5. Jinxes and Jonahs
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CHAPTER FIVE JINXES AND JONAHS In the minds of many fliers, bad luck needed to be avoided just as assiduously as good fortune needed to be cultivated.1 Through a combination of fears about tempting fate, post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, limited understanding of the laws of probability, along with traditional superstitions and—in one specific context—more than a hint of misogyny, there arose a small host of things that were thought to actively attract disaster. There were various actions or spoken phrases that some men thought brought bad fortune on operational sorties. In the face of directions from his skipper to stop dumping his parachute and other equipment in the aisle of the flight deck after boarding, a B-29 copilot in the 73rd Bomb Wing argued that to do so would create a jinx: “It’s been that way on every mission and it’s no time to start [something new] now.”2 In the 93rd Bomb Group a B-24 pilot argued that it was courting bad luck to change the name of an inherited ship, and when later ordered by the commander of the 451st Group to paint over the skull-and-crossbones artwork on the nose of their B-24 in order to avoid providing ammunition to enemy “air gangster” propaganda claims, many of the crew of The Jolly Roger feared that after fourteen successful missions their luck would thereby be erased.3 A navigator was furious with the nose gunner of another crew in the same bombardment group after he lit three cigarettes for two other crew members and himself during a delay before boarding, thus breaking the three-on-a-match taboo.4 According to one Wellington pilot, writing a letter to a loved one just in case one did not return “was considered among bomber crews to be the ultimate jinx.”5 Volunteering for an operational task in the Fleet Air Arm was thought to be “very unlucky ,” indeed “asking for trouble,” according to Swordfish pilot Charles Lamb: “If we are told to do something, no matter what, that’s okay; but jinxes and jonahs : 55 volunteer—never.”6 And within Bomber Command’s 75 Squadron it was even considered dangerous to wish anyone good luck before setting out.7 The 100th Bomb Group and 359th Fighter Group, among others, shared the superstition that saying goodbye before takeoff was inviting a final reckoning with the Grim Reaper.8 In other units, making any reference to what one would do upon returning from an operation or mission was believed to lengthen the odds against survival for that particular sortie .9 Members of Air Group 15 aboard the USS Essex took care to avoid uttering the words “when I get back” before launches.10 Ellis Woodward, a B-17 pilot with the 479th Bomb Group, disliked fliers who used gallows humor to assuage their fears after briefings about how the enemy was going to blow the group from the sky. “I was superstitious ,” he admitted, “and thought that if you talked negatively about something happening, it just might increase the possibility of it happening .”11 George Webster, a B-17 radio operator with the 92nd Bomb Group, was worried that blurting out “I really hope this is the last one” about a mission late in his tour would have adverse consequences.12 During a Berlin raid on the night of March 27–28, 1943, a 207 Squadron wireless operator chose not to wish the tail gunner, whose birthday began after midnight, many happy returns.13 Why? “Fate or luck or providence might hear us and rap our knuckles for being certain of their favours,” argued Halifax bomb aimer Geoff Dawson of 158 Squadron.14 A similar desire to keep in the good books of Lady Luck—“we didn’t want to offend her”—lay behind the decision by some US crews not to decorate the nose of their bombers once they had racked up a number of successful missions in anonymous machines.15 It also explains the deep unease felt by other crewmembers when B-17 tail gunner Gene “Wing Ding” Carson of the 388th Bomb Group took to whistling the first few bars of Chopin’s Funeral March each time their bomber left behind the English coastline. Only when one of the crew was killed did he cease this practice: “It seemed to be inappropriate.”16 Another B-17 tail gunner, Arnold Willis of the 303rd Bomb Group...