Friday, May 22, 2015

Throw A Nickel On The Grass...

So the other day FRaVMotC taminator013 (or The Taminator as we call him, don't ask how I know he's a him, I just know, 'kay?) asked the question...
What did you mean when you said that you would bring a nickel when you visit Arlington? Is that an AF tradition?
For you see, in this post I said...
...I'll stop by next time I visit Arlington and I'll bring a nickel.
Hence The Taminator's question.

Now I answered the question in the comments but I wanted to address it further for the general edification, education and curiosity of the audience here at the Chant du Départ. For I know that you are a curious lot and are always seeking a wider knowledge of affaires militaires. (And foreign languages as well. You could do the same via Google Translate, though that is not always 100% accurate. I, with my sketchy background in foreign languages can keep Google somewhat honest. I do think I'm digressing, at least Bitching Betty keeps saying "Warning! Digression! Pull Up, Pull Up..." And yes, that's what it's called, Bitching Betty. I didn't name it. If it makes you fell better, a female voice was chosen because it's more noticeable. In theory, so... "Warning! Digression! Pull Up, Pull Up!")

Now where was I? Oh yeah, that whole nickel in the grass thing. I've had the Research Department look into this further and here's what I they found.

First stop Air Warriors.

Now the short version is that this phrase, which also has a song, comes from the Korean War.

There's a song?

Why yes, yes there is...

For the uninitiated, the mentions of the F-86 Sabre and the Yalu River put this song squarely in the Korean War. But is that where the saying started?

It may be a tradition from World War II fighter pilots. One story I've seen mentioned in a couple of places is that back in the days when they had pay phones (Google it youngsters, pre-cell phone stuff) a phone call required a nickel.

Pilots headed out on a machine would (so the story goes) "throw a nickel on the grass," the theory being that if you didn't make it home, your squadron mates could make the phone call to your folks on your nickel, not their own.

The theory being that it was akin to the theater saying "break a leg," it was not good to wish someone "good luck." That was tempting fate.

Interesting (perhaps only to me) side note: In the World War I German Air Force, the crews heading out told each other "Hals- und Beinbruck" - "break your neck and legs." Interesting Wikipedia article about all that.

Heck, if the Red Baron says it's so, then it must be.

But the nickel for a phone call thing is suspect, at least to me.

I'm sure there were pay phones available to the pilots in World War II, at least in England, but they would not have cost a nickel. That's not a British coin, Canadian yes, American yes. British, no.

Perhaps it was a symbolic gesture. Then again, a nickel in wartime Britain would not have been useful, so why carry them around? I don't know, that's just me, trying to be logical. (Fascinating, Captain...)

I suspect it was a Korean War thing and may have originated in training squadrons in the United States. But I am speculating here.

The story I like best is here. That story is accompanied by this picture...

One of my personal heroes, Brigadier General Robin Olds.

Now I have honored this tradition twice in my day.

Once for Ed Rasimus (whom I talked about here and again here) and then again for a fellow whom many of you may know.

Captain Carroll "Lex" LeFon.

The Cap'n is interred in the columbarium out at Fort Rosecrans in Sandy Eggo. There is no grass close by.

The last time I was out there, I realized there was a place where I could put a symbolic nickel, on the top of the Cap'n's marker. There's a small lip on the stone, almost perfect.

So while I didn't "throw a nickel on the grass" for Lex, I did leave one on his stone.

So that's what I know about the tradition. If anyone knows more, let me know.

Oh, one last thing. My son-in-law Big Time (Naval Aviator) and daughter, The WSO, didn't know of the "throw a nickel on the grass" tradition. So I didn't know if the Navy did such a thing. But over at Air Warriors there were a number of comments from Naval Aviators who flew in Vietnam who did know of the tradition.

Well, at least my kids know now.

If you visit a military cemetery.

Bring some nickels.

Just sayin'...

Another great tradition (and an awesome website).


  1. Where is Olds interred? AFAIK everyone at Arlington has a headstone.

    1. Virgil, the general is buried at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs - Plot: Section 6, Row D, Grave 34.

  2. Apparently the nickle extended to the general military, at least in some areas of the country. My dad
    was an army medic in WWII from the Battle of the Bulge to the end of the war but I never really got
    to know him as he died of leukemia before I was two. My mom used to decorate his grave at out local
    cemetery a couple of times a month and I remember asking her why there were nickles on his grave
    and some of the others and that's when I learned that was one of the ways they honored soldiers from
    the war. But I never knew that it started for pilots. Another good history lesson. Thanks!!

    1. And I didn't know the tradition also extended to soldiers. Thanks!

  3. As much as I miss that guy I never knew, that picture makes my world a brighter place. Thanks! I'm stealin' it!

    Other than a few cryptic references in tomes produced by the RRFPA, I never heard of the nickel in the grass (or ceremonial JW) until long after I'd left active duty. I learned, in part from the example of my peers and eventually to my great sorrow, to savagely compartmentalize the passing of friends and shipmates. I'm not sure there's another way to do it, at least not at the operational level where mission comes first. I don't think I'm unique in having developed a good deal of scar tissue on my heart, nor in having to experience the painful process of addressing those scars down the line. Which, in a round about way, is why that image soothes my soul.

  4. I don't think she was "Bitchin' Betty" for the Eagle. I'm not sure anyone should say "Fire Right!" with a lilt at the end.

    1. I have seen other references indicating that the lady in the video did the voice for the Viper.

      Of course, no need to say "Fire Right!" in that bird...

    2. Never flew with Betty. I'm thinking of a particular emergency, however, and how soothing it would have been to hear that voice announcing, "Firetruck.....Firetruck."

    3. Heh.

      I was just pondering what Bitching Betty would sound like on a helo. Probably just one message "OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS THING EVEN FLYING!!!"

      Or words to that effect.

  5. We used to play Oscar Brand's stuff all the time at parties at Itazuke AB Fukuoka Japan.
    It was just the beginning of our keeping out the Russian/Asian/North VN folks. Maybe

    1. Sorry, the link doesn't work. Copy and paste it if you want.

    2. His stuff is really good.

      Air Force 801... Hahaha!

    3. I looked him up, still alive at 95!

  6. Hey, thanks for the mention. And for the more in depth explanation of the nickel thing. I bet that there were many, many readers that wondered the same thing as I did, but were afraid that they would appear not real bright by asking. I'm used to it............

    And for anyone who wonders how Sarge knows I'm a him, no he has not had the misfortune of seeing me nekkid, we have had private correspondence and he knows my Christian name. I hope that sets some minds at ease.....................


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.