7th Bomb Group
Vernon Drake grew up working on the farm in Yellowstone River Valley, Montana, and had a natural talent which developed through art classes at high school. He went to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor in Dec 41 at Boise AAB, Idaho, but wasn’t called until March 1942 and after training was commissioned as a pilot. During his time at San Angelo AAB his talent was recognised and he became the staff cartoonist for the Year Book and base newspaper.
Drake joined Ralph Goodrich’s crew at Pueblo AAB as co-pilot and was assigned to Pandaveswar in India. On 21 May 45, Vernon flying with Goodrich crashed on take-off in B-24 44-44501 ’Spirit of Fort Worth’ at Dudhkundi, India, when the main gear was retracted prematurely. The plane was a write-off but the crew were all safe. Drake then transferred into 9BS flying the Hump which he described as ‘an unwelcome change’ and flew as co-pilot wherever he was needed. He flew 14 combat missions in Azon aircraft in the 493BS, transferred to 9BS in August 45 and then flew 19 gas haul trips in C-109 tankers over the Hump (India-China). He returned to West Palm Beach, Florida in November 45.
Work started early to avoid the intense heat of the Indian sun. By mid morning the paint thinner, usually 100 octane aviation gasoline, vaporised in seconds and the scrounged paint found by the crew chiefs became too difficult to work with. He recalled that his wife ‘sent me a small set of artists oil paints which I used sparingly for tinting whatever other paint I could find.’
Painting took several days to complete and often an aircraft would be despatched on a mission with paint still wet and the slip stream streaked it back along the fuselage resulting in a major clean up. ‘Wandering Wanda’ was finished except for drying time but came back bleached out to dirty white and needed a complete re-paint.
The names and images were chosen by the crews or custom created, he said. Lt Dance of 493BS wanted the name ‘Dangerous Dance’ so that resulted in an original painting of a scantily clad dancer. The Squadron CO of the 9BS wanted a picture on the B24 he was to fly in back to the US – a shapely girl stepping into or out of her skirt with the title ‘Mission Completed’ (still preserved today).
‘I needed something to occupy the time when not flying and so was available to paint. Some days (N) Ralph Chaplain, (B) James Froula or (P) Ralph Goodrich helped set up scaffolding or painted in between lines, cleaned brushes, etc. I worked freehand from letter page size sketches and it required frequent climb downs for a better view to avoid distortion. Hindsight tells me distortion was inevitable but I was a realist.’
While he flew over the Hump hauling gas he still kept painting nose arts. ‘On occasion, the Operations Officer pulled me off flying duty to allow painting time,’ he recalled. ‘I reckon those painted girlies probably saved my life!’ Vernon Drake flew back to the USA in 'Cute Lil Lass', another of his beautifully-painted nose arts and he described the airplane as 'a good one to fly.'
After the war Vernon Drake became a successful architect but continued his art portraying aspects of western life and became particularly skilled at drawing horses. Today, his work and original sketches are displayed at the National Museum of World War 2.
© Ray Bowden 27 October 2021