A well-known English-language proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This proverb has been proven to be true countless times, but WWII is perhaps the best real-life example of necessity birthing new and creative inventions. For those of you who regularly read the Mercury One blog, the March 21st Mercury Moment about our rat bomb might have just popped into your mind, but don’t fret! This week we’re exploring a different (and less scary-looking) WWII invention called a cricket.
Although this invention is colloquially called a cricket, it was never alive, nor does it actually have anything to do with an insect. Instead, these crickets were made from brass or nickel-plated brass and consisted of two small plates hinged together to make a “click-clack” sound when squeezed and released. These crickets were originally used before WWII by band and orchestra conductors to keep a steady tempo. Maxwell Taylor, the ingenious Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, repurposed these crickets for his paratroopers.
The 101st Airborne Division was made up of skilled soldiers who specialized in parachuting into designated locations during missions and operations. Frequently this meant that these units would be scattered during their initial drop, and separated paratroopers found themselves isolated behind enemy lines. Further increasing the difficulty, these missions often began in the early hours of the morning when it was still pitch-black outside. In situations like these the units would need to regroup before they could continue with their mission, but calling out for fellow paratroopers behind enemy lines was risky, to say the least. Let’s say you’ve just parachuted into Normandy and you’re trying to figure out if the distant shadowy figure is a fellow American, you yell in their direction “Hey Joe! Is that you?” In the worst-case scenario, he yells back “Nein!” and you have a split second to grab your gun and hopefully shoot the German enemy before he can shoot you. Even in the best-case scenario, in which you did successfully find your buddy Joe, any German enemies within ear-shot just heard two English-speaking Americans shouting to each other in a Nazi-occupied territory. Either way, the situation probably doesn’t end well, and the 101st Airborne was well-aware of this issue.
During WWII colored smoke, flags, and flashlights were all used as non-verbal means of identification by paratrooper units, but the 101st Airborne Division was the first unit to make use of the cricket. By using the crickets, these paratroopers had an easy way to non-verbally communicate behind enemy lines. A paratrooper would initiate the call by clicking the cricket once, and whoever they were calling out to would indicate that they were also American by responding with two clicks of the cricket. If the paratrooper initiating the call didn’t get the two-click response they knew the person in the dark was an enemy.
Although there is conflicting information about how widely the crickets were used and which divisions used them, it is well documented that crickets played an important part of the D-Day Invasion that took place on the beaches of Normandy. Each member of the 101st Airborne Division was issued a cricket before parachuting into Normandy very early in the morning, and the paratroopers were instructed to use the crickets to locate each other in the dark once they had safely landed. Private Don Lassen was one of the paratroopers who used a cricket on that fateful day, and he remembers the importance of that device from his first-hand experience. In a 2014 interview Lassen explains, “When I landed at about 2 AM, it was darker than pitch. I was totally alone in a field, and tracers* were going all around me. I couldn’t find anyone, so I went over to the nearest cover I could find, a hedgerow, and I heard someone coming. I waited for the sound to get closer because I wanted to be sure that whoever it was would hear my click. As the sound got closer and closer I finally clicked. Sure enough, the person approaching me, someone from the 101st as it turned out, clicked his cricket and we both were OK.”
These crickets were undeniably important to many men on D-Day, and Mercury One is extremely lucky to have access to this original piece of WWII history. Although replicas and reproductions of these crickets are easy to find, the original crickets from 1944 are very rare because the vast majority were discarded on the beaches of Normandy once the sun rose and paratroopers could identify each other by sight.
* In this context “tracers” refers to tracer ammunition, which contained chemically reactive explosive materials that ignited upon being fired and created a visible, brightly-colored trail following the path of the bullet. This type of ammunition was common in WWII and is still common in military settings because it allows the person firing the gun to see where they’re aiming when it’s dark outside.
Below is a picture of an original cricket from WWII from the WallBuilers collections. Check out more information on the cricket at https://wallbuilders.com/wwii-crickets-normandy/.
Support Mercury One and their initiatives to provide humanitarian aid and education and to restore the human spirit by clicking here. Together, we can make a difference.
Mercury One is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions in accordance with Internal Revenue Code Section 170. No goods or services were provided by Mercury One in exchange for your donation. Mercury One, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Federal Tax ID #45-3929881. Your donation may be considered tax-deductible. Please consult with a tax attorney or an accountant for specific guidance.