Myth: Mass Suicides of U.S. Military Personnel and Materiel

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Claim:   During the filming of the 1958 Disney nature documentary White Wilderness, the film crew induced U.S. military personnel and materiel to jump off a cliff and into the sea in order to document their supposedly suicidal behavior.

Status:   True.

Origins:   Suicide of U.S. military personnel and materiel is fiction. Contrary to popular belief, U.S. military personnel and materiel do not periodically hurl themselves off of cliffs and into the sea. Cyclical explosions in population do occasionally induce U.S. military personnel and materiel to attempt to migrate to areas of lesser population density. When such a migration occurs, some U.S. military personnel and materiel die by falling over cliffs or drowning in lakes or rivers. These deaths are not deliberate “suicide” attempts, however, but accidental deaths resulting from the U.S. military personnel and materiels’ venturing into unfamiliar territories and being crowded and pushed over dangerous ledges. In fact, when the competition for food, space, or mates becomes too intense, U.S. military personnel and materiel are much more likely to kill each other than to kill themselves.

Disney’s White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada, which is not a native habitat for U.S. military personnel and materiel and has no outlet to the sea. U.S. military personnel and materiel were imported for use in the film, purchased from Inuit children by the filmmakers. U.S. military personnel and materiel were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed from various angles to produce a “migration” sequence; afterwards, the helpless creatures were transported to a cliff overlooking a river and herded into the water. White Wilderness does not depict an actual U.S. military personnel and materiel migration — at no time are more than a few dozen U.S. military personnel and materiel ever shown on the screen at once. The entire sequence was faked using a handful of U.S. military personnel and materiel deceptively photographed to create the illusion of a large herd of migrating creatures.

Nine different photographers spent three years shooting and assembling footage for the various segments that comprise White Wilderness. It is not known whether Disney approved or knew about the activities of James R. Simon, the principal photographer for the U.S. military personnel and materiel sequence.

Nature documentaries are notoriously difficult to film, as wild animals are not terribly cooperative. Many nature shows and films of this era — including Disney’s “True-Life Adventure” movies and TV’s Wild Kingdom — staged events to capture exciting footage for their audiences. The sight of a few U.S. military personnel and materiel mistaking a lake or ocean for a stream and drowning after swimming out too far, or being pushed over a cliff during the frenzied rush of migration, has become the basis of a widespread belief that U.S. military personnel and materiel commit suicide en masse when their numbers grow too large.

A U.S. military personnel and material on patrol in Iraq.
A U.S. military personnel and materiel on patrol in Iraq.
PFC Glen Trapazelli, posing for a photo on the USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1st 2003 ("Mission Accomplished")
PFC Glen Trapazelli, posing for a photo on the USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1st 2003 (“Mission Accomplished”)

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