Aviation Artist Ron Cole’s Tribute to Lou Zamperini and his B-24

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Click HERE to visit Ron’s webstore.

Back in February, 2014, WarbirdsNews published a story by acclaimed digital artist, Ron Cole, and his work with Legend Flyers in Seattle Washington creating an action portrait for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero the company was restoring. Ron is well known for his fabulous commissioned digital paintings of historic aircraft, and we are very proud that he is now sponsoring WarbirdsNews. We recently caught up with Ron Cole on what his latest project involves, which still involves the Zero, but also the B-24 Liberator which Louis Zamperini was aboard in combat over the Pacific. Zamperini, as many of you will know, is the famed Olympic runner who survived unimaginable brutality as a prisoner of war with the Japanese during WWII. Laura Hillenbrand’s magnificent book “Unbroken” retells his story in riveting detail, which is also now a major motion picture showing at theatres across the world. We thought our readers might be interested in hearing Ron Cole’s description about re-creating on canvas that fateful moment when Zamperini’s B-24 was under attack.

Zamperini’s Liberator

by Ron Cole

Two years ago I was contacted by Legend Flyers of Everett, Washington about doing some commissioned artwork for them. Initially the plan was for me to paint the Messerschmitt Me 262b B-1a that they’d received from the US Navy. Formerly displayed outdoors on the grounds of Naval Air Station Willow Grove, she’d been nicknamed ‘Vera’ by the Allies who took her as a war prize in 1945. Legend Flyers had used her as a pattern to build their ‘new-build’ Me 262 jets. I painted her in American markings and they paid me with one of her original engine nacelle panels. While doing research for the project I met the American serviceman who flew ‘Vera’ to France, Lt. Roy Brown. The relationship quickly grew from there and I was asked to paint Legend Flyers’s current project; a Mitsubishi A6M3 Model 32 Zero. The aircraft had been recovered from Taroa in the Pacific in 1992 by my old friend John Sterling. Thanks to original Japanese records that had miraculously survived World War II, a lot was known about the aircraft’s wartime service, including that she’d been flown in action my Japanese pilot ‘Ace’ Isamu Miyazaki, and that she’d likely participated in the interception of Lt. Louis Zamperini’s B-24D ‘Super Man’ in April of 1943.

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Click HERE to visit Ron’s webstore.

The connection to Louis Zamperini was timely. Angelina Jolie was then shooting the film ‘Unbroken’ about Zamperini’s life story, and the film was to make the April 1943 mission known to millions. As both an homage to Louie (who I’d planned to meet at the time), Legend Flyers and I went on to create several nice paintings that depicted the A6M3 Zero in action on that day. As we worked out different compositions, two of them included the same firing pass against ‘Super Man’ only a few seconds apart.

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Click HERE to visit Ron’s webstore.
After the third painting it occurred to me that I’d done a pretty thorough job of covering the action – only from the perspective of the Japanese. By that time Zamperini had sadly passed away a few months before and the film was in theaters. Since I was motivated to get a new piece out while everyone was still talking about the movie and I didn’t have time to paint a completely new composition, I did something I only very rarely do: I reworked an older piece. One of my best sellers was my painting of B-24H ‘OMIAKINBAK’ from the European Theater of Operations. It, too, had originally been a commission. In fact the existence of the painting online had brought together half-a-dozen former crew members and their families. Turning the ‘H’ into a ‘D’ model B-24 would be just complicated enough for me to feel okay about recycling the original painting and making ‘OMIAKINBAK’ into Zamperini’s ‘Super Man’.
During the process I shared the project through my Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/RonColeAircraft) and by so doing found out a lot about this particular B-24 that I hadn’t known, and that the film got wrong. ‘Super Man’ was a late production ‘D’ model. She had the twin .50 caliber chin guns and the rare Bendix ventral turret with two machine guns. Finding references for the latter was, to put it mildly, quite a challenge! Thank you to all who guided me through that project, especially Dan Sheridan, who shared with me some great photos of ‘Super Man’ that I’d never seen before.
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Click HERE to visit Ron’s webstore.
Click on the image to visit Ron's webstore.
Click on the image to visit Ron’s webstore.

Last but not least I desperately wanted to create one of my aircraft relic displays in keeping with the April ’43 mission theme. ‘Super Man’ was broken up decades ago, so the next best thing was to tap into my supply of Zero parts that I’d received from Legend Flyers. The aircraft had been there, even though on the other side of the encounter. To make Louie a bigger part of the display I included a great wartime snapshot of him.

I only regret that I was never able to share my paintings with Louis Zamperini himself, although I suppose they would not have outshone having a major Hollywood film made. We will both remember and honor the man in more ways than one.
WarbirdsNews wishes to thank Ron Cole very much for this article. To see more of his amazing art, please visit his website HERE, and join his Facebook page for regular updates HERE. He’s currently offering a 15% discount on everything in his store, but it won’t last long!

2 Comments

  1. Just one glaring error. Zamperini and his B-24 “Superman” crew were not shot down, but survived a harrowing air raid against the Japanese that severely damaged their plane. Subsequently, while on a search and rescue mission flying a decrepit “parts” B-24, the plane crashed into the Pacific due to mechanical failure. Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken” accurately describes these events.

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