Some months ago, Erica Melville of Craigmore Creations Publishing in Portland, Oregon, contacted us with an idea for a project: she wanted to publish a coffee table book of World War II veterans’ tattoos.  I thought it was a wonderful idea and invited our veterans to fill out a form that Erica provided and to include a little info on why they got the designs they did.  It being a warm summer morning, many of our vets wore short sleeve shirts.  I took note of many forearms bearing faded green markings.  I was a bit surprised with how shy our vets were to talk about their tattoos.   But more and more have since come forth to share their stories.

Tattoos are one thing that the WWII generation and our under-40 population have in common.  Body art fell out of fashion after the war and remained an outside-the-mainstream practice until the early 1990s.  I sometimes wonder how many of our veterans endured the stigma that tattoos carried during the 1950s and 1960s.  Did they regret their green markings as “youthful indiscretions” when tattoos were the province of bikers and ruffians. 

The modern history of tattoos in the West begins in the eighteenth century when long-distance sea voyages took British sailors to such exotic ports as Tahiti and Somoa.  Polynesians regularly inked their skin, a practice they referred to as tatau, meaning “to mark something.”  For many years in Europe and America, few outside the maritime trades inked up their arms.

World War II ushered in a tattoo boom as the Navy ballooned to enormous proportions and hordes of men crawled the waterfronts of San Diego, New York City, and a dozen other cities.

Two sailors aboard the American battleship USS New Jersey in 1944

Two sailors aboard the American battleship USS New Jersey in 1944

 One of our vets, Cy K., reported this information about his tattoo:

Got it in Norfolk, Va., by a little old lady in December ’43.  It’s a 2″ anchor with a USN.  Had it on my right in the center or the elbow and hand.  Got it as proof to my friend from Philly that it did not hurt.  A little white lie.  When my father found me I was 16 years old on my way to the South Pacific.  In his letter, he wrote, “Don’t get any tattoos or bring home half-naked island women.  God Blesss, and get back alive.”

But my favorite tattoo memory comes from our regular breakfast club member, Jack Brawdy, who writes:

Four of us were enjoying a liberty in San Diego while attending advanced torpedo training school.  While looking for a good place to eat we came across a very busy tattoo parlor with a lot of sailors waiting in line.  Often thought of a tattoo while in the Navy but my mind was made up that particular afternoon.  The tattoo artist was young, very beautiful and dressed in a manner that attracted virile, young and slightly innebriated sailors.  I qualified on all counts, waited in line, got my tattoo and survived the wrath of my mother next time I got home.   

An Eagle in flight carrying a banner of an American flag in its beak tattooed on left forearm.  We were cautioned then if tattoos became infected it was a court martial offence. Is this still true in Navy today?  That American flag after 66 years is faded but still flying!