Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Aviators, Blood Chits & Short Snorters, Oh My!

If someone had asked me a year ago to describe a "blood chit" or a "short snorter bill", I'm pretty sure that I would have only been able to blink in response. But since I began my position as curator at the Virginia Aviation Museum (a division of the Science Museum of Virginia), I'm pleased to say that I now know that blood chits and short snorter bills were used by pilots during the Second World War and served two very different purposes: one acted at a lifesaving device, the other as a source of pride and revelry.

A blood chit is a piece of fabric that pilots sewed to their jackets. It was typically made of silk and consisted of a flag and a paragraph in a foreign language that asked for anyone who came upon the aviator to return him to safety. The origins of the term blood chit come from the slang for "note" or "written notice" which was "chit", while blood references the bearer's life.

The Virginia Aviation Museum has a variety of blood chits- some still sewn onto their original jackets. The blood chit above was sewn to the back of a jacket of an Air Transport Command pilot who flew over China during World War II. The blood chit identifies him as an American fighting for the Chinese. The now faint purple characters read: "This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him with medical care".

Other blood chits offered rewards to those who would help. This chit from 1951 states in a variety of languages that,

"I am an American. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection from the Communists. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. I will do my best to see that no harm comes to you. My government will reward you".

While the blood chit represented the last hope for safety, the short snorter bill had an altogether different purpose. A short snorter is a pilot who was known as being worldly, having flown back and forth from many countries and often across the equator. This term came into existence in the mid 1920s and continued into World War II. A short snorter bill is the paper currency that the pilot picked up during his travels, taped together, and had signed by various friends and (hopefully) famous people he met along the way. Sometimes men would compete with each other to see who had the most prestigious and lengthy short snorter bill. Whoever had the fewest signatures had to buy a round of strong drinks, or "snorts", for the entire group!

Currently on loan to the Virginia Aviation Museum is a short snorter bill from the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society that measures approximately six feet long. This bill has currency from a variety of countries including France, Fiji, Trinidad, Japan and Portugal. It was signed by Marlene Dietrich, a famous movie actress of the day. Taped between these foreign currencies is a piece of aircraft fabric from a Japanese plane that was shot down over Midway Island. Not all short snorter bills had to be six feet long to be prestigious. In the collection of the Virginia Aviation Museum is a single short snorter bill from 1934 with just a handful of signatures. However, one signature in particular makes this a bill of note: that of Charles A. Lindbergh.

Whether using blood chits to save a life or short snorter bills to get a buddy with less signatures to buy a round of drinks, these were two items that were often carried by the aviators of World War II.


SewAmy said...

awesome post. will have to show my husband this. He loves WWII history.

Sarah Lanigan said...

Thanks for commenting, Amy! I'm planning on posting weekly so look for more aviation and WWII facts coming up!

Ned Byrne said...

Great stuff, but where is a picture of the auther?

sonia said...

We live in Shenandoah bed and breakfast. Next week we (me and my husband) are planning to visit SMV. Hope everything goes as planned.

Liz Mebane said...

Sonia - There's lots going on here at the Science Museum of Virginia! I hope you have a wonderful visit!

kate said...

I found the exact same blood chit from 1951 in Bunbury, Western Australia. I have 3 of them and sewed one onto a bag and I'm wondering what to do with the others. Should I give them to a museum or are they quite common?

Sarah Lanigan said...

Hey Kate, what a cool way to repurpose a piece of history! Blood chits are still used today by those in the Air Force but the ones that are the least common (and most valuable) are Flying Tigers blood chits that were used before and during WWII. That being said, it's always worth it to check in with a museum to see if they are interested in obtaining your items. If you ever want to learn more about your blood chits I would suggest this book- Last Hope: The Blood Chit Story by R.E. Baldwin and Thomas McGarry. Thanks for posting!