27 May, 2017

11 March, 2017

Profile 125: Boeing LGM-30G Minuteman III as "flown" by the Missileers

Imagine this —you're at your local Air Show, chill'n in the sun, watching the planes when the announcer shouts...


(insert sound effect of 40 tons of hellfire rushing past at 17,000mph)

If your hair wasn't singed, ears shattered or senses utterly shaken out of your mind (probably all three), it'd be the most amazing Air Show act EVER.

Minuteman III Missile fly-by at an imaginary Air Show, your town, USA.
(this would be soooo cool if wouldn't probably start our hair on fire...)

Bummer, though. It ain't gonna happen.  Ever.

Bear with me for a few moments and have a look at the top drawing.  It's as close as you'll EVER get to such a beast. In fact,  (I've been told) it's the most accurate rendering of the currently deployed ICBM.

Kinda mysterious, eh?  I mean, throw the portent of nuclear armageddon into any drawing and the hushed whistles and wide-eyes happen spontaneously.

However, there's something about this missile that is far more crucial—it's the people that make it work.  And by 'work' I mean make sure that this brain-stopping piece of weaponry is safe and ready:  The Missileers of the U.S. Air Force.

Take a deep breath because this is where "stuff" gets real.

(deep breath)

In 1945, the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle and there's no way it can ever be put back inside.  Ever.  And don't even think about indicting the United States as some sort of atomic Dark Lord  because "we" were simply first in a big race to pop the top.

We all want to believe that the world is ready to drop their fists, pick axes, pistols, bombs and nukes for a group-hug but for now, it simply isn't realistic.  Humanity is evolving forward and one day, "we'll get there."   But here, now, today, next year...we remain a vicious species with an extraordinary capacity to ruin each other.

Yet, one weapon has (ironically) done more to keep global peace than any other and you can thank the Missileers for that.

(still with me?)

Good.  There's more to come.

OGTA #10 - The Greatest Weapon Ever Used TRAILER from John Mollison on Vimeo.

08 March, 2017

Profile 116: "Prevailing Force" as flown by Gene Smith, 333 TFS

Behold Gene Smith's F-105!

If you need a refresher on Gene's story, click here, then here.  This post, however, will mark this particular project's conclusion and a satisfying one at that.  Though there are a few details in Gene's "Thud," that aren't perfect,  I hope you're (at least) as pleased as I am.

Break break

One question I get asked regards how I come up with the artwork "Titles."   For many years, I chose the reasonably logical method of titling based on the aircraft's name or serial number.  But, when I noticed that patrons and public alike were more interested in the story, I started thinking...

For the most part, I'm getting the hang of it—the titles are pretty self-explanatory of the story behind the plane.  Yet, I think the title of Gene's, "Prevailing Force" needs a little further description.

But, before I get into that, you should read this last posting from my year+ interview with the man.  This particular conversation  started with my question...

Thought I'd throw this in - it's a study I did last year and represents my persistent imaginary afternoon of scorching my initials into the hard-pack South Dakota prairie with my F-105's afterburner. 

"So, what was it like on the day you left prison?"

"Well, it was 0600.  March 12 (1973)...and they gave us our go-home clothes.   They'd been nursing us back to health (since the end of December, 1972) and (the clothes) were made for each of us. Tailored.  Blue pants, light gray shirt, a jacket and Red Cross stuff."

"Red Cross packages?  I thought you didn't get Red Cross..."

"No we didn't.  This was first time!"

"What can you recall about your mood that morning?"

"No emotion.  (But) we were excited, believe me!  But (did not show any) emotion.  John Flynn* told us to keep our cool and we did.  Then, about 0900..."

"Wait. Three hours went by?!"

"Yes!  That's a long time, isn't it?  And then, four, five buses came up and they walked us out.  It was the first time in five years that we went outside (prison) without a blind fold."

"What was the mood on the bus like?"

"Quiet!  We kept our cool!   We crossed the Red River and as soon as we did, we pulled over to the side, got out and they offered us beer and cookies.  Bud Day** was with us and he said, 'Get fucked!' (to the North Vietnamese) and so we just stood there."

Now, I have to hand it to the NV, they were masters of propaganda. Can you imagine what it would have looked like for the news media to have reported, "After being released, American POWs were treated to beer and cookies..."?  Add this story to the list of reasons Bud Day** is a great American role model.
A US DoD photo of POWs in line at Gia Lam Airport.  Notice the bus; the day our local School District has to start painting camo on them like the NV did, we're doomed.

Anyway, back to the story.

"Whoa!  Then what happened?"

"We got back in the bus and they drove on to Gia Lam (Air base).  We got out, lined up and prepared to board.  The C-141 that was waiting for us had its engines running.  I was two, three guys ahead of (John) McCain.  When they called my name, I walked up, saluted (the American receiving officer) and headed for the airplane."

"Sounds rather unspectacular."

"Yes it was. But that was good!"  Bear in mind, by 1973, both sides were simply ready to get "it" over with and move on.

This is the C-141 I drew as part of ex-POW Charlie Plumb's story, "There. And Back".

Gene continued, "(Once we'd all boarded), we turned fast and when we got airborne there was a cheer.  But I tell ya' it wasn't until the pilot announced, 'Feet wet!' that the cheer really happened.   Then...,' Gene paused for a moment, swallowed and stated with bold emphasis, 'we got free."

As a film producer, the poetry of that particular moment snapped to mind; ending the interview on the word "Free" would have been the perfect time to fade to the flag flapping, national anthem and impassioned reading of some great quote of our forefathers.  Cheesey?  Yes.  But here?  Totally appropriate.

For the life of me, I can't source this photo!  But I assume DoD.
Anyway, it's color and shows the new clothes the V gave the POWs before release.
Any idea who the people are?  Email me.

But Gene wasn't ready to stop talking.

Indeed, he spent the rest of the morning, describing the moments, days and months of re-engaging into American life.  For example, he learned that he no longer had a living father as the man died nearly three years prior.   Gene also had to be driven everywhere as his drivers license had (massively) expired.  He also took particular pleasure in describing how his wife had managed to save $25,000 on the Air Force's faithful continuation of his pilot's wages.

"She saved that much?!  Wow.  She's a keeper."

"She was a remarkable woman.***  I came back to a waiting wife and great kids.  Not every (POW) could say that.  But I can and for that, I am so very (pauses) very...grateful."

"Burst of Joy" - Pulitzer Prize photo by Slava Veder
This photo's story has been told a million times and I hope it never stops.
I also hope it never happens again but people being people, I suspect it will.
If I ever get to interview Col Stirm, I will not bring this up.

I wish I had that last sentence about Gene's return to 'home life' recorded because the printed/written word does not do it justice; it meant so much more in Gene's baritone southern drawl, deliberate pause and inflective emphasis.   Regardless, I was immediately struck by how, forty some years later, he remained humbled by his wife's (and others) positive influence.

Technically, I admire Gene's ability to master the complicated task of flying an F-105.  So too his bravery in participating in the most dangerous missions**** of the Vietnam War.  I'm also awed by his endurance of nearly six years of wretched captivity.   I should also mention Gene adapted to peace-time life just fine as the successful Director of the Golden Triangle Airport (GTR) for twenty years.

But there's something especially cool about meeting someone who's achieved so much who keeps a sense of humility.

So, back to the title, "Prevailing Force."

The word "Force" comes from the USAF term used to describe the collective aerial team tasked with the mission.  On October 25, 1967, Gene was the unfortunate one within the Force that targeted Hanoi's Paul Douhmer Bridge.   However, the word "Prevailing" came from realizing the balance of character that persists today, perhaps in spite of, such a difficult time.

I hope this piece inspires others to do the same.

Me, Gene and Chuck; I'm especially grateful for Chuck's introducing me to Gene as without his help, it wouldn't have happened.  Thank you, Chuck!
* John Flynn.  Click here.

**Bud Day.  You'll want to, click here, too.

***Rae Smith passed away just before Christmas, 2003.  Gene has since remarried and happily so.

****A special nod of awe goes to the MISTY pilots.  I hope to do this story justice, shortly.

02 February, 2017

Godspeed... F/L John Wilkinson, 41Sq

These things never happen conveniently—planning for another project, details, decisions amidst the whir of daily life, this morning, I found out about F/L Wilkinson's death while scrolling through emails on my phone.

For those that don't know who John* is, click here and then click here.

The first link is to our "short" on John and the second is my blog post.

But, back to the moment when my finger paused on the screen, "John passed away this morning..." it all seems fitting because this great and humble man's story might have otherwise gone unheralded had the opportunity been passed over in favor of the more urgent (details, decisions).

The title of our film, "The Gentleman Next Door" was a nod to the idea that amazing, real history is all around us.  The gateway to the knowledge and wisdom afforded by History often requires no more work than ringing a doorbell and investing a little time.

From all of OGTA... "Thank you, John.  Godspeed, tally-ho and yes, we'd like some tea!"

And for the rest, in John's own words...

"As the sun was setting, we circled over the Baltic coast and cruised inland at about 25,000 feet. Approaching the town of Schwerin we spotted about 30 aircraft at low level and headed down toward them. Then something curious happened. We saw explosions around the airfield and town, so two of our number assumed that they were RAF Typhoons attacking the area and climbed back up to our cruising altitude and headed home. But Tony and I continued on down to further investigate.

As we got low enough to positively identify the aircraft we realized they were Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. We assumed, incredibly, that they had spotted us and were dropping their loads in preparation for a fight. Diving down from our cruising altitude, we had built up some excess speed. I picked out the highest FW-190 flying quite slowly, so I had to lose speed rapidly using my propeller in fine pitch as a brake and fish tailing as hard as I could to avoid overshooting him and becoming a target for him. I was very close to him when I opened fire, without a thought for the round object under his belly. But I soon found out as I fired with cannons and fifty-caliber machine guns.

The round thing was a bomb and there was an almighty explosion. I ducked down for maximum protection from my bulletproof windshield and large engine. Although the outside air was very cold, I could feel the fiery heat on my neck between my collar and leather helmet. I could see flaming fuel and wreckage engulfing my Spitfire. It was time to take stock of the condition of my aircraft. I was still flying and attempted to gain more defensive altitude, but I was obviously very badly damaged. So I called for a homing to take the most direct route back to base. The radio-direction-finding personnel were on the ball and got it to me immediately just before the Germans, who were listening in, jammed the radio.

My propeller was damaged because the vibration was almost enough to pull the engine out. I climbed using as much power as I dared to and I was wallowing, telling me that my tail was badly damaged also. Since I had about 100 miles to travel, my biggest concern, beside the possibility of being picked off by an FW-190, was the huge radiator under each wing. If either one of them was holed and leaked my glycol and oil, I would not make it home. I watched the temperature and oil pressure gauges very closely and to my relief, the needles remained at their normal settings.

Before getting too low on approach to the airfield I tested my flaps and undercarriage. Both were still functioning. So with the crash crew standing by I came in fast in order to retain control until my wheels were safely on the ground.

After climbing out of the cockpit, it was then discovered that one blade of my propeller had been split off long ways. Paint was burned off the wings, and the fuselage and part of the controlling surfaces of the tail were missing, plus various holes and dents in wings and fuselage.

But most remarkable of all was that nothing entered the huge radiator and oil cooler air scoops under each wing, even though the narrow cowling edges of the scoops were riddled with holes. Make no mistake: The hand of the Lord was indeed upon me."

*John will always be an "is" and not a "was."  The later is only applied to people who serve the world no longer and John, through his story, his Christian faith and the positive impact he left on so many others insure this immortality. 

10 November, 2016

Flown West - Col. Hank Snow.

Hank Snow after 666 combat missions over three wars.
I asked him what he thought of this photo and he replied,
"There's a tired young man, John.  I just wanted to go home."

Who is the greatest Warrior you've ever known? If you're fortunate, you've known one.  Or two.

But none like Hank Snow.

To commemorate Veteran's Day and Hank's passing, I've made his Bio available as a free-download .pdf.

Click below...and never (ever) forget Veteran's Day.


Godspeed and Blue Skies...

Hank Snow

Note:  If you know anyone who's into reading this kind of thing (or should) do forward the link on.  I plan on taking it down some time before the end of the year.

And if the link above doesn't work, CLICK HERE.

30 October, 2016

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

Have a look—there will never be a shape like this again.

It. Is. Beautiful.   But, the Spitfire Mk.XIV was also a beast.

If you look closely at the cowling, you'll see a distinctive bulge over the airplane's shark-line nose.  Such space was necessary as it helped streamline (and contain) the Rolls Royce "Griffon" engine's 2,000+ horsepower.  Putting this into perspective, the American P-51 Mustang got by on 'only' 1,500hp.  The two airplanes weighed about the same, making the horsepower differential all-the-more interesting!

(insert daydream: If I could only go back in time...)

But, as interesting as facts and data are, the real beauty in this kind of work is 'the story.'

Again, my airplane drawings are just drawings.   But the history?  That's life.

Above—a month or so ago, I received an Apple Pencil and of course, started goofing around with it right away.
This is a time-laps of one of my first sketches (probably 90-120 seconds of actual work) and depicts
John Wilkinson flying a "razor-back" Spitfire Mk.XIV circa 1944

Meeting "EB F's" pilot, F/L John Wilkinson, was an exercise in the frustrations of story-getting; it was too brief.  Of course, it always is—how do you tell a man's tale in any span less than his actual age?!

Still...'got 16 minutes?

Have a look below at our latest Short entitled, "The Gentleman Next Door."  Though it's not long enough, it will give you a glimpse into what it's like to spend time with these rare partakers of exceptional history.

The Gentleman Next Door - The John Wilkinson Story from John Mollison on Vimeo.

I hope John's story has inspired you to have a conversation with someone important in your life.  And if you think John's story can help inspire someone else, please share the link. 

An 11 year old girl meets a 94 year old man (F/L John Wilkinson).
This is where the baton gets handed off...
Photo:  Me, taken at the film Premiere of "The Gentleman Next Door," South Dakota Air & Space Museum

Profile 122: "221" as flown by The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS

So, this past summer, an interesting conversation transpired between me and a rising star of a large corporation.  We were discussing (clear throat, cop a stuffy British accent) the preeminent topic of anyone who desires Command and Control—leadership.

It sounds all-lofty and pompous... but I suspect we also sounded a bit silly, too.  After a while, one realizes that if Leadership could truly be contained within bullet points or anecdotes, society would collapse in a huge narcissistic dog pile*.

But Leadership remains a great topic for discussion.  Part art, part luck, part genetics, part practice…and mysterious as all-get-out because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the universe shifts.

Still, the ambitious executive’s question stuck with me, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

Break Break.

Have a look above.  It's an F-4E Phantom in the livery of the 336th TFS, circa 1972, Ubon, Royal Thailand Air Force Base.

There are a few points to note, too.

Firstly, the squadron was called, The Rocketeers; probably the coolest name and logo since WWII's the 487th Fighter Squadron's "Petie."  You have to appreciate the skill and talent of those tasked with memorializing a military unit with an icon—whomever designed the Rocketeers logo designed one of the best.

The 487th FS logo (L) and the 336th TFS's logo (R).
I know "JC" Meyer thought-up the baby with the buggy whip but if you have any idea on the Rocketeer's logo, email me.

Secondly, it's a “Linebacker” bird.  Operation Linebacker was the code name for President Nixon's reaction to North Vietnamese forces that crossed into South Vietnam during January of 1972.

That year, The United States armed forces were in withdrawal from Vietnam and smack-dab in the middle of handing the war off to the South Vietnamese military (a weirdly-named process called “Vietnamization”).  The North couldn’t have picked a more clever time to move into the South as they threw their punch when the U.S. and South Vietnamese military were distracted.

Now, Nixon may have been disturbingly paranoid but he wasn’t indecisive.  He also knew that insanity (ironically) was, “…doing the same thing but expecting different results.”

So, Nixon acted powerfully against the North’s ability to make and sustain war.  You’d think this act would be a “Duh!” moment but in the scope of all-things-Vietnam-War, his decision was actually rather novel in contrast with the bureaucratic and remotely-controlled policies of Kennedy and LBJ.

I threw this map together to give some idea of the geography of it all.  It's generally accurate but I wouldn't want to write a doctoral thesis using it as sole authority.  Just sayin...

Thus, Linebacker was born.  Between May and October of 1972,  North Vietnamese power plants, bridges, air fields, supply depots—the stuff that should have been crushed in 1964—were pummeled.

Do your own research on the matter but suffice it to state, Linebacker was a full-court press on North Vietnam that the United States conducted (virtually) exclusively by air.

Ok.  Back to the F-4.

The jet’s loadout is rather atypical for the period as it reflects something called a "Chaff Mission."  If you look closely, the centerline rack contains four M129 Leaflet and Chaff containers. They look like bombs but they’re not.  Actually, you can only see bits of two as the containers are side x side.    And they’re also obscured because the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and wing-mounted 370 gallon fuel tanks block their view.

Also, there’s an AL/ALE-38 Chaff Dispenser on the other side but you’re going to have to walk around to the other side of your monitor to see that.   (joke).


Here’s how a Linebacker Chaff Mission typically worked— an "eight-ship" of F-4 Phantoms would fly straight and level, line-abreast (about 1,500 feet apart) into North Vietnam and let loose a blizzard of a small metallic strips in a 100-mile long, 5-mile wide “corridor” of radar-confusing fuzz.  Though it only lasted about 15-ish minutes, that brief time was just enough time for bomb-laden F-105s and F-4s to zip in, hit the target and zip out. 

The Chaff would not only spread out horizontally (width) it would also spread out vertically (height).
Of course, gravity takes its toll on any object no matter how light it is.  A Chaff cloud would only last
about 15 minutes, depending upon any number of variables.

Great idea!  In fact, the Brits pioneered it in WWII against the Germans.  30 years later, the basic science still proved itself, much to the delight of those tasked with hitting the targets. I’m not completely confident on this but I heard from two reliable sources that no bomber was ever lost on a mission that used a flight of “Chaffers” to cloud the way.

But.  If you ever meet an F-4 pilot that flew in Linebacker, ask them if they ever ‘flew chaff.’  You’ll get one of two responses.  “Nope!” (and a smile).  Or “Yes, gawd’ammit!” (and a scowl).  

Remember, a Chaff mission required straight, level and utterly precise (and therefore predictable) flight.   Let that sink in.  Ever see that picture of the fife and drum line marching into a Revolutionary War battle?  

"The Spirit of '76' by Archibald Willard.

Um…yeah.  Though the Chaff did terrific work in cloaking the whole Force from AAA and SAMs,  it also served as a brilliant pointer to where the chaff-laying, level-flying, sitting-duck F-4s were.  Que MiGs.   I have no idea how many Chaff Bomber F-4s were lost to MiGs but according to my sources, there were at least seven resulting in at least six POWs (with four crewman being rescued and four more KIA).

Enough said.

Now, wipe that bit of aerial dirty-work out of your mind and focus on the crisp and clear numbering on the tail—221.  

Originally, I was commissioned to do "235"—the F-4E flown by MiG-killer team of Pilot Fred Sheffler and Weapons System Officer, Mark "Gunner" Massen.   And, I complied—complete with red-star on the splitter-plate.**

Fred and Mark's F-4E.  If you squint, you can see the red-star on the Splitter Plate.

Fred tells a great story about the victory.  He even let me have the original cockpit recordings and an amazing record that pretty-much maps-out he and Mark's victorious moment on 15 August, 1972.  In fact, it's so well documented, I plan on rolling it out here on a later date.  But I put 221 on top as my representative of the Rocketeers on account of its relevance to the opening paragraph.

Ok, so...

I ‘get’ the quest for power.  There was a time when I was an avid student of anything that promised to lead me to greater power and more riches.  From these sources, I learned much. Some of it has actually been useful, too.  But, the only true test of Leadership that has consistently born itself out is impossible to teach:  the test of time.

Does that mean The End justifies the Means?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  This dilemma is why the qualities of Character and Ethics are so crucial.  Add Humility to the mix, too—I’ve met some amazing Leaders over the years and the best of them, though never-perfect, are careful not to stand in front of a mirror too long.

Ok, break break.

Have one more look at 221 because, next, I’ll be sharing an account of a conversation I had with one of the Rocketeers.  Actually, it’s really an amalgam of numerous conversations with different members.  Though I don’t like inventing reality, the utter consistency of each member’s words make it legitimate.

Pilot:  ”You're going to come to our Reunion, right?"

Me:  ”Yeah.  I will.  It'll be nice to meet all you guys."

Pilot: ”You know you're not coming to meet us, right?"

Me:  ”What do you mean?”

Pilot: ”You're coming to meet the best squadron commander we ever had.  And you ask any one of us.  We'll tell you the same.  We're all going to there for him.”

Me:  ”Hmmm.  Tell me more.”

And “they” did, taking me back to Seymour-Johnson AFB (Goldsboro, NC) when the 336th just received their orders to take part in Linebacker.   The squadron was moving and moving now—Pack your bags? Sure.  Kiss the wife?  Maybe.  Stop for lunch?  Not unless it’s in Hawaii, half-way  between North Carolina and Ubon AFB, Thailand.

Picture day.  The Rocketeers arrive in Ubon to take part in Nixon's plan.
Photo:  Unknown

He described the challenges of landing in a foreign land and being ready for combat sorties a mere three days later.  He described the differences of the various characters and the qualities that endeared and/or divided them from one another.  From an Organizational Psychology perspective, the whole process was fascinating and illustrated how a fighting Squadron is not unlike any other team tasked with a function.   Yet, woven through it all was the anecdotal but consistently reverent mention of the Squadron Commander.

"John, we were a good team back then.  And, I'm looking forward to seeing all of the guys.  But don't kid yourself we still are a good team.  And that’s because of D.C.”

That’d be the 336ths “Leader”, Lt. Col. D.C. Vest.

"John, we'll still want follow him.  You have to understand that."

Hmmm.  There’s an object lesson here but before I get to that: 

To The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS, thank you for letting me have a glimpse into your brotherhood and most of all, thank for letting me be the expression of your gratitude and honor for Squadron Commander.

But, to my buddy who was part of the discussion at the beginning of the post—in answer to your question, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

If, in 45 years, your staff can still get together and toast your name, you’re a "good leader."

Or, if you ask a Rocketeer, you're like D.C. Vest.

Col. D.C. Vest in front his F-4E.
Note the signatures on the matting; those are from "his Rocketeers."
This kind of thing makes all those years screwing around in school doodling dogfights totally worth it.
Photo: Gale McVicker

*Everybody wants to be a "leader."  But we also (in the nasal words of Bob Dylan) "...gotta serve somebody."

** The splitter-late is a thin piece of metal that is situated between the fuselage air-intake and the fuselage. Enlarge the drawing of #235 and look for the red star—that's the splitter-plate.

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.


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."


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.