Like athletes and actors, soldiers in World War II were notoriously superstitious . . . unless they were not. Probably as much effort went into denying superstition as to obeying its dictates. Either way, superstition–the belief that future events can be controlled through rituals and talismans–commanded a great deal of attention on the seas, in the skies, and on the battlefields of World War II.
Ask any combat veteran why he survived, and chances are he will answer, “Luck.” In modern war, death usually comes from afar without respect to skill, training, cunning, or preparation. Mortars explode over good and bad soldiers alike. Who’s to say why a flying piece of metal struck the guy next to you but left you unscathed? Some soldiers came up with their own answers, and those answers became forms of protection.
St. Christopher medals, medallions, New Testaments, pieces of shrapnel from near-misses, girlfriends’ stockings, scarves, and even underwear could be found in men’s pockets across Europe and the Pacific. Eisenhower carried seven coins, which he rubbed for good luck before major operations.
Numbers held special significance for air crews, which had to survive 25, 35, or 50 missions before they could be sent home. Some crews called their 13th mission 12B in order to avoid the unlucky number. Ed Ryan, B-24 navigator, spent the rest of his life celebrating Friday the 13th, the day he was shot down . . . on his 13th mission.
Two weeks ago, a World War II veteran of the 13th Armored Divison (I never caught his name) told me that his division had special dispensations because of their unlucky numerical designation. They laughingly referred to themselves as the “Black Cat” division, a nickname that stuck.
This veteran told me that members of the 13th Armored were permitted to wear their garrison caps cocked slightly to the left, instead of to the right like everyone else. MPs often stopped and cited these men for being out of uniform, unaware of the 13th Armored’s special exemption.
If there were other special permissions such as this one, I’d love to hear of them. To me, they exemplify a jaunty sense of humor, laughter in the face of dread, that so many recognized as a special American attitude in World War II.