Friend or foe? Solution to a World War II user interface design problem ("Star and bars")

Bradford Robert McCormick's maternal uncle, Isadore ("Izzy") Milton Znamirowski (1916-2010), was an engineer who learned his skill through hands-on apprenticeship and self-study, rather than formal schooling, beyond graduating from Baltimore Maryland's City College High School ("City"). In consequence, during World War II, Isadore served as an enlisted man in an engineering design unit at The Bureau of Aeronautics (Washington, D.C.).

The problem

American military military airplane ingisnia before "star and bars"

One day, an officer came and assigned Isadore's unit the following task:

American fighter pilots were shooting down their comrades because in the heat of battle, against bright sky background, sunglare, etc. they could not easily distinguish in combat the "Star-in-Circle" marking on American planes (above) from the circle marking (aka "Rising sun", aka "Meatball") on Japanese planes.

Assignment: Design a new marking for American fighter planes that pilots could easily distinguish from the Japanese marking, to reduce losses to "friendly fire".

Isadore Znamirowski's solution to the problem

Isadore said he had a number of ideas, but he saw which one was the best answer, and he drew his design: The existing circle marking, but with a rectangular bar added to each side. "I wanted something as simple as possible. Leave the circle there and we can glue something on either side."

Isadore further explained that, as he was drawing his design, an admiral: John Sidney McCain, Sr., visited his group, and went from drafting table to drafting table, in descending rank order, looking to find who had come up with a solution. By the time the admiral got to Isadore's table, the admiral was frustrated that nobody – i.e., no officer or college educated engineer – had come up with a solution. The admiral looked at Isadore's design. He announced it was the solution, and he snatched Isadore's not quite finished drawing away without giving Isadore time to sign it. The admiral went off with Isadore's design, which became the new marking on all American combat aircraft.

Isadore's solution to the problem

Below: 1943 test demonstrating improved recognizability of new marking. Left to right: "Star and Bars" U.S.A. marking, previous U.S.A. marking, Japanese marking, German marking. The new marking "was estimated to be 60 percent more recognizable".

Isadore's solution to the problem, drawn by himself. (undated)

Hellcat fighter with new insignia

Isadore said that because he was only an enlisted man, he did not get credit for his idea.

I hypothesize the reason Isadore's design was "the" solution, is as he himself explained it to me: It made what the American pilots were already looking for more easily distinguishable, instead of requiring them to look for something different. The pilots' existing expectations were reinforced, rather than the pilots being required to reorient themselves to something "different", with the consequent interference with their "reflexes", plus initial degradation of performance during a "learning curve" period of time. [I have not verified, but I think the design also had the logistical advantage of not requiring existing markings to be re-painted-over.] My uncle's solution had no "downside".

In his own words (Now let us praise famous men!)

Following is a verbatim transcript of Isadore's hend-written recollection of what happened (mis-spellings and all). This documents an [albeit small] American Tragedy. Nobody knows where the "star and bars" came from, although to this day they are still displayed on U.S. military aircraft – go look at one, e.g., an F-22 or a B-52 or a C-130 or a KC-135! To study Isadore's original hand-written affidavit: Click here. The transcript:

Isadore Milton Znamirowski was employed at Westinghouse as a design engineer draftsman from where I was drafted for service in World War II.

After training and "boot camp" I was assigned to the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C.

Isadore worked himself up to Petty Officer First Class (ED). Isadore work independently. Work assignments were placed on my desk and I would independently complete them in order turn the completed ones over to the supervising person.

One evening after work I had dinner and saw a newspaper. So I picked it up and started to look thru it, when I saw this article on American flyers shooting at each other when flying in sun light. The USA symbol was taken for Japanese symbol. Shock at first and then Isadore immediately the USA symbol has to be modified.

For the remaining of the evening and when Isadore went to sleep my thoughts were of the U.S.A. flyers.

Next morning Isadore had breakfast and off he went to Bureau of Aeronautics to get an early start. I clean my drawing board and get a clean start.

Isadore's solution to the problem, drawn by himself. (undated)

I put down a clean drawing paper and next in center drew the beginning of the symbol circle first then the star. The star and circle remains where they were [see diagram, above]. Two rectangles added on this end [pointer to left side of symbol]. Two rectangles added on this end [pointer to right side of symbol].

Here is where Isadore started. Leave this center along and added something new.

Isadore's solution to the problem, drawn by himself. (undated)

About 8:10 A.M. a big Admiral [John Sidney McCain, Sr.] with a big big mouth and he barks instructions, "We need a new 'INSIGNIA' Everybody on it." All 40 personnels went his way, but Isadore kept working on our symbol. Little latter on Isadore came on his answer Two RECTANGLES one on each side. I was overjoyed.

Isadore Milton Znamirowski completed this about 10 A.M. and was about to sign my name when the big Admiral just completed checking everybody. With his big mouth blasted out what kind of personnel have got here. I haven't got anything yet.

Isadore Milton Znamirowski could not go with the big Admiral orders because the USA flyers would have to spend more of their time to trying to remember a new "insignia".

As Isadore through that there two excellent reasons to leave the symbol along and just add my two rectangles to the symbol and you are done.

By Isadore added the two rectangles the USA flyers have no troubles remember them.

Continued about the big Admiral after the big Admiral made his remarks and his was upset. He in Isadore's work area. He bump Isadore to the right wall and stood up, with his hands on his hips for one minute and stared at my drawing. Everybody is waiting to see what he will do now. Then he opens his big mouth WE GOT IT HERE! Take it up and give it to me. Isadore asked him could he sign his name. His answer give it to me.

He ran out of the Bureau of Aeronautics a very overjoyed big Admiral with Isadore's drawing. A second before he was down grader everyone in this room.

Everybody come over to me and wanted to know what I came up.

I told everyone that Isadore did not go with his "new insignia" because I knew there was a better way to solve the problems of sun light on USA symbol. That is why Isadore went with what he had in his mind. All of you were a witness to the way Isadore modified the USA symbol.

All of you witness the big change in the big Admiral, from depression to joy in one minute.

The enthusiasm and effort the big Admiral did not let sign my name to the drawing nor did he thank me.

[signed] Isadore Milton Znamirowski

Further verbal communication from Isadore to Bradford McCormick, 31 October 2002:

"Everyone came around [my table] and asked what I did. I said I didn't come up with a new design, but modified the existing design. A lieutenant said I had disobeyed orders [because I had modified the existing design instead of making a new design]. I said, 'No, Sir. He asked the question wrong.' [ / ] At ten minutes after 2 [14:10] we got confirmation [that my design had been accepted]...."

Article from a United States military internal bulletin at the time:
Page from U.S. military newspaper (given to me by Isadore)

And history continues (ref. Elsa Morante's "History: A Novel")

In Isadore's story, I find (1) a beautiful description of an instance of mankind's highest faculty, the creative act – Schiller's: no man knows from whence comes the upsurge of words [images, etc.] from the darkness into the light. Einsteins and Bachs may do it bigger and more often, but, I think, not qualitatively better than Petty Officer First Class (ED) Isadore Znamirowski at his drafting table that day. And, pragmatically, many "greater" ideas have provided less material benefit to humanity. But I also find (2) an equally paradigmatic eample of how "little people" get shit on by "big people" and are denied peer dignity -- better: peer community – with all other ambulatory bipeds. What was Isadore's reward for his great service to his country -- a service that perhaps nobody else could have provided? Nuthin. I'm sure he kept his job and got an honorable discharge. (He sent me a copy of a letter commending him for later work.) He told me how, after the war, as a union shop steward in civilian life, he was an early advocate for equal treatment of "colored people" in his department when he returned to Westinghouse. Might we say say Isadore Znamirowski was a righteous person?

In a genuinely civilized, a genuinely modern world, not a so-called-civilization like we have and of which Isadore's Admiral showed himself to be a shining paragon, people today would know where "the star and bars" came from, and, at the time, his name would have been mentioned in the news (image of article, above).

Admiral McCain, Sir, are your really such a Superior Being that you are incapable of even saying "Thank you" to a fellow sailor who, although he lacks stars and even bars on his epaulets (does he even have epaulets?), has just now saved your ass?

Mission accomplished

Date:     Thu, 13 Aug 2020 16:23:11 +0000 [08/13/2020 12:23 EDT]
From:     "Levitt, Marc E CIV USN NATLMUSNAVAV PNS FL (USA)" <>
To:       "" <>
Subject:  Letter received


 We did receive your package, and appreciate the copies of the documents. We have added them to our reference files for use by our researchers and patrons.

 Kind regards,


Irrelevant but interesting

PRC insignia

Yes, this is different and it is not really relevant here, but above is the insignia on Communist Chinese (PRC) military aircraft today. I (BMcC[18-11-46-503]) respectfully speculate that if Izzy was alive today and saw this it would make his day just a little better, yes?

Thank you for reading.[1]

+2024.02.16 v077
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  1. Thank you
    McCormick, Bradford <>
    Mon, May 22, 6:36 AM (3 days ago)
    to [U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC), Carlisle, Pennsylvania]
    Again, Colonel Baer, let me thank you for talkng with me Saturday morning. I hever expected such good fortune. I also thanked the "friend of the museum" (whose name I did not get) who took me from the entrance hall to ask you if you could talk to me, for otherwise I would not have met you.
    But one thing I did not say quite as well as I should have. The person who would really have thanked you for listening to his Star and Bars story would have been Petty Officer First Class (ED). Isadore Mllton Znamirowski. As I said to you, he always wanted someone to hear his story, and apparently at least I did, which he did appreciate.
    So let me thank you as "izzy"'s representative, who himself could not have been there.
    If there is ever anything I coud do for you, Please let me know.I am a kind of generalized intellectual who also has 46 years experience with computer programming (I got PTSD from it) and am adept at criticizing user inerfaces and being able to communicate with "computer people".
    Bradford McCormick, Ed.D.

    Baer, Timothy M COL USARMY AWC (USA)
    Mon, May 22, 9:38 AM (3 days ago)
    to me
    It was a privilege to meet you on Saturday and to hear your uncle's story.
    Thank you for sharing his story.
    COL Baer
    COL Timothy M. Baer
    Deputy Director
    United States Army Heritage and Education Center
    Office Phone: 717-245-4114

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