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As we move forward on our journey through the Road to Berlin, we stop next at the Siege of Bastogne exhibit within the Battle of the Bulge Gallery, which will focus on the significance of Bastogne as a vital crossroads town that would be crucial for either the Allies or Axis to advance, as it was a hub for several major roads in southeast Belgium.

Men of the 30th Infantry Division carry a wounded German soldier to Battalion Aid Station in Thirimont, Belgium. Company B, 1st Battalion, 120th Regiment. (Courtesy National Archives)

Men of the 30th Infantry Division carry a wounded German soldier to Battalion Aid Station in Thirimont, Belgium. Company B, 1st Battalion, 120th Regiment. Image courtesy of National Archives.

With their eyes on Antwerp, the Germans were determined to gain control of Bastogne.  They encircled the town and its resident Allied forces.  The beleaguered American troops, including the 101st Airborne, were running critically low on food and supplies and were vastly unprepared for the harsh European winter.

Siege of Bastogne will feature defense tactics used by the Americans to fend off the Germans, and features the story of Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Archer Gammon, who died in the line of duty while singlehandedly defending against impending German attacks. Despite the adverse conditions, the Americans sustained their resistance until reinforcements arrived. Commander McAuliffe’s refusal to surrender to at Bastogne remains a symbol of American resolve and the determination that was necessary to break the German stronghold.


Donor Spotlight- Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Blanchard Sr., in honor of Don Blanchard

The Siege of Bastogne exhibit in the new Road to Berlin galleries has been made possible through a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Blanchard Sr., in honor of Don Blanchard.

Kenneth Blanchard has been a supporter of The National WWII Museum since 2000. He first became involved through his company, Superior Energy Services, where he worked for 26 years before retiring in 2010. Superior is a major supporter of the Museum’s Road to Victory Capital Campaign, sponsoring the Voices of Courage oral history exhibit in the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.

Recognizing the importance of the partnership of Superior Energy Services and The National WWII Museum, Blanchard became inspired to contribute personally. He states that the Museum “provides an informative and inspiring experience for future generations,” and that without outside support “the stories of these brave men and women would be lost.”

Men of the 2nd Infantry Division march through the snow. (Courtesy National Archives)

Men of the 2nd Infantry Division march through the snow. (Courtesy National Archives)

Ken and Jane Blanchard have attended several Museum events. They usually have been accompanied by Ken’s father, Don Blanchard, who served in the 2nd Armored Division, known as “Hell on Wheels.” Blanchard states that when his father visits the Museum, he is often moved to tears by the “recognition of the sacrifices and service” given by so many from his generation. It was his father’s courage and bravery that inspired Ken Blanchard to name the Siege of Bastogne exhibit in the Battle of the Bulge gallery, an important feature in the new pavilion, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters. Don Blanchard fought in the historic battle and was in the siege in the winter of 1944.

When Blanchard was growing up, his father never discussed the war. It wasn’t until his father visited the Museum for the first time that he began to open up about his involvement. Ken pitched the idea of recording his oral history for the Museum archives, and recalls, “It was not an easy sell.” Don was eventually persuaded, and ever since, he has been more comfortable sharing his stories, including comments for a feature article for a Lafayette newspaper.

Ken Blanchard asserts that the Museum is the “one of the best things to ever happen to the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and this area of the country” and that the Museum is “capturing and presenting in a very unique and very professional way” one of the most important events in modern world history. He is particularly moved by veteran volunteers at the institution. Their dedication to the Museum and desire to help visitors is inspiring. The volunteers also have made it easier for his father to feel comfortable discussing his role in the war effort.

Blanchard states that it is important to invest in the expansion of The National WWII Museum, whether that investment comes in the form of time or gifts. He said the Museum is particularly effective at telling the war story in an interactive way, immersing visitors in a decisive time in history.

The Museum is fortunate to have the encouragement of Ken and Jane Blanchard. We are grateful for their support of our programs and capital expansion

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The Key to Rebecca

Why are some WWII spy thrillers made into blockbuster films and some languish on the pages or are turned into a TV movie? Ken Follet’s International Bestseller The Key to Rebecca is still widely regarded as a great page turner with suspense, chases and intrigue. Get lost in the story set in Egypt in the early war years and join us to discuss the lesser known world of North Africa in World War II.

Feel the heat and the sand and the chaos of Cairo.

The Key to Rebecca

The event is at 6pm on Wednesday, October 15 in the Stage Door Canteen. RSVP today!

Posted by Lauren Handley, Education Programs Coordinator

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SciTech Tuesday: Dangerous Experiments

Some people can get away with anything. Including two physicists, refugees from Axis powers, working on research for the Manhattan project. Today if you built a reactor beneath a football field, or stacked blocks of Uranium until they were about to go critical, you’d get in trouble. Instead, these guys got scientific fame.

It may look like a mug shot, but it's Otto Frisch's ID badge for the Manhattan Project.

It may look like a mug shot, but it’s Otto Frisch’s ID badge for the Manhattan Project.

Otto Frisch was an Austrian of Jewish ancestry. His aunt was Lise Meitner (she will be the subject of a later post). In 1933 Frisch moved first to England and then Copenhagen, where he worked with Nils Bohr. For the winter holidays of 1938, Frisch visited his aunt Lise Meitner, in Sweden, where she was working. He was with her when she hypothesized that the results of an experiment conducted in Berlin, in which atoms of Uranium were bombarded with protons, showed the fission of the nucleus. When he returned to Copenhagen, Frisch replicated the experiment and verified the process of nuclear fission. In the summer of 1939 Frisch traveled to England for what he thought would be a short trip. Moved by the start of hostilities, he worked with Rudolf Peierls to lay out a theoretical process in which a bomb could be made from Uranium isotope 235. The resulting memorandum, called the Frisch-Peierls memorandum, was the basis of the British and American plans to build a nuclear bomb. In 1944 Frisch joined the Manhattan Project, working in Los Alamos, to determine the amount of Uranium-235 necessary to reach critical mass.

Frisch did this by stacking small rods of enriched Uranium hydride, and measuring the amount of released neutrons. Basically, it was a game of radioactive Lincoln logs. One day, he leaned over the stack of rods, and the detectors went crazy. Frisch quickly knocked the stack over with his hand, and the Uranium scattered around the room. His body had reflected the neutrons back onto the stack, and increased the rate of fission exponentially. If he had responded a couple of seconds later, he would have died, as would have many other scientists working in the building.

Eventually, the design of Little Boy, the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, was based on Frisch’s calculations of critical mass. He moved to England after the War, and lived to be 75 years old, so he did scatter the rods on time.

Not a mug shot--Enrico Fermi's photo for his Manhattan Project ID badge.

Not a mug shot–Enrico Fermi’s photo for his Manhattan Project ID badge.

Enrico Fermi’s dangerous experiment was bigger, and so is his fame. Fermi was an Italian scientist married to a Jewish woman, and so moved to the US in 1938. He was working for the Manhattan Project at the University of Columbia, trying to create a nuclear reactor, using bricks of Uranium oxide and blocks of graphite as a moderator. The reactors were important to create Plutonium, which some in the Manhattan Project favored over Uranium as the material for a nuclear bomb. When the government decided to set up the research on reactors in Chicago, Fermi and his team moved there. A large facility outside of the city was being constructed, since the dangers of the reactors were considerable. However, construction was slow and Fermi convince authorities he could safely build a reactor on a squash court under the football stadium. It took less than a month for him to build the reactor to reach critical stage. The reactor was quickly shut down and reconstructed at Argonne, outside the city. The reactors for the Manhattan Project at Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN were made under Fermi’s supervision.

Stacking Uranium rods in an open lab to calculate critical mass? Building the world’s first nuclear reactor under a university football stadium? Not things everyone could do and be famous instead of infamous. Yet these two immigrant-scientists led the way into the Manhattan Project with such risky empiricism.

This fall we will focus mostly on events and people in the Manhattan Project. The work to develop a bomb from fission began about 75 years ago, and really reached “critical mass” about 70 years ago.  Next week’s post will focus on Nils Bohr.


Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

Both photos from the National Archives.

Home Front Friday: Use It Up Pillowcase Dress

Home Front Friday is a regular series that highlights the can do spirit on the Home Front during World War II and illustrates how that spirit is still alive today!

During World War II anything that could be reused was reused. The popular slogan was “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without.” Longtime Museum volunteer Al Mipro has a good story about his mother repurposing chicken feed sacks into dresses for his baby sister.

That spirit can be replicated today. In the last Home Front Friday blog entry, we featured embroidery as a travel souvenir and a useful skill. The pillowcases pictured have now been turned into dresses, much like Mr. Mipro’s mother did with the chicken sack dresses for her baby.

Here are step by step instructions for turning something in storage into a handcrafted item (the image gallery has each step pictured):

Step One: Find a pillowcase

Step Two: Cut it to size

  • General shape – find a dress that currently fits the eventual wearer and add two inches for hem allowance. Or you can measure from collarbone to desired length on the child and add two inches.  Finally, a typical toddler dress (2T/3T) is about 22 inches, so cut 24 inches up from the bottom of the pillowcase.
  • Armhole – cut about 4 inches in and 6 inches down.

Step Three: Sew it up – sew the arms first. Press 1/4 inch and 1/4 inch again, then sew. Finish the top by pressing 1/4 inch and then approximately 1 inch (wide enough for your ribbon to fit) and sew it close to the edge.

Step Four: Finish it – pull your ribbon through with a safety pin. You can sew a line in the middle of each ribbon to hold it in place.

Step Five: Put it on your toddler (don’t know a toddler? There are a couple of crafty projects out there that send pillowcase dresses to little girls around the world. Send your creation to someone who needs it.)


Posted by Lauren Handley, Education Programs Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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Battle of the Bulge Rendering

Battle of the Bulge Rendering

As we continue our journey through the Battle of the Bulge gallery inside the Road to Berlin, we stop next at the Surprise Attack exhibit. This exhibit focuses on the initial response of the Allied Forces from the surprise German attack during the winter of 1944-45 through oral history stations, artifacts, and content panels. From there, we then move on to the North Shoulder exhibit, which through an in-depth examination of military response, will honor the soldiers who fought and were ultimately victorious at Elsenborn Ridge.


Surprise Attack

This exhibit will explain the strategy behind Hitler’s counterattack during the winter of 1944-45 and the initial response of the Allied Forces. Hitler planned to break through a weak spot in the Allied lines, occupied by only three divisions, in a drive to Antwerp, Belgium, splitting the British army to the north and American forces to the south. The operation was Hitler’s last desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. The Germans hoped the element of surprise, the dense forest terrain of the Ardennes, and the harsh weather conditions would all work to their advantage – and their efforts were initially successful. Many American units were surrounded and, in some cases, entire regiments surrendered.  Though the Allied forces rallied in time to prevent disaster, and would eventually achieve victory, Surprise Attack will show that Germany remained still a capable and dangerous enemy.

North Shoulder

This exhibit will cover American defenses against the German assault in key locations along the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge. The exhibit will provide an in-depth examination of the military action at Elsenborn Ridge, where the 1st, 2nd, and 99th Army Divisions played a pivotal role. Although the Germans possessed superior armor, they were held in check by innovative American tactics including coordinated time on target artillery strikes, new proximity fuses for artillery shells, and more advanced air power. Both sides suffered many casualties. Ultimately, the German troops were unable to break through American lines at Elsenborn Ridge. The exhibit will also focus on three towns: Stavelot, La Gleize and Stoumont. The North Shoulder exhibit will honor the soldiers who fought here and show that their valiant efforts were crucial to American victory.

Chow is served to American Infantrymen (Courtesy National Archives)

Chow is served to American Infantrymen (Courtesy National Archives)

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SciTech Tuesday: Glowing gin and tonics, bitter dyes, war propaganda

Have you noticed that your gin and tonic glows in the dark? Ever wondered why tonic water has that wonderfully bitter taste? Have you thought about how developing dyes led to medical advances? Curious what this has to do with World War II? Read on.

In 1940 one of the last remnants of the formerly powerful Dutch colonial system was the Kina Bureau, a cartel that monopolized quinine distillation. Quinine is an organic molecule that is extracted from the quina tree of South America. The Quecha people of the Andes cultivated the plant. They used it’s muscle relaxing properties to prevent shivering when they got cold. Jesuit missionaries noted that it also prevented malaria, and used it in their colonial missions. It was brought to Europe, called fever tree bark, in the early 17th century, and used in Spain and Italy where malaria was common. Peru and other countries began to try to control the seeds of the species of Cinchona that were medicinally useful shortly after that. However, merchants were successful at smuggling seeds and plant cuttings, and plantations were developed by the British in Sri Lanka, and by the Dutch in Indonesia in the 19th century. Scientists worked to synthesize the chemical in the lab throughout the 19th century, but were unsuccessful. Colonists were given a tincture of quinine in soda water to prevent malaria. Because the beverage had a bitter flavor there developed a habit of mixing it with something to mask the flavor—and thus the gin and tonic was born.

In the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th, German scientists were leaders in the use of coal tar to make synthetic dyes. Over the first 30 years of the 20th century they discovered that many of their dyes had medical uses (this was how sulpha drugs were discovered). The German industrial producer IG Farben synthesized a chemical they introduced as an alternative to quinine in the early 1930s. However, in addition to being less effective, this pill had terrible side effects including nausea.

That was the context when the Japanese took control of southeast Asia, and the Germans took over the Netherlands. As tensions were mounting, the Secretary of Commerce failed to purchase large quantities of quinine, in spite of being instructed to do so, because he felt the price was too high. When the allies deployed soldiers to the Pacific, the results were serious. One year after Pearl Harbor, 8500 soldiers were hospitalized with malaria, and 50-80% of soldiers in field hospitals were there for malaria. Atabrine was being distributed, but its side effects and a Japanese propaganda campaign made soldiers unwilling to use it. You’ve seen those posters to promote malaria prevention for soldiers? They were the result of Japanese radio propaganda telling servicemen that atabrine caused impotence.

The government moved to find quinine in South and Central America, where the Axis powers didn’t have control over the Cinchona’s native forests. Agreements were made for access to the forests, and government scientists went in search of plants with high quantities of quinine in their bark. These plants would be used to develop breeding stock for new plantations. In the meantime these wartime botanists collected Cinchona bark for distillation of quinine. Braving poor conditions, disease (including malaria!), and other hardships, up to 40 scientists with native support scoured tropical forests at high altitudes. Eventually they sent to the U.S. 12.5 million lbs of bark, but they never found a high-yield strain. Hybridization and local conditions seemed to control production of quinine in the plants more than genetics. In 1944 the synthesis of quinine was successfully achieved by American scientists. The synthesis is still very complicated and inefficient, and so was never brought to commercial production. Although great advances have been made in malaria treatment in the last decades, treatments are still not as good as the international malaria problem requires—and the plasmodium that causes malaria seems adept at evolving resistance to treatment.

So fill up that glass with tonic water before you sit out in the summer evening. But fill it up often. Today the FDA limit on quinine in tonic water is 83mg/l. You’ll need to drink 10 liters a day to get your medicinal dose.

And one more thing…

Quinine is highly fluorescent in a mild acid solution. So much so that it is used as an international standard in analytical chemistry. Since carbonated water is mildly acidic, your tonic drink will glow in a black light. That black light is less likely to attract mosquitoes as well.

This is the last post in a series on plant products in the war. Next week starts a run on the Manhattan Project and its scientists.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

“Your Job Now” – High School During WWII

Between 1941 and 1945, WWII touched and shaped every aspect of American life. For the average high school student, there were more questions about their future than answers. Many joined the service before they even graduated; others were drafted or joined upon completing their education. Those who remained on the home front often put aside college and other career plans to work in war production. High school yearbooks provide an inside look into how students dealt with these uncertainties. Today, we’re focusing on the Isidore Newman School here in New Orleans, LA.

“It didn’t occur to us that we’d end up in the service,” yearbook donor and WWII veteran Tommy Godchaux stated during his interview. Despite his feelings at the time, the pages of the 1942 Pioneer yearbook from the exclusive Isidore Newman School are chock full of wartime imagery, from the title illustration featuring an armed Uncle Sam carrying a tank and a Higgins Boat landing craft to its advice column for boys and girls. Everything from popular trends to contemporary music is interpreted through the war, including the role students must play in supporting the Allies. The Pioneer also reveals student attitudes toward gender roles in features like “For Girls Only” as well as the school-wide Pioneer Poll, in which 80% of boys and 56% of girls voted against women wearing slacks. In February 1942, with America’s involvement in WWII just three months old, one student ponders “Should we hate our enemies?”

 Hear Tommy Godchaux talk about high school during WWII:

Read more about the Isidore Newman School, as well as 39 other schools, at See You Next Year: High School Yearbooks from WWII.

Posted by Gemma Birnbaum, Digital Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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The Ofuna Roster: “Every man who was there has a unique story to tell”

Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. In recognition of those who suffered as POWs in WWII, we would like to highlight a special recent addition to the Museum’s collection and the wonderful connections that the donation of this material set into motion.

We are contacted daily by families of those who served in WWII with questions about artifacts in their possession. In May 2014, Phyllis Parr reached out to the Museum about an artifact from her father’s service.

Phyllis’ father, Phil “Bo” Perabo was from Tupelo, Mississippi and served as a pilot in both the Battle of the Atlantic and in the Pacific. Perabo flew off of the Bogue, the Card and the Bennington. Perabo was captured after bailing out on a mission to Japan, after swimming eight hours to reach the shore. He was taken to Ofuna POW camp where he was reunited with his childhood friend Dave “Son” Puckett, also an aviator who had been captured months earlier.

While at Ofuna—which has received recent news attention because it also became home to Olympic runner Louis Zamperini whose story is told in the bestselling book Unbroken, soon to be a major motion picture—just after liberation, Perabo compiled a roster of all of those confined there, having each man sign in his own hand, his name, unit, and hometown. The roster lists 135 men, predominantly Naval aviators.

Phyllis said about the roster, “My family and I have always believed that the roster does not belong to us alone but to all the families of the men who were at Ofuna.” This led to some citizen archivist work. Phyllis sent out over twenty letters to any former prisoners or their descendants that she could track down. In her letter she told about her dad, about the Ofuna roster and her plans to donate the item to The National WWII Museum. Several people responded to the letter— some with their own stories of their father’s experiences.

On August 8th, having learned of the roster and its placement at the Museum, we received a visit from three grandsons of the late Ofuna POW Forrest E. McCormick. Forrest E. McCormick was a flier in the VF-17 Squadron based on the USS Hornet. It was a miracle, McCormick survived to make it to the Ofuna camp. He had bailed out over a Japanese beach having been shot and having broken his arm at the elbow. A village doctor saved him from villagers bent on beating him to death. After the ordeal in Ofuna his grandson Evan McCormick wrote, “his left arm was 3 inches shorter than his right the rest of his life and instead of the 6, 3’’ height he went to war as, he stood around 6 ft the rest of his life… The happy ending to all this is that he made it back, had four kids, and lived a good life.” It was a profound experience, and seeing the roster was the highlight of the McCormick brothers’ trip.

Phil Perabo passed away on May 18, 2014, just three days after his daughter and I visited and spoke about his experiences. We are grateful to him and to his daughter for documenting his experience and for sharing that documentation with the Museum and others.

Images: Gift of the Perabo Family, 2014 and Courtesy of the McCormick Family

To learn more about our POW material, see Guests of the Third Reich: American POWs in Europe. If you have material or stories from a WWII POW that you’d like to share with the Museum, please contact us.

Post by Curator Kimberly Guise.


NICK PREFERRED_1.8 Battle of the BulgeAs we continue our journey through The Road to Berlin, we stop next at what will be an extraordinary immersive gallery space, the month-long Battle of the Bulge – the US Army’s largest battle of World War II.  Grappling with bitterly cold weather, more than 30 divisions and 600,000 men fought desperately to halt the Germans after the surprise assault in December 1944.  Walking through the gallery, you will be surrounded by the dense, snow-covered Ardennes forest, with projections of soldiers and battle scenes partially visible through the trees, allowing you to sense the extreme environmental conditions that made this battle one of the most difficult of the war.  Oral history stations, artifacts, and content panels will guide you from the surprise German attack to the Siege, to the ultimate hard-won Allied victory.  Finally, you will join the Allies as they push through the German border and write the final chapter in the war in Europe – the fall of the Third Reich.


Donor Spotlight- The Starr Foundation


C.V. Starr

C.V. Starr

The Battle of the Bulge gallery has been made possible through a generous gift from The Starr Foundation. The Foundation was established in 1955 by Cornelius Vander Starr, who served in the US Army during WWI. He died in 1968 at the age of 76, leaving his estate to the Foundation, and he named his business partners – Ernest E. Stempel, John J. Roberts, Houghton Freeman, and Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg – to run the foundation under Greenberg’s leadership. The partners were all WWII veterans: Stempel, Roberts, and Freeman all served in the Navy in the Pacific and Greenberg served in the Army in Europe.

Greenberg served throughout the European Theater – from landing on the beaches of Normandy to fighting in the Battle of the Bulge to the liberating concentration camps in Germany. In recognition of his service and contributions to the Allied victory,  Greenberg received the Legion of Honor from the French government on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day earlier this year. When being praised for his brave military service, Greenberg responds that he was “only one of millions of WWII veterans who fought for our country.”

Florence A. Davis, President of The Starr Foundation, remembers when Museum founder Stephen Ambrose first met Greenberg in 2001. Tom Brokaw arranged the meeting and shortly thereafter The Starr Foundation awarded the Museum a $1 million grant in support of the institution then known as The National D-Day Museum.

Florence Davis

Florence Davis

During this time the Museum was also building out its D-Days of the Pacific galleries within the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. The Foundation chose to name the Introduction Gallery to honor the service of The Starr Foundation directors, particularly the three that served in the Pacific. Eager to dedicate a space that would preserve the story of the European Theater in Greenberg’s honor, The Starr Foundation generously provided an additional gift in 2010 in support of the Museum’s Road to Victory Capital Campaign to name the Battle of the Bulge gallery.

Davis first visited the Museum in late 2001, soon after the attacks on 9/11, and she recalled the Museum was “a good reminder of the ideals that Americans fought for in the past and what we continue to fight for today.” Her late father also served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946. He passed away when she was young and, as it has for so many others, the Museum provided her an indirect way to learn about his experiences and life during the war.

One of The Starr Foundation’s focuses is to “invest in education and international affairs,” Davis explained. “The Museum is place for families to learn about American and world history. Visitors gain a sense of how the American system of government worked under circumstances of global combat. The Museum educates visitors about the positive lessons of how the country pulled together on rationing, war bonds, and enlistment in huge numbers, as well as the negative lessons of the (racial) segregation of troops and internment of Japanese Americans. Understanding the entire history of WWII, warts and all, is very important.”

The Museum’s growth and impact can be attributed in part to The Starr Foundation’s tremendous support of the Museum’s capital expansion. We feel privileged to honor the service of The Starr Foundation’s directors, a group of heroes whose service and sacrifice preserved the freedoms we have today. The Museum is grateful for the Foundation’s support and for the leadership of Greenberg and Davis, who have played key roles in developing the Museum into a world-class institution.

Post by Katie DeBruhl, Donor Relations Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

Sci Tech Tuesday: Odd Relations–Hemp and Mahogany

Two plants and their products make up our second-to-last dispatch on the use of plant materials in World War II.

Hemp is a plant which today has something of a tarnished reputation. Because varieties of Cannabis sative are used for production of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) its cultivation has come under great scrutiny in this country over the last 50 or 60 years. Most varieties, including the tall ones grown for fiber, not only produce little THC, but other chemicals that would render the THC ineffective.

Hemp is one of the oldest cultivated plants, with evidence of its agricultural use going back to neolithic China (about 10,000 BCE). Its use spread across the old world, and while it may have gotten a boost from pseudo-pharmaceutical use, it was utilized as a fiber source for rough clothing and ropes, and the leaves often used in soups and stews. The seeds were used for oils. Colonists brought the plant to the new world, where it was used in much the same manner, and made up a large part of plantation production in the colonial states. Hemp’s use declined after the Civil War, and and world-wide dropped as other fibers, including synthetic materials, increased in the 20th century. In the early 1940s production of rope, cord, webbing and cloth increased, and the ability to trade overseas decreased. The US Department of Agriculture advocated for the cultivation of hemp to meet the increased demand for fiber. Many of the rougher parts of packs and bags were made with hemp in wartime, and much of the webbing and straps on packs and parachutes was also made with hemp.

Hemp is botanically in its own family, the Cannabaceae. The family is small, with hemp’s closest relative being Humulus lupulus, the hop, whose flower is used to flavor beer. The seeds of hemp have all essential amino acids, a rarity for plants, and so can be used as a protein supplement.

Another plant whose important product was in short supply in World War II is mahogany. Many of the boats used in the war, particularly those made by the Higgins company, like the landing craft and the PT boats, were made of wood. Metal was in short supply, and the tight window for ramping up production often demanded the use of already-present technologies and construction plans. The PT boats were 78 foot patrol vessels that helped the Navy recover from Pearl Harbor. Though they were small, they could be built quickly and used flexibly. The relatively small PT boats were used in coastal battles against German and Japanese ships. Higgins industries made about 200 PT boats, many of which went to Russian and British forces early in the war.

Higgins PT boats were made of mahogany. Mahogany comes from tropical trees in Central and South America. These are typically trees from Swietenia. The wood from these trees is the opposite of another tropical tree also used in the war effort—balsa. Mahogany is a dense hardwood with a fine and straight grain. Swietenia is threatened in its native range, and so logging it is now restricted. Most commercial mahogany today comes from plantations of Swietenia in Asia, or from related members of the family native to Asia. The mangrove is also in this family of trees.

The National WWII Museum has one of the original Higgins PT boats—PT 305. PT 305 served in the Mediterranean late in the war, and saw action against German forces there. After the war the boat was trimmed to be smaller and used to seed oyster beds. It was purchased in 2007 by the museum as a renovation project.

In the renovation of PT 305 we’ve learned much about the boat’s construction. Both the hull and the deck are made of two layers of mahogany planks set at cross-angles. In between the layers is a sheet of cotton ducking that is soaked in a polymer that never dries. The two layers of wood at angles strengthen the structure and allow it to withstand traveling at speed in rough seas. The cotton layer makes it waterproof.

These two plants, mahogany and hemp, played an important role in winning the war. Their own history and botany bring an interesting twist to the roles they played in the technology of World War 2.

Next week’s post will be about rubber and the chemical revolution of polymers.


Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.