden unleashing of the barrage in the early morning hours of August 8, 1918:

“As though a flaming dawn had been flung into the sky, the whole world flared behind us. There was a titanic pandemonium of ten thousand guns. We shouted to each other, but we could not hear our own voices, buried beneath colossal ranges of sound. The lighter, more metallic notes of thousands of field guns were blended in one long-drawn chord. The hoarse and frantic rumble of the 60-pounders, the long naval guns, the great howitzers, was like the rapid burring of a thousand drums.”

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, described the scene in the early morning of August 8, 1918:

“The darkness of the night became a glare of lightning-like red, yellow, and white flashes. The Earth shook as from an earthquake. Breathing suddenly became difficult as our nerves grew number from the terrific concussion caused by the crashing, roaring, blasting, air-splitting din about us. Thousands of guns were firing from wherever room for one could be found, on a front 20 miles long. Thousands of tons of high explosive and gas were being thrown into the German trenches, gun positions, and routes over which his reserves must march. How any of the troops in that part of the German line ever escaped that terrible bombardment is a miracle.”

Next came the tanks, described by Downing:

“White smoke curled over us and hid the flaming skies. There was a thrumming as of gigantic bumble bees, and a low chug-chug-chug, as the ugly noses of tanks poked through the mist above us. We hastily scattered from the path of one and found ourselves almost beneath others. They went forward in a line, scarcely thirty yards between them. They were in scores, and their vibrations sounded through the fog from every side, like another layer of sound on the bellow of the guns … Whenever we found ourselves in trouble, we signaled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! As their little toy guns spoke and their little, pointed shells flew, another German post was blown to pieces. A brick wall tottered and crumbled amid a cloud of red dust. They passed the place. The machine gun and its crew were crushed and still.”

On the other side, one anonymous German soldier in the 58th artillery regiment recalled British infantry supported by seemingly endless numbers of tanks on the morning of August 8, 1918:

“Ahead of us, the khaki lines of British infantry were emerging from the ravine. ‘Look out, buddies, or else we are lost!’ somebody shouted. We began firing time shells. The enemy wave slowed down, swayed, and dispersed … Suddenly Sergeant Niermann, commander of one of our two remaining guns, shouted, ‘A tank, straight ahead.’ A light tank was roaring toward us with great speed, plunging into craters and climbing over trenches, while his machine guns kept firing at our battery. Bullets were whizzing all around us. Our men feverishly set the sights and fired one, two shells in rapid succession. Before us, there was a shattering roar followed by a dark cloud the size of a house: the tank had been destroyed. But this was only the beginning. Two large tanks emerged from the ruins of Lamotte, flames flashing from their steel turrets. Their projectiles were exploding around our battery. Our pointers aimed at them hurriedly, fired a few shells, and disposed of the two tanks as rapidly as they had wiped out the first. But three new tanks were approaching in single file through the high grass on our right, and had arrived within several hundred yards. We could clearly see their occupants’ flat helmets above the turrets. Their guns opened fired on us, and again four men of our battery were badly wounded … The order, ‘Fire at will!’ was followed by a desperate cannonade … The tank’s destruction was our last-minute salvation. Now it was high time to fall back. The British assault troops behind the tanks were surging forward in small groups in all directions.”

On the right the French First Army, which lacked enough tanks to participate in the surprise attack, waited 45 minutes after the British infantry and tanks went over the top before unleashing another attack preceded by the traditional artillery barrage. All along the front, the surprise attack caught thousands of German troops in frontline trenches, resulting in terrible bloodshed followed by panicked withdrawals. Lynch, the Australian private, remembered gory scenes as the Allies advanced:

“We cross the old front line and are in what was old no-man’s-land a few hours ago. We pass through the gaps in our wire and reach the enemy wire which has been smashed and tossed about by our barrage. Dozens of dead everywhere and not a whole man amongst them. Limbless and headless they lie coated in chalk, torn and slashed.”

German POWs in World War I
John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lynch and his comrades encountered huge numbers of surrendering Germans, reflective of the cratering enemy morale, as ordinary troops—already hungry and suffering from the flu—simply gave up in the face of the Allies’ overwhelming manpower and material superiority (above, German POWs). As Lynch wrote, some enemy officers couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering and committed suicide—or perhaps they simply refused to allow their troops to surrender, and were lynched for their trouble:

“Now a big crowd of Fritz are running back to us. There must be a hundred of them captured by our advancing companies … Into a little thick green wood and we’re in an enemy camp. Transport carts and wagons are here in dozens. Dead Fritz everywhere and about 30 wounded are lying under a big shady tree. Fritz with little red crosses on their arms are bandaging the wounded … ‘Come here, sir!’ a man calls, and I follow an officer up to a little sentry box and we look in. A Fritz officer is in it, dead; hanged by a white cord around his neck. The sight is horrible, especially the bulging eyes and the swollen, protruding tongue.”

William Orpen, a British war correspondent, described the huge numbers of dejected German POWs:

“Any day on the roads then one passed thousands of field-grey prisoners--long lines of weary, beaten men. They had none of the arrogance of the early prisoners, who were all sure Germany would win, and showed their thoughts clearly. No, these men were beaten and knew it, and they had not the spirit left even to try and hide their feelings.”

Fritz Nagel, an officer in the German anti-aircraft artillery, remembered August 8, 1918 as the final nail in the coffin of German martial spirit:

“The German armies were in very bad shape. Every soldier and civilian was hungry. Losses in material could not be replaced and the soldiers arriving as replacements were too young, poorly trained, and often unwilling to risk their necks because the war now looked like a lost cause. Since the Allied breakthrough on August 8 in the Albert-Moreuil sector, the enemy’s superiority in men and guns became visible to even the simplest soldier, and morale was breaking down gradually.”

Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, noted in early August 1918, “It also appears from the same source that the enemy have unheard-of numbers of tanks, including new models. It is gradually turning into a complete war of machines.” And in his famous novel and war memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque remembered the mounting deprivation and despair of the war’s final phases:

“Our lines are falling back. There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there. There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. Too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes. But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels.”

Ominously, many ordinary German soldiers no longer bothered to conceal their feelings from military censors, a sure sign that morale was close to the breaking point. In August 1918 a report from German military censorship noted uneasily, “It is by the way remarkable that letter writers, after having recently vented their anger in most drastic form, often add, ‘I know they are checking my correspondence, but just let them read this, this way they will at least learn the truth.’”

At the same time the Germans were both impressed and discouraged by the appearance and spirit of well-supplied American soldiers, although they were also puzzled by some new American habits, according to Nagel:

“A few days before, I had seen about 20 American soldiers who had been taken prisoner and were marching by to be shipped to some prison camp. They looked healthy, well-fed, and above everything else, their marvelous clothing and uniform accessories impressed us. Everything they had seemed to be of the best—fine heavy boots and thick leather for their gun holsters, belts, and gloves. All of them were chewing furiously, which confounded the bystanders until I explained to them the importance of chewing gum to the American way of life. Most Germans never had heard of chewing gum.”

It should be noted that not everyone was impressed with the Americans’ martial bearing, at least among their own Allies. On encountering American troops for the first time during this period, Stanley Spencer, a British soldier, recognized their fitness but was otherwise skeptical:

“On the second day of our stay, one of the new American battalions marched through the village and I never saw a more disreputable looking party in my life. They were a fine lot physically but their uniforms were an amazing mixture of American, French, and British, and they shambled along the street out of step and out of line, with hardly a trace of discipline amongst them.”

With the German armies beating a swift but relatively orderly retreat in the west, the fighting ground on mercilessly, as the Allies maintained a close pursuit, inflicting heavy casualties and paying heavily in blood for these gains—the climactic resumption of the open warfare of the first days of the war, with its terrible harvest of death and suffering. Lynch, the Australian private, wrote of continuing combat August 17 (below, an Australian battalion resting):

“The darkness is stabbed on every hand by vivid lightning-like flashes that leap from the ground with mighty, shuddering roars. Under foot we feel the ground rumble and vibrate. Over our ducking heads, shell fragments whizz and hum through the air as along the trench we hurry, fearful lest a shell gets amongst us at any step. Fingers of death are clutching through the night … We are stumbling along a deep grassy trench when my foot treads on something soft and springy in the trench floor. I stumble as if walking on a half-inflated football, peer down and see I have trodden on a man’s stomach. A torch flashes and its fleeting beam shows a headless and legless Australian body lying amongst the lank grass underfoot. A few steps more and an officer gives a breathless sigh as he sidesteps something else in the grass, something round, something gruesome even to a war-hardened officer—the mangled head of the man whose body lies a few yards back.”

Australian 6th Battalion in World War I
Australian War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A few days later Lynch described ghastly sights that had become all too familiar for young men over the previous few years:

“On every side are up-turned faces, greeny-black in putrefaction and great, swollen, distorted bodies. Sightless, dull, dust-filled eyes. If they would only close! But no, they remain open—and move! Open, gaping mouths are surely moving too! We’re sick in every fiber as we hurry on past open eyes and open mouths. Past eaten-out eye-sockets and mouths that are a seething mass of feasting grubs. We’re in the land of rotting men in the year of Our Lord, 1918.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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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