The Unsuccessful WWII Plot to Fight the Japanese With Radioactive Foxes

An outlandish idea codenamed ‘Operation Fantasia’ aimed to demoralize the Axis power by mimicking legendary spirits

Operation Fantasia aimed to destroy Japanese morale by exposing soldiers and civilians to a Shinto portent of doom: kitsune, or fox-shaped spirits with magical abilities. (Illustration by Meilan Solly / Maps via Stanford Libraries, fox vector via Carl Holderness under CCBY)
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In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “Wild Bill” Donovan, the leader of the Office of Strategic Services—America’s wartime intelligence agency—told his scientists to find a way to “outfox” the Axis enemies. In response, the scientists produced a number of dirty tricks, including explosive pancake mix, incendiary bombs strapped to live bats, truth drugs for eliciting information from prisoners of war, and a foul-smelling spray that mimicked the repulsive odor of fecal matter. In other words, desperate times called for desperate measures. Among these outlandish strategies, Operation Fantasia was the most desperate—and peculiar—of them all.

Operation Fantasia was the brainchild of OSS psychological warfare strategist Ed Salinger, an eccentric businessman who had run an import/export business in Tokyo before the war. Salinger’s business dealings had given him a cursory introduction to Japanese culture; he learned the language, collected the art and studied the superstitions—which is why the OSS hired him. Operation Fantasia, he pitched the organization in 1943, would destroy Japanese morale by exposing soldiers and civilians to a Shinto portent of doom: kitsune, fox-shaped spirits with magical abilities. “The foundation for the proposal,” Salinger wrote in a memo outlining his idea, “rests upon the fact that the modern Japanese is subject to superstitions, beliefs in evil spirits and unnatural manifestations which can be provoked and stimulated.”

Vince Houghton, the historian and curator of the International Spy Museum, writes in his book Nuking the Moon that Operation Fantasia demonstrates “the breadth of the racism, ethnocentrism, and general disregard for Japanese culture held by many, if not most, of the top American military, intelligence, and political leadership.” Being relatively unacquainted with East Asian religions, the OSS ascribed a level of gullibility to the Japanese that it never did with its European foes. In reality, the Japanese culture of yokai, the realm of animals that explain the paranormal, resembles the folklore of any other culture. As scholar Michael Dylan Foster writes, “Thinking about the genesis of yokai, then, is really a philosophical problem: it helps us explore how human beings struggle to grasp, interpret, and control the world around them.”

When it came to the question of how to create fake kitsune, the OSS dreamt up a gaggle of ideas. First, OSS personnel fashioned fox-shaped balloons to fly over Japanese villages and scare the citizens below. They also asked a whistle company to create an instrument that simulated fox sounds. In a memo to the OSS Planning Staff, Salinger said, “These whistles can be used in combat and a sufficient number of these should create an eerie sound of the kind calculated to meet the Japanese superstition.” In addition to the balloons and whistles, the OSS hired another company to create artificial fox odors. Salinger thought that Japanese citizens would somehow recognize this scent—just as he thought that they would recognize a rare fox sound—and cower in fear. But despite Salinger’s best efforts, the balloons, whistles, and odors were abandoned as impractical before being deployed. Instead, the OSS reverted to Salinger’s original plan: Catch live foxes in China and Australia, spray-paint them with glowing paint, and release them throughout Japanese villages.

William "Wild Bill" Donovan operates a short wave radio in the years before he would run the OSS. (Underwood And Underwood / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

This scheme presented a number of logistical hurdles. First, what kind of paint should be used? The United States Radium Corporation provided an answer in the form of its glow-in-the-dark paint, which contained radium. The health risks associated with the paint weren’t unknown. As early as 1917, women detailing watch dials with the luminous paint suffered from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, a result of them using their pursed lips to shape the contaminated brush tips into a fine point. Despite that danger, the OSS continued with Operation Fantasia.

The next roadblock: getting radioactive paint to adhere to animal fur. To test whether it would, the OSS turned to Harry Nimphius, a veterinarian at the Central Park Zoo. In his tenure at the zoo, Nimphius had dealt with issues as varied as a paralyzed elephant and a canary with a broken leg, but never anything like this. He recruited the help of a raccoon who was more than willing to have his fur painted in exchange for his daily allotment of food. The raccoon was kept under lock and key and hidden from public view. After several days of ordinary raccoon shenanigans, the paint stayed on.

To find out whether the faux-supernatural foxes would actually frighten the Japanese, the OSS decided to release 30 glowing foxes in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park to gauge the reactions of the locals. If the foxes spooked Americans, the logic went, certainly they would scare the Japanese even more.

On a summer night in 1945, OSS personnel released the foxes in the park, and the creatures scampered along the trails with promising results. The sight of the ghostly apparitions at first confused and then terrified passersby on their evening strolls. One citizen was so concerned that he notified the National Park Police, which reported on the incident, “Horrified citizens, shocked by the sudden sight of the leaping ghost-like animals, fled from the dark recesses of the park with the ‘screaming jeemies.’”

But then another barrage of procedural questions surfaced. How would the foxes get to the Japanese islands? The OSS had initially planned to drop them in the ocean and let them swim ashore, but it wasn’t clear whether they would survive such an excursion. Could foxes swim long distances? Nimphius gave his word that they could, but Salinger’s team devised another experiment to test his hunch.

Under the cloak of an early morning fog, OSS personnel packed a group of captured foxes onto a boat destined for the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The foxes paced inside their small cages, and when the engine cut off, they became frantic. One by one, the personnel threw them overboard into the cold, brackish seawater to sink or swim.

The foxes swam and survived, to the delight of the OSS team. The dry (or wet) run for the Japanese invasion had been a success. But by the time that the foxes reached the shore, most of the paint had washed off, and within minutes of stepping onto the beach, the animals licked off the rest of the remaining paint. The aquatic foxes concept had proven a bust after all.

If Operation Fantasia was to go forward, the foxes would have to be dropped onshore. But the greatest challenge, Ed Salinger predicted, would come after the foxes were already in place. To his knowledge, nobody had ever trained foxes. What would keep them in the vicinity of people and stop them from running off in the wrong direction if they encountered a barrage of gunfire? Salinger’s solution was simple: strength in numbers. “If enough foxes are released, some will get through,” he wrote in an OSS memo. And on the off chance that the foxes failed, he suggested painting readily available minks, muskrats, raccoons and coyotes in their stead.

Salinger’s off-the-wall idea got even stranger. In one newly discovered OSS memo found at the Army Heritage and Education Center in Pennsylvania, he wrote that he had learned of “a peculiarly potent manifestation of the Fox legend,” a version of the superstition that supposedly terrified the Japanese even more, that “appears in the form of a fox bearing death’s head on his crown.” His plan to capitalize on this information bears repeating in his own words: “We have made a stuffed fox with a human skull affixed to his head, equipped with a simple mechanical device for raising and lowering the jaw so as to simulate the opening and closing of the mouth of the skull. This stuffed figure will be painted to give the same luminous effect as in the case of the live foxes.” Salinger suggested draping the taxidermied fox body in a black cloth painted with glowing bones and lifting this human-fox hybrid into the air with balloons or a kite, as if it were levitating, to have an even greater demoralizing effect on the Japanese. From the ground, the Japanese would look up and see a floating, glowing fox body, covered in glowing bones, with a human skull sitting atop its head whose jaw opened and closed as if it were talking.

But just in case none of his previous plans worked, Salinger included an addendum to the memo titled “Fox-Possessed Human Beings.” In this scheme, Japanese citizens sympathetic to the Allied cause would “simulate persons possessed of the Fox spirit, who utter strange chants purportedly emanating from the Fox spirit.” Essentially, they would run around in a semi-deranged state yelling about foxes. Salinger cautioned the OSS Planning Staff that the creation of a fox-possessed human army was in the planning stages only: “There are many difficulties which would have to be overcome before the plan could be put into actual operation.” It never was.

None of the aforementioned harebrained schemes ever went beyond the planning and experimental stages.

As early as September 24, 1943, Stanley Lovell, the head of the OSS Research and Development Branch responsible for overseeing Fantasia, recommended in a meeting that they abandon the operation. He couldn’t understand why nobody else questioned its logic, feasibility or rationality. He told his colleagues, “I trust that this will serve as a critique to us in the field of pure reason.” Lovell had established his reputation in the OSS by pursuing eccentric ideas himself, such as trying to make Adolf Hitler’s mustache fall out by slipping female sex hormones into his vegetables—Lovell’s nickname was “Professor Moriarty”—but Operation Fantasia went beyond his tolerance for absurdity.

The minutes of another OSS meeting that occurred near the end of the war reveal noticeable relief in the attendees, including Lovell, whenever the OSS cancelled the bizarre project. They concluded, “This problem of Fantasia has been mercifully completed.”

When Wild Bill Donovan had earlier told them to find a way to “outfox the Nazis and the Japs,” he didn’t mean it quite so literally.

John Lisle received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Louisiana Tech University.

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