Favorite Finds: Luminous Disc

Eager seller humorously claimed item was a 'cyanide tablet.' In reality it is was a luminous disc from a WWII paratrooper's helmet
Author:
Updated:
Original:

by Joseph D. Gray

During WWII, US troops used luminous disks for marking personnel, equipment, bridges, etc. They were filled with radium which constantly gave off weak, green light due to its radioactivity. Luminous discs were issued on a very limited scale to paratroopers (like these of the 101st Airborne) who were about to make the jump at Normandy during the D-Day invasion.

During WWII, US troops used luminous disks for marking personnel, equipment, bridges, etc. They were filled with radium which constantly gave off weak, green light due to its radioactivity. Luminous discs were issued on a very limited scale to paratroopers (like these of the 101st Airborne) who were about to make the jump at Normandy during the D-Day invasion.

About 20 years ago, I was at an auction when I was approached by a local “picker” from whom I had purchased militaria in the past. He was acting kind of twitchy and sort of looking over his shoulder.

“Are you still buying that military stuff?” he asked.

“Yes. What do you have?” I answered.

Still looking around carefully, he kind of whispered, “A cyanide tablet!”

“Where is it?” I asked.

“In my car.”

We then strolled out to the auction house’s parking lot.

He reached into the car and produced a small khaki-colored cloth “envelope” that held a glass disc riveted to a metal disc with a smaller white disc about an inch in diameter sandwiched between them.

“You think that’s a cyanide tablet?” I inquired.

“Yeah. It says poison right on the back!”

Indeed, it did, so I asked, “How would you get it out?”

“Break the glass.”

“But how would you swallow something that big?”

“Oh, you just break a small piece off,” he pointed out.

I said, “Okay,” before asking what he wanted for it. I paid his price: $40.

I thanked him and asked him to keep me in mind when he had other militaria to sell.

Not a cyanide tablet as the seller described, but rather, a WWII luminous, radioactive disc used for identification purposes.

Not a cyanide tablet as the seller described, but rather, a WWII luminous, radioactive disc used for identification purposes.

As I walked away, I chuckled to myself because the “cyanide tablet” I had purchased was actually a luminous disc worn on the helmets of US paratroopers when they jumped at night. It has a metal clip on the back used to attach it to the helmet net or camouflage cloth cover.

When the troops saw another white disc floating in the dark, they knew it was a friend and not a foe.

There are several types of discs that the Americans used in WWII. This one is a “clip-on” style that could fastened to a soldier’s uniform or gear using the spring-loaded clip on the reverse or by tying, use the holes on either side. 

There are several types of discs that the Americans used in WWII. This one is a “clip-on” style that could fastened to a soldier’s uniform or gear using the spring-loaded clip on the reverse or by tying, use the holes on either side. 

It turns out, the cloth “envelope” is harder to find than the disc itself.

This is one of my favorite items because of the great story that came with it!