Before Julia Child became a household name for helping home chefs tackle the nuances of French cooking, she came very close to becoming a WWII spy, aiding the war effort in other areas along the way.
Since 2001, visitors of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History can tour Julia Child’s kitchen from her former home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A placard within the exhibit points out the fact that everything there was built to be taller than the standard kitchen in order to accommodate her 6-foot-2 stature. Child’s memorable height influenced more than just the level of her countertops; it’s also one of the reasons she came to work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the first place.
In 1942, with the Second World War continuing to ravage Europe, 30-year-old Julia Child (then Julia McWilliams) found herself wanting to do more to serve her country. Her first attempt at doing so was trying to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), but she found out, at that time, the WAC had a height requirement that limited recruits to being under 6 feet, making her ability to join just 2 inches out of the reach for her. It was then that she would volunteer her services to the OSS, and become one of only 4,500 women to serve with the CIA precursor. While her height wasn’t an issue with the agency, it’s innocuously included in her interview summary, with whoever wrote it noting, “Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.”
While her time there began with basic clerical work, she would at one point work for OSS Director William Donovan personally, and her skill set began to quickly expand. One of her more notable contributions was with the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, aiding the research and development of shark repellent.
While shark attacks were in fact happening, they were reportedly very low numbers (this was still three years prior to the sinking of the USS Indianapolis that resulted in mass casualties due to shark attacks). It was misinformation spread by the media that made for a panicked public, and pushed the agency to offer some sort of tangible safeguard for troops, who were also privy to some of the misguided reports. In addition, there had been documented instances of sharks setting off naval explosives after accidentally mistaking them for food, so the need for a deterrent wasn’t entirely fear-based.
Since much of the information about the OSS and their involvement in the war was kept entirely secret, the details of the curated shark repellent weren’t expressly known until the CIA took to Twitter during The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in 2015. They not only revealed information about Child’s involvement in the creation, but also what it was made of.
The repellent itself was first designed to be used by those forced into the water by abandoning downed aircraft. It was composed of mainly copper acetate and black dye, and imitated the smell of a dead shark. It came in a solid form, and was meant to be rubbed on pilots who ended up in the water. Unfortunately, in no way did it seem to resemble the shark repellent Bat Spray from that indelible helicopter scene in the 1966 “Batman” movie.
The biggest downside, however, was that it didn’t seem to be incredibly effective, with a memo from the then-chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics acknowledging that there was only “slight repellence” noticed when in use.
Following this, Child would continue her work with the OSS overseas, in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Much of her time there was spent handling highly classified communications between OSS stations throughout Asia. During that time, she would meet Paul Cushing Child, who was also there with the agency. The two would marry in 1946 and would spend almost 50 years together, until his death in 1994.
Before the war, and her time with the agency, came to an end, she would serve as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat in Kunming, China, and received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award for her work there. In 2008, her file, along with other OSS records, was declassified and can be found in the National Archives. Among highlighting her numerous awards, contributions and accomplishments, she was recognized as having incredible drive and an “inherent cheerfulness.”
The rest of Child’s life is a story much more well known. She went on to travel the world, change the way people felt about taking risks in the kitchen, and become one of the most iconic presences in culinary history. Passing away in 2004, two days shy of her 93rd birthday, her legacy stands as an example of just how big of an impact one person can have.
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