The man who put 'wild' in blue yonder
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 20, 2012 1:50 AM
Don Allen's 92-year-old hands rest on a replica of the street sign that was dedicated to him at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday.
She didn't leave much to the imagination -- the black-haired beauty covering her body with nothing but an oversized cowboy hat.
Perhaps that is why, nearly 60 years after he first laid eyes on her, Don Allen can still remember every curve.
But "Miss Dallas" is not the only woman who still lingers in the 92-year-old's memory.
A red-lipped "Blondie" resides there, too.
And so does the thunderbolt-wielding "Miss Plainfield."
They are more than just paintings -- the images a much-younger Allen brushed on Allied fuselages during World War II.
Each piece of nose art also tells a story about the particular man who requested that it don the side the aircraft he knew he might die in.
So when, in the presence of aviators young and old, Allen again set eyes on some of his most famous work, he reached into a weathered mind and the memories started playing.
Most of his stories evoked laughter from the crowd that gathered on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Thursday evening to meet a man characterized as a "military giant."
Like how he struggled to grasp just why a combat pilot would want to associate himself with an "unlucky" symbol.
"I never knew why anybody would want a black cat on an airplane," Allen said, looking back at the piece he completed for Lt. Mark Kolter. "I thought that was supposed to be bad luck. And you know what? That plane didn't last very long after I put it on there."
Or why he chose, again and again, to ensure the women he painted were nearly naked.
"At least I covered up all the possibles," he quipped.
"Miss Plainfield" simply wore gauze over her "necessities."
And others showed off their negligees.
"A lot of guys wanted me to paint their girlfriends," Allen said. "Wives, too."
Born in 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio, Allen never planned on serving his country.
He wanted to be an artist.
But not long after he graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, he joined the Army Air Corps -- to do his part as the nation, the world, faced its biggest foe.
And after he completed basic training and mechanics school, he was assigned to the 4th Fighter Group's 334th Fighter Squadron.
He can still remember the "sad trip" to England that unfolded more than six decades ago.
And he can hear his comrades laugh at the country's "little trains" -- "the small engines they had and the strange little, 'Toot. Toot.'"
But he never imagined that his position as a crew chief would enable him to bring his boyhood passion to the skies over Europe.
"All I knew was that the pilots were proud of their airplanes," he said. "So when they asked me to do something for them, I tried to accommodate them to the best of my ability.
"Sometimes they had a little pencil sketch, but most of the time, they gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted to do with the names they furnished me."
And he had no idea that long after his service ended, his renderings would become as iconic as some of the moments that defined the Second World War.
Allen called it "humbling" when an Air Force colonel spoke Friday about just how much he had contributed to the wing that traces its lineage back to the 4th Fighter Group.
He still couldn't believe that some 50 paintings had left such a lasting impact on the history of American aviation -- that he was about to become the first enlisted man to have a street on Seymour Johnson named in his honor.
"Wow," Allen said. "This is unbelievable."
But 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Patrick Doherty reminded those who turned out for the ceremony just why the 92-year-old was, as he put it, "a giant."
"Don Allen, you are a part of our greatest generation. You are the 4th Fighter Wing's most famous artist, crew chief and enlisted man," the colonel said, choking up. "Thank you for your many contributions to the 4th Fighter Group and 4th Fighter Wing."
And he vowed to ensure that all the maintainers under his command would share in the achievement of their most storied comrade.
"Most of our streets are named in honor of those whose service, deeds and sacrifice carved the legacy of the 4th Fighter Wing," he said. "So it is particularly gratifying that today we are honoring a crew chief. The pilots of the 4th Fighter Group could not have shot the Luftwaffe out of the skies had it not been for the maintainers that kept them flying. By dedicating Don Allen Court, we honor all of our maintenance personnel throughout our entire history."
No laughter followed one of the last stories Allen told members of the Order of the Daedalians Thursday evening.
A few of his paintings, they would come to learn, represented something far more meaningful than a pretty girl waiting for her hero to come home.
Like "Georgie," a piece Allen completed at the request of 1st Lt. Kenneth Helfrecht, the only son of a widow who feared his mother might not get by while her little boy was at war.
"This pilot had a young boy that was a neighbor. He carried a picture of this little boy, Georgie," Allen said. "Before he left, this little boy said, 'I'll take care of your mother's grass and help her wherever I can while you're away from home.'"
But perhaps the most powerful story, the one that prompted one woman in the crowd to rub the goosebumps off her arms, belonged to Maj. Winslow Sobanski.
"I never knew why anybody would want a naked baby on their airplane," Allen said, looking at an image of the piece displayed on the large computer screen in front of him. "I found out much later that Sobanski had a girlfriend who got pregnant before he left. They were going to get married. But that never happened. He was killed in action on D-Day."