Where Did The Hells Angels Get Their Name?

The late Hunter S. Thompson once shared about the legendary motorcycle gang known as the Hells Angels, "The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong done them by man, beast or fate. The only thing that keeps them in line is their fear of death, jail and lawsuits" (via Goodreads). Since 1948, the harrowing and widely stigmatized army of bikers has grown in numbers and notoriety worldwide and at a breakneck speed. In 2020, Hot Cars reported that there are 444 chapters in 56 different countries, though most factions generally maintain a sense of propriety and stay out of serious legal trouble these days. 

All the same, the history of the Hells Angels bears an insignia of dread and infernal terror that certainly justifies their namesake. Throughout the years, the gang has been involved in various illegal enterprises including proliferation and manufacturing of drugs, theft, distribution of illegal firearms, and murder (per Office of Justice Programs). Some recall the infamous tale where, during a Rolling Stones concert in 1966, one member stabbed a concertgoer to death in the midst of a feverish altercation. Unaware of what was happening, The Stones played on and only learned of the tragedy after the show had ended (via History). It almost seems as though the group's diabolical title was crafted distinctly for them, but there's a story behind the notorious name that has become a forbearer of terror and affliction. 

The name 'Hells Angels' can be traced back to WWII

According to Time, the Hells Angels name that was adopted by the infamous road warriors actually originated in the sky. It was in 1948 that the Hells Angels first mounted their iron stallions in solidarity, and being that it was only a few years after World War II ended, many of those early members were veterans. A military surplus resulted in an abundance of extra road bikes that could be bought for a modest price, so a new activity with some adrenaline rumbling at its core was all the appeal a postwar hero could hope for on domestic grounds. 

Motorcycle factions started cropping up across the U.S., and after Otto Friedli broke ties with his original gang — The Pissed Off Bastards — he went on to forge his own group of ragtags and renegades on two wheels: the Hells Angels. By means of paying homage to a group of marine corps aviators who took on the Japanese fleet of sky bombers head on, they adopted the moniker "Hells Angels" — a name those particular pilots earned during WWII (per We are the Mighty).

Other appearances of the name

The label "Hells Angels" had been used prior to WWII, too. Certain agents of the aerial offense were also granted the title during the World War I. In 1930, a popular movie directed and produced by the beloved and highly-revered pilot Howard Hughes also sported the name. The film recounts the tale of the Royal Flying Corps, a British sector of pilots whose bravery and wartime feats garnered notable merit (via Time). 

The iconic "Death's Head" logo that appears on members' jackets and, oftentimes, their bodies in the form of tattoos is also a military motif. The flying skull emblem complete with a flame-adorned motorcycle helmet and devil horns was designed after both the 85th Fighter Squadron and 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron logos, both of which display treacherous skulls with wings (the latter is perched atop an aircraft bomb). In a sense, you could say that the Hells Angels looked to the heavens for inspiration (per We are the Mighty).