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WWII pilot's family finds his plane's nose art

By MEG JONES | The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 20, 2016

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Bill Tromblay never met his grandfather, but his exploits as a World War II bomber pilot who took part in the Bridge on the River Kwai attack motivated Bill to become an aviator.

Clemment Tromblay was simply a guy in black and white photographs, his father's father. But this past summer when Bill Tromblay attended EAA AirVenture, where he has been a warbird judge for 19 years, he visited the museum and was astonished to see a special part of his grandfather's plane.

A rare collection of nose art from World War II planes has been on temporary display at EAA AirVenture Museum for the last year. Among the collection of 33 is a painting from a plane dubbed "Double Trouble."

Clemment Tromblay was one of "Double Trouble's" pilots.

"I turned the corner and saw it and I just broke out in tears," Bill Tromblay said at EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh. "It was the first real piece of a plane that he flew that I've seen."

Though officially U.S. military planes during World War II could not be adorned or otherwise personalized, commanders usually looked the other way. Nose art ranged from patriotic, in-your-face bravado to saucy double entendres featuring pictures of scantily clad, barely clothed, or sometimes buck naked women. Now considered American folk art, World War II plane noses were painted by flight crew members or artistically inclined troops, and their output ranged from crudely drawn figures to masterpieces.

Most World War II nose art has been lost. Shortly after the war ended, the artworks were painted over as planes were resold, or more often they ended up in the junk heap.

But a scrapyard foreman in Arkansas intervened to save some, ordering workers to cut panels from B-17s, B-24s and PBY flying boats before the planes were destroyed in the late 1940s. His collection was donated decades ago to the Commemorative Air Force in Texas, which in turn allowed EAA AirVenture to display them beginning in November 2015 while the group builds a museum in Texas. It's the first time the nose art collection has left Texas.

The popular nose art exhibit was originally supposed to be on display in Oshkosh until the end of this year, but it has been extended through 2017, said Chris Henry, EAA AirVenture Museum programs representative. Some visitors, such as Bill Tromblay, have a personal connection. A bombardier on the plane called "Sloppy But Safe" stopped to see his old aircraft's nose art, and the family of the top turret gunner of "Mama Foo Foo" also visited.

Bill Tromblay and his father Jim Tromblay, 70, brought photos on Wednesday as well as Clemment Tromblay's flight logbook, which includes an entry on Feb. 13, 1945, and these words "(By Pass) bridge 2 direct hits approach 1 direct hit low level 300 (feet) very heavy flak and mg (machine gun) fire." That was the bombing of two bridges later featured in the book and Academy Award-winning movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

Jim Tromblay remembers his father seeing the film.

"Of course in the movie the British commandos blew up the bridge. All he said was it was an interesting movie but most of it was fiction," said Jim Tromblay, who lives in Winneconne.

Clemment Tromblay grew up in Crystal Falls, Mich., became a private pilot and worked for an aircraft manufacturer before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He flew B-24 Liberators in the Pacific, at first bombing bridges and then later flying the "Hump" in the China-Burma-India campaign on a total of 34 missions. He joined the reserves after World War II and was recalled to fly 252 missions in the Berlin Airlift.

Awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and four air medals, Clemment Tromblay rarely spoke about his World War II experiences. Retiring after 25 years in the military, he moved to Guatemala and died in 1999.

When Jim Tromblay's mother, who was divorced from his father, died in 1999, he discovered a box of photos, flight logbook and other memorabilia as well as the names and addresses of crew members.

Jim Tromblay got in touch, and many of them filled in the blanks of his father's war service.

Jim and Bill Tromblay know he flew "Double Trouble" on two missions.

The most risque panels of the nose art exhibition are in an enclosed area of the museum with signs alerting parents that it might not be suitable for children. That's where "Double Trouble" is located.

Because "Double Trouble" features two naked women wearing only red shoes and bow ties, with propellers on their breasts, a full photo of "Double Trouble" is not featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the display notes that when the plane was flown back to the U.S. at the end of the war, someone painted red bikinis on the women. At some point, the bikinis were removed.

For Bill Tromblay, seeing the nose art and thinking about his grandfather at the B-24 controls has helped make a connection to a hero he never met.

Inspired by his grandfather's service, Tromblay built plane models as a kid and earned his private pilot's license when he was 20; he owns Tromblay Tool, a machine shop in Mukwonago that makes parts for vintage plane restorations and components for the aerospace industry.

"When I was young it kind of gave me a direction to follow in life," he said.

Bill Tromblay has flown 14 of the 18 types of aircraft his grandfather piloted, including a T-6, T-28, T-33 and Lockheed Constellation, "but the B-24 is still on the list."

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©2016 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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