When one mentions Julia Child, the first thing that comes to mind is the marvel and ease of French cooking that she brought to the United States. But long before she was a culinary artist, she served as an intelligence officer during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to today’s CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Child was born in Pasadena, California in 1912 and attended a private boarding school before attending Smith College, graduating with a degree in history in 1934. The 6’2” Child also played basketball, golf, and tennis in school. She moved to New York and worked as a copywriter for the advertising firm of W. & J. Sloane. One curious bit of her history. While growing up in California, her family had a hired cook and Child had no interest in cooking until she met her husband Paul many years later.
World War II Service: When the war started, Child attempted to join both the WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the Navy. But was rejected because of her height.
Undeterred, she volunteered to serve in the OSS and was initially given a typist’s job at the headquarters in Washington D.C. It wasn’t long before she was given a much more challenging position as a researcher working directly under General William Donovan with a Top Secret clearance.
The elite Washington snobs looked down their blue noses at the upstart Intelligence group created by Donovan. They had well-connected enemies from the moment of their inception with J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Donovan’s men were a freewheeling, eclectic band of “glorious amateurs” as Donovan called them. He also said he was looking for “PHDs who can win a bar fight”, and he recruited some very well known personas including several who would become the head of CIA including Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey.
Child quickly rose thru the ranks in Washington and lived out of the Brighton Hotel. But growing bored with the administrative work, she heard OSS was searching for volunteers for work in India. And she thought being, “free, white, and thirty-one,” she was ready for an adventure.
But just prior to her transfer to the Orient, the U.S. Navy was having a hard time with sharks. There were reportedly 20 such attacks during the first 18 months of the war and the Navy was looking for a shark repellent that would boost morale.
So Donovan suggested to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that all rescue efforts be coordinated. Thus the OSS Emergency Rescue Equipment (ERE) committee was created to keep other government agencies from duplicating efforts. From the CIA archives, The ERE was headed up by Captain Harold J. Coolidge, a scientist from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Dr. Henry Field, Curator of the Field Museum of Natural History. Both men were avid explorers, having led expeditions into the arctic, desert, and tropical regions.
Julia Child, then McWilliams worked for Coolidge as his executive assistant for a year in 1943. Child in an interview about OSS had this to say about the work at ERE:
“I must say we had lots of fun,” Child said. “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment—strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
The group experimented with a variety of different compounds to keep the sharks away but the most effective chemical they found was copper acetate. It was found to be about 60 percent effective in keeping sharks from biting test subjects. CIA reports that the repellent was constructed as follows:
Copper acetate was mixed with black dye, which was then formed into a little disk-shaped “cake” that smelled like a dead shark when released into the water. These cakes could be stored in small 3-inch boxes with metal screens that allowed the repellent to be spread either manually or automatically when submerged in water. The box could be attached to a life jacket or belt, or strapped to a person’s leg or arm, and was said to keep sharks away for 6 to 7 hours.
Despite that, the Navy was unconvinced about the overall effectiveness of the ERE’s shark repellent. In their own tests the Navy felt that the “slight repellent factor” shown in bait tests in small sharks, they didn’t believe that once used in larger sharks known to attack man it wouldn’t be very effective. Even Coolidge didn’t believe that the repellent would work if a group of sharks experienced what we’d call a feeding frenzy.
However, the word leaked out of ERE’s shark repellent and the media picked it up. Requests for the OSS shark repellent began to pour in from the Army Air Corps and the Coast Guard and while the actual value of the repellent may have been dubious, the effect on morale was huge. The repellent remained in use with the Navy until the 1970s and may have even been used by NASA.
But the Navy wanted to let the sailors know about the low probability of being bitten by sharks and once the repellent went into widespread use, they also published a pamphlet called, “Shark Sense” which spelled it all out, and in the military’s never-ending pursuit of the lowest common denominator, published it with a cartoon, something that would continue well into the 1980s.
Once assigned to China and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) Julia Child’s life changed forever. She met Paul Child who was a decade older and an experienced player with women, wine, and food. And he opened all of those horizons up to the inexperienced newcomer. After nearly a year in Ceylon, she was transferred to China and the two were inseparable until the war ended.
She served as Chief of the OSS Registry. In typical self-effacing action, she claimed that she was nothing more than a clerk. Her future husband, however, in later years dispelled those rumors saying that she held a Top Secret Clearance and was handling all of the classified message traffic to include the invasion of the Malay peninsula. It was during this time her first interest in fine food and cooking was born due to her relationship with Child.
After the war, he continued on as a Foreign Service Officer and while stationed in France, is where Julia attended the best cooking schools in Paris and befriended French chefs and together they decided to put together a cookbook for Americans to develop an interest in French food. The rest they say is history.
But long before that, Julia Child was a young woman who couldn’t cook a lick and whose first recipe was for the United States Navy. She would recall much later in life in interviews with the media.
“I could boil water for tea but my first big recipe was shark repellent that I mixed in a bathtub for the Navy, for the men who might get caught in the water.”