You know how a combat specialty officer is responsible for planning and directing military operations and overseeing combat activities as leaders, or that a transportation officer is tasked to perform activities related to the safe transport of military personnel and equipment, be it by ground, air, or water. But have you heard of Crystal Grinders? How about Pigeoneers? These are just two of the seemingly unusual jobs that were needed during World War II, at a time when technology was not too advanced yet, and most things had to be done manually. While some were already terminated as they were no longer necessary, it’s still fun to know and look back at these jobs.
Horses were not used in World War II as much as they were during the First World War, but many thousands were used as pack animals in terrain that wheeled vehicles could not go. Troops needed them to haul ammunition, guns, supplies, and to evacuate the dead and wounded. Thus, horsebreakers were needed to train horses and mules so they could be utilized as mounted units. They were also responsible for training them to carry packs and be used to being hitched to wagons and carts. This was important in ensuring that the troops could rely on the horses during critical missions, just like when the 5332nd Brigade became largely self-sufficient because of the 3,000 mules assigned to them from the United States shipped to Burma where they worked as long-range patrol group in the mountains.
Many radios during World War II still required crystals to operate without external power sources, usually with the use of galena. We tend to take electricity for granted but in the field in WWII, it could be very hard to come by and early batteries were heavy and did not store much of a charge. And so crystal grinders were needed to grind and calibrate these crystals so they could be used to pick up specific frequencies, all while not being detected by enemy forces. Reliable means of communication were an important factor in winning the war so scientists and engineers from the US Army’s Office of the Chief Signal Officer had to find a reliable supply of radio-quality quartz to mine, and then transport them rapidly so they could be utilized in the field. Troops would also improvise crystal radios made from materials they had available: from pencils to razor blades so that they could listen to the news and some music. These improvised radios were called “foxhole radios.”
Author Richard Thompson wrote a book that relates the story of the quartz crystal in World War II titled “Crystal Clear: The Struggle for Reliable Communications Technology in World War II.”
A lot of deception techniques were made during the Battles in Normandy, just like when the United States Army formed a very unique and interesting unit called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as the Ghost Army, comprised of artists, architects, actors, set designers, and engineers with the main purpose of misleading, deceiving and befuddling the German Army. They did so by creating inflatable tanks, playing recorded sounds of armored and infantry units, and some other forms of deception.
There was also this Operation Fortitude aimed to convince the Germans that the Allied forces were heading towards France for the D-Day Invasion and that they would land in Pas de Calais in July, rather than Normandy in June. Military model makers were tasked to create scale models of the military equipment, terrain, fake buildings, vehicles like aircraft, and landing craft. All of these were positioned near Dover in England in a fake camp built for the First US Army Group. It was a success because Hitler and his troops were on standby for two weeks after the Normandy Landings because they were expecting that another invasion was coming from the Dover Strait, all thanks to the military model makers’ skillful hands and minds.
You have probably heard that pigeons were used to deliver messages during WWII. Pigeoneers were tasked to make sure that the pigeons would do their jobs by basically being responsible for all aspects of the birds’ lives— from breeding, training, and caring for these pigeons. Some of these birds were trained for night flying, usually by using operant conditioning techniques. As per the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum, more than 90% of the messages carried by pigeons were successfully delivered. The emergence of radio communication diminished the need for pigeons and pigeoneers, although it remained in the US Navy until 1961 in standby for emergency communication needs.
We can imagine a guy being asked by his grandkids, “What did you do during the war grandpa” and him replying, “Well, let me tell you about the combat pigeons I worked with in Italy”