6 June, 1944 allied forces were landing on the beaches of Normandy. The 8th Air Force along with many others had been bombing occupied Europe for nearly a year but now American, British and other countries were putting forces on the ground to battle the war. It’s hard to imagine the chaos, panic, fear, emotions and drive to take those beach heads. The soldiers on the ground would be attacked from the air as well as the ground. But how would they in the heat of battle be able to pick out the enemy aircraft from their own?
Quick, easy, obvious visual identification was required. All aircraft, enemy and friendly had lots of markings already from country, unit markings to camouflage, something was required permitting rapid identification saying it was friendly. A plan was hatched to apply large black and white stripes on the tops and bottoms of wings and on the fuselage. All aircraft except four engine aircraft (because the Germans had no 4 engine heavies) were to get what became known as “invasion stripes.” But the invasion was a massive secret in which Herculean efforts were made to protect. Approximately 2500 fighters, 700 medium bombers, 870 gliders and tow aircraft were given invasion stripes.
All these aircraft were painted in the previous 48-72hrs to the landing but up to that moment, to preserve the secret of the invasion, no one knew they were going to paint all those aircraft. There was no stock pile of black and white paint let alone brushes to apply it all. It has been estimated that 30,000 gallons of paint was used for the paint job. Mops were the common tool for applying the stripes. And there was no time to scrounge up all the supplies let alone to paint perfect strips, it was slop and go!
We see many of our warbirds these days with perfectly painted invasion stripes, and while the stripes are historically correct, their perfect nature is not. At Oshkosh last week, the Texas Flying Legends Museum brought history to life in what I still feel is one of the bloodiest cool things I’ve ever been a part of. Their newly painted C-53 was brought to Warbird Alley and the reinactors painted on the invasion stripes in front of the crowd just like they had done 69 years ago. Eric (of Aircorp Aviation) and vets did an amazing job relating the story of what we were witnessing. In just over an hour, the C-53 had its invasion stripes. Now when you walked up and looked at the stripes, you saw the horrible job it was with brush bristles and mop strings stuck all over. There were no straight lines and the coat was anything but thick and even. And once “The Duchess of Dakota” was in the air, the stripes looked perfect. It was history coming to life right before our eyes, one of the most amazing events you can imagine!
On the photographic side, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I shot over 1000 images of the whole event with the D4, 80-400VR3 and 18-35AFS. As you can see, we had puffies floating by which provided great soft light. The C-53 was parked on cement which reflected up light filling in what shadows were around. The first half of the painting I was literally stuck in one place so let the 80-400 do all the walking and then on the second half of the aircraft, I was able to zoom with my feet. When it comes to the portraits, the reinactors quickly got into character and took to the task with the same intensity as must have been felt on the airstrips of England 69 years ago. The photos were in their faces, just had to look for the expression to tell the story. The best part was the response of the crowd who were present while history was brought to life. It’s just another small piece of the puzzle of why we have the freedoms we do to pursue the magic of photography today!