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HEDGING THE ODDS OF WARTIME AVIATION

IT HAS been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And so it is for those fighting in the air above. Flying Against Fate, by S.P. MacKenzie, is a highly readable yet scholarly account of beliefs held by World War II allied aircrews.

Flying against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II, by S.P. MacKenzie, University Press of Kansas, 2017.

Simon MacKenzie is the Caroline McKissick Dial Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is evidently an ardent researcher as well, in assembling primary source recollections of superstitions practiced by WWII allied aircrews, hedging their odds of survival.

And staggering odds they were: MacKenzie cites, “The overall casualty rate for both RAF Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force, for example, exceeded 50 percent, producing approximately 26,000 American and 55,000 British and Commonwealth fatalities.”

MacKenzie also notes, “… those young men trained as fliers in World War II were among the best and brightest of their generation. Surveys, indeed, suggest a much higher than above average skepticism regarding common superstitions.…”

Nonetheless, MacKenzie also quotes “what a leading RAF physician described as ‘the mushroom growth’ of superstition among aircrews.”

In analyzing the writings of aircrew personnel, surviving and otherwise, MacKenzie identifies six different categories of superstition: turning to God, having talismans and mascots, employing incantations and rituals, avoiding jinxes and jonahs, being aware of numbers or symbols, and, despite all these, having premonitions of disaster. The author recounts stories of many personnel new to most of us as well as several aircrew members famous for other aspects of their lives.

For example, an unnamed B-17 crew with the U.S. 100th Bomber Group “refused to remove a piece of decomposing baloney attached to one of the bunks in their headquarters because the man who had put it there originally had survived his tour and returned to the United States.”

As a “less malodorous” example, MacKenzie quotes RAF Spitfire pilot Johnny Corbin upon his return from a mission: “… as I strolled toward the dispersal hut I became aware of a hard lump in my trouser pocket against my leg. I reached down and pulled out the champagne cork [picked up at a party] I had been idly playing with before we scrambled…. I decided then I would hold on to that champagne cork.”

Actor Jimmy Stewart piloted, among other aircraft, B-24 bombers in WWII. He put on the same tie for each mission he flew.

Officers of the 703rd Bomb Squadron, including Jimmy Stewart (highlighted in back row) before a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Image from historynet.com.

A bit of pilot trivia: Bomber pilots and other officers were commanders of their fellow personnel and, in general, wore ties. By contrast, fighter pilots, even when flying in chevron formation, profited from neck-twisting fields of vision and typically eschewed ties, whether the ties were lucky or not.

Concerning numbers, MacKenzie notes, “The trouble for triskaidekaphobes was that the number 13 could appear with distressing frequency. Though at least one US aircraft manufacturer avoided it in assigning serial numbers, the number could still crop up in call signs and formation positions. The officers’ mess at Leeming [airfield in North Yorkshire, England] contained a room No. 13 that ‘most aircrews wouldn’t use because it was unlucky.’ ”

On the other hand, MacKenzie doesn’t oversell his case. In his conclusion, he cites, “At the time, canny war correspondent Ernie Pyle noticed that he only occasionally encountered magical thinking while staying with various USAAF units: ‘Superstition was rare even among the pilots.’ ”

Flying Against Fate is extremely well documented, with more than half of its 256 pages devoted to Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. One appendix addressed length of tours; another, aircraft types; the third, organization of Allied air units.

What’s more, its 85 pages of notes coordinated with text footnotes amplify on the primary sources that make Flying Against Fate such a fascinating book. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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