In the days before GPS, before satellite telephones, before tracking devices and search and rescue teams, if you were an aviator and your plane went down in desolate or potentially hostile territory, you were in big trouble. Think Amelia Earhart. Think Lady Be Good. Think Wind, Sand, and Stars. Think Unbroken.
The resourceful, however, might still have stood a chance at survival, albeit through a rather simple and primitive means of ‘insurance.’
In WWII, the two mains routes for ferrying aircrews and supplies to the European theatres of war were via England and Africa. The former involved flights originating from the northeastern U.S. that proceeded over Newfoundland, and thence across Greenland, Iceland, and finally to the U.K. The latter involved flights originating from the southern U.S. that proceeded over the Caribbean and the northeast coast of South America, and then across the Atlantic to Senegal, and finally up to Morocco.
The northern route had no hostiles, but instead very bad weather conditions.
The southern route had better weather, but the locals were suspect.
To protect aircrews traveling the southern route, it was decided that good old fashioned bribery was their best bet.
It was common practice then for flyers to be provided with gold coins to sew into their flight jackets. In the event that a U.S. plane executed an emergency landing somewhere in Vichy French Guiana or anywhere between Dakar and Casablanca, the crews could not count on any intrinsic hospitality from the residents. It was thought that a handful of gold might persuade those natives to escort any surviving crewmembers to the nearest friendly forces.
The only problem was that the U.S. government stopped minting its own gold coins in 1933.
Gold being gold, those charged with procurement sought bullion from any source.
My late father, Major Ralph Carbone, was the flight surgeon of the 34th Bomb Squadron, 17th Bomb Group, Twelfth Air Force, flying Martin B-26 Marauders out of Barksdale Field in Louisiana. The squadron was slated in 1942 for the southern passage to the Mediterranean. I don’t know what was given to the rest of the crews, but he was issued two 19thc French Napoleon III twenty-franc coins.
He sewed them into his A-2 and made the flight without difficulty. He survived the war and returned with both. One he later gave to a friend in New Jersey where it resides to this day. The other, pictured above, remains in my possession.
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