IN 1946 MINOT PRATT was the general manager of an aviation salvage company in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. It was the end of World War II, and the Aircraft Conversion Company, as the enterprise was called, was charged with breaking down thousands of war-weary airplanes returning from overseas and salvaging them for scrap. But as Pratt watched the planes being taken apart, he found himself drawn to the hand-painted artwork adorning the prows of the fighters, bombers, and troop transports he was required to destroy. Mostly, he just couldn’t take his eyes off the pinup girls. He was so struck by the images that he ordered his favorites removed with a fire ax, thinking the metal canvases might one day make for a unique fence.

Aviators had been decorating airplanes since the beginning of flight, but in the chaotic skies of World War II, “nose art” came to depict far more than shark teeth and lightning bolts. Aircrews painted their machinery to give it significance, power, and good luck, and they found their inspiration in the tangible reminders of home: comic strips, popular music, matchbook covers, magazines. But as the 33 panels ultimately saved by Pratt reveal, what inspired the men most were the girls waiting back home.

And they had plenty of reminders to draw from. Conceived most famously by Esquire‘s Alberto Vargas and George Petty, the half-dressed pinup girl was ubiquitous during the war, prominently displayed throughout barracks and on footlockers. At one point the Postmaster General tried to censor the more salacious images, but that only seemed to increase demand. “It was risqué business, to show them in the nude,” recalls Hal Olsen, a World War II veteran who created nose art for more than one hundred aircraft while serving with the Navy in the Pacific. “But we were so far from Washington that nobody cared. So we did what we wanted. We were just a bunch of twenty-four-year-olds fighting a big war.” Any attempts to clean up the paintings fizzled as the war dragged on; in the alienating experience of battle, they were deemed too important for servicemen’s morale.

Pratt eventually moved to West Texas to start a cattle company, taking the aircraft panels—all but one of which were from B-17 and B-24 bombers—with him. He never did make a fence with his girls, but in the mid-sixties his son Tully donated them to the Confederate Air Force, now the Commemorative Air Force, which has put them on permanent display at the American Airpower Heritage Museum, in Midland. This summer, to honor the sixtieth anniversary of D-day and the memories of its generation, we put together a showcase of some of WWII’s most captivating celestial muses.

See Dan Winters’ photographs of airplane art in the August issue available on newsstands now.