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Photo Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Photo Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

World War II’s Doomed 'Project Pigeon'

Photo Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Photo Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Many of mankind’s greatest innovations were products of war. Sadly, pigeon-guided missiles never had a chance to be one of them. 

That wouldn’t have been the case if B.F. Skinner had his way. In World War II, the American inventor hatched a plan for the military’s missile-aiming problem: pigeons. By building a nose-cone for the front of a missile with three bird-sized cockpits fitted with tiny screens, he predicted that pigeon pilots would be able to successfully guide the weapon to its target. The screens would display an image of the oncoming target which the pigeons would be trained to peck at, and cables attached to their heads would steer the missile in the right direction. 

Skinner already had experience training pigeons to push levers for food, so this was of course the next logical step. Despite being skeptical of the idea, the National Research Defense Committee granted him $25,000 to go ahead with "Project Pigeon." Skinner chose pigeons for both their excellent vision and ability to keep cool in chaotic situations. The latter was especially important, considering the birds wouldn’t have a chance to eject and were essentially hurtling toward their demise.

Luckily minimal pigeon lives were sacrificed in the line of duty because even after seeing a successful test run, the military decided to cancel the project. But who knows? If officials had further funded Skinner's venture, perhaps pigeons would be best-known for being war heroes—and not for just pooping on statues of them. 

[h/t: Smithsonian Magazine]

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Divers Uncover Undetonated WWII Bomb From the Bottom of Australia's Sydney Harbor
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It's been more than 70 years since World War II ended, and undetonated explosives from the conflict are still being uncovered around the globe. The latest WWII-era bomb was found in Australia's Sydney Harbor by a pair of recreational divers, the Newcastle Herald reports.

Dive instructor Tony Strazzari and his friend Paul Szerenga have made a hobby out of donning their diving gear and searching the harbor for old glassware and bottles. When they continued this ritual on February 21, they came across something out of the ordinary: a 15-inch bomb.

Strazzari worried that a ship's anchor might activate the device, so after retrieving it from the silty harbor floor he hauled it up to the surface. The two divers contacted the New South Wales police and "baby-sat" the bomb while waiting for someone to show up. According to a spokeswoman from the police department, the rusty bomb was unable to detonate, but it was seized by military personnel as a precaution.

New South Wales was a target of Japanese submarines during the Second World War. While this newly discovered artifact left over from the war was taken care of without too much trouble, that isn't always the case. Earlier this month, an unexploded bomb found in the River Thames led to an entire airport being shut down.

[h/t Newcastle Herald]

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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