Of all the enemies Allied soldiers confronted during World War II, malaria proved to be among the most stubborn. The mosquito-borne disease was a constant scourge for soldiers stationed in the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters. General MacArthur’s retreat to the malarial Philippine peninsula of Bataan in early 1942 led directly to his sickly army’s surrender to the Japanese a few months later. The illness continued to cripple American forces during the ensuing campaigns in Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal, where it was so rampant that a division commander ordered that no Marine be excused from duty without a temperature of at least 103°F.
Troops in Southern Europe faced similar problems. During the Seventh Army’s Sicilian campaign from July to September 1943, 21,482 soldiers were admitted to the hospital for malaria; 17,535 were admitted for battle casualties. All in all, malaria accounted for almost a half-million hospital admissions and more than 300 American deaths during the war.
After some fits and starts, the military responded to the malaria outbreak with a full-out assault. The Army’s Medical Department dispatched malaria control units to war zones to clear and clean standing water and bombard malarial areas with recently developed insecticides like DDT and “bug bombs.” With access to quinine cut off by the Japanese conquest of Java, the government sped up trials of the anti-malarial medicine atabrine.
Between 60 and 65 percent of Soldiers serving in the South Pacific reported having malaria at some point. Reports indicate that some enlisted men would refuse to take the anti-malaria drug Atabrine because continual use turned the skin a sallow yellow color. Atabrine was only partially effective to begin with, and Soldiers who stopped use were virtually unprotected.
Despite side effects such as turning the skin yellow, millions of tablets of the drug were distributed to troops toward the end of the war.
Atabrine was not the only tool the Army used to fight the spread of malaria in the Pacific. The fact that no one could ensure that all troops would take the medication consistently meant that additional measures needed to be taken to reduce the risk of infection as much as possible. One of the most important and effective tools the Army had against malaria was the insecticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT.
Beginning in 1943, the Army began using DDT in a powdered form which was applied directly to soldiers and refugees in Italy, where a typhus epidemic was raging. It was discovered that this treatment was highly effective against the lice that carried the disease. The same powder was used in the Pacific as well, but the Army soon realized that DDT could also be useful against malaria.
The military also warned soldiers about the dangers of the disease with an aggressive propaganda campaign that tried a variety of approaches, including patriotic appeals, racist caricatures, scare tactics, and goofy cartoons (including one drawn by the young Dr. Seuss). The campaign worked: Infection rates fell dramatically, and a healthier fighting force went on to claim victory in Europe and Asia.
The Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) also did its part to help fight malaria among the servicemen in the PTO. Stations of AFRS’s “Mosquito Network” in the South Pacific constantly reminded soldiers to take their Atabrine, and often injected humor into their broadcasts. For instance, the station on Guadalcanal ran a program called “The Atabrine Cocktail Hour,” a show that aired each day at 1730 and featured fifteen minutes of “cocktail music” from “exotic” places like the “Fungus Festooned Fern Room” or the “Starlight Roof high atop the Hotel DeGrink in downtown Guadalcanal.”
The only silver lining to the malaria problem was that the Japanese suffered just as much, if not more, than the Americans. Estimates suggest that at times some Japanese units were 90% combat ineffective due to a combination of malaria and dysentery. Fresh American troops, not yet infected, were most effective when used against Japanese forces that had been in the field for months; and the lack of medical provisioning led to even higher casualties among the Japanese.