Of all the horrors visited upon a warrior, being captured by the enemy might count as the worst. With death in combat, the suffering is over, but with internment in a POW camp, untold agonies may await. Tales of torture, starvation, enslavement and indoctrination attend the history of every nation’s prison camps to some degree, even in the recent past with the supposedly civilizing influence of the Hague and Geneva Conventions.
But even the most humanely treated POWs universally suffer from one thing: lack of information. To not know how the war is progressing in your absence is a form of torture in itself, and POWs do whatever they can to get information. Starting in World War II, imprisoned soldiers and sailors familiar with the new field of electronics began using whatever materials they could scrounge and the abundance of time available to them to hack together solutions to the fundamental question, “How goes the war?” This is the story of the life-saving radios some POWs managed to hack together under seemingly impossible conditions.
Every generation thinks it has unique problems and, I suppose, sometimes it is true. My great-grandfather didn’t have to pick a cell phone plan. However, a lot of things you think are modern problems go back much further than you might think. Consider Kickstarter. Sure, there have been plenty of successful products on Kickstarter. There have also been some misleading duds. I don’t mean the stupid ones like the guy who wants to make a cake or potato salad. I mean the ones that are almost certainly vaporware like the induced dream headgear or the Bluetooth tag with no batteries.
Overpromising and underdelivering is hardly a new problem. In the 30’s The McGregor Rejuvenator promised to reverse aging with magnetism, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet light. Presumably, this didn’t work. Sometimes products do work, but they don’t live up to their marketing hype. The Segway comes to mind. Despite the hype that it would revolutionize transportation, the scooter is now a vehicle for tourists and mall cops.
One of my favorite examples of an overhyped product comes from World War II: The Norden Bomb Sight. What makes the Norden especially interesting is that even today it has a reputation for being highly accurate. However, if you look into it, the Norden–although a marvel for its day–didn’t always live up to its press.
In the early days of World War II, the Japanese army invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and forced an end to British colonial rule there. Occupying Burma required troops and massive amounts of materiel, though, and the Japanese navy was taking a beating on the 2,000 mile sea route around the Malay Peninsula. And so it was decided that a railway connecting Thailand and Burma would be constructed through dense tropical jungle over hilly terrain with hundreds of rivers, including the Kwae Noi River, made famous by the Hollywood treatment of the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story of what came to be known as the Burma Death Railway is far grislier than any movie could make it, and the ways that the prisoners who built it managed to stay alive is a fascinating case study in making do with what you’ve got and finding solutions that save lives.
Nutrition from Next-to Nothing
Labor for the massive project was to come from the ultimate spoil of war – slaves. About 250,000 to 300,000 slaves were used to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Among them were about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, primarily Australian, Dutch, British and American. POWs were singled out for especially brutal treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, with punishment meted out with rifle butt and bamboo pole.
With the POWs was Doctor Henri Hekking, who had been born and raised in the former Dutch East Indies colony of Java (now Indonesia). He had spent his early years with his grandmother, a master herbalist who served as “doctor” for the native villagers. Inspired by his oma’s skill and convinced that the cure for any endemic disease can be found in the plants in the area, Dr. Hekking returned to Java as an officer in the Dutch army after completing medical school in the Netherlands.
After his capture by the Japanese, Dr. Hekking did everything he could to help his fellow POWs despite the complete lack of medical supplies, all the while suffering from the same miserable treatment. Hekking realized early on that the starvation rations the POWs endured were the main cause of disease in the camps; a cup of boiled white rice doesn’t provide much energy for men building a railway by hand in jungle heat, and provides none of the B vitamins needed by the body.
For most of us, hacking is a hobby, a pleasant diversion from reality. Yes, a lot of us work on projects which have the potential to change the world – witness the 2015 Hackaday Prize semifinalist list. But in general, almost any of us could walk away from the shop at any time without dire consequences. Indeed, that’s the reason a lot of our work benches are littered with projects started with the best of intentions but left unfinished for lack of funds, lack of interest, or lack of time. We’re free to more or less willingly shelve a project and come back to it whenever we please, or not at all.
But not everyone has that luxury. For some people, hacking is much more than a hobby – it’s a means of survival. Sometimes people are thrown into situations where they have to cobble together a solution to an immediate problem with whatever is at hand, when the penalty for failure is much higher than a cluttered bench and a bruised ego. I’ve already covered one such case, where biohacked insulin saved hundreds of lives in occupied Shanghai in WWII.
In this occasional series I’ll explore historical cases where hacking really counted; cases where lives were saved or improved by a hack performed under desperate conditions.
A Bustle in the Hedgerow
Unsurprisingly, war offers a lot of opportunities for field expedient solutions under dire circumstances, and battlefield conditions might be the most extreme example of hacking when it counts.
In the early days of the Invasion of Normandy during WWII, Allied forces were having a difficult time dealing with the bocage terrain of northern France. A mixture of pasture and woodland, the Normandy bocage was a natural killing field for Allied tanks because the woodlands took the form of hedgerows – earthen dikes topped with thick tangles of brush. Hedgerows separated pastures and kept livestock controlled, but also made things tough on infantry and mechanized cavalry alike. Climbing the steep hedgerows exposed the vulnerable bottom hull of the tanks to enemy fire, and waiting for engineers to demolish the hedgerows with explosive made them sitting ducks for German artillery. The Allied advance was seriously hampered by the hedgerows, and both men and materiel were being winnowed down from fixed German positions chosen specifically to take advantage of the bocage terrain.
Enter Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III. Sgt. Culin, a tanker himself, was acutely aware of how vulnerable he was in his Sherman M4. The hedgerows were the problem, one apparently known to Allied command prior to the invasion for which no provision had been made. In the tradition of soldiers at the front of every battle throughout history, Sgt. Culin and his fellow tankers had to improvise a solution.
While kicking around ideas, one of the men suggested setting saw teeth on the front of a tank to cut through the hedgerows. He later attributed the comment to “A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts”, and it was met with general laughter from the group as a crackpot scheme. But Sgt. Culin saw the potential in the idea, and began to develop it into a prototype.
Raw materials for his prototype were not hard to come by. Czech hedgehogs, giant anti-tank barriers made of crossed steel beams, still littered the Normandy beaches. The failed German defenses were harvested with a cutting torch and welded to the underside of a tank to form a series of “tusks” across the hull between the tracks. Equipped with these tusks, the tank could now blast through the tangled roots of the brush-covered earth of the hedgerow dykes.
When demonstrated for General Omar Bradley, he was impressed enough to order them built in quantity for the tanks. Eventually the prototype became an engineered product (dubbed the “Culin Rhino Device”) that was fitted to many tanks before being shipped over from England. Rhino-equipped tanks ripped across Normandy and shredded the German battle plan, which assumed the hedgerows would funnel Allied forces through heavily defended chokepoints.
Without Sgt. Culin’s battlefield hack, and his inspiration by a hillbilly named Roberts whom history otherwise forgets, the invasion of Europe might have taken a very different course. The fact that he did the hack while under fire makes it all the more impressive, and is a perfect example of hacking when it counts.
Know of any more examples of hacking when it counts? Send us a tip for use in a future Hacking When it Counts article.
At the end of World War II, the United States engaged in Operation Paperclip to round up German V-2 rockets and their engineers. The destination for these rockets? White Sands Proving Grounds in the New Mexico desert, where they would be launched 100 miles above the Earth for the purpose of high altitude research.
This 1947 War Department Film Bulletin takes a look inside the activities at White Sands. Here, V-2 rockets are assembled from 98% German-made parts constructed before V-E day. The hull of each rocket is lined with glass wool insulation by men without masks. The alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks are connected together, and skins are fitted around them to keep fuel from leaking out. Once the hull is in place around the fuel tanks, the ends are packed with more glass wool. Now the rocket is ready for its propulsion unit.
In the course of operation, alcohol and liquid oxygen are pumped through a series of eighteen jets to the combustion chamber. The centrifugal fuel pump is powered by steam, which is generated separately by the reaction between hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate.
A series of antennas are affixed to the rocket’s fins. Instead of explosives, the warhead is packed with instruments to report on high altitude conditions. Prior to launch, the rocket’s tare weight is roughly five tons. It will be filled with nine tons of fuel once it is erected and unclamped.
At the launch site, a gantry crane is used to add the alcohol, the liquid oxygen, and the steam turbine fuels after the controls are wired up. The launch crew assembles in a blockhouse with a 27-foot-thick roof of reinforced concrete and runs through the protocol. Once the rocket has returned to Earth, they track down the pieces using radar, scouting planes, and jeeps to recover the instruments.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are all the rage these days. But while today’s combative UAV technology is as modern as possible, the idea itself is not a new one. Austria floated bomb-laden balloons at Venice in the middle 1800s. About a hundred years later during WWII, the Japanese used their new-found knowledge of the jet stream to send balloons to the US and Canada.
Each balloon took about four days to reach the western coast of North America. They carried both incendiary and anti-personnel devices as a payload, and included a self-destruct. On the “business end” of the balloons was the battery, the demolition block, and a box containing four aneroid barometers to monitor altitude. In order to keep the balloons within the 8,000 ft. vertical range of the jet stream, they were designed to drop ballast sandbags beginning one day into flight using a system of blow plugs and fuses. In theory, the balloon has made it to North American air space on day four with nothing left hanging but the incendiaries and the central anti-personnel payload.
Although the program was short-lived, the Japanese launched some 9,300 of these fire balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. Several of them didn’t make it to land. Others were shot down or landed in remote areas. Several made the journey just fine, and two even floated all the way to Michigan. Not bad for a rice paper gas bag.
[Robert Sumption] a.k.a [W9RAS] takes on the daunting challenge of building a WWII spy radio called the Paraset as the topic of this week’s Retrotechtacular. It was originally a tube based CW (Morse code) transmitter/receiver used by the French underground to communicate with the Allies. Many of these radios were dropped behind enemy lines and could run on European AC or 6 V DC with the added advantage of being able to use most anything for an antenna, including fence wire. These small, low power and highly mobile radios tuned in the 3 to 8 MHz range were instrumental in the resistance. But they still make for a really fun scratch-built radio project.