When the U.S. Tried to Win World War II with Radioactive Foxes

Operation Fantasia planned to use glow-in-the-dark foxes to spook Japanese forces into defeat.
This fox is obviously not actually radioactive.
This fox is obviously not actually radioactive. / Troy Harrison/Moment/Getty Images

The United States government knew it needed to step up its espionage game during World War II. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA—was created just six months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was tasked with putting a creative spin on the art of war.

“It was my policy to consider any method whatever that might aid the war, however unorthodox or untried,” wrote Stanley Lovell, the OSS’s head of Research and Development (think of him like Q from James Bond). This policy led to the testing of some rather unusual ideas, from small time-release bombs glued to bats to developing of a chemical that smelled like feces that would be sprayed on the enemy to embarrass them. Both plans were (unsurprisingly) nixed.

But perhaps strangest of all was Operation Fantasia, an absurd—and ultimately unsuccessful—plot that sought to use glow-in-the-dark foxes as a form of psychological warfare.

Outfoxing the Enemy

William Donovan, director of the OSS, told Lovell that he wanted to “outfox the Nazis and the [Japanese].” One of the ideas that sprang up from his directive ran in an unexpectedly literal direction. Allen Abrams, acting director of R&D, requested the creation of a floating device in the shape of a creature (his suggestions were a fox or a dragon) that was capable of “luminescence without the source of light being apparent.”

illustration of a nine-tailed kitsune
A kitsune can have up to nine tails. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Enter Ed Salinger, a businessman who had previously worked in Japan, giving him some degree of insider knowledge that the OSS wanted to take advantage of. Salinger thought U.S. forces could break the enemy’s morale by tapping into fears about kitsune—supernatural fox creatures from Japanese folklore—that are sometimes seen as harbingers of doom.

“The foundation for the proposal,” Salinger explained in his outline, “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.” Though his belief that Japanese people were gullible enough to fall for a plan that relied on inciting superstition was rooted in racism, his misguided idea was given the go ahead.

Beware the Ghosts that Glow

How to actually make people believe that portentous kitsune were prowling around proved challenging. As Smithsonian reports, one idea involved flying fly fox-shaped balloons over Japan, along with releasing a foxy odor and playing whistles designed to simulate the animal’s cries. But this impractical plan was quickly cast aside.

Salinger was unfazed; his original plan involved live foxes anyway. To make them appear seemingly spirit-like, they would be coated with luminescent paint. Salinger’s plot clearly did not take animal welfare into account: The paint did more than just give the bushy-tailed creatures an otherworldly glow—it was also hazardously radioactive.

black and white photo of radium girls at work in a factory
Radium girls at work in a factory, circa 1922. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The dangers of the paint were well-known. In 1928, five “Radium Girls” sued U.S. Radium after being falsely told the luminous paint they worked with was safe. The women were employed to paint watch and clock faces and ingested the substance when shaping their brushes to a point with their mouths. The poisonous substance caused necrosis of the jaw and even death, among many other issues.

Despite the known hazards of using such a dangerous product, 30 foxes were painted and taken for a test run (literally!): The OSS released the glow-in-the-dark animals in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. It was a popular spot, mere miles from the White House, historically frequented by several presidents (Teddy Roosevelt had been particularly prone to taking people birding, hiking, and rock climbing there). The OSS figured that if the ghostly canines could give the American public a little fright, then they would surely terrify the Japanese people. Park-goers were suitably spooked, with the National Park Police reporting, “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.’”

‘A Fox Bearing Death’s Head on His Crown’

With the fluorescent foxes tried and tested on American soil, the next step was to get them to Japan. To see whether they could be dropped into the ocean and then swim to the Japanese shoreline, Salinger’s team threw the foxes into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. They made it to the beach—but the paint on their fur didn’t.

That problem was cast aside to be solved another day (which never came). In the meantime, Salinger turned his mind to how to deal with the foxes once in Japan. There was no assurance that the animals would make a beeline for populated places, but Salinger figured that if enough foxes were released, then at least some of them would find people to frighten. Failing that, he suggested they paint and release other furry animals—such as muskrats and coyotes—which missed the original point of trying to exploit Japanese superstition related to supernatural foxes.

'Fox Fire On New Years Eve At The Changing Tree At Oji'
'Fox Fire on New Year's Eve at the Changing Tree at Oji,' 1857. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The cracks in the plan were clear, but Salinger wasn’t about to give up. He returned to the idea of a floating device when he heard about a tale of a spirit that “appears in the form of a fox bearing death’s head on his crown.” Thinking that this legend would be the one to frighten the Japanese forces into defeat, his team “made a stuffed fox with a human skull affixed to his head, equipped with a simple mechanical device for raising and lowering the jaw.” The faux fox would soar through the air via a balloon or kite; like the live animals he had initially intended to use, it, too, would wear a coat of fluorescent paint. (The Allies weren’t the only ones coming up with strange sky-based schemes—the Japanese had also turned to balloons, though their plot involved fire rather than foxes.)

To aid this skull-adorned flying fox in striking fear into the hearts of the enemy, the plan also included having U.S. sympathizers act possessed by uttering “strange chants purportedly emanating from the Fox spirit.”

Unfortunately for Salinger, however, Operation Fantasia was wisely scrapped before it had a chance to make it across the Pacific Ocean. Lovell had been doubtful from the beginning, and noted that the project “will serve as a critique to us in the field of pure reason.”

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