Saturday, September 3, 2016

Profile 124: "F" as flown by F/L John Wilkinson, 41 Squadron


I still can't believe what just happened.

"So you actually saw them?!"

"Oh yes!"

"Spitfires and Messerschmitts dogfighting above your head?!"

"Yes! They were (insert pause, wry smile) rather hard to miss." (he smirked, chortling at my artless* astonishment).

Break break.

The movie, "The Battle of Britain" was the first that I remember seeing—I think it was at some sort of old-film festival that our local theatre played.  It doesn't matter—from that moment, the movie took a permanent spot on my list of all-time-top-favorites; the thought of running into one's own airplane to roar off and fight the enemy was absolutely compelling to my little-boy brain.

Decades later, with a man who was there, I got to relive, not only one of the crucial moments of world history but someone who watched it unfold.  I was totally geeked out.

Anyway, back to the conversation.

"I wonder what I would do if I saw enemy airplanes flying above my city," I mused aloud.  But the silver-haired gentleman across the table didn't speak.  Instead, his eyes replied with the wordless expression of, "Thank God you only have to wonder about that and not actually experience it."

Hmmm.

In the next 2-3 weeks, we'll be releasing our "mini-documentary" of our conversation and sharing some of the extraordinary artifacts of his service as a fighter pilot with 41 Squadron. Indeed, though he was not old enough to fly during those dark days of 1940, by 1944, the man not only fought back, he did so with an uncanny lethality.

I know I always write, "Stay tuned" during these work-in-progress posts but in this case, I'm standing up and hollering.

"STAY TUNED!"

Me, John and Cinematographer (and OGTA editor) Dalton Coffey.
This is SO legit...
*Cut me some slack.  I never expected to get to actually draw an RAF Spitfire let alone talk to someone who'd seen the Brit's side of the war from start to stop.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Profile 123: "DORRIE R" as flown by Jerry Yellin, 78th FS


“If you haven’t had sex for a long time…”

(insert my shocked expression as this 92 year old man stated it so plainly)

“…the next time, you’re all caught up.”

Laugh, snicker or be offended all you want, there’s truth to Jerry’s words.  A WWII ex-POW once said to me, “Why remember starving?!  I’m not starving today!”

Ah, the stuff you learn from old people…

Okay.  Look above—it's "DORRIE R," the P-51 Mustang, circa May 1945, flown by Jerry Yellin of the 78th Fighter Squadron.  The Bushmasters, as the squadron was called, were based at Iwo Jima during WWII.  If you've heard Jerry's name before it's because he's become a darling of the internet world and for good reason—Jerry represents the “end” of WWII in many ways.

For example, he flew the war’s last combat mission.  His guns spewed the last bullets, he fired the last rockets and soberingly, he was the last one to lose a friend to war’s maw. Today?  Jerry is alive, well, strong, sharp…and working to make sure that his generation's legacy will last.

Hmmmm…

Anyway, a few years ago,  a short video was posted where Jerry described his service. It's not gory, it's not dramatic, but the man's words are eloquent enough to have warranted viral status.   In fact, I lost count of how many times people emailed it to me with some sort of exclamation that "Everyone needs to watch this..."

The bottom line is that it kind of made the guy "famous."


If you haven't yet, please watch the clip below.  You won't be disappointed...







Ok, back to that opening quote. I won’t blame you if you’re wondering how it pertains to airplanes, fighter pilots or WWII.   But, his words were actually in response to a question I posed to him regarding whether he felt as if he were a “late bloomer” —you know, someone who comes into their-own sometime later in life.
  
But before I get into that, a little background is in order.

All-things-Iwo-Jima is a fascinating topic and highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand WWII.  The island was scene to especially fierce combat; a veteran Marine described the battle for island ownership thusly—as if by reflex, his shoulders drooped and  face fell into a grimace, eyes downcast.  Then he shook his head and whispered, “No…” 

There are times I wish I could download someone's memories and experience them for myself but that was not one of those times.

The Battle for Iwo Jima was declared “over” on 26 March (after nearly a month and a half of fighting) and by April 7, the island was amazingly ready to launch P-51s.  But, by no means was the brutal moment 'over' as, to this day, Jerry remembers the cleanup of the dead rather vividly.

Still, I've been told the movie “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Flags of Our Fathers and the particular episode of Steven Spielberg’s “The Pacific” are good portrayals; I’ll take their word for it.

Moving right along, interested in some period-film of some 78th FS P-51s?  Click below:





Anyway, back to the man— Jerry Yellin was a late-war fighter pilot.   His 19 combat missions were flown from Iwo Jima to Japan in the effort to destroy the Japanese war machine once and for all - either as escort for B-29 bombers or as a swarm of fighters on search and destroy missions.

Though many WWII fighter pilots accumulated more combat missions (100+ wasn't uncommon), Jerry's were extraordinary for their length.  For reference, a three-four hour mission over the European Theatre of Operations was considered a big deal.  But over the Pacific, three-four hours could mean you weren’t even half-way there!  

Look below.  It’s a map of Iwo Jima in relation to Japan.  The missions from Iwo to Japan were 8 hour trips with the majority being over deep, uninhabited (save for creatures and submarines) ocean.   On paper, these missions were called "VLR" (short for Very Long Range).  But in practice, they were simply grueling.


Iwo Jima to Japan - a long ride.  Thanks to Google Maps for making
this incredible distance shorter.

How grueling?  Well,  flying a high-performance prop fighter is work. Granted, there's immense pleasure at horsing a beautifully trimmed machine around in the sky, letting g-forces gently pull and tug at the senses... air shows make it seem all the more fun.  On VLR missions (especially) the reality was different.

For some reason, I feel the need to describe what it was like to fly a VLR mission for us moderns.  Indulge me here and imagine this...

You own a houseboat with a towering pole that rises from the middle of the boat.  On top of that pole is love-seat sized platform upon which rests a small metal chair.  The chair is criss-crossed with heavy canvas seat and shoulder belts. Covering the platform and chair is a clear dome of thin plastic.  It’s not a big space; once you’re strapped into the chair, there’s only about an inch or so of clearance between your head and the dome.  

Now, a gas-powered leaf blower is started and wedged inside your cramped clear bubble where it idles until, periodically, someone gooses the throttle.  

Outside, it’s winter.  Twenty, thirty below zero.  The water upon which your boat rests is constantly moving—sometimes in gentle swells, sometimes over angry crests, sometimes in two directions at once.  You can stabilize the boat somewhat using a constant tweaking of controls that are operated by your hands and feet.    It’s relatively easy at first but after a few hours, your hands and feet feel like they weigh ten pounds a piece… but there’s no leaving for eight hours.

You with me?


An "upper" container circa mid-20th Century.  It was sent to me by a reader who's a "Shrink" with
one of the world's most renown hospital systems.  He confirmed that soldiers were doped.
Source:  Photo unknown.  The doctor who sent this to me?  He prefers to remain anonymous.

Ok.  After about three hours in your peculiar confinement, you take a Benzadrine pill, an amphetamine.  The Air Force gives you this because soon, a crazed demon will suddenly leap from the depths and attack you and your boat; you need to be absolutely alert because in one claw, the demon will clutch someone you love.  In the other, someone you hate.  

If that’s not unnerving enough, the demon has a purpose.  When it arrives—in a flash of fire and plume of sulphur—it will leap onto your dome and begin shrieking college-level test questions at you at ear-shattering volume.  You must answer immediately.  If answered correctly, the demon will rip the head off your enemy. But if you hesitate or answer incorrectly,  it will rip the head off the person you love and shout to the world that you are to blame.

Bizarre analogy?  Probably.  But no more bizarre than war itself (but we do it anyway).

Again, Jerry flew these VLR missions not once but 19 times.

So, one more time—have a look at my art at the top of the post.  Notice the title, "The Last Warriors.”    If you click on the graphic, you'll see a faint image of a P-51 silhouette just offset from the detailed rendering.   Holding the actual print to the light—just so—the faint image will glimmer.  But twist the page just-so and it seems to disappear.*

The real DORRIE R was destroyed on June 1, 1945.   Jerry wasn't flying it at the time though.  Instead, Jerry was temporarily grounded due to problems with his wisdom teeth.  Dental pain is bad enough but add the fluctuating pressures of altitude and the pain ratchet’s-up to an unbearable level.  So, another pilot took-off in Jerry’s place, in Jerry's plane.


Jerry (right) shows Lt. Denny Mathis the fine points of formation-flying.  Specifically, Jerry is showing Denny how to lead a 2-man group (called an Element) within a 4-man Flight.  I was particularly grateful for this picture as it helped me draw
the "DORRIE R" nose art (painted on both sides of Jerry's P-51).
In one of those strange-but-true moments, 100 P-51s (in close formation) from that June 1 mission entered a storm line.  In the ensuing turbulence and dark-swirled chaos, 27 Mustangs  collided mid-air.  2 pilots were able to bail-out but 25 were killed; one of those being the pilot of the DORRIE R.  Jerry suffered a mouth of pain but it ended up preserving his life.   Thus, this rendering of his airplane represents the capricious whim of fate that we all face in life.

The silhouette also represents that last mission of 14 August, 1945.  Jerry—and as many as 143 additional P-51s**—were on a VLR mission to strafe a series of fighter bases near Tokyo.   After conquering the demon of combat one more time, Jerry and the rest crossed the Japanese coast to return home.  Entering another cloud bank, the Force went into the black...

...and emerged missing one man, Phil Schlamberg.

Phil was Jerry's wingman.  And friend.


This is Phil, age 19, circa 1944.  Jerry sent me the picture; it's of an enlarged version that Jerry carried in a parade to memorialize Phil.
Courtesy:  Jerry Yellin 
What happened?  No one knows.  Maybe a Japanese anti-aircraft shell pierced his airplane and the P-51 slowly bled its fluids to death.  Maybe Phil had a stroke.  Maybe an enemy fighter snuck in.  Maybe...the demon got him.

After a while, the cause is immaterial.  Jerry was crushed and Phil became the last Air Force combat casualty in WWII; by the time the squadron returned to their base at Iwo Jima, the war was declared over.

(deep breath).

Ok - fast forward to a few days ago and Jerry and I were having a conversation and that lead to the comment that opened this blog post.  Again, the context was the delayed satisfaction of being a "late bloomer."

After the war, Jerry did what so many people do who endure hardship, he stuffed it aside and moved on.  But stuffing a traumatic past never works.  Trauma is caustic and eventually eats through whatever mental containment a person can conjure.  In Jerry's case, though happily married, he skipped through various careers and opportunity, never really settling until the day when his son announced that he'd be marrying a Japanese woman.  The daughter of a Japanese fighter pilot, in fact!

On the 1988 trip (to Japan) to meet his future daughter-in-law, 'something snapped' (as it always seems to do) and the demon came back to taunt and condemn.  This time, Jerry, now a bit older and a bit wiser, fought back—not with guns or pills—but with the idea that he'd either have to adapt to the future or forever live in a haunted past.

You gotta read Jerry's book.  Click here.   But suffice it to state, it has a happy ending. Through hard work and medicating his mind with a meditative practice called "Transcendental Meditation," (TM).  Jerry was able to put the demon of war to death.  Yet, this beast, though gone, left a number of reminders.  One of them was particularly difficult to hear as it represents just how far-reaching war's impact really is.

That December of 1945, three or so months after WWII ended, Jerry went to visit Phil's parents and return what remained of their son—a handful of uniform insignia and the condolences of a buddy.  The meeting ended before it began.  Phil's mother, in the desperation of grief, lashed at Jerry with the words, "It should have been you that died on that mission!"

I asked Jerry about how he reacted and he said that he stood, alone Phil's porch for an hour in utter shock...

(insert kick to gut)

"I was probably 51 (years of age) before I began to get any satisfaction out of things.  (And) put things back in order.  I'd been living with this thing called PTSD all my life.  TM helped me do that."

That was a surprising quote for me.  People are supposed to get their 'issues' figured out before then, right?  "51?!  That's a long time to wait to get your life figured out!"

"Yeah. It is."

"But I look at what you've done, (i.e. book, working with veteran's support charities, returning to Iwo Jima to pay respects to both sides, etc.) and you've certainly come into your own late in life..."

"Yes.  It's my Zone.  I am in the zone."


Jerry Yellin, me and Claude Hone at the Sioux Falls Airshow.  Jerry had just flown in after taking
part in a pretty cool fly-by at the Pensacola Beach Airshow led by buddy Roy Kinsey
Click here. 

'What did your wife think?"  (Helene passed away last year.  They were married 65 years).

"She was proud of me.  She liked my message."

"And what's your message?"

"You know, any man, regardless of race, nationality, culture, can get any woman of any race, nationality and culture pregnant.  What does that tell you?"

(I laughed)  "You tell me, Jerry."

"We, as human beings are the same.  If all of our differences can still be put together to reproduce, we're fundamentally the same.  Look.  We have the ability to destroy the earth with war.   But for all of our differences, we can create from each other too.  I want people to think about that.  I want people to look at life the way Nature intended.  We should be caretakers.  Not warriors."

Hmmm.

So, riffing on Jerry's opening quote, maybe one day, someone will say, “You know, we haven’t had peace on this earth for a long time,” and then suddenly, we’ll have peace.  And then, in Jerry’s words, we’ll be all caught up.

And, we’ll all be late-bloomers, too.


*It’s a cool little effect I can use because of the Xerox technology that the printing company uses to reproduce my artwork.

Look below:



Hot off the press; my drawing of Jerry's airplane represents Phil Schlamberg, too!
Thanks, Xerox!

**Three Fighter Groups were on this mission.  Each Group contained 48 aircraft.  Of course, there may have been aborts but the number should be considered generally accurate.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Profile 122: "235" as flown by The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS


I write/draw/produce for a diverse crowd.

On one hand, there are the Warriors.  They were there and whatever I share is their story.  I am merely the guy in the room with the pen and paper.*

On the other hand, there are the rest of us—those that weren't there but for whatever reason—want to learn more about what it was like.

In that "rest of us" there are a number of sub groups:  warophiles, history geeks, model airplane builders...but the sub group that means most to me are the "family."

"I came across your blog when I was looking up my dad's old..."

"Though my uncle was killed, I have always wanted to know how he..."

And "family" doesn't necessarily mean blood-relative.  It can mean anyone who's had a profound impact.

"My favorite teacher was there during the war and he challenged me to think about..."

Hmmm.  About this idea of family, I've learned that the word means different things to people.   A few years ago, I was a guest of a Vietnam War fighter squadron and sat at a table with one of the pilots and his wife.  We four had ended up arriving late and were seated half-the-restaurant away from the rest of the squadron.  I thought it was a bummer because the pilot wasn't with his buddies and I wasn't going to be able to watch the dynamics of the group.

Though the pilot received his share of across-the-room hollers and jeers, my wife and I were able to have a comparatively personal conversation.   As it was my first real "Vietnam Project" (my words), it was a pretty-great opportunity to learn about the squadron and the couple's perspective on the times.

However, I'll never forget a particular moment—looking over at the rowdy group of paunch-bellied old men and their brides, the pilot pointed with his fork and said something profound—"Those are the guys I went to war with.  They are my brothers."

And then, I remembered what the Squadron Commander had said to me on the phone a few weeks prior about the same group—"They are (my wife and my) other sons."

Hmmm.

Have a look at the pencil sketch above.  It's an F-4E Phantom flown by "The Rocketeers" of the 336th TFS, circa August of 1972.  Vietnam War buffs will immediately recognize this airplane as Linebacker bird, participating in the period of time between May and October where American air power was launched against North Vietnam's infrastructure: bridges, railways, power stations, fuel storage depots...and of course, the blizzard of anti-aircraft sites that surrounded such targets.

On one hand, it's a tool of war.  On the other, it's the story of an ex-POW, a MiG killer, ground crew...and a particular man who's name still evokes a cheer.

But in the end, this is a story of a bunch of brothers who went off to war.

Please stay tuned.

The Rocketeers circa April, 1972.
Courtesy:  Fred Sheffler
*Sometimes a camera crew, too.


Friday, July 1, 2016

Profile 116: "168" - F-105D as flown by Gene Smith, 333 TFS



Almost done!   A few more details, some cleanup...so why not just wait until it's finished?

Well, Independence Day is just a few days away and when I think about "all-things-Patriotic," I've come to think of a group of Americans that ironically suffered a dramatic loss of independence during the Vietnam War—the POWs.

Now, I know the BBQ and firecrackers are calling our names but...

Have one more look at the F-105D above.  It's the airplane Gene Smith was flying when shot down over Hanoi on October 25, 1967, beginning nearly six years as a POW.   There are a blizzard of tiny details that need to be either fixed or added but I can tell you this—it's going to be a really terrific looking Thud.

When finished—and I figure that'll be in a month or so—I will post the final art and the last of my interview with Gene.  Hopefully I'll do his story justice as the practical value of what this group can teach the rest of us is not only real but timely.

However, can you spare another nine minutes before you hit the hotdogs?

The video below contains audio that I recorded while talking with Gene.  Originally, I had no intention of using it for anything other than my own reference so I apologize for the poor quality (it's a crappy iPhone recording).  But a few conversations with other readers this past week have lead me to believe that this would be valued regardless.

Again, I'm sorry for the crummy quality but I bet it'll help you appreciate your Fourth of July in a new way.

Roll data...

Profile 120: "Stuff Dad Used to Do." F-86D Sabre as flown by "Pete" Aspinwall, 83rd FIS




This is a shorter-than-normal post as the personal story behind the airplane belongs to a family that isn't in-it for the notoriety.

Nevertheless, have a look at the F-86D Sabre above.

Historically, the D-model of the Sabre is a quirk of Cold War thinking. The jet served its days guarding America against the expected Russian aerial invasion that, of course, never happened. And when I write "Days", I am referring to the time-scale of all-things-airplane.


First accepted by the USAF in 1951, the F-86D was mustered out of service by 1956 and disappeared from Air National Guard units by 1961. Compare that to the almost FORTY YEARS of service the F-16 has provided!  In the scope of things, the Dog—nicknamed not because of doggish performance but because it distinguished the D model from the rest of the Sabre lineup—was just a blip on the aerial calendar.

However, it’s here and that means it’s worth attention.

To start, look closely at the nose. See if you can imagine part of the under-fuselage suddenly lowering to reveal a brace of twenty four 2.75" diameter Mighty Mouse rockets nestled in their launch tubes. The idea was that the pilot would fire said rockets as kind of an aerial icepick based on pilot acumen and a carefully coordinated ground-control-radar plot.  Nowadays, with internally-guided missiles, the idea is awfully clumsy. But then? It was the best solution to counter the desperate image of red-starred invaders crossing the West Coast.



The Might-Mice roar!  I can't imagine how well this weapon would have worked in aerial combat
but if we don't try stuff out, we'll never learn.
Source:  USAF
Another point of note—mash your nose against your screen and look at all those stencils! You can’t read any of them on my artwork but realize that they reflect the growing complexity of 1950s tech.    

To get your head around what that compared against the venerable WWII P-51 Mustang, though each airplane occupied similar space (size-wise) a fully loaded Dog was nearly 20,000lbs while the Pony was half that.   So where did all of that 'weight' get stuffed?  Basically into every nook and cranny and therein lies the reason for all the stenciled warnings and notices.  


Every red dot is a stencil.  But, this picture shows off the 83rd FIS color scheme nicely, including the
white tail.  Modelers take note:  The "stenciled" font for the aircraft number is not the more rounded
font of the Dogs that came straight from the factory.
Source:  The Sabre Pilots Association
Ok.  Pull your face off the screen and note the color scheme. Though this Dog is appears to be wholly clad in aluminum, the tail is actually painted white.  I've tried to make it dingy as a result of the typical level of soot and grime that belched from those early jets but the fact remains, tonally, the tail and body are very similar. 

Now, note the blue chin—not quite sure why they did it but it looks cool.  Many thanks to the Sabre Pilots Association for making me realize it wasn’t black but blue—it’s good to talk to people who were actually there and not try to rely on black and white photos!


Yes!  It's 950!  I'm jealous of anyone who ever got to see this sight as part of their job.
Source:  The brain-trust of The Sabre Pilots Association

Yet, the most poignant point of this post is the title, "Stuff Dad Used to Do."

Soon, this print will go up onto a wall at a prestigious military museum as a modest memorial to the men who did their duty in those nervous days of Duck and Cover. The artwork was commissioned by the pilot's son who, now as a single-father, realizes the burden that parents have in making sure the future is, as well as can be expected, protected.


And so, the title.  Granted, it's a personal thing that makes most sense to the sons and daughters of military pilots.

But, I think it applies to anyone who stands on the shoulders of today, looks down and realizes the ladder of life is not made of metal and stencils...but flesh and bone.

Profile 121: F-8E Crusader as flown by Steve Russ, VF-53



F8 Crusader time!  Man, I've wanted to draw one of these sharks since I was 9 years old and struggling to glue the wings on.  

Hold that thought.

For some reason, people enjoy asking questions about what I do here.

Here's a sample:  "Are you really into Military?"

Sure!  But, I'm not a wanna-be for that matter.  The simple fact is that military moments are the crux of human history.  Remove them and we're left with a perforated storyline that simply doesn't add up to much.  But when taken in-whole, the picture of the human condition becomes much, much clearer.


So, to me, "Military" is fascinating.



Gawd, I love me my electronics but building plastic models is an awesome way to learn
History, Skill, Craftsmanship, Patience, Pride...
And I think this is the one that I attempted to build as a kid.
Source: Old Model Kits
Though I wholly agree with the Give Peace a Chance ideal, it's also the equivalent of listening to kindergarteners talk about what they'd do with a hundred dollars—"I'd buy all the candy in the world!"  We jaded adults know the truth—"Kid, you wouldn't get much and afterwards you'd puke your guts out."

In other words, right now, a world without war is simply unrealistic and until the moment when such is eliminated, our goal should be to do it better.   For me, writing about the human-side in addition to the war-side is is my contribution to this endeavor; it's awfully hard to make an enemy out of people we know'n like.  And, when confronted with those people who are inherently unlikeable (i.e. Nazis, ISIS, Khmer Rouge...) it's all the more enjoyable when they get blown up.



Steve Russ, in a condition he describes as, "Younger Me."
Source:  Steve Russ


Therefore, I interview old guys and draw their airplanes and hope for the best. 

Ok, back to the airplane.


Have another look at the Crusader above.  This particular example is one attached to the USS Bon Homme Richard (pronounced Bon Ahhm Rish-ard) circa 1968.  Her some-time pilot was, in his own words, only remarkable in that he was the youngest pilot on the ship.  


Over the next posts, I'll try to describe what it was like to fly this incredible aircraft known as "The Last of the Gunfighters."   As a war story, I'll share the pilot's perspective on using the machine as a tactical bomber (kind of like putting a luggage rack on the back of a 911 Turbo).   And you'll see some mighty-awesome fresh photographs of a day-in-the-life as well.


But as a human story, well, as my kids say, "It's complicated."


And that means this is a very human story. 


"Launch aircraft!"


Wait.

No.  Don't launch...at least not quite yet.


You might think this is Steve readying to catapult off the carrier but in fact he's signaling that the F-8 was
No-Go and not mission-ready.
Source:  Michael Mihalevich, Photographer's Mate, 2nd Class and working for the U.S. Navy

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Flew West - Robert "Punchy" Powell 11/21/1920 - 6/22/2016


The package arrived in a fashion that I'd soon learn marked the sender's breed—an oft-resused envelope, repeatedly patched with clear tape.  It looked like hell. But it really didn't matter because I greedily tore the thing open to get at the juicy contents—a promised set of pictures from WWII.

I remember the day distinctly— it was a late-summer afternoon in 2001, typically upper-Plains; balmy, dry, a stiff breeze...but a timbre in the air bears a warning of the fierce cold to come.  It's as if the atmosphere is nudging, "Enjoy it now."

So I did.  Right there in the driveway, thumbing through the stack of ancient images bearing the patina of six decades.  A colleague happened to be at my house and we looked at them together.

They were images of life at a place called "Bodney, England," home of the 352nd Fighter Group during WWII.  Most of them were candid shots of pilots and crew clowning around, smoking cigarettes—glimpses of a past well-known to History geeks lucky enough to get their hands on "great-grampa's shoebox" of memories.  

This wasn't my great-grandfather's box, however.  The photos belonged to a man I'd just met over the phone, a referral from a WWII fighter pilot who knew another WWII fighter pilot that knew another...at the time it didn't matter.  I was neck-deep in the cool-factor that I was actually becoming an amateur historian (!)

I zipped through the photos, looking for extremes—maybe a wrecked airplane or cockpit shot of a victorious pilot...my associate, however, didn't move as fast and collected my cast-offs in one hand while giving the others a bit more time.  He paused over a particular picture and stated, "Uh...did you notice these ones?"  He removed four or five images from the stack in his palm and handed them back to me. 

Indeed, these pictures were different.  The paper was thicker and brittle, showing tiny cracks in the shellac-like film finish.  The photo's edge was trimmed in the old-style fashion of tiny jags and the photo quality was especially grainy, looking as if it had been developed in a cellar.  Then, I remembered that the sender, fighter pilot Robert "Punchy" Powell, had told me to keep my eye out for a set of particular images as they were special to him.  They featured Jaime Laing, a WWII POW who was part of Punchy's squadron.

Behind each of these photos were yellow sticky notes scribed with impeccable cursive handwriting.

"Geez!  You gotta read this!  These are pictures of a guy with the French Underground!"  He flicked the yellow notes with his finger and gently rubbed the photo between his finger and thumb.  "This is original stuff!  Holy Sh*t!  And he just mailed them to you?!"

"Yeah...?"

"He's crazy!  This needs to be in a museum!"

This is Jamie Laing.  The other two guys are French Maquis.

Indeed.  The photos were of Lt. Laing shortly after he'd been shot down over France in April of 1944.  The images showed Jamie, dressed (as well as possible) to look like a native Frenchman in order for the Resistance to easier sneak him out from under the noses of eager, angry Germans.  That the French Resistance would perform such services to Allied fliers was not uncommon.  That the French Resistance would allow their faces to be photographed was extremely uncommon.  However, these weren't typical Resistance fighters; they were the Maquis—guerrillas so bad-assed, they resigned to death regardless if the Krauts knew their faces or not. 

I'd remembered my conversation days prior with Punchy— "Ah'was flyin' the day Jamie was shot down.  Sad, sad day for us.   But, ah'got photos of him with the French Resistance.  Ah'want yuh'to see them as they were secreted out'a France.  It's important you know about this."

I then knew that my associate had an important point—the old man had sent something extremely valuable.  Suddenly the photos I casually clenched became delicately precious and I was instantly aware of the thread that had connected me to a secret French hedgerow so many years prior. 

My drawing of Punchy's P-51B.  Though I've improved a lot since these first pieces, it remains so steeped in meaning, I keep it displayed in my studio and is mostly likely the first one I show visitors.

Did they belong in a museum?  Probably.  But would these pictures have made the same impact viewed through a glass case or jealously guarded by a tweed-coated PhD?  I can't say.  But I do know that later that night, I called Punchy to admonish him for not sending copies or scans.  How could he trust me, an unknown person known only by postal address?!  

"You need to see them.  And ah'm not worried about their care.  Ah'trust you."

Ok—fast forward to today.  And this is were things get hard for me right now...

The man who sent me these photos died this morning.  I expected it as did so many others but it still feels like a whack to the chest with a baseball bat.  I let my dad know just a few minutes ago and he, who'd met Punchy just once, knew enough to state, "He was a great man."

Punchy Powell lived to keep the memories of his generation alive and vital.   He loved the idea of moving knowledge forward, of passing wisdom onto others for their benefit.  And he was tireless, too.  In the years that I knew him, he collected and connected people by the thousands (around the world) with an uncanny charm that made anyone with him feel like they were his sole chosen heir.  Do yourself a favor and Google "Punchy Powell."   The man was extraordinary.

It takes an extraordinary person to trust a rank-nobody with priceless things.  Punchy invited fresh acquaintences into his home to see WWII memorabilia, signed countless autographs for kids (and adults), appeared on this-that TV show...handing out the experience of his generation like candy and never asking for a nickel in return.

Today, I am one of so many people who are looking towards West Virginia, feeling the gentle push of breeze at my back as the world adjusts to fill the vacuum Punchy Powell leaves behind...

Those left behind will fill that vacuum as Punchy will never be forgotten.

He trusts us.

Blue Skies, Punchy Powell.  
Punchy and his wife Betty on Normandy Beach, April 2003.  I took this photo shortly after he described flying over the D-Day beaches on 6 June, 1944.  If you've never had the chance to talk to someone who has seen History happen, do your soul the favor and make it happen.


Note:  Punchy flew 87 combat missions and is credited with 6 aircraft destroyed (4.5 on the ground, 1.5 in the air).  Though he'd be the first to tell you that he was a "nobody" in the 352nd FG, post-war, he became the face and voice of anyone who'd ever served with the famous "Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney."   Though my artwork of his P-51B was almost seven years old at the time, his post was among the first that went online with the inauguration of this Blog.  Click here