Playing cards made history

Playing cards to pass the time

War can be hell… and war can be absolute boredom.  There are few better ways to pass the time than by playing cards.  They’re easy to carry: small and lightweight, they fit into a rucksack, duffel bag or Alice pack without having to sacrifice any piece of essential gear.

Plus – they’re cheap!

Wartime decks have been used to help soldiers in the field learn about their enemies and allies, to identify aircraft and even teach American history.  In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American forces used playing cards to identify the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The U.S. Army and the United States Playing Card Company cooperation goes way back.  But it was their brand Bicycle that took it to a whole new level.

During WWII, Allied Intelligence officers contacted the card company to produce the most clandestine deck of cards in history. According to the Geneva Convention, Allied POWs were guaranteed the right to receive mail and packages from the Red Cross.  The Allies saw this opportunity to smuggle useful objects to the prisoners.

map cards

This led to a top secret mission producing a deck of cards that included a hidden map, showing escape routes, directions and valuable tips and information which could help an escapee reach friendly lines or cross a border into a neutral country.

The map was concealed between 2 layers that formed the playing card.  Once it was submerged in water, the POW could peel off the layers and find part of the map on each card.  The cards were distributed at Christmas via the Red Cross Christmas parcels.  Being as cards were always included in their packages, these special decks went unnoticed by the camp guards.

The now famous but once top-secret map deck helped 32 people escape from Colditz Castle.  Very little is known about the clandestine decks, even today, for it was kept a secret after the war – as their use was a violation of the Geneva Convention.

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Did you know… ?

  1. The 4 suits in a decks represent the 4 season
  2. the 13 cards to each suit represent the phases of the lunar cycle
  3. 52 cards to a deck is for the 52 weeks in a year and
  4. There are 365 symbols in a deck for the days of the year

These items were condensed from those found in “The Voice of the Angels” newspaper of the 11th Airborne Division Association.

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13 October – U.S. Navy Birthday     246 Years 

U.S. Navy Birthday

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Military Humor –

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Farewell Salutes – 

Marvin D. Actkinson – Palo Pinto County, TX; US Army # 18347542, Korea, Cpl., Co B/1/32/7th Infantry Division, KIA (Chosin Reservoir, NK)

Victor E. Barrett – Westminster, SC; US Merchant Marines

Withold “John” Brazinskas – brn: Flatow, GER; US Merchant Marines, Vietnam

Charles H. “Chubby” Damsel Jr. – Columbus, OH; US Army, counter-intelligence

Donald E. Farry – Lake Worth, FL; US Army

Jeffrey B. Faivus – Huntington, NY; US Army, Captain

Harvey C. Fruehauf Jr. – Grosse Pointe, MI; US Navy

Wayne F. Galloway – New Castle, IN; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, Medical/11th Airborne Division

Denis H. Hiskett – Nebraska City, NE; US Navy, WWII, PTO, Fireman 1st Class, USS Oklahoma, KIA (Pearl Harbor, HI)

Lyman R. Sisney – Benton, IL; US Army, Korea, Co A/187th Regiment Airborne

Jack K. Wood – Wichita Falls, TX; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, 1st Lt., 344/98/9th Air Force, navigator, KIA (Ploiesti, ROM)

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About GP

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GP is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on October 11, 2021, in Current News, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 192 Comments.

  1. Re-Spotter playing cards. I bought a set for my father’s birthday. I wasn’t to know that there were different ones during the war that were for British planes only, and he knew all of them off by heart. He also has a bullet that was fired towards him by a Messerschmit over the Forth, Edinburgh when he was 9 years old; the first ‘attack’ on Scottish soil. He pointed out that he will always remember the shape and sound of that particular plane!
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for shqring such a beautiful story with us. Well, I don’t know how to play cards

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow–I had no idea that playing cards could be used in so many useful ways! Thanks, GP. Excellent post. Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There’s a lot of “sit around and wait” in the military and naval service, so playing card games was one way of passing the time. I recall a song that became popular after World War II made popular by Dave Myrick (known as T. Texas Tyler), also performed by Hank Williams and Tex Ritter. The name of the song was “A Deck of Cards.” The gist of the story can be traced to a place book belonging to Mary Bacon, an English woman, in the late 1700s. In the 19th Century, “A Deck of Cards” appeared in a British publication called “The Soldier’s Almanack, Bible, and Prayer Book.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for your continued like of my Revelation articles; you are very kind.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Playing cards certainly helped my father in law with 5 years in a prisoner of war camp. It crosses language barriers, too.

    Like

  7. Thanks for “schooling” me on this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonder how much card playing would now been replaced by video games on your cell phone.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was the first time i had read about map cards. Great idea, also to learn about the enemies weapons. Last week i had read about the Enigma, and a Polish team which is said to have discovered the decryption before the British. 😉 We can be glad that it was deciphered at all. Thank you for sharing a new topic on pastime during war, GP! xx Michael.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hier is de tekst van dat lied. “Het, kaartspel”
    Hier in kan je lezen waarom het ook een bijbel was

    Tekst het spel kaarten

    Het spel kaarten
    Gerard de Vries
    Het was in de tweede wereldoorlog. Een groep soldaten kwam terug
    Van een patrouille en arriveerde in een klein dorp. De volgende
    Morgen, zondag, ging een aantal van hen onder leiding van een
    Sergeant, naar de kerk. Nadat de geestelijke een gebed had gelezen
    Begon ‘ie te preken. Die jongens die een kerkboek hadden haalden
    Het te voorschijn. Maar 1 van hen had alleen maar een spel kaarten
    Bij zich dat ‘ie voor zich uitspreidde. De sergeant zag wat ‘ie
    Deed en zei dat ‘ie de kaarten weg moest doen. Na afloop van de
    Dienst werd de soldaat gestraft en bij de officier militaire politie
    Gebracht. “Waarom heeft u ‘m hier gebracht, sergeant?”, vroeg de
    Officier. “Hij zat te kaarten in de kerk”, was het antwoord. “Wat
    Heb je daar op te zeggen, knaap?”, zei de luitenant. “Heel veel”,
    Was het antwoord van de bewuste soldaat. “Dat zullen we hopen, want
    Als je geen deugdelijke reden hebt, dan zal ik je strenger straffen
    Dan wie ook.” De soldaat zei: “Luitenant, ik ben zes dagen op
    Patrouille geweest. Ik had geen bijbel of kerkboek, maar ik hoop
    U te kunnen overtuigen van de oprechtheid van m’n bedoelingen”.
    Nadat ‘ie dit had gezegd, begon ‘ie z’n verhaal.
    “Kijk luitenant, als ik naar de aas van het spel kijk, dan weet ik
    Dat er maar 1 God is, en de twee vertelt me dat de bijbel in twee
    Delen verdeeld is, het oude en het nieuwe testament. Als ik de drie
    Zie, dan denk ik aan de Vader, de Zoon en de Heilige Geest. De vier
    Herinnert me aan de vier evanchelisten die het woord predikten,
    Mattheus, Marcus, Lucas en Johannes. De vijf doet me denken aan de
    Vijf wijze maagden die hun lamp brandend hielden en gespaard bleven.
    Vijf van de tien waren dwaas en werden verstoten; de overige vijf
    Bleven gespaard. Zes, dat zijn de zes dagen waarin God de hemel en
    De aarde heeft gemaakt. Zeven herinnert me aan de zevende dag, de
    Rustdag. De acht doet me denken aan de acht mensen die gered werden
    Toen de aarde vernietigd werd. Het waren Noach, z’n vrouw, z’n
    Zonen en hun vrouwen. Bij de negen denk ik aan de melaatsen die
    Onze Redder reinigde van de zonden, en negen van de tien bedankten
    Hem zelfs niet. Bij tien denk ik aan de tien geboden die Mozes op
    De stenen tafelen ontving. Zie ik de koning, dan weet ik dat er
    Slechts 1 grote Koning is. De vrouw herinnert me aan moeder Maria,
    Koningin van de hemel. De boer van het spel is de duivel. Als ik
    De tekens op de kaarten tel dan kom ik tot 365, de dagen van het
    Jaar. Er zijn 52 kaarten, de weken van het jaar. Vier kleuren zijn
    Er, vier weken in een maand. Er zijn twaalf kaarten met een
    Afbeelding, dat wil dus zeggen: twaalf maanden in een jaar. Ook
    Zijn er dertien troeven in een spel, dertien weken in een kwartaal.
    Ziet u luitenant, m’n speelkaarten betekenen voor mij een bijbel,
    Een almanak en een kerkboek tegelijk.”
    Beste mensen, dit was een waar verhaal. Ik weet het zeker, want die
    Soldaat, dat was ik.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Never thought that playing cards could serve other purposes than relaxation.what an ingenuity that helped soldiers forward with pictures and cards.I know that cards standing for 4 saisons,52 weeks, 365days and12 months. We have in Belgium a Flamisch song that tell us what cards means. It’s the story of the card game and last but not least its also a bible
    That’s the song of a soldier(Songwriter Cowboy Gerard)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I 💗 your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I knew some of the history of playing cards, and knew a little about the differences among them, but I’d certainly never heard about those smuggled maps! It’s really a clever idea. Of course, we could criticize those maps for breaking ‘the rules,’, but we don’t know the ways in which other nations found their own creative ways around the Geneva Conventions. Who knows what secrets still are lurking out there?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. We have different formats for playing cards in Italy – But then again, everything is different there.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I read the Colditz Story and don’t recall the playing card trick. Maybe they didn’t wand to get the Red Cross into trouble!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for including a Farewell Salute to Merchant Mariners. The long overlooked service that keep the supplies moving through every war, conflict and tragedy. My father served in the Merchant Service during WWII, Korea and Vietnam and passed away before the merchant seamen were granted veteran status. He would be pleased with the recognition being paid today.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wish I could have thanked your father for his long career in the Mariners. They are an essential part of the equation in both peace and war!! Thank you for telling me about him. If you remember any stories he told you, feel free to bring them here.

      Like

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