P 38 Lightning nose art
P 39 Airacobra nose art
P 40 Warhawk nose art
P 47 Thunderbolt nose art
P 51 Mustang nose art
F 4U Corsair nose art
B 17 Flying Fortress nose art
B 24 Liberator nose art
B 25 Mitchell nose art
Korean War nose art
Vietnam War nose art

Aircraft Nose Art

World War II

Although wildly painted squadron insignia was common in World War I, true nose art did not occur until the Second World War. At the beginning of World War II, before the idea of painting an image on the skin of a plane arose, crews of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) pasted pages from Esquire Magazine, Men Only, and Look magazine on the nose section, fuselage, and tail sections of the B-17 bombers known as Flying Fortresses. By the end of the war, there was such a demand for artists, who received up to $15.00 per aircraft, that nose art could be called an industry. The phenomenon peaked during the Second World War, but what were the reasons for this so-called "Golden Age" of nose art?

Nose art thrived in its infancy largely because servicemen had more freedom to alter their aircraft. Although the military never officially sanctioned nose art, it unofficially approved it as a morale-booster. It was a survival technique in a harsh environment. A little bit of levity and diversion goes a long way, and a measure of pride and enthusiasm comes from individual expression. Similarly, young men, who were generally under the age of twenty, could derive some comfort from images of women, mother, and home. Anne Josephine Hayward, a member of the American Red Cross Aero Club in England and a painter of nose art, challenges current objections to nose art as degrading to women or others: "Its purpose was worthy, to bolster military morale in a terrible time. The members of each crew came to feel that their plane and their painting were somehow special and would bring them luck, a safe return from hostile skies. The art may have been frivolous at times, but it was never anti-social".

The characteristics of World War II aircraft art and the fact that it flourished during that time are indicators of that era. The art reflects the attitude of the people involved in the war--both at home and on the front, and, in the case of World War II, the attitude was positive. The images--often patriotic and sometimes propagandistic--clearly reflected the spirit of the times, the all-out American effort to fight the good war. The combat crews were backed by a unified, supportive public. This was a war with a clear objective, and one in which the whole country challenged a known evil. At first look, the art that was a product of the war seems to be nothing more than silly names and irreverent images. But taken as a whole, the images indefinably suggest an underlying determination of the country to right a wrong.

There were four main cultural sources of 1940s nose art. The first was the popular men's magazine Esquire, whose calendar page was the era's equivalent to the 1960s Playboy centrefold. The most duplicated nose art images were the product of Esquire's artist Alberto Vargas. Whether a Vargas copy or a Philip S. Brinkman original, pin-up art of the day was transferred to the side of an aircraft. Comic strip characters provided another source to be duplicated. Common images of the day were Burma, Madame Shoo Shoo, and Dragon Lady, characters from Milt Canniff's "Terry and the Pirates," and Miss Lace from "Male Call," a strip he created for the troops' daily newspaper. Dog Patch and Moonbeam McSwine were two images from Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" strip copied with regularity. The 56th FG and the 47th FS of the 15th FG, known as the "Dogpatchers" had an entire series of nose art creations based on "Li'l Abner". The line between art and life blurred as professional artists Canniff, Capp, Herblock, and Sgt. George Baker (creator of "Sad Sack") contributed art work in the form of posters for the military.

Inasmuch as the American movie industry promoted the war effort and the culture was infused with Hollywood, it is no surprise that images from the movies and female stars were the inspiration for much of the era's popular art. Rita Hayworth's image from a 1940s film, in which she sings "Put the Blame on Mame," is transferred to a B-24 Liberator named "Flamin' Mamie". Hollywood celebrities were photographed in front of aircraft and with combat crews, making the connection complete. Like Hollywood, the Disney industry was pervasive in American culture and it influenced nose art in a number of different ways. Combat crews copied Disney cartoon characters because they were suitable subjects for humorous and patriotic themes. Disney's influence also included studio artists, who joined the military and then contributed their talents to the creation of nose art. Disney Studios and the U.S. government had a history of cooperation. At the beginning of the war in 1939, Walt Disney and his artists designed and painted squadron and unit insignia. Disney raised the spirit of the troops when he transformed the "once staid military heraldry format created during World War I" into inspired designs. By the end of World War II, Disney's five-man staff assigned to insignia completed over 1,200 unit insignias, never charging a fee to the military .

Another Disney effect was tied to the studio's role as producer of war propaganda. Distinct from the art painted by the crews between missions was the variety painted by Disney artists at the time of production of the aircraft. The close proximity of Disney studios in Burbank to both Lockheed's main and subsidiary plants prompted a collaborative effort between the U.S. government and Disney. Studio artists created art that promoted the country's involvement in the war as the planes came off the assembly line. Not shying away from racial slurs and derogatory commentary, this art was meant to place the enemy leaders in a negative light--"often in a much nastier light than . . . art work applied by combat crews".

As the pin-up pervaded the war effort, it naturally became central to nose art. Nose art's portrayal of women in the World War II era can be characterized as free-spirited and daring. Perhaps reflecting a freer attitude regarding sexuality in the American culture, artists during the 1940s were not subject to censure as they were in later times. While the navy and marines commonly held to a restrictive approach to aircraft markings, the army allowed room for freedom of expression. Army Air Force Regulation 35-22, of August 1944, signed by the Secretary of War, authorized decorating any air force equipment with individual designs and, indeed, encouraged it as a means of increasing morale. The farther from headquarters, and the farther from the public eye, the racier the art. For instance, aircraft based in the South Pacific were more likely to have nudity than those in England.

Korean War

Nose art is essentially a wartime phenomenon, in part because of tighter peacetime restrictions, but also because in peacetime the need for personalizing aircraft no longer exists. When World War II ended, so did, temporarily, the art. The dropping of the atomic bomb signalled the dawn of a new age, and with it Congress created a new air force, which ruled against unauthorized paintings on aircraft, except for elite units. The art did resume again in 1950 with the United States' involvement in the Korean War, but not with the same intensity it had in the previous conflict.

Although only five years later, the character of nose art changed subtly, reflecting a changed attitude of the public and soldiers alike. Unlike World War II, the art that the Korean War generated did not focus on defeating an evil, because the threat was not as real. It reflected a general lack of enthusiasm for the war. "Patriotism was replaced by the U.N. mission" . Instead of a clear enemy to rally against in the figures of Hitler and Mussolini, the country now looked to defeating an amorphous and unknown force called communism in a distant and completely foreign land. The aircraft named "The Red Eraser" bears this out.

Korea was the "first of coming wars in which men were called upon to fight, but not win for a nation apathetic or hostile to war". The mood of the country had changed to one of confusion and uncertainty about its purposes. This was reflected in the aircraft art of an anti-war tone, entitled "United Notions," and "Purple Shaft," which contrast with the patriotic still in use, such as "Old Glory." One thematic distinction from World War II was that few aircraft were named after the music of the day, because "the song titles reminded everyone that they didn't really want to be there".

Themes such as the mission, home, good luck, and women continued as in World War II, but the representation was not as eye-catching or as elaborate. New characters such as Dennis the Menace and contemporary movie stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe made their appearance. A few aircraft along with their art, like "The Duchess" from the 35th Fighter Group, survived World War II to reappear in Korea. Some names and art work, such as "Desert Rat," refer to the pilot's previous World War II service, in this case, North Africa. At Pusan, there was a twist in the old tradition, as pin-up art from Esquire was painted by a Japanese artist while the aircraft was in rework in Japan. As in World War II, nose art displaying nudity was not an issue unless seen by civilians.

While nose art of a sexual nature may not have been as common in Korea as in World War II, the images of unclothed women revealed a new frankness. Except for figures styled upon Gil Elvgren's calendar art, the depiction becomes more explicit, less romantic, and less idealized, leaving "little to the imagination".

Vietnam War


The entrance of the United States into the Vietnam conflict marks the resurgence of nose art after its abatement at the end of the Korean War. While the Vietnam war spanned the period from 1965 to 1973, nose art had a shorter lifetime, 1967 to 1970 Besides stricter regulations than in the past, units had less planes, ruling out any possibility of one pilot to a single airplane. Personal identity with the aircraft was not as strong, as a result. An exception was the 355th division in which individual aircraft were assigned to pilots, and "excellent nose art, maintenance, and morale" were the result. The tradition continued, but with some modifications.

There was a different character to the Vietnam War from previous wars and a changed attitude in American society. The personal commitment to the country's cause was often absent, both at home and on the front. This was reflected in the art, whose message centred not on the foe, but rather on the people at home. Some examples of the new themes are "Peace Envoy," and "The Silent Majority". Compare these names with "Spirit of '44," a B-17G of the 91st Bomb Group, named for crew's high hopes upon entering World War II . The art from the Vietnam era, for example "Protestor's Protector," recorded the public's negative attitude towards the war, even more than in Korea. Sometimes the attitude was shared by the combat troops, whose painted protest signs replaced patriotic messages. Indirect protest occurred in the number of works with a morbid theme, such as "The Negotiator," with the image of a skeleton in top hat and white gloves, and another with the image of the grim reaper. Death images were not new--they appeared in previous wars as well--but set in the time and place of Vietnam, the images carry the weight of irony. More often, the art avoided the subject of the war altogether with short catch phrases of the day, cartoon characters (Snoopy replacing Bugs Bunny), music, television, and the movies as subject matter.

There was a noticeable shift from an emphasis on female nudes to rock music, reflecting the country's changing attitudes about women in society. A pilot from the era believes that the change was due to the increase in the education level of the pilots, most of whom held graduate degrees, and their higher age, which averaged thirty-two years. More mature men were interested in naming their planes after their wives, children, or girlfriends rather than a movie star or a model.

Heavier military regulations against all nose art in general, and sexually-oriented art in particular, caused not only a thematic shift, but a decline in nose art overall. Nose art may have been overlooked by officials in past eras, but in the Vietnam period a more conservative mood governed the military. In 1968, the mood was set when General William Momyer, commander of the 7th Air Force in Southeast Asia, ordered the shark mouths to be removed from the first F-4Es deployed. It has been suggested that the regulation only encouraged more innovation in the application of art. In July of 1970, a 7th Air Force directive outlawed all individual markings. The urge for self-expression could not be suppressed, however, and, although complying with the order to remove art from the fighter bombers, pilots moved their nose art to the nose gear door, where it was less visible. In one instance, the order was ignored until the announcement of the visit of the USAF Chief of Staff in November.

Gulf War

After Vietnam, there was a long break in the creation of nose art, probably because restrictions were enforced during peacetime. Another factor that holds to this day, was that the transfer of Strategic Air Command (SAC) aircraft between units discourages the practice, because they are repainted each time.

From the early 1980s through 1991, nose art was on the rise, beginning with a few selected units, and expanding to all types of aircraft in the air force. Its comeback is largely due to its official revival. The resurgence actually began as early as the 1970s with the U.S. Air Force Project Warrior, which was an effort to commemorate aircraft's past history. The 380th Bomb Wing and the 509th Bomb Wing, in the spirit of the project, began painting art on its aircraft, and, although against regulations, the art was allowed to remain. In the early 1980s, SAC ruled that specific historical units could have historical nose art. In the interest of morale, in 1985 a SAC regulation permitted nose art for other aircraft with the provision that the presentation was tasteful and that there was no nudity.

Even with expressed approval, individual art was not practiced uniformly across all units. For instance, through 1992, the commander of the 384th Bomb Wing only allowed occasional naming, but no images. The controversy over nose art never dies. In 1988, the SAC commander revised the regulations yet again, authorizing the use of eight subdued colours for nose art and tail stripes.

The revival of 1985 continued through the Gulf War to today with the replication of World War II art and names. The official resumption of an old tradition served to honour the past and brought the history of specific aircraft into focus. Gulf War's "Out-House Mouse" from the 2nd Bomb Wing was named after the first B-17 to be attacked by a German Messerschmitt ME-163 rocket fighter on August 16, 1944. Other examples from World War II B-24 Liberators were resurrected in the Gulf War FB-111A fighter/bombers with "Lucky Strike," "Rough Night," "Jezebelle," and "A Wing an' 10 Prayers,"

All of Gulf War art does not replicate old subjects. It reflects its contemporary popular culture just as did the 1940s art. Celebrities of television and music were more common than those of the silver screen, for example, Elvira, portrayed in "Mistress of the Night," and the rock music group "Guns 'n Roses." After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, F-117A, F-16C, and B-52G aircraft displayed newly inspired art alongside the new generation's mission markings and bomb scores. Whether in the interest of camouflage or due to general conservatism, some of the more colourful pre-existing designs were toned down or painted over during the war period.

How do the 1980s compare with the past in terms of censorship, regulation, and public opinion? Compared to the Vietnam era, there has been more freedom, but compared to the Second World War, there is less. Crews interpreted the 1988 SAC ruling on nose art to mean that only subdued colours could be used. A revision clarified the ruling, granting freedom of design and colours with the provision that they be removed at the time of deployment. When the public learned that crews were copying World War II pin-up art, there was protest. Time magazine's story of December 5, 1988, "Bimbos for Bombers" drew negative mail. The subject surfaced in the Washington Times and the Air Force Times articles in 1989, eliciting conflicting responses. The National Organization of Women (NOW) and the National Women's History Project voiced their objections to the practice. On the other hand, some USAF pilots, crews, and artists, including both men and women, strongly defended the art.

During the Gulf War, sexually provocative art was removed before an aircraft was deployed to Saudi Arabia to avoid offending inhabitants of the area. Bikinis were painted over to became long black dresses. After the war, artists restored the images to their original state upon the request of the crews and pilots.

After the Gulf War and after the wave of negative public opinion, the military ruled against portraying women on aircraft. Nose art was removed from all 319th Wing and 384th aircraft in 1992. On the "Queen of Hearts," the name remains without an image.

Painting an image requires a more formal procedure today than fifty years ago. The crew submits its idea to the crew chief, who presents the design to the wing commander for approval. Crews still derive a sense of pride and identification with an aircraft through its name and art. Given its past history, nose art, sanctioned or not, is bound to recur in one shape or another in the future.