Blind Soldiers Volunteering for War

Time and again, they have shown that willpower can help compensate for the limitations posed by a disability and that society can and should break down psychological and social barriers.
Irene Schiff

From 'La Voce dell'UNUCI' newsletter of the Bologna Section of the National Union of Discharged Officers of Italy January-April 2021


There is a page of our military and social history that we don’t all know about. But it should be remembered and told: blind men who volunteered as airborne soldiers, i.e., human radars in World War II. These men were dismissed by the Military Service because they were considered unsuitable, inferior. Instead, they turned out to be very important and irreplaceable soldiers, particularly at the time when radars had not yet been invented. They were veterans, wounded in World War I, or young people, or fathers of families who had lost their eyesight due to work accidents or illness. It was recognized that they had a great gift: they had compensated for their vision loss by developing a particular auditory sensitivity. Blind people do not have a better hearing system than sighted people. But they have become accustomed to refining it, to using it better to recognize the origin of sounds. It is a totally different concept of how to perceive the world around you.

 Blind sound-locator operator, card from†1942

For sighted people, things are reality and noises are an abstraction. For the blind person, noises are reality while things are often an abstract concept. From the rhythm of steps, they recognize people by the tone of their speech, they understand their mood, from the source and type of noises, they can make a mental map of the place where they are. What people better than them could hear and recognize the sound of an airplane, where it came from? What people better than them could tell if it were a friendly or enemy airplane, and the number of airplanes in a fleet? Early in the war, it was proposed to use this skill to recognize enemy aircraft, making it possible to immediately set up anti-aircraft activity. Many tests were made, and the blind men were always found to be not only reliable, but superior to sighted soldiers. The Army then asked blind people to become volunteer soldiers. Soldiers, wearing the same gray-green uniform and with above, the words “blind” in gold. The response was not long in coming: 2,500 people enlisted. 

 Group picture of blind sound-locator operators, 1940-1945

The selection was very strict: perfect bilateral hearing ability, hearing tests, voices and noise perception, military tests with the airplane and with the listening device called airplane simulator. Psychological characteristics: great willpower, tenacity, courage, team spirit. A good educational background was valued. Eventually 823 blind men passed all the tests and were declared eligible. The oldest known blind soldier volunteer was born in 1882 and the youngest in 1925. With the State Law of November 20, 1939, N. 1827, these Italian blind men joined with honour and duty of the citizen soldiers. They were assigned to the Departments of the Anti-Aircraft Militia and Maritime Artillery for aerial reception. The aerophone, or listener, before the advent of radar, was the only device capable of detecting an aircraft in flight either during the day, even before it was visible, or when the aircraft was invisible because it was covered by clouds or in night flights. These soldiers were in high demand in the riskiest areas. They stayed outdoors, in elevated spots, without any shelter. They were exposed to the elements of the seasons, day, and night. They had to maintain maximum concentration for a long time and could not afford distractions or fatigue. They knew that the military, the civilians, their fellow soldiers trusted and relied on them. The airphone, which they had never seen with their eyes, was a precise reality for them and they ‘saw’ it with touch, hearing, and intelligence. They remained in their post even under the roar of bullets, the explosion of bombs, the incursion of enemies. They died, were wounded, and taken as prisoners.

 Sound-locator operators on the cover of L'illustrazione Italiana, August†1939

Many awards and praise were given to them, and numerous newspapers published reports about them. They have shown that, time and again, willpower can help compensate for the limitations posed by a disability, and that society can and should break down psychological and social barriers that are too often built. Men among men, soldiers among soldiers, they did not kill but defended. Some of them were decorated for valour. I would like to remember them and honour them for the example they set for all of us. Thank you to all of them and, if you will allow me, thank you to my father who was one of them.


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