As we reflect on Pearl Harbor Day, here’s something to keep in mind: The “men” who fought and died for the United States in World War II, were just barely out of adolescence, as young as 18 years old—the same age as guys obsessed with “Maxim” and Grand Theft Auto today. The WWII flight jackets painted with provocative pin-up girls, favorite comic characters, or lucky charms are a reminder of just how young these servicemen were.
At the beginning of the war, Army Air Corps members were issued the most badass jacket in the military, the leather A-2—which had been the standard leather flight jacket since 1931. In WWII, these jackets became a canvas for teenage flyers to express their rugged individuality. They’d get the backs painted, and often these images included the plane’s nickname and little bombs to tally how many missions the crew flew. On the front, personalized patches would often indicate one’s squadron or bomb group.
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.
Lt. Ken Strong, who’d been an artist for Walt Disney, created the Pacific Islander character Asterperious for the 319th Bomb Squadron. The jolly roger with cross-bombs was the insignia for the 90th Bomb Group. From the collection of Jeff Spielberg.
Airmen stationed in the Mediterranean would buy beautiful hand-tooled and hand-painted leather patches like this one made in Italy.
Capt. Sam Trave, of the 347th Fighter Group, wears a silver “Good Luck” bell from San Michele, Isle of Capri, attached to the collar hook on his unusually dark A-2 jacket.
The A-2 of Richard E. Fitzhugh, the pilot of the B-17G “El Lobo II,” who completed 30 missions with the 457th Bomb Group. Then in 1946, he flew Winston Churchill on a speaking tour, and “El Lobo II” became the subject of a model kit.
Six U.S.O. Girls wear A-2 jackets belonging to the 90th Bomb Group, a.k.a. “Jolly Rogers,” under a B-24 bomber. From the collection of John Campbell.
An A-2 jacket worn by an American air gunner in the 86th Bomb Squadron, 47th Bomb Group. The dog was the squadron mascot, and the outline of Italy indicates were he served. From the collection of Jeff Spielberg.
The artwork on this jacket depicts Hitler as a “Shifless Skonk.” The “Schifless Skonk,” misspelled on R.L. Parker’s jacket, was the name of a B-17G bomber of the 568th Bomb Squadron. The swastika marks a German aircraft destroyed, while the parachuter indicates Parker had to jump. From Arthur Hayes’ collection.
The Hump Pilots in the Air Transport Command flew supplies over the Himalayas, where the weather was their worst enemy. The camels indicate missions flown, while the camel facing reverse marks a turnaround due to engine trouble. From the collection of Willis R. Allen.
“Doc’s Boy” G.H. Armstrong flew 30 missions on a B-24 bomber called “Puss-n-Boots” with the 577th Bomb Squadron. The winged 8th Air Force insignia was a popular motif for painted flight jackets. From the collection of Richard Peacher.
“Wee Willie,” a bee carrying a red bomb, was the insignia of the 21st Bomb Squadron, 30th Bomb Group. The patch is sewn to the A-2 of Captain Earnest C. Pruett, who flew B-24 Liberators.
This unusual A-2, belonging to Staff Sgt. James Eagan, who flew the B-24 bomber called “Final Approach” for the 458 Bomber Group, has the names of the targets painted on each bomb of the mission tally. From the collection of Leighton Longhi.
A hand-embroidered blood chit has a Republic of China flag and a Chinese message promising a reward to anyone who helped the airman get back to Allied lines.
Glider pilot Nesbit L. Martin, from the 1st Air Commando, shows off his blood chits sewn inside his A-2.