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James Fitzgerald; Pioneered Military's Use of Dolphins

James W. Fitzgerald communicated with dolphins using Morse code-like signals.
James W. Fitzgerald communicated with dolphins using Morse code-like signals. (Family Photo - Family Photo)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

James W. Fitzgerald, 88, an engineer and physicist whose work in sound propagation led to early Navy and Central Intelligence Agency experiments with dolphins, died of cancer Jan. 16 at Camelot nursing center in New London, Conn.

A former resident of Shady Side, Bethesda and Annapolis, he had lived in New London since 1982.

At a cocktail party in Annapolis in 1964, Mr. Fitzgerald casually mentioned to a Navy admiral that dolphins, mammals that rely on natural sonar for hearing and navigation, might prove useful in warfare. The admiral introduced him to a CIA acquaintance who was a specialist in underwater combat.

As Mr. Fitzgerald's wife recalled, the CIA sent him to Key West, Fla., where he set up a small classified laboratory. His assignment was to study whether dolphin hydrodynamics could be applied to the design of submarines, torpedoes and missiles and whether the animals could be trained to perform missions.

Working with a half-dozen dolphins, he and his associates learned rather quickly that the sleek, intelligent animals could indeed be used to seek out underwater mines, attach explosives and eavesdropping devices on enemy ships and help divers recover lost weapons from the ocean floor.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who gave his dolphins names and often swam with them, communicated with the animals through Morse code-like signals. He discovered that the older dolphins were somehow able to transmit their training to younger ones.

The Navy put dolphins to work. In 1965, a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy became the Navy's first sea mammal to complete an open-ocean military exercise, delivering tools and mail to aquanauts 200 feet below the surface of the Sealab II project off the coast of La Jolla, Calif.

In 1970, the Navy acknowledged that it had sent five dolphins to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, to test their abilities to detect enemy frogmen.

In 1983, a U.S. District judge in Baltimore dismissed a $3 million libel suit that Mr. Fitzgerald had filed against Penthouse Magazine. In his lawsuit, Mr. Fitzgerald charged that a 1977 Penthouse article, "The Pentagon's Deadly Pets," falsely accused him of espionage.

The article said that Mr. Fitzgerald, while conducting his secret experiments, "made overtures" to sell "dolphin torpedoes" to some Latin American countries. He said the statements were both false and defamatory. The judge ruled, "reluctantly," that to proceed with the suit could harm national security.

Mary Fitzgerald said her husband, through his own company, sought to persuade the government of Mexico to use dolphins as shark guards in coastal tourist areas. He also thought they could be used to locate survivors of air crashes or shipwrecks. He lacked the money, she said, to develop these possibilities.

To this day, Mr. Fitzgerald's work and the military's subsequent use of dolphins, whales and sea lions remain controversial and, for the most part, cloaked in secrecy.

The Washington Post reported in 2003 -- long after Mr. Fitzgerald had retired -- that the Navy was using combat-trained dolphins in the war with Iraq. Scouting enemy waters in search of mines, the dolphin mission reportedly turned up six enemy mines in its first 36 hours in the water.

Mr. Fitzgerald was born in Oshkosh, Wis., and received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1939. He worked as a design engineer at Babcock & Wilcox before becoming a research physicist at B.F. Goodrich, where, at the outbreak of World War II, he was working on self-sealing fuel tanks for aircraft.

During the war, he moved to the Naval Research Laboratory, where, as head of the sound propagation branch, he invented and developed the rubber sonar dome, still used on naval surface ship sonars.

As founder and chief scientist of the Chesapeake Instrument Corp. (now part of Lockheed Martin), he invented passive towed-array sonars. Towed-array sonars were the Navy's principal means for keeping track of Soviet submarines during the Cold War.

In 1982, he moved to New London, where he founded the Kildare Corp., conducting research and development in numerous areas of sonar technology. He held many patents.

A certified scuba instructor, Mr. Fitzgerald enjoyed sailing and diving in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. He also enjoyed the opera and was known as an indefatigable punster.

In addition to his wife of 58 years, of New London, survivors include four children, James Fitzgerald II of New London, Navy Capt. Michael Fitzgerald of Battle Ground, Wash., Mary K. Fitzgerald-Spaulding of Bowie and Margaret Fitzgerald of Bad Lippspringe, Germany; a brother, Dr. Edwin Fitzgerald of Monkton, Md.; a sister, Charlotte Mueller of State College, Pa.; and six grandchildren.


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