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Painted Warbirds

From cartoons to kill marks, the aeronautical artifacts of World War II bear the colorful artwork of the airmen who flew them.

by Bruce Herman

World War II warplane

Throughout thousands of years of armed conflict, men have always decorated their weaponry. For generations this was a crucial practice for purposes of distinguishing friend from enemy, as much as of expressing pride for the side.

But as the use of aircraft burgeoned during World War II, besides the markings of nationality or the units in which they served, many airman came to decorate their warplanes with more fanciful motifs — cartoon figures, squadron mascots, sexy girls, as well as items of individual pride or superstition. And while this certainly was done by most of the aerial combatants who took part in the Second World War, the truly prolific warplane decorators were the pilots of the American and German air forces.

The practice of decorating military aircraft actually goes back to World War I — during which the first real use of aerial combat took hold — when Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, one of the first famous pilots, decorated his fighter plane with the "hat in the ring" insignia, an Uncle Sam top hat with stars and stripes. On the opposing side, the infamous "Red Baron," Rittmeister Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, painted his entire plane bright red, only to call attention to himself — certainly a far cry from today's drably camouflaged warbirds!

World War II warplane

For the most part, American airmen decorated their planes with three areas of artwork: pin-up girls, squadron mascots, and cartoon figures of the period. Famous planes such as the "Memphis Belle" and "Cincinnati Queen" were decorated with the likenesses of beautiful women, while planes such as "Wabbit-Twacks," "Alley Oop" and "The Deacon" had insignia depicting cartoon characters or mascot. Perhaps indicating a contrasting disposition, many of the German planes had a knightly, almost medieval, quality to their artwork, usually featuring heraldic shields with family crests, or the crest of the town or city from which the pilot hailed. There was one famous German ace, however, who used Mickey Mouse as his mascot, to the great annoyance of Walt Disney.

It is not surprising, given the reason-for-being of these aircraft, that warplane decoration has also had a darker side. A large proportion of the burden of warfare rests on the young, and during the Second World War — as in many subsequent wars too — these pilots were for the most part boys and very young men, only 18 to 25 years old. Flaunting their bravado was an important aspect of their warplane art. Symbols known as "kill marks" — something akin to the notches in an Old West gunfighter's pistol — were very popular, and also found their way into the decor of fighter planes and bombers. A kill mark was generally located just under the cockpit or on the tail of a plane. Each aerial victory, or "kill," was represented by a mark, sometimes a likeness of the enemy's flag or national insignia. Bomber crews also observed this tradition, painting pictures of a bomb somewhere on the front of the plane to represent completed missions.

World War II warplane

It is also remarkable how exceedingly rare are photos of World War II aircraft with sloppy or poorly painted artwork. Whatever the inspiration, the artwork is often strikingly professional. Almost every fighter or bomber squadron had men who were talented artists, some who had even been professional commercial artists before the war — which has resulted in our having today a vast selection of beautifully painted artifacts of that turbulent era.

posted on 02.16.05

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