Earlier than Shark Week and ‘Jaws,’ World Struggle II Spawned America’s Shark Obsession
By Janet M. Davis, University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Every summer, Shark Week on the Discovery Channel inundates its eager audience with spectacular documentary footage of sharks hunting, eating and jumping.
The television event that debuted in 1988 was an instant hit. Its financial success far exceeded the expectations of its makers, who were inspired by the profitability of the 1975 blockbuster film “Jaws”, the first to gross the box office $ 100 million.
Thirty-three years later, the enduring popularity of the longest-running programming event in cable television history is testament to a nation terrified and intrigued by sharks.
Journalists and scholars often refer to “Jaws” as the source of the American obsession with sharks.
As a historian who analyzes the entanglements between humans and sharks over the centuries, however, I argue that the temporal depths of “sharkmania” are much deeper.
World War II played a crucial role in fueling the nation’s obsession with sharks. The monumental mobilization of millions of people during the war brought more Americans into contact with sharks than ever before in history, and spread the seeds of intrigue and fear against the sea predators.
America on the move
Before the Second World War, travel across state and county borders was unusual. But during the war the nation was on the move.
Of a population of 132.2 million people, according to the 1940 US Census, 16 million Americans served in the armed forces, many of whom fought in the Pacific. 15 million civilians have now crossed county borders to work in the defense industry, many in coastal cities like Mobile, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; Los Angeles; and Honolulu.
Local newspapers across the country captivated civilians and soldiers alike with frequent reports of ships and planes being bombed in the open sea. Journalists repeatedly described soldiers at risk who were rescued or died in “shark-infested waters”.
Whether or not sharks were visible, these news articles heightened a growing cultural fear of ubiquitous monsters lurking about to kill.
Naval officer and marine scientist H. David Baldridge reported that fear of sharks was a major cause of poor morale among soldiers in the Pacific. General George Kenney enthusiastically supported the introduction of the P-38 fighter in the Pacific, as its twin-engine and long-range ranges reduced the likelihood of single-engine failure or an empty fuel tank: “If you look down from the cockpit, you can see swarms of sharks swimming around. They never look healthy to a man who flies over them. “
‘Hold on and hold on’
American soldiers became so squeamish about the specter of being eaten during lengthy oceanic campaigns that US Army and Navy intelligence agencies launched an advertising campaign against the fear of sharks.
“Castaway’s Baedeker to the South Seas” was published in 1942 and was a type of “travel” survival guide for soldiers stranded on Pacific islands. The book emphasized the crucial importance of conquering such “bogies of the imagination” as “If you are forced at sea, a shark is sure to amputate your leg”.
‘Shark Sense’ tried to prepare troops for encounters with the sea predators.
Similarly, the Navy’s 1944 pamphlet entitled “Shark Sense” advised wounded soldiers stranded at sea to “stop the flow of blood as soon as you release the parachute” in order to thwart hungry sharks. The booklet was helpful in suggesting that hitting an aggressive shark on the nose could stop an attack, as could a pectoral fin ride: “Hold on and hold on for as long as you can without blocking yourself drown.”
The Department of the Navy also worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, to develop a shark protectant.
Office of Strategic Services Executive Assistant and future chef Julia Child worked on the project, which tested various recipes of clove oil, horse urine, nicotine, rotting shark muscles, and asparagus to help prevent shark attacks. The project culminated in 1945 when the Navy introduced Shark Chaser, a pink pill made from copper acetate that when released into water produced a black ink dye – with the idea of hiding a soldier from sharks.
Nonetheless, the US military’s morale boosting campaign was unable to overcome the blatant reality of the carnage at sea during the war. Military media rightly stated that sharks rarely attack healthy swimmers. In fact, malaria and other infectious diseases took a far greater toll on US soldiers than sharks.
However, the same publications also confirmed that an injured person was vulnerable in the water. During the frequent bombing of planes and ships during World War II, thousands of injured and dying soldiers rocked helplessly in the sea.
One of the worst war disasters at sea occurred on July 30, 1945 when pelagic sharks flooded the grounds of the shipwrecked USS Indianapolis. The heavy cruiser, which had just successfully brought the components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to Tinian Island on a top secret mission, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Of a crew of 1,196 men, 300 died immediately in the explosion, the rest ended up in the water. As they struggled to stay afloat, the men watched in horror as sharks feasted on their dead and wounded shipmates.
Only 316 men survived the five days in the open sea.
‘Jaws’ has an eager audience
World War II veterans had fiery lifelong memories of sharks – either from direct experience or from someone else’s shark stories. This made them an especially receptive audience for Peter Benchley’s tight shark-centric thriller “Jaws,” which he released in 1974.
Don Plotz, a seaman in the Navy, immediately wrote to Benchley: “I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. Because I’m more interested in sharks. “
Plotz vividly told of his experiences on a search and rescue mission in the Bahamas, where a hurricane sank the USS Warrington on September 13, 1944. Of the originally 321 crew members, only 73 survived.
“We took two survivors with us who had been in the water for twenty-four hours fighting sharks,” wrote Plotz. “Then we spent all day picking up the carcasses of those we could find, identifying and burying cages… an arm or a leg or a hip. Sharks were everywhere on the ship. ”
Benchley’s novel paid little attention to World War II, but the war anchored one of the film’s most memorable moments. In the haunting, penultimate scene, Quint, one of the shark hunters, quietly reveals that he is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis disaster.
“Sometimes the sharks look you straight in the eye,” he says. “You know the thing about a shark, it has lifeless eyes, black eyes, like doll eyes it bites you.”
The power of Quint’s self-talk drew on the collective memory of the most massive war mobilization in American history. The oceanic reach of World War II brought greater numbers of people into contact with sharks in the dire circumstances of the war. Veterans witnessed the inevitable violence of combat, exacerbated by the trauma of seeing sharks circling and opportunistically feeding on their dead and dying comrades.
Their horrific experiences played a crucial role in creating a permanent cultural figure: the shark as a mindless, ghostly terror that could strike at any moment, a haunting artifact of World War II that Americans refer to the era of “Jaws” and “Shark Week” prepared. “
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Janet M. Davis, University Distinguished Teaching Professor of American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.