“Jubilant American soldier hugs motherly English woman,” PFC Melvin Weiss (via the National Archives)
With the timing of Memorial Day (for those reading in the U.S., that is) and my brother’s recent entry into the American Armed Forces (he’s been in for just under a year), I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight a few of the superstitions surrounding life as a soldier, sailor, pilot, or marine. Some of these practices are magical in nature, and some simply traditional or an interesting way of adding a layer of significance to the world from folks who already make significant contributions to it. I will not attempt to paint any glossy pictures of military service, nor will I touch on some of the lore which might be construed as highly disrespectful in light of the holiday. I also doubt I’ll cover even a fraction of the total lore around these branches of service, as that could easily fill volumes, and I’m going to attempt to keep this under two thousand words.
For the sake of simplicity, I will look at the beliefs more or less by branch, although in fact it will essentially be by domain—land, sea, and sky. The Marines, while ostensibly a seafaring force and part of the Naval Department, are for all intents and purposes the force that crosses those three boundaries (although I should note that in the modern military, an Air Force pilot on a Naval carrier would not be unusual, and other service members work across branches frequently). I will basically be looking at lore for soldiers, sailors, and pilots, and cross-pollination of belief can be inferred as appropriate.
Some of the chief superstitions surrounding life in the Army focus on protection in battle, naturally. Protection from bullets, mortars, bombs, and any of the other myriad dangers on the battlefield is essential, and here are some of the magical methods used:
- Soldiers would often wear bibles “tucked or pinned over the portion of a uniform covering the soldier’s heart” to fend off bullets (Watts 419).
- Soldiers in World War I would sew black cats onto their uniforms for good luck (contrary to the traditional ‘bad luck’ association with the animal)
- Mistletoe could provide protection for a solder, when pinned inside his or her uniform
- “[S]hells etched with the soldier’s name” were considered lucky amulets (Brunvand 766)
- The 91st Psalm would be carried or worn inside a uniform for luck and protection
- Hair, clothing, or jewelry from a loved one back home would sometimes offer some safety from harm
- A bit of clothing from a personal or national hero could be worn to provide vigor, courage, and insulation from battle damage
- A soldier should always eat all the food on his plate before battle to ensure he survives it
In addition to tokens and talismans, a number of stories circulated surrounding apparitions which portended good or bad fortune for soldiers during wartime. For example:
“Legends about folk saints defending soldiers and citizens abounded. Variations include the saint appearing as an old man before or during battle, prayers by the soldier or a family member resulting in miracles, the saint healing injuries and aiding prisoners of war to survive or escape, or the saint appearing in a dream. Saints were also credited with disabling enemy weapons and altering the direction of enemy planes and missiles” (Brunvand 766).
Some of the saints to whom a soldier might appeal would include Saint Michael Archangel, for victory in battle, or Saint Christopher, for a safe journey back home. A Cross of Caravaca might also be worn to symbolize such divine protection.
One of the entities who seemed to travel everywhere the soldiers did was the astounding Kilroy. With his eyes, nose, and fingers peeping over the top of a fence, he was always first on the scene, and became something of a traditional bit of graffiti for soldiers:
“Kilroy lore calls for GIs to place drawings of the character in the most remote and unlikely locations, signifying the power and reach of the U.S. military. It is also customary for soldiers to claim that the marking was discovered rather than placed, making Kilroy always the first to arrive at a host of sites. He is rumored to adorn a range of places from the Statue of Liberty’s torch to the surface of the Moon” (Watts 237).
In addition to protective and comical apparitions (or drawings, in Kilroy’s case), there were also the less pleasant ‘death tokens’ which precluded a loss in battle or the death of a soldier. One such creature is the Ghost Dog of Flordia Island in Guadalcanal, essentially a derivation of the ‘Black Shuck’ figure of British lore, a demond dog who spells doom for those who see him.
A good bit of lore sprang up around soldiers who wanted to get a quick discharge from their unit, including such strange techniques as “eating a large stack of pancakes or sleeping with soap under both armpits” (Brunvand 767). Often, these were essentially hazing techniques other soldiers would use on those with cold feet rather than rituals that could actually earn a fast pass out of service.
Civilians could aslo help soldiers in their efforts in some cases, using magical methods. Children during World War II would jump on cracks in the belief that every time they did so, a Nazi soldier would fall. Wives of soldiers were told not to ask about missions, including ones the soldier had survived, and to refrain from watching their soldiers as they left for their tour of duty. Even the symbolic act of saluting or showing a ‘V for Victory’ with the hands and fingers was thought to bolster the soldier’s strength (and his or her morale).
Perhaps the saddest lore surrounding soldiers involves the fallen ones. There are many stories of ghost soldiers and even entire ghost units still fighting battles long after the wars are over (I had a personal experience with a group of Civil War soldiers, which I believe I mentioned on the show, for example). Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams, features a vignette of just such an occurance, where a lone soldier returning from battle meets his entire platoon of fallen comrades and tries to explain what happened to them.
Finally, I can’t resist mentioning the story of the “Soldier’s Almanack & Prayer Book,” in which a soldier accused of keeping gambling accessories (i.e. playing cards) defends himself by demonstrating that the deck actually functions as an almanac of sorts and a reminder of biblical stories and prayers. There’s a full account of it in the appendix of my book, 54 Devils, and you can find a slightly longer description of it with links to additional material in the short version of that book, “The New World Witchery Guide to Cartomancy.”
There are so many superstitions and customs surrounding the life of a sailor, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve covered a few of these in previous articles, notably the post on “Seaside Sorcery,” so I’ll try to mostly stick with new material here, but if I repeat myself please pardon the gaffe.
I will start with one reiterated bit of lore on cauls, the thin membrane which surrounds the head of some newborn babies. I did discuss these items briefly in the above-mentioned post, but I found a bit of expanded lore on them which I thought would be appropriate here:
“Many captains and crews would not leave port unless a cawl from a recently born baby was aboard the ship they were to be sailing on. Cawls were often traded from one vessel to another, as one ship came home and another sailed off to distant lands. Having a cawl aboard was a guarantee that the ship wouldn’t sink, and they were often sold to sea captains and shipowners for large sums of money” (Cahill 15).
The part that most interested me in this was the trading from one ship to another, a sort of ‘passing of luck’ from one boat to another. I imagine that to those who used such tools, a caul which had kept a crew safe through one set of voyages would seem doubly powerful to the next crew to inherit it. The enormous cost of the cauls is also worth noting, especially in the context of it being a captain’s purchase—I can imagine some sailors taking it as a bad sign that a captain was too stingy to purchase such an elementary piece of luck for their ship.
Among some of the other pertinent bits of folk belief for life onboard ship we find a similar theme to the soldiers—protection—with the added need for charms which allow a ship stuck in the doldrums to make its way out before the crew starve or go mad. Some of the most popular beliefs:
- Perhaps the best known bit of sailor lore: Shooting an albatross as bad luck (see Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
- A bucket lost at sea was a bad omen of impending drowning
- A broom or a mop would likewise have been an ill omen if lost
- Wearing gold earrings prevent drowning (so THAT’S why pirates have them!)
- Eggs have a bad luck connotation to them, as they are reputed to conjure up bad storms and winds. The taboo is so strong that in some cases, sailors might not even say the word ‘egg,’ but instead use a euphemism, such as calling it a ‘roundabout.’
- Other taboo words: Knife, salt, rat, mouse, salmon, and rabbit or hare.
- Speaking of knives, a knife stuck in the main mast would summon a wind leading whichever direction the handle of the knife pointed
- Pigs were sometimes kept on old ships because it was believed that a pig in water would always swim directly to the nearest land, even if it couldn’t see it. A ship off its navigational course would toss a pig overboard and follow the pig.
Animals on a ship have much lore surrounding them. Many people probably know about the idea of rats fleeing a sinking ship (sometimes even before that ship left port), but what about cats? There is a strange mix of lore surrounding cats, with some sailors claiming that you could raise a wind (or storm) by throwing a cat overboard (which might be good news for a becalmed ship during the days of sail power) and the somewhat more broadly accepted belief that a cat who drowned portended very bad luck for an entire voyage.
The weather was and is a major consideration for those out to sea, and sailors developed an extensive body of lore around buying wind (see the Seaside Sorcery post for more on that) and raising or quelling storms and predicting the weather. Whistling on board a ship was very bad most of the time, because it would stir up the wind and storms. However, if a ship were unable to move, whistling might be turned to as a way of encouraging the sea to offer up some wind. The best and luckiest day to go to sea was on a Sunday, especially if you could wait until after the morning service to embark. In fact, a counterpart to the famous ‘Red skies at morning…’ rhyme is the less-known but far more interesting: Sunday sail, never fail; Friday sail, bad luck and gales” (Cahill 14).
The final bit of lore concerns mermaids:
“It may be for this reason [mermaids acting as sirens to lure sailors to their doom] that a mermaid sighting is frequently regarded as a portent of imminent danger. The mermaid’s influence is not always unfortunate, however, and in some cases she holds the power and disposition to grant the sailor wishes” (Watts 266)
All of these superstitions barely begin to scratch the surface of maritime lore, and the sheer volume of traditions, practices, and omens observed by sailors throughout history fills a number of books.
The Gremlins, by Roald Dahl (picture via Wikimedia Commons)
Since the Air Force has been around significantly less time than the Army, Navy, or Marines, its body of lore is somewhat less robust in terms of sheer volume. What it lacks in quantity, however, it certainly makes up for in quality, as some of the most ritualistic performances of folk belief appear in Air Force stories. Some of the best ones:
- Like soldiers, a pilot frequently keeps a bible or verse on his person as a protective talisman
- “Aviators wore mismatched socks and shoes from successful missions, but they avoided apparel from fliers who had been shot down” (Brunvand 766)
- A pilot would not allow a photograph to be taken of him immediately before flying a mission
- The pre-flight toast or drink glass should always be tossed in the fire or smashed prior to take-off to ensure safe return
- Carrying a silver dollar from a year with numbers adding up to thirteen (e.g. a 1903 silver dollar, as 1+9+0+3 = 13) would prevent harm from befalling an aviator
- A plane with the word ‘boomerang’ somewhere in its name would always fly home safely (e.g. the B-29 Boomerang)
Perhaps one of the most interesting bits of Air Force lore is the ‘clinker’ plane—an aircraft in such bad shape it seems destined to crash right after liftoff. Any pilot who can safely get the plane out on a mission and back again would have been thought to be charmed for life and a safe bet to fly with.
A number of superstitions for airmen and women are more highly personal—a piece of clothing they might insist upon wearing every mission, or a standard phrase or action done immediately before takeoff (similar to the smashing of the glass).
And I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention my favorite bit of superstition and otherworldly interference for pilots: gremlins. No, not the ones from the 1980s movie, but the ones described by numerous air force pilots as intentionally climbing out over moving aircraft parts to destroy and sabotage them midflight. Children’s author Roald Dahl served as a member of the Royal Air Force in Britain and wrote a book about the little creatures (at one time the book was to be made into a Disney cartoon, but in the end its designs and general gist wound up as part of a Bugs Bunny short). The gremlins are sometimes thought to be monsters, and sometimes thought to be aliens, but almost always they are not of earthly realms.
I should also say that if I were to branch off from the magical side of the Air Force superstitions and into the alien-and-UFO side of things, there would be no shortage of material to share. If that’s something you’re interested in, I highly encourage you to look into it further!
So how’d I do? Let’s see, about 2,400 words, so I think that’s enough for this time around. But what about you? Do you know any interesting lore from the Armed Forces? Have you served in the military and heard any of these superstitions, or any ones not included here? I would love to hear them!
Thanks so much for reading,
- Brunvand, Jan, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (1996).
- Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind (1972).
- “Gremlins, The.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gremlins
- Klesius, Michael. “One More for the Checklist,” Air & Space Magazine (2010).
- Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989).
- Wallrich, T/Sgt. Bill. “Superstition & the Air Force,” Western Folklore (1960).
- Watts, Linda S, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (2007).