World War II in Color

Museum curator Roger Connor explores incredible color photographs of World War II

By Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

A Naval Air Station boneyard shortly after the end of the war contains numerous catapult-launched OS2U Kingfighers (foreground), along with JM-1 (B-26) target tugs in yellow, and a R4D (C-47) transport.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-14588

World War II is one of the best documented conflicts in history. Millions of photos and miles of motion picture film stock provide a rich visual documentation of the conflict in both its brutal violence and celebration of martial purpose. Color photography, though not new, had only just become widely available when the war began. Existing color images of the war are not hard to come by, but they are considerably rarer than black and white images.

The USS Midway (CVB-41) is launched on March 20, 1945, in Newport News, Virginia.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-3515

As the lived experience of World War ll fades away, the use of original color imagery provides a sense of immediacy for younger generations for whom the war is often a vague and distant event from the last century. As part of the National Air and Space Museum’s renovation, which involves exciting new exhibits in our flagship location on the National Mall in Washington, DC, Museum staff and volunteers are scanning World War II color photography that will be used in a vibrant display of Americans at war in the air. Large high-resolution images of both new and known moments of the war will give visitors a chance to experience this conflict in a new light.

English women watch an Eighth Air Force maintenance crew work on a B-24 engine.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-2357

This project is not without its challenges. The color transparencies are exceptionally fragile, and the Museum’s Archives have to limit access to them, which in turn limits their broader use in exhibits and books. Another challenge is that much of the photography is grainy. Government photographers with professional labs tended to have the best results, but they were not often shooting from the front. This means that photos of the front were often taken by amateurs in less-than-ideal conditions and with poor equipment.

Sgt. Manuel Goulart Ferreira from Rio de Janeiro proudly polishes the Brazilian national insignia of a 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy. The squadron flew in combat from November 1944 to May 1945 as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. Brazil was the principal South American nation participating in Allied operations against Germany.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-4395

The following images are only a small number of the thousands being scanned, but they give an idea of the range of wartime experiences documented. They come from the National Air and Space Museum Archives collection, National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress. For those images not already available digitally at high resolution (such as those at the Library of Congress), the exhibit team will make them available over time.

Army Air Forces recruits arrive at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Training Center in preparation for basic training.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-662

Army Air Forces recruits arrive at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Training Center in preparation for basic training.

The XPB2M-1 prototype for the Martin Mars flying boat sits on the ground at the Martin Aircraft Factory, Martin State Airport in Baltimore, Maryland ,in late 1942 with a Piper J-3 Cub parked on its right wing to convey its massive size.Original Source: National Air and Space Museum HGC-1073

The XPB2M-1 prototype for the Martin Mars flying boat sits on the ground at the Martin Aircraft Factory, Martin State Airport in Baltimore, Maryland ,in late 1942 with a Piper J-3 Cub parked on its right wing to convey its massive size.

An Army Air Forces engineer examines a B-17 model undergoing wind tunnel testing.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-4195

An Army Air Forces engineer examines a B-17 model undergoing wind tunnel testing.

Naval aviation cadets check the morning roster for their primary training flights in N2S “Yellow Perils,” 1942/43.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-15048

Naval aviation cadets check the morning roster for their primary training flights in N2S “Yellow Perils,” 1942/43.

A Navy JRF Goose in flight over Alaska, winter 1942/43.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-5178

A Navy JRF Goose in flight over Alaska, winter 1942/43.

A riveter works on a wing panel of a Vultee A-31 Vengance dive bomber at Vultee’s Nashville, Tennessee, plant in February 1943.Original Source: Library of Congress 1a35371u

A riveter works on a wing panel of a Vultee A-31 Vengance dive bomber at Vultee’s Nashville, Tennessee, plant in February 1943.

Aviation cadets in Tuskegee, Alabama, undergoing advanced training in AT-6s.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-413

Aviation cadets in Tuskegee, Alabama, undergoing advanced training in AT-6s.

Capt. Jack Westward of Lewiston, Idaho, instructs combat fliers on the fine points of B-17 formation flying at an Eighth Air Force base in England.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-2268

Capt. Jack Westward of Lewiston, Idaho, instructs combat fliers on the fine points of B-17 formation flying at an Eighth Air Force base in England.

ARM3C Robert L. Brown of Denver, Colorado, poses in the cockpit of an F6F Hellcat aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10) with “Scrappy,” the ship’s mascot, November-December 1943.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-1704

ARM3C Robert L. Brown of Denver, Colorado, poses in the cockpit of an F6F Hellcat aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10) with “Scrappy,” the ship’s mascot, November-December 1943.

Marine flamethrowing Sherman tanks set fire to Japanese aircraft in Sasebo, Japan, on November 2, 1945.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 127-GW-137979

Wreckage burns from two Marine F4U Corsairs that collided at what appears to be Barakoma airfield on Vella Lavella Island in the Solomons, late 1943 or early 1944.

Pilots of Marine Torpedo Bombing Squadron 232 (VMTB-232) stand by their squadron scorecard in 1943/44. The squadron played an important role in the Guadalcanal.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-15990

Pilots of Marine Torpedo Bombing Squadron 232 (VMTB-232) stand by their squadron scorecard in 1943/44. The squadron played an important role in the Guadalcanal.

An intelligence officer briefs pilots for “Operation Strangle” in spring 1944. They were to attack key supply lines keeping German forces operating in Italy.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-4136

An intelligence officer briefs pilots for “Operation Strangle” in spring 1944. They were to attack key supply lines keeping German forces operating in Italy.

English women watch an Eighth Air Force maintenance crew work on a B-24 engine.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-2357

English women watch an Eighth Air Force maintenance crew work on a B-24 engine.

Commander Frank Erickson, U.S. Coast Guard, demonstrates air-sea rescue with a Sikorsky HNS-1 helicopter operating from Floyd Bennett Field, 1944/45.Original Source: National Air and Space Museum XRA-1205

Commander Frank Erickson, U.S. Coast Guard, demonstrates air-sea rescue with a Sikorsky HNS-1 helicopter operating from Floyd Bennett Field, 1944/45.

Sgt. Manuel Goulart Ferreira from Rio de Janeiro proudly polishes the Brazilian national insignia of a 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy. The squadron flew in combat from November 1944 to May 1945 as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. Brazil was the principal South American nation participating in Allied operations against Germany.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-4395

Sgt. Manuel Goulart Ferreira from Rio de Janeiro proudly polishes the Brazilian national insignia of a 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy. The squadron flew in combat from November 1944 to May 1945 as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. Brazil was the principal South American nation participating in Allied operations against Germany.

The USS Midway (CVB-41) is launched on March 20, 1945, in Newport News, Virginia.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-3515

The USS Midway (CVB-41) is launched on March 20, 1945, in Newport News, Virginia.

In Spring 1945, a group of Navy flight nurses walks from their Douglas R5D (C-54) transport. They are (l-r): Lt. JG Lydia Masserine, Lt. Stella Makar, Lt. JG Dorothy Wood, Lt. JG Hope Toone, Lt. JG Mae Hanson, and Ens. Winnifred Jennings.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-5446

In Spring 1945, a group of Navy flight nurses walks from their Douglas R5D (C-54) transport. They are (l-r): Lt. JG Lydia Masserine, Lt. Stella Makar, Lt. JG Dorothy Wood, Lt. JG Hope Toone, Lt. JG Mae Hanson, and Ens. Winnifred Jennings.

Marines on Okinawa look over an abandoned Japanese Kawasaki Ki-61 “Tony” on April 9, 1945.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 127-GW-119179

Marines on Okinawa look over an abandoned Japanese Kawasaki Ki-61 “Tony” on April 9, 1945.

On April 22, 1945, 1st Lt. Jeremiah O’Keefe shot down five Japanese kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa in his F4U Corsair and then brought down another two six days later.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 127-GW-120703

On April 22, 1945, 1st Lt. Jeremiah O’Keefe shot down five Japanese kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa in his F4U Corsair and then brought down another two six days later.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s casket proceeds down Constitution Avenue toward the White House during his funeral procession on April 14, 1945.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-3997

President Franklin Roosevelt’s casket proceeds down Constitution Avenue toward the White House during his funeral procession on April 14, 1945.

Lt. Clifford Allen of Chicago, Illinois, stands in front of a C-47.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-3746

Lt. Clifford Allen of Chicago, Illinois, stands in front of a C-47 preparing to drop the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The 555th was the only African American parachute unit and was not ready in time to deploy to Europe. Instead, as incendiary Japanese balloon bombs were launched towards the U.S. in mid-1945 in hopes of starting large fires in the Pacific Northwest, the 555th was assigned to jump on fires to extinguish them as part of “Operation Fire Fly.” The unit made 15 such jumps. Note the 150-foot rope for descending from tall trees; the plastic helmet and catcher's mask were protection against branches and brambles.

A Naval Air Station boneyard shortly after the end of the war contains numerous catapult-launched OS2U Kingfighers (foreground), along with JM-1 (B-26) target tugs in yellow, and a R4D (C-47) transport.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-14588

A Naval Air Station boneyard shortly after the end of the war contains numerous catapult-launched OS2U Kingfighers (foreground), along with JM-1 (B-26) target tugs in yellow, and a R4D (C-47) transport.

German civilians salvaging their possessions in bombed-out Berlin after the surrender of Germany.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 342-C-K-3560

German civilians salvaging their possessions in bombed-out Berlin after the surrender of Germany.

Marine flamethrowing Sherman tanks set fire to Japanese aircraft in Sasebo, Japan, on November 2, 1945.Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration 127-GW-137979

Marine flamethrowing Sherman tanks set fire to Japanese aircraft in Sasebo, Japan, on November 2, 1945.

Credits: Story

By Roger Connor, lead curator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum’s new World War II gallery in development.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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