Whistling, whispering, fork-tailed Death from Above!

alienmarinesbugstomperAircraft nicknames – fact or fantasy? (This pic is neither – it’s sci-fi..)

This is one I’ve been meaning to do for a while now, and follows on from my Ladies From Hell post. If you can’t be arsed to read that too, it’s about the nicknames of certain infantry units that are supposedly bestowed by a terrified enemy, but actually seem to originate with their own side. In that case, evidence points to the kilted troops of the British Army and the “Devil Dogs” of the US Marines receiving theirs from the press. Once coined, the armed forces themselves were keen to adopt the morale-boosting, arse-kicking nicknames. These are by no means the only such nicknames though. The world of military aviation has spawned several famous ones from the Second World War, none of which are likely to have come from the enemy forces claimed. I finish with two modern examples that take us closer to an understanding of the reality behind the practice of nicknaming in war.

Whistling Death

First up is a name usually applied to the American F4U Corsair naval fighter (I’ve found no reference to those operated by the British Fleet Air Arm attracting this honour). The claim (for example here) is that it was the Japanese who came up with the name as a mark of respect and fear for its capabilities. The usual explanation for the specific name is that the fighter made an unusual whistling sound thanks to the position and design of its oil cooler intakes, which is quite true, though not a unique feature. This always sounded more like a Western expression to me, and a trawl of Google Books shows that variations on the theme go back pre-war, and indeed pre-First World War. Just as interestingly, the same source shows that the US Army and the Coast Guard were both still referring to falling artillery shells using the term, throughout WW2. I’ve yet to find any Japanese reference or source – I could blame the language barrier – just because I can’t find it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not out there in Japanese script, or even buried offline somewhere. But this author HAS had access to Japanese speakers, and he at least seems sure that it was an American idea, not a Japanese one:

“The gull-winged F4U had a ferocious reputation amongst the Americans, who
nicknamed it ‘Whistling Death ….”

And in fact it’s that very difference in both language and culture that would make it surprising if the same expression/context had arisen independently for both. What would make more sense is if, as with the infantry nicknames, the nickname was one coined by the Allies themselves. Lending weight to this idea is this reference to a quite different (but equally whistly) machine, the B-26 Marauder – being given the same nickname. And with shades of the journalistic flair of “Devil Dogs”, sure enough, the earliest source I can find is from a gung-ho home front propaganda piece in Time magazine , October 1943;

“Soon after the Corsair went into action in the Solomons, the Japanese had given it a nickname worthy of their language’s tradition of poetical allusion: “Whistling Death.” They had reason.”

Notwithstanding this unsubstantiated claim, “Whistling Death” is most likely a part of the poetic tradition, but of the English-speaking nations. If you have evidence to the contrary, please do leave a comment below!

Whispering Death

Next, an alliterative variation on the same theme. “Whispering Death” was applied to the British Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bomber from, as far as I can determine, April 1943. Again the source is the press, though given the slightly sceptical tone, they seem to have picked it up from elsewhere as a rumour. There then followed, also in Flight magazine, a series of written-in post-hoc rationalisations for the name, which seems to have mystified some readers. The most popular explanation, even now, is that any high performance aircraft of the day might quietly surprise the enemy at low level. If so, why was the Beau the only one to receive it? Again, no sign of a Japanese source to back this up. For me, the most interesting thing is that though similar-sounding, Whistling and Whispering death respectively in fact express opposite sentiments/fears about attacking aircraft. Whilst different elements of the Japanese forces might hold these seemingly mutually exclusive opinions, it’s worth noting the stereotypical mindset of the US and British fighting man. The former is often thought to be aggressive, fiercely patriotic and proud of his country’s technological achievements (look, for example, at US nose art). The latter traditionally is more quietly confident in either his military hardware or his ability to overcome its limitations (witness the Fairey Swordfish being nicknamed “Stringbag”). I had thought it likely that journalists coined the phrases as bellicose and stoically effective expressions, respectively, of their nation’s fighting prowess. But in the case of “Whispering Death”, it’s likely that British aircrew did name it – but in that characteristically ironic sense. A 1949 official publication, and latterly, authors including Chaz Bowyer have suggested that it originated as a mockery of the very press practices that I’ve been talking about. I won’t quote from this excellent write-up summarising the evidence for this – I recommend reading the whole thing (scroll down). I think that the nickname might also have been a sarcastic reference Beaufighter’s design pretensions as a dogfighting machine. If this origin is correct, it’s equally ironic that “Whispering Death” had become a marketing tagline for Bristol Aircraft by 1945!

Fork-Tailed Devil

The last of my Second World War examples is the name given to the distinctive Lockheed P-38, another aircraft designed as a heavy fighter (and arguably more effective in that role than the previous aircraft). Earliest reference is once again the latter half of 1943, in Popular Science magazine. Here (along with the Flight mag snippets posted above and countless websites/forums etc today) we see the power of the enthusiast to propagate what is essentially rumour, simply because it sounds powerful and macho, just like the other names given in this post. This time “Nazi pilots” are cited, but yet again, no individuals or other sources are named – it’s simply asserted with a good amount of relish, and a vaguely racist rendition of a hapless Japanese (note, not a German) pilot getting hosed by the “Devil”‘s guns. Perhaps tellingly, the Engineering News Record then claims that both German AND Japanese pilots use the term! This is clearly exaggeration at the least (assuming either one did use the name), if not total BS. Were the Axis powers conferring on their cowardly conventions for naming enemy aircraft?! If this too is a piece of wartime propaganda (created by press or military), the modern-day US Air Force is still buying it.

La Muerte Negra

Bringing things up to date, there are also a host of modern claims to nicks like these (also on behald of enemy troops), like “Steel Rain” for the A-10 Warthog in the Gulf and even a re-emergance of “Whistling Death” for (of all things) the F-111 bomber in Vietnam! The only one I’ve seen that comes close to being what it purports to be is the 1982 Falklands War nickname for the British Sea Harrier fleet defence fighter – “La Muerte Negra”. An Argentine source today claims that it was an ironic name, if anything mocking the enemy whilst acknowledging their superior resources. Sea Harrier pilot Sharkey Ward states in his memoir that the term originated on Argentine national radio – it’s possible (though I really don’t know) that they puts the fearful/respectful spin on things, to emphasise the threat that brave Argentine pilots were taking on. Or perhaps the British aircrew misjudged the tone of the phrase, thinking it an expression of fear, and this is why they chose to taunt their enemy using their own phrase “La Muerte Negra, eesa cooooming!” (to quote Ward’s book). Either way, it’s not a case of our own side inventing the name – the enemy in this case really did coin the phrase, albeit with different intentions.

The Mosquito?!

Most interestingly, the only other verified use of a nickname for an Allied aircraft by their enemy that I’ve ever come across is also the most recent – the Taliban frequently refer to British and other nations’ Apache gunships as “Mosquitoes”. Now, clearly a handful of men with Kalashnikovs and Rocket Propelled Grenades must have some reservations about taking on a literatlly fearsome helicopter like the Apache. It LOOKS scary, sounds scary, and the weapons load that it carries definitely IS scary in a number of ways that WW2 pilots could never have imagined (night capability for one thing). And yet, the name the insurgents choose to use (picked up by ground troops on the ICOM system – see for example the recent books “Apache” and “Apache Dawn”) is defiant and contemptuous, indicating a minor but persistent annoyance that can be easily tackled. The facts (and widely distributed human remains after an Apache assault) do not bear out this attitude. Perhaps this is a function of the religious fervour with which Islamic insurgents fight. But I still think it fascinating that, for once, we now know what the enemy nicknames our nations’ hardware. And despite the awesome power of the aircraft and skill of its crews, it’s not as complimentary, exciting, or fitting a name as the ones we’ve imagined over the years for other aircraft. Even more fascinating is that the press are still at it, trying to turn it around and claim that to call an enormous death-dealing helicopter a “mosquito” is to say that it “flies fast, buzzes loud and stings hard“.

I don’t think the press/aviation enthusiast/warblogger spin washes. No – armed forces are typically defiant, irrespective of their nationality, or the technological might of their adversaries. “Mosquito” the sort of nickname, if any, that fighting people will give their enemy’s hardware – hiding their fear, not shouting it from the rooftops. Try to think of a single example of US or British forces, who both have a strong tradition of nicknaming their own equipment, doing the same to an enemy aircraft or vehicle in a respectful or fearful way. I certainly can’t. Messerschmitt 109s were “Yellow-nosed bastards”. the V-1 flying bomb was the “Doodlebug”. Nicknames to be sure, but ones expressing contempt or designed to psychologicall take the sting out of the attackers – just like the “Mosquito” gunship. Thinking back to the WW2 examples, especially those attributed to the Japanese – why would a force willing to fight to the last man think up such apparently fearful epithets? And if they did, why would they volunteer them to the enemy? Instead, it seems that traditionally we have done the enemy’s nicknaming for them, as a way of expressing our own admiration and affection for the inanimate objects that servicemen rely upon on a daily basis. In fact, as British soldiers and airmen tended to be affectionately disparaging about their own vehicles and aircraft, maybe this was technophilia by proxy? Whereas today, it’s possible to know precisely what our enemies think about our technology, just as we can know their opinions about us. And unsurprisingly, neither are favourable!


8 thoughts on “Whistling, whispering, fork-tailed Death from Above!

  1. According to Henry Sakaida in ‘Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937–45’ – Osprey Aircraft of the Aces 22 Japanese pilots generally referred to the corsair as the ‘Sikorsky’. Presumably because Vought had been Vought-Sikorsky since 1939.

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