Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Music on the battlefields of World War II (Part three of three)

The Placetate

Sunday June 4th 1944: Members of the 12th US infantry regiment, stationed in England in preparation for the D-day invasion of Europe, are given the opportunity to record messages for their loved ones back home.

In total 83 men each make a three minute message. Unusually these recordings are pressed onto placetates – a forerunner of the flexi disc, made from thin sheets of clear plastic.

Placetates were unique for the times, in that they required no additional equipment to be played. After a recording had been pressed onto a disc, the spiral grooves were inlaid with a brylene thread coated with a mixture of flammable powder and a slow-burning fuel. Lighting the touch paper on the outside edge of the record, caused the fuse to burn at a steady rate, releasing the ‘trapped’ sound as the flame worked its way towards the centre. Placetates were surprisingly audible at close range but could be amplified by laying the disc on a specially designed speaker plate.

Colonel Hayden Merett worked in communications and espionage from 1942 until 1956 and supervised the development of placetates for military use:

“We began experimenting with placetates in late 1942 and started using them in the field about a year later. Initially we found them very useful for conveying sensitive data, since any message they carried would self-destruct as it was played. Towards the end of the war, our forces were using them to set up ambushes. Say you had some placetates containing recordings of people talking. You could light two or three in a selected location to draw the enemy towards the sound of the voices, while you moved in and attacked from behind.

“It always struck me as ironic that roughly the same amount of gunpowder went into a standard .30 M1 round as did into a regular sized placetate. Every one of these things we made was one less bullet on the battlefield, but they ended up saving a lot of lives, especially after we began using them as decoys.”

After the war, the US military ended its experiments with placetates. The technology lay dormant for twenty years before being rediscovered and improved upon by a pair of San Francisco teens - Joey and Daniel Mileman

Daniel Mileman:

“Our old man was in the army and had served in Europe. One day we were cleaning out the garage and we found the old placetate press which he had used to make recordings during the war. Joey was studying chemistry at USFCA. He soon figured out a way to make a placetate that released coloured smoke as it played. Later we worked out how to lay down certain mind-expanding substances in the grooves. The first thing we tried was a cannabis resin, but we used way too much. We were tripping hard for hours! After we had refined the process we shared our discovery with close friends. We got to be quite a hit at parties. The next logical step was to go into business.

“We were soley responsible for the placetate pressings of Jimmy Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane songs that you could pick-up in San Francisco, circa 1967/8. Eventually the demand got so high that we began selling them by mail order. We were even getting commissions from bands and record companies! The great thing was that because placetates are one-use items, we always had a steady stream of return customers. We ended up getting quite rich off the back of it, which at the time was against our anti-materialistic ethos, although not any more, ha, ha!”

The Mileman brothers’ profitable enterprise ended abruptly in 1971, when a light aircraft crash-landed off Ocean Beach, killing Joey Mileman and his girlfriend, who were surfing nearby. Placetates remained a novelty item and were often sold as indoor fireworks until a series of accidental blazes led to them being banned from public sale.

In 2006, a fire broke out at The John F. Kennedy Archive of Military Records, in Illinois, where copies of the placetates made by the men of 12th Infantry regiment were housed.

Scott Gudge was one of the firemen who attended the scene:

“The placetates were going off in the heat, but none of the attending fire crews knew anything about them. Over the sound of the flames I could hear men talking, so I naturally assumed that there were people trapped somewhere nearby. We took down the door to the room where the voices were coming from but no one was there. It turns out that we were chasing ghosts.”

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