The Politics, Pickle Barrels, and Propaganda of the Norden Bombsight

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A Norden bombsight in the nose of a B-29 Superfortress at the Museum of Aviation. (Museum of Aviation photo)

 

Perhaps no other piece of early 20th Century technology has generated more interest and spawned more myths and legends than the famous Norden bombsight of World War II. It was believed to be a device so valuable to the United States war effort that it was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning and heralded by many as the bombsight that won the war. At the time, the Norden bombsight was probably used as much for a propaganda tool as it was a bombing tool. To tell the truth, it never was technically “Highly Classified” during the war. By the time the United States entered the war in the European Theater it had been reduced to RESTRICTED, the lowest military classification at the time. Germany already had many of the details of the Norden, having been given them by Herman W. Lang, a German spy who was employed by the Norden Company in the 1930s.

As World War II loomed on the horizon, Airmen were already thinking of the possibility of creating a separate Air Force. It was a difficult idea to justify to the military and civilian leadership. Strategic bombing from planes was not seen as humane in the fact that it resulted in civilian deaths and injury and other collateral damage. Air Force leaders needed some way to convince the military leadership and especially President Franklin Roosevelt that strategic bombing could be made humane, in that only military targets would be hit with no or minimal civilian deaths or damage. Enter Carl Lucas van Norden, a Dutch engineer. Carl Norden was a Christian man who worked to create a bombsight for humanitarian reasons. He knew that war and bombings were a reality and wanted to create a bombsight that would make the bombing of enemy targets as humane as possible.

Carl Norden along with another inventor, Elmer Sperry, began working with the United States Navy on various projects involving the gyrostabilizer and compass. Norden left Sperry in 1913 and began work on a bombsight for the Navy in 1920. The first bombsight was produced in 1927 for the Navy and was classified as SECRET. Early testing under low altitudes, slow speeds and ideal conditions looked promising. In October of 1931 the Navy tested two Norden bombsights against each other. They were the production model Mark 11 and a developmental prototype model Mark 15. The older Mark 11 scored 23% on direct hits and the new prototype Mark 15 scored 50% direct hits. The Army Air Corps immediately acquired the newer Mark 15 and it soon became the famous Norden bombsight (O’Connell, 2007). The device was eventually reclassified down to RESTRICTED.

Air Force information officers claimed the bombsight could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet” but reality told a different story (Kratzer 2012). According to Avers Don Sherman, a writer, “The Norden had only a 20-power telescope, so you couldn’t even see a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet, much less hit it” (as cited in Kratzer 2012). There is no argument that the Norden bombsight did not perform in combat as it had in testing. There are volumes of results that exist on testing and combat operation of the Norden bombsight. Air Force leaders realized that even though the Norden was a very good bombsight, its effectiveness rested primarily in the hands of the bombardier and his skills and training. To overcome this shortfall the Air Force developed the concept of having the best bombardier in the lead plane of each formation. When the lead plane dropped its bombs, the other planes in the formation would release theirs.

bombardier in nose of B-17_483 BG_85-5-88
A bombardier in the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress demonstrates operation of the Norden bombsight. (Photo from the 483rd Bomb Group collection at the Museum of Aviation)

 

Even though the Norden was not perfect, it was the best the military had and for the technology of the time, it was actually a very good invention when in the hands of a skilled bombardier under the right conditions. It was also desperately needed by the Army Air Corps to justify strategic bombing and creation of a separate Air Force to carry it out. In 1935 the General Headquarters Air Force was created for the operational aviation arm of the Army Air Corps which remained as the material and training arm. In 1942 shortly after entering the war the Army Ground Forces and the Army Air Forces were made co-equal commands with Hap Arnold the Commander of the newly formed Army Air Forces seated on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Army Air Forces set in motion a propaganda campaign which eventually took a life of its own and helped make the Norden bombsight the legendary bombsight it is today. Even with the classification down to CONFIDENTIAL and later to RESTRICTED in 1941, the Army continued to treat the Norden as if it were TOP SECRET. Bombardier trainees were sworn under oath to protect the secrets of the bombsight and to give their own life in the process if necessary. In order to keep the Norden bombsight out of enemy hands, if need be, they were told initially to shoot certain parts of the bombsight with their pistol. Later they were trained on setting off an incendiary device that would melt the bombsight into a pool of useless metal. Safe bomb vaults, guarded by security personnel were created for the storage and maintenance of the Norden. The upper portion of the bombsight, called the “sighthead,” would be kept in the vault until time for a mission and then be escorted under armed guard to the plane. Once back at base the sighthead was removed and escorted under armed guard back to the security vault.

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Sighthead of a Norden bombsight (in the canvas bag) being taken to a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan at an Army Air Field in Texas in 1942. The lower portion of the Norden bombsight, called the “stabilizer,” was permanently installed in the nose of the aircraft. In this photo the stabilizer has a canvas cover. The guards are carrying Thompson submachine guns. (Photo from Mission4Today.com)

The Norden bombsight had become public knowledge as far as its existence, but that was all. Everything about it was kept under tight security and the rumors and myths were allowed to proliferate. Carl Norden went along with the status quo probably because it benefitted him as well by keeping the device out of the public arena and most of all, away from his former friend and business partner Sperry. After all, the Norden bombsight was his only product. All of the secrecy benefitted others as well; newspapers, magazines and the movie industry could pick up on bits of information, rumors and myths and create stories to go along with the public’s thirst for knowledge about this super-secret military weapon. With the military not talking and personnel associated with the bombsight sworn to secrecy, no myths could be dispelled.

Probably the most popular myth that still prevails to this day is the one about the cross hairs of the Norden bombsight being made from blonde, human hair. There is much information about this even to the point of an actual person, Mary Babnick Brown, being identified as the hair donor. A letter from President Ronald Regan in 1987 thanked her for her sacrifice for the war effort during World War II and her donation of hair for use in bombsights (Wikipedia.org). Later, circa 1990-1991, NBC aired her story on the program “The Story Behind The Story.” Paul Harvey told the story on his radio program “The Rest of the Story.” One important thing to remember is that all of this took place before the Internet when fact checking research was a very time consuming and laborious task. The myth kept supporting itself, becoming more popular and believable as more and more the story was told and more and more people believed it. Mary Babnik Brown had reason to believe it herself. Yet, this myth was never supported by any material evidence, only hearsay.

A look at the time line and some of the facts will surely lead one to conclude the story of the cross hairs of the Norden Bombsight being made from human hair is an unsupported myth.

  • Carl Norden invented the bombsight for the Navy in the 1920s
  • The Army Air Corps obtained the bombsight in the 1930s with improvements
  • The Norden Bombsight was used in the bombing of Germany starting in 1941
  • Mary Babnik Brown did not enter the picture until she responded to a request for hair for weather instruments in 1943. The War Department had been getting its hair supply for weather instruments from Scandinavia. That supply source had been cut off because of the war and they had to look within the United States for people of Scandinavian descent
  • She donated her hair in 1944
  • According to Taigh Ramey, creator of The Norden Bombsight Web Page and Museum, he states “all of the Norden bombsights that I have looked at have had etched crosshairs.” (twinbeech.com)
  • The Bombardier’s Information File, a manual issued to bombardiers, has an illustration showing the schematic of the optical system. It states, “Crosshairs are etched on one of the lenses of the telescope.”

The Norden Bombsight has captured the interests and imaginations of generations since the 1940s. It brought in technological advances, helped justify a separate Air Force and gave us something to believe in to help win a terrible war. At the same time, it satisfied our human curiosity and love of mystery. It was felicitous that it came into being at the same time as the advanced B-17 Flying Fortress bomber which, even with its technology for the time, could not have accomplished what it did in crippling the German war machine without the Norden bombsight.

Dan Hart

Dan Hart is the Museum of Aviation Volunteer Coordinator and a historian and reenactor.

 

References

O’Connell, John F., (2007). The Effectiveness of Airpower in the 20 Century: Part One (1914-1939) https://books.google.com/books?id=SJyjqImabLcC&pg=PA140&1pg=PA140&dq=MK-XV…

Kratzer, Christopher (2012, January 20) The enigma of the Norden Bombsight. Maxwell.af.mil    Retrieved from http://www.maxwell.af.mil/news/story_print.asp?id=123286895

Ramey, Taigh. Retrieved from http://www.twinbeech.com/norden_bombsight.htm

Ronald Reagan letter (1987).                                                                                                                           Retrieved from https//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reagan_letter_11_05_1987.jpg

Mission4Today.com. http://www.mission4today.com/index.php?name=ForumsPro&file=viewtopic&t=14428&finish=15&start=15

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