Some Air Force pilots will adamantly refuse to take off without a thumbs up from their ground crew. Whistling aboard a Navy ship is strictly forbidden for a reason. And God help any sailor who washes a coffee mug.
U.S. military personnel deal with matters of life and death, sometimes daily, so it's hard to judge them for being more superstitious than a medieval serf.
These superstitions, unsurprisingly, extend to the battlefield. From the patterns on their uniforms to the food they eat in the field, including their field rations, strange superstitions have been around for a long time. Refusing to wash your patrol cap might make it smell bad, but will it really be a catastrophe? The answer is a firm "maybe."
1. Black-Eyed Peas
This is one of the oldest food-related superstitions, and it dates back to the Civil War. Legend has it that Union troops raided a Confederate food supply during Sherman's March to the Sea, but left the black-eyed peas. Maybe the Union thought they were gross.
No matter what the reason, the rebels felt the peas were lucky, mostly because they actually got to eat some food. The luck of the black-eyed peas evolved since then, with some believing you have to eat exactly 365 of these beans (yes, they're beans; don't email me about this) to get good luck all year. These days, it's a southern New Year's Day tradition, even among civilians.
Cigarettes, once considered crucial to American fighting men, have sadly gone the way of the daily rum ration. Cigarettes disappeared from rations in 1975, but their legacy was a long one. For as long as they were included, the saying among U.S. troops was to never light three cigarettes from the same match.
Americans just picked this up during World War I, but it actually dates back to British soldiers in the Crimean War. The belief was that the first cigarette would be noticed by the enemy, a second cigarette would allow him to aim, while the third light would let him take a shot. So let the third guy find his own match.
3. Ham and Lima Beans
This is a dish the U.S. military actually thought troops would enjoy eating, so it was included in both C-rations and its replacement, the "Meal, Combat, Individual" or MCI. Admittedly, this meal entered ration kits during the Korean War, a time when civilians were mixing canned tuna with Jell-O, so I guess it could have been worse.
By the time of the Vietnam War, soldiers and Marines hated it so much, they wanted nothing to do with it. They called the foodstuff "ham and motherf**kers" (or just "ham and muthas"). Like some kind of culinary Voldemort, just saying its true name was supposed to bring bad luck. Eating it might have been even worse.
4. Apricots. Any Kind of Apricots.
Like the ham and you-know-whats, a couple of C-rations and MCIs included halved apricots as part of the meal. During World War II, tankers began to notice that every time one of their tanks would break down, they always seemed to have a can of apricots on board. Tankers and drivers of armored vehicles began to suspect the little sweet fruit was a bad omen.
Guess what? They still do. The superstition carried on through the Vietnam War, and not just among tankers; it spread to the whole Marine Corps and beyond. The sight of someone eating a can of apricots was enough to put a whole unit on edge or make a Marine switch bunkers. Some Marine Corps units will even give non-judicial punishment to someone just for having them.
5. Charms Candies
To you, Charms might be just a roll of subpar fruit-flavored candies. To Marines, though, it's a Choose Your Own Adventure of potential death, as certain flavors could bring certain kinds of bad luck. The lemon flavor could cause a vehicle breakdown. Lime brings rain, even in the desert. Popping a raspberry Charm meant someone was gonna die.
Charms became so reviled that Marines began to discard them immediately, bury them or even throw them at the enemy, in the hopes they would eat one and suffer the same bad luck. Eventually, the U.S. military got the hint and got rid of the unlucky Charms in 2007.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.
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