5 Bizarre Dumb Things Countries Made Citizens Do During Wars
During war, armies turn to brilliant and inventive strategies to outwit their opponents and win. We are not going to talk about those today.
Today, we're going to talk about the home front, where a bunch of panicked governments pushed for completely stupid measures ...
Britain Removed All Their Road Signs, So If Nazis Invaded, They'd Get Lost
When you think of British towns holding the fort against the Germans in World War II, your mind might conjure images of families huddled in darkness at night during the Blitz, eating beans on toast. But there was another major fear: German planes attacking the nation by DAY (also while Britons ate beans on toast). Plus, planes could drop something even scarier than Nazi bombs. They could drop actual Nazis in by parachute, ready to meet up and take the world's least inspiring road trip. What could the nation do to combat this double threat?
The big problem, the country reasoned, was that Britain was covered in landmarks literally signposting the way to towns Nazis could infiltrate or destroy. Road signs stood at countless intersections, and placards labeled the names of every railway station. Pilots could possibly see these from the air if they were flying really low, while parachutists dropping into an otherwise wholly unidentifiable English village could use them as guides. So the British government gave the order to take all these signs down, or black them out.
Information is a bit slim on just how many planes (which eventually did shift from daytime raids to night ones, just like the ones in your head) were affected by this, or how many airdropped Nazis with fake mustaches got totally lost and abandoned their mission. What we do know is that the absence of signs confused the hell out of American troops who came to England to help. Replacing the signs after the war finished was a massive project, which is to say that it never happened at all in a lot of places, and they're still working on getting the signposts back today.
Our advice would have been to follow this random Brit's suggestion and twist the signs around Bugs Bunny-style, so they were all still there, but they pointed in the wrong direction. That would have really screwed with invaders and sent many a Nazi mindlessly following the directions and walking off the nearest cliff.
America Destroyed All The Money In Hawaii
Like our estranged dad across the Atlantic, America feared an invasion too. Not in the continental United States for the most part, at least not yet, but after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it seemed entirely possible that Japan would again come to Hawaii to act like the shittiest tourists possible. If that happened, it would mean losing many American lives, major military infrastructure, a crucially strategic staging area ... and maybe a lot of cash.
We don't mean cash as in "economic output." We mean actual physical greenbacks. Japan's forces would surely loot the banks and everyone's homes, coming up with hundreds of millions in paper American currency. They could then use these dollars to buy tourist knickknacks and weaponry. This was somewhat before nations had mastered the art of creating money out of thin air, so this windfall could actually make a difference to Japan.
The solution was for America to create a separate type of banknote just for Hawaii. That way, if Japan did take the state over, the US government could at a moment's notice declare all these special Hawaii notes to be as legal tender as Monopoly money. Leaving Japan unable to spend them at any of the international arms depots they usually patronized. The new bill was called the Hawaii Overprint Note, and it came with brown sploshes and big letters reading "HAWAII."
In the end, this measure ended up being unnecessary (unless there's a large battle our history books/Call of Duty games failed to mention). Still, it was a serious project for a while, requiring that every Hawaiian turn over all their existing money. The government collected $200 million in paper money and were going to take it all back to the mainland, but that seemed hard. So they destroyed it all in Hawaii itself, using such local facilities as a sugar mill and a crematorium. We can't find any photos of this glorious fire. But if you want to see a picture of the US military burning millions of dollars while bodies lie on slabs, we're pretty sure there are a couple hundred political cartoons with that exact scene.
Britain Readied 250,000 Useless Sticks With Knives On Them, So Men Could Fight
Plenty of men joined the British army during World War II, but plenty more were ineligible. Some had seen too many winters, others, too few. Some were locked into essential services like mining and couldn't be spared. But the country had a plan for them as well -- 1.5 million men would join a citizens' militia called the Home Guard. If the Germans landed, goose-stepping across the country, the military would fight them off eventually, but the Home Guard would hopefully put up some resistance along the way.
Winston Churchill said, "everyone in uniform, and anyone else who likes" should repel the Nazis as hard as they could manage, offering the following rhyming slogan: Let everyone kill a Hun. "No building occupied by troops should be surrendered without having to be stormed," he rallied. "Every man must have a weapon of some kind, be it only a mace or a pike."
With that last part, he was speaking poetically about the need for readiness, and he was also urging the manufacture of more arms -- the Home Guard currently had only enough guns for roughly half its members. Churchill was not literally urging people to seek out maces and pikes like LARPers with delusions of grandeur. The pike, specifically, is an unwieldy type of spear not used since the early 1700s. But the War Office saw Churchill's words and thought, "Huh. Guess we have to manufacture pikes now."
They made 250,000 of the things. This meant taking steel tubes and attaching bayonets to the ends of them. When the Home Guard members were offered these pikes, they responded with a series of unprintable/ununderstandable cockney swears. The country's Under-Secretary of State for War still tried to defend the move, calling the pike "a most effective and silent weapon," but everyone else who got a look at the program realized this had been one of those hilarious British misunderstandings (like putting beans on toast). So they disposed of the pikes and moved on to figuring out how to mass-produce submachine guns.
Children And Babies Were Tattooed With Their Blood Types During The Cold War
The Cold War was a nerve-racking one for American civilians, in that when the enemy's attack eventually came, it could land absolutely anywhere. Nowhere was safe, and everyone had to be prepared. This included getting all medical facilities ready to treat a whole city's worth of casualties. One issue with all this was getting blood supplies high enough to deal with sudden emergencies. This was tough because the country had been sending off a lot of blood for the soldiers fighting the Korean War and because hospitals at the time faced regular raids from '50s vampires.
Then Andrew Ivy from the American Medical Association came up with a solution. He'd been present at the Nuremberg trials, and they gave him an idea. Maybe America should do what the SS did during World War II! Before a flurry of fists hit his face, Ivy hastily clarified: No, he didn't mean that; he meant Americans should all get tattoos stating their blood types, just like Nazis did. That way, after an attack, with people unconscious and no identifying paperwork anyway, doctors would easily be able to match donors to recipients and keep people alive.
And so the tattooing began, with pilot programs in specific towns. The tattoos were on the waist or chest rather than the more obvious spot of the arm because limbs have an annoying habit of getting blown off and lost during war. Kids were tattooed in schools. Today, these grown-up kids recall the process as painful but say no one really objected to it, considering it "very progressive." Also tattooed: newborn babies. At the time, it was believed that newborn babies felt no pain.
Considering that your grandpa's only tattoo is of an anatomically correct Donald Duck, you can figure out that the plan to turn everyone into "walking blood banks" didn't spread nationwide. Tattooing everyone would take too much money and time, and there was always the chance burns would render the letters unreadable. As for Dr. Ivy, he was eventually disgraced when it turned out that a quack cancer cure he was peddling was just a dumb placebo and not, as people had hoped, a miracle chemical derived from horse blood.
To Save Everyone Money, The US Banned Sliced Bread
During World War II, everyone lived under restrictions due to very real shortages of materials. They also suffered some indignities due to totally imagined problems. Flour was getting expensive, so the government feared what might happen if bakers jacked up the price of bread. But wait, said one brave government official. What if we stopped all bakers from slicing bread? They wouldn't have to pay for bread slicers, and they'd pass the savings on to everyone!
That logic barely made sense with unsliced pizza in that one episode of Breaking Bad, and it made even less with bread in real life, and when you're not high. At least pizza is reasonably easy to cut or to rip apart if by hand if you're too impatient. You ever try slicing an uncut loaf of bread? Even with a knife specifically designed to slice bread, you'll just smoosh it. Over a million Americans died or were wounded in World War II. A fair percentage of these were surely homeowners who cut themselves after being forced to slice their own bread.
If the government was so concerned about bread getting expensive, they always had the option of making their own cheap bread, or placing price ceilings over bread, or subsidizing bread. All of those might be considered insidious market intervention under some circumstances, but all of them were less stupidly authoritarian than banning bread slicing, which some historians now say was among the greatest atrocities of the war.
The ban didn't, incidentally, end up reducing bread prices. But it did reduce bread sales. So in March 1943, the government got rid of it. And so people once again gained access to the greatest thing, sliced bread. That's why we now call them the greatest generation.
Top Image: Thomas Quine/Wiki Commons