A 1942 study determined that relatively low velocity projectiles such as deflected flak fragments or shattered pieces of aircraft structure caused 70% of bomber crew wounds. Body armor and helmets helped protect against this threat and saved thousands of bomber crewmen from injury or death.
Col (later Maj Gen) Dr. Malcolm Grow, Eighth Air Force surgeon general, saved many lives by developing body armor for USAAF bomber crewmen. After the war, he became the US Air Force’s first surgeon general.
Bomber Crew Armor
Typical body armor for a seated bomber crewman in early 1944. Worn over clothing and gear, it weighed about 13 lbs. It could be quickly removed during an emergency by pulling the red release strap.
Body armor plate
Bomber crew armor was filled with overlapping squares of 1 mm-thick manganese steel plates like the one on display here. Sewn into the fabric, this gave some flexibility to the armor.
Eighth Air Force bomber crewman wearing the body armor that saved his life and holding the piece of flak that almost ended it. Flak hit is circled.
Plates from an armored vest damaged by 20 mm fragments. The wearer, bombardier Lt Arthur Rosenthal, only received minor wounds to his chest.
(additional photos coming soon)
M1 Infantry Helmet
Early bomber crews wore standard M1 infantry helmets but found them uncomfortable since their headphones fit poorly under the helmet. Also, crewmen in confined spaces, like ball turret gunners, could not wear them.
The M3 helmet was a modification of the standard M1 infantry helmet. Pilot Frank Riggs was wearing this helmet when flak fragments hit him over Vienna, Austria, in February 1945. Fortunately, he was not significantly injured and was back on flight duty a few days later.
In 1943, the British Wilkinson Sword Company produced the “Grow Helmet,” which was worn over the standard leather flight helmet. This one was worn by Col (later Maj Gen) Fred Dent, 44th Bomb Group commander, when he led the Eighth Air Force attack against Berlin on March 8, 1944.
First produced in mid-1944, the M4A2 helmet was an improvement on the Grow Helmet, adding ear protection and replacing the leather covering with cloth. More than 80,000 M4 series helmets were made during the war.
The inside of the Grow Helmet and M4 series helmets contained five overlapping strips of manganese steel. This steel alloy has particularly high impact strength.
Luftwaffe Bomber Crew Helmet
During the Battle of Britain in 1941, the Luftwaffe also recognized the need for additional protection and issued bomber crews leather-covered armored helmets. Displayed alongside is the metal armor that formed the core of these helmets.
Issued late in the war, the M5 helmet provided additional cheek protection.
Although the USAAF issued thousands of these anti-flak goggles, bomber crewman rarely wore them since they greatly reduced the wearer’s vision.
These flak fragments damaged waist gunner TSgt Phillip Taylor’s B-17 on the fateful mission against Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943.
Aeronautical First Aid Kit
If an Airmen was wounded during a mission, the only medical help available was first aid kits like the one on display. On longer missions, more than four hours passed before a wounded crewman’s aircraft landed and he received professional medical care.
Related Fact Sheets
The Memphis Belle: American Icon and 25th Mission
Memphis Belle Crew
The “Memphis Belle” and Nose Art
26th Mission: War Bond Tour
“Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”
Heavy Bomber “Firsts”
Combat Aircraft to Museum Artifact
Crippling the Nazi War Machine: USAAF Strategic Bombing in Europe
Early Operations (1942 to mid-1943) - Eighth Air Force in England
Ninth/Twelfth Air Forces in the Mediterranean
Combat Box/Communication and Life at 25K
Keeping them Flying: Mechanics and Armorers
Combined Bomber Offensive: Summer 1943 to Victory
Bigger Raids, Bigger Losses, and Crisis
Deadly Skies over Europe (Luftwaffe defense)
Bomber Crew Protection
Operation Tidalwave (Ploesti, 1 Aug 43)
Regensburg/Schweinfurt (17 Aug 43)
Black Thursday/Schweinfurt (14 Oct 43)
Fifteenth Air Force (created Sep 43)
Women’s Army Corps
Fighter Escort: Little Friends
Big Week (20-25 Feb 44)
Operation Frantic: Shuttle Raids to the Soviet Union
Strategic Bombing Victorious
Return to the B-17F Memphis Belle Fact Sheet
Return to the WWII Gallery list