The Origin of Nose Art




The origin of Nose Art goes back to some ancient time when the first proud charioteer decorated his vehicle so that it would be distinguishable from the others. The desire to personalize an object, a machine, to make it unique among the multitude, is basic to man's nature. Place man under great stresses, give him a very uncertain future, and this desire can become an obsession. So it is in war, and with the machines of war. A thousand B-17s, identical in every way, roll off the assembly line and fly to an uncertain fate, but each one can be different. The difference is not in the tail number. Those are for record keepers and ribbon clerks. The difference is in the imagination and talent of the crew. Few crew members would talk about 247613 or 34356, but many tales would be told about "Sack Time" or "The Dragon Lady".

The ideas for Nose Art came from everywhere; girlfriends, wives, posters, matchbook covers, calendars, the comics or some event related to the history of the aircraft. The "Swamp Angel" landed in a swamp, "Patched Up Piece" had probably been repaired more than once. "Just Once More" seems like a reasonable request for a B-17 crew trying to complete twenty-five missions so they could go home. "SHEDONWANNA?" could relate to problems that the crew had with the aircraft.

But the majority of the Nose Art was inspired by the artwork in the magazines and calendars of the time. Disney characters were prevalent, as well as the comic strips. But the most widely copied artist was Alberto Vargas.

The artwork could be painted on the plane by anyone. Those units fortunate enough to have talented artists produced excellent Nose Art. Some units went so far as to recruit artists, while some did without. It all had to do with the place, the people and the situation. Some of the remote outfits did not have the paint to do detailed work, while others had all they could ask for. So Nose Art came in all different shapes and sizes. The small ones could fit on a card table, while some of the B-29 artwork was bigger than a billboard.

There is no question that the golden age of Nose Art was during World War II and Korea. World War II was a time during which almost anything was allowed in an effort to boost morale and unit efficiency. But, as is the case with most things, a free hand led to some excesses and some censorship is evident in some of the artwork.

After Korea, Nose Art disappeared from US aircrafts. Artwork reappeared on a few Vietnam-vintage planes, but then it disappeared again. Nowadays Nose Art is making a slowly but surely comeback.




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Copyright 1997-2009 Alain Piquerez and respective owners of the characters and texts. Photographies by Alain Piquerez. All rights reserved.