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Playing Cards in Military History

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A man sitting on a bus
Marines play cards and clean their rifles on a ship bound for Iwo Jima, ca. 1945. | Location: between Hawaii and Iwo Jima. (Photo by © Joseph Schwartz/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Playing cards were distributed to the military in Iraq to help in tracking down Saddam Hussein and the top members of his government. Their availability for off-duty activity would assist in acquainting the soldiers with the faces of the fugitives.

A mention of playing cards has surfaced occasionally throughout history, sometimes with noteworthy results.

For example, the American victory at the Revolutionary War battle at Trenton may be at least in part due to playing cards. Reportedly, when the Hessian commander was warned that General George Washington and his army were coming their way, he was so involved with his card game that he ignored the message. Having crossed the Delaware and moved forward in the snow, the Americans swept through Trenton and routed the Hessian troops. It was a much needed victory after a string of demoralizing defeats.

In the 16th century, Spanish officers used playing cards to recruit sailors for the Spanish navy. An officer would play anyone that approached with the stakes being a large amount of money should the challenger win or service in the navy in the event he loses.

During World War II, decks of spotter cards were issued which bore the silhouettes of enemy as well as Allied aircraft to help familiarize observers. The Department of the Navy’s Training Center issued similar cards to help recognize the different combat vessels. Being able to identify the aircraft or battlecraft at maximum distance could buy a few extra seconds to prepare.

Royal Air Force airmen operating over mainland Europe were provided maps concealed among playing cards. The cards could be soaked in water, revealing maps. Cards were also shipped into POW camps along with Monopoly sets which were packed with currency, a metal file in the board itself, and silk maps wadded up into hotel pieces. The Germans realized they had to permit diversionary material in to keep the prisoners from focusing on escape and let the board games and playing cards through.

The military did not wish to interfere with the Red Cross which provided parcels to POW’s so they often set up their own phoney charities to get the disguised escape kits into the camps. The real problem was notifying the prisoners.

In Vietnam, playing cards, specifically the ace of spades, were reportedly left on Viet Cong and NVA bodies as “death cards,” an informal PsyOps maneuver that was intended to build fear of the American unit that inflicted the casualty. The Vietnamese apparently had no superstition about the ace of spades comparable to the American identification of it as the death card, other than what might have filtered down from the French. Over time, however, repeated exposure to the ace of spades would have been sufficient alone to build up a dread of the card.

As you can see, the military has had a few cards up its sleeve throughout history.

Jill Buch

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