If clothes make the man, then World War II flight jackets make legends.
The A-2 flight jacket, introduced as standard issue for U.S. Army flyers in 1931, is a classic, made of horsehide with a spun silk lining, a shirt-style collar, with knitted wrists and waist band. Flyers often painted them to claim some individuality. They frequently featured the name of a girlfriend, the outline of their home state, the name of their plane, cartoons, unit insignias, and the number of missions.
Rock Island Auction Company has eight flight jackets on offer in its Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction, with one worn by a fighter ace, one from the unit that dropped the atomic bomb, and one worn by the first American to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Five of the flight jackets are A-2s, one is a B-10 flight jacket issued starting in 1943, one is a B-15 that was issued starting in 1944, and the sixth is a commercially made leather jacket.
*Flight jackets provided a bit of individuality in the military when their owners might have them painted to show off, perhaps with a partially nude woman, their aircraft, the number of missions flown or disdain for the enemy. Lot 3468, Lot 1492, Lot 441, and Lot 1501 are available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.
Flight Jackets: Origin
As aircrafts went higher, the air got colder, not just outside but also in the cockpit. In 1910, pilots of the Royal Flying Corps in Belgium and France started wearing long coats for warmth in the biplanes, balloons, and airships. The coats were often made of leather since it was more windproof.
The U.S. Army introduced the A-1 flight jacket in 1927, followed by the A-2 four years later. The A-2 was one of the first garments specifically designed for a zipper.
The A-2 was eventually made by 19 manufacturers with slight variations in design and color. Some were made of cowhide and even goat skin, with color varying from dark brown to nearly black to russet to pale-red or medium brown.
Later issue flight jackets weren’t leather but often made of different materials like nylon or a cotton-rayon blend. The B-10 was a cloth jacket that had an alpaca fur collar and lining and was lighter weight than previous flight jackets. The B-15 flight jacket, issued starting in 1944, was made with a synthetic shell and had a mouton fur collar and wool knit waist and cuffs. Its key feature was a pen pocket on the upper left sleeve.
The epitome of cool, the A-2 was highly sought after, even when they were no longer being issued. Germans took them from captured flyers. The unadorned jackets often ended up in the civilian wardrobe when flyers returned home. Steve McQueen wore an A-2 in “The Great Escape.”
Painted flight jackets likely found their way to the back of the closet, according to John Conway, co-author of “American Flight Jackets and Art of the Flight Jacket.”
“I’ve talked to people who, when they got back from the war, hung their jacket up in the closet because they wouldn’t dare ever wear it in public again,” says John Conway, co-author of Schiffer Books’ American Flight Jackets and Art of the Flight Jacket. “When you’re a teenager and you’re 3,000 miles from home, having a naked lady painted on the back of your jacket is not that big a deal. But you wouldn’t want your mom to see it.”
Sometimes an airman could find someone who worked as a sign painter as a civilian to paint the back of their flight jacket. Lot 1493, Lot 1489, Lot 440, and Lot 444 are available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.
War Art: Painted Flight Jackets
Sometimes the flight jackets could be bawdy, with a scantily clad women painted on them, or ferocious with a lion or some angry beast, or whimsical featuring a cartoon character of the time, or tempt fate with the grim reaper or a devil painted on the back.
Having their individualism stripped away during training, the flyers found a way to reclaim some of that individuality as they went on missions where they might not return. More than 40,000 American airmen were killed in combat and over 23,000 aircraft were lost during World War II.
During the 1940s, sign painting was a common trade as each town needed signs for businesses, so one could often be found in the unit who could be hired to paint a flight jacket. Some of the paintings could be well done representations of an airplane, a nude woman, a knight riding a bomb, possibly a cartoon wolf, or Hitler’s head on a pole.
Flight Jacket of a Bomber AND Fighter Pilot
The A-2 flight jacket of Friend Frank Wilson displays his versatility as a pilot. Wilson flew 26 missions as a B-17 pilot with the U.S. Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force 333rd Bomb Squadron before volunteering to fly a P-51 fighter for the 3rd Scouting Force.
Wilson’s jacket denotes the 26 bombing mission with 26 yellow bombs painted on the jacket’s front left while the back has high quality paintings of Wilson’s B-17 and P-51, the “Miss Vera” with its guns blasting.
The Scouting Forces, a little known arm of the strategic bombing force, was intended to help the bombers assemble formation over England, lead the bomber formation to the target through bad weather, assist in keeping the bombers in tight formation to the target, and protecting the bombers from enemy fighters. The 8th Air Force Scouting Forces were comprised of former bomber pilots who had experience with bombing missions.
Flight Jacket of B-17 “Mary Alice”
The A-2 flight jacket of Lt. Kelly F. Harouff is both whimsical and foreboding. The back features a depiction of Bugs Bunny above the worlds “GNATZI KNIGHTMARE” and below “Mary Alice.” The back also has several painted on bombs and a swastika.
The bomber “Mary Alice” was assigned to the 615th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. It was named after pilot Don Knight’s mother and returned to the United States following 64 bombing missions.
Harrouff was a navigator assigned to the 359th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force and completed 18 missions between February and April of 1945 assigned to several different B-17 crews. How he might’ve come into possession of “Mary Alice” painted jacket is unknown, but jackets were known to be recycled by crews. A previous name tag appears to have been removed where Harrouff’s tag is located.
Bugs Bunny is featured on the back of this A-2 flight jacket dubbed the “Gnatzi Knightmare.” The jacket of Kelly F. Harouff is attributed to the “Mary Alice” B-17, but Harouff isn’t recorded as having flown a mission in the Mary Alice. However, jackets were known to be recycled by crews.
Thunderbirds Flight Jacket
The Thunderbirds of World War II were the planes of the 34th Bombardment Squadron. B-25 bombers from the squadron took off from the USS Hornet in the famed April 1942 Doolittle Tokyo raid that did minor damage but gave the U.S. a morale boost in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The unit deployed to the Mediterranean Theater, flying B-26 Marauders from bases in North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica, and France. The Thunderbirds flew in support of Operation Torch, the Tunisian campaign, and the invasions of Sicily and Italy, as well as American troop movements in southern France.
The A-2 jacket, with the name I.G. Wolfe, painted on the left front of the jacket, records 41 missions flown with as many yellow bombs painted on the right front of the jacket. A painted leather patch with the squadron logo is on the left front. On the back is a professionally painted B-26 against a background of clouds.
The Thunderbirds of the 34th Bombardment Squadron included the B-25 bombers that took off from the USS Hornet in the famed April 1942 raid on Tokyo. The unit also deployed to the Mediterranean and provided support in north Africa, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, and southern France.
Flight Jacket and an ICBM
The B-10 flight jacket of Tommie Zannes is a bridge from propeller aircraft to rockets and space travel.
Zannes was a glider pilot for the 1st Glider Provisional Group 4th Section that arrived in New Guinea in November 1944 as part of the 54th Troop Carrier Wing. Gliders were little used in the Pacific, often used to fly into remote areas with men and supplies to establish airfields.
After the war, Zannes graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Miami and eventually became operational projects manager for Convair at Vandenberg Air Force Base where the Strategic Air Command was testing ICBMs. Zannes oversaw Convair’s ICMB program that resulted in the Atlas, the first operational ICBM for the United States. After a trio of test failures, the program had a successful launch on July 28, 1959. The man who pressed the launch button was Zannes. The Atlas evolved into rocket boosters used in the space program that led to an American walking on the moon. Zannes died in 1962, seven years before the moon landing.
The flight jacket has glider pilot wings, Zannes’ name tag, and the 5th Air Force insignia on the left front. Bugs Bunny smoking a cigar wearing a crush-type hat is on the back in a blue circle with a gold and black border.
Tommie Zannes was a glider pilot for the 1st Glider Provisional Group 4th Section assigned to the south Pacific theater. His flight jacket has Bugs Bunny smoking a cigar on the back. After the war, he was operational projects manager for Convair at Vandenberg Air Force Base where he became the first American man to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missle in 1959.
Flight Jacket of an Ace in One Day
Lt. William H. Allen flew in the 343rd Fight Squadron 55th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force. He became an ace on Sept. 5, 1944 when he was returning from an escort mission in his P-51 Mustang and spotted several planes taking off from the airfield at Goppingen, Germany. He and his squad zoomed into action and when the smoke cleared from the skies, Allen was credited with shooting down five Heinkel He 111s. He got his five kills in one dogfight to become an ace in a day.
Allen enlisted when he was 18 and after training was assigned to the 343rd fighter squadron. The unit flew twin-engine P-38 fighters before converting to P-51. Allen’s Mustang was nicknamed the Pretty Patty II. The original Pretty Patty was a P-38 that was shot down. He earned the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Both medals are awarded for, “single acts of heroism” or “meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.” Oak Leaf Clusters signify subsequent decorations and awards.
After the war, Allen remained in the service and flew 39 different aircraft in his career from four engine fixed wing airplanes to helicopters. He retired in 1963 and became an aircraft accident investigator for the Civil Aeronautics Board and the FAA.
Allen’s B-15 flight jacket has lost one of two leather triangle patches on the front and has a faint USAAF insignia on the left sleeve yet represents an impressive piece of military history. The olive green jacket is featured on page 255 of “American Flight Jackets,” by Jon A. Maguire and John P. Conway.
Flight Jacket, the Himalayas, and a Blood Chit
James N. Thompson was assigned to the 331st Troop Carrier Squadron, 10th Air Force, which operated in the China Burma India Theater. The squadron flew troops and supplies over the Himalayas to ensure units in the combat zone remained operational, including Chinese units. The airlift logged an estimated 1.5 million flight hours and delivered a total tonnage of 650,000 net tons.
Thompson’s A-2 flight jacket features his leather name tag above the 331st Troop Carrier Squadron’s insignia as well as patches for the 10th Air Force and the CBI on the right and left shoulders, respectively. The back of the jacket has a large multi-leather blood chit. A blood chit was used throughout the CBI theater and were designed to immediately identify the wearer and request safe conduct if they are a downed airman. They often had the flag of the U.S. China, Burma, or the United Kingdom with messages in multiple languages.
A basic chit might read: “Dear Friend, I am an Allied fighter, I did not come here to do any harm to you who are my friends. I only want to do harm to the Japanese and chase them away from this country as quickly as possible. If you will assist me, my government will sufficiently reward you when the Japanese are driven away,” according to Maguire and Conway’s book.
Many airman had the blood chits on the back of their jacket’s like Thompson’s but were later moved inside of jackets after they realized they made a nice target.
This flight jacket from the 331st Troop Carrier Squadron and has a blood chit on the back that was a way for an airman, if they were downed, to communicate that he doesn’t want to hurt them and that the U.S. government will rewarded those who help the airman.
War Art of a Hell’s Angels
Sgt. Millard Wilkerson was a flight engineer/gunner in the 715th Squadron of the 448th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force who painted several flight jackets. He served in England in January 1944, flying 35 missions before returning to the United States. In April 1945 he was reassigned to the 6th Emergency Air Service Rescue Squadron to search for downed B-29 crews.
Wilkerson’s commercial leather jacket has the Far East Air Forces insignia on the sleeve while the back has a painted nude blonde woman with angel wings and wings on her feet over a cloud between the words “Hell’s Angels.”
The jacket is also shown in “American Flight Jackets” on page 266, along with other examples of his work that also feature scantily clad women, well-drawn airplanes, and cartoon animals.
Millard Wilkerson was a flight engineer/gunner in the 715the Squadron of the 448th Bomb Group. While this jacket isn’t military issue it is Wilkerson’s handiwork. He is known to have painted several flight jackets, according to the book “American Flight Jackets” by Jon A. Maguire and John P. Conway.
Flight Jacket and the Atomic Bomb
Lt. Col. Walter Mitchell Staub was a pilot and meteorologist in the U.S. Army Air Corps assigned to the 509th Composite Group, the unit that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unit was declared a composite because it included transport as well as bombing duties.
After the war the unit returned to Roswell Army Airfield in New Mexico. When the Strategic Air Command formed in 1946, the 509th was one of 10 original bomber groups. The unit was assigned to Operation Crossroads to determine the destructive capabilities of an atomic bomb on naval warships, testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946.
The weather was important in testing so Staub was among those determining when the usually stormy July weather would be clear enough for testing. The meteorologists also monitored wind so that military personnel wouldn’t be downwind of atomic material.
Staub’s A-2 flight jacket has his name written on the lining and has a large patch for the 509th Composite and 58th Bomber Wing on the front left. The patch has a large mushroom cloud and two red lightning bolts on a blue field.
Walter Mitchell Staub was assigned to the 509th Composite Group that transported and dropped the atomic bombs that ended World War II. This is his A-2 flight jacket with a unit patch showing a mushrom cloud on the front left of the jacket.
Flight Jackets and War Art
Call them high art, as in altitude, for these flight jackets flew with men whose names may not be of the household type, but their contribution to fighting fascism and winning World War II cannot be forgotten. Flight jackets that flaunt their wearers individuality while sharing in a common goal are an amazing opportunity to collect a piece of World War II history and classic Americana, and seven of them are available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.
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