Jezebelle and crew, Circa 1944-1945. Robert Smith is on the far right. (From the Robert Smith Collection.)
Robert Smith was a navigator. He served on a B-24 bomber during World War II. After his passing, his wife, Eleanor, donated his photo album to the Archives of Michigan. The album contains some interesting photos from Smith’s service in the Pacific. There are images of the Philippines and of Smith and his squadron mates. There are aerial photos of bombing operations. Then, there are photos of World War II airplane “nose art.” These often caught the eyes of the Archives staff.
An Earlier War
The origins of airplane nose art go back at least as far as World War I. That war began in 1914, when the airplane was a fairly new invention. At first, airplane markings were used simply to distinguish the planes of one country from those of another. As the war continued, however, more expressive and elaborate art appeared. The “Flying Circus” of Manfred von Richthofen (a.ka. the Red Baron) provides an example, as each plane in this squadron was painted a different color. When the United States entered the war (in 1917), unit emblems were painted on many planes. These could sometimes be quite colorful, and uniquely American images included buffalo, Native Americans, bucking broncos and Uncle Sam.
The Miss Hap. (From the Robert Smith Collection.)
The Golden Age of Nose Art
After World War I, such art became much less common. Then, World War II arrived. With it came the true “Golden Age” of airplane nose art.
Voluptuous women (in various states of dress or undress) were popular subjects for the artists. According to Jeffrey L. Ethell and Clarence Simonson, in Aircraft Nose Art from World War I to Today, a little over half of the World War II nose art included depictions of the female form. Today, such paintings are by far the ones most associated with the phenomenon. Ethell and Simonson note that these paintings were undoubtedly inspired by the work of 1940s “pin up artists” such as George Petty, Alberto Vargas and Gil Elvgren.
Subject matter was actually quite varied, however. George Klare (writing in a chapter of Ethell and Simonson’s book) notes that animals, babies, zodiacal signs, devils and gremlins were all depicted on World War II nose art. Cartoon characters were also quite popular. Some of these – such as Milton Caniff’s Dragon Lady (from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates) and Al Capp’s Moonbeam McSwine (from Li’l Abner) –could also fall in the “pin up art” category.
I’ll Be Seeing You. (From the Robert Smith Collection.)
Who and Why?
Who created these paintings? For the most part, they were servicemen who happened to have artistic talent. They often worked on the art during off-duty hours and with whatever supplies they could obtain. Unfortunately, few signed their work, so they often labored in relative obscurity.
Why did they do it? There is no definitive answer, but several reasons do come to mind. George R. Klare notes that nose art helped crew members identify with each other and with their plane, and that this in turn aided morale. J.P. Wood, in his book Nose Art: 80 Years of Aviation Artwork, argues that the dangers of wartime sometimes cause servicemen to flout authority (Nose art was actually against regulations, although commanding officers often “looked the other way” during World War II.).
Regardless of the “whys” and “wherefores,” the artwork is certainly striking. We can continue to admire it today – a full sixty-five years since the end of World War II.
Another look at Jezebelle. (From the Robert Smith Collection.)