How the B-17 saved his life

From Clarence Simonsen

British Nose Art Link with Americans

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My first contact with WWII aircraft nose art came from the American Air Force comics, which I purchased in the mid-1950s. I still have a few I saved these past 65 years, and they make interesting reading even today.

Bill Adams - Copy

The American influence was very strong and at one point I believed the United States had won the war by itself. Fortunately these comics also contained some stories based on actual fact involving the Royal Air Force, but nothing on Canadians or the RCAF in WWII. Almost every comic featured the famous Flying Fortress [B-17] and the nose art of pin-up ladies. The B-17 even appeared in the Korean War fighting Chinese jets.

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During my last year in the Canadian Army [Provost Corps] I was posted to Cyprus with the United Nations, and painted many cartoons and wall art, which led to my first serious research into to understanding why men [and women] paint aircraft in time of war. On return to Canada in 1966, I joined the Metro Toronto Police Force and began my interviews with Canadian and British WWII Air Force veterans.

In 1975, I read that a retired WWII B-24 pilot, Col. John Woolnough had formed the 8th Air Force Historical Society, with 20,000 members, primarily ex- B-17 and B-24 aircrew who had served in England during WWII. I wrote to Mr. Woolnough and ask if I could become an associate member. The answer was “Yes” and in January 1976, I became member #644A. In 1978, I wrote and ask why the 8th A.F. news magazine didn’t have a nose art section, and John Woolnough replied, “I’ll give you 1/3 page and you can edit your own nose art column.” This was a major boost to my research and collection of American nose art used by the Mighty 8th in England.  In the following years, I would receive over 200 letters a month, with photos, info. and requests. This request letter arrived from U.K. and Mr. Bill Adams in 1987.

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From this first letter we developed a very warm friendship and I supplied Bill with many 8th Air Force nose art images, from which he carved nose art plaques.

This is Bill Adams and his sister during WWII in England.

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The war left many bad memories for Bill, including the German bombing of his school, which allowed the kids to run free and for that he never received a proper education. “The school didn’t go up again until the end of the war, and from that I can’t spell or add up very well.” Bill never returned to school, and was happy with his simple life as a lorry driver.  “I like driving the long distances, sitting high up in my truck, and feeling in total control of my destination and life.” Then in late 1978, Bill was stricken with a vesicular brain tumor, and he could no longer drive or make a living. The inoperable tumor in his brain left him vulnerable to paralysis, convulsions, irritability, belligerence, and irrationality. His life was over, his wife and family could do nothing with him, and Bill believed it was best he end everything. Then a very strong willed, tough, sympathetic, British social worker took the resisting and complaining Adams to Manor Park Greenhill Community Centre for the disabled, and saved his life. Bill Adams had no known skills or hobbies, but he loved the American B-17 bomber and their nose art, which flew from Britain during WWII. Bill was given a wide range of testing to see if he had any skills and he showed not only skill but a sudden interest in wood carving. The Centre had received a large donation of hard wood English school desk tops, and this gave Bill his canvas and idea of carving WWII American 8th Air Force bomber nose art plaques. I supplied Bill with photos of the new nose art images I was receiving during my research, and this turned into a heart-warming story. At times there was a delay in Bill answering my letters, and he explained the cocktail of drugs he was taking prevented him from writing or carving. Bill had one lifetime dream before he passed on – “to sit in a B-17.”


Thanks to nose art, Bill and his wife slowly began to enjoy their life together. He had his good and bad days, but his carving brought pure joy to his life and memories to the ex-8th Air Force members in United States. He began carving 91st Bomb Group, B-17 nose art and taking them to the Tower Museum at Bassingbourn, which was the base’s control tower during the war. Then he began to receive requests for his carvings in the United States and his dream came true. The 8th Air Force Association flew Bill and his wife to reunions in the U.S. not once but twice, and he was able to set in a B-17 cockpit. My last letter and photos came from Bill Adams on 29 March 1989.

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The following are just a few plaques he completed of American B-17 and B-24 nose art.


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Bill at Tower Museum

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Thanks to Bill Adams an everlasting link was made between the Americans of the 91st Bombardment Group “The Ragged Irregulars” who flew and died in England during WWII and their nose art images.  Today the Tower Museum at Bassingbourn displays some of Bill’s plaques, while most hang on the walls of ex-USAAF families in the United States.

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One English school desk carving also hangs on my wall in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada.

“Clarence” was a RAF Liberator GR Mk. VIII, serial EW285, code letter “V” which flew with No. 356 RAF Squadron Salbani, India, 1944.


This was taken after the end of war, when No. 356 was based in the Cocos Islands, supply dropping to Malaya and removing ground troops to Ceylon, until November 1945. Note guns removed. 

 B-24 Clarence

Thanks Bill

8 thoughts on “How the B-17 saved his life

  1. A remarkable man with a remarkable talent. They are stunning pieces of art and a marvellous tribute not only to those who flew but the ‘big birds’ themselves. I shall repost this so his work is shared. Bassingbourn is not far from me and is on my list of places to visit. There is an even greater reason to go now.

  2. Serial for the Liberator is a typo.

    EW285/V A B-24J-30 version from Fort Worth, delivered to India in May 1944, went to 215 Squadron where she was given the call sign ‘C’ and the squadron name ‘Clarence’. When 215 Squadron came off Liberators in March 1945, EW285 was transferred to 356 Squadron who retained the squadron name but changed the call sign to ‘V’. Survived the war having completed 37 operational flights (15 with 356 Squadron) and ended up with hundreds of others at Chakeri in April 1946. SOC 11.4.45.

    Flew 26 missions with 215 Squadron between 4/11/1944 and 8/4/1945

    My Grandfather was 356 SQN ground crew working on V-Victor (both KH161 and EW285)

    1. I have a photo of my late father standing with “Clarence “ there’s no date on the photo but he was ground crew to these B24s, I also have one of him on the flight deck.

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