This Day in History: Mary Babnik Brown’s unusual WWII contribution

On this day in 1991, an American heroine passes away. Why, exactly, was Mary Babnik Brown a hero? The details are uncertain, but one basic fact is undisputed: Mary got a haircut—and it helped the war effort.

Was Mary’s hair used to create crosshairs for Norden bombsights? Or was it simply used for meteorological instruments?

Mary was living in Pueblo, Colorado, during the opening months of World War II. One day, she saw an advertisement in a local newspaper: The government needed hair—but not just any hair. It needed hair that was at least “22” long, blonde, and has never been treated with chemicals or hot irons.”

Mary’s hair satisfied all these criteria. She’d been carefully caring for her knee-length hair for decades, washing it with pure soap a few times a week.

In the end, she donated 34 inches of hair.

Reportedly, the loss of her hair was so devastating that she mourned its loss for two months. Yet she felt that she’d done her duty, and she refused to accept the War Savings Stamps that the government offered her.

“I saw so many people crying their eyes out, not wanting their sons to go,” she explained many decades later. “I was sad. I wanted to do something for the war effort.”

But where, exactly, did her hair go? For years, Mary had no idea. Then a report surfaced that her hair had been used as crosshairs in Norden bombsights. Undamaged human hair would be able to withstand greater temperature extremes than many other materials. Mary even received a letter from President Ronald Reagan, thanking her for “helping our bombardiers” during the war. “You can be very proud of a selfless act that set a splendid example during wartime,” Reagan wrote. “Your story has touched me deeply.”

Mary was honored in a ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy, among other things. Many people had loved the story of her simple gesture, and Mary passed away in 1991 still believing that her hair had been used in bombsights.

But was it?

The Museum of Aviation Foundation disputes the story, noting that no Norden bombsights have been found with human hair in the place of crosshairs. Instead, those crosshairs were etched on the glass. The manual issued to bombardiers during the war provides additional evidence along these lines, explicitly stating that “[c]rosshairs are etched on one of the lenses of the telescope.” Moreover, Mary donated her hair in 1944, long after Norden bombsights went into use.

Why would Mary’s hair have been needed, then? Human hair was needed for certain purposes in meteorological instruments, and that may be where her hair landed.

Weather forecasts may be less glamorous than bombsights, but it was still an important donation, of course. Accurate weather predictions can be critical to military success, as they were during the landings at Normandy in June 1944.

We may not know everything we want to know about Mary and her hair, but we do know one thing: When called upon by her country, she gave what she had to give—and she asked for nothing in return.

Selfless. Patriotic. Generous. AMERICAN.