10 Odd Jobs From the World War II Military Classification Guide

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Click on the History Channel or open up a high school textbook, and you might end up concluding that World War II was exclusively won by troops and generals on the frontlines, and the wills and whims of national figureheads like Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.

The reality is—of course—much more complex, with generalists and specialists engaging in important battles to win wars of information, communication, infrastructure, and technology. Sometimes this meant storming the beaches of Normandy, and sometimes this meant, say, drafting posters to school soldiers on the dangers of venereal disease. With that in mind, here are ten of the oddest, most interesting jobs American soldiers took on during World War II, lifted directly from the United States’ 1944 Military Occupational Classification guide [PDF].

1. Playwright

No single military classification ended up packing more cultural power in a small group than the elite team of nine American WWII “playwrights.” The squad included the four-headed monster of Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner William Saroyan, all-time directing great Frank Capra, and a fellow named Theodore Geisel, who also used the pseudonym Dr. Seuss and wrote every book you read between ages three and 10.

"Civilian experience in writing or adapting scripts or scenarios for radio, stage, or motion pictures is required," the manual notes. But apparently, it wasn’t all as glamorous as it sounds—the absurdly talented crew put their skills not just to writing films but also to tasks like writing training manuals and pamphlets on avoiding venereal disease. However, Geisel and Capra would go on to celebrate victory by teaming up for this incredibly eerie piece of anti-German propaganda for occupying American troops.

2. Artist

Being an American classified as “Artist” during World War II was far from the cushy paint-pretty-pictures-until-the-troops-come-home position you might imagine. While duties included making “paintings, illustrations, layouts, sketches or designs,” occasionally lives, and even the outcomes of major battles, hinged on artists’ abilities. How? American artists were partially responsible for pulling off some of the Allies’ most massive deceptions of the war, designing decoy armies of inflatable rubber vehicles and other oddities meant to throw off German intelligence. Their operations also notably resulted in awesome pictures like this, of people picking tanks up like it ain’t nothing.

Artists ended up being crucial to one of the most important deceptions of World War II—the now-infamous and wildly successful Operation Fortitude, which left German intelligence officers convinced an allied invasion of France would take place near Pas-de-Calais rather than the the Caen-Cotentin region of Normandy, where the Allies ultimately landed.

3. Dog Trainer

The Russians deployed anti-tank dogs, trained to carry explosives to German tanks during the War, but—as any dog lover is surely happy to hear—the United States K-9 corps, which included dogs donated by families to aid in the American war effort, executed more traditional military duties, sniffing out enemy positions, detecting mines and traps, and carrying messages and supplies. One dog named Chips was even awarded a Silver Star for heroism and a Purple Heart, until the killjoys at the War Department ultimately determined that dogs were classified as “equipment” and ruled Chips ineligible.

One American World War II Combat Dog Handler, William W. Putney, wrote that because dogs and their handlers often trekked out in front of troops, it was “one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II.” Dogs also played a major role on D-Day, parachuting in alongside British troops for the invasion. Seriously. That’s something that actually happened.

4. Link Celestial Navigation Trainer Operator

Perhaps the most strangely specific military class during the war, anyone with the title Link Celestial Navigation Trainer Operator would have been, broadly, a person who helped prepare aviation crews for battle. More specifically, they would have controlled a strange-yet-slightly-ingenious device that combined flight simulation with cutting edge (for the time) projector technology.

Created for the war by aviation pioneer Edwin A. Link, the Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT) was essentially a flight simulator housed in an air-conditioned silo, with either stars projected on a screen above to give the appearance of night, or terrain projected below to give the appearance of day. The trainer would control weather variables while the crew-in-training would take aim at targets, making it something like what the kids today call a video game.

5. Balloon Rigger

One for the “probably not as much fun as it sounds” category, the business of balloon rigging was an important part of aerial warfare during World War II. On the Allied side, large, stationary balloons tethered with steel cables were frequently used to prevent or manipulate air attacks. The British were particularly fond of barrage balloons, using thousands to counter German air attacks. At the height of the war, they were an especially common sight in the London skies.

If you were in the right spot at the right time, you also might have spotted a few balloons over American soil, since they were used by Canadian and American forces [PDF] to protect the Soo Locks, which run along a common border between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The balloons became a curiosity and occasionally, a menace in the area, blowing out windows upon accidental explosion and damaging property upon breaking free from time to time.

6. Smoke Generator Operator

Pretty much the oldest trick in the field of battle book, smoke screens were still a major part of battle during World War II, and were particularly useful for throwing off enemies in the open seas. Smoke Generator Operators were responsible for maintaining a portable smoke generator, taking into account wind and weather while laying down screens for offensive operations and covers.

Fun fact: the smoke screen technology widely used by the United States during World War II was first developed by New Orleans bootlegger Alonzo C. Patterson—he used the screens to keep his rum-running boats hidden from police during Prohibition.

7. Sound Recorder, Field Artillery (836)

Another one to mark off in the “actually way more important than it sounds” tally, artillery sound recorders were crucial to helping to track the origin of enemy gunfire using sets of microphones strategically placed along front lines. A new technology [PDF] during World War I, by World War II sound ranging had become so sophisticated that, much of the time, sound ranging teams could actually determine the weapons being used based on the shape of the sound waves they produced. As you can imagine, this information was very useful in the heat of battle.

8. Pigeoneer

If Mike Tyson has a favorite WWII military classification, it's probably Pigeoneers. They were part of the United States Army Pigeon Service, which included some 3150 soldiers and 54,000 pigeons, who delivered their undetectable messages with an astounding 90 percent success rate. One American pigeon known as G.I. Joe even received a medal for gallantry after delivering a vital, last-minute message informing British forces that an Italian village was under British control, thus preventing a friendly fire disaster that might have resulted in roughly a thousand deaths.

9. Crystal Grinder

Far from grunt manual laborers, Crystal Grinders were specialists who had the hands and precision necessary to craft quartz wafers to be used as oscillators in radio transmitters and receivers. This was, of course, very much necessary for the United States war effort. In fact, the United States’ struggle to perfect quartz-based radio communication has been called America’s most massive scientific World War II undertaking outside of the Manhattan Project. The techniques that were revolutionized at the time are now widely used in wristwatches, clocks, radios, computers, and cellphones. The history of quartz in the 20th century: slightly more interesting than it sounds!

10. Bandsman, Snare Drum

Getting quality army bands together to perform at recruiting drives, concerts, ceremonies, and even to entertain troops on the front lines was considered no small thing after the United States dove into the war following Pearl Harbor—the War Department founded an emergency Army Music School to train the roughly 500 military bands deemed necessary for the war effort.

With a straight-to-the-point description in the classification manual (“Plays a euphonium or baritone in a military band”), a large part of a military bandsman's job was delivering tunes to the troops. However, bandsmen also chipped in by guarding supplies, and occasionally replacing troops on the lines. Members of the 28th Infantry Division Band were distinguished for their bravery during the Battle of the Bulge, taking up arms and losing 46 of their 60 men in the battle.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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