Escape and Evasion Kits: Don’t leave home without one—especially if you’re a naval aviator flying over hostile territory in World War II. More popularly referred to as “barter kits,” these lifesaving little boxes of covetable trinkets were issued to U.S. Navy pilots to provide them with valuable items with which one (hopefully) could trade himself out of a jam. If forced to emergency-land or bail out behind enemy lines or into primitive areas, the downed airman could exploit the kit’s contents to barter with the locals for their assistance—or even for his life.
As shown by this pair of samples from the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, E&E kits came in two types: The Atlantic kit (left) includes two French gold coins of 20 francs and 10 francs respectively, three British gold coins of one pound sovereign and a half-pound sovereign, and three gold rings. The Southeast Asia kit (right) comes with a gold link chain, a heart-shaped gold pendant, two rings, and a Swiss calendar watch, complete with cloth watchband visible in the box’s upper left corner. (The thinking behind including the watch was that as a mechanical device, it would be perceived by primitive Pacific Island cultures as a sort of “god-like” symbol.)
Because of the value of their contents, barter kits required “controlled item” status, with each one individually serial-numbered. To get one before taking off, an airman had to go to the ship’s supply officer, who would remove it from a safe. Assuming full responsibility for the kit, the airman had to sign for it. If he returned safely with an unused kit, he then returned it to the supply officer, and back into the safe it went. If he didn’t return safely . . . well, the two rings in the Southeast Asia kit happened to be embossed with a couple of Chinese symbols that a downed flyer might hope would bestow their blessings on him. One was the symbol for happiness—and the other for good fortune.