Modeling-ABC by Wilfried Eck

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Markings of US NAVY Carrier Aircraft

Part II - 1942 - 1944

Identification- and other markings of the US Navy and Marine Corps strictly followed directives by the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) of the Navy. At least until 1942. Wartime experiences dictated a change from the traditional formation based on sections of three to one of two, also the pre war marking system became impractical. All these changes were made by necessity without official approvement. But as well as before personal markings were strictly off limits.

F4F-3 Wildcat mid 1942

CV-12 Lexington landing activities, Gilbert Islands campaign 11/1943
F6F-5N night fighter on CVL-22 Independence, Philippine operations 10/1944

Historical background:

In spring 1942 Japan held a vast territory. East China, Indochina and Burma, the Philippines, New Guinea and vast parts of the Pacific. From Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands chain it was  just a small step to Australia (the next Jap. target).

May 6th - 8th 1942: The battle of Coral Sea (north east of New Guinea) marks a turning point in sea warfare as it was entirely fought by aircraft carrier forces, the ships not seeing each other; Jap. carrier Shokaku damaged, American CV-2 Lexington sunk. Supremacy of Japanese aircraft obvious.

June 4th 1942: Battle of Midway. due to a great portion of luck Japanese carriers Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu and Kage were sunk. Also most of the well trained and battle experienced Japanese pilots were lost. The Japanese expansion plans became obsolete. On the American side only CV-5 Yorktown was lost.

1943 was marked by the fight for Guadalcanal. In battles at land, sea and in the air the Allied forces repelled Japanese counter attacks and at last gained control over the whole Solomon islands. The supremacy of Japanese aircraft was countered by tactics, additionally due to the flimsy construction of Japanese aircraft  Japan again lost many of it's remaining first class pilots.

In 1944 US forces fought their way back to the Philippines. A steady stream of new aircraft carriers with more modern aircraft aboard appeared. Usual American tactics were: Strike where Japan doesn't expect it. Preparatory air strikes to soften Japanese strongholds, air cover for landing forces, construction of air bases for Marine aircraft to secure the territory gained, alternatively installation of ship bases.

June 19th, 20th 1944: The battle of the Philippine Sea marked the factual end of Japanese sea and naval air power (more than 300 aircraft lost). Oct. 23th and 24th last and unsuccessful attempt of Japanese ship forces to destroy American landing forces in the Philippines. Appearance of first kamikazes Oct. 24th 1944.


US carrier forces relied on three kinds of aircraft carrier:

  • Fleet carriers (CV, carrier vessel), purposely built, about 90 aircraft (fighters, dive bombers, torpedo/horizontal bombers).

  • Light carriers (CVL), built on cruiser hulls, about 30 aircraft.

  • Escort carriers (CVE), at first converted from tankers and oilers, later purposely built in large numbers. "Jack of all trades" (transport, training, sub hunting, combat air patrol, strike, reconnaisance, gun direction).

Time of carrier deployment differed greatly, ranging from half a year to some weeks. Furthermore embarked squadrons may have had had different times of assignment. For example squadrons on board CV-10 Yorktown: VF-5, 09-12/1943;  VF-5, 01-02/1944; VF-1,  05-06/1944; VF-3, 01/1945; VF-9, 03-04/1945; VF-88, 06/1945.

For modellers: There wasn't much time for "ageing" and in case of an emergency US Army airfields (New Guinea area) were far away , others occupied by decidedly unfriendly people. In short: The aviator (the USAAF had pilots) got wet.

See also:

Map "Milestones of the Pacific war"

(back by Return Arrow)


National Insignia:



Identification Markings:


star with red dot star less dot yellow suround red souround
doned down star and bars nat.ins. less blue Colors see

Colors US Navy 1941-1945

  • 01/05/1942: On fuselage in size 24 inch, directive Feb.05.1942: As big as possible. Accordingly the sovereign insignia moved forward on the fuselage and the squadron insignia moved backwards. On the rudder 13 stripes of equal width, 7 in "Insignia Red", 6 in "Insignia White". On the wings now on both sides, also as large as possible, also over the aileron. Distance from the wing tip 1/3 of the distance to the fuselage.
  • 02/06/1942: The territorial insignia must not touch moving parts of the wing. On the fuselage centered between trailing edge of wing and leading edge of tailplane. Since the adjustments were made in a hurry, there could be several variations as shown on the left.
  • 05/06/1942 (before Midway!) the red dot is removed. It displeased the pilots and could easily be confused with the Japanese national emblem. Size of the national insignia reduced again. Also the red and white stripes on the rudder are omitted.
  • 09/25/1942: At the urging of the British, who feared identification problems, for the operation "Torch" (landing in North Africa, 11/1942) a yellow ring similar to the British national insignia was added to the US national insignia on the fuselage and undersides of the wings.
  • 02/01/1943: The national insignias were removed from the top of the right wing and the bottom of the left wing. Size 75 % of the distance between wing and aileron leading edge.
  • 06/28/1943: Addition of white bars (length equals radius of star, width half star radius); border of the new insignia in "Insignia Red", strength 1/8 radius.  *)
  • 08/14/1943: The red border is replaced by one in the color of the disc (Insignia Blue). This at the insistence of the units in the Pacific theater of war, because of the unpleasant associations with the color red and the possibility of confusion with the Japanese "Hinomaru". This insignia was used until 1947 (insertion of a red stripe in 1/3 height). **)
* Deviating from the general standard, Grumman was simultaneously permitted in June 1943 to use light gray (65% "Insignia White, 35% "Light Battleship Gray") instead of "Insignia White" for the national insignia on the upper side of the left wing. The border was omitted (see photo left). Since the types F4F and TBF were already built under license by General Motors, this only amounted to the F6F-3.
** For aircraft in "Glossy Sea Blue", Grumman did not use the blue for the national insignia. All that was left to see was a white star with white bars. Officially sanctioned 02.01.1945. Shown here on an F6F-5, Air Group 11, CV-12 Hornet, end 1944.
Wartime experiences reflected in the appearance of US Navy aircraft. Though the Bureau of Aeronautics directive of Oct. 13th 1941 was still in effect, wartime necessities dictated changes. As the official identification system (squadron number-mission letter-individual aircraft number) was applied in relatively small black numbers, identification in greater distances was difficult. So gradually the color was changed to white.

Next, the squadron number was omitted. The enemy did not need to know from which aircraft carrier his opponent came. The letter that indicated the purpose of the mission (fighter, torpedo, scout bomber) became superfluous and was also omitted. Finally the remaining number grew in size and was applied where it deemed most visible.  All this solely on squadron level without any official approvement.

Before WW II a Squadron consisted of 18 aircraft, later on this number could be lesser or in cases up to 30.



Though markings changed gradually there were four distinctive steps:  
Standard markings at the beginning of the war, 12/071941:
  • Identification marking consisting of squadron number, letter of mission (i.e. fighter), individual aircraft number; lettering in 12 inches; individual numer repeated on trailing edge of the wing near the fuselage, optional on motor cowling and/or leading edge of the wing near the fuselage; all lettering in "block style" (edges canted 45°).
  • National insignia on the fuselage between trailing edge of the wing and leading edge of the horizontal stabiliser, size 24 inches.
  • Branch (NAVY oder MARINES) centered over serial number on the fin, model designation (i.e. F4F-3) centered on the rudder in the same hight as the serial; lettering 1 inch (2,54 cm). This part of the markings remained constant  throughout the war.
  • Inscriptions in "Block Style", i.e. vertical and horizontal lines with 45° bevelled corners. System unchanged until end of war.
04/29/1942: Squadron number (i.e. 6) deleted. As the national insignia had to be as large as possible (see left) sometimes applied after the N.I.


Approx. late 1942:  Numbers in larger size; sometimes with a prefix letter, meaning known to the squadron only (i.e.  VT-25 1943 on CVL-25 Cowpens).

Land based aircraft (especially F4U Corsairs of the Marine Corps) often with three digit numbers (last three digits of the BuAer number?)


08/31/1943 and later: Individual squadron markings ("G-Symbols") on the vertical tail (i.e. VF-5 on CV-10 Yorktown).

No carrier marking (!), as carriers may have had different squadrons with differing markings embarked.

Directive 01/26/1945: Marking on tail and wings now denotes the carrier (i.e. CV-17 Bunker Hill, Air Group 84).

Numbering still on squadron basis, sometimes numbering in 100+ blocks  (100+ fighters, 200+ for torpedo, and so on).


Tail Markings, "G-Symbols":  

In August 1943 the first operational F6F-3 Hellcats embarked with VF-5 aboard CV-10 Yorkwown showed a white oblique stripe one the vertical tail. Not leading upwards from front to rear (the common aid for the landing signal officer), but canting down. A pure squadron marking without any official approvement. But somehow the idea stuck, VF-2 on board CV-2 Hornet followed with a white dot, "Essex"-based aircraft used a thin horizontal line. But beware! These markings were not assigned to a certain carrier!  Application was entirely in the decision of the Squadron- or Air Group commander. So well into 1944 some units had no such insigina, whereas others were more inventive.

Why such markings though off limits were tolerated by the Navy may have had practical reasons. As more and more carriers appeared, being grouped in so called "Task Forces" chances rose that single aircraft joined the wrong formation. This was especially important after the attack, as a pilot landing on the wrong carrier had to endure some roguish treatment on the one he landed on and on his home carrier after his return as well. So a formation aid was needed, the "G-Symbol" acting as a "club logo". In example during the operation "Galvanic", occupation of the Gilbert Islands from 11/13 - 12/08/1943 19 aircraft carriers were involved (6 fleet carriers, 5 light carriers and 8 escort carriers).

Contrary to what is sometimes read, the first tail unit markings said nothing about the affiliation to a certain carrier. They were the markings of a specific squadron. Whether other squadrons on board followed it was their decision.

"G-Symbols" were invented on squadron level without official approvement and followed the squadron when it was assigned to another carrier (i.e. VF-20 from "Enterprise" to "Lexington"). Furthermore a carrier could show one squadron with G-Symbols while the other wasn't decorated this way: VF-19 Hellcats on board CV-16 "Lexington"showed numbers only whereas Avengers of VT-19 carried a white triangle on the tail. Also on CVL-23 "Princeton" and CVL-28 "Cabot" markings of VF- and VT- aircraft differed.  SBD Dauntlesses - if  embarked - generally did not use such a marking, the only exception being Air Group 1 on board CV-10 "Yorktown" 6/1944.

Last not least "G-Symbols" weren't constant. When assigned to CV-10 Yorktown VF-1 adopted the oblique stripe of VF-5, but added the letter "K" (reason unknown). On CVL-28 the G-Symbol of VT- 31 in 7/1944 was quite different to that of VF-29 seen 10/1944. On Escort Carriers a wealth of markings - mostly quite different - was to be seen.

At left official 1945 markings for all aircraft on board, in this case CV-10 Yorktown.

Pofiles at the end of this page show when and how "G-Symbols" were used 1943-1944 (1945 markings to be seen in the 1945 page).

Atlantic theater:  
Aircraft operating in sub hunting missions from escort carriers in the Atlantic flew alone so no formation aid was needed. As the aircraft were painted "Sea Gray" over "Insignia White" a simple black number was considered suffient.

Other markings:

Aircraft with letter+number identification were stationed on land at a Naval Air Station (NAS). If seen on board a carrier, either only briefly for training purposes or - as in the case of the CVE-107 "Gilbert Islands" - to replenish a shortfall in the onboard quadron with a prompt overpainting of the NAS identification.

The pre-war identification - number+letter purpose+number - indicates that this unit had to go through the so-called "shake down" at a Naval Air Station (here 89th Fighter-Squadron, 34th aircraft). The task was to form squadron and pilot into one unit, fit for the mission. . This also included successfully completing the prescribed number of landings in order to be approved for carrier deployment.



Kill Markings:


Kill markings were considered morale boosters and therefore not penalized as deviation from official regulations. But their application differed from the practice in the USAAF or other air forces.

If applied*, AF Pac Fleet letter 21L-44, Nov. 15, 1944, stated for Japanese flags:  "Size 2 by 3 inches (5,08/7,62 cm), 4 inches below the cockpit rim, not further forward than front of windshield."

The picture at left  (reproduced from an actual photo) though showing one variant for application "kill markings" nevertheless is unusual in several ways. At first swastikas instead of the more common Japanese flags (VOF-1 embarked on CVE-72 "Tulagi" flew ground attacks during the American invasion of southern France in August 1944). Secondly there are names. „Ens.A.R.Wood“ after the upper row, „Lt(jg) E.W.Olszewski“ after the lower. A practice not seen anywhere on USN aircraft. But interesting most in this case is the reason for this application.  Ens. Wood shot down two Heinkel He 111 on Aug. 20th 1944, Lt (jg) Olszewski got two Junkers Ju 52 the following day. In the same aircraft. So it was justified to decorate the aircraft, regardless of the pilot (neither Wood's nor Olszewski's property).

Kill markings were applied either on the aircraft with which a kill was achieved (regardless of the pilot), or applied on the "scoreboard" on the island of the carrier (the most usual way).

Below left a rare exception is to be seen. David McCampbell*s "Minsi III". Here his status as air group commander, numerous victories ("war hero") and last not least the interest of the media so show fancy aircraft USAAf style led to a Navy aproved media campaign for selling war bonds.

But beware! What a publicity minded air group commander was allowed to do wasn't for everybody.

If a photo shows the aviator in the cockpit and some kill markings below the cockpit rim it's almost for sure that this photo was solely a shot for the family album. Afterwards the next customer took place, kill-stickers applied as appropriate. - Is to say:  The aircraft has nothing to do with it.


Squadron Insignia:

badge of VF-1

Only BuAer-approved insignias were to be used. Location below the windscreen, size not larger than 6 inches.

Used only by a few squadrons. The pirate flag on the motor cowlings of VF-17 Corsairs  (land based) though being against regulations was obviously tolerated by the BuAer for publicity photos and morale booster.


Names and other decorations:


Unlike in the US Army Air Force in the Navy personal decorations were not allowed. Where seen strictly off limits and a rare exeption.

Well known photos of elaborately decorated Hellcats and Corsairs seem to contradict this statement so an explanation may be helpful:

  1. In the Navy the aircraft was and is considered property of the government, and you won't paint what's not yours.

  2. Above statement aside in Navy parlance the plane captain (1th mechanic) owns the plane who only lends it to the pilot.

  3. In a Navy carrier squadron there are more pilots than aircraft (i.e. VF-17 Aug. 1944: 54 Corsairs, 81 aviators/pilots).

  4. As the planes are tightly packed together in the order they came aboard, it's impossible to sort them out in the required start order. So there's no personal assignment of aircraft.

  5. On land bases parkings space was no problem so pilots could fly a certain  plane regulary. Because there was no danger of Navy bureaucrats visiting remote islands in the Pacific, applying decorations to the discretion of the unit commander were possible (F4U Corsairs in three tone paint were land based throughout).

  6. A good example how fancy decorations came into life is the photo showing Gregory "Pappy" Boyington looking out of a F4U Corsair numbered "86" carrying his name (absolutely no go) and named "Lulu Belle" with a wealth of "kill markings" below  the cockpit. Actually this photo wasn't a quick snapshot by a squadron mate, but well prepared by a professional press man to be shown in a newspaper. Boyington wasn't too enlighted, but gave in at last. So a Corsair no. 86 standing nearby was decorated to the taste of the press man ("the audience wants to see that") and Boyington seated in. In real life neither did he constantly fly a plane no. 86 nor did it carry name and kill markings as  Boyington didn't want to attract attention. What happened to said no. 86 afterwards isn't told, presumably all decorations were removed. By the way: Photos showing a pilot leaning out of the cockpit with his personal score below were made the same way (Japanese flags in the required number were applied by stickers, the pilot seated; afterwards change of stickers, photo of next pilot).

    The well publicised "Minsi's" of Cdr. Davíd McCampbell and Corsairs of VF-17 with name inscriptions and a pirate flag on the motor may seem contrary to the statement "no personal decorations", but were tolerated as part of a publicity campaign to boost morale at home and sell war bonds.

    But beware!  What a high ranking ace was allowed to do was not at everybodies liberty. A certain Ensign George Bush, then not so well known, was not allowed to write "Barbara" on his TBF Avenger: On CVL-25 "San Jacinto" the order was "no names!"

    The same goes for "Nose Art" and other pictorial representations on carrier aircraft.

    Land based aircraft of the Marine Corps  usually were quite unspectacular too. When names or decorations appeared then simply by the fact that an aircraft on a remote island in the Pacific ran little chance to be detected by Navy bureaucrats.

    When said VF-17 got aboard a carrier in late 1944 their aircraft were alike to all  the others, devoid of any decorations.



"Nose Art":


Nice, but not on board a carrier, please!

The Navy was not Air Force. In fact there was a strong rivalry.

Officially Navy aircraft were considered property of the United States so anything beyond official paint and marking regulations was off limits.   When the F6F-5 of VF-27 with a spectacular mouth and grim eyes on their motor cowlings - the only instance of "nose art" known by then - had to land aboard the "Essex" on Oct. 24th 1944 because their home carrier "Princeton" had been bombed, this painting not only got a lot of attention, but also had to be removed immediately. It was considered spoiling of government property.  VT-27 didn't have such a problem, as their Avengers were to regulations.

Land based Marine aircraft obviously had more liberties.

Even more so when in summer 1945 the Marines got their own (escort-) carriers. On CVE-107 "Gilbert Islands"all aircraft - F4U Corsairs and TBM Avengers alike - carried nose art for the entire duration of service.  Was it because in that late stage of the war nobody cared about it or because they were Marines and not Navy remains open to speculation.



US Marine Corps:

F4U-1A, VMF 223, Green Island, mid 1944
On the left a F4U-1A Corsair of the US Marine Corps in standard paint and markings. The individual number as usual only the last two or three digits of the BuAer number (= order number of the Bureau of Aeronautics). Usually at the height of the bar in front of the insignia, but sometimes also larger on the fuselage. White stripes on the cowl are adhesive tape to prevent fuel vapours from entering the cockpit.
USMC aircraft - especially multi-engine types - were usually only stationed on land to secure conquered islands and to prevent enemy supplies.
From late 1944 onwards due to the growing Kamikaze hazard fleet aircraft carriers had at least one additional squadron with USMC Corsairs, marked like its ship companions (i.e. "G-markings" on the tail).
Duration of a mission usually about six month.
Unlike in the US Navy "nose art" and personal inscriptions could be seen sometimes, but very rarely so.



The following profiles (aircraft Srecko Bradic, markings Wilfried Eck) were made in strict accordance to the photo of the real aircraft to show the evolution of markings. As assigning squadrons to air groups became more common in most cases all aircraft within the air group were marked alike (though not numbered).

Captions: Aircraft type, unit, carrier, representitive time.


Markings 1945

All photos US National Archives resp. US Navy

Text: Copyright Wilfried Eck

Profiles: Copyright Wilfried Eck/Strecko Bradic