Nose Art is defined as artwork or graffiti that is usually painted on the front sides of an aircraft’s fuselage. It was first used primarily to identify friendly units by immediate visual contact. From this very practical application, Nose Art evolved to take on a life of its own, expressing the individuality of the the pilot and/or crew.
One big appeal of Nose Art was that a man could use it to make his own mark in the war effort. And in some ways it was even more appealing when it was not officially sanctioned, but instead overlooked by the Commanders whose job it was to enforce official policy.
Nose Art also had the often-overlooked benefit of helping to remove some of the stress of aviation combat and the real probability of death by bonding the crews and pilots with their aircraft.
It is often noted that the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) Commanders were much more tolerant of this art, primarily in WWII, then the other services. The Navy officially prohibited Nose Art on their aircraft. A discreet name in simple letters under the canopy area was what the Naval command offered to its pilots and crew. But despite the Navy’s public posture, many Naval aircraft were nonetheless adorned with the same high-spirited artwork that was so popular in the USAAF.
The practice of painting Nose Art originated with the Italian and German pilots in WWI. The first recorded piece of Nose Art was a sea monster painted on the nose of an Italian flying boat in 1913. The Germans painted mouths with ferocious teeth underneath the propeller spinner on their planes in WWI. It is interesting to note that at this time many of the ideas for Nose Art were conceived and produced by the ground crews.
Some of the notable artwork that came from the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI included the “Hat in the Ring” from the American 94th Aero Squadron (attributed to Lt. Johnny Wentworth) and the “Kicking Mule” of the 95th Aero Squadron.
One of the most famous pieces of Nose Art, the shark-face insignia, was made famous by the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers. They painted their P-40Bs after seeing a color photo of an No. 112 Squadron RAF P-40 fighter in North Africa with the shark mouth painted on it.
The famous shark-face is still used today, most commonly seen on the A-10 Thunderbolt II, with its gaping maw leading up to the muzzle of the aircraft’s GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon.
The real golden age of Nose Art was during WWII, with both the Axis and Allied pilots taking part. The work was done by talented servicemen as well as professional civilian artists. There were many different designs. They ranged from pinups (very popular), Donald Duck, Popeye, patriotic characters, fictional heroes, symbols of luck such as dice and playing cards and of course, symbols of death such as the grim reaper. There were also animals, nicknames, hometowns, and popular movie and song titles.
The farther away the the planes and crews were from headquarters and the public eye, the racier the art tended to be. Nudity was more common in Nose Art in the Pacific theater than on the aircraft in Europe.
These pictures were given to me from my father who was stationed in the Pacific theater on the island of Tinian from 1944-1945. He was in the United States Army Air Corps, 20th Air Force, 504th Bomb Group (Very Heavy), 313 Bomb Wing, 421st Squadron. My father was a Sergeant trained in radar and radio mechanics.
This collection includes pictures of the Nose Art on the B-29s, the 504th Bomb Group War Room on the island of Tinian, and an old chart that marked the flying distances from Tinian, Saipan and Guam to the mainland of Japan.
If you look at the chart in the middle, a bit to the right, you will see the island of Iwo Jima. This island was important to the pilots flying the B-29s to the Japanese mainland because, as you can see from the map, the distance back to the original bases is a long flight. If the airplane were damaged or very low on fuel they would have to ditch the plane or try to make the distance home as best as they could. When the battle for Iwo Jima was won on 26 March 1945, the B-29’s from the Mariana Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Guam finally had an alternative airfield to land if they encountered any problems with their aircraft.
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