Survival Tactics

During World War II, the Smithsonian Institution aided the war effort in many different ways

U.S. Army Air Forces survival handbook. Image from

During World War II, the Smithsonian Institution aided the war effort in many different ways. An “Ethnogeographic Board” was established to act as a clearinghouse for government wartime needs, and one of their major undertakings was the “Survival Project,” requested by the U.S. Navy.

Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson writes in “The Smithsonian Goes to War: The Increase and Diffusion of Scientific Knowledge in the Pacific,” that the project was prompted by tales of downed fliers who survived an airplane crash but then died on an island or atoll for lack of local knowledge. “Smithsonian botanists, malacologists (mollusk experts), entomologists, ichthyologists, herpetologists, mammalogists, and anthropologists then prepared a 187-paged, pocket-sized, waterproof manual for soldiers and airmen to carry,” she writes. “Basic information on navigation, finding water and starting fires went along with instructions for identifying and using edible and dangerous plants and animals. Plants were figured with notations showing which parts were poisonous, which were edible, and which had to be cooked before eating. Produced within three months of a request from the Navy, almost one million copies of Survival on Land and Sea were distributed to servicemen by the end of the war.”

But not all survival guides were equally useful. The Smithsonian Institution Archives holds 31 boxes of materials documenting the work of the Ethnogeographic Board, and among the documents is an Evaluation Report on Survival Publications, compiled by the U.S. Army Air Forces. As for the guide shown above, the USAAF had mostly scorn:

“For a general survival manual, the contents are not well-balanced either from a subject or a geographic standpoint. There are 69 pages on jungle, 12 pages on desert, 56 pages on the arctic, and 23 pages on the ocean. There are 4 pages devoted to water in the jungle and only 1 page to water in the desert…. There are 87 legible and clear illustrations, about 70 pages. About 58 of these illustrations have little or no survival value. There is considerable duplication of illustrations concerning firebuilding and erection of shelters. Many lack a scale, and some, such as the monkey traps, are absurd.”

Their report concludes: “ is the only comprehensive AAF survival manual available. Since 300,000 copies have been ordered, they should be issued. When this edition is exhausted, it should be discontinued and an adequate survival manual directed specifically to AAF needs should be prepared.”

Interested in other work undertaken by the Ethnogeographic Board? A random sample of “spot questions” indicates the breadth of the Board’s projects:

  • Report on Axis activities among the Indians of the Highlands of Peru and Bolivia.
  • Methods of coral reef navigation.
  • What is the average weight of a dressed caribou carcass?
  • Data on vampire bats and rabies in Trinidad.
  • Data on Asiatic leeches and preventatives against them.
  • Report on sea ice conditions and navigability of the northeast coast of Greenland, including information pertinent to the servicing of air bases which might be established on these shores.
  • Bulletin on operation and maintenance of airplanes and equipment in the humid tropics.
  • Translation of words supposed to be Eskimo. “(They weren’t.)”

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