High Desert Hangar Stories: B-24s in the South Pacific, and the mystery of the disappearing nose art

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
This issue I was kicking around subject matter for my column, and I sure had a bunch of ideas running around my brain to choose from.

I was thinking about an article about a one-day visit by Charles Lindbergh to Mojave Marine Corps Air Station during World War II … but also the story of Lancaster’s John Steage, who graduated from Antelope Valley High School in the 1930s and ended up commanding a P-38 squadron in the South Pacific.

The rollout of the B1-A? Or maybe the life of test pilot Marion Carl?

Lots of directions to take, but it’s been awhile since I have told a story with a light-hearted look at our military and lord only knows, we sure need to smile a bit more nowadays! So here is a great little story from World War II that I got from an old B-24 guy who trained at Muroc, or what we, today, call Edwards AFB.

Aircraft nose art from World War II is pretty much legendary — an art form all its own.

In today’s world you will get opinions from folks who either love it or hate it but the reality is, it was just a part of that World War II generation and part of the morale of winning that Great War.  

The Airmen who “decorated” their aircraft paraded their creations around in the war zones of the skies and used it as inspiration to carry on with the battle. Featuring themes as varied as political statements, comedy and cartoons, or a racy look at the girl back home, the art work became their Excalibur of protection, and nobody better mess with their personal feelings about their aircraft and its featured art.

B-24 operations were moving at a brisk pace in the South Pacific. Planes and crews were being moved around to different theaters to fill the requirements of plane losses and crew rotations or, as we old military folks understand, “The needs of Uncle Sam.” One day a call came in to operations that a squadron of B-24s was going to be redeployed to a location in the Middle East, and to get the crews ready to make the long journey to their new assignment.

After much moaning and groaning, the crews were up to speed and ready to make the hop, when an additional instruction came down from leadership regarding their new assignment. It was felt that it would be insensitive to local cultures if aircraft with scantily-painted women on them were allowed to operate from the base to which they were being transferred. When the pilots of the aircraft were called into the head shed, they were instructed to have the nose art removed from all the aircraft. After some more moaning and groaning, they left to tell their support crews to remove the “offensive” artwork by the next morning.

The next morning, the base commander looked out on the flight line at the B-24s getting ready for the long journey and was pleased to see standard government issue-looking Liberators sporting olive drab and dull silver paint, with the only adornment being the Stars and Bars on the wings and fuselage. Later that morning the flight took off with no incident, and it was just assumed that the war would continue on and the new assignment location would be pleased that American “Art Work” would not be present to upset the locals.

Two days later, a radio call came in from a very upset base commander who wanted to talk to the commander who had sent the B-24 boys off to his base!  “What’s the big idea of ignoring my request to have all that nose art removed from those planes?” Confused, the only explanation the originating commander could offer was, “I personally saw those Liberators off and I can guarantee you there was no nose art on any of those craft when they left my field!”

“‘Oh, really?” said the caller. “From what I’m looking at, that would make you a liar and I’m going to get to the bottom of this and heads will roll!”

The new base commander sent for the pilots of the flight and before long they were in the hot seat, being grilled as to if they ever got the word that naked ladies on airplanes were NOT to be seen around the Middle East, and were to be removed at their previous base. All the pilots claimed innocence and just said that they relayed the orders to the ground crew and that their prized nose art and good luck charm was to be removed — and that was met with a lot of negative remarks and grumbling.

The B-24 Liberator “One Weakness,” assigned to the 68th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. (Courtesy photograph )

According to the pilots, overnight the crew followed their orders and painted over the artwork and in the morning the pilots inspected and approved, while feeling a bit guilty for taking away the plane mascot that the crews looked to for inspiration. But the crews didn’t seem all that upset that next morning as the pilots departed on their long journey that would see them flying over seas and through tropical thunderstorms typical for the area. The trip was pretty much uneventful, until the planes landed at their new assignment.

For the first time seeing their planes from the outside in the dawn’s early light, pilots and co-pilots were witness to a miracle as the nose art had magically reappeared on the nose of all their aircraft! Dumbfounded questions were asked of the crews and a lot of “I don’t know, Sir” or “I can’t explain it” was shared, but with no real explanation. Of course, when the new commander made an appearance, no fairy tale explanation was going to do. He wanted answers because, as he saw it, the only logical explanation was that the planes left their original base without ever having removed that nose art.

The secret held for a while until serious accusations started to fly around and genuine trouble began to brew. At that point, it wasn’t long until the real miracle showed up in the form of an American Airman who didn’t want anybody messing around with his good luck charm. It was finally shared that the crews all got together and decided they would paint over their symbols — with water-based paint! Pretty much water colors! Everything looked great on departure, but those rain showers and storms along the way to the new base slowly eroded away that paint and exposed the nose art.
Upon landing, it looked just like the plane they took so much pride in at their old base!  

I don’t know what happened to all the principals in this episode, as my conveyor of the story just remembered it was a pretty well-circulated tale around the CBI and Middle East. The bottom line is that it never really became that big of an issue with the locals when American aircraft showed up with nose art that was a bit racy — the feeling being that it was better to have those girls on the planes, than the ones that had Swastikas on them!

American Soldiers and their ingenuity are legendary. It’s always reassuring to know that in the worst of times and conditions, that same ingenuity can turn back attacks or advance on enemy positions, but it can also protect that spiritual symbol that gets them to the next day and one step closer to home.

The Nose Art Girls of World War II and the American Airman: two aspects of an aircraft that were inseparable — unless, of course, some water colors were around! But that was only for a while, for some!

Until next time, Bob out …

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