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Hal Olsen: Famed Nose Art Artist


For a 32-day trip on the Pacific Ocean in an overcrowded Liberty Ship most young men bought booze and cigars, not Hal Olsen. Young Hal spent $50 on a set of oil paints. His ship mates laughed at him and told him he was crazy for blowing his money on that stuff. Hal would have the last laugh though.

Trained as a naval aviation mechanic specializing in repairing autopilots, Olsen had visions of painting the tropical paradise of Tinian Island. But the realities of heavy bombing, a Marine Corps invasion, and close quarters battles soon altered that perception. Then a stroke of luck changed his fortune. Shortly after Olsen landed on Tinian, a Japanese bomb attack destroyed the paint shed on the island and with it the paints used by the resident nose artist. Olsen saw a great opportunity and did his first painting on a Navy PB4Y-1, the Navy’s version of the B-24 heavy bomber, for free. As soon as he had finished, he was besieged with pilots and crewmembers of other aircraft wanting their designs painted as well. This time Olsen charged for his work, $50 a painting, and he made so much money in his spare time that after the war he was able to take a three-month honeymoon and put himself through art school!

While stationed on Tinian, Olsen, in spite of his hectic military schedule, was a prolific painter. Over 100 pieces of nose art found their way on to PB4Y-1s and B-29 bombers. As soon as a new crew arrived on the island they found out about Olsen and had him go to work on their aircraft. From June to August of 1945, Olsen was painting two nose art pieces a day! He remembers, “I was so busy mixing flesh-tone paint, we did it by the gallon.”

Not just girls graced the fuselages of the big bombers. Says Olsen, “I was doing cartoon animals, city names, anything you could think of, including lettering.” It was so busy that a typical painting day for Olsen started at 6 a.m. and ended at noon. From noon to 11 p.m. he did his Navy job of instrument repair. “It was long days with only time out to sleep,” remembers Olsen.

Some of Olsen’s works lasted months, some just a few days. He remembers the time a new pilot came to him after being transferred from the European Theater of Operations.

“I want Lady Luck No. 2 painted on my plane; do you give a money-back guarantee if I’m shot down?” Olsen painted the requested nose art (no record of a guarantee), but the pilot was back in a month, “Now I need Lady Luck No. 3!” Olsen then asked the pilot if he thought he should change the name of the plane, but the pilot was adamant, so Lady Luck No. 3 it was. “I never saw him again,” said Olsen, “but he made it back – as far as I know.”

Some of Olsen’s nose art paintings were modified, not by enemy bullets, but by the commanding officers of the unit. After a visit to the Pacific theater in 1944 by none other than Charles Lindbergh, some units began to censor their artists. The GIs, always looking for a way to circumvent the rules, came up with many ways to appease their commanding officers. Water based paint was a popular method of censoring artwork, but crews would used whatever they had on hand. Hal Olsen even remembers one crew using mud to temporarily clad their female mascot!

So, why paint nose art anyway? As Olsen recounts,

            “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. It gave a signature to their unit. 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.”

Nose art also drew on some very old traditions. “My story really started 400 years ago, said Olsen. “Nose art isn’t new. The British man-of-war ships had female figureheads. The Norwegian and Swedish [Viking] ships had ornate carvings out of wood.”

Some of Olsen’s last creations were painted on some of the most controversial planes used in the Second World War, the B-29s of the 509 th Composite Group, the unit that dropped the atomic bombs.

Hal Olsen painted two planes in the 509 th, both were destined to be used in the atomic drops, although, not as the actual bomb carriers. Olsen painted “Necessary Evil,” a B-29 assigned to the Hiroshima mission as a scientific monitoring aircraft. Olsen also painted “Up an’ Atom” a B-29 assigned to the Nagasaki mission as an advanced weather reconnaissance aircraft. With the dropping of the atomic bombs Olsen’s nose art business was “kaput,” finished. He decided to paint landscapes of Tinian instead, although he did paint the Enola Gay after it returned from its historic mission to Hiroshima. “Nobody, as far as I know, except myself, has ever painted a portrait of the Enola Gay,” said Olsen.

Of the 100 pieces of nose art that Hal Olsen painted on bombers both big and small, only one remains today. Out of sheer luck, the Commemorative Air Force in Midland, Texas, acquired the painting in 1977 with a group of thirty-two other pieces that had been collected from an aircraft disposal center at the end of World War II. The painting is now on display at the American Airpower Heritage Museum’s Aviation Nose Art Gallery in Midland; a fitting tribute to Hal Olsen, other Nose artists, and the sacrifices of all the young men and women of the “greatest generation.”

This photo shows Hal Olsen painting . Hal originally painted "Accentuate the Positive" during WWII, he is shown
here painting "Accentuate the Positive" once again, this time for War in the Pacific's traveling exhibit entitled, "Planes and Pin Ups".


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