The crew of the "Memphis Belle" B-17 Flying Fortress after completing their 25th combat mission. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
In World War II, US Army Air Force pilots and aircrew wore personalized A-2 bomber jackets on missions. These jackets — precursors to modern-day flight suits — were made of horsehide to guard against wind and freezing temperatures at high altitudes. Commonplace since 1931, the jackets didn’t just provide protection from the elements; they also served as canvases of sorts for airmen to express their individual identities and styles.
While the mechanics and ground support teams painted detailed artwork on the sides of bomber aircraft, pilots and aircrew adorned their jackets with various types of flair, from squadron patches and unit insignia to colorful pop-culture iconography. The most popular variations were stenciled with the names of the wearers’ respective aircraft and featured detailed illustrations of cartoon characters or scantily clad pinup girls. As the war progressed, personal tallies of combat missions were often added to the jackets, with each completed mission usually symbolized by the image of a bomb, while the number of enemy planes an airman destroyed over Europe was typically marked by Nazi Swastikas.
The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, a short 20-minute drive from the city of Savannah, houses exhibits featuring the retired bomber jackets of WWII airmen. These artifacts have become cherished items, especially since not all of the men who wore them survived the war. Here are some of the most interesting jackets from the museum’s collection and the unique stories each of them tells.
“Hell’s Angels” A-2 bomber jacket. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Tech Sgt. Eddie Deerfield was one of the lucky ones. On his sixth mission in combat, while serving as a radio operator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 303rd Bomb Group, his heavily damaged bomber crashed into the North Sea. He survived. He then went on to complete bombing missions over Berlin and supported aerial bombing efforts to soften resistance before the D-Day invasion.
On his 14th mission, he and his crew bailed out of another B-17 before it crashed in the south of England. In total, Deerfield would fly 30 combat missions between July 14, 1943, and May 11, 1944, and was wounded by enemy flak during his last mission. He survived to become an artist after the war.
As for the A-2 jacket he wore in combat, it was embossed with the nickname of the 303rd Bomb Group, which was taken from one of the unit’s most storied B-17 Flying Fortresses — Hell’s Angels. The jacket is also decorated with a bomb for each of Deerfield’s 30 completed missions as well as a rendering of the nose art that had once adorned his B-17, the “Iza Vailable.”
The bomber jacket of Irving Baum, who became a prisoner of war during World War II. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
On March 16, 1944, while serving as a bombardier in the 92nd Bomb Group, 407th Bomb Squadron, Irving Baum was shot down over Nazi-occupied France. He was captured by a German officer and became a prisoner of war. He was taken to a German garrison called Stalag Luft III. The image of an imprisoned Donald Duck on his A-2 bomber jacket represents his predicament inside the camp. (Interestingly, Donald Duck was the camp’s unofficial mascot.)
On Jan. 27, 1945, as Soviet forces advanced into the area, the order came to evacuate Stalag Luft III. The Americans were given Red Cross parcels and, starting on Jan. 28, endured a five-day march to Spremberg through snowy and freezing conditions. They stopped only at night and were sheltered in barns, a large church, and a factory. When they reached their destination, the Americans boarded trains to either Stalag XIIID Nürnberg or Stalag VIIA near Moosburg. Baum went to Stalag VIIA and was eventually liberated on April 29, 1945. Since he spoke German and Yiddish, he volunteered to help feed the survivors of the notorious Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany.
The A-2 bomber jacket for Lt. Joseph S. Farcht, who served with the B-17 “Lay or Bust.” Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Lt. Joseph S. Farcht was the pilot of a B-17 called Lay or Bust. Assigned to the 100th Bomb Group, 418th Squadron, his most notable combat missions included the shuttle bombing run targeting a synthetic oil refinery in Ruhland, Germany, on June 21, 1944.
An after-reaction review of the mission states that, while flying from Ruhland to an air base in Mirograd, Russia, Farcht’s squadron was attacked by enemy fighter aircraft. Lay or Bust lost an engine but ultimately pushed through the ambush. Meanwhile, Lay or Bust’s P-51 escort eliminated nine of the 12 enemy aircraft. Farcht’s A-2 bomber jacket features the image of a chicken and 35 bombs. Four of the bombs are red, four are blue, and 27 are white, with each color probably representing a different type of mission or their levels of significance.
A-2 bomber jacket for the aircrew of the “Miss Fortune” B-17 Flying Fortress. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Louis Allen flew 25 combat missions while assigned to the 388th Bomb Group between March 6, 1944, and April 14, 1945. Remarkably, over the span of those missions, he served as a waist gunner or a ball-turret gunner on board as many as 13 different B-17s. His A-2 bomber jacket on display at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force reflects that he flew on board the Miss Fortune the most. Written in yellow cursive lettering along the upper back of the jacket is “Miss Fortune,” accompanied by a nearly naked pinup girl leaning against a bomb and flanked by additional falling bombs, which are believed to represent the number of missions Allen completed.
This A-2 bomber jacket from the B-17 Flying Fortress “Heaven Sent” belonged to bombardier Lt. Fred Schmidt. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Perhaps the most detailed and best preserved of the museum’s collection, this A-2 bomber jacket was worn by bombardier Lt. Fred Schmidt of the “Heaven Sent” B-17 Flying Fortress. Schmidt flew with Lt. Tom Anderson’s crew in the infamous Bloody Hundredth, sometimes referred to as World War II’s most famous heavy bomb group. According to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, among the 38 original co-pilots, only four completed their tours of 25 missions. Schmidt’s co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William “Bill” Fratus, was one of them. Tech Sgt. Michael Garemko, Schmidt’s top turret gunner, painted the Heaven Sent’s nose art on the aircraft and on the jacket, which is a rendering of one of Alberto Vargas’ classic pinup girls.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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