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 two articles covered tail markings. Since writing about the tail markings, I discovered an interesting document in the 384th Bomb Group’s photo gallery uploaded by the 384th’s Combat Data Specialist, Keith Ellefson.
The document includes examples of the tail fin markings for the 1st Air/Bomb Division of the 8th Air Force beginning in August 1944. The image was dated 3 October 1944. It shows the markings of the 1st Combat Bomb Wing, the 40th Combat Bomb Wing, the 41st Combat Bomb Wing (of which the 384th Bomb Group was a part), and the 94th Combat Bomb Wing. These four Combat Bomb Wings plus the 482nd Bomb Group/Pathfinder Group made up the entirety of the 1st Air/Bomb Division, and were the Groups which were the “Triangle” Groups.
This article will cover a discussion on the different B-17 finishes and the markings found on other areas of the Eighth Air Force’s bombers.
In the course of the 384th Bomb Group’s participation in combat missions in the European theater during World War II, the group was assigned only one B-17E model, 114 B-17F models, and 224 B-17Gs.
The single B-17E assigned to the 384th Bomb Group – 41-9022 ALABAMA EXTERMINATOR II, pictured above – was factory finished in Dark Olive Drab (Shade 41) over Neutral Gray (Shade 43) paint. Most of the original B-17s sported this supposedly camouflage paint scheme with medium green blotching on the wings, tail, and fuselage.
The thinking at the time was that the B-17 bomber stream would not be as visible to enemy fighter jets flying at a higher altitude than the bombers, as the camouflaged bombers would be less visible against the backdrop of the countryside below.
In the Spring of 1943, all B-17s were factory-finished in the Olive Drab (Shade 41) over Neutral Gray (Shade 43) paint scheme. Some B-17Fs were delivered in the unpainted natural aluminum finish in late 1943. Many of the replacement B-17Gs were also painted with the Dark Olive Drab and Neutral Gray factory finish, but by February 1944, unpainted natural aluminum finish G-model fortresses began arriving in the UK.
Note: B-17E 41-9022 ALABAMA EXTERMINATOR II served the 384th as a Group utility plane and although it participated in only one mission in its 419 days assigned to the 384th Bomb Group, earned no completed mission credits. It was noted as a “weather aircraft” on its sole combat mission of 22 December 1943.
Aircraft identification was placed on both sides of the bomber’s fuselage. In the photo below are two of the 384th Bomb Group’s B-17Gs, 42-107121 KENTUCKY COLONEL (aka HELENA II) and 43-38062 PLEASURE BENT, which are both, by the way, examples of the unpainted natural aluminum finish B-17s.
U.S. National Insignia / Cocarde
The fuselage of the Eighth Air Force’s bombers sported a national insignia device called a “cocarde,” which was applied to both sides of the aircraft. While the main feature of the cocarde was a five-pointed star placed inside a circle, the exact design changed over time.
- Pre-May 1942, a red disc was applied to the center of the star. However, the red disc was overpainted white in June 1942 because of confusion in the Pacific Theater with the red disc that identified Japanese aircraft. The 384th Bomb Group webmaster also notes on the website’s Aircraft Markings page that “Vega-built B-17s were unique in that they carried a 60″ diameter cocarde on the fuselage, as opposed to Boeing and Douglas, which used a 55″ cocarde. When the aircraft arrived in England, the white of the star was usually overpainted a dull gray in an effort to reduce the visibility of the aircraft to enemy aircraft.” Please see the 384th’s Aircraft Markings page for examples.
- From June 1942 to June 1943, the national insignia cocarde was represented by a blue circle with a five pointed white star inside the blue circle. In the same time period, a yellow border was placed around the blue circle.
- On 29 June 1943, the “Star & Bar insignia” was adopted in order to aid in identification, with the change to be made immediately. White rectangle bars with red borders were placed on each side of the blue circle, which still surrounded the white star. The circle was also bordered in red, resulting in a solid red outline surrounding the entire design. Unfortunately for the aircraft of the 384th Bomb Group, this meant applying the bars directly over the squadron code letters on the fuselage (see next topic in this section for information about the squadron code letters). The 384th Bomb Group webmaster also notes that the “majority of photographs (see the 384th’s photo gallery for examples) indicate that no effort was made to repaint the letters. This device, designated AN-I-9a, is specific to the late summer and fall of 1943. It can be identified in black and white photos by the red border appearing as a lighter shade of gray than the blue disc.”
- On 14 August 1943, the red border around the insignia was removed, again due to confusion in the Pacific. The red border was to be changed to an insignia blue border around the white side bars. However, according to the 384th Bomb Group webmaster, “this change was not considered a high priority in the European theater, and aircraft continued to carry examples of the red bordered insignia throughout early 1944. Replacement aircraft coming from the US had the new insignia applied at the factory, and examples of B-17s that had the border painted in the field can be identified by a much darker border, due to the fading of the original blue paint. This device was designated AN-I-9b. Examples can be found in the 384th’s photo gallery.
The exact placement of the cocarde also varied depending on if changes were made in the field or if it was applied at the factory. As noted earlier, some repainting covered the squadron code letters and aircraft radio call letter. Some placed the cocarde between the Squadron code letters and aircraft radio call letter. And the cocarde was sometimes placed behind the squadron code letters and aircraft radio call letter.
See also the 303rd Bomb Group’s Aircraft Markings page for examples of the various cocarde designs.
Beginning 1 July 1943, each squadron of the 384th was assigned a 2-letter squadron code, which were 48-inch rectangularly shaped gray letters (36″ on replacement aircraft) applied:
- forward of the fuselage cocarde on the port (left) side
- between the waist window and cocarde on the starboard (right) side
The 303rd Bomb Group’s web page, Eighth Air Force Bomb Group Tail Markings, notes fuselage letter colors as:
- Early B-17Fs – Yellow
- Late model B-17Fs and early B-17Gs with Dark Olive Drab and Neutral Gray factory finish – Gray
- B-17Gs with natural metal finish (August 1944) – Black
When the Group began receiving unpainted B-17Gs in the spring of 1944, squadron codes were painted in black rather than gray.
In the case of the Vega-built Forts, the code was often split around the cocarde on the starboard side, and the second letter grouped with the individual call letter. The 384th Bomb Group squadron codes were as follows:
- 544th Bomb Squadron – SU
- 545th Bomb Squadron – JD
- 546th Bomb Squadron – BK
- 547th Bomb Squadron – SO
The 303rd Bomb Group’s web page, Eighth Air Force Bomb Group Tail Markings, notes the Squadron Codes for each Group of the 8th AAF.
Aircraft Radio Call Letter
Each aircraft was given a single additional letter to identify it within its Group’s squadrons. This letter was most often painted 48 inches high:
- aft of the cocarde and forward of the waist window on the port side
- immediately forward of the second squadron code letter on the starboard side
The letters were re-used as new aircraft replaced lost or transferred aircraft.
In making radio transmissions to or from lead aircraft, other aircraft, control towers, etc., each aircraft was identified by using the radio call letter plus the last three digits of the tail/serial number.
The 384th Bomb Group Aircraft page on the 384th’s website notes each of the Group’s aircraft’s Squadron Code and individual Radio Call Letter in the “Squadron & Code” column.
Rear Fuselage Propaganda Artwork
The 384th Bomb Group webmaster reports on the 384th’s Aircraft Markings page that several original B-17Fs from the Vega factory carried examples of propaganda that was applied on the rear fuselage, rather than the usual location of the nose, by artists from Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Some aircraft had this artwork painted over once they arrived in England.
The cocarde and Group symbol were painted on the wings of the B-17.
The Group symbol, the triangle for the 1st Air Division with the letter “P” for the 384th Bomb Group, was applied to the upper surface of the starboard wing (96 inches) minus the tail/serial/designator number and squadron identifier. The 303rd Bomb Group’s Aircraft Markings page notes that their Group symbol was painted on both the upper surface of the starboard wing and lower surface of port wing, however, I see no photo evidence of the Group symbol on the lower surface of the port wing for the 384th Bomb Group.
The cocarde was applied to the upper surface of the port wing and the lower surface of the starboard wing.
Throughout the war, many of the B-17 heavy bombers were “unofficially” personalized with nicknames and nose art. While not all of the fortress names were officially recorded, many are known through period photographs. Many more are only known, though not officially, through stories handed down from the WWII airmen to their descendants.
“Scoreboards” were also sometimes painted on the nose of the fortresses. These scoreboards were usually updated with a new bomb marking for every completed mission.
When hostilities ceased in May 1945, each aircraft of the 384th Bomb Group was assigned a number, 1 through 71, which was applied to both sides of the nose in 24″ black numerals.
In April 1945, each Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group was assigned a color to be applied to the engine cowlings:
- 544th Bomb Squadron – blue
- 545th Bomb Squadron – yellow
- 546th Bomb Squadron – red
- 547th Bomb Squadron – white
Learn More about the B-17s of the 384th Bomb Group in the website’s Aircraft List by tail/serial numbers
The 384th Bomb Group website has a list of all the B-17s assigned to the Group during World War II, an additional page of detail for each aircraft, and a link to photos of each in the Group’s photo gallery. Links to view these pages for one of our example aircraft,”42-107121,” are:
Thank you to Keith Ellefson and Fred Preller for the information they gathered from the archives and the assistance provided regarding the aircraft markings on the B-17s of the 384th Bomb Group.
For more information about the aircraft markings used by the 8th AAF in WWII, please see,
- 303rd Bomb Group website – Aircraft Markings
- 303rd Bomb Group website – Eighth Air Force Bomb Group Tail Markings chart
- 95th Bomb Group website – Chronological Development of B-17 Camouflage and Markings
- 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
- 384th Bomb Group photo gallery Aircraft album
- Previous post, USAAF 8th Air Force Bomber Bases (Heavy)
- Previous post, Eighth Air Force Bomber Tail Markings – Bomb Group Codes
- Previous post, Eighth Air Force Bomber Tail Markings – Other Markings
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2023
There’s a great deal of information here. The US system can be quite confusing if you don’t know what it is you’re looking at.
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Agreed! Where can I learn about the UK’s system of aircraft markings? I am curious because my dad’s POW camp roommate was an RAF wireless operator with the 50 Squadron.
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They are much simpler. The fuselage codes refer to the squadron and the aircraft in that squadron. That’s basically it! So, as with the USAAF EH – G would be ‘EH’ the squadron and ‘G’ the aircraft in that squadron. A separate code under the tail (also on the fuselage) is a production number eg AH570. No wing or Group numbers.
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Thank you for that information!
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