A Tribute to an Unsung Hero

In 1936, George Washington Vanderbilt III sailed his yacht, Cressida, to the Far East. His expedition is best known for a visit to Sumatra where he, with the aid of one of his passengers, was able to identify a number of new species of reptiles. Eventually they made their way to Tokyo and in 1939 were sailing out of Tokyo Harbor – beginning their return trip to the United States.

It was then that Vanderbilt’s passenger decided to take some pictures of the harbor. Within minutes, a Japanese military vessel pulled along side and forced the Vanderbilt vessel to stop. They demanded that the man surrender his camera and film. Because the roll of film also contained photographs of a zoological nature, the man refused. It wasn’t until Vanderbilt convinced the military of his close relationship with the Emperor that they relented and allowed the Cressida to resume its journey.

The photographer and zoologist was a man named Frederick Ulmer – the unsung hero who is being featured in this story.

The remainder of their trip home was relatively uneventful. They filed their scientific reports and life returned to normal until December 7, 1941. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the FBI appeared at Mr. Ulmer’s door. They asked to see the photos he’d taken of Tokyo Harbor. Those photographs, taken innocently by a zoologist who was acting as any tourist would in 1939, were instrumental in the first bombing raid of Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his pilots used those pictures to help them zero in on important targets.

Frederick Ulmer, who was more interested in wildlife than anything else, continued to work in the field he loved. Shortly after the war, he received another call from a governmental agency enlisting his help.

This time it was the State of Pennsylvania. They were planning to build the country’s first turnpike and were facing a major problem that could only be solved by someone with Frederick’s background.

Speaking of background, it would help if you had some.

In the late 1800’s, Andrew Carnegie decided that the railroads were charging him too much to haul his steel. He issued an ultimatum – either lower your prices, or “I’ll build my own railroad!”

The railroad men didn’t take him seriously until they realized he had enlisted the aid of William Vanderbilt and they were building a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. They had over one-half of the road-bed built and seven tunnels bored through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Although Vanderbilt went broke in 1885, the railroad barons got the message. Not surprisingly, the prices charged to Carnegie were soon significantly lowered and Carnegie halted construction of his own rail line.

Those tunnels that sat unused for more than fifty years had suddenly become the key elements of the planned Pennsylvania Turnpike. However, there was one major problem. The tunnels had become the homes for millions of bats.

For the next year or so, Frederick Ulmer and his crew captured the bats and sent them to zoos throughout the world. Many were released in other parts of the country, but the net result was seven tunnels that could then be used for automobile, bus, and truck traffic.

Frederick Ulmer later became the Curator of the Philadelphia Zoo and wrote many articles on various forms of wildlife.

There’s not much written about the man. In fact, this is the only place you’ll find that tells about his photos of Tokyo Harbor.

In case you’re wondering the source of my information, I had known about the turnpike tunnels for most of my life. My father told me that story while we were driving through one of the tunnels… about fifty or sixty years ago.

As for the Tokyo part, Ruth Morris told me all about it when I visited her in 2006. How did she know? Her maiden name is Ulmer and Frederick was her brother. Frederick passed away in September of 1995, at the age of seventy-nine.

Frederick and Ruth, as well as their brother Leeds, were the children of my Aunt Gertrude. So, this story is one of those family history tales.

It makes me wonder if I can find a way to rub elbows with someone named Vanderbilt. Perhaps my visit to the Biltmore mansion is as close as I’ll ever get.

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