WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

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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