"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
The Navy B-3 Life Vest   
LCDR John Thach briefs members of Fighting Squadron Three ( VF-3), at NAS Kaneohe, Hawaii, spring of 1942. We noticed the B-3 life vest worn by the pilot third from left when we first viewed this photo and something didn't seem right. Look at the enlargement below and see if you notice something different. You might see that the vest is marked to VB-5, but that's not what we are referring to. The "D" ring on the vest's waist belt is what struck us as odd, being the type normally found on the later B-4 style vest, not the B-3. There were only two manufacturers of the B-3, Air Cruisers, Inc. and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and they both used a smaller ring of a different shape than seen here. All the surviving examples we had seen were manufactured under Air Corps contracts, although photographic evidence is readily available showing their wide spread use by Navy and Marine fliers during the war.

As luck would have it, before long, the mystery was solved when we saw an example of a B-3 with the same style "D" ring, as shown below. The surprising news was that it had a naval aviation contract number.

A few more months passed before we were again lucky and found a vintage photo where the contract information was readable. It shows a PBY pilot at NAS Norfolk wearing a vest with the same number and date. The photo itself is believed to have been taken in the Fall of 1941.
Below, you can see some of the vest's features in closeup. Next time you are about to walk past a B-3 on a show table, stop and check the contract number first. You may just get a nice surprise!
As we've mentioned, photos of Air Corps contract B-3 vests in use by Navy and Marine pilots are not difficult to find. In some of our previous features, we have shown them being worn by Joe Clifton, Butch O'Hare and  Robert McClurg. Navy F4F pilot J. McDonald is shown with one above, but below we can see four images of well known USMC ace and Medal of Honor recipient Joe Foss sporting an example made by Air Cruisers.  Note that the CO2 actuating lever lanyards of Foss' vest cannot be see, which indicates they have been looped over the CO2 cylinders. This expedient measure was done to reduce the chance of accidentally discharging the cylinders, however, it was officially frowned upon, as it could cause difficulty when trying to inflate the vest in an emergency. A later technical order called for the lanyards to be shortened to within an inch from the bottom of the vest.       .
Above and below, typical markings found on Air Corps contract B-3 vests. Notice that the Spec. No. 94-3065-B, is the same as that found on the Navy contract B-3 vest.

Bottom:  VMF-214 ace John Bolt with a Goodyear vest. Although "midnight requisitioning" may account for the use of B-3 vests by some naval aviators, the frequency with which they are seen in vintage photos would seem to indicate that the Navy procured them on an official basis and larger scale.
A note to collectors. If you study these photos, and others you may have available, you will notice, in general, that B-3 vests used by Navy and Marine airmen are devoid of the stenciled T.O.s and inspection dates typically found on vests used by the A.A.F. That being said, the user's name will often be found inked or stenciled on the front. Please keep this in mind if you are looking to add a representative "Navy used" B-3 to your collection.

Below:  Looking dapper, we have VMF-212 ace Captain William A. Carlton, USMC, with some interesting flight gear. In addition to his Air Cruisers A.A.F. contract B-3 vest, we see MK-I goggles paired with an M-450 summer helmet that has had cloth-covered-leather ear cups and oxygen mask snaps added. He also sports a rigger-made shoulder holster for his .45 pistol fabricated from heavy white canvas (of the type used for seabags) and parachute webbing. A theater-made (or modified) survival knife hangs from his belt.  

Above:  An Air Corps contract B-3 vest, free of the previously mentioned stenciles, and dated November of 1941.  

Below: Black Sheep Burney Tucker (left) and Ed Harper (right), in the summer of 1943. Even when the newer B-4s became available, many old hands chose to retain their B-3 vest, finding it more comfortable than the less flexible B-4.