THE SUPER-SOLDIER PROJECT
By Al Schroeder
Officially, it's name was "Operation Rebirth" and it evidently was financed clandestinely by FDR before America directly entered World War II. It focused on an individual called Dr. Erskine (although at one point in the process they gave him a phony-sounding codename of "Dr. Reinstein"). This project's center was located in a gloomy-looking curio shop on a side-street, evidently in Washington. It took them months to find the proper 4F specimen whose body would react well with the tissue-building formulae. This experiment had been so well-guarded that only Dr. Erskine knew the formulae and he comitted it to memory. There were no written notes for enemy agents to steal...or so it was thought. Actually, he did write it down, only to destroy it afterwards, and at least one enemy agent did get a glimpse of it. However, Dr. Erskine later realized the formulae would make one mentally unstable without "vita-rays" he invented to stabilize the process.
Steve Rogers, a NYC native, was the first subject. A thin, somewhat sickly looking youth, chosen from hundreds of others for his courage, his intelligence, his willingness to risk death for his country if the experiment should fail. The serum was administrated in an oral fashion as well as intravenously, and than stablized by "vita-rays", a combination of radiation treatments.
(As they would find out later, one byproduct of the serum is that under sub-zero temperatures put Rogers into suspended animation, rather than killing him. It's ironic that Steve Rogers' uncle, Anthony "Buck" Rogers, was also famous for surviving a long sleep...although Nowlan's far-future fantasies were probably entirely fictional, based on Anthony/Buck's disappearance.)
Unfortunately, despite the unprecendented security, a Gestapo spy broke in and killed Dr. Erskine after Rogers became, under the influence of the chemical, a well-muscled paragon of humanity. Rogers killed the Gestapo spy...or rather, caused the spy to get himself killed in the electical equipment...and the U.S. government, finding they had spent all that money to create one superlative soldier, decided to make him into a living propaganda figure and fighter for freedom, called Captain America. (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were permitted to make fictionalized versions of his adventures for morale-building reasons, in comic books.)
BUT...although only Dr. Erskine had the complete formulae...did other scientists contribute to parts of it? How did Erskine make a breakthrough which was so far ahead of its time, that we cannot duplicate even now, some fifty years later?
Like much else that was published in comic books, it comes back to...Superman.
In Siegel and Shuster's origin, young Clark Kent, after being found in his rocket, was taken to an orphanage, where the attendants "were astounded by his feats of strength". Their doctor was actually a young medical student---a young Dr. Erskine---who examined Kal-El/Clark Kent as much as possible, whose physical structure was "millions of years evolved over their own". This tot, this infant, could lift entire bureaus or chests of drawers, was a prodigy, and he hoped to make a name for himself. The child was adopted by the Kents, who had found him, but Dr. Erskine never lost his notes nor his prelimary studies of the strange child. He used them to start his researches towards the Super-Soldier formulae. He conceived it, not as a weapon, but as a way to build up those who were sickly with polio or other diseases. (Superman noted his resistance to diseases, and the doctor had noticed that the child seemed to catch no colds, diseases, etc.) Erskine couldn't get blood samples (his needles broke) but urine and stool samples told him much about the physiology of the super-infant.
Dr. Erskine became a researcher in the wilder fields of experimental medicine and biochemistry. Eventually, the military heard of his theories and decided to use them to help make soldiers who would be more agile, stronger, and with quicker reflexes....and perhaps someday, as superhuman as Superman himself. He had good results with some test animals, although not on Superman-level.
In the decade between GLADIATOR and the first Superman adventure, Dr. Abraham Erskine encountered the now-grown Clark Kent, and wanted to give him an examination. He tried to extract a blood sample from the grinning Clark, and broke needle after needle, as Clark said, "Try again, Doc." He didn't enlighten Erskine on the origin of his powers, and Erskine was left to consider Clark was a freak of nature.
Even Erskine couldn't do everything himself---so different parts of the academic world were apportioned specific projects to help. We saw much the same thing happen in the later Manhattan Project.
At Midwestern University, their chemistry and biology department worked on developing speedier reaction times and speeds of their subjects. The chemical a Dr. Hughes there developed was code-named "hard water" (as uranium would later be code-named "heavy water") yet Hughes, like college professors everywhere, relied on brillant graduate students to do the more tedious work.
Young Jay Garrick was assigned to seperate the elements in the chemical. Late at night, while taking a break for a cigarette, an accident happened, and Jay was forced to breathe concentrated fumes from the "hard water".
Jay spent weeks in the hospital, recovering, but being young and in good shape, he recovered. Indeed, he more than recovered; his reflexes and speed became phenomenal. He eventually became a match for Superman in speed, or perhaps even exceeded Superman in that respect. Yet his near fatal-accident did not encourage others to follow in his footsteps, and he was cladestinely observed by the government for the next decade, to see if there were any side-effects of that concentrated chemical exposure. (As part of the Justice Society, and its first chairmain, the Flash---as Jay called himself---worked directly under FDR, although under much more secrecy than Fox admitted.) Steve Rogers was given a much diluted form of that speed-increasing formulae, and his reflexes, though excellent, were Olympic-level, no more.
Jay's exploits were put into fictionalized and exagerrated form by Gardner Fox, who was also the chronicler of the Justice Society. Though it appears Jay could really outrace a bullet, he certainly never ran faster than light or broke the time-barrier.
One of Erskine's earliest collaborators was Tom Higgins, an FBI agent and forensic chemist, whose job was to try to duplicate the toughness and to a certain extent the strength that Erskine glimpsed in the infant Kal-El. Higgins best friend was FBI director J. Edgar Hooever. In the twenties', Tom Higgins tried to develop an anatomical formula to grant humans near-invunerability, which he code-named SHIELD.
His son, Joe, grew up with a burning desire to follow in his father's footsteps. He became a brillant chemist, to develop and perfect his father's anatomical formula S.H.I.E.L.D. Using a special suit with catalytic agents, and special rays to force the formula into his internal organs, Joe Higgins in the very late thirties became the Shield. He could---with the suit--- withstand 2000 degrees of heat, and much that would cause a normal human harm, and had much of Superman's invulnerability. To a lesser degree it emulated Kryptonian strength, and the Shield could leap large distances and lift large objects, although he was no match for Superman in that regard. He became a very special agent for the FBI, a G-Man extraordinaire. (Again, a much more modified form of the S.H.I.E.L.D. treatment was incorporated in Steve Rogers' formula, making him more hardy but hardly invulnerable.) His adventures were chronicled in Pep Comics' series about him.
Only Erskine had control over combining the chemicals and in what dosage, as a general serum to be given to soldiers in America's army, should America war with Hitler. Erskine had relatives in concentration camps in Germany,
Perhaps the most eccentric member of the early Super-Soldier team was Prof. Phineas T. Horton. With the glimpses of another type of intelligent lifeform, he started to fabricate rules where he could make intelligent, artificial life. He left the medical research in the early twenties, and spent the next decade trying to construct an android---an artificial man.
In the late thirties he succeeded---after a fashion. He constructed an android that could simulate human life, except that its solar powered body and artificial metabolism were geared more to Kryptonian metabolism, without the Kryptonian toughness of skin; its metabolism ran too fast, ran too hot...and burst into flame without consuming itself. The android, which called itself the Human Torch, became a battler against crime in the employ of the New York city police department. His adventures were chronicled by Carl Burgos, beginning in Marvel Mystery Comics.
So, Operation Rebirth led not only to the development of Captain America, but of the first Flash, the Shield, and the first Human Torch. Also, the secrecy concerning Operation: Rebirth explains the clampdown which the authorities did on any news of these byproducts of Erskine's research, so that the truth could only be told in exagerrated and fantastic fashion, in the medium of comic books. No one but some of the artists and writers knew the kernel of truth behind their fantastic stories.
Yet none of these would have happened...if Abraham Erskine hadn't had the chance to examine first the infant Kal-El, and later the grown man...and to derive clues as to superhuman abilities from them.
Return to the Wold Newton Superhero Universe.
All rights reserved. The text of this article is copyright 2000 by the author, Al Schroeder. No copying or reproduction of this story or any portions thereof in any form whatsoever is permitted without prior written permission and consent of the author.