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Pigeon pilots vs. kamikazes

The story about local World War II U.S. Navy veteran Don Gilbertson includes mention of his harrowing experience when a Japanese suicide plane hit his ship during the Battle of Okinawa.

A few months back, Hudsonite Sam Nooger stopped by with an interesting story about the Navy's answer to the kamikaze. "It's a little known story that may have never been told before," the 94-year-old former engineer said.

Sam said that the Navy developed a glider bomb - they called it a Glomb - in response to the threat. It couldn't fly, he said. It had to be dropped from a plane, but it had fins on it and could be directed.

The Navy's radar was a lot cleaner because out at sea there wasn't any ground clutter on the screen, just a nice black background and a bright spot for a contact or target.

Sam said a radar screen was mounted in the bomb and got the signal from the launch airplane that would set up the target. It probably could be called the first "Smart Bomb."

Now here comes the interesting part. Sam, who worked for the Office of Naval Research during the war, said Columbia University in New York had a contract to train pigeons as pilots for the smart bombs.

"They would train them to peck at the bright spot on the screen, which would guide the bomb," he said. He knows this for a fact, he said, but has never heard the story told.

We never got to see the pigeon-piloted pyrotechnics in action because the war ended before they were used, Sam said.

Sam said the interesting philosophical question was that the Navy's counter weapon for the kamikaze would only cost one pigeon per bomb. "It cost about $1 for the pigeon and $1 to feed it during training," Sam said, "and if they didn't work out as pilots, you could eat them."

On the other hand, the Japanese kamikaze cost one human life, a well-trained pilot at that, for each mission, he said.

I'm never quite sure if Sam is putting on the listener. He is sharp as a tack, even if his hearing is a little impaired.

But a search through the Internet confirmed a version of Sam's story.

One reference from Wikipedia said American behaviorist B.F. Skinner was involved in developing the pigeon-guided missile. It was dubbed Project Pigeon or Project Orcon (for organic control), according to Wikipedia, and the project was scrapped in October 1944 (another reference said it was scrapped in 1945), revived by the Navy in 1948 and cancelled again in 1953.

One problem with the project was that nobody would take seriously the idea of a pigeon guiding a missile.