An interesting piece of history walked into our doors at Collectors Coins Jewelry & Watches. What was it? Well at first, we didn’t exactly know until we did a little investigating. What we found? A fascinating tale of how coins and jewelry were used as barter to escape behind enemy lines. As coin buyers we were fascinated in researching and learning more about the history of these kits.
Anyone who thinks coin collecting is boring never stumbled upon a World War II-era government-issued bribery kit.
What a find—not just for collectors of rare coins, but also for collectors of rare wartime or military memorabilia. Barely distinguishable from a GI steel ammunition box, these sealed Escape & Evasion (E&E) kits were issued by the Department of Defense to pilots flying dangerous missions over the European theater.
If a pilot got shot down in hostile territory, or if a paratrooper missed his target landing zone … then what? The downed pilot or paratrooper might have thousands of miles of ground to cover before discovering a friendly platoon. He might have to lay low for weeks or even months, living off the land and evading enemy troop movements, uncertain of which locals to trust.
Capture might mean summary battlefield execution by hostile troops. Or it might mean incarceration as a prisoner of war—which, for an Allied POW in Axis custody, might be a fate worse than death. Axis POW camps were notorious for their lack of food, lack of basic safety, and unsanitary conditions. Some prisoners resorted to cannibalism of deceased fellow prisoners to stay alive.
While the Allies enjoyed an imperfect but more acceptable record of POW treatment respective to the Geneva Accords, Axis prison guards were scarcely less brutal to POWs than they were to the internees of concentration camps and death camps that formed the backbone of the infamous Nazi Holocaust. Torture, execution, and brutal regimes of forced labor were all too common.
British Intelligence division MI9 was particularly aggressive in the development of E&E materials. Recognizing that downed pilots would not last long on hostile territory without orientation, their E&E kits included water-resistant maps of Western European countries, as well as progressively smaller and smaller compasses. Some “compasses” were simply a magnetized needle that could be dangled from a length of cotton thread. Other compasses could be concealed in buttons, pencils, or cigarettes.
MI9 also pioneered E&E products to help POWs escape custody and survive on the lam. Escape devices were shipped to prisoners concealed as shaving brushes, combs, razors, games, lighters, books, shoes, smoking paraphernalia, and much more. POW camp guards often let these devices slip by undetected. POWs had to sneak word to Intelligence forces to stop sending E&E devices, because their bunks were overflowing with contraband that had become hard to conceal.
Allied forces also concealed “Aids Packages” containing food and survival equipment, dotted over the landscape of Axis-occupied Europe. These packages became critical survival resources, both for escaped POWs and downed pilots.
But of particular note are the “bribery kits” that the US Department of Defense issued to pilots for E&E purposes.
Bribing Their Way to Safety
Aware of the risk of pilots being shot down, and the dangers they faced if they survived the incident, the Department of Defense began issuing E&E kits like this one to pilots and paratroopers. However, they might better be described as “Bribery Kits.”
Each kit contained roughly 0.9 troy ounces of gold, in the form of coinage and jewelry that GIs could use to bribe or barter their way out of trouble. The contents of the kits included:
- One 20 Franc coin
- One 10 Franc coin
- One Sovereign coin
- Two Half-Sovereign coins
- Three gold-band rings, 9k each
The DOD had good reason to believe that these kits would be effective in helping GIs in enemy territory barter their way out of danger. Territory occupied by the Axis experienced significant economic hardship under the boot of Nazi exploitation.
In the Netherlands, where the best records emerged, overall economic activity declined as much as 14% under Nazi occupation, culminating in a famine in 1944.
Of particular value in on-the-ground bribery would have been the gold content of the coins and rings found in the Escape & Evasion kits. Germany looted the precious metal reserves of the central treasuries of the countries they occupied.
They then poured 76 billion Reichsmarks of aid into the occupied economies, propping them up with inflated currency. Germany itself sustained under relative prosperity thanks to occupational plunder, but that fell apart in the waning days of the war under Allied bombing and leading to drastic scarcities of food, oil, and other basics.
Real money was scarce on the ground—a scarcity that downed GIs could exploit by offering locals and hostile soldiers’ real currency that would explode in value if the Reich collapsed, as it eventually did.
DOD E&E barter kits were issued sealed to pilots and paratroopers and are not resealable. The gold contents are packed in slate; once broken, that’s it. The gold is out in the open. Most sealed sets were sold by the DOD in the 1980s. It is very rare to find one of these E&E kits still intact, the seal unbroken. To certify its authenticity, each E&E kit should include DOD paperwork.
For coin collectors and for aficionados of WWII-era memorabilia, a sealed DOD-issue Escape & Evasion Sealed Gold Coin barter kit like this one is a legitimate treasure. It’s a testimony not only to the dangers faced by brave servicemen within living memory, but of the ingenuity and tactical brilliance required of them to survive.
The gold contained in these sealed kits is as valuable today as it was then. Gold is “real money” and trades as currency even in times of war and chaos. Many economists and critics regard it and other precious metals as the only real safeguard of wealth in an uncertain world.