It Happened Here: The Invisible Ally
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October 1998
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series. In this special installment, Diane recounts the events surrounding World War II that brought hundreds of Americans into meteorological crash courses.

The Invisible Ally

"The Meteorological Institutes of five great American Universities, in collaboration with the United States Army Air Forces, present 'The Invisible Allies,' a thrilling chapter from the notebooks of science--and war!"

So began a dramatic appeal to young, draft-age U.S. men who were considering their options in the winter of 1942-43. Produced by the University of Chicago and disseminated over the Mutual Radio Network, the half-hour program aimed to attract students to military meteorological training, demonstrating how in a "global war . . . airplanes and ships cannot be fully effective weapons unless they are aided by the invisible ally, the weather." Using historical examples ranging from the destruction of the Spanish Armada in a massive storm to Napoleon's defeat, "written in the mud and fog of Waterloo," the production concluded with an imagined dialogue featuring a Hawaii-based meteorologist whose accurate forecast of partly cloudy skies afforded a U.S. pilot the conditions he needed to bomb an enemy-held island in the Pacific. ("These clouds are just what we ordered.")

Carl-Gustaf Rossby.

The first official academic "war courses" for aviation cadets in meteorology started in late 1940, a full year before Pearl Harbor officially plunged the country into war. The University of California, Los Angeles, initiated its own program not long after Joe Kaplan, head of the physics department, reminded his students of President Roosevelt's warning in April 1940 that the United States would have to build a force of 50,000 military aircraft, a fleet requiring an exceptional level of meteorological support. Training programs were also launched at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the University of Chicago, New York University (NYU), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). To oversee, coordinate, and standardize these burgeoning academic programs, Carl-Gustaf Rossby, the tireless dean of the Institute of Meteorology at Chicago, organized and chaired the influential University Meteorological Committee (UMC) two years later. A sixth program under the auspices of the U.S. Army Air Forces Technical Training Command was established at Grand Rapids, Michigan, also in 1942, to train thousands of observers, forecasters, and weather officers en masse. (This program was later moved to Chanute Field, Illinois.)

The initial courses ("A" courses) were rigorous programs intended for college graduates and qualified upperclassmen with the requisite math and physics background. But the need for highly trained meteorological personnel grew almost exponentially as the war progressed. (There were an estimated 4,000 weather officers in 1942, but at the time it was estimated that 10,000 officers would be needed by January 1945.) Rossby's UMC created 20 additional premeteorology programs ("B" and "C" courses) at universities and colleges across the country to ensure that a steady supply of competent high school seniors and college freshmen would flow into the ever-dwindling pool of advanced-level students in the "A" courses. The response to recruitment activities (even before the radio broadcast) was overwhelming: in January 1943, the University of Chicago received an average of 2,000 inquiries per day about the program.

As transcriber and editor since 1990 of the American Meteorological Society's Tape Recorded Interview Project (TRIP), housed here at NCAR, I've long been aware of the "war courses." Of more than 50 male U.S. meteorologists who have been interviewed thus far, the majority came of age during wartime and entered meteorology through one of the "A" schools. Students typically spent nine months studying the fundamentals of weather analysis and forecasting, initially relying only on historical data since current weather data were considered secure information and therefore unavailable. The UMC was later able to modify this policy and establish model weather stations at the "A" sites, which greatly enhanced training. Upon graduation, these aviation cadets were generally awarded commissions in the Army Air Corps. Depending on the progress of the war, newly commissioned officers could expect to be sent to Africa, Europe, the Pacific, the CBI (China-Burma-India theater), or other places around the globe. Or they might remain in the States to teach new cadets, enlisted observers, or pilots.

Joe Smagorinsky, a student in the winter 1942-43 class at MIT, remembered that the "standards of excellence were set high [for the students] because [they] would have to spin up rapidly to the highest level." His interviewer, John Young, was surprised at the relatively large amount of theoretical training despite the nuts-and-bolts military need for "well-rounded weather officers who could run a weather station and turn out a good practical operating forecast under almost any condition." Lester Machta, who taught forecasting at Chanute Field, speculated that the government, fearing a "brain drain," may have trained an excessive number of meteorologists to keep "some very high-I.Q. people" out of harm's way.

Phil Thompson.

In fact, the Army was not always pleased with the universities' practice of retaining their brightest graduates as instructors: this kept the best forecasters away from field areas where they were most needed. At the same time, the demand for capable instructors was great, even critical at times. In 1944, NCAR's own Phil Thompson stayed on as an instructor for the duration at the University of Chicago, after studying with Rossby and George Platzman, among others.

For those meteorologists in our small sample who landed overseas, none experienced direct combat. However, the stakes were extremely high, since the lives of American servicemen often depended directly on the accuracy of weather forecasts.

Bob Bundgaard, a graduate of the UCLA war course, was assigned to the Normandy D-Day forecast team after a stint in the Pentagon Weather Central. The Normandy forecasters were split into three teams, two British and one American. Bundgaard headed the Upper Air Section for the American group, Widewing, based at Bushey Park in London. (Now retired and living in Colorado Springs, Bundgaard continued as an Air Force weather officer after the war.)

Bundgaard recalls that all the teams began working on practice forecasts several weeks before the actual invasion on 6 June 1944. The procedure involved initial agreement via telephone conferences on current weather conditions as well as consensus on a five- to seven-day forecast of English weather, an astounding task compounded by conflicting personalities as well as differing forecast techniques. In addition, as Frederik Nebeker notes in his book Calculating the Weather, each type of military support--naval, air, infantry--had its own requirements regarding cloud cover, wind speed, fog, visibility, surf height, and even the correct phase of the moon. Additionally, as Bundgaard noted, a balmy day in the English Channel could alert German forecasters to a potential invasion and negate the critical element of surprise.

There were many other amphibious invasions, also called D-Days, in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and, of course, the Pacific. Miscalculation of wave height on landing beaches often had disastrous consequences for lives as well as landing craft. Walter Munk and Harald Sverdrup (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) solved the problem of wave-height prediction and provided a valuable tool to weather officers who struggled to produce optimal information.

At the end of the war, in August 1945, MIT graduate Ken Spengler was hired as executive director of the AMS. One of his first tasks was to assist the recently demobilized meteorologists. While only a small percentage stayed in the field, the war had a huge impact on the growth and visibility of meteorology. Among the "A"-course graduates were future NCAR scientists Wil Kellogg, Vin Lally, and Chester Newton. And the wartime partnership between government and universities paved the way for the creation of UCAR and NCAR at the end of the next decade. •Diane Rabson

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