Identifying 398th B-17s

By Wally Blackwell, Pilot 601st Squadron
September 2003

The identification markings used on 8th Air Force B-17s continued to develop throughout the war years. During early operations the bombers carried no special identifications at all, but beginning in 1942 the use of different schemes of letters and numbers began to appear. By the spring of 1944, plane identifications had developed into a rather orderly system of Division symbols, Group letters, Squadron codes and individual aircraft labeling. Each of the three 8th AF Divisions began using a geometric symbol on their B-17’s vertical tail fin.

These symbols were:

  1. a triangle for the 1st Division,
  2. a circle for the 2nd Division, and
  3. a square for the 3rd Division.

A unique letter identifying each Bomb Group within each Division was also placed within these symbols. Thus it is possible to identify 8th AF B-17s in photographs by Division, Wing and Group, once the code for their individual identifications is known.

398th Triangle W

When the 398th arrived in England in April 1944 it was assigned to the1st Combat Wing of the 1st Air Division of the 8th Air Force and received the Group’s Triangle W symbol.

The other two Groups of the 1st Combat Wing were the 91st with a Triangle A and the 381st with a Triangle L.

At that time, 8th AF B-17 identification markings were in a final stage of development, so the history of 398th Group markings is quite basic and uniform. From July 1944 until the end of the war, the B-17 Groups also began using additional colored wing and tail markings. At this time the 1st Combat Wing added their distinctive red tail and wing tip decorations.

The 398th identification markings were on the B-17’s wings, tail and both sides of the waist fuselage. Use the photographs of the EAA’s B-17, the Aluminum Overcast, at the end of this text, as a reference.

Squadron Identifiers

Each 398th Squadron had its own unique identifier.

  1. 600 Squadron by N8,
  2. 601 Squadron by 3O,
  3. 602 Squadron by K8, and
  4. 603 Squadron by N7.

The reasoning for the selection of this jumble of letters and a number was typical among the Bomb Groups and evidently has never been adequately explained. In addition, each plane within a Squadron was assigned a letter of the alphabet for its own identification purpose. These common letters were reassigned within the Squadron to new planes received as others perished.

The 398th Triangle W was displayed at the highest point on both sides of the vertical tail fin. This was normally a black triangle enclosing a white W, but there were a few cases where these colors were reversed. The Triangle W insignia was also shown outboard on the top of the right wing and under the left wing.

The Squadron Identifier - N8, 3O, K8 or N7 was shown on both sides of the rear fuselage of the squadron’s planes.

The Squadron Alphabetic Letter was shown in yellow on both sides of the vertical tail fin under the planes serial number. The same letter was also spaced in black following the Squadron identifier on both sides of the rear fuselage.

The Army Air Force Star Insignia was shown outboard on the top of the left wing and under the right wing. This insignia was also used with the Squadron identifier and Squadron letter on both sides of the rear fuselage.

However, it must be noted that the order, the size and the letter shape of the above three ID patterns on the fuselage sides were not standard and often showed some ingenuity.

The Aircraft Serial Number was usually painted in yellow, and always shown directly under the Group's Triangle W insignia on both sides of the vertical tail.  During its time in combat, the 398th Bomb Group received B-17's ordered for manufacture in years 1942, 1943 and 1944.  The 398th B-17's with 1942 serial numbers were either 42-9XXXX or 42-10XXXX and thus the B-17 tails were shown as either 29XXXX or 210XXXX.  The 1943 serial numbers were 43-3XXXX which were shown on the tail as 33XXXX.  The 1944 serial numbers were 44-XXXX  and shown on the tail as 4XXXX.  USAAF aircraft serial numbers were coordinated across all US manufactured aircraft types . Additional information about Aircraft ID numbers can be found at USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to Present.

Abbreviated Aircraft Number

On Mission Reports such as plane formation charts, for radio communications and for other day to day record keeping activities, an abbreviated serial number with a letter combination was used to identify a particular plane. Typically they were the last four digits of the aircraft serial number and the squadron letter on the planes's tail. For example, 8064H, 0256J. Or in the case of the EAA’s B-17 shown below, it would be 2516H.

398th Aircraft Name and Nose Art

398th Aircraft Name and Nose Art was typical to that of other 8th AF Bomb Groups during that period. Such artistry was on either side or both sides at the front of the aircraft. Often crews spent a great deal of effort to uniquely identify an aircraft as their own with names and figures. Unfortunately an official, or not even an unofficial record of 398th of nose art and plane names ever existed. Although many 398th plane names have been remembered and recorded, there is often little correlation between aircraft names and aircraft serial numbers. It is now apparent that as the war progressed with greater and greater emphasis on maximum efforts, planes were used rather indiscriminately as needed and the emphasis on using a particular aircraft by a crew diminished. Perhaps it was still possible for some crews to fly most of their missions in “their” aircraft if it was available. Of course every crew had a favorite aircraft that they thought was lucky and special. At the present time the 398th is fortunate to have a cadre of members interested in just this activity. The 398th aircraft name and serial number accounting effort is lead by 398th member, Geoff Rice. Geoff is always eager to acquire new information on 398th plane names, nose art and associated crews.

EAA's B-17

The photographs below illustrate the 398th identifiers, discussed above. The 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association had a unique opportunity to accept an offer by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) to use 398th insignia on an aircraft they were to restore. The 398th got this offer through the good auspices of Col. Harold Weekley, a 601 pilot. The 398th chose to “decorate” the aircraft with the serial number 2102516 and the insignia of the plane that Col. Weekley was shot down in on August 13, 1944. Thus the Aluminum Overcast is shown with the 398th Triangle W, the 601 Squadron 3O identifier, Squadron letter H and the other appropriate 398th designations. The fact is that this B-17 was delivered to the USAAF on May 18, 1945 as serial number 44-85740 and never went overseas. The aircraft has led a rather charmed life and after many various uses was rescued and restored by the EAA. It currently is registered as a civilian aircraft N5017N and has its own web site called, EAA's B-17 Aluminum Overcast.


Below are two photographs of the EAA's Aluminum Overcast. On the top photograph the 398th's Triangle W can be seen on the vertical tail fin and right wing tip. The 601st Squadron identifier (3O) is partially obscured by the right rear horizontal stabilizer, but can be seen clearly on the bottom photograph. The Aircraft (A/C) serial number is shown on the tail as 2102516. The aircraft's Squadron alphabetic letter H is shown on the tail and also the fuselage. Nose art can be seen on the photograph below.