During World War II the US military combat planes were typically painted a drab camouflage, without any use of markings of a personal nature.
It is believed that the Germans were the first to apply “nose art” by hand painting designs on their fighters and bombers.
They were formally authorized to use images and they were created so that it would be easy to tell the difference between their comrade’s aircraft and the enemy’s aircraft during combat.
Although the exact date it first appeared is impossible to pinpoint, it is believed that aircraft nose art was more than likely started by the German Luftwaffe. An excellent example of one of the more noteworthy personalization was that of Gen. Adolf Galland who had his favorite emblem placed on several of the Messerschmidt 109’s assigned to his squadron. It showed Mickey Mouse smoking a big cigar and wielding a gun. This image was also used on the fighter that he piloted in the Spanish Civil War. The application of a small piece of artwork under the cockpit of fighters appears to have been widespread during this time, but it was a perk usually restricted to the Luftwaffe higher scoring aces.
In the perilous times leading up to the Battle of Britain, the British airmen were more focused on protecting their nation than adding ornamentation to their aircraft. As time went on and they gained assurance a few fighter pilots began to add some subtle designs, such as a swastika, to keep track of their kills. Gradually small characters started appearing along with the scorecards. As was the case with the German pilots, it was originally only the higher aces partaking in the practice. D.R.S. Bader, a squadron leader, had a painting of Hitler getting kicked in his backside by a big boot. Another Hurricane had a brightly colored wasp painted just under the engine exhaust.
Cartoon Characters Head to War!
The 56th Fighter Group was one of the first units from the United States to develop a coordinated plan for using nose art. The unit landed in England in 1943 with their P47C Thunderbolts. Because they looked so much like the Luftwaffe FW190, white identification lines were painted onto the nose and tails to prevent any confusion during battles. The Thunderbolt had a large engine cowling and it proved to be a convenient place to put any personal markings. The theme the squadron selected was cartoon characters from the daily newspapers of the day. “Daisy Mae”, “Li l Abner” and “Hairless Joe” appeared on the cowlings. Before long the attempt to have a theme for the nose art fell by the wayside and a plethora of other characters began appearing as well. Nose Art, as it was now called, became a phenomenon that has impacted aviation history.
Legendary Nose Art Hairless Joe
Probably the most famous piece of nose art from World War II would be the B-17 Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle”. The filmmaker William Wyler recorded the crews 25th and final mission. The footage was used to help sell War Bonds and seen in the theaters as propaganda films. A movie in about this aircraft was a big box office hit in the late 1980’s.