Going beyond simple lettering and pictures, airplane nose art was a form of power, good luck, ownership and a blushing reminder of home for the crews.
The practice of embellishing personalized insignias and decorations on military fighter aircraft was said to have originated with Italian and German pilots with the first recorded piece of nose art being a sea monster painted on the nose of an Italian flying boat in 1913. The idea must have taken on because around that time, the Swedish pioneering aviator, “the flying Baron” Carl Cederström purchased a Donnet-Lévêque sea-biplane for his flying school, Scandinavian Aviatik AB and similarly applied a fish-scaled motif to the craft. Cederström named it “Flygfisken” (Flying Fish).
This was followed by the popular practice of painting mouths underneath the propeller spinner, initiated by German pilots in World War I.
The advent of World War I saw great technological change resulting in new military innovations such as armored tanks, poisonous gases, increasingly sophisticated submarines, machine guns, and military aircraft. Aviation had made great strides during that time. Initially used only for reconnaissance, replacing hot-air balloons, each side sent their own airplanes to deny the enemy any advantage through the air. Armed aircraft thus became standard tools for reconnaissance, bombing raids and as flying machine-gun platforms.
In this new era of aerial warfare, pilots, who somehow saw themselves as descendants of sorts of medieval knights, became knights of the air; because, for the first several years at least they engaged largely in individual combat, as opposed to the indiscriminate and anonymous mass killing going on in the trenches below them. And like the knights of the middle ages, their airplanes were marked with distinctive paint schemes and personal insignia, in effect creating a new heraldry.
Heraldry, defined as the ‘systematic hereditary use of an arrangement of charges or devices on a shield’, emerged in mid-twelfth century Europe but could possibly trace its linage to that of the ancient Greek warriors with their insignia painted bronze shields. Often stated in its early stages to have had strong military associations, its original purpose was the identification of knights in armour on the battlefield. However, it seems likely that the depiction of arms on a shield was more a form of individual “vanity” and display rather than a practical military device.
In the Luftstreitkrafte or the German Airforce of World War 1, among the first to use personalized markings were the single-fighter units or Jagdstaffeln (literally, “hunting squadrons”). These units were also commonly known as Jastas. Jastas were not attached to any ground units but travelled as needed. They did not patrol but were mobilized in response to sightings of enemy aircraft, which they then hunted down. The Jastas defined their mission as “aggressive aerial warfare.”
While all brand new German aircraft left the factory in a standard finish with slight variation from one manufacturer to another; the initial clear varnish on both fabric and wooden surfaces had by 1916 changed to various camouflage schemes. In the Jastas, however, this gave way to a riot of colour; as pilots took to repainting their machines to their own personal preferences.
One could say that of all the aircraft of the WW1 flying aces, the best known is the all-red Fokker triplane of Richthofen, the Red Baron. Baron Manfred von Richthofen, on taking over command of Jasta 11 in January 1917, celebrated by painting his Albatros (and later Fokker triplane) red so as to instill fear into his enemies and act as a beacon to rally his men in order behind him. The pilots of his squadron followed suit – all painting at least part of their machines red – while reserving to their commander the distinction of an all-red machine. Jasta 11 became known as the Flying Circus, a nickname given by British and American pilots who saw the strange colored planes.
F.M. Cutlack’s official history of the Australian F.C., Chap. XVIII gives some insight into the origins of the name Flying Circus:
“Circus was the name given, jocularly in the beginning, to a specially selected fighting squadron which travelled from one part of the front to another, wherever offensive air strength was required…In the German circuses its pilots were crack airmen drafted from all squadrons; the British circuses were composed rather of crack squadrons, not necessarily of selected airmen,though expert airmen, returned to the front from home instructional courses or from convalescence, were frequently sent to a circus squadron instead of to the squadron to which they had formerly belonged.”
“The first circuses appeared on the German side. The name was appropriate…Circus, because it was always travelling about the front; circus, because its star airmen, esteeming themselves the elite of the air service (and they were) painted their aeroplanes with all manner of fantastic and brilliant colour-schemes. Richthofen’s Circus could for long be distinguished on sight by the brilliant red of its machines. Another red Albatros squadron, whose specialty was black tails, was known as the “black-tailed circus”. But a whole circus was not necessarily of uniform colour, and some airmen would paint their machines entirely after their own fancy “
The “flying circus” name was one only used by British and , later, American, airmen during WWI for “Richthofen’s Squadron” as the Allied airmen understood it. German personnel did not use this term, though some of them may have been aware of it through interrogations of captured Allied airmen.
At first, the term was simply “Richthofen’s Circus” or “Richthofen’s Travelling Circus”. This did indeed stem from the British notion that Richthofen’s unit travelled up and down the front to wherever the fighting was most intense transported by trains. The excellent railway network of NW France/Belgium allowed very rapid movement of troops or aircraft, to areas of activity. The notion that it was applied because of the red-colored aircraft, or bright-colored machines in general, only came about later (perhaps even after the war). The version of this term as the “Flying Circus” too, came about later – perhaps most notably in Rickenbacker’s book “Fighting the Flying Circus”.
Other Jastas soon adopted the same fashion – until few German fighters flew entirely in the original manufacturers’ finish – their fuselages in particular at least sporting their pilots’ personal monogram, or perhaps his favourite colour(s) – even if the wings remained in camouflage. A squadron theme was sometimes followed, with all or most machines decorated in similar colours, or with similar motifs – but generally personal fancy seems to have been the order of the day.
More than one pilot (on both sides) recorded that the resulting contrast with the plain khaki brown of the RFC fighters was helpful to all involved in rapidly distinguishing friend from foe in the hurly burly of a dogfight. It also may well have visually aided the accreditation of air victories claimed by individual German fighter pilots.
At the same time, the Entente powers such as Britain and France began painting unique designs on their planes to aid identification. Whereas German pilots routinely painted their entire plane, Allied pilots usually painted simply a name or personal insignia on their aircraft.
France’s second-highest scoring ace of World War I, Georges Guynemer dubbed his SPAD VII aircraft Le Vieux Charles (Old Charles) in reference to a well-liked former member of the squadron while French air ace Charles Nungesser personalized his plane with an insignia many might consider unlucky: His Nieuport 17 carried a white-edged black heart, on which was painted a coffin, two candlesticks, and a skull and crossbones. Was this macabre insignia the pilot’s way to memorialize his victims?
When the United States entered the war in 1918, American pilots, without official authorization, also created insignia for their squadrons to reflect personal ideals; such examples included Indian heads, the “Hat in the Ring” of the American 94th Aero Squadron and the “Kicking Mule” of the 95th Aero Squadron. This followed the official policy, established by the American Expeditionary Forces’ (AEF) Chief of the Air Service, Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, on 6 May 1918, requiring the creation of distinct, readily identifiable squadron insignia.
Jim Muche, for the History Channel writes:
“From the end of the Great War to the beginning of World War II, such personal markings in the U.S. Army Air Corps all but disappeared. Restrictions imposed by peacetime regulations and the ideals of a “spit-and-polish” military did not allow for such frivolity. The squadron insignia remained, but it wouldn’t be until the outbreak of World War II that personal designs would reappear.”
When they did, it was a full blown and, in many cases, intricate art form.
The Golden Age of aircraft nose art
While World War I nose art was usually embellished or extravagant squadron insignia, true nose art appeared during World War II, considered by many observers to be the golden age of the genre, with both Axis and Allied pilots taking part. At the height of the war, nose-artists were in very high demand in the USAAF or United States Army Air Force and were paid quite well for their services while the commanders tolerated nose art in an effort to boost aircrew morale. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art, the most extravagant being limited to a few simply-lettered names. Nose art was uncommon in the Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force.
Pinups go to war
Muche commented that ships of war have a long history of using the female form as figureheads to guide the vessels, and also act as a form of identification. So it came as no surprise when images of women went to war as aircraft nose art during World War II. Military service forced young men into a predominantly male environment in which such artwork served as a reminder of female companionship, real or imagined. Depending on each pilot, the images were either sentimental, provocative, or something in between.
Men at war separated from home, family, loved ones and a familiar way of life sought ways to personalize and escape the very harsh business surrounding them. For the most part they thought about women, represented on the sides of aircraft in the most tender of ways to the most degrading. These men spent many hours longing for the tenderness a woman could bring to their lives…and for the sexual pleasure they could provide. Whether top level commanders ordered it off the aircraft or not, the men let their feelings flow onto their machines.
“War Paint”, by John M. Campbell & Donna Campbell, pages 9-10
The rigid regulations that peacetime pilots obeyed were relaxed as nose art quickly began to appear on aircraft of all types and in all theaters. Both the military and the government deemed it more important to boost the morale of pilots and crews than to be politically correct. In combat, nose art was unlikely to be seen by anyone outside the military—especially important when many women depicted on the nose were often scantily clad or nude.
In some cases, women were depicted as the “the girl next door,” or as a patriotic symbol clothed in national colors. At other times, regional influences were apparent, such as a woman in a cowboy hat and boots shown with a lone star that might lead an observer to believe the pilot, or even the crew, was from Texas.
Pinup art—such as the works of George Petty, Gillette Elvgren, and Alberto Vargas, the creator of the famed “Varga Girls”—was a major inspiration for nose art, which acted as reminders of the idealized girls back home. One pinup found on many planes during World War II depicted a Vargas image of a flying woman wearing a one-piece swimsuit and a long, flowing scarf; it was titled There’ll Always Be a Christmas and appeared in Esquire magazine in December 1943.
Another source of nose art was images of film stars of the era. Betty Grable, “the girl with the million-dollar legs,” was the most popular pinup of World War II and appeared on numerous aircraft.
She was joined by such other stars as Vivian Leigh in her character portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, and Lana Turner, often dubbed “The Sweater Girl.”
Pinup art became so ingrained in GI life that band leader (and Army Air Force major) Glenn Miller added the song Peggy the Pin-Up Girl to his repertoire. One story, which has been widely circulated, though no one has been able to determine its source, tells of a young airman who, when asked by a news correspondent what he was fighting for, merely pointed to the woman gracing the nose of his bomber.
The characteristics of World War II aircraft art and the fact that it flourished during that time are indicators of that era. The art reflects the attitude of the people involved in the war–both at home and on the front, and, in the case of World War II, the attitude was positive. The images–often patriotic and sometimes propagandistic–clearly reflected the spirit of the times, the all-out American effort to fight the good war. The combat crews were backed by a unified, supportive public. This was a war with a clear objective, and one in which the whole country challenged a known evil. At first look, the art that was a product of the war seems to be nothing more than silly names and irreverent images. But taken as a whole, the images indefinably suggest an underlying determination of the country to right a wrong.
Much like ships of old, B17 bombers were given names and figureheads to personalize them and imbue them with that extra bit of added mojo. Maybe a pretty lady painted on the fuselage did no more than provide a visual reminder to crews than giving the crews a reason to fight their way through hell and back.
Maybe they personified those haunting voice on Armed Forces Radio sounding like a loved one back home, something angelic and pure and untouched by war. And maybe they were indeed angels, seeing to it that they made it back to base and provided blessing for the next day’s sortie and the next … Until that dreamed-of day came when an airman could fly at last to the real little lady back home.
Men of the Mighty Eighth
There were 200,000 US servicemen of the Eighth Air Force in England during the WWII. Based mostly in East Anglia, the Mighty Eighth, as they were known, consisted of bomber and fighter groups. According to Martin Barber for BBC News, the troops who were based in East Anglia during World War II said their lives became more bearable thanks to the talents of United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) artists who created highly personalised art for the nose cones of their aeroplanes.
Living and fighting in uncertainty and tension, wartime servicemen certainly found value in giving their aircraft names, with the practice evolving into the creation of an image to accompany the name. Benefits for doing so were self-pride and psychological fortification or security. Since men’s lives depended as much upon a well-functioning airplane as upon able fellow crew members, it is easy to understand why they personalized these inanimate machines. Gary Valant writes:
“The difference is not in the tail number…. The difference is in the imagination and talent of the crew. Few crew members would talk about 24763 or 34356, but many tales would be told about ‘Sack Time’ or ‘The Dragon Lady'”. World War II veteran and psychologist George R. Klare notes that the ground crew, as well as the air crew, identified with a ship as they would another human being, because they felt responsible for its performance.”
Thus, nose art as such became a protective symbol such as a comforting mother to the war machines that carried them in to danger. On the other end, the choice of ferocious or warrior-like names and decoration such as “Brute Force”, “Sioux Warrior”, “Hellsadroppin”, “Ragin’ Red” and “Rolling Thunder” is a ritual to guard against bad luck and to strike terror in the heart of the enemy. At its best, all the visual imagery and symbolism manifested in the art is the crew’s expression of self-pride, a release from the anonymity and uniformity of military life, and an antidote to the dehumanization of war. The images are personal icons for servicemen.
Nose art artists
At the height of the war, nose artists, be they professional civilian artists as well as talented servicemen were in very high demand. They were often paid in cash or goods–very likely alcohol–but sometimes they were paid nothing at all. Some units had talented artists, and those that did not sometimes recruited from outside. Some nose art was signed, but most of it was not. Professional artists produced more polished, but less personal work than the nonprofessional.
There were talented individuals like Tony Starcer, the resident artist for the 91st Bomb Group who painted some 217 bomber noses and Don Allen, another nose artist and crew chief with the Fourth Fighter Group, based at Debden in Essex during the conflict and became the 8th Air Force’s equivalent of Rembrandt.
Artists commonly managed with less than ideal paints, colors, solvents, brushes, and canvasses. Stories are told of working with house paints, lacquer which was hard on brushes, fast-drying jet fuel which substituted for turpentine, and plane surfaces that were burning hot.
Dr. James S. Griffith of the University of Arizona states the the subject matter of the art – particularly the sexual portrayal of women – has been a challenge to nose artists. The unclothed female figure was popular with the crews, but inevitably went against commanders’ wishes. There are several obvious explanations for the sexual aspect of nose art. Combat troops are comprised of a select portion of the population – they are primarily young, unmarried males. For the first time in their lives they are separated from home and the constraints of civilian society. Additionally, under conditions of war, in which death and wounding are the prominent concerns, moral controls relax. The farther from home and command headquarters, the more daring was the art. That this art not only made its appearance, but was allowed during World War II, suggests that war alters attitudes. In World War II especially, society applied different rules to the combat troops they considered to be risking their lives for the country. Normal societal rules fell into place when an aircraft was brought home for a war bond promotion and nose art nudes were ordered clothed. Some crews, refusing to bow to public pressure, placed the stamp “Censored” across their art instead.
“Some of them wanted outright nudes – but I guess my Eagle Scout background gave me little bit of a puritan approach. I guess I tried to keep the necessary parts covered, even though I wanted to make a tease out of it.”
Don Allen, nose artist
Since there was no canon for aircraft art, variation in subject matter and execution was the norm, expressing the extremes of human feeling and everything in between. The subject – from pin-ups such as Blondie, to girlfriends and wives such as Margie Darling -could be chosen by the pilot, the pilot in consultation with the air crew, or the ground crew.
Remarked Ron Batley, museum curator of the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts, near Diss, in south Norfolk:
“They did it to show it was their plane, their crew and painting their jackets with the same art showed they were a team. It gave them an identity and it was something they could do to colour their lives – it was a great morale booster. It was frowned upon by the top brass as it broke all the rules, but they tolerated it. You could say some of it was a bit saucy.”
Some famous pin-up nose art – “Miss Lace”
Perhaps the most famous plane of the war was Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress whose crew are now all sadly gone. The belle was Margaret Polk, a Memphis, Tennessee, resident and the pilot’s sweetheart. After the co-pilot went to see the film Lady For A Night, they agreed to name her after a riverboat depicted in the movie.
Not all the women were pinups. Bob Barnhart had his wife’s face on his plane. He discovered the artist on his base was a portrait painter in real life and the plane became known as “Margie Darling” with the caption beneath the sweetly smiling portrait – “she’s cuter ‘n’ most kids”.
Although the USAAF tried to censor and even ban nose art on occasion, the brass hats generally turned a blind eye. As Gail Downey puts it: “The crews were young. What else did those boys think about but girls and what good would it do to clamp down on it?” Douglas Bond, a psychiatrist for the 8th Air Force in England, observed how devoted to the aircraft the men became by naming them “Miss Your Lovin”, “Flamin’ Mamie” and so on. In these beloved female planes, noted Bond, “mechanical failure was akin to infidelity“. Planes that were thought to have minds of their own were called names like “Shedonnawanna”.
The girls of fantasy and reality
Save the Girls
World War II pilots and crew members lived together, battled together, and survived or went down together. A spiritual connection fused crew and craft, with nose art offering a colorful expression of esprit de corps. After the war, many planes that saw heavy use were sent off to be scrapped, and along went the decorative pinup girls who adorned the planes’ noses.
In 1946 many planes were sent to the Aircraft Conversion Company in Walnut Ridge, Ark., which was owned by George R. and Herman Brown. Amazed by the artistic and historic importance of the colorful pinup nose art on the bombers, fighters, and troop transports, general manager Minot Pratt Jr. removed 33 of his favorite panels from the doomed planes. Thinking the metal canvases might someday make a unique fence, Pratt saved the historic works, which without his intervention would have been lost to the smelting process. The panels never became a fence, but remained with the Pratt family until the mid-1960s when the collection was donated to the Confederate Air Force (now known as the Commemorative Air Force) which has put them on permanent display at the American Airpower Heritage Museum in Midland, Texas.
Today the museum, located at Midland International Airport, houses the world’s largest assortment of authentic aviation nose art including the “Save the Girls” collection, which is an official project of Save America’s Treasures.
The museum’s nose art collection includes rare gems with such risqué names as “Sack Time,” “Squeeze,” “Easy Maid,” and “Flamin’ Mamie.” One particular pinup called “Target for Tonight” depicts four women gracing the rim of a wine glass, and was painted on a B-17G by the crew’s tail gunner, Eddy Saville, who based his art on the popular swing-era tune Wine, Women and Song. Another pin-up on a B-24 titled “Hump Time,” which is full of innuendo today, actually referred to the precarious 450-mile route bomber crews frequently made over the Himalayas, known as “The Hump.”
More than 50 years after the original artists and servicemen first completed their nose art projects, the collection had suffered from improper storage that caused severe oxidation and degradation. Because many pieces are damaged and fragile, they are unsuitable for display. In 1992 a conservator assessed the collection and recommended it be regarded as rare art, be restored completely, and displayed in a climate-controlled environment. In 2001 the museum opened a 4,500-square-foot addition to showcase the collection, and an adjacent 1,500-square-foot conservation lab lets museum visitors and students see the restoration process firsthand.
It wasn’t just pinup art that made its way onto the noses of World War II aircraft. While the German Luftwaffe had a less personal approach to nose art – with entire squadrons often painted with unique insignia on all aircraft, some individual aircraft had more personal touches; and these borrowed from American popular culture such as the famous cartoon characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Bugs Bunny.
Cartoon characters were popular for a number of reasons: They were well-known and colorful, and their individual personalities could reflect a pilot’s or a crew’s outlook on life. Mickey Mouse represented the eternal optimist who could triumph over bad odds while keeping his sense of humor. (Mickey also appeared during the Spanish Civil War on both Nationalist and Republican aircraft and was a popular character on German Luftwaffe aircraft.) Bugs Bunny, the wise-cracking, slightly irreverent guy with the big-city attitude, was able to master any situation. And it was only natural that Dumbo the Flying Elephant would be adopted by aircrews flying cargo.
One of the most popular syndicated comic strips of the time was Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, set in Dogpatch, USA. When the 56th Fighter Group arrived in England in January 1943, crew members decorated the large noses of their P-47 Thunderbolts with characters from the strip. Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, Hairless Joe, and other characters became the 56th’s signature icons, setting the airmen apart from other groups entering the theater. Similarly, the 47th Fighter Squadron, which flew P-51 Mustangs in the Pacific, also carried characters from Li’l Abner and became known as “Dogpatchers.”
As Disney and Warner Brothers both made training films for the military, and also propaganda/war effort movies for the War Department, it was interesting to note that Walt Disney and Warner Brothers animators were “drafted” into the war effort to create nose art for the bombers. While Disney artists designed some 1,200 combat insignia for all branches of the United State’s military (and that of her Allies), many war-era images exist featuring Disney character designs created by servicemen in the field without Disney’s knowledge or consent. The Americans air crew certainly did not have a claim on Disney cartoons; for that matter Adolf Galland, perhaps Germany’s finest ace, had a cartoon of Mickey Mouse armed with a hatchet!
Nose art designs also illuminated individual pilots’ superstitions. A name such as “The Bad Penny,” “Lucky Eleven,” and “Number Seven” placed alongside artwork that denoted superior luck was perceived as being advantageous for pilots and crews involved in highly dangerous operations. Another commonly used and superstitious name, “The Boomerang,” was popular for that tool’s ability to return to its thrower. Bomber crews applied the name to their planes hoping it would return to base just like a boomerang.
Nose artist Hal Olsen, who served in the Pacific on Tinian Island, felt that:
“. . . nose art for the crew was a personalized reference to a piece of military hardware. You are trusting your life to the plane to get you back safely. You have to go through enemy territory . . . So nose art brought the crew together. By putting a girl on a plane, the crews felt they were protected on their way out to bomb and patrol. It inspired the crews and gave them a sense of belonging to an organized team. The main purpose, I guess, was to inspire the crews to have faith they’d be coming back.”
A veteran of the 100th Bomb Group, psychologist George Klare felt that the need for nose art stemmed from a pilot’s or crew’s need to identify with their aircraft. Klare commented:
“Crew members on the sea or in the air wanted to see their complex ships as almost human entities with which they could identify. They wanted to endow their ships with almost superhuman qualities to protect them and bring them safely back.”
The identity of their aircraft was an extension of themselves, another member of the crew, a buddy to be relied upon as the war progressed into more distant and ever more dangerous places.
The men who flew and serviced these planes represented a cross-section of American life. They came from every state in the union, and every background and profession. Nose art helped create a sense of camaraderie and pride among crew members that went beyond their mutual dependence for survival.
Sharkmouth insignia first appeared in World War I on a British Sopwith Dolphin and a German Roland C.II, though often with an effect more comical than menacing.
By the time of WW2, the ‘sharkmouth’ insignia took on the classic menacing form that it is visually known for, with larger white teeth and a wider open mouth usually trimmed in red or black. Although occasionally adopted by other units, the ‘sharkmouth’ decoration, as shown on these Messerschmitt BF 110s of Zerstorergeschwader 76, identified them as belonging to the ‘Haifisch’ (shark) Group, which became operational in spring 1940. Interestingly, there were no eyes to accompany the sharkmouth.’
The Flying Tigers
The most famous use of shark-face nose art was on the fighter planes of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), known as the Flying Tigers, that served in China and patrolled the important supply route known as the Burma Road. During the summer of 1941, 300 young American men and women secretly trained in the jungles of Southeast Asia, preparing to face the Japanese Air Force in combat over the skies of China and Burma. Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the daring exploits of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) captured the imagination of the world.
The Chinese newspapers reportedly called the AVG the “Fei Hui,” or “Flying Tigers,” and the world press adopted it as a more colorful moniker than “American Volunteer Group.”
Why tigers? Well, apparently the Chinese Republic’s national animal was the tiger. There was also the story that the shark’s teeth painted on the nose of the planes represented the tiger shark, a creature deemed unlucky by Japanese fishermen. There were some sources which attributed the name as an homage to the group’s commander Chennault’s old alma mater, LSU’s “Fighting Tigers.”
In describing the genesis of the name “Flying Tigers” and the group’s insignia, Claire Chennault, commander of the group says:
“Before I left the United States in the summer of 1941, I asked a few friends in Louisiana to watch the newspapers and send me any clippings about the A.V.G. Now I was being swamped with clippings from stateside newspapers, and my men were astonished to find themselves world famous as the Flying Tigers. The insignia we made famous was by no means original with the A.V.G. Our pilots copied the shark-tooth design on their P-40’s noses from a colored illustration in the India Illustrated Weekly depicting an R.A.F. squadron in the Libyan Desert with shark-nose P-40’s.
Even before that the German Air Force painted shark’s teeth on some of its Messerschmitt 210 fighters. With the pointed nose of a liquid cooled engine it was an apt and fearsome design. How the term Flying Tigers was derived from the shark-nosed P-40’s I never will know. At any rate we were somewhat surprised to find ourselves billed under that name. It was not until just before the A.V.G. was disbanded that we had any kind of group insignia. At the request of the China Defense Supplies in Washington, the Walt Disney organization in Hollywood designed our insignia consisting of a winged tiger flying through a large V for victory.”
Jim Muche commented that Erik Shilling (above photo), an original AVG member, was one of the first to apply the famous shark teeth to the AVG’s P-40s. Shilling got the idea after seeing a picture of a German aircraft with shark teeth. Shilling’s aircraft was unique in that it was the only plane with shark-face nose art outlined in blue; others were outlined in black. Shilling gave his reason for the blue-lined sharkmouth:
“I just used what paint was available at the time. The blue came from the Chinese crew that was painting the Chinese roundel. The red came from the guy that was painting the Hell’s Angels girl.”
Shark teeth nose-art has since been popularly embellished on military aircraft since. The tradition lives on!
The practice of placing individual victory, or kill marks—usually in the form of miniature flags painted on the fuselage—is most familiar from examples seen on fighter aircraft. A kill mark was usually located just below the cockpit of a fighter or by individual gun positions on bombers and attack aircraft.
Bomber crews also painted images of bombs in front of the cockpit to represent completed missions. Targets destroyed or sunk were represented by silhouettes of trains, ships, etc., which were usually placed under the mission markings. Kill and mission markings such as stars or bombs stenciled on the side of an aircraft are an accounting of an aircraft’s successes and perform the function of raising morale. Nose art, too, can be a record of an aircraft’s victories, but with more human emotion than a score card. Planes like “Man O’ War,” named for the famous race horse, received their names as a badge of honor.
Nose art is essentially a wartime phenomenon, in part because of tighter peacetime restrictions, but also because in peacetime the need for personalizing aircraft no longer exists. When World War II ended, so did, temporarily, the art. The dropping of the atomic bomb signalled the dawn of a new age, and with it the US Congress created a new air force, which ruled against unauthorized paintings on aircraft, except for elite units. However in 1950 with the United States’ involvement in the Korean War, the art made a comeback but not with the same intensity it had in the previous conflict.
Only five years separated the Korean War with World War II, yet the character of nose art changed subtly, reflecting a changed attitude of the public and soldiers alike. Unlike World War II, the art that the Korean War generated did not focus on defeating an evil, clear enemy like Hitler but rather an amorphous and unknown force called communism in a distant and completely foreign land.
There was a general lack of enthusiasm for the war, with patriotism replaced by the U.N. mission.
Korea was the “first of coming wars in which men were called upon to fight, but not win for a nation apathetic or hostile to war”. The mood of the country had changed to one of confusion and uncertainty about its purposes. This was reflected in the aircraft art of an anti-war tone, entitled “United Notions,” and “Purple Shaft,” which contrast with the patriotic still in use, such as “Old Glory.” One thematic distinction from World War II was that few aircraft were named after the music of the day, because “the song titles reminded everyone that they didn’t really want to be there”.
Themes such as the mission, home, good luck, and women continued as in World War II, but the representation was not as eye-catching or as elaborate. New characters such as Dennis the Menace and contemporary movie stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe made their appearance. A few aircraft along with their art, like “The Duchess” from the 35th Fighter Group, survived World War II to reappear in Korea. Some names and art work, such as “Desert Rat,” refer to the pilot’s previous World War II service, in this case, North Africa. At Pusan, there was a twist in the old tradition, as pin-up art from Esquire was painted by a Japanese artist while the aircraft was in rework in Japan. As in World War II, nose art displaying nudity was not an issue unless seen by civilians.
While nose art of a sexual nature may not have been as common in Korea as in World War II, the images of unclothed women revealed a new frankness. Except for figures styled upon Gil Elvgren’s calendar art, the depiction becomes more explicit, less romantic, and less idealized, leaving “little to the imagination”.
The entrance of the United States into the Vietnam conflict marks the resurgence of nose art after its abatement at the end of the Korean War. While the Vietnam war spanned the period from 1965 to 1973, nose art had a shorter lifetime, 1967 to 1970. Besides stricter regulations than in the past, units had less planes, ruling out any possibility of one pilot to a single airplane. Personal identity with the aircraft was not as strong, as a result. An exception was the 355th division in which individual aircraft were assigned to pilots, and “excellent nose art, maintenance, and morale” were the result. The tradition continued, but with some modifications.
There was a different character to the Vietnam War from previous wars and a changed attitude in American society. The personal commitment to the country’s cause was often absent, both at home and on the front. This was reflected in the art, whose message centred not on the foe, but rather on the people at home. Some examples of the new themes are “Peace Envoy,” and “The Silent Majority”. Compare these names with “Spirit of ’44,” a B-17G of the 91st Bomb Group, named for crew’s high hopes upon entering World War II . The art from the Vietnam era, for example “Protestor’s Protector,” recorded the public’s negative attitude towards the war, even more than in Korea. Sometimes the attitude was shared by the combat troops, whose painted protest signs replaced patriotic messages. Indirect protest occurred in the number of works with a morbid theme, such as “The Negotiator,” with the image of a skeleton in top hat and white gloves, and another with the image of the grim reaper. Death images were not new–they appeared in previous wars as well–but set in the time and place of Vietnam, the images carry the weight of irony. More often, the art avoided the subject of the war altogether with short catch phrases of the day, cartoon characters (Snoopy replacing Bugs Bunny), music, television, and the movies as subject matter.
There was a noticeable shift from an emphasis on female nudes to rock music, reflecting the country’s changing attitudes about women in society. A pilot from the era believes that the change was due to the increase in the education level of the pilots, most of whom held graduate degrees, and their higher age, which averaged thirty-two years. More mature men were interested in naming their planes after their wives, children, or girlfriends rather than a movie star or a model.
Heavier military regulations against all nose art in general, and sexually-oriented art in particular, caused not only a thematic shift, but a decline in nose art overall. Nose art may have been overlooked by officials in past eras, but in the Vietnam period, a more conservative mood governed the military.
In 1968, the mood was set when General William Momyer, commander of the 7th Air Force in Southeast Asia, ordered the shark mouths to be removed from the first F-4Es deployed. It has been suggested that the regulation only encouraged more innovation in the application of art. In July of 1970, a 7th Air Force directive outlawed all individual markings. The urge for self-expression could not be suppressed, however, and, although complying with the order to remove art from the fighter bombers, pilots moved their nose art to the nose gear door, where it was less visible. In one instance, the order was ignored until the announcement of the visit of the USAF Chief of Staff in November.
After Vietnam, there was a long break in the creation of nose art, probably because restrictions were enforced during peacetime. Another factor that holds to this day, was that the transfer of Strategic Air Command (SAC) aircraft between units discourages the practice, because they are repainted each time.
From the early 1980s through 1991, nose art was on the rise, beginning with a few selected units, and expanding to all types of aircraft in the air force. Its comeback is largely due to its official revival. The resurgence actually began as early as the 1970s with the U.S. Air Force Project Warrior, which was an effort to commemorate aircraft’s past history. The 380th Bomb Wing and the 509th Bomb Wing, in the spirit of the project, began painting art on its aircraft, and, although against regulations, the art was allowed to remain. In the early 1980s, SAC ruled that specific historical units could have historical nose art. In the interest of morale, in 1985 a SAC regulation permitted nose art for other aircraft with the provision that the presentation was tasteful and that there was no nudity.
Even with expressed approval, individual art was not practiced uniformly across all units. For instance, through 1992, the commander of the 384th Bomb Wing only allowed occasional naming, but no images. The controversy over nose art never dies. In 1988, the SAC commander revised the regulations yet again, authorizing the use of eight subdued colours for nose art and tail stripes.
The revival of 1985 continued through the Gulf War to today with the replication of World War II art and names. The official resumption of an old tradition served to honour the past and brought the history of specific aircraft into focus. Gulf War’s “Out-House Mouse” from the 2nd Bomb Wing was named after the first B-17 to be attacked by a German Messerschmitt ME-163 rocket fighter on August 16, 1944. Other examples from World War II B-24 Liberators were resurrected in the Gulf War FB-111A fighter/bombers with “Lucky Strike,” “Rough Night,” “Jezebelle,” and “A Wing an’ 10 Prayers,”
All of Gulf War art does not replicate old subjects. It reflects its contemporary popular culture just as did the 1940s art. Celebrities of television and music were more common than those of the silver screen, for example, Elvira, portrayed in “Mistress of the Night,” and the rock music group “Guns ‘n Roses.” After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, F-117A, F-16C, and B-52G aircraft displayed newly inspired art alongside the new generation’s mission markings and bomb scores. Whether in the interest of camouflage or due to general conservatism, some of the more colourful pre-existing designs were toned down or painted over during the war period.
How do the 1980s compare with the past in terms of censorship, regulation, and public opinion? Compared to the Vietnam era, there has been more freedom, but compared to the Second World War, there is less. Crews interpreted the 1988 SAC ruling on nose art to mean that only subdued colours could be used. A revision clarified the ruling, granting freedom of design and colours with the provision that they be removed at the time of deployment. When the public learned that crews were copying World War II pin-up art, there was protest. Time magazine’s story of December 5, 1988, “Bimbos for Bombers” drew negative mail. The subject surfaced in the Washington Times and the Air Force Times articles in 1989, eliciting conflicting responses. The National Organization of Women (NOW) and the National Women’s History Project voiced their objections to the practice. On the other hand, some USAF pilots, crews, and artists, including both men and women, strongly defended the art.
During the Gulf War, sexually provocative art was removed before an aircraft was deployed to Saudi Arabia to avoid offending inhabitants of the area. Bikinis were painted over to became long black dresses. After the war, artists restored the images to their original state upon the request of the crews and pilots.
After the Gulf War and after the wave of negative public opinion, the military ruled against portraying women on aircraft. Nose art was removed from all 319th Wing and 384th aircraft in 1992. On the “Queen of Hearts,” the name remains without an image.
Unlike art displayed in a gallery, but rather like public art such as murals, nose art was impermanent. In rare instances, nose art that survived World War II returned on the same aircraft in Korea, but generally, its service was limited to one war or even a single mission. It was one form of art that lived in the real world. Al G. Merkling, another aircraft artist during World War II recalls, “I guess some of my best works were lost, but I never thought of it that way. I lost buddies, not paintings ” (Ethell, p. 102). Often, even if the aircraft survived, its name changed many times during its years of service (Walker, Painted, p. 88). In other cases, the name was retained, but the art changed.
Recurring in one shape or another
Some nose art images never die, however. Even if the original art was not preserved, it was very often duplicated. This was especially true of aircraft with admirable records or remarkable histories. Ideas were often recycled from earlier eras, sometimes with adaptations. For example, the nude art from World War II was altered for Vietnam with a swimming suit or a skirt. In the spirit of continuing a tradition, 1940s art from Esquire reappeared on B52Gs and B52Hs over forty years later. The 509th Bomb wing faithfully reproduced World War II art work on their FB-111s. And, during the Gulf War, there was a resurgence of the tradition Equipoise II & Sagittarius II, drawing upon the wealth of examples from the “Golden Age” of nose art, World War II.
Perhaps the paintings’ greatest import is in the stories they tell or imply. Many photographs taken of the planes’ art have become records of the past, often identifying planes lost in missions. The numbers are stunning.
Nose art is also regarded as a form of folk art because it was an individual icon that was nonofficial and sometimes nonapproved–sponsored and undertaken by the combat crews. The painting was done off-duty and often at night, after work or combat (Ethell, p. 87). As folk art is described as inseparable from daily life, so was this wartime pastime. According to Dr. Griffith, nose art is also folk art to the extent that it represents a specific group or “folk” within popular culture, in this case, young males (especially in World War II) who are engaged in combat. Anonymity of the artist is common to both folk art and military aircraft art. Few artists signed their work. They were not concerned about personal recognition, but rather about creating a mascot for the crew. Another folk art characteristic that is applicable is preservation of tradition. There is a clear, fifty-year continuity of nose art’s content, subject matter, purpose, form, and painting materials. The artist’s ingenuity to draw from everyday materials for his medium is yet another connection to folk art.
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