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During World War II, and again in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars, colorful images appeared on the nose sections of American military aircraft. Loved and hated, photographed and censored, the paintings known as nose art have been a controversial tradition.
Although wildly painted squadron insignia was common in World War I, true nose art did not occur until the Second World War. At the beginning of World War II, before the idea of painting an image on the skin of a plane arose, crews of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) pasted pages from Esquire Magazine, Men Only, and Look magazine on the nose section, fuselage, and tail sections of the B-17 bombers known as Flying Fortresses. By the end of the war, there was such a demand for artists, who received up to $15.00 per aircraft, that nose art could be called an industry (Logan). The phenomenon peaked during the Second World War, but what were the reasons for this so-called “Golden Age” of nose art?
Nose art thrived in its infancy largely because servicemen had more freedom to alter their aircraft. Although the military never officially sanctioned nose art, it unofficially approved it as a morale-booster. It was a survival technique in a harsh environment. A little bit of levity and diversion goes a long way, and a measure of pride and enthusiasm comes from individual expression. Similarly, young men, who were generally under the age of twenty, could derive some comfort from images of women, mother, and home.
There were four main cultural sources of 1940s nose art. The first was the popular men’s magazine Esquire, whose calendar page was the era’s equivalent to the 1960s Playboy centerfold. The most duplicated nose art images were the product of Esquire’s artist Alberto Vargas. Whether a Vargas copy or a Philip S. Brinkman original, pin-up art of the day was transferred to the side of an aircraft. Comic strip characters provided another source to be duplicated.
Inasmuch as the American movie industry promoted the war effort and the culture was infused with Hollywood, it is no surprise that images from the movies and female stars were the inspiration for much of the era’s popular art. Rita Hayworth’s image from a 1940s film, in which she sings “Put the Blame on Mame,” is transferred to a B-24 Liberator named “Flamin’ Mamie” (Logan). Hollywood celebrities were photographed in front of aircraft and with combat crews, making the connection complete. Like Hollywood, the Disney industry was pervasive in American culture and it influenced nose art in a number of different ways. Combat crews copied Disney cartoon characters because they were suitable subjects for humorous and patriotic themes. Disney’s influence also included studio artists, who joined the military and then contributed their talents to the creation of nose art.
As the pin-up pervaded the war effort, it naturally became central to nose art. Nose art’s portrayal of women in the World War II era can be characterized as free-spirited and daring. Perhaps reflecting a freer attitude regarding sexuality in the American culture, artists during the 1940s were not subject to censure as they were in later times. The farther from headquarters, and the farther from the public eye, the racier the art