America’s military has long been a pioneering force in battlefield technology and research and development, but that doesn’t mean every experiment has been a success. Many otherwise ingenious ideas were derailed by poor planning or timing, while others were simply too bizarre to be taken seriously. From an Old West camel corps to nuke-carrying train cars, learn the stories behind seven armed forces programs that didn’t go according to plan.
1. The U.S. Camel Corps
Horses were the Army’s primary form of transport during the 19th century, but things might have been very different if not for the failure of the U.S. Camel Corps. This unlikely experiment began in 1856 after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis imported a herd of several dozen camels from North Africa and Turkey. Davis believed the “ships of the desert” would flourish in the arid climate of America’s newly acquired territories in the Southwest, and early tests and supply runs seemed to back him up. The camels could go days without water, carried heavy loads with ease and navigated harsh terrain better than mules and horses. One previously skeptical surveyor even dubbed them “noble and useful brutes” after they impressed during an expedition to the Arizona-California border. But while the camels’ hardiness was never in doubt, the Civil War effectively ended their stint in the armed services. Army brass lost interest in the outfit during the march to war, and it was finally disbanded after the Confederacy—ironically, with Davis as its president—captured its base at Camp Verde, Texas. Most of the remaining camels were later auctioned off to circuses and private citizens. Others were turned loose, and their descendants were still being sighted in the wild as recently as the 1940s.
2. Project Iceworm
1958, the U.S. Army launched one of the most audacious experiments of the Cold War. As part of a top-secret project dubbed “Iceworm,” they drew up plans to hide hundreds of ballistic missiles under Greenland’s ice caps. Once operational and concealed beneath the Arctic snows, the sites would be poised for potential nuclear strikes on the Soviet mainland. To test out their designs, the Army first built Camp Century, a prototype ice base constructed under the guise of being a scientific research facility. This sprawling outpost consisted of some two-dozen underground tunnels carved out of the ice sheet and reinforced with steel and snow. It had living quarters for more than 200 people and boasted its own laboratories, hospital and theater—all of it powered by a state-of-the-art portable nuclear reactor. Camp Century may have been a technological marvel, but it was no match for Mother Nature. After only a few years, shifts in the ice caps caused many of its tunnels to become warped and structurally unsound. Convinced Greenland was no place for nuclear weapons, the Army reluctantly scrapped the project in 1966.
3. The FP-45 Liberator
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, its Joint Psychological Warfare Committee began searching for a way to arm resistance fighters in Axis-occupied countries. The result was the FP-45, a small, single-shot .45 caliber pistol that could be manufactured on the cheap and airdropped into enemy territory. The theory was that resistance fighters would use the crude pistols to assassinate enemy troops and then take their weapons. The guns would also have a psychological effect, since the thought that every citizen might be armed with a “Liberator” would strike fear into the hearts of occupying soldiers. The U.S. produced 1 million FP-45s between June and August 1942, but the pistols failed to ever catch on in the field. Allied commanders and intelligence officers found them impractical, and European resistance fighters tended to favor the “Sten”—a British-made submachine gun. While some 100,000 Liberators did find their way to Pacific Theater, there’s no documentation on how widely used or effective they were. The remaining FP-45s have since become something of a collector’s item, and working models occasionally sell for upwards of $2,000.
4. Flying Aircraft Carriers
Airborne aircraft carriers might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but the U.S. Navy actually experimented with a pair of dirigible “motherships” in the years before World War II. The U.S.S. Akron and the U.S.S. Macon were both rigid airships—lighter-than-air craft that used helium to float through the skies. Unlike most airships, these 800-foot-long behemoths sported built-in hangars that allowed them to launch, retrieve and store as many as five Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes during flight. The planes were launched from a T-shaped opening in the bottom of the hull, and could be recaptured in mid-air by lowering a trapeze arm and seizing a “skyhook” attached to their wings. The Navy had high hopes for using the Akron and Macon for reconnaissance, but both of the plane-carrying airships eventually crashed. The Akron went down in high winds off the coast of New Jersey in April 1933, and the Macon fell victim to a storm near California in
February 1935. Faced with the deaths of some 75 crewmen, the Navy abandoned its flying aircraft carrier program in favor of non-rigid blimps.
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