Thursday, April 28, 2016

Profile 118: FINISHED—"Yessir" as flown by Joe McPhail, VMF-214


The advice of an old boss has paid-off a thousand times—"Listen to people and listen hard.  Whether they're lying or telling the truth, they're telling you everything you need to know about them."

It takes practice.  It also takes a lot of energy.  Don't get me wrong—I'm not analyzing the pleasantries of the grocery store clerk as a character study!  However, when I think of the pressures required to make a diamond I wonder, what if the forces of life have the same effect on words?

Ok - hold that thought. The Corsair above would like a bit of your attention.

Firstly, have a look at the red bars on the fuselage insignia. That means the airplane is depicted post-1947.  That’s the year the bars were included to ensure standardized aircraft markings for all branches of the military services.  In this case, you're looking at a Korean War-era F4U-4B Corsair, circa 1951.

Next, have a look at the subtle, pout-like lip on the lower engine cowl.  That indicates that this Corsair is a dash-4 and arguably, the greatest piston-engined combat aircraft to ever see mass production.  We can debate this assertion later.  In the meantime, the dash-4 climbed quicker, flew faster and was stronger than the F-51.  So there.

Now, look at the “WE” on the tail.  It might look like a statement of teamwork but it's practically the squadron identifier for Marine fighter squadron VMF-214.  “214” has a terrific legacy attached to it; in WWII it was also known as The Black Sheep Squadron. Lead by the iconoclastic Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the unit racked up a record that warranted its own TV show in the 1970s.  The authentic history is pretty interesting while the TV show is spectacularly dumb.  I recommend looking into both.


Ok, draw your attention to the rockets slung beneath the wings. See the one poking out? That's no mistake.  This dash-4 is also a “b-model subvariant" and that means that instead of the more-common gun armament of six .50 caliber machine guns (3 per wing), it was equipped with four 20mm cannon (2 per wing). Since cannon take up more room than machine guns, the second-inboard rocket mount had to be moved forward and attached to the inboard cannon barrel. 


#7 prepares to take off from the USS Sicily, circa Fall, 1950.  Note the guns/missile arrangement.
Source:  US Navy archive

But to me, the standout aspect of this airplane is the title. 

"Mornin' Joe. Got some time for a few more questions?”

“Yessir.”

"Joe, can you walk me through a typical mission in Korea?”

“Yessir…”

"Hey Joe, would you mind doing me a favor and see if you've got your…"

“Yessir.”

"Joe, is this Yessir stuff just a Texas thing?”

“Yes…huh?!”

Thankfully, the man’s got a great sense of humor as well as pride in his state.  Fortunately, he knew what I was getting at, too.

"John, when I first got to Samoa (in WWII), I was getting paid $220 month to fly fighters. And you know I would have gladly paid that to fly those airplanes! I just loved to fly. And I said so much to one of the old hands. But you know what he said to me?”

“Uh, Nosir.…”

Ok, Hold THAT  thought for a moment.

Have another look at Joe’s Corsair.   It’s the one he used to fly off the USS Sicily on 7 January, 1951 during the Korean War.   Though the conflict had been going on for barely 6 months (cease-fire wouldn’t come for two and a half more years), a lot had happened.  Pro-Communist and Pro-Democracy forces pushed-pulled with such velocity, the entire country changed hands twice during the period.  The war was also the searing flash of what would later become, “The Cold War.”


A VMF-214 F4U-4 takes off from Pusan (K-1) circa Spring, 1951.  Is that Joe?  Dunno.
Source:  No idea.  Wish I knew as it's a pretty awesome photo.

It was Joe’s first and only combat-carrier launch, too.  The rest of his 102 missions were from inland bases, first from Sasebo, Japan, then from “K-1” on the Korean mainland at Pusan. The work wasn’t glamorous, especially for a fighter pilot.  Instead of aerial elan or dramatic dogfights, the Corsairs of VMF-214 were tasked with tactical support missions that were soberingly routine.

“Ground pounding” is hard work and psychologically challenging.  It’s one thing to master the physics of flight and another to accept the capricious fate of flying against an enemy that fires back, often from sites unseen.  I imagine how I would have done in similar situations—some times, I think I’d do well.  But there are other times when I’m not so sure. In those moments, my apprehension exceeds any confidence conjured otherwise.   According to Joe, that’s way most from his era thought as well. 


Joe circa 1951.  It had to be taken between 1 and 7 Jan as after that, Joe flew his Korean War missions from either Sasebo, Japan or Pusan, Korea.  He wrote the text on the bottom for me.


This is a good time to let you in on a strange quirk of my work—when I started interviewing these guys nearly 20 years ago, I had them on a pedestal, believing them to be made of an alien stuff with herculean qualities.  In time, however—meeting ‘the family,’ going over old photo albums, talking about life-at-hand—I began to see that these old guys are indeed ordinary people, just like you, just like me, just like them...with one difference - the people who achieve a measure of greatness (ok, I’ll evoke the H word, Hero) are those who can put self aside and pursue a greater good.

How do I know?  Joe told me so.  Not directly of course.  I had to listen.

So, back to that conversation…

(laughs) 

“I’ll tell you!  He said, 'you just wait until you get a few bullets in your ass. You'll see how much you'd pay for this privilege then!’”

"So, what did you say back?”

"Nothing. But later on I understood what he was talking about. I (then) realized that I had a job I had to do. It could be hard. I could get killed. But when you’ve made the commitment, you’ve got to follow it.”

You can’t just let a statement like that go unexamined!  So, I asked, “Have you followed your commitments in your life?”

“Uh…?”

“Your commitments.  Did you keep them?”

(pause) 

Yessir.”

And thus the title of the print—as subtle of a definition of Hero as I've ever heard.

Joe McPhail today, as seen by photographer Karie Hubnik.  Sweet jiminy this woman "gets" a camera! Her website (and musings) will not disappoint.  Click here


PS - Joe McPhail flew 140 combat missions in WWII as part of the storied squadron, VMF-323 “The Death Rattlers.”  He was credited with two confirmed victories over Japanese fighters.  During the Korean War, Joe flew 102 missions and was awarded his second DFC.  After his service, Joe logged 17,000 hours as a corporate pilot, shuttling executives all over the world.  

PSS - If you're interested in owning "Yessir" signed by Joe, click here.

Joe signs prints of my artwork.
This is too cool...

Profile 120: "12" as flown by Bernice "Bee" Haydu, WASP

A few years ago, my daughter crossed swords with a WWII fighter pilot, Don Bryan.  She was just a little squirt back then but Don picked up on what my wife and I knew since day one—she’s fierce.  Suffice it to state, the double-ace and my kid became buddies.

Up until the moment Don died, he encouraged us—“(Your daughter) is living in a day where she can do anything she wants!  Your job is to help her do that!”


Don Bryan circa 1944.  He was a double-ace with the 352nd FG, ETO
Source:  U.S. Army Air Force photo
It meant something to him that our kid could become, again, “…anything she wants.”  But to my wife and I?  We never questioned it; for me, growing up with three FIERCE sisters, the idea that women were somehow “weaker” was totally alien.  In fact, I came to fear my sisters the way some people fear sharks and grizzly bears.  However, Don came from a time and place where women weren’t given the same opportunity as today.  It meant a lot to him to remind me that my daughter should not, could not be held back.  From anything.

Fast-forward a few more years and a patron asked me, “Have you ever drawn a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) airplane?”  I said no.  “You should.  Their story is really meaningful.  They overcame a lot of obstacles; when you do one, the first print is mine, ok?”

He explained that overcoming life’s obstacles is a common theme of his work and he thought a WASP print might inspire his patients. I should mention, this person is a male psychiatrist who leads the department of an extremely prestigious medical system.


The WASP Congressional Gold Medal awarded in 2009.  Notice on the left; the pilots are shown "stepping over the line"
in a symbolic gesture.   Design?  I'd love to source the designer—it's awesome (and it shows the "difficult to fly" B-26 Marauder, too!)

Fast-forward five more years…and have a look above.  It’s a Boeing PT-17 Stearman (also known as a Kaydet) biplane as flown by WASP pilot Bernice “Bee” Haydu.  How do I know?  The actual airplane still exists*—Bee flew it in the summer of 1944 while in the 7 month WASP training program.

Much has been written about these pioneering women.  But Bee gives a terrific briefing.

"The WASP were paid by Civil Service with the promise that if this experimental group proved successful, we would be taken into the Army Air Corps. It was successful but when the bill came before Congress, it was defeated due to the fact that male cadets wanted their jobs rather than going into the Infantry. It wasn’t until 1977 that we were belatedly recognized as veterans of WWII. After graduation we were assigned either to the Ferry Command or the Training Command.  (We) were not allowed over seas.  The Ferry Command is self explanatory, (but in) the Training Command, whatever base to which you were assigned, the aircraft at that base is what you flew."



"We served at about 150 airbases all over the country and held (many) different jobs from towing targets for the anti-aircraft to practice shooting with live bullets, night flying for the beacons to practice shooting, flying gunners so they could practice from a moving aircraft, engineering test flying, utility pilots, testing prototype jets. and on and on.  We flew every aircraft manufactured for the war from the smallest to the largest, including the B29."

Approximately 25,000 women applied to be WASPs but only 1,800 or so were accepted into the program with 1,074 actually earning their wings.  Do the math—we’re talking a 2% acceptance rate…and it wasn’t for lack of skill. You have to remember that, back-then, the world was different. “Women” didn’t have the career options and open-minded future that most of us enjoy today. The WASPs were simply a formalized realization of the fact that pilots were needed, regardless of gender.
Anyway, a while ago, “The Airplane Geeks” had a woman named Sarah Rickman on their podcast. She is the editor of the WASP News (published by Texas Woman’s University) and is also the group’s Oral Historian. Remembering the words of my doc buddy, I figured I could not only make a sale but finally get to meet one of these legendary women.


Ok. If you’re at all a reader here, it should be apparent that I’m not keen on asking common questions. I like to poke and pry in an effort to figure out what the person is really like. But before I get to that, you need to know a few facts about Bee Haydu. For one, she’s 95 but you’d never know it. And that isn’t me trying to assign some sort of cute charm to a little old lady. Bright, energetic and assertive, Bee explained her life with an easy humor that made me feel like we were sharing a beer at a bar.


Bee with her flight instructor, Charles Grieder, circa 1943.  I thought this was a cool picture because she was
raising the flag.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“It was 1938, I’d just graduated from High School and was feeling sorry for myself for not going to college.  So I looked at night courses and found one on aviation!  That was the start. After the course I started taking flying lessons.  We read in the newspaper that Mrs. Sheehy would be in Newark, N.J. recruiting for the WASP.  Myself and five others were interviewed and allowed to join the class of 44-7."

I could imagine Bee trudging out to #12, wrapped in parachute straps, leather jackets, helmet and goggles, ready to make sure the silver airplane was ready for the next crop of male pilots…the image was at once appealing as well as sad; they really broke fresh ground for aviation but it was too bad that they would eventually have their wings clipped that December 20, 1944. 


Pretty cool picture of Bee circa 1944.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“So what did you do afterwards?” I asked.  

“I loved flying so I tried to get any flying job I could.  I did some freelance instructing and started a business ferrying civilian airplanes.  That lead to me getting my own Cessna dealership.”

“You had your own dealership??”

“Yes!  And I joined 8 other veterans and we started a flight school - Ruscoe Flying Service."

“Where did you get this entrepreneurial spirit?  That had to be rare for a…”

Bee explained that though she understood women were discriminated against she wasn’t affected by it, at least not enough to dull her ambition and sense of positivity.

“Back then, I did experienced some (prejudice) but more because of my faith*.  But you know, there were six women in my Bay (WASP dorm room).  All six of us came from different religions and you know, we would discuss them.  But we never got angry or belittled each other.  Instead, we had respect.  I learned that (respecting others who were different) it could be done.”

It seemed like the right time to ask what never fails to provoke an interesting response, “So how are things different than when you were growing up?”

“Probably parenting.  I see a lot of parents doing for their kids what they should be doing for themselves.  My mom raised us to do things on our own.  She gave us the gist of something but then we had to do it ourselves.  We also learned it elsewhere.  I sold Girl Scout cookies.”

“My daughter did that, too.”  I felt a wave of pride in the knowledge that my wife and I weren’t part of the modern malady of helicopter-parenting and I was looking forward to Bee’s approval.

She waited a moment and then stated matter-of-factly, “We baked our own.”

(insert disbelief—home backed Girl Scout Cookies would never fly today)


Bee (middle) on the game show, "To Tell the Truth," Nov. 9, 1977.
Source:  Bee Haydu
“Where else do you see differences?”

“Well…”  Bee paused and asked, “Do you ever get those emails where people say that you should do something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I see it in the ones I get.  You know, they say ‘send this on’ or ‘you need to read this’ or ‘this should make you upset or something like that?”

“Yeah.  I know the kind.  I get them too.”

“Ok, good!  (Those emails) all want (the reader) to do something.  People seem to talk a lot about doing something.  But you know what?  Most people don’t do anything.  They’re telling someone ELSE to do it.  That’s not how anything gets accomplished.  Someone has to actually get out there and actually DO.”


Bee with President Obama at the signing of the proclamation for the WASPs to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.  Bee's on the far left and she's surrounded by other WASPs and current USAF pilots.
Source: USAF Public Affairs
break break

So, my daughter came home from school and in the little bit of pleasantries we exchange before she holes herself up into her room to stare at her phone, I mentioned that I was working on Bee’s airplane.

“Cool.  She sounds like someone I should know.”

“Why’s that?”—I baited her as I had a good idea of what she’d say but sometimes it’s good to get proof.  She didn’t disappoint.

“She gets stuff done and I like the inspiration.  You know this, dad…” she rolled her eyes in exasperation, readjusted her heavy book bag and disappeared down the hall.   And wouldn’t you know it, the little squirt contacted her.  And Bee replied...gawd only knows what will come of it; it's really up to our daughter to make something great out of Inspiration.  But, the past tends to repeat itself and I'm sure that somehow, someway, Bee's story will push her higher.

Nothing gets done if you don’t “Do.”

Our kid.  She's a bit older now, same determined face...and loves her heroes.
Source:  My wife and I.  
PS – Bee married Joe Haydu in 1951 who had been a Stearman Instructor in WWII.  The two owned three different Stearmans along with about 9 different other aircraft.  Bee was careful to point out that her husband, "...was a great pilot and we both continued flying until our late 70’s."

PSS - Bee wrote an interesting book on her life and the WASPs.  Click here

OH.  And if you'd like to buy a print of my artwork, signed by Bee herself, click here.

*MASSIVE thanks to Mike Porter, owner of the very Stearman that Bee flew.  It's now restored to stunning glory...but when I was looking for a shot from the specific time period, all we had was the picture below. 


Bee's Stearman circa 1944 and today (Mike won Best Stearman at Oshkosh, too).
Source:  USAAF and Mike Porter

Profile 119: IN-PROGRESS — "1168" as flown by Gene Smith, 333rd TFS



Have a look at the F-105 above - it's an animation showing my progress (about 70% complete).

The real thing, however, was flown by USAF pilot Gene "Smitty" Smith on October 25, 1967. He took part in a mission to sever Hanoi’s crucial "Paul Doumer Bridge" and therefore cripple the North Vietnamese's ability to supply its capitol.   Gene did his job with spectacular results - at least one of the two 3,000lb bombs his F-105 carried cracked the bridge's span.

Yet, the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners did their job, too (as will be described in this and future posts).



Gene Smith in front of his F-105 circa 1967.  Dig the Australian-style "Bush" hat.
Source:  Unknown

Though the "Thud" could bust Mach 1 at low level and carried more bombs than a WWII B-17, the war-tech of the time hadn't really changed since WWI—"bombing" was still an act of putting iron, free-fall bombs onto targets.   On paper, it's fairly uncomplicated math—a bomb dropped at x-speed, y-altitude at z-angle will impact at a particular point.  But in real life, dropping bombs is more complicated due to atmospheric conditions, human factors...even split-second delay in a circuit can throw things off.  

Gene, however, wasn't concerned with outlier variables.  Instead, he was steeling his brain to do his appointed task within the most heavily defended airspace on earth. 



A quick sketch showing Gene's Thud going in—and yes, I know I have the dive-angle too shallow.
It was drawing at the kitchen table and trying to carry on three conversations simultaneously.
Obviously I wouldn't have made it as a Thud pilot.

Do yourself a favor and imagine the scenario—a "Force" of fourteen* F-105s approach the target. Starting at 12,000 feet and scorching along at about 620mph, the Force assumes a diagonal (echelon) formation about five miles away from the target.  The Thuds are about 50' apart. The dive-angle is 40 to 45 degrees—any steeper and the pull-out will put the airplane too low (easy pickings for small arms fire). Any shallower and the accuracy is reduced due to the difficulties of oblique bombing in addition of providing the enemy with more time to fire.


About a mile from the target, the 25 October Force rolled-in to attack the PD Bridge and it sorta looked like this...


Gene and I spent about half an hour going over this little illustration I did—it's really impossible to get the scale and motion down into a workable graphic.  But, I hope it's better than nothing.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese gunners are ready.  But, put any notion of duck-hunting out of your mind as there's no sense of selecting a target, aiming and firing.  Instead, it's all about probabilities — the gunners have a sense where the airplanes are going to be coming from, what altitude and where they'll be exiting.  However, they also know they’ll be coming in too fast to deliberately pick one out.  Of course, a sense of marksmanship is needed but in reality, the practice of “anti-aircraft” is a test of mathematic probability - put up X-amount of bullets in a defined space and the probabilities of getting a hit are Y.


Two female NVA AAA gunners, location unknown.   I guess "Corbis" says they own the copyright on the image
but it looks suspiciously like posed propaganda so not quite sure if the copyright holder is actually
somewhere in Hanoi.

For the pilot, 'evasion' is not in the game plan.  As I tried to allude, it takes an extraordinary amount of focus and skill to put a free-fall bomb onto a fixed space; the brain can either occupy itself with avoiding the blizzard of invisible bullets or concentrating upon hitting the target.  It’s an either-or deal.

Of course, this mental effort is why the pilots practice - it takes time, energy, money...and this is why a military force must continually train, train and train.   I don't mean to get political but every time you hear of a politician wanting to cut money for the military, "practice" is part and parcel of what gets cut.  Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, in Gene's case, the fruit of practical experience came into play (this was his 33rd combat mission). The peppering of explosive flak ahead?  Ignore it.   The glowing finger of a supersonic SAM missile heading your way?  Ignore it.  Flinging two 3,000lb bombs onto a space about 20' wide by 20' high and 20' deep?  That.



The Paul Doumer (Long Bien) Bridge circa 1950.  Photo credits?  Dunno.  Prolly some French photog in an observation airplane.

If you have a  typical patio deck, that's about the right size of the target area. Yeah, the bridge was a lot bigger than that but again, you have to remember that hitting a bridge is different than hitting a building.  A bridge is, from altitude, more like an uncooked noodle, suspended in the air.  All it takes is a fraction of an inch to miss the target and put a crater in water.

Ok.  It’s an oft-quoted statistic that the F-105 had the highest loss rate of any fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam War.  Indeed, about 250 were shot down over North Vietnam due to anti-aircraft guns. Another 30 or so were lost due to missiles.  But that’s not the fault of the F-105 per-se.  With over 20,000 F-105 sorties flown, the loss rate was about 1.6%—slightly more dangerous than driving in Los Angeles.  But make no mistake about it, those numbers, though accurate, are skewed—we’re not talking about rank amateur civilians on a highway but seasoned, trained professionals working like crazy to wipe the other out.  It’s a bizarre quirk of fate that so many F-105s ‘got through’ and another that, despite the blizzard of bombs over the course of a long war, the Paul Doumer Bridge STILL EXISTS.

Still, though the big-picture sortie-stats put the Thud in its rightful place of respect, the day-to-day stats that affected the individual pilot are downright horrifying—Gene let me know that an F-105 pilot flying in 1967-68 had about a 50% chance of finishing his tour of 100 missions.  To all you ground-bound pilots of the L.A. Freeway, traffic may suck but be thankful you're not living with a Thud's odds!


F-105 Loss-rate stats.  Read'em and weep.
Source:  "A comparative Analysis of USAF Fixed-Wing Aircraft Loses in Southeast Asia Combat" - U.S. Air Force (declassified)  These numbers are disputed. 

But I digress…

Please.  Have a look at Gene's "Thud" above one more time.  Indeed, though I admit it looks pretty cool (so far), it’s really incomplete.  There are at least two parts I’ve got completely wrong and I haven’t even STARTED on figuring out what stencils it had.  Bottom line—expect a lot of change between now and later.

However, while I’m finishing this Thud, I challenge you to think about what you know about the Vietnam War.  Think about the movies you’ve watched, the books you’ve read…and the people you haven’t** (repeat) talked to about it.

Of course, I’m no expert.  Each time I’ve returned to Vietnam myself reinforces the fact that pursuing knowledge, wisdom and growth is not simple, nor easy.  In many ways, such study is like the biblical analogy of the ‘wide road versus the narrow road’—the wide road is smooth and unchallenging but leads to a form of failure.  The narrow road, though sometimes difficult and lonely, ultimately arrives at success.

Next stop, in Gene’s own words, “North Vietnamese Jail.” 



I found this old Comic at comicbookplus.com
You can read the whole story by clicking here.
It has nothing to do with Gene's story other than the comic features a pilot bailing out of an F-105 over Vietnam.

*A "Force" typically comprised four Flights of four aircraft for a total of 16 F-105s. But on 25 Oct, 1967, one F-105 had to abort due to a hydraulic problem and another had to leave the Force to accompany the aborting jet, resulting in a Force of only 14. On 25 Oct, Gene was leading the fourth Flight.

**A few weeks ago, I bumped into a Caribou pilot (who later flew B-52s from Anderson AFB) and we talked about the fact that WWII vets seem to be more eager to share their past than Vietnam-era vets (for many reasons that the average person should easily understand).

However, a challenge to the Vietnam War community—we (my generation and younger) can't learn much by relying on Hollywood or 'the Media' as our primary source of information.  Write your book, talk to your family...you'll be surprised at how important your story is to the narrative of life.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Profile 110: FINISHED - PBM Mariner as flown by Cass Philips, VPB-20

Done.  And it's going to take a while before my eyes can do a black airplane again.  Most airplanes take me about 35 hours to do.  This one clocked in at over a 100.

That's a long time to be drawing an airplane, don't you think?

You probably don't want to hear my struggles trying to get this beast to look as it should!  However, recognize that "black" is a color that doesn't trifle with aspects of Light or Texture.  It seems as if black's defining attribute is to blend-in rather than stand-out.

But, here it is, the PBM-3 "Mariner" that Cass Phillips flew as part of VPB-20 based in the Philippine Islands, circa late 1944.

PBM-3's in formation, courtesy Cass Phillips.

For aviation buffs, the PBM doesn't come to mind as a WWII Navy bomber—history tends to remember the airplane as somewhat of a rescue, supply or gigantic liaison craft.  Indeed, the Mariner served in all those functions.  However, it was, first and foremost, a war machine.

Don't expect any photos of PBM formations, high over a target, unleashing a stick of HE onto factories or armored columns.  Instead, the PBM was used more as a search-and-destroy weapon.  In the case of Cass's squadron, VPB-20, the missions were characterized by hunting low and slow along coastline and river estuaries, looking for hidden Japanese freighters or patrol boats.

If you've got an imagination, picture the airplane lumbering along a tropical coastline, about 500ft off the waves, 500-1,500 feet off the beach, all eyes trained to spot anything that didn't look quite right.  Of course, you're probably imagining the scene during daylight...

Supposedly, this is a camouflaged Japanese ship somewhere in the S. Pacific.  Any clue?
UPDATE:  That was quick!  Evidently, it's the HNLMS Abraham Crinjnssen, a Dutch minesweeper that escpaed the Japanese by disguising as an island.  Gawd, the readers of this blog are clever...


...however, have another look at "Barrel House Bessie" (Cass named her). Typically, PBMs were painted in the Navy's "tri-color" scheme of gray-blue, lighter gray-blue and white. Obviously, that isn't the case here.  Some time in the Fall of 1944, the Navy gave the airplane a new coat of paint.

"All black?!" he remembered.  "They painted my airplane all black!  And of course, you know why they did that, don't you?"

Cass's PBM-3D, BuNo: 45313.  It appears here in its tri-color paint scheme.  When it was painted all-black in late 1944,  Cass couldn't remember if the "313" was painted over or not.  He and I discussed it and elected to keep it on the black version.

"Yeah."

"That's right!  We needed it to fly at night!"

Think about it—by late 1944, the Japanese were so on-the-run, the only place left to hide was in the dark.  So, night-time became the time when the Japanese felt safest moving about.  Warfare, of course (at least if it's 'done right') is not a 9-5 job.  Well, it is...but for VPB, it meant 9pm to 5am!

Based at Tacloban, Philippines, a VPB-20 mission would begin at sunset.  One can imagine the howl of the engines, the percussive banging of waves, the steady of roar of water-on-aluminum and then, at the moment of flight, a sudden smoothening, replaced with the hypnotic rumble of 3200hp droning overhead.

Cass and Crew of "Barrel House Bessie", circa 1944.  

"We'd get up and go around the (Philippine) islands." Cass explains.  "We'd be out looking for the little ships—supply, troops—and when we found them, we'd flip on the spotlight and start shooting!  We'd make our first pass (with guns) and then I'd turn back around and then we'd bomb."

"And I'm assuming the Japanese kept their lights off, right?"

"Yes'sir."

"So how did you spot the ships?!"

"Well (clears his throat), that'd be where we used radar.  See, we had a radar man aboard.  The old radar, the kind we used in PBY's up in the Aleutians, that wasn't as good as the radar we had (in the Philippines).  We'd fly along the coast lines until the guy would identify a target and we'd hit it."

"What did a ship look like (on radar)?"

"(A typical radar picture) was a line, a line that simulated the coast.  That's what we'd see.  And our radar operator would be able to tell if anything stood out along that coast."

"Like a ship?"

"Yes.  Like a ship."

Bear in mind, those early radar scopes weren't anywhere as clear as the ones in use today.   A few years ago, I saw a demonstration of what WWII-era radar screens looked like and was surprised at how crudely they displayed.   They looked more like Rorschach test graphics instead of anything resembling reality.   In today's instant-evolution of technology, it's easy to forget the often exhausting process that brings us to where we're at.

"That had to be an art to learn how to read those things. A skill almost..."

"It most certainly was!  It was something you had to learn.  By experience."

I can only imagine what it must have been like to be up there in the dark, looking for targets—their sorties certainly inspired the nickname of "Nightmare" given to the mission of the all-black PBMs.  But I'm not quite sure who had the nightmare, the Japanese or the PBM's crew.

"So you'd take off at night and come back, when?"

"We'd fly all night.  We'd get back around sunrise."

Though every job has its challenges, to me, the hours of instrument-flying in a black-out sdenvironment, searching for those fabled "seconds of terror" are especially awe-inspiring.  Have a look at the photo below—it's a picture I took of Cass's logbook.

Cass Phillips logbook, VPB-20.  The page is turned to November 1944.

Check it out yourself—a crew of nine or ten, aloft for fourteen hours on three dates, thirteen hours on another.  That's some serious time aloft!  In comparison, a B-17 mission in the ETO was long at 8 hours.

But then again, Cass's 95 years comprise some serious time alive.

Hmmmm.

You know, if I had a dollar for every time I was asked the question, "When is your book going to be ready?" I'd be really wealthy.   My answer is the same—I don't know.  This all takes time.   Though I really enjoy the tech and data, my real passion is for the bigger-picture story and that, as Cass knows, doesn't just happen.

I can promise this much—when I get my book ready, Cass will be in it, no doubt.  In the meantime, I hope you can spare a couple minutes to listen to his thoughts on what he's learned over so long.

Come to think of it, I shouldn't complain about how long it took to get Cass's airplane done.  He let me know he was glad I put the time in it to get it right.



VPB-20 bomber pilot Cass Phillips on "ageing." from John Mollison on Vimeo.

Cass Phillips, VPB-20 and Me.

Profile 115: "Popeye" as flown by Sam Folsom, VMF-121 (etc.)



"My father is…(pause, laughs) the real thing.  Not a lot of words. But he means them. (pauses) Did you know he got on Conan O’Brien?”

She sounded like she was twenty but I did the math; she couldn't be.  Her dad was 95 years old!  But, I couldn't get to him without first going through her. And really, it's just as well. I don't like poking around in family memories without at least one of "the kids" knowing about it.

“Don’t expect him to talk much though. He's a man of few words.”

Thankfully, I've managed to catch the man when he's talkative as this blog post is only a fraction of what my notebook contains.

Have a look at the airplane above. It’s an F4F-4 Wildcat from sometime in Spring of 1943. It flew from the island of Faleolo within the island chain of American Samoa. In case you were sick when your geography class studied obscure American Territories, Faleolo pokes up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles north, northwest of Auckland, New Zealand.

Faleolo is somewhere in that circle.  I think.
According to the internet gods, Faleolo is only one of 5 islands that total 80 square miles—about the size of Des Moines, Iowa. Today, its main business is tuna fish. But back in 1943, it was a place where tired Marine pilots went to rest. One of whom, was Sam Folsom, the young woman in the opening paragraph's father. "Popeye" was her dad's F4F.

There are a few things you should know about “his” airplane. For one, it likely didn’t see combat. American Samoa was just outside the fringe of where the Americans and the Japanese clashed, hence its value as a place of "R & R". The fighters were there to help keep their pilot’s proficiency without the distracting pressures of combat.

For two, the nose art—Popeye—is in Marine dress-blues. Though I had a pretty-awesome photo as reference, the pressure to depict the rendering accurately was exceptional in that I knew Sam would have an especially critical eye. He painted it himself.

Sam the artist!  This is Sam next to "Popeye."  Courtesy Sam Folsom.

For three, the insignia is a little odd; the white bar that seems to pass through the fuselage’s white star and blue circle does not have the typical blue outline and the proportions are atypical. But, it's about spot-on for the Faleolo-based airplanes. Modelers and detail wonks take note.

However, draw your attention to the three stacked Japanese victory symbols under the cockpit. Those were achieved several months prior over Guadalcanal while Sam was part of the famous, “Cactus Air Force."   These were the Marine aviators that  engaged the Japanese in the lore-filled street-fight for the island chain.

Compared to London, Berlin or Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal was a ridiculous place to stage a showdown. For most people, the term “Tropical Island” evokes scenes from an idyllic vacation.  For the Marines of 1942, the picture was one of  heat, infestation, dirt and death. The Japs were on the forward-move, needing the chain of islands (called The Solomons) in order to base their invasion of Australia. In particular, the single island of Guadalcanal was their choice for an air base in which to launch aerial attack.

In a bold move to stop the Japanese strategy, American Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942 (just 9 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) and after numerous back-and-forth battles, managed a claw-hold on a Japanese-built airfield named “Lunga Point.” Though the field remained under enemy fire for many more months, the Marines renamed it Henderson Field in honor of Lofton Henderson, a Marine SBD Dauntless pilot who was killed a two months prior at the Battle of Midway.

Funny how quickly heroes can get memorialized, eh?

Published in January of 1943, and written by a young battle reporter, this book was fresh!
It's definitely a great read; click here.
Anyway all-things-Guadalcanal is the stuff of WWII Legend. I won’t even try describing it further.  Sam arrived during the thick of it—8 October. At the time, he was one of the first echelon of seventeen Marine fighter pilots of Marines Fighter Squadron, VMF-121, tasked with defending the island.

Sam’s recollections are not only unusually clear, they’re typical. Based on what I've learned from other Cactus Air Force veterans, there was no let-up on the pressure to perform. Japanese artillery hammered the base with jealous fury. Japanese aircraft strafed the field with sneering surprise and somewhere, out beyond the perimeter, Japanese soldiers sniped with an unnerving regularity that never allowed anyone to relax. This didn’t go on for hours or days. It went on for months.

"It was hard time. We were in constant readiness. When I think back…’ (Sam’s voice trails, he clears his throat) ‘I believe (VMF-121) had 40 pilots in total. 20 of us made it out alive; 3 couldn’t cut it and were cleared out…(Sam’s voice trails again, he coughs). 16, 17 of us made it home. That’s not very many is it.” He states matter of factly.

“That’s less than fifty percent.” I reply.

“Yes. I think you’re right.”

While we were talking, I had two VMF-121 mission reports showing Sam’s claims on three Japanese aircraft sitting in front of me. I scanned them for a discussion-starter on what he could recall from his moments in combat. “What gave you satisfaction while you there? I mean, tell me about your Guadalcanal service?”

“Well…you know…(another pause). Did you know...did I tell you about the battleship?”

“No...”

“Ok. So, the night before—probably November 13, 1942), we were shelled unmercifully! Unmercifully!  See, Henderson Field wasn’t just one field. It was two. There was the one that had PSP. There was the other that was really just somewhat of a flat strip of plowed-up vegetation. We flew from that dirt strip. At night, I frequented a bomb shelter that was a hole in the ground. It kept the shrapnel from hitting you.”

Sam and Company, circa 1942.  Sam is on the far left.  However, don't miss stained patina of the F4F...and also, make sure you note the roughly hewn ramp allocated to the Wildcat drivers of Henderson Field.

Not having much experience with flying shrapnel, I said the only thing a soft Gen-X writer can say, “Huh.”

“Well, one night, the night of the greatest shelling, there’d been a battle before. Out there (in the waters off Guadalcanal). And, we didn’t know the specifics at the time, but a Japanese battleship had been damaged. Its rudder was jammed.'

'So Joe Foss called me in the next morning. Since I had experience as an Ensign in the Navy, he figured I could identify the ship! So, I was given a silhouette book (book of solid black illustrations to aid in identifying specific types of war machinery). My wingman and I took off from the dirt strip. But he had engine trouble and had to abort. So I was off on the flight alone.”

“Off Savo Island, I found a battleship, later identified as the Hiei. It was encircled by, I remember six destroyers but it could have been four. I (got out of there) and (came back) to report what I'd seen. About 2 hours later, we were dispatched to strafe the Destroyers while the (SBD dive bombers and TBM Avengers) went after the Battleship.”

This photo was supposedly taken from USAAF B-17s on 13 Nov, 1942.  The Hiei is the long white object at the end of the clockwise arc.  Source:  USAAF/wikipedia

Ok. Pause for a second. 

Get this into your mind—a Kongo-class Battleship was equipped with at least 124 anti-aircraft guns. The six Destroyers (probably Fubuki-class but who the heck knows?!) would field another 180+ guns. All together Altogether, 300 guns firing an average of 400 rounds per minute put up 2,000 rounds a second.

Now, think about this—2,000 supersonic pieces of metal, forming a lethal screen designed to stop the Americans from reaching the prize of real Japanese meat.

“I made one run (on a Destroyer), pulled up to about 4,000 feet and got hit by (probably six) Zeros. I had no airspeed, they were diving on me; I got shot to hell! To my credit, I didn’t freeze up.  I thought, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here!”

Fortunately, there was a cloud cap above the scene and Sam slipped into the milky gray just in time—just in time to catch a glimpse of one of the pursuing Zeros wing by so close, he could see the pilot. Sam breathed a sigh of relief; he’d made it. But not for more than a minute or so—an instant later, his tubby, blue-gray, bullet-riddled fighter pierced the cloud bank and re-entered the wide-open sky.

“Goddam! They were right there waiting for me!”

Using their superior maneuverability, the Japanese were able to turn like flies and snap into firing position. Tracers stitched the air, some finding their mark, puncturing the thin skin of Sam’s airplane. And body. He turned again into the cloud.

“What happened then?!” I exclaimed.

Ha!  Great excuse to doodle a dogfight.
And there are more where this one came from, too.
“I stayed in the cloud. I was hit in the leg, not bad. But I stayed in the cloud for maybe (pauses) fifteen minutes. I left the cloud again, looked around and saw they’d gone. I flew back to base.”

Sam then described limping home to Guadalcanal and landing his bullet- riddled airplane in a plume of black smoke and belches of flame.  All things considered, I had expected Sam to show dramatic emotion in the retelling but he didn't. He stated the events so matter-of-factly, it seemed...routine.

“And so, what happened next?!”

Well, the next day…”

Stop.  What a minute...the next day?!

I need to stop here because if I don’t, I’ll end up writing for a year. It’s almost always this way—you try to figure out where a guy’s story starts and end up realizing that it’s much bigger than just a squares on a calendar.

If you think I'm being cruel by pausing now, recognize that I simply have to as the man's life isn't organized into neat chapters.  Instead, the days are linked in graduated hand-offs that link the last days of WWII in Okinawa, a gut-wrenching ring-side view of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a man-hug from LBJ, running errands for Juan Trippe and now, at 95, watching traffic from the insulated hush of a high-rise apartment.

“So what does a guy like you think of today?”

(silence)

I persisted.  "You know.  Headlines. Economy. ISIS. Politics...”

It's an old interviewer's trick; throw out a little controversy in order to spur conversation.  I don't do this for sport but out of the sincerity that, if the hearer has something decent to say, the answers often help me define how I answer the questions myself.

“Of what?!” He snapped. I wasn't sure if he was perturbed at my question.

“Of the times, you know, today...”

After a deep breath, Sam responded in the questioning tone that marks a man searching for the right words.

“Any talk that we’ve taken so much, that we’re under such and such threats, (that) we can’t take any more…Christ. I’m in a luxury apartment, watching all the cars, the mountains (looking outside the window)…Baloney."  Then, with a youthful burst, he found what he'd been trying to say was passing by, just on the horizon.

“Look! Right there!  There goes a multi-million dollar jet.  Owned by some business, on its way to land.  Can’t take it?  Life too hard?  Well, someone’s out there making it happen…”

Sam took another moment and stated thoughtfully, “Stress? That’s for newspapers." 

It's a quote from entrepreneur Richard Branson.  I suspect Sam agrees.
By now, I'd learned the rhythm of all-things-Sam Folsom. This wasn't a man who valued hand-wringing, fear or any kind of nervous self-preservation. It was full-bore into tomorrow or nothing at all.

He cleared his throat and spoke softly, as if to someone in his imagination, "Stop complaining...”

And I wrote it down.

PS. I almost forgot. About Conan O’Brien.

In 1998, Sam was at a bank that was being robbed. Long-story short, Sam signaled over to a cop on the street and helped him wrestle the robber to the ground. The story made national news and culminated with Sam’s appearance on Conan’s show. I’m working to get a clip of that episode but suffice it to say, in case you’re wondering where an “old man” gets the verve to stop an armed bank robber (shots were fired, btw), it may have a start but usually, it's a just a momentary expression of an entire lifestyle.

This is Sam circa 2015.  The photo was taken by photographer Ed Burns.
Freaking AWESOME work, Ed.
CLICK HERE

To own a print of "Popeye" (signed by Sam) click here.