Column: World War II and the American shark obsession | Opinion
Each summer on the Discovery Channel, “Shark Week” floods its enthusiastic audiences with spectacular documentary footage of sharks hunting, feeding and jumping.
Launched in 1988, the televised event was an instant success. Its financial success far exceeded the expectations of its creators, who had drawn inspiration from the profitability of the 1975 hit film “Jaws,” the first film to earn $ 100 million at the box office.
Thirty-three years later, the enduring popularity of the longest-running programming event in cable television history is testament to a nation terrified and fascinated by sharks.
Journalists and academics often attribute “Jaws” to the source of America’s obsession with sharks.
Yet, as a historian analyzing the entanglements of humans and sharks across the centuries, I argue that the temporal depths of “sharkmania” run much deeper.
World War II played a central role in fomenting the nation’s obsession with sharks. The monumental wartime mobilization of millions of people has brought more Americans into contact with sharks than at any time in history, sowing seeds of intrigue and fear of marine predators.
America on the move
Before World War II, travel across state and county borders was rare. But during the war, the nation was on the move.
Out of a population of 132.2 million, according to the 1940 U.S. Census, 16 million Americans served in the military, many of whom fought in the Pacific. During that time, 15 million civilians crossed county borders to work in defense industries, many of whom were in coastal cities, such as Mobile, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; Los Angeles; and Honolulu.
Local newspapers across the country have stabbed civilians and servicemen alike with frequent stories of ships and planes bombed in the open sea. Journalists have consistently described servicemen at risk who were rescued or died in “waters.” infested with sharks ”.
Whether the sharks are visibly present or not, these news articles have amplified growing cultural anxiety over the ubiquitous monsters lurking and ready to kill.
Naval Officer and Marine Scientist H. David Baldridge reported that fear of sharks was one of the main causes of low morale among military personnel in the Pacific Theater. General George Kenney enthusiastically supported the adoption of the P-38 fighter jet in the Pacific because its dual engines and long range reduced the chance of a single engine or tank failure. empty fuel: “You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around. They never look healthy to a man hovering over them.
The U.S. military has become so reluctant to be eaten during long ocean campaigns that U.S. Army and Navy intelligence operations have embarked on an advertising campaign to combat fear of sharks.
Published in 1942, “Castaway’s Baedeker to the South Seas” was a “travel” survival guide, of sorts, for servicemen stranded on the Pacific Islands. The book stressed the critical importance of conquering “imaginative bogies” such as “If you’re forced to go down to sea, a shark is sure to amputate your leg.”
Likewise, the 1944 Navy brochure “Shark Sense” advised wounded soldiers stranded at sea to “stop the flow of blood as soon as you disengage the parachute” to thwart hungry sharks. The flyer helpfully noted that hitting an aggressive shark on the nose could stop an attack, as could spinning the pectoral fin: “Hold on tight and hang on for as long as you can without drowning. “
The Department of the Navy also worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, to develop a shark repellant.
Office of Strategic Services executive assistant and future chief Julia Child worked on the project, which tested various recipes for clove oil, horse urine, nicotine, rotting shark muscle, and asparagus in the hope of preventing shark attacks. The project culminated in 1945, when the Navy introduced “Shark Chaser,” a pink pill of copper acetate that produced a black ink dye when released into water – the idea being that it would conceal a shark soldier.
Nonetheless, the US Army morale-boosting campaign failed to overcome the glaring reality of wartime carnage at sea. The military media correctly observed that sharks rarely attack healthy swimmers. Indeed, malaria and other infectious diseases have claimed many more lives than sharks among the US military.
But the same publications also recognized that an injured person was vulnerable in the water. With the frequent bombing of planes and ships during World War II, thousands of injured and dying servicemen floated helplessly in the ocean.
One of the worst wartime disasters at sea occurred on July 30, 1945, when pelagic sharks invaded the shipwreck site of the USS Indianapolis. The heavy cruiser, which had just successfully delivered the components of the atomic bomb from Hiroshima to Tinian Island as part of a top secret mission, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Of a crew of 1,196, 300 died immediately in the blast, and the rest landed in the water. As they struggled to stay afloat, the men watched in terror as the sharks feast on their dead and injured comrades.
Only 316 men survived the five days on the high seas.
“Jaws” has an enthusiastic audience
World War II veterans had vivid memories of sharks – either from firsthand experience or from the shark stories of others. This made them particularly receptive to Peter Benchley’s tense shark-centric thriller “Jaws”, which he released in 1974.
Don Plotz, a Navy sailor, wrote to Benchley immediately: “I couldn’t let go until I finished it. Because I have more of a personal interest in sharks.
In great detail, Plotz recounted his experiences on a search and rescue mission in the Bahamas, where a hurricane sank the USS Warrington on September 13, 1944. Of the original 321 crew, only 73 survived.
“We recovered two survivors who had been in the water for twenty-four hours fighting sharks,” Plotz wrote. “Then we spent the whole day picking up the carcasses of those we could find, identifying them and burying them. Sometimes only rib cages… an arm or a leg or a hip. Sharks were all around the ship.
Benchley’s novel paid little attention to WWII, but the war anchored one of the film’s most memorable moments. In the penultimate haunting scene, one of the shark hunters, Quint, quietly reveals that he is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis disaster.
“Sometimes sharks will look you straight in the eye,” he says. “You know what’s with a shark, it has lifeless eyes, black eyes, like doll eyes. He comes towards you, he doesn’t seem to live until he bites you.
The power of Quint’s soliloquy drew on the collective memory of the most massive war mobilization in American history. The oceanic reach of WWII brought more people in contact with sharks under the dire circumstances of the war. Veterans have testified intimately to the inevitable violence of the battle, compounded by the trauma of seeing sharks opportunistically circling and feeding on their dead and dying comrades.
Their horrific experiences played a central role in creating an enduring cultural figure: the shark as a blind spectral terror that can strike at any time, a haunting WWII artifact that prepared Americans for the era. of “Jaws” and “Shark Week”. . “
Janet M. Davis is Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at the Austin College of Liberal Arts. His column first appeared on The Conversation news site (www.conversationus.com)