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Q: Why were aircraft markings for the U.S. Army Air Forces (and later the U.S. Air Force) only applied on the top side of the left wing, with none on the right wing? The reverse arrangement was employed on the underside, with markings only on the right wing. I believe this format is unique to the air forces of the United States.

–Patrick Kane, Dublin, Ireland

A: When you stated that having a national insignia on the upper-left wing and underside of the right wing was unique to America’s air forces, you gave half the rationale behind it right there. When the U.S. Army Air Corps authorized the restriction of wing markings in that manner on February 26, 1941, it was intended to help facilitate recognition of friend and foe if the United States became embroiled in the spreading conflict. The other reason was to “eliminate a balanced target” by presenting a somewhat asymmetrical effect—if you see two white stars (i.e., one on each wing), it is easier to aim your guns between them. After all, throwing the enemy’s aim off in a combat situation for even a split second could literally make the difference between life and death. In the same directive, rudder stripes were eliminated from camouflaged aircraft. 

 That policy would remain in effect for the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Air Force, albeit with changes to the insignia itself. But trust the U.S. Navy to do things its own way: On January 5, 1942, the navy reverted to insignia on both wings—a red dot within a white star and a larger blue disc—and the adoption of 13 red-and-white stripes to the rudder. Operations against the Japanese, whose aircraft prominently displayed a red rising sun, eroded that regalia away. On May 15, 1942, the red dot was universally eliminated from the American white star and, on June 28, 1943, white rectangles (or “wings”) were added to each side of the blue disc to ensure further distinction from the red “suns” on Japanese airplanes. The U.S. Navy (and U.S. Marine Corps) officially returned to regalia on one wing only on February 1, 1943. 

—Jon Guttman, Historian, World War II magazine


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This article was published in World War II’s December 2020 issue.