by Brad Dison
During World War II, allied forces used naval mines, self-contained underwater explosives, to destroy enemy ships and submarines. Sailors armed and deposited the mines in key areas where enemy ship traffic, especially German submarines known as U-boats, was likely. The slightest nudge ignited the mines. Sharks became an issue in the allied forces’ naval mining operation. Naturally curious, sharks frequently swam up to the naval mines for a closer look. In trying to determine what the mines were, sharks often bumped into the mines which triggered the mines and led to explosions. The military was not as much concerned for the welfare of the sharks as they were for the loss of the mines. Naval mining operations were time consuming, tedious, dangerous, and expensive. They needed some way to repel sharks from the mines.
Soon after the United States entered World War II, Carolyn McWilliams felt drawn to the war effort. She said later in life that “Everybody that I knew was in the Army or the Navy or down in Washington, so that’s where I went.” Carolyn tried to join the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) and the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), but was rejected by both because, they claimed, she was too tall. Carolyn stood 6’2” tall. Undeterred and eager to do her part, Carolyn volunteered to work in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Carolyn was just one of 4,500 other women who worked for the OSS. She worked as a file secretary and typed up thousands of names on small note cards for a system which was used to keep track of officers’ locations in the era before computers. Carolyn was well-educated and ambitious. Within a short time, she was transferred to the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, a top-secret experimental research project.
One of Carolyn’s tasks within the OSS was more suited to a chemist than someone whose previous work was as a file secretary. Carolyn’s job was to develop a chemical shark repellent. Her superiors hoped that in addition to keeping sharks away from naval mines, downed pilots in the ocean could use a shark deterrent to stave off shark attacks while they awaited rescue.
Sharks have a heightened sense of smell, hundreds of times more powerful than a human’s. They have the ability to detect trace amounts of various compounds in millions of gallons of water. During her experiments, Carolyn learned that sharks avoided dead sharks. With this information, Carolyn set out to develop a recipe which smelled like a dead shark.
Carolyn was pampered in an upper-class household. Her father graduated from Princeton University and became wealthy in the real estate business. Her mother was an heiress to a paper company. Her grandfather was a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Carolyn had no experience with recipes or cooking because the family had hired cooks. Undeterred, Carolyn eagerly accepted the challenge.
Carolyn tried various combinations of putrid-smelling recipes, many of which attracted sharks rather than repelled them. Finally, after numerous attempts, she found one which showed a slight repellence. Carolyn’s recipe was a mixture of copper acetate and black dye made into a cake. Although the CIA eventually released Carolyn’s dead shark cake recipe, its use during World War II remains classified. Some sources claim that Carolyn’s shark repellent “was a critical tool during WWII, and was coated on explosives that were targeting German U-boats.”
Carolyn learned that the OSS was planning to send people overseas. She had always wanted to travel and pushed for overseas duty. In 1944, the OSS transferred Carolyn to Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, and Kunming, China, where she worked as Chief of the OSS Registry. The Registry served all American intelligence branches, and Carolyn, who had the highest security clearance due to her position, knew every top-secret message that passed into and out of her office.
While abroad, Carolyn met another OSS officer who was well-educated, well-traveled, and loved fine French cuisine. Carolyn and Paul fell in love. In September of 1946, just over a year after the allied victory in World War II, Carolyn and Paul married. With the war over, Carolyn returned to civilian life while Paul continued to work in intelligence. In 1948, Paul was assigned to the U.S. Information Agency in France. Carolyn had always wanted to visit France, but, being the driven person she was, she needed a task, a purpose. She enrolled in one of France’s most prestigious cooking schools, Le Cordon Bleu. Up until this point, the only significant recipe she had experimented with was her shark repellent cakes.
In 1951, Carolyn graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. For most people, graduating from such a prominent school would have been enough. Carolyn, however, knew that there was more that she wanted to learn. She studied under several master chefs in France and continued to experiment in the culinary arts. In that same year, she began working with two authors on a French cookbook for Americans. Ten years later, the trio finally found a publisher who was interested in publishing their 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book was a best-seller and is still in print.
The book was the first leap in Carolyn’s culinary career. Carolyn became a syndicated author, wrote numerous books which were designed to teach Americans how to cook French cuisine, and became the most widely seen cooking host on television from the 1960s until the 1990s. It is difficult to imagine that Carolyn’s culinary career began during World War II with a recipe for shark repellent. Rather than repel, her recipes have attracted the attention of millions of people around the world. Back in 1948, Julia Carolyn McWilliams married Paul Child, and became Julia Child.
1. News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida), July 10, 2015, p.A13.
2. Naval Aviation Training Division Guide, Shark Sense, March, 1944.
3. “Julia Child Helped Develop Shark Repellant During World War Ii,” the National World War II Museum of New Orleans, accessed April 30, 2021, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/julia-child-shark-repellant-world-war-ii#:~:text=The%20recipe%20of%20Child’s%20and,to%20deter%20sharks%20from%20attacking.
4. “Julia Child: Cooking up Spy Ops for Oss,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed April 30, 2021, https://www.cia.gov/stories/story/julia-child-cooking-up-spy-ops-for-oss/.