Shipwreck Located with…Psychology?

In November 1941, Australia’s HMAS Sydney engaged Germany’s HSK Kormoran. The ensuing battle sent both ships plummeting to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After decades of fruitless searching, two unlikely scholars stepped into the picture. How did cognitive psychologists unravel one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II?

Where did the HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran Sink?

None of the 645 Australians serving aboard the HMAS Sydney survived the battle. In contrast, 317 Germans managed to stay afloat until they were picked up by other Australian ships. The Australian military, eager to locate the wrecks, began questioning the captives about the HMAS Sydney. But the Germans seemed confused as to exactly where the two ships had sank.

“…About 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense – the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.” ~ Alix Spiegel, How Psychology Solved a WWII Shipwreck Mystery, NPR

The Australian military assumed that the captives were lying. Thus, most of the testimony was ignored. Decades of searching would follow, with nothing to show for it.

Using Psychology to find a Shipwreck?

In the 1990s, cognitive psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn decided to throw their collective hat into the ring. After reviewing the testimony, they realized that the German accounts contained more truth than most realized.

“We wanted to make the case – show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person.” ~ John Dunn

Experiments performed during the 1930s by psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett showed that people have a tendency to make consistent, predictable mistakes when recalling the past or passing on stories. For example, they will recall a confusing story differently so that it makes more sense to them.

Kirsner and Dunn subjected the German accounts to pattern analysis and found that they looked quite similar to Bartlett’s experimental data. This discovery indicated that the Germans were telling the truth. Most likely, only a few surviving officers knew the ship’s exact location at the time of the sinking. That information “probably spread to the other surviving crew members during and after their rescue,” leading to the confusing data set.

Next, Kirsner and Dunn used the various accounts to suggest a probable location for the two shipwrecks. By 2004, they handed over their findings – along with their guess at the location – to the “Finding Sydney Foundation. So, how close did they come to pinpointing the shipwrecks?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

In 2008, David Mearns used his own methodology to locate the shipwreck of the HSK Kormoran. Amazingly enough, it was just 2.7 nautical miles from Kirsner’s and Dunn’s predicted location. The HMAS Sydney was discovered a short distance away.

Now, of course, Kirsner and Dunn didn’t actually find the ship nor was their expertise used to locate it. Mearns and his team deserve all the credit in that respect. However, he did benefit from a similar methodology in which a study of primary sources led him to the conclusion that the Germans had been telling the truth.

Regardless, this example shows that cognitive psychology can be a powerful tool to weed through disparate memories and conflicting stories. Maybe, someday soon, it can be used to answer other unsolved mysteries of history.

Did the Nazi’s build America’s Atomic Bomb?

On May 14, 1945, the U-234 surrendered to the USS Sutton. Subsequently, members of the Sutton sailed the Nazi submarine to Portsmouth Naval Yard near Portsmouth, NH. Upon opening its holds, awe-struck officials quickly covered up and classified details of the U-234’s incredible cargo. But why? What was it carrying?

The Strange Voyage of the U-234

The Nazi’s built the U-234 as a minelaying submarine. Later, it was repurposed into a cargo carrier for long-range missions. As the European theater of World War II came to a close, the Nazi’s decided to send the U-234 to Japan with twelve passengers and two hundred and forty tons of cargo.

On April 15, 1945, the submarine launched from Kristiansand, Norway. On May 4, the U-234 received a partial transmission indicating that Adolf Hitler had died and that Admiral Karl Dönitz had assumed control of Germany. Six days later, the submarine received its last order from Admiral Dönitz. All submarines were to surface, hoist black flags, and surrender to Allied forces.

Believing that he and his crew would receive better treatment from the Americans, Captain Johann-Heinrich Fehler headed west. After learning about his decision, two Japanese passengers committed hari-kiri and were buried at sea.

The U-234’s Shocking Cargo

The surrender of the U-234 became a major news event. This was primarily due to the capture of high-level passengers including General Ulrich Kessler of the Luftwaffe, Kai Nieschling, Dr. Heinz Schlicke, and August Bringewalde. The reporters who fought to catch glimpses of the submarine had no idea that the U-234’s most valuable assets were stored in her cargo holds. So, what was this mysterious cargo?

  • Technical drawings
  • The Nazi’s newest electric torpedoes
  • One crated Me 262 (the world’s first jet-powered fighter)
  • One Henschel Hs 293 glide bomb
  • And last, but not least…five hundred and sixty kilograms of “uranium oxide.”

The exact nature of this “uranium oxide” is one of the greatest mysteries of history. A recently-discovered secret cable message stated that the “uranium oxide” was stored in gold-lined cylinders. Gold, thanks to its radioactive shielding properties, is often used for shipping highly-enriched, pure uranium. Also, one Nazi radio operator who watched these cylinders being loaded onto the U-234 noticed the two Japanese passengers labeling them as “U-235.” U-235 may refer to Uranium-235, the same material used to fuel Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Was Nazi Uranium used to build America’s First Atomic Bomb?

Intriguingly, in December 1944, the chief metallurgist at the Los Alamos laboratory indicated that the Manhattan Project would only generate fifteen kilograms of U-235 by May 1945, far short of the 64 kilograms eventually used in the construction of Little Boy. Then, in March 1945, Senator James Byrnes sent a memo to President Roosevelt, indicating his worry that the Manhattan Project would fail. Finally, shortly after the surrender of the U-234, the output of U-235 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory abruptly doubled.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Is it possible that America lucked on a large cache of Nazi uranium, which enabled it to complete its own atomic bomb? It certainly seems possible. And if that’s the case, was the U-234 the only Nazi sub that fled Europe with enriched uranium in its holds? Or were there others…others that might’ve hidden their cargos or sank to the bottom of the ocean…others still waiting to be found?

Did the U.S. test a nuke…on its own citizens?

On July 17, 1944, the Port Chicago Pier exploded into a tremendous fireball. Hundreds died instantly, hundreds more were injured by the blast. Over sixty years later, it remains one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history. The official explanation is that it was caused by an accidental munition detonation. However, not everyone is convinced. Some point to a far darker conclusion…that the blast was caused by an atomic bomb.

The Port Chicago Pier Explosion?

In 1944, Port Chicago Naval Magazine, now known as the Concord Naval Weapons Station, was a munitions depot in California. It was used to transport bombs, shells, torpedoes, and other explosives to units fighting against Japan. On July 13, the SS E.A. Bryan docked at Port Chicago’s lone pier. After four days of hard work, 40% of the ships’s holds were filled with 4,600 tons of explosives. Then, at 10:18 p.m., all hell broke loose.

An unusual noise described as a metallic sound and rending timbers, such as made by a falling boom, was heard coming from the direction of the pier immediately before the first flash.

A few seconds later, the SS E. A. Bryan exploded into a fireball that measured three miles in diameter. Seismographs determined that this second explosion was equivalent to a 3.4 earthquake on the Richter scale. Three hundred and twenty people died instantly.  Three hundred and ninety others suffered blast-related injuries. The majority of these deaths and injuries occurred to African-Americans. A month later, survivors led a work stoppage, which is now known as the so-called Port Chicago Mutiny.

Did an Atomic Bomb cause the Port Chicago Pier Explosion?

At the time, the explosion was determined to have similar effects to that of a small atomic bomb. But for several decades, no one questioned the official story. Thirty-four years later however, that changed.

In 1980, Peter Vogel discovered some old documents at a rummage sale. They had been stolen from the Los Alamos Laboratories by Paul Masters, a photo technician. Some of the papers discussed the predictions for Trinity, which would end up being the first recorded test of a nuclear weapon in history. These documents predicted a “ball of fire mushroom out at 18,000 (feet) in typical Port Chicago fashion.” Intrigued by the possibility that the Port Chicago disaster was caused by an atomic bomb, Vogel began to gather some of the evidence listed below.

  1. Size of Blast: The blast seemed greater than what could’ve been caused by the official story.
  2. Bright Lights: Descriptions of the explosion refer to “an enormous blinding incandescent” and a “brilliant white.”  Conventional explosives generally do not give off a white color unless mixed with magnesium (which apparently weren’t present at the Pier).
  3. A Strange Cloud: A Wilson condensation cloud appeared after the disaster, similar to an atomic bomb detonated in a vapor-filled atmosphere.
  4. Speed of the Explosion: The seismograph records indicated a rapid explosion that seemed similar in nature to that of an atomic bomb.

Why would the U.S. Government Drop an Atomic Bomb on American Soil?

But why would the U.S. government test a nuclear weapon on its own people? Vogel and others like him believed that the Port Chicago disaster was perpetrated to allow scientists to study the effects of a nuclear explosion on people. In this case, those people included primarily low-ranking, African-American military personnel.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Obviously, this is an explosive charge, so to speak.  So, was Vogel right?  Did a small atomic bomb cause the Port Chicago disaster? Supporting evidence is skimpy at best. Most damning, there are no records of radiation-based injuries amongst the survivors or clean-up crew. That being said, the size and reach of the explosion is somewhat difficult to explain.

Overall, it seems highly unlikely that an atomic bomb caused this explosion. If one hopes to prove otherwise, they will need substantial, hard evidence…far more substantial than that accumulated by Vogel. After all, if he was correct, Port Chicago wasn’t just the site of an atomic bomb test…it was also the site of mass murder.

The Nazi Plot to Bomb America

In the film, Captain America: The First Avenger, the Red Skull (SPOILER ALERT) attempts to attack the United States by flying over it and attacking from the air. While fictional, the plot line bears resemblance to a real-life Nazi plot. What was the mysterious Amerika-Bomber project? And how close did it come to achieving its goal of leaving New York in flames?

The Amerika-Bomber Project?

Even before America’s entrance into World War II, Adolf Hitler was intrigued by the idea of attacking New York City via long-range strategic bombers. On May 12, 1942, a formal plan, coined the Amerika-Bomber Project, was submitted to the Minister of Aviation, Hermann Göring.

The plan was to fly planes to the Azores, refuel, and then take off again, on course for America’s east coast. Along with New York City, the Nazi’s hoped to drop bombs on nineteen strategic American targets and two additional Canadian targets. Most of these targets built aircraft parts so it seems probable that the goal of the Project was to cripple America’s air force capabilities.

Numerous planes were considered for the Project. Ultimately, the Ju 390 (pictured above) was selected for production. However, before it could be produced in mass quantities, the Nazi’s abandoned their efforts.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

While the Amerika-Bomber Project appears feasible in retrospect, it lacked the necessary resources and aircraft parts to become a working operation. Even if it had been green-lit, its ultimate impact on the War would’ve been minimal since Germany lacked the ability to deploy atomic bombs.

The idea of Nazi’s attacking New York City seems fanciful today. And yet, it came close to reality…far too close for comfort. The Amerika-Bomber Project was put into motion, a feasible plan was developed, and an aircraft was selected. Only lack of time and intense Allied bombing raids on the Nazi supply chain kept New York City safe from flames.

(This is the third article in a three part series. Go here for Part I: Captain America and Suspended Animation and here for Part II: The Nazi Super-Soldier Program).

The Nazi Super-Soldier Program

This week’s big movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, features a fictional super-soldier serum developed during World War II. This serum is capable of turning a sickly, small man named Steve Rogers into the physical peak of human perfection known as Captain America. With the world aflame during the 1940’s, the very thought of wielding a force of super-soldiers must’ve gained strong interest from all sides. But did any of the warring nations actually attempt to create a real-life super-soldier serum?

Nazi Super-Soldiers?

The Nazi’s were deeply interested in developing a permanent master race. In 1935, they set up the Lebensborn, or Spring of Life, as a sort of breeding/child-rearing program. Some of its practices included kidnapping and “Germanizing” Aryan children from occupied countries as well as providing special breeding clinics where SS soldiers could mate with suitable, handpicked women. The goal of the Lebensborn was to create a large and lasting Aryan race who would serve as the super-soldiers of the future.

However, that wasn’t the Nazi’s only effort at creating super-soldiers. The average Nazi soldier received a regular intake of pills designed to “help them fight longer and without rest.” Surviving records show that the most pervasive pill was Pervitin, which was made of methamphetamine or as it is now called, crystal meth. Between 1939 and 1945, over two hundred million Pervitin pills were provided to Nazi soldiers.

But this was hardly a unique situation. Troops from all sides took various types of drugs during World War II, a practice that continues to this day. But Nazi scientists weren’t satisfied. In 1944, they started a top-secret program to develop a drug named D-IX. They hoped to use this drug to create temporary super-soldiers who would eventually turn the tide of the war.

D-IX Super-Soldiers?

D-IX was a cocaine-based cocktail, consisting of five milligrams of cocaine, five milligrams of oxycodone (a morphine-related painkiller), and three milligrams of Pervitin. It was first tested on inmates at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After taking the drug, the prisoners were forced to march in circles while carrying forty-five pound packs. With the aid of D-IX, these individuals were able to march between fifty-five and seventy miles before collapsing. Highly encouraged by the results, Nazi scientists planned to supply D-IX to all German troops. Fortunately, the war ended before it could be produced in mass quantities.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Despite their best efforts, the Nazi’s never succeeded in creating super-soldiers. Nowadays, researchers are hard at work, hoping to achieve the same goal with different means. In 2008, DARPA announced a $3 billion dollar program to create a “metabolically dominant soldier.” If scientists have their way, someday soon super-soldiers may not be all that super…they may, in fact, be commonplace.

(This is the second article in a three part series. Go here for Part I: Captain America and Suspended Animation & here for Part III: The Nazi Plot to Bomb America.)

Geoengineering during World War II?

On May 11, 1944, 363 U.S. Army Air Force B-24 Liberators and 536 other military planes launched into the air over southeast England.  After joining into a massive formation, they flew to Nazi-controlled France to bomb marshalling yards.  Their efforts impacted the outcome of the war.  But they may have impacted something else as well…the local weather via geoengineering.

Geoengineering during World War II?

Two days ago, Fox News reported that the May 11 Allied bombing raid may have inadvertently altered that day’s weather.  It is an early unintended example of something that scientists now call geoengineering, or climate engineering.

Essentially, the aircraft filled the sky with contrails, or condensation trails.  These trails “are produced when hot moist air from engine exhausts hits colder air in the atmosphere.”  They take the form of long thin clouds that trail after the plane.

After analyzing historical weather data from various stations, researchers from Lancaster University and the Environmental Agency in the United Kingdom discovered that areas under the contrails experienced slower temperature growth on May 11, 1944, to the tune of two degrees Fahrenheit.  They believe that this can be explained by the contrails creating an enormous cloud cover that reflected sunlight away from the ground.

Geoengineering & Global Warming?

Geoengineering advocates wish to do something similar in order to deal with the perceived threat from global warming.  Some scientists propose that a fleet of planes deposit sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.  These particles would reflect sunlight and perhaps, lower global temperatures.  This most recent study indicates that small-scale geoengineering might have the desired effect on regional temperatures.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

However, geoengineering remains highly controversial and, in my opinion, with good reason.  It is an attempt to duplicate the effects of an enormous volcanic eruption.  The ultimate impact on the stratosphere, weather patterns, and ecosystems would be unpredictable…maybe even catastrophic.