10 Odd Jobs From the World War II Military Classification Guide

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Click on the History Channel or open up a high school textbook, and you might end up concluding that World War II was exclusively won by troops and generals on the frontlines, and the wills and whims of national figureheads like Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.

The reality is—of course—much more complex, with generalists and specialists engaging in important battles to win wars of information, communication, infrastructure, and technology. Sometimes this meant storming the beaches of Normandy, and sometimes this meant, say, drafting posters to school soldiers on the dangers of venereal disease. With that in mind, here are ten of the oddest, most interesting jobs American soldiers took on during World War II, lifted directly from the United States’ 1944 Military Occupational Classification guide [PDF].

1. Playwright

No single military classification ended up packing more cultural power in a small group than the elite team of nine American WWII “playwrights.” The squad included the four-headed monster of Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner William Saroyan, all-time directing great Frank Capra, and a fellow named Theodore Geisel, who also used the pseudonym Dr. Seuss and wrote every book you read between ages three and 10.

"Civilian experience in writing or adapting scripts or scenarios for radio, stage, or motion pictures is required," the manual notes. But apparently, it wasn’t all as glamorous as it sounds—the absurdly talented crew put their skills not just to writing films but also to tasks like writing training manuals and pamphlets on avoiding venereal disease. However, Geisel and Capra would go on to celebrate victory by teaming up for this incredibly eerie piece of anti-German propaganda for occupying American troops.

2. Artist

Being an American classified as “Artist” during World War II was far from the cushy paint-pretty-pictures-until-the-troops-come-home position you might imagine. While duties included making “paintings, illustrations, layouts, sketches or designs,” occasionally lives, and even the outcomes of major battles, hinged on artists’ abilities. How? American artists were partially responsible for pulling off some of the Allies’ most massive deceptions of the war, designing decoy armies of inflatable rubber vehicles and other oddities meant to throw off German intelligence. Their operations also notably resulted in awesome pictures like this, of people picking tanks up like it ain’t nothing.

Artists ended up being crucial to one of the most important deceptions of World War II—the now-infamous and wildly successful Operation Fortitude, which left German intelligence officers convinced an allied invasion of France would take place near Pas-de-Calais rather than the the Caen-Cotentin region of Normandy, where the Allies ultimately landed.

3. Dog Trainer

The Russians deployed anti-tank dogs, trained to carry explosives to German tanks during the War, but—as any dog lover is surely happy to hear—the United States K-9 corps, which included dogs donated by families to aid in the American war effort, executed more traditional military duties, sniffing out enemy positions, detecting mines and traps, and carrying messages and supplies. One dog named Chips was even awarded a Silver Star for heroism and a Purple Heart, until the killjoys at the War Department ultimately determined that dogs were classified as “equipment” and ruled Chips ineligible.

One American World War II Combat Dog Handler, William W. Putney, wrote that because dogs and their handlers often trekked out in front of troops, it was “one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II.” Dogs also played a major role on D-Day, parachuting in alongside British troops for the invasion. Seriously. That’s something that actually happened.

4. Link Celestial Navigation Trainer Operator

Perhaps the most strangely specific military class during the war, anyone with the title Link Celestial Navigation Trainer Operator would have been, broadly, a person who helped prepare aviation crews for battle. More specifically, they would have controlled a strange-yet-slightly-ingenious device that combined flight simulation with cutting edge (for the time) projector technology.

Created for the war by aviation pioneer Edwin A. Link, the Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT) was essentially a flight simulator housed in an air-conditioned silo, with either stars projected on a screen above to give the appearance of night, or terrain projected below to give the appearance of day. The trainer would control weather variables while the crew-in-training would take aim at targets, making it something like what the kids today call a video game.

5. Balloon Rigger

One for the “probably not as much fun as it sounds” category, the business of balloon rigging was an important part of aerial warfare during World War II. On the Allied side, large, stationary balloons tethered with steel cables were frequently used to prevent or manipulate air attacks. The British were particularly fond of barrage balloons, using thousands to counter German air attacks. At the height of the war, they were an especially common sight in the London skies.

If you were in the right spot at the right time, you also might have spotted a few balloons over American soil, since they were used by Canadian and American forces [PDF] to protect the Soo Locks, which run along a common border between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The balloons became a curiosity and occasionally, a menace in the area, blowing out windows upon accidental explosion and damaging property upon breaking free from time to time.

6. Smoke Generator Operator

Pretty much the oldest trick in the field of battle book, smoke screens were still a major part of battle during World War II, and were particularly useful for throwing off enemies in the open seas. Smoke Generator Operators were responsible for maintaining a portable smoke generator, taking into account wind and weather while laying down screens for offensive operations and covers.

Fun fact: the smoke screen technology widely used by the United States during World War II was first developed by New Orleans bootlegger Alonzo C. Patterson—he used the screens to keep his rum-running boats hidden from police during Prohibition.

7. Sound Recorder, Field Artillery (836)

Another one to mark off in the “actually way more important than it sounds” tally, artillery sound recorders were crucial to helping to track the origin of enemy gunfire using sets of microphones strategically placed along front lines. A new technology [PDF] during World War I, by World War II sound ranging had become so sophisticated that, much of the time, sound ranging teams could actually determine the weapons being used based on the shape of the sound waves they produced. As you can imagine, this information was very useful in the heat of battle.

8. Pigeoneer

If Mike Tyson has a favorite WWII military classification, it's probably Pigeoneers. They were part of the United States Army Pigeon Service, which included some 3150 soldiers and 54,000 pigeons, who delivered their undetectable messages with an astounding 90 percent success rate. One American pigeon known as G.I. Joe even received a medal for gallantry after delivering a vital, last-minute message informing British forces that an Italian village was under British control, thus preventing a friendly fire disaster that might have resulted in roughly a thousand deaths.

9. Crystal Grinder

Far from grunt manual laborers, Crystal Grinders were specialists who had the hands and precision necessary to craft quartz wafers to be used as oscillators in radio transmitters and receivers. This was, of course, very much necessary for the United States war effort. In fact, the United States’ struggle to perfect quartz-based radio communication has been called America’s most massive scientific World War II undertaking outside of the Manhattan Project. The techniques that were revolutionized at the time are now widely used in wristwatches, clocks, radios, computers, and cellphones. The history of quartz in the 20th century: slightly more interesting than it sounds!

10. Bandsman, Snare Drum

Getting quality army bands together to perform at recruiting drives, concerts, ceremonies, and even to entertain troops on the front lines was considered no small thing after the United States dove into the war following Pearl Harbor—the War Department founded an emergency Army Music School to train the roughly 500 military bands deemed necessary for the war effort.

With a straight-to-the-point description in the classification manual (“Plays a euphonium or baritone in a military band”), a large part of a military bandsman's job was delivering tunes to the troops. However, bandsmen also chipped in by guarding supplies, and occasionally replacing troops on the lines. Members of the 28th Infantry Division Band were distinguished for their bravery during the Battle of the Bulge, taking up arms and losing 46 of their 60 men in the battle.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
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Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.