Early WW2 Camouflage of The United States Army Air Force (1941-43)

Early WW2 Camouflage of The United States Army Air Force (1941-43)

Contents:

Early War USAAF Camouflage (1941-43)

At the beginning of World War II, all USAAF combat aircraft were painted with a standard pattern of Dark Olive Drab No. 41 (usually referred to simply as Olive Drab) over Neutral Grey No. 43. Optionally, the otherwise bland pattern could be disrupted with Medium Green No. 42 blotches usually on the edges of wings, vertical stabilizers, and fins and in widely irregular fashion. One of the biggest debates in World War II camouflage is the exact shade of OD 41, particularly since USAAF and Army versions were different, and USAAF versions changed over time, notably when the ANA system was implemented in 1943. It is generally accepted that OD 41 was an olive green when freshly painted but faded towards either a deeper dark green or, more commonly, into a dark tan. The differences in fading were caused by the fact that paint manufacturers used different pigments in order to match the official color chip. It also faded differently on fabric surfaces than on metal, hence why OD 41 aircraft often appeared with lighter flaps and other movable surfaces or in some cases, the reverse. Probably no other color in the history of military camouflage has shown more variety in color photos, and given that all drabs tend to hover close between appearing green or brown, very modest changes in lighting and saturation could also affect its perceived color.

Neutral Grey No. 43 is, thankfully, less controversial, and as the name implies is as close to a perfectly neutral gray as can be (its predecessor, Neutral Gray No. 32 on a 1939 specification had a Munsell value of 5N which under the 1929 notation meant a perfect neutral). It can also appear warmer or cooler depending on the photo, and also tended to look darker than it was due to the inevitable dirtying of the undersides. Medium Green No. 42 superseded the earlier Sea Green No. 28, moving towards a deeper green but still retaining a blueish hue. Although the intended effect of blotches was to disrupt the edges of aircraft, in practice it tended to fade much less than OD 41 and thus made the edges of aircraft stand out considerably more, particularly in black and white photos.

On 15 June 1943, Technical Order T.O. 07-1-1 specified various special and temporary finishes on USAAF aircraft that differed from the standard scheme. These involved replacing OD 41 for MG 42 on aircraft operating in predominatly green terrain and OD 41 for Sand No. 49 over desert terrain (see MTO Camouflage). NG 43 could also be replaced by Black No. 44 undersides for aircraft used at night. The Order also allowed the older colors from Specification 14057-C in place of the current ones. These were Sea Green No. 28 for MG 42, Sand No. 26 for Sand 49, and Black No. 33 for Black No. 44. A small number of USAAF bombers based in England in the summer of 1942 may have used MG 42 topsides but otherwise these special finishes were rare.

Early War USAAF Camouflage Schemes

The following table shows the main colors used in the general and special schemes.

Camouflage Special Temporary
  Upper Lower Upper Lower
Green        
MG 42 NG 43 SG 28 NG 43
Desert        
Sand 49 NG 43 Sand 26 NG 43
Night        
OD 41 Black 44 OD 41 Black 33

On 28 September 1943, the ANA system was implemented which superseded the older Bulletin No. 41 paints with new ANA equivalents (see Late War camouflages). However, it is well known that most new USAAF aircraft would continue to be painted in OD 41 and NG 43 while existing stocks lasted, and these would have lasted even further in light that aircraft were ordered to be left unpainted barely a month after the ANA system came into force. Adding to the confusion is the fact that, briefly before the implementation of the ANA system, authorities temporarily switched to the so-called Olive Drab 319 which was a color used by the US Army Corps of Engineers and is also different from both OD 41 and ANA 613, being a slightly lighter brown. Despite being an Army color, it was likely used on a small number of aircraft in 1943.

Early WW2 USAAF Color Guide

  • Dark Olive Drab No. 41: A constant problem for modellers is the fact that many paint manufacturers simply produce one shade of wartime USAAF colors despite the changes that took place after the adoption of the ANA system. As such, any paint labelled simply US Olive Drab leaves itself open to interpretation. For OD 41 there is also the question of whether the aircraft in question is relatively new in theater and hence frenshly painted, or has been considerably exposed. 
  • Neutral Gray No. 43: NG 43 is widely available in most ranges. It's closest match is FS 36173 (and to a lesser extent FS 36270) which is still slightly cooler than it should be. NG 43 does not have an ANA equivalent, with the color that superseded it (ANA 603) being considerably darker with a subtle blue tint.
  • Medium Green No. 42: Because MG 42 was never a main fuselage color most paint manufacturers have avoided it. It was succeeded by ANA 612 and it is often compared to post-war FS 34092 which is widely available. However, there are sufficient differences between the two that it cannot be considered a true replacement (and hence is considered an equivalence rather than a match). 
No.43 Neutral Gray No.41 Dark Olive Drab No.42 Medium Green
     
Scheme
General Lower Upper Blotches
Paints
Gunze Aqueous H53 (H78) (H302)
Gunze Mr. Color C13 (C38) (C302)
Humbrol 176 (66) (149)
Model Master (2035) - (1764)
Revell (374) - (48)
Tamiya XF-53 XF-62 (XF-26)
Vallejo Model Air 71.051* 71.316 (71.124)
Vallejo Model Color (70.992) - (70.895)
AKAN 72038 - (72037)
AK Interactive AK 2203 AK 2201 AK 2202
AK Real Colors RC261 RC259 RC260
AMMO by Mig A.MIG-239* A.MIG-237* (A.MIG-238)
Colourcoats ACUS13* ACUS15 ACUS16
Hataka HTK-_033 HTK-_004 HTK-_019
Lifecolor UA 046* UA 005* UA 008*
Mission Models - MMP-091 (MMP-028)
Mr. Paint MRP-141 MRP-139 MRP-140
Xtracolor (X158) - (X114)
Xtracrylix (XA1158) - (XA1114)
Arcus 517 - 525

Olive Drab vs Olive Green vs Green Drab

In the 1920s and 1930s the Air Corps and Navy used independent color standards. But by 1939 agreement had already been reached on a single Army and Navy standard for all peacetime colors. However, the stock of colors continued to be used until they were exhausted. But by August 1942 all camouflage colors had been standardised and unified.

OLIVE DRAB: QM Spec color #22 was a good match for Air Corps OD, though the latter was a bit lighter, a little stronger, and a bit yellower. The ANA spec was the same as the 3-1 color, but the Navy made little use of Olive Drab in any case. The camouflage color was Dark Olive Drab (#31 or #41) which was darker and greener, but the word "Dark" was rarely used, and was dropped in June 1943
Dana Bell, Air Force Colors Vol. 1

Unlike others, most USAAF aircraft did not use multi-color camouflage on the top sides. This was usually done using Olive Drab on the upper surfaces and Neutral Gray on the underside.
QMS and ANA paint chips with different colors suggesting Olive Drab shade are given below. FS analogues are also provided.

No.08 Olive Green No.22 Olive Drab No.31 Dark Olive Drab No.41 Dark Olive Drab
       
       
ANA 613 Olive Drab FS 34086 Green Drab FS 34087 Olive Drab FS 34088 Olive Drab

Neutral Gray (Underside Gray)

Dana Bell has provided a fairly comprehensive reference on this color.

In May of 1942 the Joint Aircraft Committee's Subcommittee on Standardization agreed to eliminate redundant paints needed for camouflaging AAF, US Navy, and British aircraft produced in the US. Under this plan, AAF Neutral Gray (QMS #43) and Navy Blue Gray (QMS #12 & M-485) were superseded by RAF Extra Dark Sea Gray, which became known simply as Sea Gray. However, enough Neutral Gray (QMS #43) had been stockpiled by mid-'42 that some aircraft produced in 1944 were still being painted the older color. Sea Gray ANA No. 603; F.S. Equivalent, 36118.
Dana Bell, Air Force Colors Vol.2

Below are the QMS and ANA paint chips with different colors used as Underside Gray as well as FS analogues.

No.43 Neutral Gray FS 36173 Air Mobility Gray FS 36270 Neutral Gray No.33 Neutral Gray
       
       
ANA 603 Sea Gray FS 36118 Gunship Gray FS 36176 Dark Gray No.10 Light Gray M-495

Photos of Aircraft in Early USAAF Camouflage

Consolidated B-24H at Fort Worth plant These B-24Hs at Consolidated's Fort Worth plant show freshly painted OD 41 over NG 43. The photo is likely sometime around mid-1943, making them among the last B-24s that were built painted.
Camouflaged C-87 Another look at fresh OD 41 on a C-87, the transport version of the Liberator. This is about as green as it can appear in color photos.
B-17E over the ocean Possibly the best photo of a wartime B-17 in terms of color balance. The greenish tone of OD 41 is easier to appreciate. Also note how OD 41 faded more in fabric surfaces like the flaps and rudder which is also evident in the factory photos.
B-26 s/n 42-10754 K9X of 494 Bomber Squadron, 344 Bombing Group The faded aspect of OD 41 on the fuselage of this B-17 is evident when compared with the freshly painted bit in the nose art. Faded OD 41 was considerably browner.
B-26 s/n 42-10754 K9X of 494 Bomber Squadron, 344 Bombing Group This close up of the nose of a B-26 also shows the browner look on many aircraft in the field. It is rare to see this shade on factory photos.
Land-lease Douglas A-20 in USSR These are new US-based A-20s awaiting transfer to the USSR. The MG 42 blotches are clearly evident on the fins.
Curtiss P-40N 74th Fighter Squadron in China This picture of a China-based P-40 being loaded for a rocket mission shows a much better color balance of MG 42 (or possibly ANA 612?) blotches on OD 41.
Camouflaged B-17F Little Audrey There was no consistent pattern of MG 42 when applied. Although in the majority of cases they were blotches, in some cases they covered much more than just the edges due to concerns over Luftwaffe air attacks against UK bases in 1942-43. The other aircraft appear to have full MG 42 topsides as they have not faded as much as the OD 41.

References:

  • Archer, Robert D. and Archer, Victor G., USAAF Aircraft Markings and Camouflage 1941-1947, Schiffer Publishing (1997)
  • Bell, Dana, Air Force Colors Volume 1 1926-1942, Squadron/Signal Publications (1995)
  • Bell, Dana, Air Force Colors Volume 2 ETO & MTO 1942-1945, Squadron/Signal Publications (1980)
  • Elliot, John M., The Official Monogram US Navy & Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide Vol 2 1940-1949, Monogram Aviation Publications (1989)
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