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World War II Airplane ID model

Airplane identification model constructed by junior high school students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1942.
(Museum object #1966.298.34)

"Friend or foe?" One of the many questions on the concerned minds of Americans following the December 7, 1941 attack by the Japanese on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, servicemen and patriotic civilians alike quickly rose to the challenge of learning how to identify enemy from allied aircraft. One of the most effective means for training was to provide classrooms with airplane models painted black to simulate the silhouette seen from the ground or while in the air. This airplane, a model of the Japanese Mitsubishi 96 (pattern number B-14), is one of 50 made throughout the Milwaukee area early in 1942 and donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in August of that same year by the Department of Public Instruction through State Aircraft Project Director W.B. Senty.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Office of Education put out a call to model builders — particularly school boys — to construct half a million airplane models just like this one. Initially, the Bureau of Aeronautics Special Devices Division had employed skilled model builders from the Navy. These enlisted men built models of enemy airplanes that they had never even seen before, often relying only on the information found in blurry photographs taken at crash scenes.

By February 1942, a total of ninety 1:72 scale official patterns for planes had been devised, arranged in seven sets(still available through the Smithsonian Institution), and distributed to schools participating in the National School Model Building Program around the country. By the end of the following month, the effort had even made the cover of Life magazine, with an article entitled “How to Make Plane Models.”

As promoted in the June 1942 issue of Flying Aces, “Your country needs scale model planes for the emergency. They won’t be used in a display gallery or to show the handiwork of one’s leisure time. They will serve a definite purpose. They will be used for training military personnel in aircraft recognition and range estimation in gunnery practice. These models likewise will be important in the training of civilians in enemy plane detection, an essential element in civilian defense.” Established model building companies like Comet and Strombecker likewise stepped up for the war effort, providing pre-made official identification model building kits.

Nearly all of the plane identification models in the Society's collection are still labeled with their original tags identifying both the type of airplane and pattern number, as well the school that constructed each model. Contributing schools include Milwaukee high schools Juneau and Bay View as well as Auer, Steuben, and Peckham Junior Highs. This plane model was made at Walker Junior (now Walker International Middle School) located on the Milwaukee's south side on 32nd Street. In addition to schools, the Muirdale Tuberculosis Sanitarium, located just west of Milwaukee in Wauwatosa (closed in 1975) also provided several of the plane models now in the Society's collection.

Rear Admiral John H. Towers of the United States Navy and Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics wrote of the project in Air Trails magazine, “As the war continues, the importance of this work increases…all those who are taking part in the building of model planes, both students and instructors, have accepted a responsible job. Obviously, these models are useless for training purposes unless they are accurate reproductions of the true plane. Shoddy, careless work has no place in aviation. It's too costly. The same rigid care and craftsmanship must be the rule for the school workbench."

Despite the Admiral Towers's statement, however, Steve Remington, Curator of the CollectAir Museum in Santa Barbara, California, noted that many supervisors often did not have the heart to turn down a schoolboy’s inferior work. That, combined with the fact that highly accurate and easily-produced plastic models became widely available by mid-1942, may explain why so many models of this type were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in the midst of the ongoing war.

[Sources: "Friend or Foe? Museum" online content at;"Navy Modelmakers Build Enemy Planes” Popular Science, August 1945; Weider, George T. “Build Model Planes for Defense,” Flying Aces, June 1942.]


Posted on December 07, 2006

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