Born and raised in Philadelphia, Al Merkling sketched tourists in Atlantic City to earn enough money to work his way through school. On one occasion, Merkling drew a sketch of Spencer Embree who was a toy manufacturer. He was so impressed by the artist's skill that he offered him a job as an illustrator. Al Merkling later became one of the toy designers.
Drafted into the US Army Air Force in 1942, Merkling was assigned as a lab technician but hated working in the dark room for long hours. He kept up his rapid-fire sketching around the barrack blocks and his talent did not go unnoticed. He was soon put to work by air crews to paint nose arts on his unit's special camera-equipped B24s (F-7s) used for photo mapping work. Stationed at Nadzab in New Guinea, Merkling's first giant sized artwork was for Lt John Wooten's "Patched Up Piece". Others followed and in all Merkling embellished a dozen B24 (F-7A)s, as well as an A-20 and a couple of C-47 transports.
Using any materials he could find in the midst of the war-torn Pacific islands he was posted to, Al Merkling worked in very difficult conditions where the temperature could bake the paint almost as instantly as it was applied. Sometimes it would sizzle as he put the brush against the hot aluminium surface of the planes. Unlike many other nose art painters, Corporal Merkling used his vivid imagination to create the images rather than the magazine pin-ups so often favoured as reference material. Crew members contributed, on average, one Australian dollar (about US$3.00) towards the artist's work -- a pleasant alternative being a couple of crates of Aussie beer. It was, in more ways than one, hot work!