6. Numbers and Symbols
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CHAPTER SIX NUMBERS AND SYMBOLS Given the stresses they were under, it is not surprising that fliers succumbed to numerological and other symbolic superstitions already fairly common in the English-speaking world. In the United States, where transatlantic visitors thought the population more superstitious than in the United Kingdom, fears concerning calendrical coincidences such as Friday the 13th cost businesses what Life magazine described just before the war as an “inexcusable sum of time and money.”1 The British, though, were pretty superstitious about numbers and the calendar too. Almost a quarter of those responding to a survey in the United Kingdom shortly after the war believed that particular numbers could be lucky or unlucky, while 17 percent believed that particular days affected one’s fortunes.2 Individuals might draw positive significance from numerical coincidences . Spitfire pilot E. A. W. Smith, for instance, was especially happy to be posted to 127 Squadron because “127 coincides with the last three digits of my serial number, 1333127.”3 Seven, a numeral widely considered lucky in western society, might have positive associations for fliers. Among USAAF bomber crews the seventh mission might be thought of as “our lucky seventh.”4 The skipper of a 425 Squadron Halifax apparently thought—wrongly, as it happened—that as it was the crew’s seventh operation, they would survive a particularly difficult night trip to Germany.5 Naval aviator Will Fletcher, about to launch from the USS Intrepid during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, took comfort from the fact that he had been assigned the seventh TBF Avenger in the VT-8 inventory.6 Others might go for eleven, a symbol of strength in the tarot system.7 In the 345th Bomb Group, meanwhile, an officer flying B-25s thought it highly significant that “every mission we’ve flown with six or eight ships, for the past two weeks [in early 1945], we haven’t lost an airplane.”8 68 : chapter six By necessity or through experience, there was even some triskaidekaphiles (those who give positive meaning to the number 13).9 Don Berkus, a B-24 pilot with the 13th Air Force in the Southwest Pacific, convinced himself that thirteen was an inherently positive number: Our country started with 13 colonies; 13 signers of the Declaration of Independence; 13 stripes on our flag. Look at a dollar bill. There are 13 steps on the pyramid, 13 letters in Latin above the pyramid, 13 letters in “E Pluribus Unum,” 13 stars above the Eagle, 13 plumes of feathers on each span of the Eagle’s wings, 13 bars on that shield, 13 leaves on the Olive branch and 13 fruits. If you look closely, there are 13 arrows in the claw of the eagle.10 When a new B-17 crew arrived at the 100th Bomb Group in England, part of the 13th Air Wing, on October 13, 1944, and were designated Crew 13 and assigned aircraft number 413, they chose to view all this as a good rather than a bad omen.11 Positive associations might also generate a certain degree of triskaidekaphilia. Because of the frequency with which the number cropped up in the personal and professional lives of a B-17 crew with the 390th Bomb Group, they decided to embrace rather than reject the option of being designated Crew 13 in the 569th Bomb Squadron.12 “I got my first Zero that day, October 13 [1942],” noted F4F pilot Joe Foss, who flew from Guadalcanal with VMF-121, “flying the Number 13 Grumman I’d brought in from the carrier four days before.”13 Unlucky numbers, though, seem to have been uppermost in the thoughts of superstitious aviators. Air force personnel often subscribed to the belief that bad luck happens in threes and either were happy that the worst was over or anxious that worse was to come.14 Donald Stones, a Hurricane pilot in 79 Squadron, after first losing his lucky red scarf and then making a wheels-up landing, was among the latter: “I wondered what ‘number three’ was cooking up for me.” The next day he was shot down.15 “In the Air Corps the superstition prevailed that accidents occurred in threes,” observed B-24 pilot James Mahoney of the 467th Bomb Group, adding that “deep down, even amongst the most intelligent , there was at least an uneasy feeling after two accidents in quick succession, and a sense of relief after the third.”16...