World War II Bombardment Group aircraft of the Mighty Eighth Army Air Forces were distinguished by multiple markings on the aircraft. For example, tail markings included Group codes made up of symbols and letters designating the Bomb Division and Bomb Group, and aircraft serial number. The fuselage markings designated squadron codes and identification letters and included changing national insignias over time.
My last article covered tail markings, specifically the Bombardment Group Codes. This article will cover other aircraft tail markings. Subsequent articles will cover fuselage, wing, and nose markings.
I will use the above photo to explain the tail markings.
The photo above shows two B-17G’s (42-107121 KENTUCKY COLONEL, aka HELENA II, and 43-38062 PLEASURE BENT) of the 384th Bomb Group, of which my father, George Edwin Farrar, was a waist gunner of the 544th Bomb Squadron. The 384th was part of the 1st Bombardment Division, 41st CBW (Combat Bombardment Wing) and was based in Grafton Underwood, England during World War II.
All of the aircraft tail markings were painted on both sides of the vertical stabilizer or tail fin (the static part of the vertical tail of the aircraft), and helped to identify the aircraft by:
- The Bomb Group to which the aircraft was assigned
- The Bomb Squadron to which the aircraft was assigned
- The fiscal year in which the aircraft was contracted to be built/manufactured
- The tail/serial/designator number of the aircraft
- The additional “plane-in-squadron”/call letter to identify the aircraft specifically within its Bomb Squadron
The Bomb Group to which the aircraft was assigned
To begin, first note the Triangle P of the 384th Bomb Group prominently displayed on the tail. The letter “P” identifies the aircraft as belonging to the 384th Bomb Group. The Triangle identifies the Group as belonging to the 1st Bombardment Division, of which all aircraft were identified by the Triangle symbol.
On 1 July 1943, aircraft in the 1st Air Division (aka 1st Bombardment Division) were assigned a white triangle with a Group-designated letter inside in insignia blue or black. The 72-inch Group symbol was applied to both sides of the tail above the designator (aircraft serial/tail number – more on that in a minute).
When the group began receiving unpainted B-17G’s in the spring of 1944, the Group symbol/insignia became a black triangle with a white “P.”
The Group symbol/insignia was changed for the last time in August 1944. Tail markings were changed to a 10-foot per side black triangle, 18 inches wide, surrounding a solid white triangle with a 36-inch black “P” in the middle.
Note: The 384th Bomb Group began flying missions in June 1943, but the group insignia (Triangle P symbol) and squadron markings, were not applied to the Group’s aircraft until the first week of July.
The Bomb Squadron to which the aircraft was assigned
In the B-17 photo, note a single digit displayed at the apex of the Triangle P symbol, in this case a “3.” The 384th Bomb Group consisted of four Bombardment Squadrons – the 544th, 545th, 546th, and 547th. Each Squadron was assigned a number.
- 544th was assigned “1”
- 545th was assigned “2”
- 546th was assigned “3”
- 547th was assigned “4”
The “3” notes the aircraft was assigned to the 546th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group.
The Squadron number was added in August 1944 at the apex of the black triangle as a yellow number (1-4).
The fiscal year in which the aircraft was contracted to be built/manufactured
In the B-17 photo, note the longer number displayed below the P in the bottom border of the triangle, in this case “2107121.” The first number in the series indicates the fiscal year in which the aircraft was contracted to be manufactured. The B-17’s of the 384th Bomb Group were contracted to be manufactured in the years 1941 to 1944.
The year of contract was represented by two digits (41, 42, 43, or 44) followed by a dash in the aircraft’s full serial number, but was represented by a single digit (1, 2, 3, or 4) immediately preceding the remainder of the serial number, with no dash, on the tail of the aircraft.
In this case of the pictured B-17 “2107121,” the “2” at the beginning of the number signifies that the aircraft was contracted to be built in 1942.
Thank you to 384th Bomb Group Combat Data Specialist Keith Ellefson for noting my error in the description of the year in the aircraft serial number. I have corrected the terminology since original publication. Keith explained to me that,
The first two digits of the B-17 serial number represent the Fiscal Year in which the contract to build the ship was awarded vice the year in which the ship was actually built.
The tail/serial/designator number of the aircraft
Again, in the B-17 photo, note the longer number displayed below the P in the bottom border of the triangle, “2107121.” We already know the beginning “2” signifies the contract year of manufacture of the B-17 as 1942.
The remainder of the number, “107121,” identifies the aircraft as the B-17 with the full serial number of 42-107121.
The serial number was also known as the aircraft’s “designator number” or “tail number.” It was applied to the tail of all B-17F’s and olive-drab-painted B-17G’s in 24-inch tall yellow numbers, and on unpainted B-17G’s in black numbers, on the vertical stabilizer, aka the tail fin.
The aircraft tail/serial/designator number was changed for the last time in August 1944. It was repainted on the base leg of the black triangle in yellow.
The additional “plane-in-squadron”/call letter to identify the aircraft specifically within its Bomb Squadron
Each aircraft was assigned to one of the Group’s Bomb Squadrons – 544, 545, 546, or 547. Each Squadron had a Squadron Code, which was made up of two letters, and each aircraft was assigned an additional letter to identify it within its squadron. The plane-in-squadron/call letters were re-used as new aircraft replaced lost or transferred aircraft.
Original aircraft of the Group did not display the additional call letter, but replacement aircraft had the additional 24-inch yellow “plane-in-squadron” letter applied to the tail, below the designator (tail/serial) number.
The aircraft plane-in-squadron/call letter was changed for the last time in August 1944 to a 24-inch letter painted in black below the base leg of the Triangle P. Note in the aircraft photo, the letter printed below the Triangle P symbol, in this case the letter “J.”
The Squadron Code was not painted on the tail, but it was painted on the fuselage of the aircraft, so I’ll hold off discussing Squadron Codes for now.
Learn More about the B-17’s of the 384th Bomb Group in the 384th Bomb Group website’s “384th BG Aircraft” list by tail/serial numbers
The 384th Bomb Group website has a list of all the B-17’s assigned to the Group during World War II, an additional page of detail for each aircraft, and a link to photos of most in the Group’s photo gallery. Links to view these pages for our example aircraft,”42-107121,” are:
Future articles will explain additional aircraft markings of the Eighth Air Force’s bombers of WWII…
For more information about the aircraft markings used by the 8th AAF in WWII, please see,
- 303rd Bomb Group website – Eighth Air Force Bomb Group Tail Markings chart
- Mighty Eighth Cross Reference website – Bombardment Groups by group code. Once on the website, click “Bomb Groups” under “CONTENTS,” then heading “By Group Code.”
- 384th Bomb Group website – 384th BG Aircraft Markings
- Previous post, USAAF 8th Air Force Bomber Bases (Heavy)
- Previous post, Eighth Air Force Bomber Tail Markings – Bomb Group Codes
- USAAF 8th Air Force Bomber Bases (Heavy) in England During WWII chart courtesy of the 100th Bomb Group Historical Association and Airfield Museum at Thorpe Abbotts
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2023