When you pluck ten to twelve young men from the heartland, the cities, and the tiny towns, and put them in a large barebones metal airplane, and tell them to go fly it for hours on end into enemy territory, something happens: a team and a bond is formed. Not just to each other, but also to their planes. Planes they are totally dependent on to keep them safe while in the air, and to get them home alive.
So it is not a big stretch to see how the crews of the WWII Navy Patrol Bomber squadrons would begin to name their planes, and eventually decorate them to make them even more personalized. I can hear them now as they patted the picture before climbing in the plane, “Bring me home safe, Mae!”
The “Ladies” of the Pacific Theater Navy Patrol Bomber Squadrons:
Can a warplane be ladylike? Could these big planes with ten guns that could drop thousands of pounds of bombs be like a Lady? I guess it depends on the Lady!
During WWII the Navy flew patrol bombers. They were first B-24 modified Liberators PB4Y-1 and later Privateers PB4Y-2. My Dad’s squadron, the 116th nicknamed “The Blue Raiders” was one of them using these workhorses of the sky. Not only did they patrol for downed airmen, they would bomb any target that got in the way of future operations in the Pacific. This meant they were on the front lines, island hopping, always pushing forward, and with each mission, they were always in harms way.
One of the islands that was captured by Americans was Tinian, part of the Marianas. It became a major airstrip for the B-29 bombers and the Navy’s Patrol Bombers. With all this traffic and the need for an infrastructure to maintain the planes, the island also became a place for aircrews to relax and rest. That also meant where the crews could come to get their planes decorated.
The Pacific theater proved to be a tough battle with great losses of life and horrible personal challenges. The young men sent there to fight faced death everyday. They hung onto every bit of faith, luck, and hope to get them through. One very obvious display of that faith/luck/hope was painting nose art onto their planes. This practice is not unique. Warriors have been adorning their war wagons and ships going back centuries in order to please the gods into giving them a safe journey. They also decorated them to bring them luck, and to give their ship a spirit. The vessels of the early Greeks and the Vikings are good examples. This practice continued on into the 1800s with sailing ships having carved figureheads.
The Navy Patrol Bomber crews coming to Tinian were no different than those ancient warriors. One of the first things they did upon arrival was to pool their money to have their planes painted. More often than not they chose a sassy and sexy female subject inspired from a calendar pin-up picture, comic strip, or a girlfriend. Just like the vessels of old, now their plane had a name and a personality. She would take them into battle and she would bring them home if she could. And other crews could immediately know who they were by the Lady on the front of their plane. The nose art united them and picked up their spirits, both desperately needed in such a stressful time.
One of the artists who painted most of the planes in my Dad’s squadron was a young man brought to Tinian to work on the instrumentations of the planes. By bringing him and the other technicians to the airstrip, it allowed for a faster turn around to get the planes up and on mission than before, when the broken instruments had to be sent back to Pearl Harbor. His name was Hal Olsen. Choosing to bring his art supplies to war rather than the usual whiskey and cigars would prove to be lucky for him and many aircrews. When word got out he was willing to do nose art, he quickly was in high demand.
Hal Olsen’s going rate was 50 dollars a plane. If the men didn’t have enough money, he accepted liquor which he turned around and sold to the Seabees. He painted (standing on an oil can) from first light to before his Navy shift started at noon. He was always busy and especially so when a new squadron of PB4Ys arrived on the island. He would have crews ten deep waiting for him.
Hal made a steady side income with most of his work being for the PB4Y-1 and PB4Y-2 squadrons (VPB-102, 108, 116, 121). “The Blue Raiders” VPB 116 carried several of his designs into war, with names like “Easy Maid”, “Call House Madame”, “Cover Girl”, “Miss Sea-Ducer”, “Peace Feeler”, and “Sleepytime Gal”. Hal made five thousand dollars which he turned into a nice honeymoon and art school after the war. The website “WarbirdInformationExchange.org” posted on July 20, 2010 a list of the Privateer PB4Y-2 planes he remembered painting. It lists 40 of them. He states he painted about 100 planes total.
Ronald R. Sathre wrote in the newsletter “Briefing/Fall 1992: Tail Chaser” about the 1992 PB4Y All Squadron Reunion. Seems Joe Palsha, an original member of the “Easy Maid” that flew missions from Iwo Jima, recalled his crew of their PB4Y-1 Liberator gave Hal seventy-five dollars to paint their plane. Maybe that extra twenty- five dollars paid off? His plane survived the war and it was brought back to the states. Though the plane was eventually scrapped, thankfully the nose art was saved and now lives at the American Air Power Heritage Museum. There are three photos of this plane in my Dad’s photo collection. He never told me which planes he flew in, leaving me to wonder.
When I take my Dad’s photos and compare them against Hal Olsen’s recalled list of planes painted, and then the detailed list of squadrons in Alan C. Carey’s book “Above an Angry Sea: United States Navy B-24 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer Operations in the Pacific October 1944-August 1945” interesting histories about the planes unfold, some sadder than others.
Smiles Frozen in Time
Sexy nose art was not something the Navy was keen on. In the beginning of the war all nose art was banned. That was relaxed when it was apparent it was a good morale booster. At first names were just added. Then possibly a cartoon character.
The paintings began to evolve to something a bit more “colorful” the further the crews were from censoring commanders. If there was an inspection, many crews would smudge mud or use water based paints to cover their “Ladies”. Once left alone, the bathing suits were washed off.
When I look at these old photos from my Dad’s collection, and those photos you will find on line, I see handsome young men smiling or goofing around next to their plane’s sexy nose art: Normal behavior for eighteen to twenty-five year old young males. We shouldn’t be offended by the nudity. We should only see normal young men placed in an un-normal extraordinary circumstance coping and expressing a rare smile. They are showing joy and thankfulness to the plane that has kept them and their friends alive. They gave her a name and a “face” so they could call out to her, pat her for luck before their mission started, and thank her for getting them home. Paint magically transformed her into THEIR gal then and for all time.
Atwood..very happy one of those “Gals” brought my Dad home safe.
I hope you will learn more about this very special art on these very special planes that carried many brave young men into battle. The WWII Veterans are leaving us quickly with most being in their late eighties and nineties of age. Please take time to hear their stories.
The above photos are all from my Father’s personal collection.
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Update 3/24/2018- I would like to thank Vince DiCintio for sharing his “Punkie” photos. As noted with the picture above, “She” was a PB4Y-2 in Squadron VPB-109, painted by Hal Olsen. I enjoy seeing and sharing all these great photos of the brave young men and their amazing planes.
Resources used in this article are;
Recollections by my Father and saved newsletters such as the one mentioned above.
The book “Above an Angry Sea: United States Navy B-24 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer Operations in the Pacific October 1944-August 1945” by Alan C. Carey: Schiffer Military History: Very detailed with several indexes.
The eBook “WWII: The Golden Age of Nose Art. Up an’Atom” by Hal Olsen: Patriot Media Publishing: A nice quick read of a first hand account during wartime. Also includes several of his scenic and non nose art paintings.
For more photos of the planes mentioned, you can go to these links:
http://www.vpb-118.com/crews.php. This is a great site presderving the history of the Patrol Bomber Crew VPB-118. It includes the crews of “Modest O’Miss” and “Flying Tail ?”, plus some photos of the planes lined up on the tarmac at Tinian. You can also find links to other planes painted by Hal Olsen with such fun names as “Miss Lottatail” and “Navy’s Torchy Tess”. The link for “Miss Behavin” contains some great photos and a most moving letter from the Pilot to the mother of a wounded crewmember
An article in “Portraitofwar.com” about Hal Olsen has a few vintage photos of his work, including a photo of Hal. Planes shown are “Green Cherries”, “Lady Luck II”, “Accentuate the Positive” and “Gear Down and Locked” before she was shot down.
Another nice article about Hall Olsen can be found at :
If you want to know more about the Patrol Bomber Squadrons and Planes, please start with my article “The Blue Raiders”.
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