by Ed Unrau
Ever since men first went to war in airplanes, they have felt the need to decorate their mounts with unofficial and personal markings. Often frowned upon by authority, these colourful decorations have in turn been inspiring, emotive, aggressive, humorous, cynical, brash or even tasteful.
From Nose Art: 80 Years of Aviation Artwork by J.P. Wood
In the 1990 movie, Memphis Belle, the pilot leaves the aircraft hangar where a squadron dance is taking place, and walks over to the front of the Belle where he has a one-way, heart-to-heart chat with the B-17 under his command.
What is striking about the scene is not the pilot’s soliloquy, but the nose art painting of pin-up gal, Memphis Belle. The pin-up dominates the scene, taking up three-quarters of the frame and is held on-screen for approximately 90 seconds – a very long time for a movie – while the pilot talks to the B-17 as if it were a living person, giving us an insight into the powerful bond between man and machine.
Books on nose art do not spend much time exploring the psychological basis for aircraft decoration. But one could reasonably argue that the art gives each plane a personality, thus setting it apart from all the other craft that came down the same assembly line. Further, one can speculate that nose-art images were morale-boosting, good-luck charms. George R. Clare, a psychologist and a Second World War B-17 veteran, suggests that crewmembers wanted to see their machines “as almost human entities with which they could identify. Especially when they faced danger, they even wanted to endow their ships with superhuman qualities to protect them and bring them safely back.”
Clare also writes: “Equally, if not more important, nose art and names made it possible for airmen to identify somewhat more readily with each other and feel pride and confidence as a crew.” (Clare writes this in a chapter of Aircraft Nose Art: From World War I to Today.)
An observation by RCAF pilot Jack McIntosh supports Clare’s essay: “The name and nose art made it feel she was ‘our’ aircraft and would always bring us home.” (McIntosh’s comment is posted on the website of the Nanton Lancaster Society, Nanton, Alberta.)
The nose art concept is not unique to airmen and aircraft. For example, sailing ships were outfitted with elaborate carvings on the bow; owners of specialty sports cars spend hundreds on detailing their vehicles with unique paint jobs; and long-haul truck drivers do the same with their tractor-trailers.
According to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, nose art “is a decorative painting or design on the fuselage of a military aircraft, usually located near the nose, and is a form of aircraft graffiti.”
Books on nose art trace its origins to the First World War, citing the practical reason that some visual markings were needed to separate friendly craft from foe. The first symbols were formal and were variations of national colours and icons already in use. These identifying symbols, typically painted on the tails and fuselages of aircraft, where soon joined by other markings indicating the number of missions and “kills” completed by the aircraft as well as other drawings expressing personality.
It did not take long, however, for nose art to become more elaborate. It’s not hard to see why – the skins of aircraft, especially bombers, are vast open areas that are begging for paint and to become part of a work of “art.”
While nose art examples can be found on civilian aircraft, the phenomenon finds its best expression on military aircraft in time of war, with the Second World War being considered as its “golden age.”
It is not always clear in nose art books whether the practice of decorating the sides of aircraft with pictures and words had official approval. However, the proliferation of nose art, sometimes quite elaborate, during the Second World War provides ample evidence that any rules limiting or forbidding unofficial markings on the aircraft skins were not enforced. Although there are nose art examples arising from the conflicts since then – notably Korea, Vietnam – there is also evidence that during these conflicts that the regulations governing nose art were enforced because it interfered with camouflage. The Gulf War of 1991 saw a great revival of classic nose art, according to J.P Wood in his book, Nose Art: 80 Years of Aviation Artwork.
Wikipedia also notes that nose art, because of its individual and unofficial nature, “is considered folk art, inseparable from work as well as representative of a group. It can also be compared to sophisticated graffiti. In both cases, the artist is often anonymous, and the art itself is ephemeral. In addition, it relies on materials immediately available.”
Clarence Simonsen, author of RAF and RCAF Aircraft Nose Art in World War II, says in his introduction that “many of the artists were unknown enlisted men whose fee ranged from pure enjoyment to a bottle of hard liquor. They painted on the skin of the aircraft, their studio the great outdoors in every corner of the world. Their art came in thousands of different shapes and sizes; a name two feet long or a pretty pin-up girl in almost billboard size. They attempted to paint the art based on the attitudes of the pilot and/or crew in virtually any subject that could be thought of.”
Given the varied skills of these unknown artists, the quality and intricacy of the images varied widely. It is also worth noting that there are many aircraft that had no nose art or extraneous imagery of any kind.
At its most basic, nose art paint enhanced a physical feature of the aircraft – the propeller hub, the engine cowling, or any other feature that caught the eye and imagination of the artist. More imaginative eyes transformed these features into menacing images, with the shark or tiger mouth being the most common. The best examples transform the aircraft into a representation of an animal that makes both the craft and the animal look fiercely menacing. The cleverest take advantage of the shape of the entire aircraft so that both the animal and the plane become one menacing entity. Animal or insect motifs account for about 15 per cent of nose art images.
Pin-up girls and females, matched with memorable names (some rather suggestive, others not), account for just over half of nose art image content. Memphis Belle is one of the best known. The 1940s era pin-up images by George Petty and Alberto Vargas provided inspiration for many airborne damsels, whose clothing was somewhat optional. Images of nearly nude women were, however, only one type of female nose art; many aircraft were named after wives, mothers, daughters, and movie stars and, as such, any nose art images were chastefully tasteful.
Cartoon figures and other well-known icons (such as the signs of the zodiac) account for another 30 per cent of images. The majority of cartoon figures trace their origins to comic book heroes and villains as well as to characters in contemporary cinematic animated features notably those produced by Walt Disney and Warner Brothers. Obtaining permission from the original creators of these images was the exception rather than the rule. Some skilled artists and crewmen crafted their own unique cartoon figures without reference to comics or cinema animation.
Perhaps the least interesting form of nose art, and one of the more basic, is graffiti, where a slogan of some sort is painted on the side of the aircraft. Although in fairness it must be pointed out that the painters cleverly arranged the syllables in many of these examples so that what looks like an innocuous string of letters becomes something quite suggestive when it is enunciated out loud.
The word “ephemeral” is an accurate description of wartime nose art. This is a word that describes something that lasts, or is used, for only a short time. It is a fact of war that aircraft will be lost either by accident or combat – the preservation any nose art being the least important concern of commanders who needed every aircraft and aircrew. The end of the Second World War sent thousands of aircraft to the scrap yard. A few scattered attempts were made to salvage the art before cutting up the rest of the airframe. The end result is that there are few actual examples of this art in existence today.
To the extent that there is any record at all of Second World War nose art it is due to the pervasive presence of inexpensive photography. Judging by the photos in nose art books one has the impression that every aircrew had at least one photographer on board, or knew of someone who would take their picture, even though high command may have discouraged photography for security reasons. It is clear from the photos that recording the nose art was not the purpose of the photographs – they are group-shot photos intended to be kept in footlockers for eventual inclusion in a post-war memory album (see photos on pages 5, 6, 7, and 10). The fact that the nose art is a prominent feature of the photographs is due entirely to the fact that the front of the aircraft – that is, the nose – is the most photogenic location for an aircrew group picture. These pictures had the unintended, but fortunate, side effect of preserving nose art for posterity.
In addition to the widespread presence of cameras among aircrews, the efforts of individuals to collect, preserve and organize the information and images available should not be overlooked. One of these is Clarence Simonsen, an internationally recognized Canadian specialist on the subject, now resident in Alberta. His interest in nose art started when he was in his 20s and continued through his career as a policeman. One of his most important discoveries occurred in 1977, when he found two large collections of original nose art: one in the United States and the other in Canada. The largest collection of 33 original nose art panels was owned by the Confederate Air Force in Harlingen, Texas. Simonsen is the only historian to thoroughly research the 33 panels in that American collection.
The world’s second largest collection of original nose art is found in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Thanks to the efforts of one almost forgotten RCAF officer, Harold Hunter Lindsay, and his civilian assistant, Robert Goodwin, many examples of nose art painted on RCAF Halifaxs were photographed days before the aircraft were cut up for scrap.
The complete story of this Canadian nose art salvage operation may never be known because efforts to locate Lindsay and Goodwin have been unsuccessful. It is known that they rescued an unknown number of nose art panels from the more than 1,000 Halifax bombers sent to the two scrap yards they are known to have visited. Some were shipped to Ottawa in 1946 where they languished in storage until Simonsen’s discovery in 1977. Simonsen believes at least 17 panels were shipped to Canada but he found only 14, which are now on public display in the new Canadian War Museum.
Is “nose art” really “art?” While it may not be “real art” it is certainly more than graffiti. It is a kind of “folk art” that provides a unique insight into the mindset of aircrew and ground personnel who were thrust into an environment where the only certainty was the uncertainty of their survival.
Jeffery L. Ethell and Clarence Simonsen, Aircraft Nose Art: From World War I to Today (Motor Books Classics, 2003)
Clarence Simonsen, RAF and RCAF Aircraft Nose Art in World War II (Hikoki Publications, Ltd., 2001)
Stephen M. Fochuk, Metal Canvas: Canadians and World War II Aircraft Nose Art (Vanwell Publishing, 1999)
J.P. Wood, Nose Art (Barnes and Noble Inc., by arrangement with Salamander Books, 2001).
In the image above, the crew of the 91st Bombardment Group B-17 Memphis Belle and its famous piece of nose art, a pin-up produced by artist George Petty for Esquire Magazine. Here the crew attend a parade in England prior to returning to the U.S. after completing 25 missions. Photo credit: RAF Museum, in Nose Art, by J.P. Wood.
This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2008 edition of Altitude.