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CHAPTER FOUR INCANTATIONS AND RITUALS In the struggle to improve the odds over enemy skies, saying and doing the right thing might extend well beyond the pro- ficient exercise of military aviation skills, or, indeed, either silent prayer or faith in magical objects. Certain repeated words and deeds could take on an incantational and ritualistic quality that made them an indispensable part of efforts to survive an operational tour. A religious upbringing could be helpful in conjuring up lines meant to be spoken or sung aloud or ritualistic actions performed in time of need. In tight spots, Catholics might recite a Hail Mary or two, touch a pendant or rosary beads, or cross themselves.1 Looking disaster in the face, others might follow their lead. “Now, I’m not even Catholic,” admitted Bob Johnson of the 340th Bomb Group, “but I said a Hail Mary” when an unfamiliar VIP from the RAF sitting across the flight deck from him in the copilot’s seat seemed on the brink of crashing their B-25 on takeoff.2 Harold Buell of VB-2 was Protestant but was observed by the ship’s Catholic chaplain aboard the USS Hornet always making the Sign of the Cross before taxiing his SB2C Helldiver into position for launching .3 All sorts could say the Lord’s Prayer.4 Among bomber crews, calling out Psalm 23 proved quite popular, especially in dangerous situations, as, on occasion, did airborne hymn-singing.5 American clergy, for their part, might go beyond their formal duties in promoting the idea that such rituals had a protective effect. Chaplain Constantine E. Zielinski altered Psalm 23 to make it more flier-friendly— “though I fly through treacherous storms and darkness” rather than “though I walk through the valley of death,” for example—while with the enthusiastic support of combat crews both Catholic and Protestant clergy ministering to the USAAF might engage in the practice of blessing or even christening bomber aircraft.6 44 : chapter four Though an aeronautical version of the nineteenth-century hymn Eternal Father, strong to save—better known as For those in peril on the sea—had been written for the Royal Flying Corps back in 1915 and was still in use a quarter-century on, there is no evidence of the blessing or christening of planes in the World War II Royal Air Force.7 This did not mean, however, that individual RAF clergymen might not find themselves at the center of other de facto rituals. On bomber bases in the United Kingdom padres sometimes were seen to cycle ’round the dispersal points and offer words of encouragement—“Everything OK? Godspeed,” for instance—which struck at least one crewman as ritualistic in nature.8 A Halifax crew with 434 Squadron felt distinctly uneasy during their last operational sortie because for some reason the chaplain had failed to make it to the dispersal point before it was time to start taxiing.9 Moreover, on at least one occasion a Bomber Command chaplain developed his own ritual, as Doug Johnston, signals leader with 427 Squadron, recalled: The padre participated in the pre takeoff and debriefing exercises. He played a little game with the boys. He would hand out half a stick of gum to anyone who wanted it and tell them they could pick up the other half on their return. I would kid him about it saying he was encouraging superstition among a group who were already superstitious enough. He refuted that with asserting that it wasn’t superstition at all—it was faith. The boys were clinging to something tangible even if it was only half a stick of gum. They had faith they would return for the other half. For many Halifax crews operating from Leeming in the summer of 1944 this ritual became indispensable. Other fliers “would not think of taking off without their piece of gum,” Johnston later wrote, adding, “nor would I.”10 That it was the chaplain doing this mattered, since beyond prayers and blessings he was thought to possess through his vocation a greaterthan -average link to the supernatural world. It was probably no accident that as B-29 crews prepared for the first combat mission of the 40th Bomb Group in June 1944, one crew member came up to Father Bartholomew Adler and handed him his wallet: “Keep this for me, Padre,” he explained, the implication being that he would pick it up at debriefing. Adler noted that the man...


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