As Veterans’ Day approaches, most visitors to the Smithsonian think of the military artifacts in the National Museum of American History, but few are probably aware of the role that scientists in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) have played in wartime. When the United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941, Museum scientists immediately sprang into action to support the war effort. The Smithsonian formed a War Committee and the Ethnogeographic Board was established at the Smithsonian to compile cultural and geographic information on combat areas. Curators began to compile information on all the resources the Museum had in its collections.
Prior to the war, many Museum anthropologists and naturalists traveled to remote parts of the Pacific that soon became the sites of combat, areas that the U.S. government and military knew little about. Curators compiled maps, language information, photographs, and other resources. For example, in June of 1942, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. The U.S. military had limited intelligence about this remote region, but NMNH anthropologist Henry B. Collins (pictured above) had done extensive field work in Alaska and the Aleutians. He was able to provide maps and photographs that the military used to locate landing sites for the Aleutian Campaign.
Museum scientists also compiled the first military survival manual, Survival on Land and Sea. Distributed to millions of soldiers and sailors, the manual gave simple lessons on navigating by the stars, starting a fire, locating safe sources of water and food, avoiding poisonous animals and plants, and surviving in island, desert, tropical and Arctic environments.
Equally important to the military was the control of disease – and disease-carrying insects and animals. In 1942, for every soldier felled in combat, eight soldiers were incapacitated by insect borne diseases. Entomologists in the Museum worked with the military medical units, training sanitary officers to identify which insects carried malaria, which mammals carried which ticks, and which Crustacea carried the parasitic disease schistosomiasis. The military sent a steady flow of specimens from war zones back to the Museum to identify and ensure that the correct organisms were eliminated; the Museums received over 10,000 mosquitoes alone in 1944.
Other curators enlisted in the military or Office of Strategic Services to share their expertise. Curator of malacology Ted Bayer became an Army Corporal and used his knowledge about mollusks while stationed on islands such as Biak in the Pacific. Lt. David H. Johnson, curator of mammals, was stationed at Naval Medical Research Unit 2 in the Pacific and studied the mammal and bird hosts of disease-carrying insects. In his free moments, he also collected shells and other natural history specimens for the Museum (see rats collected during WWII pictured at right).
As the war moved from combat to occupation phase, the Smithsonian also prepared and distributed A Field Collector’s Guide to Natural History, another pocket sized book that encouraged soldiers to observe the natural world around them and send interesting natural history specimens to the Museum. Museum curators carried on extensive correspondence with soldiers in the field, sending them natural history information and supplies, to provide diversion from the stress of combat and monotony of occupation. Museum director Alexander Wetmore carried on an extensive correspondence with many young soldiers, such as U.S. Navy Pharmacists Mate Sammy Ray, who went on to become an oyster specialist. After the battle of Palau, Ray wrote to Secretary Wetmore (see letter pictured below) that during the heat of battle at Palau, “I thought that I had made my last bird skin.” He found relief from combat in bird watching and shell collecting, when time and duty permitted.
As the war wound down, Natural History Museum curators had contributed to the war effort but also learned a great deal about the natural history of the Pacific. They continue their studies of that region today.
Pamela Henson, Historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives