Flightlines

“Here’s why” of the week

Taking our “Here’s Why” from the paper to the blog. An explanation for why something is the way it is in the Air Force/military.

Whether you’re riding on a jet ski or are an Air Force aircrew flight equipment journeyman, life vests are part of protocol.

A fighter pilot wears his yellow "Mae West" life jacket, on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (Courtesy http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/).

A fighter pilot wears his yellow “Mae West” life jacket, on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (Courtesy http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/).

During World War II, life vests were nicknamed “Mae Wests” after the popular 1930s and 40s actress Mae West. Could you guess why?

Linguist and author Henry Alexander explains that members of the Royal Air Force and Army Air Forces who were issued flight gear began calling their life vests — manufactured by Peter Markus in 1928 — “Mae Wests” because the inflated vests “added buoyancy to the wearer’s chest.”

“I need not enter into the anatomical details which throw light on this term,” Alexander writes in “Words and the War” (1944).

In fact, in 1942, Mae West herself got wind that the troops were using her name to identify the vest and responded to the RAF:

“Yeah, the jacket idea is all right and I can’t imagine anything better than to bring you boys of the RAF soft and happy landings,” West wrote in her letter.

“I’ve been in Who’s Who and I know what’s what, but it’ll be the first time I ever made the dictionary. Thanks boys. Sin-sationally, Mae West.”

Reported on Slate’s Vault blog by Rebecca Onion.

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