"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
 
The Navy B-3 Life Vest   
LCDR Paul Buie, CO of VF-16, briefs some of his pilots prior to a mission in November of 1943 during the Gilbert Islands campaign. They would return to the U.S.S. Lexington later that day with seventeen victories among them. There are many interesting details in this well know photo, but the object that caught our attention this time was the dye marker being worn at the waist of the pilot on the right. It tells us that he is wearing a "modified" B-3 life vest. Other than vintage photos and the two surviving examples shown here, we have no official references on this item. The modification appears to have been done to a large quantity of B-3 vests as they can be found in use by several different Navy and Marine squadrons. To accomodate the carrying of, and easy access to, a signal mirror, a rectangular extension, made of scrap leather, was added to the existing leather chest patch found on the B-3. The result was a convenient pocket, closed by a glove snap, in  the upper corner. A polished steel signal mirror was secured by a lanyard made from a cotton cord stitched to a loop formed from a parachute opening elastic. To prevent the tie-on dye marker from hindering access, it was relocated to a loop sewn into the vest's waist belt.

    
A closer view of the relocated dye marker. Also note the drape of the fabric covered B-3 vest seen here as opposed to the B-4 vest, which, due to it's construction, was less flexible.

A front view of the same VF-16 pilot, seen here second from right. The glove snap and parachute elastic are evident.

Details of the pocket and loop are seen below in this enlargement of LCDR Richard Upson's B-3 vest (he was CO of VT-5, as featured on our "Fallen Heroes" page one).
Another member of VF-16, seen here aboard Lexington in April of 1944. Some users of the vest appear to have preferred to hang the elastic loop over the oral inflation valve, while others tucked the lanyard into the leather pocket and secured the loop with the glove snap.    

Jim Swett, USMC, wears the modified vest under his flight jacket for a publicity photo.       .
Above and below, the "modified" vests can be seen in use by VF-5 pilots aboard Yorktown in 1943. Jag Granger (right below) wears his vest while playing Acey-deucey ( a variant of backgammon popular with Navy men since WWI) with John Gray in their squadron's ready room. As seen in the enlargement, this is the first photo we found showing this modified vest in use. After that, the hunt was on!

An SBD-5 crew of VB-16, LT (jg) William E. McCarthy and his gunner, AOM 2/c Paul Bonilla, both wearing the vests.
Above:  Two more examples. An unidentified Marine Corsair pilot using the modified vest, followed by a photo of VMF-214's 1st. Lt. William "Junior" Heier using one as well, circa late 1943.

Below:  A Marine SB2C gunner can be seen wearing the early version of the "modified" vest. The leather extension was not yet added to the vest patch, it simply had the stitching removed along the top right and a large glove snap added. The stenciled "MIRROR INSIDE" remained the same and the belt loop for the dye marker was still provided.

In an effort to prevent the sudden fraudulent creation of similarly modified vests, intended to entice potential online auction buyers, we have chosen not to show you the markings that can be found on the interior of both of these vests. We will say that they are consistent and logical considering the nature of the modifications done. Both of our vests are from Air Cruiser A.A.F. contracts and are dated June, 1942. The example with the added leather strip was modified in the summer of 1943 and the earlier example was modified in the winter of the same year.

If you have additional vintage photos of these vests in use, or an example of one in your collection, please send them in and we will see they get added to this article.
Above:  As evidenced here, at least some of these vests remained in service through the end of the war, although the modifications were probably all made in 1943. This well-used example appears to have been daubed with blue aircraft camouflage paint. It is worn by the CO of VBF-83, LT T. H. Reidy, who shot down a Myrt floatplane on August 15, 1945, while flying an F4U1D Corsair. The strike he was on was recalled by the Essex due to the announced Japanese surrender, which probably has more to do with his squadron mate's big grins and celebratory cigars than his recounting of his recent exploits.

Below:  CDR Henry L. Miller, Commander, Carrier Air Group Six, wears a "modified", AAF contract, Air Cruisers manufactured B-3 with added leather strip. CAG-6 was aboard USS Hancock from spring 1945 through VJ-Day.