When pigs fly: Here's a look at the military's greatest April Fools' Day pranks

The well-regarded military publication Stars and Stripes reported, “Senior Defense Department officials are bracing for criticism after they announced plans to create a new medal – one that doesn’t require service in any of the nation’s branches of the armed forces.”

This announcement first appeared in a post on the official Facebook page of Leadership University, a Department of Defense collaboration of experts and leaders that provides career and life-changing tools to the U.S. military and their families.

“The medal will formally recognize the desire many young Americans have to serve, even if they never actually signed up,” said the post, which included a photo of the medal.

Say what?

Before you old soldiers get your shorts in a knot, the post (dated April 1, 2023) ended with the statement: “And have a great April Fools’ Day.”

Why do we perform pranks on April 1?

No one really knows when and where the practice started, but it is documented well back to medieval times. Some historians think the tradition has its roots in the Hilaria festival of ancient Rome, while others believe it started in India with a Hindu festival called Holi. No matter what its origin might be, it is marked worldwide by virtually all nations, cultures and religions.

A credible case can be made that April Fools' Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. In the old Julian calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1.

As with every change, there was always the 10% who did not get the word. Those who continued to celebrate the New Year during the last week of March through April 1 were made fun of and were called – you guessed it – “April fools.”

Over the centuries, the practice has evolved, with more elaborate and complex pranks being developed. For example, history tells us that on April 1, 1698, people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to "see the Lions washed.”

Some of the best-known and most successful hoaxes have been planned and executed by large companies and/or major media outlets.

According to History.com, NPR ran an interview in 1992 with former President Richard Nixon saying he was running for president again. “It was an actor, not Nixon, and the segment was an April Fools' Day prank that caught the country by surprise.”

On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell announced it had bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell to use as a symbol of their fast-food franchise. They intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell.

Two years later, Burger King announced a new sandwich called the  “Left-Handed Whopper,” and “Scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.”

The BBC, however, is credited with perhaps the most successful April Fools' prank ever. In 1957 they broadcast a three-minute segment on their popular current-affairs TV program "Panorama," describing how a family in southern Switzerland harvested pasta from their "spaghetti tree."

The straight-faced presenter described how a mild winter and the elimination of the dastardly spaghetti weevil had resulted in a bumper crop. The network supported its story with film clips of a harvest festival, with Swiss farmers plucking strands of spaghetti from trees and laying them out in the sun to dry. The way they got all the spaghetti to be the same length was through “years of selective breeding by generations of growers.”

At the time, spaghetti was an exotic food in the UK. Most Brits who even knew what it was had only seen it canned in tomato sauce, and they had no idea where it came from.

The BBC estimates 8 million people viewed that program. Numbers of them jammed telephone lines, wanting to know where they could get their own spaghetti trees. The BBC rather diplomatically replied: "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

Decades later, CNN called this broadcast "the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.”

April Fools' pranks in the military

Reports of military humor go back to the earliest days of organized warfare. The British Museum has a lead bullet launched from a sling in ancient Greece which is inscribed DEXAI – meaning “Catch me.” A similar bullet bears the inscription “Bite it in vain.”

While not specifically April Fools' messages, they laid the groundwork for the military’s hearty embrace of the practice. People of all cultures and nations plan and perform their best tricks on this day, and the military is no exception.

During World War I, shortly after the Christmas Truce of 1914 – and before the true brutality of that conflict finally sank in – a French pilot flew over a German camp and dropped what appeared to be a bomb. The Germans scattered and took cover, but there was no explosion. Cautiously, they approached the object, which proved to be a large soccer ball bearing the tag “April fool!”

The most notable of World War II hoaxes was the Stars and Stripes story in its April 1, 1943, edition reporting that all soldiers who had served a year in Europe would be entitled to a 30-day furlough. They were to be sailed home aboard military transports manned by members of the Women’s Army Corps, with onboard entertainment provided by big-name female stars such as Betty Grable and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The previous year, the Elkhart, Indiana, Daily Truth had detailed a low-cost plan to protect Indiana in case of a German invasion. The National Guard would attach miniature 8-ounce bombs to 25,000 crows, which would be trained to drop them on the enemy. The story included a photograph of one of the "Black Bombers,” ready for battle. The crow in the picture was stuffed, and the "bomb" was really a salt shaker.

And in the last 10 years …

No matter how smart we think we are, many of us get taken every year on April 1. We even know it’s April Fools' Day and yet we still get punked. Sometimes, the more outrageous a story is, the more people get sucked in. It's head-shaking how so many reasonably intelligent people can be duped.

Marine Cpl. Alexia Lythos of the III Marine Expeditionary Force poses with Gouda, a companion animal, at Camp Courtney in Okinawa. The photo was part of a 2019 April Fools' Day joke by the III MEF communications team.
Marine Cpl. Alexia Lythos of the III Marine Expeditionary Force poses with Gouda, a companion animal, at Camp Courtney in Okinawa. The photo was part of a 2019 April Fools' Day joke by the III MEF communications team.

Consider the 2016 post on the Army’s official website that reported the U.S. military had mastered the art of teleportation. There was an editor’s note at the end of the story saying, “The article above is entirely fictional.”

Far too many social media users did not read that note, and the story received so much play that Reuters had to publish a Fact Check declaring it to be “Not True.” 

On April 1, 2013, the Army’s Old Guard in Virginia announced that the Army was launching a trained cat program, thus expanding the military’s working animal support team. The cats would be assigned to MP units to help track narcotics.

Sometimes, when something looks official – especially if it fulfills our desires and wishes – we suspend our common sense and fall for it, hook, line and sinker.

In 2019 the III Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa issued a press release detailing a change in Marine Corps regs that would allow pets to be kept in the barracks. The release specified that most dogs would be allowed (except pit bulls and the like – as well as chihuahuas!). Fish no longer than 6 inches were acceptable, along with cats, hedgehogs and bearded dragons (“which must be kept within grooming standards”).

Marines had to submit an application showing they were responsible enough to keep the animal. The paperwork had to include the Marine’s training record and certification of completion of the Pet Care and Training class.

Each animal would receive a photo ID card that had to be carried at all times by the owner. And, “to ensure their safety and protection, pets will be required to wear a reflective belt while not at the place of residence.”

The release ended with the words, “Happy April Fool's Day, III MEF!”

Once again, far too many Marines did not read the last line.

'The greatest military prank of all time'

That’s how Business Insider magazine described the prank played on the crew of the aircraft carrier USS John F Kennedy in 1986.

Kennedy was coming to relieve USS America in the Mediterranean. As part of the changeover, a helicopter from America flew over to the JFK, ostensibly to “drop off some official paperwork,” according to aircrewman Brian Christoff.

As the helicopter touched down on Kennedy’s flight deck, Christoff and his mates released three pigs painted with red, white and blue food coloring and lathered in grease.

Another airman, Brian Michaels, later posted a video of the crazy scene on YouTube. As the pigs scattered among the aircraft parked on the flight deck, confused sailors tried to round up the “baconated trio,” as Military Times writer Claire Barrett described the porkers a few days ago. One sailor called it “bacon bombing the steel barnyard.”

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: April Fools' Day has a long tradition of great pranks in the military