The 306th bomb group had been pretty shot up. Taking off from Thurleigh Air Base, just outside Bedford, England, the B-17s were flying directly into Germany without fighter escort in the fall of 1942.
“It was the first American air group to make a raid on Germany itself,” said Owen Hughes, a corporal then working in the air depot.
“Many of our planes were coming back so damaged they couldn’t fly. It was our job to get them the parts they needed to get them into the air again,” he said.
One bomber, dubbed the “Texas Longhorn,” needed a carburetor to be able to join the next morning’s sortie. The crew found Hughes and asked for help.
“That night we opened a crate and got them a carburetor. They worked with very little light and got it installed. At the same time, they asked me to paint a set of long horns on the right side of the plane’s nose. I did this with the light of a flashlight.”
Hughes was a sign painter. He was also a trained artist with a flair for the theatrical, from his upbringing in Ohio, where his parents ran a movie house. With blackout conditions at an air base within reach of the Luftwaffe, any artwork was a challenge. But Hughes did a lot of it.
At 5 a.m. the next morning, Texas Longhorn was on the runway, taking its place in line for the bomb run. The morning take-offs were something everyone on the base watched closely. Everyone also counted how many lifted off.
Everyone also counted how many returned that afternoon.
As planes approached, the crews would light flares.
Red flares signified there were wounded aboard. Those planes landed first.
Planes that could land safely came second.
Yellow flares were fired by crews who knew they were going to crash-land because something was broken or smashed on the plane. They landed, if they could, last.
On this afternoon, Hughes counted the planes as they rumbled in by ones and twos.
And when the sky was quiet and the afternoon late, he noted that the Texas Longhorn hadn’t made it back.
Hughes, 94, is blessed with a crystalline memory of those days. He has made a lifelong living – and he’s still working – in painting special objects, people and characters on warplanes, posters and flight jackets. He’s been a resident of Newark for 53 of those years.
In the war years, he had some unusual work environments. His sign painting was done at the bomb dump. “I worked all by myself. If anybody was looking for me, that’s where I was – the bomb dump. Usually nobody bothered me.”
Putting artwork on the side of a plane, that was different, too.
“The work had to be done at night,” he said. “Planes would come in from other fields overnight for repairs, and that’s when the painting had to be done.”
His first artwork adorned the nose of a B-17, “’Virgin on the Verge.”
Being in a pretty much all-male environment, the subjects of many of his paintings were (and are) female. For guys a long way from home, Hughes’s paintings were vivid reminders of what they were really fighting for.
He has painted B-17s, B-29s, C-47s and B-47s. “More than 100 planes, easily,” he said. After the war, he was asked to paint planes being restored to fly again, including a B-29 Superfortress that may be the last one to fly. Its name is “Doc,” part of an eight-plane squadron named after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His post-war paintings, with more time available (and fewer bomb runs in the area), have images on both sides. His artwork is often on display on vintage planes at airshows.
Most of his work these days is on flight jackets and commissioned paintings that have places of honor in an office or study. But the subject matter hasn’t changed much – he still draws a good number of beautiful women with blossoming figures dressed in next to nothing.
To help him fill out requests, Hughes has a huge collection of Playboy and other men’s magazines. When an Air Force pilot asked him to paint his wife on the back of a flight jacket, Hughes asked for a description of her figure, found a suitable pose in one of his magazines, and added the face of the officer’s wife to “Cappie’s Girl.” There’s a lot of love in that rendering.
Hughes grew up in the Depression and vividly remembers putting cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes in the soles, and tying the soles on with string when they started to flap. His mom fed him tomatoes on toast, peas on toast and beans on toast.
Like a lot of 20-year-olds, he knew war was coming and he didn’t want to get drafted and have no choices. But he also didn’t fulfill the enlistment requirements, so he left his glasses at home and talked his way into the Army Air Corps. He was told he’d be training as an aerial photographer.
“I had a lot of experience with photography,” he said. “I knew the planes flew over enemy territory on one engine to get the photos, then turned on the second engine to get the hell out of there. I was told there were schools all over the country.”
The Air Corps instead sent him to an air depot group, where he became the sign painter. He was shipped overseas, and got a name for himself in England as an artist who could, in one evening, put something colorful, risqué and memorable on the nose of a plane.
For that late-night artwork, he was offered $10. “I never wanted the $10, I wanted to fly.” He took a lot of flights in a lot of planes, but still at the end of the war, “there were a lot of guys running around out there who never paid me for painting their planes or their leather jackets.”
He got married to his high school sweetheart, Virginia, in 1942. They met at a rollerskating rink when he bumped into her and she skinned her knees on the floor. She died over the summer at the Wayne County Nursing Home, where he visited her every day and sat out in the hall with her, watching the world go by. Yes, they had been married for 71 years.
After the war, Hughes and his brother Lyman started their own sign company, “and I painted a lot of pin-up signs for bars.” A succession of jobs followed as Owen and Virginia moved from Cleveland to Tonawanda to Newark. He designed boxes and cartons. He hand-lettered signs and posters. The banners on the “Nelson Rockefeller for Governor” bus were his.
Hughes retired in 1981, but has continued to take painting commissions. He did a painting of the Discover Shuttle with a likeness of the pilot, Col. Pamela Ann Melroy.
His latest project is telling stories about his life, which he emails to a select few dozen friends pretty regularly, a chapter at a time.