This is the history of the most extraordinary device ever used in the US Army inventory, the M-1, Personnel, Automaton, eLectronic; pronounced “PAL.” Only now, seventy years after their invention has their role in the Second World War been revealed to the public for the first time and the incredible achievements of their inventor made known.
As early as the First World War the US military was working on pilot-less target drones to help train pilots. They tried various methods of remote control or self controlled vehicles and aircraft. The major user turned out to be the Army Air Corps for training fighter pilots and Coast Defense Corps for training anti-aircraft gunners. None of these devices was very sophisticated and none were ever good enough to be used in combat. Real human soldiers and airmen had to face the rigors and dangers of real warfare.
The United States Automaton Corporation, USA Corp. as it was called, was founded in 1919 as a way to reduce casualties in war. Dr. Ernest W. Handricksen, brain surgeon, and former CPT US Medical Corps, late of France in the Great War, was the founder and chief designer of the PAeL system.
Coming from a musical family, Ernest Handricksen was expected to follow his mother and father into show business. Instead, his musical talent was more mechanical and technical than inspirational. Still, it was good enough that he could work as a piano tuner and pay his way through medical school in the years before the First World War. Dr. Handricksen continued his studies until he became a brain surgeon of some regional renown in the Western United States.
When war with Germany came he enlisted as a doctor and was with some of the first American soldiers sent to France. Working on men injured in training accidents and later combat he was appalled at the human wastage and vowed to do something about it when the war was over.
While on leave in Paris he visited a museum and learned of the work of the French scientist, Jacques de Vaucanson. He had made automatons for the amusement of the royal court centuries earlier. As a brain surgeon in the US Army in France Dr. Handricksen saw the human body was like a machine, so why not make a machine like a human body. If a soldier could be replaced by a machine, the machine would not suffer pain and could be replaced or repaired by technicians in the field.
When the Armistice was signed in 1918, Dr. Handricksen returned to civilian life but wanted nothing to do with medicine for a while, so he could think about his next project. Working as an electrician and later for the telephone company to pay the bills, at night he would stay up late, working on designs for his human machine. By 1926 he realized he would need more money to build his automaton and so he returned to medicine.
Founding a small clinic south of Los Angeles, California, he treated the rich who frequented the beaches and spas in the area. At the rear of his clinic he built a laboratory to begin experimenting with his ideas for a human machine. By 1930 he had the final designs completed and he began construction of prototypes.
In 1937 until 1941, Dr. Handricksen went to France for two to three weeks every summer. He learned more about the works of Jacques de Vaucanson. He also founded a small subsidiary of his company, and called it the Société française d'automates, French Automaton Corporation. Several young French scientists and engineers worked on the PAeL project, primarily on the power generation and supply. Power generation was headquartered in Paris and power supply was designed in Vichy.
The result was that by late 1940, he introduced to the US Army his prototype for an automaton soldier. Impressed with the demonstration the Army ordered a test battalion based on a regular human battalion. Due to the very limited reasoning ability of the automaton, each automaton was assigned to a human soldier on a one to one ratio. So each unit was 50% humans and 50% automaton soldiers.
The unit took part in the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940 with good results. The automatons maintained a high operational rate and performed their duties as expected. The project was given the go ahead to proceed with larger units.
The U.S. Army Automaton Corps was formed on September 14, 1941 with two divisions on paper, formed from one under strength National Guard division that was activated into Federal service. Due to the rapid expansion of the Army after Pearl Harbor the troops to form two divisions were not available, even the activated division was raided for troops to form the cadre of other new divisions. As a result, it was decided to start with a single regiment of infantry, the 1138th Regiment, Troop, Human, Experimental.
Each automaton had a control box in their chest and a sensor unit in their head. The sensor unit and control boxes were hand made by Dr. Handricksen. These devices were so secret that they were not even patented. Breaking one open allowed a certain liquid to escape and rendered the device useless. The devices were sealed at the factory and in the field could be replaced with a new unit, but could not be repaired.
The other components were made in Dr. Handricksens small workshop behind his clinic in California. Once the contract was lent for the first Corps Dr. Handricksen purchased a small factory and began series production in early 1941. Most of the employees were from the local area, both men and women. Dr. Handricksen continued to make the control and sensor boxes himself in his workshop.