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Collecting and Modeling History

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Collecting and Modeling History

Like most people these days, I’ve been forced to cut back on a lot of things around the house, particularly my hobbies.  At one time I was building models, collecting uniforms, shooting in rifle competitions, scuba diving, etc.  Between the economy and the birth of my son in 2009, I needed to reduce my hobby expenses considerably.  In doing so, I came upon a solution that allowed me to continue two of those hobbies and sharpen my modeling skills in the process.  Instead of buying a dozen uniforms or models a year, I’m now focused on just one or two.  Cutting back has forced me to look deeper into what I’ve got, and what I found was rather rewarding.

I’ve been collecting militaria nearly as long as I’ve been building models.  With the major changes that I faced in 2009, I decided to focus on collecting identified WWII fighter pilot uniforms.  Finding a World War II officer’s uniform is not very difficult.  You can still find them at flea markets, costume shops, and other venues for about the same price as a 48th scale airplane kit.  There’s plenty out there, you’ve just got to know what to look for.  Not every uniform is a fountain of historical information, but each has its own unique story.  With so much information available at our fingertips, it is very easy to look into a uniform while standing in the middle of a flea market.  If it has a name written in it and an Army Air Force patch sewn on the shoulder, the hunt is on!

I collect Army Air Force uniforms, but the process holds true for those of any service.  Researching and connecting a 4th Armored Division sergeant’s uniform to the tank he commanded during the relief of Bastogne is no different from finding out which P-47 a pilot flew on throughout most of his tour or what kind of airplane a Marine officer flew.   Often these uniforms have little more than the first letter of a last name and the last four digits of an Army serial number to identify them to their previous owners.  But it is not uncommon to get lucky and a winner pops up with the officer or soldier’s full name written in the lining.

Limiting my collecting to named uniforms helped me both narrow my focus and improve my modeling too.   I used to enjoy building a kit just for the sake of building, but as with many of us, correcting inaccuracies, adding aftermarket and super detailing became the key to turning out a really eye-catching model.  By tying in uniform collecting with my modeling, I’ve taken it one step farther.  I now pay more attention to getting it 100% right, rather than speeding through to finish the build.  If I have to create custom decals for my build, so be it.  If I have to scratchbuild something to portray that specific airplane, all the better!  As a result, modeling is more enjoyable, not to mention cost effective!

Many of us are familiar with names like Bong, Yeager and Gabreski, but tens of thousands more young men stepped forward and volunteered to fly.  Unfortunately, many of their stories have already been lost to history.  Over the past seven decades, it has been far easier to recount an ace’s story than it has to tell that of a fighter bomber pilot that may never have encountered an enemy aircraft for an entire tour.  But these pilots’ stories are no less compelling and have often been brushed aside in favor of more glamorous narratives.

My most recent uniform is a custom-tailored khaki “Ike” jacket, formerly owned by Lt. H.A. Pax.  While no ribbons were present, the pilot’s wings and 9th Air Force patch were.  Ten minutes of trying various combinations on Google netted me his full name, the fact that he went through the P-47 Replacement Training Unit at Millersville Army Airfield and that he was posted to the 406th Fighter Squadron of the 371st Fighter Group in May 1944.

With the National Archives only half an hour away, I quickly delved into the limited files on the 406th FS and struck historical gold.  In the files were mission reports from May 1944 through May 1945, but unlike many other Squadron and Group records, these reports had handwritten notations identifying pilots and aircraft flown on each mission.  I already knew that the squadron code was 4W, and according to the reports on 2/3 of his eighty-five missions, Lt. Pax flew 4W*P.  A bit more digging turned up the last three digits of 4W*P’s block and tail number.  Pax’s 4W*P was a P-47D-16-RE and the last three digits were 295.  The full tail number was 42-76295 and utilizing decals from the Eagle Strike yellow number decal sheet (48049), it would appear as 276295 on my model’s tail.  Likewise, the squadron codes would come from the similar Aeromaster sheet AM48803 in white.

Of course, it isn’t always perfect.  Turning up sixty-six year old photos of individual airplanes is a challenge, and often results in a dead-end.  With Pax’s airplane, I was able to find photos of two other 406th airplanes that the reports indicate he flew: 4W*A and 4W*T, one of them in color!  Since both of these airplanes were used concurrently with Pax’s airplane, it is a safe bet that 4W*P was Olive Drab over Neutral Gray with a white cowl ring, squadron codes, ID stripes on the tail; and after 6 June, D-Day stripes.  I am going to build it as it appeared in late-July 1944 when despite significant battle damage to his airplane; Pax dropped a pair of 500lb bombs directly on a German Panther, an action for which he later earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.  By the end of June, the invasion stripes would have been reduced to just the wing and fuselage undersides.  If my continuing research turns up a name or nose art for this particular airplane, I’ll print out a custom decal and add it.

The Tamiya Razorback kit is a masterpiece of kit engineering, but I wanted a bit more detail.  A pair of Ultracast early P-47 covered wheels and a resin seat with seatbelts are really the only tweaks necessary and they fit the kit perfectly.  Armed with my new resin additions, a pair of True Details resin 500lb bombs, both white and yellow letter/number decal sheets and my reference photos, I got to work building Henry Pax’s airplane.  With the research completed, actually building the kit is easy.  I’ll refrain from waxing poetic about how good the Tamiya kit is.  There are plenty of reviews out there. If you haven’t built one yet, you’re missing out.

After years of talking to fellow modelers, we all agree that research is the key to a good model.  There is no doubt that good reference photos of your subject matter are the key to building an accurate model.  With a bit more time and effort, however, it is possible to turn a well-built model into a unique one that displays very well alongside its former pilot’s uniform.  Many can say they’ve built Francis Gabreski’s P-47, but how many have built Henry Pax’s?

Jonathan Bernstein (fot. author  & author's archive)