With a cursory glance, you could easily mistake Mike Dawson's collection of World War II-era training manuals as vintage comic books. Their covers are adorned with hand-drawn caricatures and slang terminology that you would expect to find in the Sunday funnies. The pages within appear equally informal. Yet, the subjects they discuss are no laughing matter.
To Dawson, the manuals are treasured mementos of his late father's service in the US Navy. The books also have value to a broader audience. Their pages provide a vivid reminder of the far-reaching influence of comics in America during World War II. Many beloved characters helped the nation to prepare, cope, and rally during those difficult years.
Training With Comics
In the summer of 1945, Tom Dawson was preparing for war. The Michigan native was barely 19 years old, but he already had several phases of flight training behind him. He was now learning to fly the steed meant to carry him into battle, the Grumman F6F Hellcat.
The Hellcat was a brutish machine. It had a massive 2,800-cubic-inch engine, six .50-caliber machine guns, and the ability to carry 2,000 pounds of bombs and rockets. Grumman's frontline fighter packed tremendous quantities of horsepower and firepower to put in the hands of a teenager. Just one false move could unleash the Hellcat's lethal fury in the wrong direction. The navy had to somehow train Dawson and his fellow aviation cadets how to master this deadly instrument with precision, finesse, and complete confidence.
At this late stage of WWII, the US military was highly-experienced in the business of creating competent young aviators. One important aspect of this success was that they understood their pupils. By most definitions, trainees in every branch of the military were still kids. Many of them were likely to spend their free time reading comic books. And nearly everyone had a favorite comic strip in the newspaper that they could relate to. It only made sense to incorporate similar styles and familiar characters into training curriculums.