Spotlight: Documenting the Bomber Jackets of WWII

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 12, 2019

The A-2 bomber jackets of World War II aviators tell stories.

For instance, the jacket worn Captain Stephen M. Hoza was decorated with an elaborate painting of a black-and-brown bird cradling a large yellow bomb. Inside the jacket, Hoza, who served with in the 94th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England and died in 2010, had sewn a religious icon.

“When I saw that, I realized that even captains prayed,” says John Slemp, an Atlanta-based commercial photographer specializing in aviation imagery. Slemp, who is a PPD reader, came across Hoza’s jacket while working on a personal project. For the past several years, he has been locating vintage jackets worn by World War II aviators, which very often featured hand-painted images symbolizing missions flown, unit crests, enemy aircraft shot down, and more. “The multitude of designs and colors created is mind-boggling,” says Slemp. 

He ended up titling his project "Even Captains Prayed," reflecting the daunting odds against survival the aviators faced.

“Early on in the war (in 1942, on into 1943), there were no ‘mission quotas’ to reach before one could go home, and casualties (killed, wounded, or captured) were as high as 70% in the Eighth Air Force flying out of England,” he writes in his project statement. The painted jacket became much needed morale boosters. “They gave the men an identity and bond common only to them,” Slemp notes.

The jacket of Captain Stephen M. Hoza

Slemp, a U.S. Army veteran whose father was a career soldier, began thinking of photographing the jackets after seeing a series of pictures of vintage motorcycle jackets taken by photographer Dan Winters. “They were beautifully photographed in a simple yet timeless manner — on a white light box, shot from overhead with a 4x5 camera,” he says. “It occurred to me that this light box technique had never been used (to my knowledge) on WWII bomber jackets. Besides, I had always been interested in the art of the jackets, and thought it would be a good approach to recording the texture, color, and wear of the jackets.”

Today, vintage A-2 jackets are coveted by collectors, historians, and others. “There are very passionate ‘jacket nerds’ (my term) that can look at a jacket and tell you the maker and date it was manufactured, the thread count used, how the cut of the various jackets differ, and even who manufactured the zipper! Woe be to they that create a poor imitation and call it ‘original’,” Slemp notes.

He began locating jackets through friends at a local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter in Lawrenceville, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Slemp then decided to email a few of his first photographs to Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. “I had no expectations, but 58 minutes later I received an email from their Aviation Clothing Collection curator, Dr. Alex Spencer, who mentioned that they had 15 jackets that might work for the project…and when could I be there? So, I was off and running,” he recalls.

He has since worked with a number of other institutions, as well as families of aviators who learned of his work through social media and veterans organizations. He has also added portraits and interviews with surviving World War II aviators. “My original goal was to photograph 50 jackets, and to date, 123 have been photographed. Another road trip is planned this spring through the midwest to photograph a couple dozen more,” he says.

Jacket of Captain Everett Graves, B-24 Liberator Pilot

Jacket of WWII Mustang Pilot Paul Crawford

Jacket of B-26 Flight Engineer and Gunner Jack Nabors

The setup Slemp uses to photograph the jackets is not, he notes, very complicated. “He uses a piece of white 4×4 feet plexiglass lit by two strip lights placed on the floor beneath to isolate the jackets in a field of white. Two pieces of plywood support the plex at the top and bottom, with a small post placed in the center to prevent sagging. The surface of the jacket is lit using a Profoto Beauty Dish, with white fill cards on three sides,” noted Pixsy recently. Slemp shoots the jackets from atop a six-foot ladder with a Phase One 645DF medium-format camera coupled with a Leaf Credo 60 digital back.

“The jackets are lightly stuffed (if allowed) with bubble wrap, so that they have a bit of form to them,” notes Slemp. “This also allows for more control of hot spots and gives the jackets a bit of ‘depth.’ I generally shoot at f/16, and the files from the Leaf Credo back are simply gorgeous, not to mention their 350MB (16 bit) file size allows for large prints.

Flight jacket of A.B. Clement, B-24 top gunner (front)

Flight jacket of A.B. Clement, B-24 top gunner (back)

The A-2 jacket of Bob Mitchell, Jr., who flew 38 combat missions

“The large file size was important to me, as was investing in the medium-format system, because a coffee-table book is planned, as are print sales, and perhaps a traveling exhibition too,” says Slemp.

See Slemps work at his website and at Instagram.


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