WWII bomber jacket art

Ben Marks of Collector's Weekly says, "We have published an article on World War II bomber-jacket art. One of the people we spoke to was John Conway, who co-authored a book on the topic [American Flight Jackets] and explains why these unofficial uniform tweaks were permitted, as well as where the imagery on A-2 bomber jackets came from."

“We don’t have any concept today of what losses are like,” he says. “We hear, ‘We lost six guys in Afghanistan today,’ and it’s horrible. But it’s not the same as losing a hundred B-17s in one raid, each one with 10 guys on it. That was happening day in, day out. In the old British Army, all the guys would come out of one town for each regiment. When they went to World War I, there were several cases where in one day, every man in a town was wiped out. So they stopped that old regimental system. During World War II, the attitude of the U.S. Army was, ‘Let’s do whatever we can, try to keep these guys happy, they might not be here next week.’”

Bugs Bunny and other characters from Looney Tunes and Walt Disney cartoons were particularly popular motifs with young pilots, as were the Vargas Girls from Esquire magazine. (Disney artists, for what it’s worth, designed many of the squadron patches or insignias.) Conway says we have to remember that American pop culture was a lot smaller and a lot more homogenous at the time. No one had the Internet, cable, or even a TV. The A-2 and nose art imagery tended to come from radio programs, newspaper funny pages, comic books, magazines, and cartoon reels shown before movies, which served as a common language for young Americans.

“Again, you’re talking about guys who were 18, 19 years old,” Conway says. “And this was the first place they’d ever been besides home. They tended to cling to things that were familiar to them. A lot of those guys read comic books and the comic strips in the newspapers when they were kids, and that stuff just stayed with them. They listened to popular radio shows like ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘The Shadow,’ and then they would visualize characters from those programs and paint them on the aircraft."

WWII War Paint: How Bomber-Jacket Art Emboldened Our Boys


  1. Those were interesting times, to be sure. My grandfather flew 44 combat missions as the pilot for the “Ten Fighting Cocks”, a B-24H in the 450th Heavy Bombardment Group out of Italy – the plane made it through the war so there are a number of pictures of it out there. Has quite the jaunty rooster firing a machine gun on it, and the pictures of the crew show them as rakish and handsome gents.

    Of course, after the war he came home, spoke of it as little as possible, and drank himself to an early death. Not a lot of thought was given to what happens to people when you put them in a 60,000 lb flying coffin bristling with .50 cal machine guns and loaded with 4 tons of incendiary bombs, and send them out to kill who-knows-how-many people.

    One of the only stories I have about it is when my father was a kid he saw a picture of the plane and asked his mother, “What is a COCK?” She floundered and blushed, and said, “Oh, a cock is a kind of rooster” while his dad and his buddies cracked up in the other room. He rightly suspected that something was more than it appeared, but it took a few years to learn the REAL meaning.

    1. 44 missions. Your grandfather was one of the ones who signed up for a second combat tour. The US Army Air Corp gave bomber  crew members the option of being rotated out of combat after 25 or 26 missions. Most took that option after what they had been through.

      This worked out well in the long run for the US as crewmembers who had left combat trained new air crews, so new crews were reasonably competent. The RAF had a similar program, but you had to fly 29 missions. The Germans thought more in the short term and had a “fly till you die” policy. They had some excellent pilots, but found it hard to train new ones.

      1. Yep, ole’ Edmund Ley was a career man – he stayed on to test fly jets after the war until he died around ’65.

        I had heard that the original number of missions to be rotated out was 50, but that since it was nearly impossible to make 50 missions alive, they shortened it to 25. Still kept the nickname “50 Mission Crush” though.

  2. Interesting link…great history.

    I was hoping to see more ‘sexy ladies’ but Hitler’s face on a skunks body is definitely worth the price of admission: Shifless Skonk mos def.

    I just read a good book about a WWII airman who competed as a distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, served as a B-24 bomber navigator…crashed on a rescue mission…survived on a raft for -months- in the Pacific…eventually was found by the Japanese and held in a pretty pathetic POW camp until wars end.  ‘Unbroken’ is the books name, written by Laura Hillenbrand (of ‘Seabiscuit’ fame).

    One fact sticks in my mind: during WWII 35,933 American Air Force planes were lost in combat and accidents. Yet (according to the book) “In the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in non-battle situations, the vast majority in accidental crashes”

    I can’t find the combat death numbers right now…but can anyone doubt the massive loss of life that must have taken place?  Truly horrific…on all sides.

    Let the lads paint whatever they want, wherever…

    It has been argued that no wars are ‘good’: but one of the best things America has ever done; between winning the Civil War against itself and inventing the iPad…was beating down the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese.

    Horrible as it must have been; the blood of those boys fertilized the tree of global prosperity heretofore unimagined. But it is always more desirable to pluck the fruit than to shovel the manure. Or is it?

  3. re: Disney and Looney Toon characters


    Here is a silkscreen print for my grandpas ship, the USS Aultman. It was a Navy ship under Coast Guard command that transported troops and supplies from Europe to the Pacific.  As you can see you have sailor Donald rowing GI Pluto to Tokyo.

    They made hundreds of these things for various ships, army battalions, fighter wings, etc There is a really good book out there about these prints if you want to learn more.

  4. On the British Empire side a lot of the aircrew training went on on the prairies of the Dominion Of Canada.  I saw an incredible National Film Board documentary on this program.  There was, deliberately, a rather high casualty rate amongst the trainees.  Being more careful with them would have kept more of them alive but the Cold Equations were that doing so would slow up the pipeline of rookie pilots and that would cost more, mostly civilian, lives elsewhere.

    1.  A true war of attrition, that was. Just about the most messed up thing the human soul could ever have to absorb, yet it keeps happening and somehow people outlast it.

  5. My favorite:

    “The Hump Pilots in the Air Transport Command flew supplies over the Himalayas, where the weather was their worst enemy. The camels indicate missions flown, while the camel facing reverse marks a turnaround due to engine trouble.”

    It was the first thing that caught my eye. “Why is one of the camels backwards?” Clever.

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