Heraldry \’her-əl-drē\ n (1572)
Webster’s dictionary describes heraldry as “the practice of devising, blazoning, and granting armorial insignia and of tracing and recording genealogies.” This is an apt definition for the discussion of “nose art ™” and its roots. Nose art is the vernacular term for original works of art painted on the fuselages of aircraft for the purpose of individualizing the aircraft.
Since mankind first began to make weapons and armor, they were emblazoned with symbols and markings to empower the tool with special traits, powers, or simply to reinforce ownership of the item. As time progressed and weapons became more complex and countermeasures became more intricate, the perceived need for personal embellishment increased. Aviation historian Jim Farmer wrote, “man may under certain conditions be in danger of losing an essential part of his own humanity to the machine. . . many expressions found on impersonal pieces of equipment reveal an effort to personalize or humanize that equipment. . . .”
Flying Circuses – World War I Nose Art
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, manned flight was still in its infancy, but this would quickly change as military strategists discovered that aircraft made the perfect tool for reconnaissance. Soon it was found that aircraft also made the perfect platform to mount machine guns – the reign of the fighter had begun.
Pilots of the new fighter units were looked upon as knights of the air. In keeping with the idea that air combat was chivalrous, if not deadly, pilots marked their machines with striking paint schemes and personal insignia. The German Jagdstaffeln (fighter units) were some of the first to begin the tradition. In late 1916 and early 1917, British pilots came back from patrols with tales of brightly colored German planes. One of the best known is the all red Fokker triplane of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Von Richthofen’s unit, Jasta 11, became known as the Flying Circus because of its outlandishly painted Fokker and Albatros fighters.
Soon Belgian, Russian, Polish, British, and French aircraft began to sport heraldry in the same tradition as medieval knights. French pilots embraced the idea as much as the Germans, although in a different form. While the German pilots routinely chose to paint their entire plane, French pilots usually painted a name or personal insignia. French ace Charles Nungesser of Escadrille N62 had a macabre personal insignia that would normally be deemed bad luck by most pilots. Nungesser’s Nieuport 17 carried a white-edged black heart, on to which had been painted a coffin, two candlesticks, and a skull and crossbones!
When the United States entered the war in 1918, young American pilots lost no time in creating insignia for their own squadrons, devising images that reflected the frontier spirit of America – Indian heads, kicking mules, bison, and Uncle Sam’s top hat. Typical of the self-assured American spirit, these pilots created and painted the insignia without official authorization. It was not until a year after the war was over that the Army finally approved some of the creations.
From 1919 to the beginning of World War II, personal markings in the United States Army Air Corps all but died out. The squadron insignia remained, but it would not be until the outbreak of war that personal motifs reappeared. When they did, it was in grand fashion.
The Golden Age – World War II
With America’s entry into the Second World War, the rigid regulations that peacetime pilots had lived under were relaxed and nose art quickly began to spring up on aircraft in all theaters of the conflict.
A major inspiration for nose art was pin-up art, especially from the magazine Esquire. George Petty, an Esquire artist, was one of the first to find fame in “girlie art.” A commercial artist by trade, Petty began drawing for Esquire in the late 1930s. His tenure at the magazine was brief, however. Underpaid and overworked, Petty quit Esquire in 1942 to pursue a lucrative advertising career.
Waiting in the wings to take his place was a little known Peruvian artist by the name of Alberto Vargas. Originally hired to duplicate Petty’s work, Vargas, who signed his work with the less ethnic Varga, quickly outperformed his predecessor with stunningly lifelike and seductive paintings of beautiful women. By the end of World War II the pin-up art of Alberto Vargas was rivaling the popularity of the pin-up photos of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Pin-up art became so ingrained in the GI lifestyle that Glenn Miller added a song to his repertoire when he toured the war zones, “Peggy the Pin-Up Girl.”
Yet it was not just pin-up art that made its way onto the noses of bombers and fighters in the different theaters of war; nose art featured American popular culture in many forms. Renowned cartoon characters such as Elmer Fudd, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were frequently incorporated in nose art, and there was also Miss Lace, Burma, and The Dragon Lady, these figures coming from the fertile mind (and pen) of Milton Caniff, creator of the popular newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. Designed just for the troops, Miss Lace, the star of the comic strip, Male Call, was Caniff’s most popular character. Caniff described Lace as “innocent, but sexy as Hell,” and “. . . the visualization of an idea. . . a wish fulfillment for the readers. . . .”
Other topics that graced the noses of bombers, fighters and transports included names of children, wives and sweethearts, nicknames, and names that had special meanings to pilots. Even song titles of musical hits by band leaders such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller embellished military planes. “Stardust” and “Mr. Five by Five” were two of the more popular titles.
The men that flew and serviced these big planes came from all walks of life, every state in the union, and from every socio-economic background. They were draftees and enlistees there to do a job – win the war. Being so far from home and so removed from the “civilized” world created a climate where nose art flourished. Primarily a morale booster, nose art was also a way for the men to identify and separate themselves from other crews or planes within their unit. In a sense, nose art helped to create camaraderie within crews, and that camaraderie proved beneficial since each crew member depended on the other members for survival.
Morale was not the only reason nose art was painted on aircraft. Pilots are notorious for their superstitions, and with their lives on the line daily, these beliefs became even more heightened. Consequently, nose art took on a whole different meaning to some crews. The popular cartoon character “Superstitious Aloysius” adorned many bombers across the globe. Other superstition-related names, The Bad Penny, Lucky Eleven, and Number Seven, were all popular as well. Perhaps one of the more imaginative themes was based on the boomerang. Seen mostly in the Pacific Theater of Operations, the boomerang was perceived as a good luck charm for its ability to always come back to its owner after being thrown. Bomber crews took this theme and applied it to their planes hoping that it would perform just like a boomerang.
The crew of one B-29 felt the same way. Jim B. Smith was assigned as radio operator on a B-29 in the 21 st Bomb Squadron. Flying off of Tinian, Jim and members of his crew were involved in the bombing raids over Japan, including the last bombing mission of World War II. The reality of war caused the crew to name their aircraft “the Boomerang.” As Jim recalls,
“My navigator, Tony Cosola, lived in the San Francisco area at the time of WWII. Tony was visiting home just before he was ordered overseas in a nameless B-29B. An older friend of Tony's had purchased an authentic boomerang in Australia and suggested that Tony take it for a good luck piece and carry it on the B-29. The idea of course is that a boomerang always returns to the point of origin. The crew liked the idea and we decided to name our B-29B, “The Boomerang.” Our navigator, Dick Marshall, helped develop the template for the design and the nose art was painted just before our missions began. Every mission was noted on the [real] boomerang along with the date. Tony's passed away a couple of years ago and a member of his family has the boomerang in safe keeping. The boomerang was always carried in the front part of the airplane and we thought of it as good luck.”
The name and good luck charm must have worked, Jim and the members of his crew all made it safely home.
Psychologist George Klare, himself a veteran of the 100 th BombGroup, felt that the need for nose art stemmed from a pilot or crew’s need to identify with their aircraft. He writes, “Crew members on the sea or in the air wanted to see their complex ships as almost human entities with which they could identify. Especially when they faced danger, they even 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 Bigger Picture – Island Hopping
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was in a dire situation. Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the United States adopted an “island-hopping” strategy for pushing the enemy back towards Japan. The idea was to capture certain key islands using a combination of air, land, and sea attacks. Allied forces would then use the recovered territory as a home base for the next series of attacks until the Japanese islands came within range of American bombers. The plan eventually succeeded, but only after a long and difficult struggle.
In June 1944, approximately 2 1/2 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces including army, navy, marine, air force and cost guard units, returned en masse to the Marianas Islands. The Battle of Saipan began on June 15, 1944, and ended July 4th. Subsequently, U.S. forces landed on the beaches of Guam on July 21, 1944, and secured the island on August 9th. The strategy of securing Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, provided the Allies with bases to launch devastating B-29 bomber raids on other Japanese-held islands, and eventually Japan itself.
On October 12 th, the first operational B-29s of the newly formed 20th Air Force began to touch down on the dusty airfield on Saipan. Initial raids against Japan were conducted using high-altitude, precision bombing tactics that yielded poor results. In March 1945, Major General Curtis LeMay ordered a halt to these tactics and, instead, ordered strikes at night from low altitude using incendiary bombs. Carried out by hundreds of B-29s, these raids devastated much of Japan's industrial and economic infrastructure.
On 16 July 1945, B-29s of the 20th Air Force began flying 12- to 14-hour missions to Japan from bases on Guam, Tinian, and Saipan. Designed to cripple Japanese war production, the missions were some of the longest and most arduous flights ever made by United States Army Air Force airmen, but without them, the war in the Pacific may have lasted much longer than it did.