How WWII fueled our cultural obsession with sharks
Every summer on Discovery Channel, Shark Week floods its enthusiastic audience with spectacular documentary footage of sharks hunting, feeding and jump.
Launched in 1988, the televised event was an instant success. His financial success far exceeded the expectations of its creators, who had drawn inspiration from the profitability of the 1975 hit film Jaws, The first movie earn $ 100 million At the box office.
Thirty-three years later, the lasting popularity of the oldest programming event in the history of cable television testifies to a nation terrified and fascinated by sharks.
Journalists and academics often attribute Jaws as the source of America’s obsession with sharks.
Yet, as a historian analyzing human and shark entanglements over the centuries, I maintain that the temporal depths of “sharkmania” are 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 through the state and county lines were scarce. But during the war, the nation was on the move.
Meanwhile, 15 million civilians crossed county borders to work in defense industries, many of which were in coastal cities, such as Mobile, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; Los Angeles; and Honolulu.
Local newspapers across the country have stabbed civilians and the military with frequent stories of bombed ships and planes in the open sea. Journalists have constantly described soldiers in danger who were rescued or who died in “shark infested waters. “
Whether the sharks are visibly present or not, these news articles have amplified growing cultural anxiety over the ubiquitous monsters lurking and preparing to kill.
Naval Officer and Marine Scientist H. David Baldridge reported that fear of sharks was a major cause of bad morale among the military in the Pacific Theater.
General George Kenney enthusiastically supported the passage of the P-38 fighter plane in the Pacific because its twin engines and long range reduced the chances of a single-engine aircraft failing or an empty fuel tank:
“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.
Why we are afraid of sharks
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 the military stranded on the Pacific Islands. The book emphasized the critical importance of conquering “imaginative bogies” such as “if you are forced to go down to sea, a shark will certainly amputate your leg.”
Likewise, the 1944 Navy brochure entitled “Shark SenseAdvised wounded soldiers stranded at sea to “stop the flow of blood as soon as you disengage the parachute” to thwart the 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.
Executive Assistant and future Head of the Office of Strategic Services Julia child worked on the project, which tested various recipes for clove oil, horse urine, nicotine, rotting shark muscle, and asparagus in the hopes of preventing shark attacks.
The project culminated in 1945, when the Navy introduced “Shark hunter“, a pink copper acetate pill that produced a black ink dye when dropped into water – the idea being that it would mask a military sharks.
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 attacks healthy swimmers. Indeed, malaria and other infectious diseases have wreaked much more havoc on the US military than sharks.
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 castaway site 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.
What Jaws had to do with it
World War II veterans possessed vivid memories of lifelong sharks, either from firsthand experience or from the shark stories of others. This made them a particularly receptive audience for Peter Benchley’s tense shark-centric thriller. Jaws, which he published in 1974.
Don Plotz, a Navy sailor, immediately wrote to Benchley, “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 during a search and rescue mission in the Bahamas, where a hurricane sank the USS Warrington 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 haunting penultimate 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 anytime, a haunting WWII artifact that prepared Americans for the Age of Jaws and shark week.