Fighting Colors – By Gary Velasco

Gary Velasco hard at work painting a B-25.


Throughout our human history of warfare, man has always in some manner adorned their weaponry with some sort of personal markings. From notches etched in bone, Roman chariots gilded with gold emblems, feathers tied to a spears, tat-toos, skull and cross bones flags, ships with great shapely figureheads and the great fighting machines of WWI to today’smodern day multi-million dollar aircraft.  In all instances, its purpose was always to serve as a moral booster and to strike fear in their opponents as well as ones personal identity.

What we know today as aircraft nose art began in the early years of flight when soon after the Wright brothers developed their Wright Flyier to the then U.S. Army.  Squadrons began painting emblems and insignia to tell them apart from other squadrons.  This practice led to more personal insignias and colorful camouflage schemes so much so that during WWI, fighting aircraft was so brightly painted you could not miss it in the sky.  With the likes of Baron Manfred Von Ricthofen’s bright red Fokker Dr 1 Tri-plane and Eddie Rickenbacker’s Nieuport 28, flying with the 94th Aero “Hat-in-the-ring” squadron, the life of nose art began to take shape although the term did not come in to use until the peak of the phenomenon in WWII.

In all combat theaters during WWII, there was some form of nose art applied to virtually every type of aircraft flown.Aircraft like the Boeing B-29 and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator had the amount of space available for artists to practice and hone in on their craft. They were literally flying billboards. I wonder what the enemy might have thought when making a pass at the scantily clad pin-ups painted on the noses of their formidable foe.

In the Pacific Theater (PTO) and China-Burma-India (CBI) where nose art flourished without boundaries, restrictions there were relaxed and sometimes ignored due to the fact that the absence of top brass did not regulate the artwork being applied. Squadron insignias and unit emblems were some of the first signs of art to appear on aircraft just prior to WWI.  Of course there were the national insignias on wings and fuselages along with country flag colors on the tails but as for personal badges and insignia, there is no definitive date as to when the first designs appeared.  Every imaginable type of fierce animal was used to depict the personality of the pilot and or squadron.

Perhaps one of the most universal of these designs used to rouse fear among their enemy was the “Skull and Crossbones”.  Abattle flag designed by pirates better known as the “Jolly Roger” was a common emblem. Variants of the design were used by the likes of French ace Charles Nungesser. His rendition encompassed a black heart outlined in white. In the heart were two candlesticks and a coffin between them, all above the skull and crossbones. In all theaters of all wars both axis and allied, there have been all sorts of references to death used as nose and fuselage art. In contrast, there were also very humorous examples of art usually poking fun at the opponent or taunting the enemy and in instances, at oneself.

The painting of unit insignias became a common practice on early aircraft. The paint available at the time were lead based alkyds which contained solvents like Toulene, Zylene and Acetone. They covered very well but in addition to the doping process over the fabric, contributed to weight.  As hard as it may be to believe, even the amount of the crew’s clothing can make a difference in the performance of the plane. Remember, up until the late 1930s, all aircraft were open cockpit. World War I aircraft wore a myriad of color schemes. Some practical camouflaged and others extremely outlandish which defeated its purpose.  The German Reichsluftfahrtministerium(RLM) experimented and tried just about every conceivable color scheme imaginable. For the most part, camouflaging aircraft proved to be relatively easy when seen on the ground compared to rendering it invisible when looking at it from the ground up. The trick was to try and reduce the dark silhouette of the plane in the sky. Today, we still have not been able to mask the visible shadow of aircraft when viewed from the ground up.

This practice continued on through the war until WWII. Everyone experimented and started to figure out the combination of painting the undersides of aircraft a light shade of Grey or blue to match the sky and various earth toned greens painted topside worked very well. The American equivalent to the German RLM color system was the Army-Navy Aeronautical (ANA), more commonly known as the Federal Standard system (FS).  By the late 1930s, the standard camo scheme for U.S. Army aircraft was Olive Drab (OD) for fuselage sides and top surfaces.  Neutral gray for all under-sur-faces.  Sherwin-Williams was the dominant paint manufacturer for the military and still is to this day.

As for unit insignias, the common applique were decalcomania transfers Spec.24,101dated August 9, 1917.  The name was eventually shortened to decal.  They were basically water decal transfers commonly used for models today, only thicker and larger.  These proved to be difficult to apply and often cracked, bubbled, ripped and or damaged lending itself to touching up with paint.  Acoat or two of Dope was applied to protect the finish.  There was no shortage of these decals and was economical as opposed to painting each by hand.

Prior to WWII, the term “Nose Art” and pin-up was not yet in use mostly because in the late thirties, the airbrush creators of the lavish girls, were just about to make the mainstream scene by way of print media and advertising. Often with every new decade comes new fashions and with the forties approaching, hems got shorter and bathing suits became skimpier.  Pulp fiction novels also became racier and Esquiremagazine started to print the pin-up creations of Alberto Varga Gil Elvgren and George Petty. These images became the mainstream, used in all print media and saturated a veriety of advertisements.  They soon began to appear on aircraft although it is not known when, what or who did the actual first pin-up on a plane.  The artists did not foresee the value or impact his creation would make until decades later when the fascination of plane identification became important to historians as recorded history.  It took on a new life and meaning on its own and has continued today as a tradition but will never be as flamboyant as in WWII due to (once again) top brass intervention and political correctness.  Todays airshows with flyable warbirds is virtually the only place where admirers of this forgotten craft can be seen in its traditional glory.

Between the great wars, Americans recovered from the depression and started to indulge in the finer things life had to offer.  Spending more time on nights-on-the-town and generally living it up.  The entertainment business thrived and the original “Gibson Girl” evolved into calendar Pin-up girls.  Among the prolific artists during the mid to late 1930’s were Alberto Varga, Zoë Mozert, Earl Moran, George Petty and Gil Elvegren whose works of provocative semi-nude renderings brought attention throughout the print and advertising world.  The tool primarily used in these renderings was mainly the airbrush whereby compressed air can be controlled through a small nozzle mixed with paint fed through a hose or a small reservoir cup attachment. The airbrush was held in the hand much like a pen.  It took some time to get used to the bulky object and afforded the artist the ability to make blends and soft shading possible.  Small details and lines where still done with brushes.  Not all Pin-up artists used the airbrush.  Some were determined to set themselves apart by using different mediums like colored pencil, fine oils or charcoal.

Artists alike needed “inspiration” to envision his paintings.  Enter the models.  Beautiful, voluptuous women models were hired to pose for the artist.  In many cases photographers were also hired to produce poses the artist can also use as 2-D references.  There was no shortage of these models as the pay was good and like today, hopes of being discovered as a starlett was in every girl’s mind.  In the case of George Petty, his daughter, Marjorie was employed by “dad” exclusively to model for his paintings.  Only upon request or private commissions, would another model be used.  Often, the completed piece would result in exaggerated forms to emphasize the voluptous features of the female form.

The forum for pin-ups mainly graced the pages of calendars and men’s magazines where these “cheese cake” pin-ups would inspire many service men during WWII to copy and paint these beauties onto the sides and forward fuselages or noses of their aircraft, hence the term “nose art”.  These designs were accompanied with messages, names and slogans that cleverly contained double meanings that were often perverse.  Anyone able to draw, sketch or paint was sought after to apply a design on ones aircraft.  The fortunate few artists with talent were in most cases compensated for their services.  There were exceptions where the artists modesty would not prevail and would do the work for free.  This also led to nose art not being signed, forever unknowingly identifying who its creator was.

The first year when freshly camouflaged painted B-17’s arrived in England, crews simply began naming their planes. Amidst a field of bombers and fighters that all were identical, it was easier to identify and call their own by name than by its serial number.  No one at the top seemed to object to the monikers until scantily clad female figures were incorporated with titles that insinuated more than met the eye.  Eventually this practice was done stateside as crews were being trained and readied to be shipped overseas in their assigned aircraft.

The media began its Public Relation campaigns when fighter and bomber pilots began telling their heroic stories to news reporters.  When photos of their planes with somewhat risque figures hit the newspapers, it led to censorship. The name “Memphis belle” became synonymous with WWII when its pilot, then Capt. Robert K.  Morgan, along with his crew became the first to complete the required 25 missions in the 91st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. Upon returning to the States, they began a whirlwind War Bond tour that lasted three months. Upon request by Capt. Morgan, the pin-up girl was designed by George Petty and painted on B-17 serial no. 41-24485 by Cpl. Anthony Starcer.  His nose art with the 91st BG was inspiring to other artists throughout the ETO and so the creative juices emerged as did the nose art throughout the war.

The name “Pistol Packin’ Mama” became a popular slogan among soldiers and crew when hearing the song sung by the likes of June Courson (pictured) in her appropriate outfit.  Other tunes intended to boost morale were written by Big Band and Jazz greats like Glenn Miller – “In the Mood”, “Tail End Charlie”, “Jeep Jockey Jump” and “Peggy, the Pin-Up Girl”.Listening to music on local radio broadcasts was therapeutic as entertaining ones soul.  Arelaxing way to unwind and perhaps write to a loved one from home.

Even though space was far more limited for personal markings than their big counterparts, the nose art designs were just as creative as the bombers.  The artists had to design their creations with a horizontal field in mind.  In most cases, just using names was as effective.  One would just paint the name as elaborate as he could.  This is where an artist sign painting background skills would benefit.

Early on in support of the bombers in the ETO and MTO, the P-47, P-38 and P-51 arrived in combat with the standard OD finishes.  Along with their pilots were the crews to maintain them.  Among the crew there were several artists that unbeknownst to them,  literally created an image for their groups and squadrons just by painting designs on the cowlings.  Some of the most colorful nose art groups were the Fourth FG, the 56FG, 57FG, 78FG, 352FG, 357FG and the 405FG.  Among these groups were the aces that flew the artifices in combat on their cowlings.  Again, like the bombers, as their score rose, so did the media’s attention to promote and exploit for morale purposes back home.  Often, these aces already had some sort of nose art that helped in creating the larger-than-life persona all while feeding ones egocentric personality and aiding in a sense of confidence.  All of which is needed to be successful as a fighter jock.  Oh, and of course throw in some dexterous flying in the mix.

Unlike bomber crews, the fighter pilot was alone to make his own calls.  The nose art on his plane usually was a direct reference to or about the pilot.  Astatement, message or perhaps a loved ones name.  Without knowing the individual, it is quite entertaining trying to figure out what the nose art ment to the pilot or why. Our British allies also practiced the  painting of nose art on aircraft.  Among these aircraft primarily were the Lancaster, Halifax and  Wellington.  These aircraft were coded with a letter that usually determined the name from that letter.  While the US Army Air Corps flew dar raids, the RAF bombers flew missios at night and were painted in night camo schemes – overall black with the top sides in Dark Green and Dark Earth.  The fighters like the Spitfire and Hurricane also participated in the personal decor.  Although over all, the designs were not as elaborate as the americans, they did posess a different feel for design.

War in the Pacific came swiftly on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  In light of the impending hostilities in Europe and Japan’s land grabbing of China, the US involvement of war was immanent. The Military was aware of this and had already been developing new war machines. In the Aircraft industry, Curtiss, Grumman and Boeing had their early respective designs in use with the US Army Air Corps, Naval and Marine services. They were primarily the P-40, F4F and B-17.  During the next two years, designers caught up to our counterparts and emerged with the P-47, P-51, P-38, F4U, F6F, P-61, B-25, B-26, B-24/PB4Yand ultimately the B-29. As crews learned the characteristics of their machines, names were being painted on the noses which led to more elaborate and provocative art work.  In contrast to the brashness of the designs compared to their European comrades, was simply the fact that in the pacific where island hopping and isolated airstrips did not require top brass to be present and therefore were not restricted to censor the nose art being applied.  As the larger B-24s and PB4Ys ( the Naval/Marine variant of the Liberator in VB and VPB groups) became the backbone of the fifth, seventh and thirteenth Air Forces, nose art of some sort adorned the forward fuselages of the bombers.  They presented a billboard-like canvas to which larger than life female forms were the choice IF the squadron had a talented artist to execute the task.

That was fine and dandy for the bomber squadrons, but on the Naval carriers and Marine held island based fields, had a strict adherence policy to keep the aircraft clean and devoid of and such “graffiti” nose art.  While this applied to the majority of the pilots, exceptions were the aces and heroes of the moment.  As long as it was kept simple small and tasteful, the CO would look the other way.  Squadron insignias and scoreboards were allowed albeit approved by the upper echelon. The Navy’s leading ace Cmdr. David McCampbell, CO of Air Group 15 aboard USSESSEX had the name MINSI painted on all his F6Fs.  Lieutenant Richard Stambook of VF-27 flew his F6F-3 with a stylized shark mouth and blood-shot eyes on the cowl.  Junior Grade (Jg) Alexander Vraciu of VF-6 aboard USS INTREPID had two small insignias, the name GAD-GET and his scoreboard just forward of the cockpit.  There were even fewer examples of F4F Corsair carrier based aircraft nose art.

Later in the war when the even larger  B-29 arrived, artists were challenged to paint the surfaces with clever nose art. With the advent of air superiority, bombers were stripped of camouflage or got brand spankin’ natural finished aluminum aircraft.  This presented a problem with certain colors not showing up against the shiny finish.  So the dominant color for names used was red with a black outline.  From a distance, this color “popped” from the glare. It is, in my opinion that the creative license in nose art peaked at the end of the Pacific campaigns in 1945. Since then, none has matched the look of this unique record of American folk art. Walt Disneyand company became one of the greatest contributors of WWII. With the help of his artists utilizing his familiar cartoon creations, Disney produced war training films, insignia, movie trailer shorts in support of the war and poster ad campaigns to name a few.  This led to the hiring of a full time staff devoted to creating insignia for the war department.

Among the famous was the creation of the AVG Flying Tiger insignia. The China Defense Supplies in Washington, D.C.,contacted the Walt Disney office and put in a special request to design an insignia for the AVG.  The tiger replaced the dragon as China’s national symbol and a final design was rendered by Roy Williams and Hank Porter at the Disney studios.  The design was made into large decals with left and right images that were ment to be affixed to the fuselages of their P-40s.  It wasn’t until after Christmas 1941 that the “Tiger” decals  started to appear on the Shark-mouthed Tomahawks.

Another famous design was the RAF Eagle Squadron insignia designed in 1940. there were many adaptations of this design that is still in use today in a variety of media. Fortunately for the Lockheed Vega plant, the Disney studios was right next door in Burbank and whenever the artist had free time would stop by and paint cartoon characters on the noses and fuselages of various planes that came off the assembly line like the PV-1 Venturas.  The bulk of the characters were Donald Duck and friends. Occasionally a new character was created. One such Toon was  Strato-Sam, a Lockheed worker that always had a pithy slogan against the axis.  Soon after came Kid Vega, an eager young naval ensign. Several of the known PV-1 squadrons that had Disney art were VP-131, VP-45, VP-17 and VP-30.  Some of the Venturas went to the RAF in a lend-lease program.

The majority of the bombers in the pacific and CBI were comprised within eight air forces.  These were; 5th AF in New Guinea and Australia, 7th AF originally based in Hawaii covered central pacific but also supported other theaters.  The 10th AF went to cover China- Burma-India (CBI), 11th AF defended the Aleutains and Alaska, 13th AF went to the South Pacific islands including the Solomons.  The 14th AF under General Claire Chennault also operated in the CBI,  20th AF in January 1944, mainly B-29s pushed toward the Japanese homeland from island based groups.  Finally, the 6th AF, although not in the pacific, controlled the Panama canal and Caribbean territories.

In the last two years of the war, nose art designs peaked.  Some of the best nose art came from the pacific theater. Many of these artists were not known because they simply did not sign their name by the finished art work and first hand accounts of the personnel who knew the artists are too few.  It seems that when the camouflage was finally stripped and shiny new bomber aircraft arrived in natural aluminum finish, the artist were faced with a new challenge to use colors that would not get lost from the glare when viewed from a distance.  Since the natural metal finish is basically black and white tones that make up many shades of gray, the dominant color that stood out the best was red.  So this became the widely used color for lettering on aluminum finishes usually outlined in black.  To add difficulty in color coordinating, the aluminum surface reflected light much like a mirror which would clash with the art and make it difficult to see from certain angles. With regards to Naval and Marine aircraft, the camouflage colors remained as; Top surfaces – Non-Specular Sea Blue ANA 607 or Semi-Gloss Sea Blue ANA606, Fuselage sides – Intermediate Blue ANA608 and Under surfaces – Non-Specular White ANA511.  These aircraft ranged from the PBJ, a B-25 variant, the PB4Ywhich is a B-24 and later the PB4Y-2 Privateer which was a B-24 lengthened by seven feet and with a single tail.

It is also noted that in the last few months of the war, some B-24Ms and B-29s had their under surfaces painted in gloss black. The purpose for this was conducting night missions and anti-submarine/mine missions.

The trials and tribulations of war were about to commence as our history records brave young men barely out of high school pursue their destinies. The art of war known as “nose art”, also ensued and helped fight their battles despite the arrogance of the enemy. Many sign painters and artists soon put their skills to work and created thousands of notable examples of nose art paintings on aircraft unbeknownst that in future generations would help record in identifying the individual role of the aircraft’s history.

For more information on Gary Velasco visit his website

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