Boeing B-17s clad in their war paint of olive drab and neutral gray were a common sight over Europe during World War II. Many artists have depicted formations of heavy bombers heading off under leaden skies to targets across the Channel. They are dark green aircraft on dark missions. So it is refreshing to come across Steve Ingraham’s latest endeavor, A Bit-O-Lace—Surviving the Storm.
Miss Lace, as she was referred to by her crew, was officially a Boeing B-17G-40-VE, Bureau of Aeronautics No. 42-97976. The “G” version of the B-17 was easily recognizable by its Bendix twin .50-caliber machine gun chin turret. (Factory records show some late “F” models also had the same nose armament.) In all, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Douglas Aircraft Corporation and the Boeing Company manufactured 8,680 “G” models.
B-17G Flying Fortresses were armed with 11 to 13 machine guns, depending on the model, and carried a 9,600- pound bomb load. Four 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1820- 97 engines pulled the 65,000-pound gross weight bomber to a maximum altitude of 35,600 feet. Cruising speed was 150 mph, with a top speed of 287 mph.
Midway during production of the “G” models, all the manufacturers dispensed with the olive drab–neutral gray paint scheme in favor of a natural metal finish (NMF). The decision not to paint the bombers was made to cut costs, save production time, reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency. The exact date of this changeover is not clear, but it appears that aircraft arriving at Rattlesden, Suffolk, England, in February and March 1944 arrived in NMF.
The aircraft was rolled out of the Lockheed Vega plant in Burbank, Calif., on April 21, 1944, and was ferried to Great Britain on June 18, 1944. The following day it was assigned to the 709th Bomb Squadron. The first combat mission was flown on July 6, with the aircraft leading a formation of the 447th Bomb Group to a target at St. Lô. Louie the Creep, as 42- 97976 was named at the time, led more than 20 missions over targets in Europe in the late summer and early fall of 1944. (According to the A Bit-O-Lace official Web site, the name Louie the Creep came from a fictional character in a story by popular author Damon Runyon.)
In mid-October Louie was reassigned to the 711th Bomb Squadron, and Lieutenant John Bauman became a co-pilot of 42-97976. Bauman had been a college fraternity brother of cartoonist Milton Caniff, who was known for his popular wartime hero comic strip Terry and the Pirates.
Bauman wanted a character from one of Caniff’s comic strips painted on the aircraft. He selected “Miss Lace,” a fictional heroine from Male Call, a strip that only appeared in military newspapers distributed by the Camp Newspaper Service (CNS). Bauman wrote and asked Caniff if they could use the scantily clad pinup as nose art. Caniff responded with permission and a full-color drawing with the notation “A Bit-O-Lace for Lt. John H. Bauman, and the rest of the gang, with my best wishes— Milton Caniff, NY, Oct. 1944.”
With the full-color drawing in hand, Corporal Nicholas Fingelly, an artist assigned to the 447th, set to work painting Miss Lace. The figure, swathed in red lace, soon took shape complete with Caniff’s title, A Bit-O-Lace, emblazoned below the cockpit.
The splash of red from Miss Lace’s costume indicated the aircraft was from the 3rd Division, 4th Bomb Wing. The black 48-inch square on the fin, with a white “K,” was an additional marking for the 447th Bomb Group. The 24-inch wide bright green stripes around the fuselage between the rear edge of the waist gunners’ windows and the leading edge of the stabilizers further marked A Bit-O-Lace as being from the 447th. A dark blue chevron was painted on the starboard wing, and the engine cowls were painted yellow, as was the antiglare panel just ahead of the cockpit.
Ingraham’s oil on canvas faithfully reproduces all the history and color found on this aircraft. The storm cloud background not only represents the inclement northern European weather that crews faced during the war but also the dangers posed by German fighters and groundfire. “I decided to show a B-17 flying through violent weather when suddenly a break in the clouds allows a ray of sunshine to highlight the aircraft,” he said.
A close inspection of the painting shows that the black rubber coverings on the leading edges of the wings and vertical and horizontal stabilizers are missing. The artist reports that his research indicates many aircraft had these “de-icing boots” removed because of flak damage or due to wear over a period of time. “Damaged rubber parts would flap around in flight and could damage the surrounding aluminum skin,” said Ingraham. Removing the de-icing boots exposed the bombers to the buildup of frozen precipitation on the wings, which caused many planes to crash.
The 84 bombs represented on the nose of 42-97976 indicate the number of combat missions it flew during WWII. Official U.S. Army Air Forces records show that the aircraft only flew 82 missions, while some crewmembers report 83. The exact number is lost in dusty files. The final mission of the war for A Bit-O-Lace was on April 21, 1945, over Ingolstadt, Germany. The pilot was Lieutenant Joseph F. Baier, Jr.
“I selected the aircraft A Bit-O-Lace for the painting for several reasons,” said Ingraham. “I wanted an actual B-17 that wasn’t as well known as Memphis Belle but would represent the typical B-17 over Europe.” For that reason the bomber is shown flying away from the viewer, with the distinctive nose artwork not visible.
The B-17 survived the war and returned to the United States. On board for the final flight was Corporal Fingelly, the artist who had painted the famous figure on the nose. A Bit-O-Lace, 42-97976, ended its days in a breaker’s yard in Kingman, Ariz., on November 9, 1945. Steve Ingraham’s work will not let it be forgotten.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.