381st BG Aircraft Markings Explained

The 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy) operated B-17F's when it first deployed to England in the Summer of 1943. These were replaced by B-17G's as they became available. 

Identifying our group aircraft through photographs or partial aircraft data is made easier by the Eighth AF identification scheme. 

A Wing (later Division) and Group identification scheme was introduced to Eighth Air Force in late-June 1943. Each division had an assigned geometric shape painted on the vertical stabilizer of their aircraft; 1st Bomb Division - Triangle, 2nd Bomb Division - Circle, 3rd Bomb Division - Square. In turn, each group within these divisions had a unique letter painted over the division symbol. For the 381st it was the letter "L", giving us the famous Triangle-L of the 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy), 1st Air Division, Eighth Air Force.

The four squadrons of the 381st Bomb Group had their own, unique two letter squadron code, as did every aircraft in 8th AF. Each aircraft within the squadrons a an individual call letter (see Squadron Codes in the sidebar). This gives us an individual aircraft identification scheme combining the squadron code and aircraft call letter, example: VP-X. In the 381st, the squadron code was painted on the fuselage between the rear stabilizer and the waist windows. The aircraft call letter was painted on the tail and repeated on the fuselage. A note of caution when trying to ID group aircraft by call letter only. Due to combat losses and combat damage, there was a lot of inventory turn-over. The aircraft call letters were reused.

The most definitive way of identifying an individual aircraft visually is by the 'tail number' painted on the vertical stabilizer. The tail number is the aircraft's serial number, minus the first digit (see Tail Numbers in the sidebar). In Eighth Air Force, the Division symbol was painted directly above the tail number. Identifications are usually possible with just the last four digits, or even just the last three digits, of the tail number. This is possible as long as you know the Group that the aircraft was assigned to. 

Texas RaidersA fully identified aircraft, when written out, might then read like this "B-17G #44-83872 (VP-X)". This describes a B-17, G model, serial number 44-83872, squadron code VP, and aircraft call letter X.

In this photo, we have a 1st Air Division (triangle), 381st Bomb Group aircraft ("L"), from the 533rd Bomb Squadron (VP). Looking at 533rd aircraft records, we would then know that aircraft "X" was serial #44-83872. 

This aircraft happens to be "Texas Raiders" flown by the Gulf Coast Wing of the Confederate Air Force which is painted to honor the 381st.

Describing 381st BG markings, Roger Freeman writes in The Mighty Eighth: Warpaint & Heraldry (pages 81 & 82):

"Original combat B-17Fs were in Dark Olive Drab and Neutral Gray factory finish. SD110 squadron code letters were applied soon after arrival at Ridgewell in light gray (Sky), 36in high, placed aft of the waist windows on both sides of the fuselage with the individual aircraft call-letter forward of the cocarde1. The 532nd Bomb Squadron used VE, the 533rd OQ, the 534th JZ and 535th PL. Within a month the codes of the last three squadrons were changed, the 533rd to VP, the 534th to GD and the 535th to MS. This is the only known change of 8th Air Force bomber code letters. As these combinations were in use at that time by RAF units the assumption is that an error involving SD110 allotments occurred. The call-letters of the 532nd and 534th were from A onwards, including I, and the 533rd and 535th from Z back, and with few exceptions this remained so throughout hostilities. From the winter of 1943/44 fuselage letters were painted more distinctively in white. The original combat aircraft also carried the call-letter, 36in high in yellow, above the tail number. This was deleted when the Triangle L Group marking was introduced in late June. The Group device was to the standard dimensions and colors given in the VIII Bomber Command instruction and was fairly consistently maintained on replacements. With the Group marking, call-letters were placed below the tail number and reduced to a height of 28in."

Squadron Markings"The change to the new national insignia partly obscured fuselage call-letters and, generally, these were not repainted further forward. The 532nd, 534th and 535th Bomb Squadrons discontinued use of the fuselage call-letter when the Triangle L was introduced, although there were a few exceptions in the 534th and 535th. But the 533rd continued to paint the call-letter forward of the national insignia throughout hostilities. Markings on bare metal B-17Gs which began to arrive as replacements in March 1944 were black squadron and call-letters and a white L on a black triangle. In late June 1944 the 1st Combat Bomb Wing's red high-visibility markings were applied to tail surfaces and wing tips. Tail numbers and call-letters were reinstated in white, the latter being 24in high. In mid May 1945 squadron and call letters were painted under the left wing, 36in high, in black or yellow as appropriate to contrast."

1 A French term meaning "rosette", which is just Mr. Freeman's fancy way of referring to the "National Insignia" marking located on the fuselage. 

Triangle L

Triangle-LAll 1st Air Division aircraft within Eighth Air Force were marked with a triangle, and an individual group letter after June 1943.  The 381st used a white triangle with a black L until the Spring of 1944.  In March 1944 bare metal B-17G's began arriving in theater, and the color combo was changed to black triangle - white L.

Tail Numbers

Tail numbers and serial numbers are really the same thing with one minor modification. The first two digits of the serial number indicate the year the aircraft was funded for construction, followed by the production number of the aircraft. Thus, a serial number of "42-97214" tells us the aircraft was funded for construction in the year 1942. To arrive at the tail number, you simply drop the first digit. The tail number for "42-97214" would simply be "297214".

Squadron Codes

To identify aircraft within the group a "squadron code and aircraft letter" scheme was used. Each squadron had a two letter code. This code was normally painted aft of the waist windows although the location varied at times. Sometimes it placed forward of the waist windows or even over the wings.

Squadron Codes
Squadron Summer 1943 1943 - 1945
 532nd  VE  VE
 533rd  OQ  VP
 534th  JZ  GD
 535th  PL  MS

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