The intersection of natural history and war (particularly the American Civil War – 1861-1865) intrigues me. Did men with a deep amateur or professional interest in natural history who were swept up into armies during wartime continue to pursue that interest while serving? Yes, some did, at times even collecting specimens during hostilities. Perhaps it’s not surprising they did, given the need to find respite from the stress and trauma of war. (I wrote about this possible benefit from collecting in a post about Robert F. Scott and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1912. Although the expedition was not technically a military operation, I think it’s relevant because Scott and his men were, at the time, fighting for their lives when he led them on a fossil hunt.)
A new exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, titled When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During World War II, pays tribute to American soldier-scientists who, during World War II (1941-1945), collected natural history specimens for the Museum. Located on the ground floor of the Museum, up against a side wall, it’s small and easily missed – a great shame.
When I delved into the background to the exhibit’s material I found some support for the notion that sending people with a fascination for natural history off to war might, at times, have some untoward consequences – perhaps making for distracted soldiers who forsake the war for the pursuit of natural history, or even leading them (when they’re able) to redefine their military duty to accommodate collecting.
During WWII, the Smithsonian took a proactive role in recruiting and training soldiers to collect specimens, presumably prompted by some of the exotic, tropical places to which the American military forces were being sent. Soldiers interested in collecting specimens received the Smithsonian’s Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, written by Smithsonian staff and published in 1944. It was pocket-sized, to be sure (a convenient 4 ½ inches by 5 ½ inches). Frankly, it’s striking how much the Smithsonian staff packed into the booklet’s mere 118 pages. Users could read detailed instructions for collecting, preserving, labeling, and shipping an incredibly wide range of specimens, such as birds, mammals, insects, earthworms, mollusks, plants, fossils, and meteorites. Specific procedures for dealing with certain kinds of specimens were covered, including how to skin mammals and birds, or how to create plaster of Paris jackets for fossils embedded in matrix.
The authors of the Field Collector’s Manual suggested that natural history collecting would provide “welcome and valuable recreation” for servicemen “as their duties permit.” (p. 1-2) It was expected that the upper reaches of the chain of command would look favorably on this activity.
It is believed that Commanding Officers will recognize the merit of those men who are seriously interested and will grant them the necessary permission to make small collections. (p. 2)I suspect they were a trifle optimistic in this regard, particularly in light of a couple of the stories which I recount in this post. Anyway, the Field Collector’s Manual is an interesting little volume. (I found a copy recently on eBay.)
Of the six soldier-scientists recognized in the exhibit (wait, that’s not quite right, not all of them were soldiers, more on that in a moment), only one, Sammy Ray is still living. Ray, born in 1919, had recently graduated with a degree in biology from Louisiana State University when he joined the Navy as a pharmacist’s mate first class and served with the 1st Marine Division. Trained as a bird zoologist, Ray was recruited by Smithsonian Assistant Director Alexander Wetmore (shortly to become Secretary) to collect for the Museum. When the 1st Marine Division was sent to the South Pacific, Ray proved to be a singular asset sending the Museum 171 exotic birds. The exhibit displays a few of his specimens which, despite the passage of roughly 70 years and their obvious death poses (Ray’s handiwork), still radiate vibrant colors. (In my picture taking, I am invariably defeated by glassed-in displays. The pictures below are no exception.)
Ray acknowledged the invariable tension between his military responsibilities and his natural history work when he wrote to Wetmore that he would collect specimens “when time and duty permit.” Despite being in combat zones, Ray appears to have a struck a balance between duty and collecting that seems to have given collecting a fairly wide range of play.
In one incident, his pursuit of birds took him deep into a mangrove swamp where darkness overtook him before he could return to camp. After spending an uncomfortable night in the swamp, he wandered back into camp the next morning only to find search parties having been assembled to search for him. Hard to imagine this endeared him to his comrades or his superiors. Though the exhibit asserts, quite properly, that, “For many soldiers, natural history studies provided a break from the stress of war,” those same “studies” came with their own set of stresses, particularly if the collector disappeared overnight. Not surprisingly Ray’s commanding officer frowned on his collecting, but they struck a deal. The colonel overlooked the bird collecting and, in exchange, the pharmacist’s first mate supplied him with medicinal alcohol.
In the exhibit, next to what is described as “box and tools typically used during World War II to collect natural history specimens,” is a picture of pharmacist’s first mate Ray.
Well, the meager equipment (scalpel, thread, presumably needle, etc.) shown in that box doesn’t reflect all that the Smithsonian provided some of its servicemen-collectors. Ray was given a “collecting gun” – I’m thinking modified shotgun – which used “dust shot” to kill birds without seriously damaging their pelts. “I was the most-armed non-combatant to ever hit the beach in the South Pacific,” he said.
After the war, he became a marine biologist, earning degrees from Rice University, and in 1957 joined the faculty of Texas A&M University Galveston where he remains. Oysters have been one of his principal research focuses.
(Though Ray is featured in the exhibit, there’s not much background information provided. I have relied on several pieces for my treatment of Sammy Ray, including the following: WWII Navy Corpsman Collected Birds Between Pacific Theater Battles, Around The Mall: Scenes and Sightings from the Smithsonian Museums and Beyond, July 13, 2012; and Sea Aggies Professor is Recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University Galveston.)
Among the other men identified in the exhibit is S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001). Now, here’s another fascinating character. Ripley, who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian, was born to wealth and privilege, and early on fell in love with birds. After graduating from Yale, Ripley spent much of his time abroad, collecting birds. Enrolled at Harvard in the early 1940s in pursuit of a doctorate in zoology, Ripley was hired by the Smithsonian as an associate curator of birds in 1942, but soon resigned to join the war effort as a civilian member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he was trained as a spy and a spy master. (I must admit that I didn’t do due diligence on Ripley having relied, for better or worse, on a delightful profile published in The New Yorker on August 26, 1950, titled Curator Getting Around, by Geoffrey T. Hellman.)
Stationed in such places as India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Ripley did not ignore birds. Looking back, he said, “I thought about birds all during the war.” Of Ripley and another Smithsonian scientist who joined the OSS, Herbert G. Deignan (1906-1968), the exhibit notes: “During their free time, they collected the local flora and fauna to study and send back to the Museum.” I wonder about the implied secondary status of collecting to duty in that sentence. Geoffrey Hellman in his New Yorker piece certainly offers that Ripley approached it differently.
The fact that ornithology, like archeology and butterfly-collecting, has often served as a cover for espionage and other extraterritorial political activity constitutes, in his [Ripley’s] opinion, a regrettable subordination of the affairs of birds to those of men and a distasteful violation of the rules of proportion. He has done his best to restore the balance. Ripley is as patriotic as the next ornithologist or aviculturist, and he has functioned with airy competence both as a political observer and as a secret agent, but in so doing he has on occasion reversed the politics-and-espionage-through-ornithology formula. He once posed as a man of considerable political influence in order to gain access to an extremely esoteric birdy terrain in the Himalayas. During the war against Japan, he took advantage of his position as chief of the Office of Strategic Services’ Secret Intelligence branch in southeast Asia to make an avifaunal survey of Ceylon.Duty redefined.
And the Smithsonian reached an agreement with him, providing collecting equipment for the bird survey in exchange for the birds so obtained. Among the tools he received was a shotgun (similar to the one sent Ray?).
The intersection of collecting and duty was not without its moments of revealing levity. Among the birds Ripley secured for the Museum was a green woodpecker, a Picus chlorolophys wellsi under the following circumstances. He caught the little woodpecker in Kandy (in Ceylon)
one afternoon in 1944 while tidying himself up for a cocktail party that was being given by Lieutenant General Raymond A. Wheeler, the American Deputy Supreme Allied Commander on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of the South East Asia Command. At the time, Ripley was living, and shaving, in a palm-leaf hut a hundred yards from the site of the cocktail party, an outdoor affair. He caught sight of the Picus while in mid-lather. Dressed only in a bath towel, he grabbed his gun, rushed out, and hanged [sic] away. [Clearly, “banged away” was what Hellman wrote, though I did enjoy the typo in this transcription.] His towel fell off, and as he ran up to retrieve the bird, he noticed a number of officers and ladies, Martinis in hand, peering at him over some tea bushes that separated him from the festivity. He joined them a few minutes later, and modestly advised Mountbatten, who had greeted him a trifle coolly, that the Picus, though up to then unrepresented in his collection, was not unknown to science.In the picture below, taken in OSS quarters, Ceylon, 1945, Ripley (clothed) is second from the left. (This photo was taken from the Smithsonian webpage announcing the opening of the exhibit.)
It’s a complicated business this mixing of natural history and war and it plays out in fascinating ways.