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Through Our Parents' Eyes
 

Military Aircraft Nose Art: An American Tradition

Snake Eyes
Snake Eyes

Living in uncertainty and tension, wartime servicemen found value in naming their aircraft. During World War II, the practice evolved into creating an image to accompany the name. Two of its benefits were self-pride and psychological fortification. 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'" (Valant, p. 9). 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 (Ethell, p. 13).

Nose art has been credited with increasing morale in dismal times. Men in combat found security in attaching the name and image of a well-known personage such as Rita Hayworth, or a protective symbol such as mother to the machines that carried them in to danger. The choice of ferocious or protective names and decoration -- Brute Force, Sioux Warrior, Hellsadroppin, Ragin' Red, & Rolling Thunder -- as well as the Flying Tigers' shark toothed mouths, is a ritual to guard against bad luck and to strike terror in the heart of the enemy (Ethell, p. 14). At its best, 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 (Cohan, p. 70).

Part of aircraft art's attraction for crews has been its slightly illicit nature. For the most part, even though nose art may be unofficially condoned, it was undertaken with the knowledge that there are regulations against decorating military equipment with anything but officially sanctioned markings. Official markings include national insignia (the white star within the blue circle denoting the American Army Air Force), service and squadron icons such as a coiled cobra, and unit insignia, such as the black crow insignia of the Army Air Corps 27th Pursuit Squadron (Dorr, pp. 9-13). According to Robert Dorr, it was always "a struggle between uniformity and individualism," a battle between the pilot who wanted to identify his plane and the "Top Brass" who wanted conformity to signify precision and discipline (Dorr, p. 9). Not just nose art, but even some squadron icons such as the skull and crossbones of the "Jolly Roger" VF-17s went against orders (Dorr, p. 13).

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 (Ethell, p.15).

Inspiration for aircraft art came from a wide range of sources. The most common was the woman's image--from pinup to portrait--and, although not all was sexual in nature, much of it imitated Hollywood and the media's current fashion. Other art and names were derived from concepts of patriotism -- Yankee Doodle II, Douglas MacArthur, & Stars and Stripes, -- and heroes ("Ernie Pyle"), hometowns -- City of Merced & Miami Clipper II -- ("Memphis Belle"), mother ("Enola Gay"), American popular music, movies (Humphrey Bogart's "The Big Sleep"), sports, and comic-strip characters. Some art related directly to war: good luck symbols -- Ace in the Hole, Superstitious Aloysius [readmore about Superstious Aloysius] , Snake Eyes, & High Roller, -- the enemy ("Axis Nightmare"), the unit's mission and locale, ("Coral Princess" was based in the Pacific), an event, from the history of that particular aircraft ("Swamp Angel"), and, inevitably, the morbid "Grim Reaper:" Specter & Damage, Inc.

Inventiveness and a sense of humor -- Special Delivery II & Wild Thing, -- were desirable characteristics, providing a balance to the tedium and seriousness of the combat soldier's experience. Ideas arose from military life, such as the World War II aircraft "Prop Wash," a joking term well-known to enlisted personnel (Valant, p. 155). Sometimes, personalization took the form of a private, name or image understood only by the crew. An aircraft from the Gulf War, whose crew chief was learning the auctioneer's trade, was named "The Auctioneer" (Walker, More p. 86). Punning and double entendres were especially popular. The name "Valiant Virgin" merged the two subjects of women and war for a pun on keeping the integrity of the aircraft (Davis, v. 1, p. 5). Similarly, "Miss Hap" was named for the commander of the Army Air Forces during World War II, General Hap Arnold (Davis, v. 1, p. 64).

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 could be chosen by the pilot, the pilot in consultation with the air crew, or the ground crew. Men and women artists ranged from nonprofessional to professional, but most were enlisted. 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 (Logan, p. 2). The canvasses varied in size; paintings on B-29s--the Superfortress--were larger than billboards (Valant, p. 10). 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 (Ethell, pp. 87-91, 99). Artists had to be inventive. Rusty Restuccia, an artist at Angon during World War II, created his colors from beans grown on the island (Ethell, p. 110).

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.

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 (Walker, More, pp. 12, 25). 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. The captions that accompany the photographs allude to an untold history and a tremendous loss of life. One B-17 that began service on March 12, 1944 was "declared beyond repair January 30, 1945"; three wounded gunners are pictured with another described as "just a series of holes held together by some metal" after a large raid; "Patches n' Prayers" began service February 22, 1944 and was lost April 18, 1944; "Better Do'er" began service February 1, 1945 and survived the war; "The Floose," had over 100 missions when it was destroyed in a wheels-up landing (Valant, pp. 28-60).

The photographs may not reveal the whole story, but they hint at the large number of planes and crews that never returned. Because of the photographs nose art generated--pictures taken of the crew in front of their planes--the art indirectly personalizes the military war effort, allowing civilians and servicemen alike to identify with the people engaged in it. One readily recognizable waist gunner in the 8th Air Force, Clark Gable, proudly stands in front of his B-17, "Delta Rebel #2," which was later lost in 1942 on a mission (Valant, p. 30).

Kill and mission markings -- painted emblems 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 often all that remains as a reminder of the past because the paintings are sometimes preserved when the rest of the plane is scrapped. The most famous B-29 from the Korean War, the 28th Bomb Squadron's "Command Decision," will be remembered because its fuselage has been preserved and is exhibited at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio (Davis, v. 2, p. 43). The largest collection of World War II nose art--panels from scrapped aircraft at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas--is housed at the Confederate Air Force Museum in Harlingen, Texas.

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.