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Time Passages: Military plane nose art peaked in WWII

I’m not a pilot, but I’ve always enjoyed airplanes, especially military aircraft and in particular, WWII era planes.

Some of my favorites are the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, P-51 Mustang and British Spitfire among others.

Bombers are in the news again now as they strike ISIS targets in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. I imagine some of the pilots that I watched while working at a golf course during the winter months next to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona as they trained in F-16 Falcons might be flying some of those missions.

One of the first books given to me as a Christmas present from my mother back in the early 60s was one entitled, They Flew To Fame. Over 55 years later, I still have that book in my library. I have a permanent reminder of her handwriting when she wrote my name on a page of the inside cover. Today, when a plane flies overhead I still stretch my neck to get a view of it and if you are a WW II movie fan, Gregory Peck in “12 O’clock High” ranks among the classics.

Now that we’re approaching Veterans Day this month, you’ll notice the special section in this edition of Sr. Perspective dedicated to veterans. So, it’s a good time to write about the history of military plane’s nose art and how it became a significant and sometimes controversial tradition.

During WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf Wars, colorful images have appeared on nose sections of American military aircraft. Nose art often personalized a plane for its brave crews, who most of the time named the plane and created the artwork to give the plane its own identity.

But before the idea of painting images occurred, squadron crews would paste pages from magazines on the nose section, fuselage and tail sections of B-17 bombers. Later, artists painted images on planes and usually received up to $15 per aircraft.

The military never endorsed the artwork but unofficially approved it as a form of boosting morale for crews who attempted to survive their dangerous bombing missions over the skies of Europe. Think about this sobering statistic: The total of B-17 and B-24 bombers that didn’t return from combat operations came to a staggering number of around 3,832.

In all, 43,000 planes were lost overseas during WWII, including 23,000 in combat. The losses amounted to about 170 planes per day. In August 1943, 60 B-17s were shot down among the 376 plane losses that month. That meant a lot of empty bunks back at home bases, as most B-17s carried 10-man crews.

Most of the nose art images were of young women, and some of it included nudity. Some believed it was degrading to women while others said the purpose was justified for the airmen during a terrible time in air combat operations.

For example the Memphis Belle was one of the first B-17s to complete a tour of duty with 25 missions in the 8th Air Force. B-17s carried 17 Medal of Honor recipients during the war, of which 11 were awarded the medal posthumously.

There were several actors and sports figures who flew combat missions, including Academy Award-winner Clark Gable who was a waist gunner on the B-17 Eight Ball while former Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry piloted 30 missions in a B-17. Landry lost his older brother, Robert, who was killed in a B-17 crash during the war.

The images of nose art were also humorous, patriotic and sometimes propagandist. Disney and comic book characters were yet another source of art like “Lil’ Abner” were copied regularly.

The movie industry played a role in nose art too. It’s no surprise that Hollywood female stars were big inspirations. Rita Hayworth who was transported on a B-24 named “Flamin Mamie” after a song she sang in the 1940s film Put The Blame on Mame.

Harold Johnson, 92, of Fairfax, was a B-24 Liberator waist gunner who flew two missions in a plane named Chaos and Confusion over France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, for a total of 12 hours, 25 minutes of airtime. He completed 30 combat missions and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest-ranking medal from the Air Force for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight during the European theater of operations.

Harold was with the 446th Bomb Group, 706th Squadron, 8th Air Force and he told me the story of how his plane got its name. It seems the boys went to an English pub one night, and when the crew walked in the door, the barmaid announced: “Here comes chaos and confusion.” and the name stuck with the airmen and plane.

Nose art returned again on planes during the Korean War but not to the extent of what it appeared on WWII aircraft. One of the most interesting pieces of nose art was called The Red Eraser in reference to defeating communism. Some of the other nose art characters on Korean war planes included new characters like Dennis the Menace and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell.

Vietnam nose art reflected a different political attitude toward the war. Some examples of the new themes were The Silent Majority, Peace Envoy, or Protestors Protector. There were a lot of death images too with the Grim Reaper or skeletons on The Negotiator. Snoopy nose art or rock music themes were also prevalent.

Gulf War aircraft replicated some of the WW II nose art but not all were reproductions as contemporary pop culture were common themes as well as in “Mistress of the Night” or the rock music group “Guns and Roses.”

The Century of Flight website says that during the Gulf War sexually provocative art was removed before aircraft were deployed to Saudi Arabia to avoid offending religious beliefs. And, bikinis were painted over to become long black dresses. After the war, the original images were restored upon requests of crews and pilots.

But, times have changed. The military has ruled out portraying women on aircraft and painting any kind of image now requires more formal procedures than during the dark days of WWII.

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