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Deja Vu

May 20, 2013

Military Mammals


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2013: A rare nineteenth century torpedo was discovered off the coast of Southern California this week—by a very elite squad of dolphins.

While it sounds like something out of a movie, the U.S. Navy regularly uses dolphins and other marine mammals to scan the seas for mines and other potential threats an ordinary diver might miss. The Los Angeles Times reports:

“Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man,” Braden Duryee, an official at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific said after the surprising discovery.

Marine mammals have been trained at the Navy's Point Loma facility since the 1960s. Several species were tested before the Navy settled on the bottlenose dolphin and the California sea lion. Dolphins, in particular, have deep and shallow diving capability, great eyesight and a biosonar system that scientists admire but don't fully understand.

To train the dolphins, Navy specialists sink objects of various shapes in rocky and sandy undersea areas where visibility is poor. The shapes mimic those of the mines used by U.S. adversaries.

1856: Desperate to improve military conditions in the southwest United States, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis authorized the purchase of seventy-five camels from Egypt and Morocco. The camel’s ability to carry considerable weight and go long stretches without water made them seemingly ideal for military service in desert conditions. Lt. William H. Echols, leader of a unit based in Texas, described the camels in his journal:

The male camels were all left, with the exception of one. Although much stouter and more serviceable than the females, they occasion a deal more trouble and attention from their belligerent propensities to one another. The command now consists of thirty-one men, exclusive of the herders and camel attendants, with the twenty camels and fifteen mules for packing, the remainder being left at Camp Hudson, with the exception of two mules that strayed on the road, and not recovered. We have capacity for carrying nearly 500 gallons of water, and are rationed from Camp Hudson for twenty days.

The mules were watered only twice on half allowance and on the sixth day from water. The camels stood it well. To-day, however, four mules gave out before reaching camp, two of which managed to reach camp after the command; the others abandoned. It was strange to see how eagerly they would seize a canteen whenever they were near it, and try to tear it to pieces. I saw one take a cork from one that was hanging up, and was drinking water from it by turning it about and catching the water as it was spilled. The men were cautioned about permitting them to drink too much at a time, as it sometimes proves fatal
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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