Although nose art and painted squadron insignia saw its inception in World War I, nose art as we know it, 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 a huge demand for artists, who received up to $15.00 per aircraft! 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. Anne Josephine Hayward, a member of the American Red Cross Aero Club in England and a painter of nose art, described nose art as: "Its purpose was worthy, to bolster military morale in a terrible time. The members of each crew came to feel that their plane and their painting were somehow special and would bring them luck, a safe return from hostile skies. The art may have been frivolous at times, but it was never anti-social".
WW2 Aircraft Nose Art - B25 Georgie's Gal
There were several 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. Other popular topics included animals, nicknames, hometowns, and various patriotic imagery. The Soviet Air Force decorated their planes with imagery of history, mythical beasts and patriotic motifs. Here are a few and be sure to come back as we're adding more regularly. Contemporary research demonstrates that bomber crews, which suffered high casualty rates during WWII, often developed strong bonds with the planes they were flying, and affectionately decorated them with nose art. It was also believed by the flight crews that the nose art was bringing luck to the planes.
Source material for American nose art was varied, ranging from pinups such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable and cartoon characters such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Popeye to patriotic characters (Yankee Doodle) and fictional heroes (Sam Spade). Lucky symbols such as dice and playing cards also inspired nose art, along with references to mortality such as the Grim Reaper. Cartoons and pinups were most popular among American artists, but other works included animals, nicknames, hometowns, and popular song and movie titles. Some nose art and slogans reflected contempt for the enemy, especially to enemy leaders.
The farther the planes and crew were from headquarters or from the public eye, the racier the art tended to be. For instance, nudity was more common in nose art on aircraft in the Pacific than on aircraft in Europe.
Luftwaffe aircraft did not often display nose art, but there were exceptions. For example, Mickey Mouse adorned a Condor Legion Bf-109 during the Spanish Civil War and one Ju-87A was decorated with a large pig inside a white circle during the same period. Adolf Galland's Bf-109E-3 of JG 26 also had a depiction of Mickey Mouse, holding a contemporary telephone in his hands, in mid-1941. A Ju-87B-1 (Geschwaderkennung of S2+AC) of Stab II/St. G 77, piloted by Major Alfons Orthofer and based in Breslau-Schongarten during the invasion of Poland, was painted with a shark's mouth, and some Bf-110s were decorated with furious wolf's heads, stylistic wasps (as with SKG 210 and ZG 1), or as in the case of ZG 76, the very shark mouths that inspired both the RAF's 112 Squadron and in turn the Flying Tigers in China, on their noses or engine covers. Another example was Erich Hartmann's Bf-109G-14, "Lumpi", with an eagle's head. The fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 54 was known as the Grünherz (Green Hearts) after their fuselage emblem, a large green heart. The Geschwader was originally formed in Thüringen, nicknamed "the green heart of Germany". Perhaps the flashiest Luftwaffe nose art was the red and white viper snake insignia running through the whole fuselage of certain Ju 87 Stukas that served with the II Gruppe, and especially the 6. Staffel of StG 2 in North Africa, the only known artwork on an Axis-flown combat aircraft that could have rivaled the length of that on "The Dragon and his Tail" B-24. front portside view entire portside ground view.
The Soviet Air Force also decorated their planes with historical images, mythical beasts, and patriotic slogans.
The attitude of the Finnish Air Force to the nose art varied by unit. Some units disallowed nose art, while others tolerated it. Generally the Finnish airforce nose art was humorous or satirical, such as the "horned Stalin" on Maj. Maunula's Curtiss P-36.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force has decorated fighter aircraft with Valkyrie-themed characters under the names Mystic Eagle and Shooting Eagle.
Canadian Forces were reported having nose art on CH-47D Chinook and CH-146 Griffon helicopters in Afghanistan.