Movies and Nose Art
The Influence of the Movies in Nose Art
by Ray Bowden
Copyright 2018 Ray Bowden
When it comes to finding a publicity angle there can be few institutions that could rival the Hollywood movie studios at the height of their success. The public relations machines of the major wartime studios like MGM, Fox, Universal, Warner and Columbia were well aware of the publicity potential in the naming of an aircraft when it came to launching a new movie or gaining extra publicity for their stars. It was more than willing to co-operate with the Air Force’s PR officers on the ground as they were keen to continually boost and maintain their men's morale and add a little glamour to the otherwise brutal and often mundane necessities of an air war. Entertainers travelled the world to visit the troops on USO tours and it was not uncommon for famous movie stars, US and British, to hold naming ceremonies whilst at an air base before or after performing their show and in so doing maximising the publicity for themselves and the war effort.
Occasionally the stars would actually choose the aircraft name themselves but more commonly it would have already been chosen by the PR men attached to the unit. An example of the former occurred when Edward G. Robinson named a B17 Fortress at the 381st Bomb Group's base at Ridgewell calling it ‘Happy Bottom.’ When asked the significance of his choice of name, which had escaped most observers, he replied that he had named it after his wife Gladys, pronounced in a long slow drawl as ‘Glad-Ass!’ It was a style of humour much appreciated by men who were continually thinking up strange titles with hidden meanings often with the specific purpose of avoiding the censorship periodically applied to more blatant titles and images by their higher command. On this occasion I believe that the name was agreed soon after the star's arrival at the base, immediately painted on the aircraft in simple two-colour lettering while he toured the base and had lunch, and then christened the B17 with a bottle of Coca Cola smashed on the chin turret guns later that same day. The artist on that occasion is unknown but during the star’s visit to Ridgewell he was also photographed watching a female artist named only as Miss Smith sketching his caricature on the wall of one of the Nissen huts. Whether the artist in question was a WAAF, a member of the American Red Cross or an English civilian is not known but she does appear to be wearing civilian clothing under her overalls.
Usually the naming procedure was rather more elaborate than that described above, stretching over a period of time with communications passing back and forth between the unit’s Public Relations officer or an individual crew and the publicity men of the studios. There was no instant email in those days and even telephone contact overseas to England, the Mediterranean, Far East or Pacific was highly problematic. Often the more elaborate, colourful artworks were painted on the aircraft's nose well before the arrival of the star and his or her entourage of reporters and photographers. When James Cagney christened a 390BG Fortress ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, after the 1942 Warner movie of that name in which he starred and won an Oscar, it had already been painted up with a montage of stars, multi-coloured lettering and striped top-hat and cane to ensure the maximum impact for the publicity photos which followed. Some of these photos show Cagney swinging a large bottle of unknown content towards the side of the aircraft's nose. Had this in fact been done it would have undoubtedly have caused substantial damage to the thin aluminium skin of the aircraft! Not to mention the scarring that would have occurred to the artwork so carefully painted for the occasion. Usually the aiming point for the bottle was the far more robust chin gun barrel.
Cagney’s film proved very popular and at least eight B17s are known to have been named after it as well as two B24s and one B26. Many other film titles crop up as aircraft names throughout all the theatres of operation, including: ‘Cabin in the Sky’ (MGM 1943), ‘Star Dust’ (Fox 1940), ‘Hellzapoppin’ (Universal 1941), ‘My Gal Sal’ (Fox 1942), ‘Slightly Dangerous’ MGM 1943), ‘Heavenly Body’ (MGM 1943), ‘Sweater Girl’ (Paramount 1942) and ‘Lassie Come Home’ (MGM 1943). Hardly surprising given that on many bases the only day to day entertainment worthy of note was the showing of movies, their glamour and escapism being a rare break between the long wait for an occasional liberty pass. It was a never-ending cycle of combat missions, training and maintenance.
Universal’s ‘Hellzapoppin’ was an adaptation of a previously very successful musical of the same name but since it is likely that the film was viewed by a greater audience than the musical it is reasonable to link similarly named planes to the movie title. A B17 Fort so named and assigned to 11th Bomb Group was an early victim of enemy action when ditched in September 1942. But there were others who carried the title for longer including two B24s, a B25 Mitchell, a B26 Marauder, two P38 Lightnings and at least two Thunderbolts.
Rita Hayworth starred in 20th Century Fox’s musical ‘My Gal Sal’ in 1942 and it proved to be a popular choice of title for nose art as did the title of a previous hit ‘The Strawberry Blonde’ made with Warner Brothers. It was that film which made Hayworth one of Hollywood’s hottest stars who went on to make perhaps her best known film ‘Cover Girl’ for Columbia. All three film titles embellished numerous aircraft and a publicity photo in Life magazine was admired and appreciated by tens of thousands of US servicemen and made her one of the top pin-up girls of the war years. No less than twenty different aircraft carried one or other of the titles of her films.
Co-starring with Hayworth was Carole Landis who allegedly travelled more than 100,000 miles doing USO tours and spent more time than any other actress entertaining troops worldwide and as a consequence contracted malaria and near-fatal pneumonia. Numerous publicity photos show her accompanying Bob Hope at the time of his naming of the B24 ‘Bob’s Hope’. These shows and her movie appearances almost certainly also added to the popularity of the ‘My Gal Sal’ title including one variation in the 448th Bomb Group ‘My Gal Syl.’ Another of Rita Hayworth’s co-stars in ‘Cover Girl’ was Leslie Brooks and one of her publicity photos was used as reference for a B24 named ‘Maiden USA.’ Brooks had previously been voted as having the “most beautiful legs in America” and had appeared on the cover of Yank in April 1944.
Of course the film stars themselves frequently inspired the names and artworks chosen by crews. More often than not they were the pin-up glamour girls of the era, the equivalent of today’s “celebrities”. Stars like: Hedy Lamarr (‘Steady Hedy’, a fortress of the 306BG), June Haver (‘Gotta Haver’, a B17G of 34BG) and Lana Turner (‘Tempest Turner’, another B17G of 493BG). The latter example is interesting because the name was originally proposed by a crew flying B24s with a gunner who had been one of Miss Turner's cameramen prior to being drafted. The crew contacted Miss Turner for a photo to copy onto the nose. It was another classic example of the time taken in the to-and-fro of communications. By the time MGM's publicity machine had realised the potential and got geared up to it the crew had not only converted to flying B17s, they had actually completed their tour of duty and were about to return to the States. However, the PR men, true to form, persuaded them to wait an extra week and arranged for a brand new B17G to be painted up with the Lana Turner press release photo (plus the required number of mission symbols for the crew!). After the photo call at Station 152, Debach, the mission symbols were quickly erased and the aircraft returned to being a combat virgin. The studio used all this publicity to launch their latest Lana Turner movie "Marriage is a Private Affair", which was given its UK Premiere in an aircraft hangar at the 493BG's base at Debach.
Jean Harlow was a sex symbol of the 1930s who became known as ‘The Blonde Bombshell’ due to her platinum blonde hair and her starring role in ‘Bombshell’ in 1933. Her success brought about a change of title for the film and resulted in at least one Fortress and three Liberators carrying the revised title. Three years later, Shemp Howard who had been one of the original ‘Three Stooges’ comedy act, starred in a film entitled ‘The Blonde Bomber’ which became an even more popular choice for the naming of the USAAF’s heavy and medium bombers. Three Mitchell B25s, six Fortresses and at least ten Liberators were adorned with varying visual imagery and the same title. These included a black painted Carpetbagger B24 which was used for clandestine missions over occupied northern Europe dropping spies, agents and supplies to the resistance movement. It survived the war and returned to the USA in July 1945 but two B17s with the title had the rare but unfortunate distinction of being shot down over the same target on the same date. 447BG’s ‘Blonde Bomber’ succumbed to the wall of flak thrown up around Merseburg on 25th November 1944 as did the 487BG’s similarly named aircraft which managed to limp back towards allied lines but eventually had to be abandoned over enemy territory. More information on these two planes can be found in “Merseberg: Blood, Flak & Oil”. Exactly one month later, another Fort went down carrying the title ‘Blonde Bombshell’, this time from 390BG.
A less successful Harlow film made for MGM in 1932 titled ‘Red Headed Woman’ was picked up on only one B24 which served with 5th Bomb Group but did achieve an impressive tally of 75+ missions before heading back to the USA to be scrapped post war. The 466th Bomb Group’s “That Red Headed Gal” may have been a variation on the film title.
A nose art name spawned from a film title sometimes prompted different interpretations even within the same crew. In 401st Bomb Group, the Fortress ‘Heavenly Body’ was painted as a classic Varga flying girl based on the December 1943 Esquire gatefold and also on at least one crew jacket, whereas another man chose a Varga girl pose from the 1945 calendar on his jacket and yet another selected an entirely different image altogether. His heavenly body was portrayed as a P51 Mustang fighter – a heavy bomber’s ‘little friend’ and often its saviour.
A further example of the PR photo opportunity ‘set up’ occurred at Ridgewell, home of the 381BG, with the naming of the B17 called 'Fort Lansing Michigan'. The actress Mary Brian had made the transition from silent films to the early talkies and was known as ‘The Sweetest Girl in Pictures’. She visited the base together with a movie crew to record the naming ceremony for a B17 Fortress. Here she met with a ‘spoof’ combat crew especially made up of men from the city of Lansing, Michigan. Each was interviewed in turn in front of the cameras before the inevitable bottle of coca cola was cracked across the aircraft’s chin turret guns. Why Lansing, Michigan I have no idea but it certainly got the cameras rolling and clicking.
Paramount star Paulette Goddard attended a naming ceremony for a 7th Bomb Group B24 named ‘Paulette’.
Mae West, whose ample proportions gave name to the airmen’s inflatable life jacket, starred in a film entitled ‘The Heat’s On’ for Columbia Pictures in 1943. That title adorned several combat aircraft including a 91st Bomb Group Fortress and 15th Air Force Liberator and two 498BG Superforts.
Olivia DeHavilland appeared in several films including ‘The Strawberry Blonde’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ but the 1938 ‘Hard to Get’ proved especially popular as a title for nose art, as did her 1943 romantic comedy ‘Princess O’Rourke.’ A B26 Marauder with the latter title, assigned to 344BG, completed no fewer than 115 missions over northwest Europe. Of the six B17 Forts carrying the name ‘Hard to Get’ two crashed and another two were listed as missing in action while three of the eight Liberators were also lost in combat as was another named ‘Hard T’Get.’ DeHavilland’s name also adorned two Mustang fighters.
Sometimes when the star was a particular favourite the artist would portray her in his nose art work without any specific reference to the title of a film. Sam Rodman, a 303BG man, painted at least two nose arts which are clearly based on publicity shots of Ida Lupino. The first a B17F was titled ‘Belle of San Joaquin’ and a second a B17G entitled ‘Idaliza.’ Lupino herself won a ‘Best Actress’ award in New York in 1943 for her role in a film called ‘The Hard Way’ and that title was picked up on a 452BG Fortress.
Jane Russell made her film debut in 1943 in ‘The Outlaw’ and she was an immediate hit not least because of her voluptuous 38D figure. The production was completed two years earlier but ran into problems with censorship in large part due to the ample cleavage revealed resulting in only a limited release initially and not achieving full general release until as late as 1946. Bob Hope once described her as ‘the two and only Jane Russell.’ The publicity pictures of her on a haystack could be seen on the walls of barracks and Nissen huts worldwide and several Vargas girls have a distinct facial likeness that reinforced her popularity. There were at least three B29 Superfortresses which carried the title ‘The Outlaw’ one of which displayed artwork clearly based on a publicity photo of Russell, as did an F-5 reconnaissance Lightning. A B24 titled ‘Pistol Packin Mama’ also carried a rendering based on the seated Russell with smoking pistol. Her numerous publicity shots posing with the revolver made her an ideal model for many a nose artist illustrating that popular song title. A P47 fighter named ‘Russell’s Raiders’ had a photo portrait pasted on one side and was photographed with Jane herself in the cockpit while the artist painted the title but when and where is not known.
There could be no more obvious title for a nose art than ‘Pin Up Girl’, which was the name of Betty Grable’s film released in 1944. She was the girl with the million dollar legs and a publicity photo of the previous year showing her in a swimsuit, hand on hip, looking back over a shoulder has to rival the very best of cheesecake. With such an obvious title it is hard to say which nose art resulted from the film title.
Perhaps because aircraft, like ships, are usually referred to as female, male stars were less frequently featured in nose art titles. However, the swashbuckling Errol Flynn’s name did appear on the Fortress ‘In Like Flynn’ of the 385th Bomb Group and a similarly titled B24 in the 466th Bomb Group. There was also a B17 entitled ‘In Like Errol’, just for a little variety, assigned to 381st Bomb Group. The public perception surrounding Flynn during the war years was unfortunate and damaging. He was criticised for not enlisting but continuing to portray his action characters in numerous war films. The studio was largely at fault for not letting his public know that Flynn had suffered at least one heart attack, had an on-going malaria condition and suffered from tuberculosis which classified him as unfit for military service in spite of the athletic roles he undertook in his films.
Surprisingly super-star Clark Gable does not appear to have spawned a single nose art in spite of his fame and the fact that he was commissioned as a Captain in the USAAF. Charged with the task of making several documentary films primarily for the Air Force as training material, he was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group in England. He flew several combat missions over Europe, shooting thousands of feet of film for use in ‘Combat America’, a documentary about air gunners. There are a number of famous publicity photos of Gable with ‘Delta Rebel II’ of the 91st Bomb Group at Bassingbourn, taken only a few days prior to the aircraft being lost over Gelsenkirchen in August 1943. The first ‘Delta Rebel’ had been written off in a runway accident in the States. ‘Delta Rebel II’ carried a painting of a Confederate Officer on both sides of the nose and was presumably chosen for the publicity photos because of its link to Gable's most famous movie ‘Gone with the Wind’. Given the enormous success of the film, still rated today as one of the all-time great movies, it is remarkable that Gable does not seem to have lent his name to one of the tens of thousands of aircraft of the USAAF although there was one B17E trainer based in the US which did carry the title ‘Rhett Butler’. ‘Scarlett O'Hara’, his impetuous southern belle, also adorned at least one Fortress of the 379th Bomb Group as well as a cargo hauling C47. The movie title ‘Gone with the Wind’ also embellished a 90th Bomb Group B24 and a B29 assigned to 40th Bomb Group which suffered the unfortunate fate of being accidentally shot down by a British Beaufighter.
Another famous movie star who actually served in the USAAF and flew many combat missions was James Stewart. Enlisted as a private, he rose to the rank of Major and became Operations officer for the 453rd BG flying B24 Liberators and later became Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat Wing, ending the war with the rank of Colonel. (Also a member of the 453rd BG at that time was Walter Matthau destined to become famous after the war). Stewart himself, again, does not seem to have inspired any aircraft title although one of his movies may have. ‘Ole Miss Destry’ of 305th Bomb Group which survived the war with 138 missions was probably inspired by a character in ‘Destry Rides Again’, the movie made in 1939 in which he starred. The fiery character, Frenchie, portrayed by Marlene Dietrich is likely to have been the source of inspiration for the plane's title as well as, possibly, a P38 Lightning fighter emblazoned ‘Oh Frenchy!’ There were two early B17Fs which carried the name ‘Mr Smith’ which may have originated from Stewart’s political comedy-drama ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’ which had been a huge success in 1939 and won him a nomination for an Academy Award.
The British born comedian Bob Hope became a big hit in America and made several films including his ‘Road to…’ series which always drew large audiences. His teaming up with Bing Crosby and the glamorous Dorothy Lamour ensured the fullest appreciation. He began presenting live shows to military audiences as early as 1941 with a performance at March Field California and continued throughout the war years and indeed on through the Korean conflict, Vietnam War right up to the Persian Gulf War in 1991. In 1943 the writer John Steinbeck wrote “This man drives himself and is driven…. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.” Men in the USAAF rewarded that effort by naming several aircraft in his honour including ‘Bob’s Hope’, a B24 with 43BG, and a Superfortress assigned to 505BG which carried his caricature along with the title ‘Hope-Full Devil.’ The three ‘Road to…’ films made during the war years included the destinations of Singapore, Zanzibar and Morocco but that did not stop the crew of a Pacific based 90BG Liberator from dubbing their plane ‘Road to Tokyo.’ Along with Jerry Colona, famed for his magnificent moustache, Bob Hope christened a tactical reconnaissance P51 Mustang named ‘Shovelnose and Handlebar’ which carried a caricature of his face with its equally famous nose.
Although known mostly for his radio performances, Jack Benny starred in a movie entitled ‘Buck Benny Rides Again’ in 1940 and the title inspired at least one Liberator and another with the variation ‘Bucksheesh Benny’ together with its replacement ‘Bucksheesh Benny Rides Again.’ Benny also appeared in a cameo within the 1943 musical production ‘Stage Door Canteen’ which celebrated the recreational centres, originally on 44th Street in New York, for servicemen and women on leave. 381BG held a naming ceremony for one of its Forts at their base at Ridgewell, naming it ‘Stage Door Canteen’ with a bottle of unknown content heaved against its chin turret gun barrel by Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary whose first attempt at cracking the bottle proved unsuccessful. The aircraft survived the war and returned to the USA in June 1945 to be melted down at a Reclamation Plant.
Also attending the naming ceremony was Vivien Leigh who had played the petulant Scarlett O’Hara in the famous ‘Gone with the Wind’ for which she won two prestigious awards in 1939. As mentioned above, both her character and the film’s title appeared as nose art.
The character portrayed in a movie was often a greater inspiration for an aircraft name than the star, such as ‘Tondelayo’ played by Hedy Lamarr in the MGM’s movie called ‘White Cargo’. Many nose arts on different types of aircraft in several theatres of operation were inspired by this character with artwork based closely on one of the publicity photos for the film. At least five B17s carried the title ‘Tondelayo’ the most famous perhaps being the 379th Bomb Group aircraft which has been immortalised in the book ‘The Fall of Fortresses’ written by its navigator Elmer Bendiner, who survived nine hours awaiting rescue after ditching with the plane into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea. In the Pacific, a B25 also sported the same publicity pose of Tondelayo when the crew claimed five Japanese Zero fighters shot down and suffering extensive damage in doing so. The same title was painted on a 50th Fighter Group Thunderbolt by Sgt Les Schaufler but was lost when shot down in March 1945. There were also at least two Fortresses carrying the name ‘White Cargo’ and an anti-submarine Liberator that patrolled the Atlantic protecting vital convoys. In the Pacific, a B29 Superfort sported the variation ‘White’s Cargo’ named for the aircraft commander.
A crew in the 385BG wrote to Hedy Lamarr to request a photograph that they could have copied onto their B17 at Great Ashfield. A photo duly signed by the star arrived but, to date, no photograph revealing the aircraft’s nose art has come to light and perhaps it was never accomplished. Turning the dream into a reality was not always possible. Finding the time and opportunity to paint the side of a huge aircraft nose was difficult, made more so by inclement weather, shortage of materials and the fact that often the crew or plane failed to return before the work could be finished or even started. Those artists on base capable of such an undertaking were in great demand and had to find time outside of the unrelenting pressure of their official tasks. It was much easier and quicker to paint a crewman’s A2 leather jacket than to embellish the aircraft itself. This may account for the fact that photographs often exist showing several crew members with painted jackets sporting the same image whereas no similar image appears to have been painted on any actual plane. Miss Lamarr’s portrait did, however, get painted onto a P38 Lightning in the 44th Squadron alongside a cartoon pilot apparently dreaming of his idol.
Another famous plane, whose name originated from a character within a movie was the ‘Memphis Belle’, arguably the best known named WW2 aircraft of all. Bob Morgan the pilot saw the Republic Pictures’ film entitled ‘Lady for a Night’ just before flying overseas and named his plane after the wayward southern gal played by Joan Blondell described in the dialogue as a ‘Memphis Belle’. In the film she ran a gambling club aboard a Mississippi River boat also called Memphis Belle and her co-star John Wayne played a character with the name of Jackson Morgan. Bob Morgan was engaged to a southern girl at the time so it seemed a natural choice for a name to be applied to his newly assigned plane.
Although many stars were generous with their time and no doubt donations towards the war effort, one in particular went a step further and actually purchased an A20 fighter bomber with his own money. Red Skelton did so because he was too old to be drafted and so, after purchasing the aircraft he named and painted it with the title ‘He Dood It’ a slight variation from the 1943 musical comedy film in which he starred. The plane was given to the Russians as a contribution to their fight against Nazism and was sent to join the Baltic Fleet. Here it achieved a considerable record in attacks against the Kriegsmarine, allegedly sinking seven transports in a single mission. As the war neared an end, German fighters finally caught it and shot the aircraft down, killing one of its three crew members.
Skelton’s movie spawned fifteen named planes although only three were given the exact title of ‘I Dood It’. Others were dubbed ‘He Dood It’ and ‘We Dood It’ and varied between the huge B29 Superfort and a diminutive L5 liaison/spotter; one further variation was seen on 392BG’s ‘Yankee Dood It.’ His co-star in the film was Eleanor Powell who had previously achieved top billing in ‘Lady Be Good,’ made in 1941, and that too produced a crop of named planes.
The hopes, fears and prayers of every airman were also incorporated into the choice of nose art and influenced by movie titles. MGM’s ‘Lassie Come Home’ spawned numerous artworks including 498th BG’s Superfortress in the Pacific and a B26 Marauder assigned to 397th Bomb Group in England; at least six B24 liberators and another named ‘Lassie, I’m Home’. Fox’s 1943 movie entitled ‘Heaven Can Wait’ starring Don Ameche was the name given to at least nineteen B24s, nine B17s, two B25s, a B26 and a C47 transport. ‘Slightly Dangerous’ was perhaps a slight understatement as far as combat flying was concerned but the 1943 MGM film of that title was also a popular choice although the curvaceous star Lana Turner may have had an influence. Seven B17s carried that name along with four B24s and a P38 Lightning fighter. ‘Desperate Journey’, an early war film starring Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan about a downed aircrew escaping with vital German plans, became the title for a ill-fated 91BG Fort shot down in May 1943. RKO’s 1941 ‘Ball of Fire’ yielded nine named B24s, a B25 and three B29s not to mention numerous touch-in-cheek variations such as ‘Balls of Fire’!
The biggest single source of inspiration, regarding the movie studios, was probably Walt Disney. His animated films in particular created many, many characters that appear again and again on aircraft in all theatres. Disney Studios also designed a huge number of emblems as part of their war effort, estimated to exceed 1,100 insignia specifically intended for unit identification: Bomber or Fighter Groups, Squadrons, Service Commands, Training Bases, etc. One of the many emblems was that designed for the WASPs which portrayed a female gremlin; this appeared in several forms on a number of nose arts, with the title ‘Fifinella’ added on a Fortress of the 91st Bomb Group and again on a B26 Marauder of the 391st Bomb Group.
Many of the official USAAF unit and base emblems originating from the Disney Studio were specially designed characters and these were often reproduced as nose art on aircraft assigned to that particular unit, sometimes without any other title or embellishment. An example of such a ‘Disney-special’ was an insignia designed for the 388th Bomb Group based at Knettishall, which was painted onto two aircraft called ‘Gremlin Gus’. It showed a horned cartoon gremlin on a cloud hurling bombs. Another was the emblem designed by Disney’s Hank Porter for the famous Eagle Squadron of volunteer US pilots attached to the RAF before America entered the war. This ‘boxing eagle,’ designed in 1941 was later adopted by Don Gentile when members of the squadron transferred to the 4th Fighter Group and was thus used firstly on his Spitfire called ‘Buckeye Don’ and then later on his famous P51 Mustang ‘Shangri La’.
The use of such unit insignia was particularly common in the earlier period of the war before individual crew naming really got established. Amongst other Disney designed unit insignia were emblems for the famous Flying Tigers, 380th Bomb Group (Donald Duck), 43rd Troop Carrier Group (Dumbo), 27th Observation Squadron (Big Bad Wolf), V03 Navy/Marine Squadron (Mickey Mouse). As a matter of policy Navy and Marine squadrons rarely allowed any other nose art other than the unit emblem to be carried on their aircraft, although there were exceptions.
It was less common for Disney Studios to actually design artwork for use on an individual aircraft, most of their official work was kept for unit insignia. This did not stop crews copying their favourite characters however and they pop up in almost every Group in every theatre of operation on every type of plane. ‘Donald Duck’, ‘Thumper’, ‘Pluto’, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, all feature in a wide variety of titles such as: ‘Thumper’ (320BG), ‘Thumper Again!’(303BG), ‘Duck Butt’ (9FS), ‘Stalag Luft 111’ (56FG), ‘Jasper’ (362FG), ‘Lucky Partners’ (447BG), ‘Gung Ho’ (367FG), ‘Wacky Wabbit’ (422NFS), ‘Big Noise’ (93BG), ‘Plutocrat(e)’ (97BG), ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (91BG).
An exception to the rule in respect of Disney designs for individual aircraft occurred with the PV-1 Ventura built next door at the Vega plant in Burbank. The plant turned out hundreds of these twin engine patrol aircraft and many were despatched sporting Mickey Mouse designs painted onto the fuselage side rather than the nose. A happy looking Mickey could be seen alongside slogans of ‘That’s the finish for that sub pilot!’, ‘We’ll soon be laughing!’, ‘We’ll whitewash ‘em’ while others portrayed a fierce looking mouse proclaiming ‘Can’t stop us now’ and ‘Come and get it…’ Donald Duck and Googy were also liberally applied to the sides of the Ventura with a similar array of patriotic slogans.
Whilst Mickey Mouse, one of Disney’s earliest and most popular characters, seems to have been less common than one might have expected, perversely, the famous Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland (JG26) choose a similar image as his personal emblem on the side of his Me109, albeit a rather crude variation which had been used for the Luftwaffe’s Legion Condor during the Spanish Civil War. Horst Carganico who shot down sixty enemy aircraft (mainly Russian) also displayed a Mickey Mouse cartoon on the side of his JG5 fighter.
The massive engine and subsequently large cowling and fuselage depth of the P47 Thunderbolt made a good ‘canvas’ for nose art and 362nd Fighter Group’s ‘Wheel Boy’ displayed a fine rendering of Mickey, as did an apparently untitled P47 in 4th Fighter Group. 459BG’s John Devney also made good use of the cartoon mouse in one of the two nose arts he painted whilst serving with that outfit in the Mediterranean. One version which may not have received the full approval from Disney Corporation was seen on a 502BG Superfort which displayed a happily drunk Mickey slumped in a champagne glass with the title of ‘Oh Brother!’
The 98th Bomb Group in North Africa sported a complete set of B24s named after the Disney full length 1937 feature film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. One aircraft was actually named ‘Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs’ and seven others were each named after the individual dwarfs, ‘Dopey’, ‘Sleepy’, ‘Sneezy’, ‘Bashful’, ‘Grumpy’, ‘Happy’ and ‘Doc’ with several duplicates being painted up to replace losses. In addition the group had ‘Flower’, which was the Disney skunk cartoon character from the 1942 ‘Bambi’ movie as well as a ‘Pluto’. They were obviously great Disney fans! A 56th Fighter Group Thunderbolt was embellished with a Disney-style dwarf entitled ‘Happy’ although the 486th squadron pilot Ed Heller was allegedly unhappy about the title which had been chosen by his CO. That squadron also sported a ‘Sneezy’ and ‘Snow White’ and possible other characters from the ‘Snow White’ film. The 367th Fighter Group also had a P47 embellished with a Disney-style dwarf but theirs was entitled ‘Frigid Midgit’ – probably not a title which would obtain approval from the Disney Corporation.
The 458th Bomb Group also had a number of Liberator aircraft named after and using Disney characters in the artwork. Pluto on ‘Plutocrat’ and ‘Yankee Buzz Bomb’ as well as the Big Bad Wolf on ‘Wolfgang’. Disney's Academy Award winning 1943 Donald Duck film "Der Fuhrer's Face" produced a highly popular song of the same name, as well as a nose art title based on the movie’s name for a B17 Fortress assigned to 94th Bomb Group.
Walt Disney Studios were not the only major film maker with popular cartoon characters which were drafted into service on the noses of aircraft. ‘Bugs Bunny’ the famous, or infamous, rabbit created by Warner Brothers in their 1940 release ‘A Wild Hare’ inspired many an artist and name, including a Fortress in the 91st Bomb Group, ‘The Wild Hare’. There was ‘Hi Doc!’ (303rd BG), ‘Bugs Bunny Jr’ (447th BG), in the 458BG a ‘Wabbit Twacks’ and two ‘My Bunny’ B24s. In the Pacific a ‘Bugs Bunny’ emblem of the 27th N.C.B., a US SeaBee battalion, appeared on one side of at least sixteen B29 Superfortresses of the 505th Bomb Group. The amorous nature of a ‘Bugs Bunny’ rabbit in particular made him popular with men confined, often for prolonged periods of time, to the predominantly male environment of an active air base.
Although the characters and names might be familiar the uses to which they were often put and associated were generally far from the film makers ideal of clean, wholesome family fun! Another creation which became popular was ‘The Wolf’, Tex Avery's creation for MGM's ‘The Blitz Wolf’. Here was a wild, wacky character undreamed of by the creators of the earlier ‘Big Bad Wolf’, much more in keeping with the spirit of young men who lived life with an uncertain future.
Documentary films also gave birth to a number of nose art titles, perhaps the most well-known being based on the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ film about women in the United States who had taken over men’s jobs in the shipyards and airplane factories. There were two B17s called ‘Rosie's Riveters’ in the 100th BG, flown by Lt ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal, a ‘Rosie’s Sweat Box’ in the 401st BG and a B24 ‘Rose’s Rivets’ in the 448th BG. ‘Target for Tonight’ was a documentary about the RAF's night bombing campaign and was invariably used in conjunction with a sexy girl (Varga style) picture when applied as nose art, or as on the 385th BG’s plane of that name: wine, women and song. Sam Lowman’s 56FG Thunderbolt also carried the title until shot down in July 1944. American spelling was used in the versions painted on Fortresses of the 305th and 96th Bomb Groups – ‘Target for Tonite’. And there remains of course the highly publicised case of the reverse situation occurring when a documentary film was named after the aircraft it portrayed – ‘The Memphis Belle’ -- itself named as a result of a movie character! Full circle!
‘Winged Victory’ was originally a play created as a morale booster and fund raiser for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. The cast was made up from serving members of the USAAF and their wives. The theatrical production was a huge success when it opened in 1943 and ran for 226 performances estimated to have been seen by 350,000 people before it was halted so that the cast members could travel to Hollywood to make the movie of the same name. After filming, the theatre company known officially as the 31st AAF Base Unit then went on to perform a further 445 times across the USA. The estimated theatrical audience surmounted one million and the film probably more than doubled that figure. Since the theme revolved around the training process for five friends hoping to become pilots, it was an obvious choice for aviation nose art. Two B17s carried the name, one crashed and the other was listed as missing in action over Merseburg in November 1944 after it had been named at the massive air depot at Burtonwood by an unknown young woman, probably as part of the publicity campaign for the movie. Of the two B24s so named, one was also shot down. A Superfort was named ‘Winged Victory #2.’
Universal Pictures made a pre-war drama entitled ‘The Road Back’ which was highly critical of the Nazi ethos, so much so that the company was threatened with a boycott of all its productions by the German government and was forced to edit the film before release. The title, however, was used to adorn a 303BG Fort which was shot down in April 1944. The 303rd Bomb Group was known as the ‘The Hell’s Angels Group’ and that sobriquet came from the 1930 air war movie made by United Artists, starring Jean Harlow. Capt Irl Baldwin named his B17F ‘Hell’s Angels’ after his fourth mission and, after much discussion, the entire group accepted the sobriquet and thereafter embellished several of its Forts with that same title. It was also adopted by many other units for use of a variety of aircraft types. There were at least eighteen B17s carrying the name, eight B24 Liberators and numerous other B25s, B26s as well as Mustang and Thunderbolt fighters. Capt Baldwin’s aircraft went on the became the first heavy bomber to survive 25 missions over Europe (actually beating ‘Memphis Belle’), went on to complete 40 missions without a mechanical abort, earning its crew chief the Legion of Merit, and was withdrawn from combat on 13th December 1943 with a total of 50 completed sorties. Prior to its journey back to the USA to embark on a War Bond Drive across the States, the entire aircraft fuselage was covered with the names and signatures of hundreds of 303BG men.
As to the artists who actually painted these nose arts, the vast majority are not known. Or at least I have not been able to trace them after many years of research! Corporal Tony Starcer of 91st Bomb Group was one of the most prolific and is known to have painted over 140 titles, among them several cartoon style artworks. ‘Chowhound’ a Pluto, ‘Gay Cabalerros’ a Disney title, ‘Outhouse Mouse’ a Mickey Mouse, ‘Ruptured Duck’ a Donald Duck and ‘Bam Bam’ a Bugs Bunny. He was the artist who also reworked the famous ‘Memphis Belle’ nose art on its arrival in the UK, basing it on a George Petty pin-up. Another artist with at least one Disney nose art amongst the several titles attributed to his name was Nicholas Fingelley of 447th Bomb Group. Most of the artists were crew men who for one reason or another became temporary artists, such as the tail gunner and waist gunner on the 385BG's ‘Target for Tonight’ who between them painted a beautiful example of nose art which fortunately remains preserved to this day.
The 96th Bomb Group artist Sgt John White was responsible for painting several nose arts within the group. ‘Ole Puss’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Wabbit Twacks’ are all Sgt White's handiwork done in the Disney style although not necessarily with Disney characters. He has been described as an ex-Disney animator but this is incorrect. He was entirely self-taught, like so many nose artists, but simply based many of his artworks on Disney’s style of cartoon character.
The greatest sadness of all, I believe, is that so few people at the time thought the subject significant enough to record in detail. Thousands of photographs do exist of wonderful artworks painted by talented people, and yet so very little is known about those men, and some women, who actually painted them and the conditions under which they worked. Bill Tamburrino, of 301st Bomb Group, has described how he had to use a cut down shaving brush tied to a stick to work with when painting ‘Fightin’ Irish -June Haver’. The result of his efforts was truly remarkable and a tribute to the ingenuity and skill of many others like him who had to scrounge materials under wartime conditions of great shortage. Whatever else the American war machine could manage to provide in quantity during those years it certainly did not stretch to artists’ paints and brushes!
The influence of the movie studios of the period was enormous and no less so in the field of USAAF nose art. There are many other sources of nose art, of course, cartoon strips from newspapers and comics of the period, advertisements, song titles and tunes, radio shows and, needless to say, the pin-up girls made famous by artists such as Alberto Varga, Gil Elvgren and George Petty in magazines like Esquire and Yank. But these are another story!
© Ray Bowden 29 January 2020