In 2003, the United States military developed special decks of playing cards to help identify the most wanted Iraqis from Saddam's regime, but the concept of using this device as a training aid is not new. It dates back at least to WWII, when cards with aircraft silhouettes were produced to aid in civil defense and particularly to assist civilian spotters in identifying Allied and Axis planes.
I have a complete deck of early war spotter cards in very fine condition, yet another gift from my Great Aunt Margie, who during the war and for decades afterward was an aviation securities analyst with Scudder, Stevens & Clark, Investment Counsel.
The cards were produced by the U.S. Playing card company of Cincinnati, Ohio, with the familiar "blue bicycle" design on the back. The front of the cards show a head on profile and either a side view or the view from below, all in silouette as an observer would encounter them. Later editions showed all three siloutettes. Each suit represented the aircraft of one of the warring powers, and appear to have been assigned and selected for their propaganda value as well. The Japanese are clubs, the lowest value, basest suit. The Germans are diamond hard and bloody. The plucky British are hearts, and the top suit, the Spades, are the Americans. I can detect no such hierarchy in the assignment of individual planes to the value of the cards, however, and high cards are just as likely to be fighters as bombers.
"This special pack of spotter playing cards has been prepared to assist you in learning the characteristics of United Nations and Enemy Aircraft. While the primary purpose of these cards is to show you how one type of airplane can be distinguished from another, we have by adding regular playing card indexes, created a combination, entertaining as well as educational. As playing cards, they may be used for all games where a conventional pack is required, such as Bridge, Poker, Hearts, Black Jack, etc. Howver, in order to take full advantage of the special face arrangement, it is suggested that during the course of play the different airplanes be carefully observed and their peculiarities mentally noted. Thus you will be acquiring information of extreme value whether you are a soldier or a civilian, with or without direct appointment as Aircraft Spotter in your Civilian Defense Organization..."
The cards do not appear to have been played with, although the box shows slight wear, but perhaps they were consulted for their educational value as the manufacturers intended. The deck came to me piled in among Mahjong sets and board games from Margie's summer home on the Jersey Shore, where there would have been blackout curtains along with the victory garden, and eyes turned to the gray Atlantic horizon in anticipation of more than just the sunrise.