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.
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.
In 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.
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.
During World War II, psychologist B.F. Skinner received military funding for a seemingly outrageous weapon: a pigeon-guided missile. The famed behaviorist got the idea for his “Bird’s-Eye Bomb” while watching a flock of pigeons in flight. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” he wrote. “Could they not guide a missile?” The project that followed was as brilliant as it was weird. After using conditioning to train pigeons to peck at pre-chosen images—an enemy battleship, for instance—Skinner placed the birds inside a specially designed missile nosecone. This tiny cockpit contained a plastic screen that projected an image of the weapon’s flight path. By pecking at the screen, the pigeons could change the missile’s coordinates and effectively “steer” it toward its intended target. Early simulations showed that the birds were ace pilots, and the project won endorsements from physicists and psychologists. Unfortunately for Skinner, the military balked at funding such an outlandish idea. Convinced the kamikaze pigeons would never work in the field, they pulled the plug in October 1944.
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.
The paranoia of the Cold War inspired the military to attempt some highly dubious experiments, but few compare to their nearly 20-year-long dalliance with illicit substances. Beginning in the 1950s, Maryland’s Edgewood Arsenal was home to a classified Army research program on psychoactive drugs and other chemical agents. More than 5,000 soldiers served as guinea pigs for the project, which was intended to identify non-lethal incapacitating agents for use in combat and interrogations. Unsuspecting Army grunts were given everything from marijuana and PCP to mescaline, LSD and a delirium-inducing chemical called BZ. Some were even dosed with potentially lethal nerve agents such as sarin and VX. While the tests produced reams of documentation on the effects of the substances, they discovered no wonder drugs and created very little practicable intelligence. Many of the subjects, meanwhile, were left with psychological trauma and lingering health problems. Following a public outcry and a Congressional hearing, the drug experiments were terminated in 1975.
In the late-1980s, military officials were concerned that the United States’ stationary missile silos would be easy targets in the event of a shootout with the Soviets. Enter the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison, a mobile nuclear arsenal consisting of 50 MX missiles kept in specially designed Air Force train cars. The plan called for the trains to spend most of their time stored in reinforced buildings around the country, but during periods of heightened alert, they could scatter across 120,000 miles of commercial railroad track to frustrate Soviet attempts to destroy them. Each of the 25 trains carried two rail cars that housed nuclear missiles. By opening the car’s roof and raising a special launch pad, they could even fire their weapons on the go. President Ronald Reagan approved plans for the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison in 1986 amid criticisms that it was unnecessary and overly pricey. The project got the axe only five years later, when the end of the Cold War reduced the need for nuclear defense. One of the prototype rail cars now sits on display at the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.