In 1927, the United States Department of War was granted permission to use a bridge over the Pee Dee River in North Carolina for aerial target practice. It was soon to be covered by a lake created by a new dam and was no longer needed. After five days, flying 20 missions a day, in perfect weather, at altitudes from 6,000 to 8,000 feet, the middle section of the bridge finally fell.
In any practical sense, needing 100 attempts to destroy a single undefended bridge demonstrated that an aerial bombing offensive capability for use in wartime combat would require new equipment.
What was needed was an aiming device that could be mounted inside an airplane, was easy to use, and would accurately deliver much bigger bombs on a target from an altitude between 20,000 and 35,000 feet above the ground, while the plane was going more than 200 miles an hour, in all types of weather, in strong turbulence, while the plane was slipping up, down, and sideways, was being surrounded by bullets and flak from attacking planes and ground artillery, all within the few seconds of timeframe when the target was achievable.
Carl Norden, a Dutch engineer educated in Switzerland who emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and working as a consultant to the Navy, responded with an innovative device. However, even after several versions and as famous as his final product would become, he produced what ultimately had WWII American flyers in Europe estimating that only 16% of all their bombs fell within 1000 feet of their aiming point.
Delivering a bomb on target in combat conditions was, and is, a very, very difficult problem, and would someday only be answered by putting a real-time video camera on-board a remotely-piloted guided missile, but that’s a whole different story.
Last weekend, I rode in the front gunner’s seat of a B-25 bomber. Anchored into the floor, within a few inches of the front window, was a Norden bombsight. Looking at my photo, it has two basic pieces – a rectangular box that is a gyroscopic stabilization platform, and a curvy mechanical calculator and sighting head attached on top.
There’s a rubber eye bumper in the center of the head used by the bombardier to manipulate two crosshairs set into a telescope. In the Norden Mark XV bombsight, one crosshair represented the aim point, while the other represented the sighting point. Given control of the plane in the last few seconds, the bombardier adjusted his knobs until the two crosshairs met. When they did, the bombs were automatically released.
I didn’t think to look into the bombsight, but I’m pretty sure that I would have hit my head on the front glass and would have taken one of my arms just to keep myself in place; I would have been on my knees.
One of the early problems with the bombsight was the creation of the crosshairs. The Army Air Corps (the early Air Force) required that any bombsight be useable in the African desert and Pacific jungles, as well as Arctic regions. For example, the temperatures inside a B-17 flying at 25,000 feet above Germany in the winter was in the range of twenty-to-forty-degrees below zero; there was no heat inside the plane, initially forcing everyone to wear thick sheep-skin-and-leather clothing. They would later have electrically heated pants.
This variation in temperature and humidity played havoc with the delicate crosshairs of the bombsight, which were obviously essential to its accuracy. Different man-made wire configurations were attempted, as was the web of black widow spiders. None of them proved reliable.
The one substance that was found reliable at high altitudes and maintained its consistency in a variety of conditions was human hair. Fine blonde hair that had not been subjected to chemical treatments or hot curling irons was remarkably akin to black widow spider webbing but was more suitable for the bombsight application.
In 1942, Mary Babnik Brown of Pueblo, Colorado, saw a War Department advertisement requesting “hair for the war effort.” The ad stipulated that the desired hair must be at least 22 inches long and had never been treated or heated. Mary’s hair was 32 inches long, and, in 36 years (since she was a toddler), had only been trimmed, not cut, nor had it been “permed” or excessively heated. She washed it with “pure soap” twice weekly, and combed it twice a day; it stretched to her knees when she combed it out. She normally wore it wrapped around her head in a braid.
It was her pride and joy, and she sent in a sample.
Mary was born in Pueblo to immigrants from Slovenia. Her father worked for the railroad and her mother was a domestic servant. When the father abandoned the family around 1920, Mary left elementary school to help support her family, eventually going to work for the National Broom Factory, where she lied about her age to be hired and then would work for the next 42 years. She began dancing as a hobby in her early teens and would go on to become a well-known dancer around town. She especially liked teaching GI service men how to dance.
The War Department responded that her hair was perfect, and Mary agreed to donate it; she took no payment, wanting to support the war effort. She was told that her hair would be used in the making of scientific equipment to make precise measurement of humidity, key to the production of aircraft and other war equipment.
It was not until 1987 that she learned that her hair had been used for virtually every Norden bombsight produced.
On November 9, 1987, on her eightieth birthday, President Ronald Reagan sent a letter of congratulations and recognized her contribution. In 1990, she was honored at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for her contribution with a plaque displayed in the Academy’s Air Force Museum. On November 19, 1990, Paul Harvey featured her in one of his The Rest of the Story episodes.
Unfortunately, the company who built the Norden bombsight maintains that the crosshairs of the Norden bombsight were etched into a glass reticle; no human hair was used.
Fortunately, once America hears a good story, it lasts forever.
When I was growing up, I believed in John Wayne. In particular, anything about the US cavalry troops stationed in the various frontier forts in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I took as truth from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande. I grew up believing that all the Southwest resembled Monument Valley, that beautiful women were fabulously desirable out in barren wilderness, and that most of the cavalry rode around all day, looking for Indians to fight.
Later movies would present more authentic stories, but reading the real history of the frontier army, who was in it, their leadership, their mission, their military campaigns, and their daily life is more interesting and provocative than what you’ll find on the silver screen.
As I’ve been reading for information to bolster my next fiction novel, I find myself returning to Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear. Once again, it’s the data of the situation that characterize what life was really like in a frontier fort.
“Over its history, Fort Bascom soldiers represented a variety of nationalities and ethnicities. In addition to African Americans, Hispanos, Germans, and Irishmen, Americans from all regions of the country were posted to the garrison. First- and second-generation Irishmen had a particularly strong presence in New Mexico both during and after the [Civil] war.… David M. Emmons notes that by 1870, Irish immigrants made up about a fourth of the entire frontier army, so it is not surprising to find them scattered throughout the documents concerning Bascom.”
“As did African Americans, immigrants joined the army because less desirable options restricted them to low-paying, menial jobs that no one else wanted. Enlisting gave both groups a means of escaping overcrowded slums and majority populations that were unwilling to accept them as anything more than subservient classes.”
“The army guaranteed meals and board and offered an escape from urban decay and the cotton economy. There was also the possibility that once their military obligations were fulfilled, former soldiers might put down roots in a region more accepting of different nationalities and ethnicities. Yet as Captain Dubois indicated, not everyone who joined the army fulfilled those obligations. Some deserted.”
“Soldiers deserted for a variety of reasons. Fighting Indians and Comancheros along the Canadian River was not why many of the early enlistees had signed up. They had joined to shoot Confederates. They also had been enticed by cash bounties paid for enlisting. Once mustered into the service, most soon realized that a soldier’s life was 98 percent boring and 2 percent dangerous.
“….the food was bad and the work was hard. Privates spent a lot of time stacking adobes, chopping wood, shoveling horse manure, and hauling water—all within an area most considered an isolated wasteland. Even the water, when it was available, often had to be purged of organic material before it could be consumed. Enlistees found themselves at the beck and call of frustrated, alcoholic officers who felt as trapped as they did. Poor nutrition and bad water often led to sickness and misery. Soldiers feared cholera more than Comanches, for the medical personnel and their facilities were often subpar. For these reasons, 33 percent of enlisted men deserted their posts.”
“Women also lived at Fort Bascom. Officers’ wives often traveled west with their husbands, lending an outsiders’ perspective to military life on the southern plains. Perhaps Martha Summerhayes, stationed in Arizona with her husband, characterized a soldier’s life best when she called it a ‘glittering misery.’”
“Finding single women on the base was unusual, but it did occur. Marian Sloan worked as a cook with her mother at Fort Union. But the great majority of women at the frontier forts were married. Once hired, they were provided a food ration, a stipulation that helped feed families, for many times women brought their children with them. At Fort Bascom in the early 1860s, these positions were filled by Hispanic women since their husbands manned the fort. Wives followed their men out of the mountain villages of San Miguel and Mora Counties, about a week’s journey away. The significance of laundresses to military operations is highlighted by the construction of quarters for them at most frontier posts. Laundress quarters at Fort Bascom were positioned directly behind the soldiers’ barracks.”
“The 1870 census notes the fourteen adult women [there was commonly around two hundred soldiers at Fort Bascom] were either living within the post or on the military grounds, which encompassed two square miles. Twenty children of various ages also lived there. Seven of these women and one sixteen-year-old female were New Mexicans, but Teresa Nown was not the only local that was married to an immigrant soldier. Felicita Kelly’s husband, Private Thomas Kelly, originated from Newfoundland. Conversely, not all of the post’s laundresses and washerwomen hailed from New Mexico. They came from as far as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ireland.”
“Longer stretches of off-duty time allowed soldiers to participate in events organized for larger groups or everyone at the post…..On weekends or special occasions like the Fourth of July or Christmas, horse racing, shooting competitions, and footraces were held on the parade grounds, as were picnics and musical presentations. Baseball had taken the nation by storm by the 1870s and Fort Bascom was not an exception. The Eighth Cavalry brought the game to the Canadian River Valley. Matthews noted that along with additional rations and ammunition, Company L brought along their bats and balls on one particular scout.”
I don’t remember John Wayne ever playing baseball in his cavalry uniform, and I don’t remember him ever becoming involved with a woman who was responsible for washing his shorts, but it might have happened. Reality can sometimes be a lot of fun.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.