The Jacket That Lives Forever

Sept. 1, 1993

Nobody who got one had any idea that the nice new leather jacket issued for flying duty during World War II would be a status symbol widely sought and highly valued fifty years later. Sometimes owners kept theirs when they transferred because their names and unit insignias were sewn on them. The jackets were comfortable, yet snug, and never wore out, except maybe around the knitted cuffs and waistband.

Flyers liked them, and many kept them after the war, never dreaming that two later generations would prize them and that a number of companies would sell copies at prices many times their original cost to the government. The A-2 jacket was reborn in 1987 for a new generation of pilots and flight crew members to commemorate the Air Force’s fortieth anniversary and to rekindle esprit de corps.

The original article, known officially as the Type A-2 Summer Flying Jacket, was made of seal-brown horsehide and lined with light brown spun silk. When issued during World War II, it usually bore a decal of the Army Air Forces patch on the left shoulder; some flyers replaced this with their numbered air force patch sewn on the left shoulder and added an American flag on the right. Many pilots had their rank insignia sewn on the shoulders. Leather name tags were issued to be sewn above the left pocket.

The backs of some jackets sported beautifully painted artwork—a copy of an aircraft’s nose art, a squadron slogan, or a picture of some sort. Pilots of the Flying Tigers, the 14th Air Force, and crews flying the Hump in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater had an “escape flag” or “blood chit” sewn on the back, along with US and Chinese Nationalist flags. Markings announced in Chinese that a reward would be paid to anyone who helped a downed American airman return to Allied lines.

“Murder Incorporated”

These decorated jackets did not always help their wearers when shot down. C. G. Sweeting, a former curator at the National Air and Space Museum, writes in Combat Flying Clothing that artwork and slogans on the jackets “seemed innocent enough until November 26, 1943, when the crew of a B-17 heading for Bremen was shot down near Eggese, Germany.”

“Three of the crewmen were wearing A-2 jackets with ‘Murder Incorporated’ and the AAF insignia painted on the back,” wrote Mr. Sweeting. “The German press carried photographs of Lt. Kenneth Williams wearing such a jacket and claimed that the saying was an official slogan carried by all members of bomber squadrons. The Germans declared it was tantamount to a US admission that its air forces deliberately engaged in terror bombing of residential areas. The embarrassment caused the United States by the Nazi propaganda prompted AAF commanders to look for, and eliminate, any similar ill-chosen inscriptions or pictures on jackets and aircraft.”

The incident apparently had an impact on Washington. The November 1944 issue of Air Force Magazine reported the following: “Taking note of some of the strange and wonderful designs that have been etched onto field jackets and fatigues, the War Department has directed that the practice be discontinued immediately. Drawings, designs, mottoes, names—they’re all out. Only authorized and prescribed decorations may be worn.”

There is not much evidence that this edict reached those responsible for the creative pinup artwork on the A-2 jackets in many bomber and fighter units.

Some CBI crew members had problems with the flags sewn to the backs of their jackets. It was reported that a few who landed in Communist Chinese territory with the Nationalist flag emblazoned on their jackets had difficulty explaining their allegiance to the Nationalists. Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault and others had their flags sewn on the inside.

The history of the A-2 began with an Air Corps specification and Drawing No. 31-1415, 94-3040 issued in 1930. The jacket was to be “horsehide leather—spun silk lining; full leather collar and interlocking fasteners [zippers] instead of buttons; knitted wool wristlets.” The first jacket was wear-tested in September 1930, and production was officially approved May 9, 1931.

Horsehide was specified, probably because horses were readily available in those days, but goatskin from Iran and Afghanistan was used on some jackets during World War II. The lining was originally light brown spun silk but later was made of rayon and cotton. Some fighter units allowed their aces to replace the lining with red silk as an emblem of their elite status.

The two patch pockets in the jacket were not very useful, although they could hold a pack of cigarettes or a small notebook. They were favored by the designers over roomier pockets because, according to clothes designer Bill Dasheff, the brass “didn’t want the pilots standing around with their hands stuck in them. They thought it made them look like thugs or truck drivers.”

“ Something Better”

Thousands of the original A-2s were manufactured in the early days of the war, but Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold canceled the order in 1942 because, as one writer says, he wanted “something better” for the thousands of pilots being trained.

However, there were so many A-2s in the inventory by then that they were still being issued to pilots during the Korean War. Hundreds were sold later as surplus.

The “something better” that General Arnold wanted became the B-10 jacket, made of moisture-repellent, olive-drab cotton twill, an inner layer of half alpaca and half wool pile, and a fur collar. It retained the patch pockets and knitted cuffs and waistbands. It was warmer than the A-2, but flight crews never considered it as attractive.

Although the A-2 was not issued after the Korean War, it remained a symbol of USAAF’s war years in the minds of those who served. It was revived in the 1980s when Project Warrior was established to remind blue-suiters about the fighting heritage of the Air Force and as a retention incentive.

One Project Warrior initiative came from Col. James S. “Stu” Mosbey, then assigned to 9th Air Force headquarters at Shaw AFB, S. C. A friend showed him an A-2 jacket his father had worn during World War II as a P-51 Mustang pilot. On its back was a painting of a Mustang named Tokyo Express. To Mosbey, the jacket expressed a sense of union, common interests and responsibilities, and the experiences of thousands of World War II pilots and crew members.

Colonel Mosbey wondered, “Why did the Air Force ever give up the A-2? It’s a beautiful jacket that we all ought to be able to wear.”

Mosbey approached a number of his fighter pilot friends. If permission were granted, he asked, would they like to buy and wear the A-2? The answer was a thundering “Yes!” Colonel Mosbey and others visited the Air Force Museum, chipped in $20 each, and bought an A-2 in the gift shop. As a group, they presented the jacket to Lt. Gen. William L. Kirk, commander of 9th Air Force, and made their pitch to be allowed to purchase the jacket with their own money and wear it as a symbol of Air Force heritage and esprit de corps among fighter pilots.

General Kirk agreed to the idea and took it “upstairs” to Gen. Robert D. Russ, commander of Tactical Air Command. General Russ authorized Mosbey and a team of pilots to visit other TAC bases with 600 questionnaires for pilots, hoping to gauge their enthusiasm. Ninety-five percent said they would wear the A-2. General Russ approved the jacket revival but thought it should be an item of government issue.

The Obvious Choice

Col. Schumbert C. “Hoss” Jones, a former Thunderbird pilot assigned to TAC headquarters, was appointed project officer. He studied the regulations and researched the procurement sources. He found there were about a dozen kinds of flight jackets available, including Navy types, but “it always came back to the famous A-2” as the desired choice.

“ Although it was intended originally only for TAC pilots,” according to Colonel Jones, “the jacket idea quickly blossomed into an Air Force–wide project as other commands became involved.” Gen. John T. Chain, Jr., commander of Strategic Air Command, “was very much in favor of his pilots also wearing the A-2,” said Colonel Jones. “Other major commanders wanted their combat-ready pilots to be included.”

As a result, the revival of the A-2 jacket took on a special status as a visible symbol of the modern Air Force pilot. According to one internal paper, the rationale given as the idea climbed upward in command channels was that combat-ready aircrews were “not adequately recognized and that reinstatement of the distinctive aviators’ jacket would be a significant help.” The Air Force estimated that the initial expense to outfit the operational forces would be less than $5 million.

Briefings were prepared as the idea gained momentum. A new regulation in 1987 permitting the wearing of A-2 flight jackets would commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Air Force. The jackets would acknowledge outwardly the “fly and fight” mission of the Air Force and recognize “first-line” active-duty, Guard, and Reserve men and women. Jackets would be issued on a one-time basis only to combat-ready flyers (officers and enlisted) assigned to front-line units.

The defense budget included a line item for the jackets, but some on Capitol Hill thought the idea frivolous and too expensive. Nevertheless, although a number of Air Force programs sustained deep cuts, the jackets stayed in the budget after hard lobbying by those in and out of uniform who believed in their value.

Maj. Mitch Driggers, a navigator in charge of the clothing division in the Pentagon, was assigned to get the jackets back into the Air Force flight clothing inventory. As quoted in Hell Bent for Leather by Derek Nelson and Dave Parsons, a book about the A-2 and Navy G-1 jackets, Major Driggers did not find the job easy.

“ The deeper I dug, I found out that there were no patterns,” he said. “In the old days, a series of drawings [was] done, and then they figured out the general dimensions.”

Faraway Sources

Major Driggers received from the Air Force Museum an A-2 jacket made in 1936. He found two manufacturers (Avirex and Willis & Geiger) that were still making them because of public demand. When the contract notice was issued, ten other manufacturers sent in bids. The contract was won by the Cooper Sportswear Manufacturing Co. of Newark, N. J., which opted to make the jackets out of goatskin instead of horsehide. The manufacturer had to obtain goatskin from Nigeria, Tasmania, and Pakistan because no source in the US was large enough.

The Air Force chose December 31, 1987, as the deadline for awarding a contract. Specifications were issued, and the procurement process began. The initial contract was for 53,000 seal-brown goatskin “traditional” USAAF A-2 jackets, to be delivered at a rate of 5,000 jackets per month. They would be worn with a leather name tag embossed with name, rank, wings, and “USAF” in silver on brown leather and would bear a major command patch. The first jackets were delivered in May 1988.

According to the current regulation, the jackets will be issued only to officers or enlisted personnel who are in mission-ready, emergency-mission-ready, mission capable, or mission-support billets assigned at or below wing level who met the criteria on or after September 18, 1987, the Air Force’s fortieth birthday. “Once a member is issued the jacket,” according to the regulation, “he or she may continue to wear it after being reassigned from the duties [that] originally qualified him or her for the issue.” It can be worn “with the flight suit, service uniform, or pullover sweater” but not with civilian clothes. After he or she retires, the wearer may keep the jacket.

There are many so-called “authentic” or “original” A-2 reproductions on the civilian market today, but only two or three seem to come close to the original. They range in price from about $150 for a “bootleg” version that is far from the original in color and style to more than $800 for one that can be custom-made. Who’s wearing the A-2s? Everyone from toddlers (at least one manufacturer makes miniatures) and teenagers to “old gentlemen” in their sixties and seventies, according to a Washington, D. C., shop owner.

“Authentic jackets have become increasingly valuable, and the trend shows no signs of leveling off,” wrote Nelson and Parsons. “As a result, old A-2s are increasingly scarce. This volatile market has attracted thieves and even forgers. Chicanery is common, and caveat emptor is the rule.”

C.V. Glines is a free-lance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “The Real John Birch” in the February 1993 issue.