In honor of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly has put together a fascinating and sobering article that both commemorates and explains why members of the US Army Air Corp were allowed to customize their bomber jackets to such outlandish and extreme degrees. The Army, not known for its lax uniform standards, allowed their air-bound servicemen to decorate their jackets with pictures of scantily clad pin-up girls, favorite comic characters, lucky charms, and any other assortment of icons. The reason, says historian John Conway, may have something to do with the age of these soliders — but also the tremendous risks they had to endure.
Indeed, most of these guys were just out of their teens, with some as young as 18 years old. And they ways in which they emblazoned their military issued leather A-2 jackets were a reflection of their age and exuberance. Hix writes:
On the bawdiest of these jackets, scantily clad babes gleefully ride phallic bombs. On others, cuddly cartoon characters charge forward, bombs in tow, driven by a testosterone-fueled determination to kill. Some jackets depict caricatures of Native Americans or Pacific Islanders, usually drawn with bones in their noses. Even rarer are those showing Hitler being humiliated-while the number of bombs designated missions flown, swastikas represented German aircrafts destroyed.
The fact that the Army would allow their servicemen to decorate their jackets with such provocative images isn't really that surprising. Army Air Corps duty was one of the most hazardous professions of World War II.
John Conway, co-author of American Flight Jackets and Art of the Flight Jacket, explained to Collectors Weekly that, "When you were up there in a plane, you'd get shot at, and you couldn't call field artillery to support you. You had no ambulance, no medic. There was no tank to come in and run over the enemy. All it took was one accurate aircraft shot, and a plane full of 10 guys was gone."
Bombing missions over Europe carried incalculable risks. Actually, it was calculable — and to a disturbing degree; at the worst of times, a crew could expect a 1 in 15 chance of being shot down. And they would have most certainly known the odds — especially considering that many servicemen were required to fly upwards of 30 missions. Conway continues:
"We don't have any concept today of what losses are like," he says. "We hear, ‘We lost six guys in Afghanistan today,' and it's horrible. But it's not the same as losing a hundred B-17s in one raid, each one with 10 guys on it. That was happening day in, day out. In the old British Army, all the guys would come out of one town for each regiment. When they went to World War I, there were several cases where in one day, every man in a town was wiped out. So they stopped that old regimental system. During World War II, the attitude of the U.S. Army was, ‘Let's do whatever we can, try to keep these guys happy, they might not be here next week.'"
Bugs Bunny and other characters from Looney Tunes and Walt Disney cartoons were particularly popular motifs with young pilots, as were the Vargas Girls from Esquire magazine. (Disney artists, for what it's worth, designed many of the squadron patches or insignias.) Conway says we have to remember that American pop culture was a lot smaller and a lot more homogenous at the time. No one had the Internet, cable, or even a TV. The A-2 and nose art imagery tended to come from radio programs, newspaper funny pages, comic books, magazines, and cartoon reels shown before movies, which served as a common language for young Americans.
"Again, you're talking about guys who were 18, 19 years old," Conway says. "And this was the first place they'd ever been besides home. They tended to cling to things that were familiar to them. A lot of those guys read comic books and the comic strips in the newspapers when they were kids, and that stuff just stayed with them. They listened to popular radio shows like ‘The Lone Ranger' and ‘The Shadow,' and then they would visualize characters from those programs and paint them on the aircraft."
Be sure to check out our favorite jacket designs in the gallery (above), and read the entire article at Collectors Weekly (where there are more images).