By Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator
What exactly is a blood chit? The term “blood chit” comes from “chit”, British slang for a note, and “blood” possibly comes from the blood downed pilots might have spilled in front of confused foreign civilians. Simply put, blood chits are notes written in local languages meant to be presented to any civilian who might be able to help a lost service member in foreign territory. Typically, blood chits are sewn into the back of flight vests, jackets, and suits, making them easy to carry and find.
George Washington created the first blood chit (though not yet a term) in 1793 for French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard was in the United States to demonstrate his hot air balloon and since he could not control the direction of the balloon, no one knew where he would land. Not speaking English, Blanchard needed a way to communicate with Americans to find his way back to Philadelphia. To aid in his safe return, Washington wrote a note for Blanchard to take with him stating that U.S. citizens were obliged to help him.
The note was so helpful that word spread and blood chits were integrated into official military use. By World War II many countries had adopted the practice; eventually offering rewards for the safe return of lost countrymen. The U.S. implemented them in 1941, giving them to The American Volunteer Group in China, called the Flying Tigers, who helped defend against persistent Japanese forces. These were a large piece of paper, with the Chinese National Flag, the stamp of the Chinese Air Force Headquarters, and the message:
“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.”
Currently, each blood chit has a unique serial number that is given to a specific serviceman. The serial number is given to track use and to prevent false claims. Today’s chits can have translations in fifty different languages. One version of a modern U.S. blood chit reads,
“I am an American and do not speak your language. I will not harm you! I bear no malice toward your people. My friend, please provide me food, shelter, water and necessary medical attention. Also, please provide safe passage to the nearest friendly forces of any country supporting the Americans and their allies. You will be rewarded for assisting me when you present this number to American authorities.”
Today blood chits are issued by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency to all branches of military service, no longer solely pilots; though very few are distributed and only to those deemed High Risk of Isolation. Although the program is now classified to protect both service members and the civilians who help, it is easy to say that blood chits are a useful tool and provide a sense of comfort for service members that could find themselves in an otherwise confusing situation.