High Desert Hangar Stories: The case for preserving WWII-era nose art

By Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

Some time back, I met a graphic novel author at a local air show who wanted me to review his work and give an opinion.

I never really shared my thoughts with anybody else regarding his work — I was just happy to think that a French writer and author valued my take on his craft, and wanted a thumbs up or down on his high-end comic book works.

Lately another aspect related to this story has been creeping into our nation’s collective thought process about how we view, and sometimes attempt to revise, our history. Being that I’m about all things aviation and history-related, it had me thinking about how far we will go to erase our collective memory of history and how it is portrayed to future generations, when history runs counter to the evolution of today’s culture.

You all pretty much know I’m one of those baby boomer guys, raised on a heavy dose of that Greatest Generation “diet.”

An airman gives a bit of personality to his plane. (Courtesy photograph)

The popular culture that grew in the 1940s and 1950s around the wars we fought is reflected in all the movies, TV shows and comics of the era — not to mention the toys, hours spent building detailed plane and ship models, and the like. We young bucks wanted to know about every bit of that war and what our parents and grandparents did in playing their part to help win it. World War II, as all wars are, was a brutal thing. As we grew older we learned through print, documentaries and firsthand accounts, the hows and whys of how history played out, from the major aspects of combat, to the simple things and tasks that were important in the everyday life of our soldiers.

Over the last decade, the subject of World War II nose art has become a hot button topic as society has worked to overcome prejudices surrounding race and gender. Some of the images that once adorned aircraft and flew into battle by the thousands have now been labeled offensive, and in some cases insensitive. The art form that has been added to aircraft since World War I slowly over time became a subject that fell out of favor, and societal pressures were put into motion to phase it out of public view.

For those who know, the girls and cartoons that were painted on the noses of aircraft by the GI’s of that era served purposes beyond simple decoration. Creating them was a sure-fire way to take their minds off the ugly business of war and to make their piece of Uncle Sam’s hardware more like their own than his. A plane became as unique as the man or crew that was flying it. American pop culture was full of inspiration and material to use, including Vargas pin-ups, Disney cartoons, and a whole host of crazy characters around the world creating havoc against the wishes of freedom-loving people.

A crew with it aircraft and matching jackets. (Courtesy photograph)

From patches to jackets, a good piece of nose art showed a spiritual ownership of a plane that the crew took great pride in and, by the grace of God, would always bring them home. Sadly, far too many times that was not the case and when aircrews would see aircraft going down, they would not report tail numbers or aircraft type. It was always by nose art description, because over time all the airmen got to know the crews of particular aircraft from that art work that was their signature. Yes, nose art was more than just a way for airmen to spend a bit of time being creative. It was an integral part of the history of the air war in World War II. Even today, we can hear the name Memphis Belle and we know we’re talking about the B-17 that was the first to complete 25 missions in World War II. We know that why? Because the museums have it on display and the history books have the story in print.

So where am I going with all this? I just want to bring to light the concern that, in a world increasingly focused on political correctness and the fear of offending somebody, there is a danger that we could, over time, remove history as it was written and replace it with a history that reflects today’s standards.

The losers in this scenario will be future generations who seek the truth about history and only get a watered-down version in their quest to learn of that history. After pressure to remove the nose art on aircraft at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, I was glad to see that history took precedence over today’s headlines and management stood with the Greatest Generation, finding value with all those aircrews, and what they had created. Today vulgar, racist and insensitive subjects can be debated, as it’s the world we live in, and we can let those who write our history tell our story without filters — just as we should let historical artifacts tell their own stories, less filters and without our influence.

Officials at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force were asked to remove the artwork from Bockscar, which dropped the second atomic bomb, and also remove the name of the Enola Gay. The museum stood firm, and history remains intact. (Courtesy photograph)

So to circle back to my opening statement, why did I bring up that air show encounter? Mr. Yann and his artist, Mr. Hugault, are fans of the World War II era. Their publications celebrate the American airmen of that time in a very colorful manner which we might say is pretty racy, while following a historical narrative. The art work is what you would expect from a French artist.

Glancing through it, I made a lighthearted comment asking if it comes with a rating for content for its racy pictures? He smiled at me and said that’s the problem with Americans, they just can’t get over that this art work was the reality of the World War II generation. You go to a metropolitan art museum and a painting of a lady, less clothes, is considered art and the same girl painted on a plane is called unacceptable.

All I want to get across with this commentary is: let’s allow history to stand on its own merits, good or bad, and let future generations make their own decisions based on all the facts and photos — not what we deem appropriate by today’s standards. History belongs to all of us, every bit of it.

Until next time, Bob Out …

The French publication I was asked to review, which I found very entertaining, was loosely based on the Burma Banshees fighter squadron of World War II. (Courtesy photograph)

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