A common phrase in information technology these days is ‘data mining.’ The idea is that you can examine large bodies of digital data from many perspectives to glean new meanings and gain new understandings. But you don’t have to be a computer savant to try your hand at data mining. All you have to do is find a likely photograph and spend a little time thinking about and investigating it. It’s a fun game to play.
Let’s try it and see.
Keep ’em Flying
A few days ago my brother, an inveterate eBay marketer, came home from a garage sale with an enormous glass jar in the shape of a pig, sealed at the top with an immovable ancient cork. Within this monstrosity were many hundreds of matchbooks. Apart from raising my eyebrows at the pig, I thought nothing further of it until some days later when I was trawling through his eBay listings out of idle curiosity and came across a photo of 9 WWII era matchbooks.
As I gazed at the photo I realised that all of the matchbooks were actually little pieces of art. Many of them sported the phrase “Keep ’em Flying!” All of them were from Arkansas, Alabama and Arizona. All of them were from US Army airfields.
I admired the beautiful and tiny artworks, made of similar print technology to works by Lichtenstein and Warhol. They were 1940’s matchbook postcards, meant not just for trainee pilots to use to light up their cigarette, but also to write on and send home to loved ones. These bright prints, manufactured by the Universal Match Corp, were ‘sweetheart’ items faithful to the planes and locations that filled each cadet’s days.
But in considering the details in the images many questions came to mind. What did the “Keep ’em Flying” slogan mean? What did the military symbol mean? What types of planes were depicted? What could these matchbooks tell me about the person who collected them? It was time to ‘data mine.’
The first thing I investigated was the slogan “Keep ’em Flying!” According to the Commemorative Airforce Site, the phrase was coined on May 17th, 1941 by Lt. Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Harold N. Gilbert while developing a picture caption for a recruiting ad for the Aviation Cadet Program. The idea was to enjoin Americans to support the planes that were our air defence as well as the men that flew them. That the phrase was successful is evidenced by its use on an item as ubiquitous as a matchbook.
So who was this Army Air Force? Was it a wing of military air capability additional to the US Air Force? No, as it turns out. The Army Air Force was in fact the first air force in the USA and was the foundation of what we know today as the US Air Force. From 1941 until 1947 when the US Air Force was created, the AAF was our military strength in the air, and “at [its] height it had more than 2.4 million people and 80,000 aircraft in service and flew more than 2.3 million missions during WWII” (Centennial of Army Aviation).
And what of the planes depicted? What were they? According to the details of one of the illustrated matchbook covers, the single engine propeller plane of the basic training matchbooks was a PT-19 primary trainer. In advance flight training, pilot cadets graduated to twin engine propeller planes such as the AT-11 and others similar to the Douglas A-20.
Putting it all together…
So perhaps this one photograph of 9 vintage matchbooks tells the tale of a young pilot from the very earliest days of what we now know as the US Air Force. He was a man who may or may not have been a smoker, but who had a passion for collecting matchbooks.
If the evidence of the matchbooks can be relied upon, we can follow his flight training as he advanced. He flew PT-19 primary trainer propeller planes in basic training at Stuttgart, Newport and Pine Bluff in Arkansas and Tucson in Arizona. after which he progressed to training in advanced single engine planes, AT-11s and other twin engine planes in Arkansas at Blytheville and Camden, Yuma in Arizona and Napier Field, Alabama.
Our matchbook collector was a brave and intelligent man. We know this because simply completing the pilot training entailed great effort and personal risk; up to 40% of all pilot cadets during that era ‘washed-out’ either academically or by being killed during training.
Pilot cadets who completed advanced training usually received their commission and were sent to war to fly the advanced planes they learned to fly. Since this man’s matchbooks demonstrate a track record of steady progress through both basic and advanced training, it is a safe assumption that at some point he became a bona fide WWII airplane pilot flying twin-engine aircraft.
The vast array of matchbooks he collected in his capacious pig jar, from which this sample of 9 was drawn to create our photograph, tells us something more. Our man was one of the lucky ones – one of those heroes of WWII who came home to live a full and (hopefully) happy life.
We have now come to the end of our data mining from a photograph game. We started out looking at a photo of some interesting matchbooks, and, by following the clues, ended with a fascinating human story of a man who fought to keep our country and the world free in World War II.
What treasures lie hidden in your photographs?