Something that has been bothering me for a while is the general accepted claim that certain aircraft were nicknamed either rightly or wrongly during ww2.
Two cases in point.
The F4U Corsair "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 ww1. 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:
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!
Bristol Beaufighter "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 quitely suprise 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!
I could go on with the "Fork tailed devil" etc.....
But it would be a little long. Anyones thoughts please?