Bomber Jacket Book Project


John Slemp

The man above is Captain Robert “Punchy” Powell, a P-51B pilot with the 352nd FG (with a record of 4 destroyed, 6 probable, and 7 damaged) who went back to College at West Virginia University after the war. He told me he wore his leather jacket to class, since he didn’t have another coat to wear. I’m willing to make a bet that there weren’t a lot of other former P-51 combat pilots wearing their jackets in his class. He didn’t wear the rest of his uniform, only that flight jacket.

The most enduring evidence of WWII pilot’s service is a leather flying jacket; a priceless heirloom which should be handed down in his family for generations. Issued by the thousands during the war, and personalized by countless field “artists”, they became a very personal record of military service. In the years following the war, they were worn and worn out, sold at garage sales or simply put out with the trash. Rare jackets were lost and forgotten. Now jackets are now considered an important part of aviation history and their own form of art.

Before they disappear and are lost to the archives of museums, basements or attics, it’s time to document them. Recently, work began on a self-initiated project that I’ve had in the back of my head for quite some time…that being to photograph WWII “bomber jackets”.  More properly known as “A-2” jackets (the Navy jackets are G-1’s), many have distinctive artwork on both sides, and of course are unique to their owners.  As the horrors of WWII recede from memory, it seems to me that now, more than ever, is the time to document these crumbling artifacts.

The idea germinated while viewing images of antique motorcycle jackets. A custom lighting setup is used, where the jackets are placed on a plexiglas box, and lit from both above and below. An extremely high resolution digital camera is used, which yields a file capable of producing 30 x 40 inch prints, with astounding detail and clarity.

Fascinating to me are the wear marks that each jacket bears…indicative of the utility they once provided the owner, and of the pride in which it was worn.  The artwork too is unique to each, largely because each is hand painted, and is a moving billboard of symbols that tell a story.  Bombs represent missions flown, insignia represent the unit that each man belonged to, and of course, their names.

As physical objects, they have taken on the patina of use that can only be created with something that has been worn often.  Frayed sleeves, busted zippers, dirty collars, torn liners, holes in the leather all point to the unique experience each owner lived…and to the very real men that wore them.  One day soon they will crumble to dust…as they must.  Perhaps with this project they can live on for future generations to admire and respect… as symbols of courage and dignity at a time when it was most sorely needed.

Each jacket selected for the project will be photographed “as is”, from the front and back side. The goal is to produce a book, including stories of the men who wore them, a custom set of prints, and a traveling exhibition, with life-sized prints.  The owners will receive prints for their efforts, the jackets will be insured while in my possession, and return shipping will be paid for. So far, 14 jackets have been photographed, including seven jackets recently at the National Naval Aviation Museum, and several other museums have agreed to participate.

Should the veteran or his widow be willing we can shoot portraits of them also. If possible we like to do video interviews too. Here is an example of an interview with Robert M. Mitchell, Jr a B-17 ball turret gunner.

If you have an original jacket, please contact us for possible inclusion in the project. Your jacket will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and quickly returned. Should there be questions, please feel free to call me, John Slemp, at (404) 245-2411, or contact me via email at john AT (replace AT with @)

About the Author/Photographer

After almost 11 years in the US Army, John Slemp began pursuing his passion for creating images. Now with over twenty years of experience as a commercial photographer, his advertising and editorial clients include Phillips 66 Aviation Fuels, Goodyear Aviation Tires, Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, General Aviation News, Women in Aviation International, Grace Dickerson Advertising, Sport Aviation magazine, AOPA, Georgia Jet, Epps Aviation, Terrafugia, Quest Aviation, Aspen Avionics, Commuter Craft, JSSI, Larry King Airshows, Avfuel, The Lindbergh Foundation, and Turkel Advertising – Miami.

John is a member of EAA, AOPA, the International Society for Aviation Photographers, and the American Society for Media Photographers, where he served a 5-year term as a national board member. He resides in Atlanta with his wife Marietta, Chesnut the dog, and Shadow the cat.

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