The Girl With the War-Winning Hair
Every day millions of Americans carefully wash, sort, and set out their recycling for collection. But while many might feel proud to be doing their bit to help save the environment, such efforts are minuscule next to the gargantuan recycling effort that accompanied the Second World War. The term “total war” refers to a state in which every facet of a nation’s economy and public life is committed to the prosecution of said war, and no conflict in human history more fully embodied this ethos than WWII. Almost overnight, nearly every commodity imaginable became a strategic material feeding the hungry war machine. Household goods like gasoline, cloth, and staple foods were heavily rationed, scrap metal drives scoured cities and towns for everything from junked cars to toothpaste tubes, housewives collected kitchen drippings to be turned into glycerine for explosives, and in Canada coloured ink became so scarce that comic book publishers were forced to print the now highly-collectible “Canadian Whites.” But few citizens could claim to have possessed a stranger strategic material than Miss Mary Babnik of Pueblo, Colorado.
Born Mitzi Babnik in 1907 to Slovenian immigrant parents, Mary Babnik was famous for her long blonde hair, which by the 1940s had grown to length of 34 inches or 83 centimetres, reaching down to her knees. She typically wore it in a long braid wrapped around her head, earning her the nickname “The Lady with the Crown.” In 1943 Mary was already contributing fully to the war effort, working by day at the National Broom Factory and teaching airmen from the local Air Force base to dance every evening as a USO volunteer.
But when Mary’s brothers were barred from military service on medical grounds, she began to feel that even this wasn’t enough:
“Both of my brothers were deferred and couldn’t go. I was thinking of all those other boys and their families, the ones who had to go. I saw so many people crying their eyes out, not wanting their sons to go. I was sad. I wanted to do something for the war effort.”
Thus, when she saw an advertisement in a local paper calling for blonde, undamaged hair at least 22 inches or 56 centimetres in length, she immediately replied. In November she was contacted by the Washington Institute of Technology, who asked her for a sample. Mary’s hair, which had never been cut, curled, straightened, or washed with anything but natural soap, was exactly what the WIT was looking for, and in 1944 she agreed to have it cut. Though the Government offered her compensation in war savings stamps, Mary refused, considering it her patriotic duty to contribute to the war effort. Nevertheless, the loss of her defining characteristic proved traumatic.
“After I did it I cried and cried. I went to my mother and said, ‘Mama, why did you let me cut my hair?’ It was two months before I went anywhere except to work. After two months, I got used to it. But at first I was so ashamed I wore a bandana to work so people wouldn’t ask me about it.”
Over the years a myth has emerged claiming that Mary Babnik’s hair was used to make the crosshairs in the Norden Bombsight carried aboard American B-17, B-24, and B-29 bomber aircraft. However, this is impossible, as the crosshairs in the Norden are not a separate component but rather etched into the glass of one of the sighting lenses.
So what was it actually used for? While it’s not fully clear in detail, it appears Mary’s hair was used in the manufacture of precision hygrometers for measuring atmospheric humidity – measurements vital to the manufacture of certain aircraft components and countless other war materials where accurate humidity measurement was essential, from the first nuclear weapons to intercontinental ballistic missiles and more.
Despite her initial regret, Mary Babnik soon came to view her curious contribution to the war effort with pride, claiming in a 1990 interview that she would “do it all again.” In 1987 President Ronald Reagan sent her a birthday greeting thanking her for her wartime service, while in 1990 she was presented with a special achievement award from the Colorado Aviation Historical Society. Mary Babnik died in 1991 at the age of 84.
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The Norden Bombsight – the device that Mary Babnik’s hair was erroneously believed to have been used in – was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the Second World War. First developed by Dutch-American engineer Carl Norden in the late 1920s, the device was extensively used aboard B-17, B-24, and B-29 bombers throughout the war.
Unlike what is typically depicted in movies, the Norden was not merely a simple telescope and crosshairs for aiming but rather a highly-sophisticated mechanical computer and autopilot that kept the aircraft on a steady course, constantly re-calculated the bombs’ point of impact based on changing flight conditions, and automatically dropped the bombs when the aircraft arrived over the target. In fact, the Norden bombsight is best thought of not as one single device but four.
The first component of the Norden bombsight was the inertial platform, a set of two gyroscopes that kept the sight stable and level relative to the ground regardless of how the aircraft moved around it. The second component was the sighting eyepiece, which looked not straight down but through a motorized prism that gave a view of the target ahead. By adjusting the speed of rotation of the prism so that the target remained fixed in the crosshairs, the bombardier could effectively calculate the groundspeed and the position of the target relative to the aircraft. The sight could then calculate when the aircraft had arrived over the release point and automatically drop the bombs. However, the fall of the bombs was affected by a number of other factors, including altitude, air temperature, and wind direction and velocity; therefore the bombardier had to use the sight’s third component, a mechanical computer, to compensate for these. Throughout the bomb run, he would constantly adjust these values by trial and error in order to keep the target centred in the crosshairs. While early versions of the Norden included a device that signalled course corrections to the pilot to keep the aircraft on correct heading, the finalized Mk. XV model used throughout WWII incorporated a fourth component, an autopilot, to fly the aircraft throughout the bomb run. Thus, on the approach to the target the plane would be flown not by the pilot but rather the bombsight and the bombardier, whose constant wind speed, altitude, and heading corrections would automatically adjust the aircraft’s course.
In prewar testing the Norden displayed phenomenal accuracy, with a Circular Area Probable – the diameter of the circle in which half the bombs could be expected to fall – of only 75 feet. This performance informed the American doctrine of daylight precision bombing, which held that military targets such as factories or marshalling yards could be hit from high altitude with minimal collateral damage – even if said targets were located within built-up civilian areas. Or, as US aircrew famously put it, that they could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet. This accuracy also theoretically allowed Navy aircraft to attack fleets of enemy ships at sea via high-altitude level bombing. The Norden was considered so vital to US air power that its design and production was given top secret status, and bombardiers were made to swear an oath to destroy their bombsight before bailing out of a stricken aircraft – either by heaving it overboard or emptying their service pistols into the mechanism.
Yet despite this vaunted reputation as a top-secret war-winning weapon, under actual combat conditions the Norden’s performance proved decidedly lacklustre, its CEP growing to over 1200 feet – about the same as far simpler British and German bombsights. Aircrew flying daylight raids also ran into the same problem faced by the British earlier in the war, namely that flying straight and level over a target for minutes on end tended to make bombers extremely vulnerable to enemy fighters and antiaircraft fire. Who knew? While high casualties had forced the British to switch to night raids and area bombing whereby entire cities were targeted rather than individual targets, the USAAF persisted with daylight raids, instead developing new tactics to improve bombing accuracy and aircraft survivability. These included the combat box – a special flight formation in which bomber gunners could better defend each other against fighter attack – and the lead bomber tactic, in which only a single aircraft would use its Norden to find the target, with the other bombers in the formation dropping their bombs on its command. Regardless, bombing proved almost impossible to achieve and the USAAF increasingly began adopting less discriminate area bombing tactics. Meanwhile, the Navy largely abandoned its Norden bombsights and embraced dive bombing and skip bombing to more accurately attack enemy ships.
Despite extensive attempts to keep its design a secret, details of the Norden’s operation did fall into German hands through both espionage and crashed aircraft. However, little attempt was made to reverse-engineer it due what the Germans saw as its unnecessary complexity. And despite its failure to live up to expectations, the Norden was the best the US military had and served through the rest of the war – being used to drop both Atomic Bombs – and soldiered on through Korea and Vietnam, its last use occurring in 1967 when it was used to drop electronic sensors onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A.F. Lauds Woman Who Gave Hair, Deseret News, November 19, 1990, https://www.deseret.com/1990/11/19/18891930/a-f-lauds-woman-who-gave-hair-br
Mary Babnick Brown, Pueblo County, Colorado, https://www.kmitch.com/Pueblo/bios0094.html
Adams, Doug, The Blonde and the Bomber: The Hair That Whipped Hitler, Life in the Delta, February 2011 https://web.archive.org/web/20140103223130/http://digitalpublication.lifeinthedelta.com/display_article.php?id=635505
Woman’s Locks Key to Sights, Star News, November 22, 1989, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=nbMsAAAAIBAJ&pg=6557,2626572
The Politics, Pickle Barrels, and Propaganda of the Norden Bombsight, Museum of Aviation Foundation, April 23, 2016, https://museumofaviation.org/blog/the-politics-pickle-barrels-and-propaganda-of-the-norden-bombsight/
Tillman, Barrett, Norden Bombsight: The Pickle Barrel War, Flight Journal Magazine, Winter 2001
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