Friday, August 1, 2014

Profile 89: JUST STARTED—The P-40N flown by Cliff Long, 51st FG

P-40s are awesome.

P-40s with sharks-mouths painted on the nose are even awesomer!

But you know what's even MORE AWESOMER?!    Finding a P-40 "Warhawk" pilot who is willing to talk about the 104 missions he flew over China!

Hold that thought.

I am a member of the "professional" social networking service called LinkedIn.  One of the features of LinkedIn is a regular feed of business-related articles written or reposted by members for other members to read.  One of the most popular topics of these articles is "Success" and they look something like this:  10 Things A Great Leader Always Does Before Breakfast or 6 Incredible Success Stories that Started Out As Failures or Do This One Thing to Make a Million Dollars next Week.

I like these articles.  Most of the time, they give me a positive boost or a quick idea.   But in reality, they are essentially all-the-same and their promises far out-reach reality.  After all, if becoming Steve Jobs really took only 6 essential "things," we'd all be Steve Jobs by day-end.

Steve Jobs.  No idea who took the photo but it's perfect so I'm taking the risk.

Right?  Yeah, you laugh.  And I laugh too because I know the ONE thing you have to do to be successful.  It's been told to me by virtually every "Old Guy" that I've interviewed and frankly, it remains curiously overlooked and even when acknowledged, derided as simplistic and naive.

Want to know what it is?

Hang on.

Typically, I don't draw an airplane unless I can talk to someone who was attached via combat.   With WWII vets evaporating, my pool of willing, able and documented pilots is all-but-gone.  However, a persistent patron and an especially keen P-47 pilot convinced me otherwise, hence this opening sketch.

Have a good look as there are some things you might find interesting.

1.  Notice the outline of the "sharks mouth"?   Typically, sharks-mouthed P-40s are associated with the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) and their mercenary service to keep the Japanese from over-running China.  But really, it was the Brits who first put the teeth on P-40s and even then, they stole the idea from the Germans.

But this one won't have a sharks-mouth.  It will have a DRAGON mouth.  What's the difference?  Have a look!

2.  Notice the square-ended canopy.  Typically, P-40s had an elongated, round-ended panel that allowed pilots an extra sliver of over-the-shoulder visibility.  The "N" model, however, cut that part of the fuselage out altogether and replaced it with an acrylic greenhouse.  It's ugly.  But functional.

3.  Notice the elevator position.  Through the P-40 E-model, the axis of movement for the elevators intersected the joint where the rudder met the tail.  But on the L, M and N models, the fin and rudder were moved back.**

(Mention this fact at your next wine-tasting party for extra conversational joy!)


4. Notice that on my in-flight sketch there are what look to be tiny bombs. Actually, they're not bombs.  They're rockets.  This may be the only P-40 drawing of a rocket-carrying Warhawk*.   In short, this bird got low, slow and personal with the Japanese.

So what does this have to do with LinkedIn and all those stories on Success?

Well, in comparison to "Success" fighters of WWII (like the P-51, Spitfire, FW-190, Yak-3 and Ki-84), the P-40 is kind of an also-ran.   It wasn't terribly fast, it wasn't terribly maneuverable, it wasn't terribly awesome at anything (other than diving and absorbing damage).  In fact, its main claim to fame is simply that it was available.

Ok.  Fast-forward to 2009 and I'm having lunch with an Old Guy.  He's a retired $$$ionaire who also happened to have flown a bit of combat in WWII.  He asked me about a mutual acquaintance who was losing his business because, in this other dude's explanation, "(He) didn't have the right tools to compete."  So, the poor guy sat in his office because he didn't want to risk embarrassing himself.

The Old Guy howled in laughter, slapped the table and exclaimed, "Oh yeah!  Another success derailed by perfection!"   He took another bite of salad, then wagged his finger at me in caution, "John, a little imperfection is better than hiding behind the wait for perfection."

He stabbed the last of his greens and muttered, half to himself, "You only learn by practice and the best practice is simply showing up.  Some guys are just chicken."

And that's it.  "Showing up" —perhaps the most important key to Success.  It's not glamorous or even all-that-inspiring.  But it's true.  And, in the context of all-things-P-40, it was, by 1944, a second-string fighter that persisted in the combat arena because it was simply available.  In fact, it flew its last combat mission in 1945, well after its comparative obsolescence.

I'd like introduce Cliff Long.  P-40 pilot from the 51st Fighter Group, China-Burma-India theater.  104 missions, all in P-40s and 103 of those missions were before he turned twenty years old.  Talk about "showing up!"—today, Cliff wouldn't be old enough to drink let alone fly a modern fighter!

And it's a Success Story alright.  So show up for the next installment in about two weeks.
Cliff Long circa 1944.  Courtesy Jean Barbaud

*And, I got the rockets wrong in the pencil sketch.  You'll just how wrong they are when the art gets updated, too.

**Originally, I had written that the elevator was moved forward but esteemed aviation historian Carl Molesworth caught my error.  Thank you, Carl!

Profile 87: UPDATE—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead


“We’d rather have the Russians come up after us.  At least they were half-way responsible because they would have to check (with their military authority) before firing.”

Oh the irony of THAT statement, eh?!

Ok, hold that thought for a moment.

When I started Olmstead’s RB-47—the one he was flying on July 1, 1960 when shot down by the Russians—the story was all about Bruce.  After all, he alone remained from the crew and played such a huge role; trading cannon fire with the MiG, riding the freezing swells of the Barents Sea with a broken back(!), and resisting the brainwashing of the professionals at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

Yeah.  There oughta be a movie...

But, Bruce was quick to point out that his part was only a sixth of the whole; aside from the traditional B-47 crew of three, there were three more in the Reconaissance versions.  Bruce also explained that these additional crewmen were the true fulcrum of the aircraft's mission.  Suddenly, a fascinating new dimension was added to the tragic story and my curiosity grew as to what exactly happened to the other three guys.

Of course, we'll never know.  They're dead.

Packed inside the jet's windowless belly, I could only imagine the muffled staccato of cannon fire, the bangs of explosions and windup of g-forces as the burning Stratofortress spun into the sea below.  It had to be a horror.

So, Bruce's story is being set-aside for a bit while some very deserved attention is given to the crew in the middle, "The Ravens." 

Here.  Have a look at my pen-drawing below.

See that capsule-like area that has the arrows pointing toward the fuselage?  That’s where the Raven’s worked.   Originally intended as the bomb bay, the R versions of the B-47 had the space repurposed by sealing it up, adding aft-facing ejection seats (they were to blow out the bottom) and whatever technological gadgetry was useful at the time.  It was cramped space, too.  But not airliner-cramped where you rub shoulders with a stranger.  Instead, think of cramped more like being in an international shipping container full of tractor parts. 

In a sense, the Ravens were the computer hackers of the day.  They probed the signal networks of the world's hotspots—Russia, China, North Korea for example—from their airborne perches, just outside of international boundaries.  Yeah, I am sure there were a few unauthorized overflights, but after the Gary Powers incident in 1960, President Eisenhower officially cancelled the practice.  From then on, monitoring had to be done via the Ravens and their tech.

So, the RB-47s prowled the perimeters, snooping for whatever agency (Strategic Air Command, NATO, even the CIA) wanted to find.
The Raven's Office.  Claustrophics and Interior Designers need not apply
Source:  Raven Bruce Bailey

Ok.  Have another look at my pen-drawing.  This time, notice the MiGs.  Specifically, those are MiG-17s and if you look really, really close, squint your eyes and take a shot of bourbon, you can see the insignias are North Korean... other words, I found a Raven who could tell me what it was like to get shot at by MiGs.  This time, the date is April 28, 1965, nearly five years AFTER Bruce's incident.  

Ok - stop there for a second.

We so need a revamp of our educational system and it needs to start with History teachers.  Stories like these provide valuable insight into the human experience.  Though I haven't been alive for very long, it's mystifying when people (leaders and followers alike) react to normal events as if they just discovered Bigfoot.

Human nature isn't going to be changing any time soon, but when it does, it will be because we trust that the lessons of our past can be learned to affect a better future.

Rant switched to: OFF.  Back to the story.

Have a look at the artwork below.  It's a painting by a guy named George Back, depicting the April '65 event.  The location was over the international waters off Wonsan Harbor, North Korea.  George is also responsible for the quote at the beginning of this story—he's an authority on being a Raven and also what it is like to take enemy fire because he was "Raven 2" on said mission.

It was George's first—repeat, first—operational sortie.  Taking off from Yokota AFB (by Tokyo), the mission was routine.  Head west, sniff around, come home.  Nestled into his windowless, gadget-covered cocoon, George did just that.  Until 6 hours into the flight, the airplane violently pitched nose-down and the inter-phone came alive..."The son of a bitches are shooting at us!"


The experience was completely discombobulating; the chaotic maneuver and the pilot's call, "We're hit and going down!" triggered trained response; though thoroughly stunned, George reflexed the depressurization process and armed his seat for ejection.


The RB was hit—badly—and plummeting like a silver dart.   Her pilot, Lt. Col. Hobart "Matt" Mattison struggled to maintain controlled flight and, as he had exclaimed, 'Get the hell out of (there)!'   Co-pilot, Lt. Henry (Hank) Dubuy worked the 20mm tail stingers, chattering off tracer-less streams at the buzzing MiGs and Navigator Capt. Bob Rogers worked the new course—'the hell out of here!'

Meanwhile, the three Ravens could do little more than wait for the order to eject.

Pass after pass, the MiG's made their runs.  The physics of 3D motion, slow-firing cannon and unpredictable flight paths bent the enemy's aim, but when they're shooting 30mm, it doesn't take many to destroy a plane even as big as a Stratojet.  Amidst the muffled chatter of Dubuy's defensive fire, loud bangs and metallic screams signaled definite hits.

Hydraulics failed.  The tail caught fire.  #3 engine was down.  Then #2.   Then #4.   #5 still made thrust but shook like a washer loaded with bricks...and this on a six-engine airplane.

"Hank!  Get out the Dash-1* and get to the Emergency page!  "Which one?!?"  "Any one!"

Trailing fire and smoke, the psychotic bullies left.  Arcing toward's the ocean, they must have thought the RB was dead to rights.   But "Matt" wasn't dead.  Neither were anyone else.  In fact, they weren't even wounded.  Additionally, in all this chaos, no one "left their post" to the temptation of panic.  Instead, training and self-control resulted in a complete reversal of direction, 15,000 foot decent and resurrection of the bleeding, burning jet.  Leveling off around 12,000 feet, they had one more pressing decision—where to next?

 The crew had three options:  1. Bail out.  2. Head to an emergency field in South Korea.  Or 3. attempt to return to Yokota.

Bailing out was out of the question.  The ocean was no place for airmen, especially when the enemy was closer than than the sharks.  The South Korean emergency field required turning back and the six men knew what awaited them along the way.  The only real choice was to head East.

The flight ticked off in interminably long seconds.  Shuddering and trailing her precious fluids, the airplane reenacted a scene from nearly 30 years prior when damaged B-17s would ache and pray their way home to England.  The crew's fates rested solely in Boeing's craft, a pilot's judgement and God-only-knows-what.

"Matt briefed us all on how bad the landing could be and asked if we wanted to bail out.  The answer was unanimous.  'No sir!"

Matt's leadership had accomplished that peculiar thing that happens when things go wrong, it gave the rest confidence.  Confidence to stick together, confidence to trust, confidence to accept what would come next.

Of course, Yokota was waiting.  Imagine the scene:  fire trucks, ambulances and a helicopter with a belly full of fire retardant...and the elegant shape of the wounded bird skews her way in a smokey, cockeyed approach... there could be no go-around.

BANG!  The RB-47H slammed onto the runway with such power, the Newtonian response launched her carcass back into the air.  That would not do!  Running out of runway and covering care of the ground crews, Matt pushed her back onto the concrete, ordering Hank to pop the chute and stand—stand—on the brakes...

Photo courtesy Bruce Bailey

Man, I wanted a picture of what that must have looked like.  But none exist.  The broken '47 in the photo above is from another story but add a little smoke, a few more holes and you get the picture.

Ok.  It's time to check back in with Bruce, finish his RB and put a bow on the story.

In the meantime, the next time you read a story like this one, think about the Ravens and RB-47 crews of the Cold War.   It's a tough world out there...stay alert.

*Amazing coincidence...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Profile 88: JUST STARTED—The A-4C as flown by Paul Galanti

Here's the scene:   A door-to-door peddler entices a gullible couple to buy a "24-piece set" of plastic storage containers by dangling a ridiculous boat (of all things) as an enticement.

Here.  Watch.

The clip is from Napoleon Dynamite; it's one of those "Love it or hate it" movies.  But, there's no mistaking the scene's slash at the vacuous values that manifest themselves in our culture.   Especially when the needy bride points at the kitschy thing and breathes to her timid husband, "Ah'want that!"

Hold that thought for a moment.

Have a look at the pencil-sketch at the very top of this post.  It's an A-4C Skyhawk that was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam on June 17, 1966.  Her pilot, Paul Galanti, would become a POW for just shy of seven years.  

Over the next few posts, we'll go back to that moment and the years of abuse that followed.  We'll find out how Paul made it through the torture, the pain, the longing...and re-enter Civilization and continue to prosper.


This story is more than just another POW story.  It's a story of what every man wants

Hold that thought for just one more moment.

True story:  a buddy of mine was telling me about "the conversation" he had with his son regarding girls.  Not about girls as objects but girls as companions.  Friends.  Spouses.  His son was being tempted to choose unwisely based on base-desires and the self-inflicted humiliation that comes from being "lonely."  Or horny.  It doesn't matter.  His son was aiming low and the dad knew the horror that could come of it.

"But da-ad.  I want a girlfriend!" the young punk complained.

"No son.  You don't want a girlfriend.  You want..."  and the father struggled to find the words that would describe the complicated, hard-fought and deep-seated wisdom that comes from a guy like...

...Paul Galanti.

Take one more look at the pencil sketch, ok?   That A-4C Skyhawk will soon transform herself from graphite scratches to full-color perfection.  We're going into North Vietnam with all the guns and gore but we're going to come out with something truly worth the declaration, "I want that."

It won't be easy, it won't be cheap.

But it will be worth it.

Profile 87: IN PROGRESS—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead

"That is such an old story...

"It's news to me!" I thought.

...and if you use Google, it's all over the internet...

"Yeah, if you’re looking for it but again, ‘News to me!’.”

...and it was all told in the book."

"Book?!  What book!?"

And thus began my conversation with the pilot.  Ok, hold that thought for a moment...

Knowledge isn’t passed via placenta.  All those things your grandpa knew about business?  About playing poker?  Or grandma's cure for a cold?   If it wasn’t written down or passed on through familial legacy, they’re *POOF!*  dissolved into the ether of time; like food that's never eaten, money never invested or time wasted.

But, to actually use said knowledge, another thing is necessary:  Faith.  Not necessarily faith in a religious sense, but more about the faith that using knowledge will some how, some way, pay off in a profitable fashion.  And THAT, is we call "Wisdom."

Ok, have a look above.  It’s the pencil sketch of my latest work, the RB-47H flown by “Bruce” Olmstead.    On one hand, it’s a gorgeous example of the Aeronautical Engineer’s art; if she looks familiar it’s because Boeing nailed jet-design back in 1947 when she first flew.  Squint and you can see 75% of any commercial airliner flying today.  The B-47 was more than a mere pioneer, she mothered a generation!

However, you’re also looking at a warplane that does not exist.  On one hand, the B-47 was handily replaced by the legendary B-52.  It stands to reason that, once improved, why keep the rest?  But on the other hand, the specific airplane I’m drawing was obliterated by a fiery impact into the Barents Sea on July 1, 1960.  6 men went down, 2 came back.

“Went down?”  you ask.

"Sorry," I reply.  "I meant Shot down."

“By whom?” you wonder.  “In 1960, we weren’t at war with anyone and the Cold War was just that, Cold."”

"The Russians,", I answer.  "And the Cold War had some definite hot spots!"

I’d like you to meet Freeman “Bruce” Olmstead.  He was the co-pilot of this particular RB-47 that, back in 1960, was a big deal.  Such a big deal that even today, the man himself seemed tired to tell the story one more time.   Funny though, considering that the majority of readers hear are under 50, I bet this is the first time you'll have heard about it.

Bruce is right.  It's an old story.  And he's also right that a bit of Google'ing will give you the facts & figures of the moment.  As for the book, it's out there, too.  But for me, this story is more than dredging up the past.  It's about realizing that the study of History is not just about "names, places & dates."  It's about having the faith that keeping said History alive will give us the wisdom to handle whatever comes at us in the future.

So what are we going to learn from this story that's new?   Well, I guess you're going to have to have a little faith in that and follow this story.

Oh.  Bruce has weighed in a detail or two that have caused me to re-think his RB-47 from the pencil-sketch.  See below.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Profile 83/84: "The History Lesson."

For a brief—really brief—moment in time, I wanted to name this print, "Starfish."

Uh.  Yeah.   Starfish.

It would have been a dumb title, I know.  But give my logic it's due.

Ok.  There's an oft-told story about a kid running along a beach at low tide, picking up stranded starfish and tossing them into the surf before the hot sun would bake them to death.  The beach was long and there were thousands of the little creatures drying in heat as the life-giving water receded.

Off in the distance, a man stood watching the futile attempts of the little boy and finally decided to set the kid straight.  Approaching the frantic rescuer, he interrupted, "You do realize that you can't possibly rescue all these poor creatures.  There's too many and it won't make a difference in the grand scheme anyway as they'll just die another day."

The boy paused, thought for a minute, then picked up yet another starfish and threw it far into the respite of the foaming waves.  Turning to the man he replied, "But it made a difference to that one."

Ok.  Hold that thought.

Warfare shouldn't happen.  But it does.  In spite of all it's horror, it's inevitable that another will come along.  And to this point, I think it's good to face facts—though peace is always the first choice, the only thing worse than war is war done badly.  In other words, if we're going to have war, lets do it right.  And do it "right" like any management process—become faster, better, cheaper.  Yeah, it's warped...but wouldn't the world have been a better place if the Reichstag could have been obliterated by a Cruise Missile in 1939?  Specifically July 19?  (click the pic below if you'd like to learn more).

 Click me

War is hell, but what do ya' do?!

And yet, as inevitable as the next war is, there's something in (most) of us that holds out hope that something, somehow, someway can be done to, well, make a difference.   Even if it's apparently futile.

That's why I considered—briefly—naming the print of North Vietnamese fighter pilot Nguyen Hong My's MiG-21 and Bob Mock/John Stiles' RF-4C, "Starfish."  See, Hong My and John Stiles, former enemies in a particularly nasty war, are now genuinely friends.   Somehow, someway, time and tide worked against the cynical, the inevitable and unfortunate to pluck these two guys off the hot beach and throw them back into the sea of humanity.

Look at the picture below.  That's John and My and My's two grandkids.

Wow.  Just wow...

And downstairs, our camera-man is on his umpteenth hoot'n holler toast with a bunch of people he just met, in spite of the fact that they couldn't understand a word each other was saying...

Good times.  Good, good times.

And so I named it The History Lesson.

Because somehow, someway, I believe someone, somewhere can learn something from this.

I know I have.

And if you click the graphic below, you can see the result of the whole trip.   No Starfish though.  Just a good "History Lesson."


No starfish.  Just a good History Lesson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Profile 86: "523" as flown by Leo Istas, VMF-313

Think about this—can you "bounce" a 1,000 pound iron bomb along the water?

Most of us have skipped rocks across a pond; that's easy enough to imagine.  But ginormous poundage of explosives kissing itself off the waves onto a target takes the physics-of-the-moment to a new level!  But, the process worked well enough to be prescribed as a bona fide tactic.

See, skip-bombing was used on targets that were best-hit down-low.  If you can imagine dive-bombing a ship from straight-overhead, you can see in your minds-eye that the target is slim.  And if it's turning, all kinds of motions come into play that will throw off a well-aimed bomb; never mind the fact that the anti-aircraft fire would be like pointing the lit-end of a roman candle at one's face!

Of course dive-bombing ships worked (just do a little research on the Battle of Midway).   But if you really wanted to take out a ship, you'd plant a bomb right smack in the side.  Right on the waterline.   And, that's what Torpedo Bombers like the TBM Avenger were designed to do.  But torpedo planes were slow, big and could get shredded by a whole bunch of roman candle's in the face! Plus, those torpedoes were not cheap.

That's where skip-bombing came in - use a smaller fighter*, wound up with a nose full of steam from a 12,000 foot dive and deliver the iron bomb at wave-top height.  It makes sense.  If you had a pilot who could do it.

To hear Leo Istas describe it, the sheer thrill, madness and mindset of a skip-bombing attack must have been out-of-this-world.  Though his body had aged 90 years, his mind snapped-too as if the moment were yesterday.
Corsair cockpit - source unknown

"We went over the bay (somewhere in the Phillipines) to hit a convoy.  We knew (the Japanese convoy) was there and our job was to hit the ships.  I can remember we got a little ways away, then (and he starts using his hands in an effort to describe what happened next) I pulled the wing over and began my dive.  From 12,000 feet.  The ship (I picked) was up ahead and (my airspeed) started to climb!"

Now, a loaded Corsair would weigh about six tons.  Already a fast airplane (400+ in level flight), the bent-winged machine could also bend the airspeed needle at 550 miles per hour (or more) in a dive.  If you were on the deck of that ship watching this affair, there wouldn't be much time to ponder what would happen next.

Of course, I'd been listening with an active imagination.  I could feel the temporary suspension of gravity and the pull of horsepower against my seat harness as the airplane plummeted towards the gray-blue water below.  The coal and moss colored hills surrounding the harbor were on the horizon; in between them and my indigo machine floated the gray-brown ships of the enemy, just far apart to offer each other covering fire but not too close in case one of them blew to high heaven.

Leo leaned forward, his wheelchair wiggling against a faulty set-brake,  "I pulled out just above the water.  Just above the water!  Do you know what I mean by that?"

"I think so.  But tell me."

"I was level and low!  So low that when I fired (my machine guns) I could see the sparks hitting just above the waterline.  My prop couldn't have been more than a foot or so above the water!"  Leo laughed, but it was a nervous, incredulous-sounding chuckle, as if he couldn't believe his memories.

Brilliant balls of explosive arced toward Leo.  A few big ones and a blizzard of small

"What were you thinking when...!?"

"Nothing!  Too fast!" Leo interrupted. "Too low...just too much going on to think.  You just had to get let that bomb go at the right time to bounce it's way into the ship."

Leo, inbound - source, me.

I could imagine a metallic 'cunk' sound as the latches holding the bomb opened and the giant iron device fell from the screaming blue fighter.  At that speed, the water would become like a trampoline and the bullet-shaped casing would glance off the surface and spring it forward.  It's kind of a cool thing to visualize but at the time, my head was locked onto the Corsair.  I imagined blue beast howling across the freighter at mast-height, too fast for the Japanese to do anything but inhale. One final time.

"So did the ship explode?!"  Though the movie-camera in my mind had "filmed" the entire event, I still needed to know what special effects to add to the final scene.  I had a few options; one, a sliver of bright orange flame erupts from the cowl as Leo takes a fatal hit.  Two, the bomb wavers so slightly and catches a wave, exploding harmlessly in a gigantic column of water.  Three...

Leo looked away, out the window of the VA hospital.  "I didn't see.  I just got out of there.  When you do something like that, you don't look back."  He paused, lost himself for a second, then, as he picked up his fork to pick at his lunch, added, "Another guy saw it though.  Boom. The ship split in two and sunk."   He took a few more bites and then finished, "And that's what got me my DFC.  I blew up a ship."

He took a few more chews, mocked up a quick smile and continued his lunch.  It was clear that for Leo, the memory remained fresh.  I looked around the cafeteria and wondered if anyone there had the slightest clue that here, in their murmuring, clanking midst, was a warrior who, in the old Native American vernacular, "counted coup."

Anyway, have a look at Leo's logbook below.  Find the column on the left with the "11"—that'd be December 11 and that was the day Leo nailed the freighter. Sixty nine years ago.  Man.  Was it that long ago?!

Istas logbook - source, Leo Istas

And, though getting a DFC is a pretty big deal, and sinking a ship single-handedly is definitely another pretty big deal, surely stuff like this happened a hundred, thousand...maybe a hundred thousand times in WW2.  What's so special about this one?

Well, this is probably the last WW2 airplane I get to do.  At least one that's the product of talking with the pilot, flipping through old log books know; Leo is of a vanishing breed.

Yeah, yeah. I knew that, but only in the sense it would happen some day.   However, while doing this Corsair, Leo woke me up to a startling fact when he nodded to his Squadron Annual and said, "Most of'em are all in there.  But I think I'm the only one left.".

Istas Annual - source, Leo Istas

"The only one left."

Flipping through the Annual, the faces, the collegiate-style commentary, the brittle paper and hardened photographs, the only thought I could think was wondering what these guys would have thought if they knew that, a generation later, Leo would be the standard bearer and I'd be wondering what "Monk" meant and why "Ugly" felt he had to write his "wifey."

Here.  YOU can wonder too!

Pages from the VMF-313 Annual, source:  Leo Istas

It seems that many History teachers do a pretty lousy job of teaching the names, dates and places of our past.  The reason I know is because that's all they seem to teach and I can't remember them.  But there's hope if they can begin teaching the real reason to learn our History—that our circumstances are handed off to us, generation by generation and we have an absolute duty to continually improve.

Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation."  But I hope not.  If they are, we haven't done them the justice they deserve.

And Leo may truly end up, "The only one left."

Leo and I, source, Leo's daughter.

Salute, Leo.

*Bombers like the B-25, A-20 and even B-17 were used in skip-bombing attacks, too.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Profile 85: FINAL - "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS, 311th FBG


"The last three years have been harder than any Japanese prison camp."

What?!  What could be harder than the worst POW system of WW2?!

I'll get to that.  But first...

Killing a person with a .45 is easy.  Pull, snap and BANG!  At ten feet away, he wouldn't know what hit him; the big slug would obliterate the Jap's head like a baseball bat on a pumpkin.  He also wouldn't know who hit him; the enemy had his back turned to Chris.

The Burmese jungle is a dense, creature-infested salad.  Bill Creech told me that it took him an hour to hack through a mere 50' of the stuff.  So, while the enemy stood, listening for the little crackles and pops that would reveal a hiding human, it was understandable that he would have no idea just how close his quarry really was.  Hollow heartbeats, drips of sweat, a chirp of an insect...and then, inexplicably, the soldier continued on his way.  Chris exhaled in a restrained purge of nervous breath, lowering his trembling arm as to not make a sound.  

It had been an awful three days since the three pilots had bellied-in.  Major Nameless, the guy who got them into their current mess, was captured right away.  Chris and the other pilot, however, managed to stay one-step-ahead of the search party.  Close-calls, a stolen canoe, quicksand and fresh tiger tracks brought anxious thrills while sweet berries pulled from the jungle thickets provided food.  It'd be a great Reality TV show had it not been so real.

But, the reality was, though a highly trained fighter pilot, Chris was really just a bright kid from New York with less than a single week in-country.  He was no more prepared to survive in the Burmese highlands than one of their own would be had they been picked up and dropped into the concrete jungle of Manhattan.   Capture was inevitable.
Chris Morgan, Primary Flight Training, circa 1942.

As it happened, the two men were betrayed by a chance encounter with Burmese natives.  The locals promised to point them back to India but instead, delivered them to their new Japanese overlords. On October 19, 1943 the lost fighter pilots found their fate before the clenched fists of front-line, war-hardened Japanese Army soldiers.  Ouch.

Then, the hurt began—BANG!  The hard butt of an Arisaka rifle cracked against Chris's head.  A shot rang out*, and the ex-fighter pilot went down.  Repeatedly.  It didn't stop until an English-speaking officer was able to intercede and begin the interrogation "properly."  That moment was a scene out of a B-grade war flick—rote questions followed by Chris's courageous proclamation of name, rank and serial...BANG!   What did you...BANG!   Who is your...BANG!  When will you...BANG!

An ex-POW from Vietnam let me know that, once torture begins, "...everyone talks.  Everyone spills the beans.  Everyone confesses.  Of course, anything you say is pure bullish*t, but if you're getting the sh*t beat out of you, you talk!"

Chris finally admitted that his "commanding officer" was none other than General "Hap" Arnold (about the equivalent of admitting you knew who the President of the United States was).  Chris also rattled off whatever other answers his ringing head could conjure...he can't remember and it didn't matter.  Anything he said was as ridiculous as their situation.

However, in the course of "conversation," Chris did describe the soldier that he had almost plugged.  This piqued the interrogating officer to the point that he had to know, "Why didn't you shoot him?  Why didn't you kill the soldier that was looking for you?"

Chris answered, "He had his back to me.  I didn't want to shoot him in the back."  Somehow, that struck a sympathetic nerve in the officer's soul and he responded unexpectedly.

One can only imagine the scene—the crisply uniformed Japanese leaning back, steepling his fingers and saying, "So.  You showed...honor."  Some how, some way, the anecdote attached itself to Chris (and the whole Lost Flight) and it became a perverse endorsement that followed them on their forced-march to their final prison camp far, far to the South.

"From then on, we seemed to get a little better treatment," Chris explained.  "Not much better.  Maybe they didn't hit as hard.  But looking back, I feel that not shooting that Japanese soldier somehow helped save us, too.  At least on our trip to (our prison in) Rangoon."
A drawing of Rangoon Prison. The artist's last name is Ratcliffe.

It was an 800 mile journey that would last almost three months.  The trek was made on the bed of a transport truck, on train, on elephant, but mostly on foot.  And that "aura" of protection?  It was academic.  At each waypoint, the trio was still welcomed by a gauntlet of angry, war-curdled militants.  CRACK!  BANG!  SPIT!

If there was any mercy in the moment, it was when Major Nameless stepped to the front of the line at each of these vicious receptions. "I got you guys into this mess,' he'd remind them. 'I should go first."  Of course, there was no way this act of honor could deliver them out of their misery but it did reassure the other two that their former Flight Leader understood the ethic of Responsibility.   Though the facts were impossible to forget, Major Nameless's willingness to pay-extra for his sin triggered a spirit of forgiveness in Chris.

I asked if how he thereafter got along with Major Nameless and the other pilot, (Lt. Mel Bowman) and Chris made a point to tell me of the time he was crippled with Beriberi.  They were still 200 or so miles from Rangoon when the disease hit.  Mel and the Major fashioned a stretcher from bamboo and some old burlap and carried Chris the rest of the way 'home.'   Major Nameless didn't complain.   Mel, on the other hand, did.

"Mel would sit by me and say, 'Chris, 'you just going to lay there and whine?!  Chris, 'you just going to lay there and die?!  Chris, 'you just going to moan all day?!'"  Mel's taunts lit a fire in Chris that overruled his physiological decay.  "Mel did it deliberately.  To make me mad!  And it worked; I got so mad that I pulled through those days until I actually got healthy again.  Mel did that for me."

Chris had entered a particularly challenging School of Hard Knocks. Major Nameless taught Chris how to forgive, Lt. Bowman taught Chris the power of determination; it may have been a tragic education, but it was persistent.

"After I got healthy, the Japanese put me and another guy in charge of the camp's Cholera ward.  It was a terrible place with all the mess and death.  But I remember (when the other guy) announced, 'Chris, if we don't get rescued by Christmas (1944) we're going to die! We're going to die!' That was in June of '44.  Sure enough, we weren't rescued on Christmas and sure enough, he died.  On Christmas day."

I need to fast-forward; after the time when Chris listened as a 13-time bayoneted British infantryman blessed his wife with dying breaths.  After Chris learned to survive by eating things he won't mention. After Chris learned how to harden his soul to anything pleasant and dwell only on the moment by moment dichotomy of life or death...we're going to fast-forward to after the war.

Ok.  Try this—wrap your pinky and thumb around the thick part of your forearm.   Can they touch?  If they did, you understand what Chris looked like the day he was repatriated in May of 1945.  He was a shell of a man.  Yet,  the human body is amazingly resilient; 30 days later, he was cleaned up, half-way back to his pre-capture weight and standing on the porch of his parent's home.  He needed every bit of that strength he'd gained as both his mother and father collapsed onto him at his unexpected arrival.  The moment became an indelible scene as for so much of his captivity, his parents had written their son off for dead.

The letter Chris wrote to his folks shortly after being repatriated. 
He said he lied a little to keep them from worrying.
("Jupes" was Chris's nickname)

"So what next?" I asked.  "Did you have trouble adjusting to civilian life?"

Chris sighed.  "I learned to drink.  A lot."

"Did you get a job? Or did you just sit in a bar somewhere?"

"I was given the choice to stay in the Service or get out; the popular convention was to get out and so I did.  I regret that as it turned out the Service had more regard for POWs than the civilians.  And I just drank more."

"Really?!  You mean people didn't accept that you were a POW?!"

"Let me tell you something.  I was speaking at a War Bond Rally just after I got home and I told the audience what I had went through and I could read their faces—they didn't believe me.  But how could they?  They had no idea!  And when people found out that I was a captured because someone had gotten lost?  I heard laughter.  Laughter!  I couldn't—(pause)—I couldn't deal with that.  No more Bond Rallies."

"So then what?"

"Like I said, I drank.  I drank my way through five years of college.  I didn't graduate."

"And what about the rest of your life?  Did you still have any effects?"

"Aside from (the life that came from) drinking?  I'd wake up screaming.  Even today,  I can't get introduced without someone saying, 'This is Chris Morgan, he was a POW of the Japanese.  That was 70 years ago and it's still my life."

"So have you forgotten the memories?"

"Years ago, I would wake up screaming.  Which brings up that the last three years have been the hardest in my life."

One more pause, I promise.  Right about now, it's easy to see how you can be completely laid-low by this story.  Reconciling the injustice of it all is like trying to slake thirst by drinking vinegar.  But.  You should know that Chris Morgan is no victim.  As it turned out, Chris built a successful career in the insurance industry, raised a family and devoted years lobbying for veteran and POW rights.  Year by year, Chris gained altitude and the lost life was gradually redeemed as any man would want.  But it wasn't easy.  As it took Major Nameless to get Chris lost, it took another to get him found.

"Why's that?  What's been so hard about the past three years?"

"My wife, Connie.  She died three years ago.  Hardest thing I've ever been through.  (pause) Harder than any Japanese prison camp."

If you're one of the thousands who have been reading this story from the onset, Connie is new to the equation.  See, the challenge of these war stories is that, they are not confined to defined spans of time.   Granted, between October, 1943 and June of 1945 Chris Morgan learned, in dramatic fashion that grudges didn't pay and still, fury can be a life-line to extend one day to another.  Good lessons in survival for a POW, but what of "normal" life?

How long can a guy treat his wounds with beer?  How long can a guy be darkened by the shadow of someone else's failure?  How can a guy cope with challenges by any other means than to get angry?

Ha!  And here is the surprise ending that I warned you about in the previous posts.  Have a look at "030" again.   It's not an airplane lost. It's an airplane restored.

It was Connie that got Chris to temper the drinking.  It was Connie that got Chris the job that ended up bringing back self-respect (and later lead to financial success).  It was Connie that reminded Chris that the same Will that kept him alive in a POW camp was needed in the ease of post-War America.  It was Connie that got up with Chris during the nightmares...

"It all made sense later.   Life is about Will and the reason to persist. Connie helped me put the pieces together."

This isn't a war story.  It's a love story...of one man's amazing strength and a woman's amazing patience.

This about right, Chris?


* The Japanese apparently fired the shot into the air in an act of terror.  It's possible the gunshot was somehow an accidental discharge of the weapon but it's doubtful.  The IJA were highly disciplined and most likely had exceptional control over their weapons.

Postscript:  Two readers asked the questions, "Did Chris forgive his captors?" and "Where there any Guards that tried to help you?"

To the first question, the answer is unequivocally, "Yes."  Chris answered that plainly to me.  He holds no grudge against the cruelty of war, recognizing that war is its own ethos.   He reminded me that the 6 .50 caliber machine guns and 2x 500lb bombs mounted on his A-36 were truly terrific weapons.  "Would I have been able to do horrible damage to them?  Of course.  It's just a part of war."

To the second question, Chris replied by retelling the story of how the IJA officer was impressed that Chris hadn't shot the Japanese grunt.  Chris worked to understand Japanese culture and realized later that, to them, an inglorious death would somehow taint the afterlife.    In sparing the life, he brought honor to the soldier's family.

However, Chris also described a moment when a lower ranking Japanese officer approached him and stated, "Though our nations are at war, we can be friends."  The officer then silently stood by Chris for a few wordless minutes as a display of kinship.  What prompted this act of personal revelation lies buried in the passing of time but it remains to Chris as a bright moment in a dark time.


To the family of Chris Morgan, he is one of those giants we stand upon to see the future.  Thank you for letting me into your story.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Profile 85: UPDATE - "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS, 311th FBG

"He was a good man. A good officer.  But he should have never been behind the stick of an airplane."*

Well now.  That's a heck of an opening line, don't you think?!

But before we go any further, it's important that we come back to the topic of "Unfair" that was brought up in the first post on this airplane.

Unfairness is a powerful toxin.  Think back to that moment you first experienced it—something was taken from you, a promise unkept or perhaps an outright fallacy grafted upon your reputation—where you three?  Four?  Yeah.  You experienced it early (we all have)  and from then on, things were just a little different, tainted, perhaps.  Right?

However, I want you to decide right now to bear with the fullness of this story as its reconciliation is at once beautiful and startling.  It will not disappoint, and you'll never suspect where it ends.  Never.



Look above.  You'll notice that I've been at work but not quite finished.  The challenge has been to really understand the color, "Olive Drab."  Sure, there is/was a formula, but that's just a recipe.  Differences in pigments, sun, oil, rain,'s like buying two Big Macs from two different McDonalds.  They won't ever be the same.

But, I do understand the markings.  In a word, Basic.  Chris' A-36 was one of 40 that had been shipped straight from the Group's home airfield at Waycross, Georgia.  No personal, group or squadron livery were applied - just "star'n bar" and serial number, 42-84030.  "030" was a workin' bird, not a peacock.

Why so bare?  Well, they simply hadn't had the time.  When the 529th arrived at their Dinjan, India base on October 11 (1943), mission planners were already hovering over maps trying to figure out where to hit first.  The Squadron had only four days to get ready; October 16 was showtime.  The push to perform was so intense, the Squadron hadn't even logged any orientation flights!  Remember, they'd just "gotten off the bus" from eight thousand miles away...

Oh know where this is going already, don't you.  (sigh)

Anyway, 12 airplanes (3 Flights of four) made up the attack force with a mission to bomb Japanese placements near the town of Sumprabum, Burma.  Fast at low-level and easy to control, the A-36 was pretty-well suited to provide the kind of close-air-support needed to aid the fevered and splintered jungle-fighting below.

There was "good" reason for the urgency to get into action, however; arriving in-country was a big deal. Not only was it the Inaugural act of the unit, it was part of a bold push to support the beleaguered British ground forces and establish the Americans as the strong players in the Theatre.  Remember, this was back in the days when the British had an Empire and Japan wasn't just expanding their empire, they were taking British (and French and Chinese and Dutch and American...) property.

The CBI was so much more than a battle ground.  It was the entitled land of tremendous ego, power and investment!  That the Japanese—upstarts and newcomers to the Industrialized World—could flip their middle finger at so much of the world establishment was an outrage.

Understand this—the 529th wasn't just off to bomb the enemy.  They were there as an opening round of violence to punish the Japs and return something far more valuable than all-the-tea-in-China:  Pride.

It should be no surprise that the Mission attracted its share of big-shots.  The leader of the first Flight was Brig. General William Old, one of the architects of American air power in the CBI.  The second Flight was lead by Colonel Harry Melton, a West Point grad with a slew of missions under his belt.   The third Flight was lead by—well, his name isn't important right now.

So, the three Flights took off toward the target, setting up a course that shot almost straight east-southeast toward Sumberbohm—some hundred and sixty miles away—where the Japs would soon learn who the real Boss was.

Now, there's something more you should know about the concept of a Flight.  A Flight has four airplanes—two Elements of two, of which one of the pilots is the Flight Leader.  It is the Leader's job to lead the rest to the target.

Ok.  If you've ever flown in a small airplane, you know that the machine, especially at altitudes below 20,000 feet, is subject to the lifts and sinks of air currents.  Like a boat on water.  For a flight of four, flying in formation (about 10 feet apart) is not as easy as driving four cars down the freeway.  It's focused business.  Drift a little this way or that and a collision can happen.  Or you fall away and expend precious fuel and focus to get back into place.  It's complicated, but the pragmatic, hammered-home truth is that being IN Formation was good.  Out was bad.  And follow the leader.

I hope this aspect of Aerial Discipline is fully appreciated because what happened next is a moment of supreme...unfairness.

Taking off into the vast, cloud packed aerial sea,  General Old's and Colonel Melton's Flights found each other.  Chris's Flight, lead by Major Nameless, however, somehow missed the others.  It wasn't for lack of trying; the Major wanted nothing more than to find the rest. Not only for the effectiveness of the mission but getting lost with "The General" up front could not help the Major's career, 'know what I mean?

So, the third Flight weaved, searched, looked, circled...and in that process of never-finding the rest , three terrible things happened.

1. The bomb-laden airplanes burned a prodigious amount of fuel.  So much fuel, they soon reached the point where they could not return to base.

2.  Chris's wingman caught a glimpse of the other Flights and peeled off to join them.  Without letting the rest know.  Ugh.  (This was verified after the war).

3.  The Flight Leader doomed the flight with a single act of arrogant insecurity.

Here's how it went down.

But one last time, hold that thought because you need to now take another look at the map above.  Notice the green hills?  That's not the picturesque stuff of New England.  They're the Kachin Mountains and that green is a canopy of jungle.  Underneath are the rocks that cut their way North to the Himalayas (home of Mt. Everest).  Parachute into there?  You'll die.  Ditch your airplane in there?  You'll die burning (or at least have your bones crushed into shards).  And the enemy is down there.  Somewhere.

And, remember this is before GPS and maps of the area were not the rich photographic imagery that anyone can instantly click-to today.  The map looked more like the map below.  It doesn't tell you much, does it?

Umm...yeah.  Being lost over Northern Burma in 1943 meant you knew only one thing—you were in trouble.

Back to the Flight.

Chris, following a gut feeling, tucked up on the wing of Major Nameless, got his attention, and flying wingtip to wingtip, rising and falling in the mountain-heaved air, pantomimed with his hands that he knew where they should head.

"I can do this.  I can get us home!" Chris shouted through leather-gloved gestures.  "Let me lead!"

The Flight Leader then made a most regrettable decision.  Lost, embarrassed, pressured, he chose to honor his one last vestige of Control; he reached around with his left hand and flicked the Major's insignia on his collar.   In other words, he pulled Rank.

Oh.  No.   Major Nameless let pride prevail over facts...ugh.

He also sealed their fates.  While there remained debate as to exactly where they were on the map, one fact could not be argued—they needed to find a flat place to put their airplanes down.  All things considered (namely the rocky peaks below) the first smooth spot to be found was the only option.  And there it was—a rice paddy at the foot of where the peaks and hills transitioned into a giant, ancient valley.

One by one, the three pilots resigned to their plight.  Chris and another pilot picked a rice paddy while Major Nameless chose a sandbar in the narrow nearby river.   All three bellied-in in a strap-straining grind of metal and dirt...close your eyes and see if you can imagine the chaos of neck-snapping deceleration, the howls of bending metal, the slurp of mud... then the sudden silence of halt while the hot engine sizzles the wet away...

It had to be horrible.  First mission.  Got lost.  Someone wouldn't listen.  Ditched on the enemy's door.

Ok.  Take a deep breath.

The photo above is Chris Morgan, circa 1943.  Have a good look as this will be the last we see of his fullness of face and healthy glow.  In three days, he will be captured by the Japanese and experience the wrath of these cruelest of captors.

And all because Major Nameless...

Stop right there. If you're like me, you're fu'll of vinegar for the Major and every other lump-head "Leader" that's lead you astray.  Bastards; every one of them.  Right?  And this story won't get better.**  But, the very reason I get to complete the tale at all is because I promised Chris that we wouldn't dwell on the pain.  Or the suffering.   Or the stupid things people do.

Like I wrote, you cannot guess where this story is going.


So please.  Stay with me on this.

I won't lead you astray.


*The names of every man mentioned in this story are known.   A good researcher can probably have them in an hour or two, too.  But for this particular telling, it does no good to name them.

**Actually, it does.  It just takes...well, you'll see.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Profile 85 - BEGINNING: "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS.

"They didn't even get to try..."

Wedding day tragedies, first-time skydiving accidents, straight-off-the-lot car crashes—these are the "worst" of stories, don't you think?  There's nothing so horrible as seeing hope and opportunity ripped from a person; injustice and unfairness inflame anyone with a conscience.

Well, have look at "030" because she represents just such a story.  But right now, a little background is in order.

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre remains the least-remembered major Theatre of WW2.  Of course, the shark-mouthed P-40s of the American Volunteer Group are a permanent part of WW2 lore.  However, the Theatre itself, with its Chinese duplicity, Japanese conquest, British defeat and American frustration, remains a mere paragraph in the "book" of WW2.

This oversight is not for lack of action or drama.  In fact, the typical history nut, upon discovering the Theatre, is inevitably astounded at the depth and breadth of all-things-warfare.  And if it's "personality" you're looking for, the CBI's starring characters rival Hollywood's Patton, Rat Patrol or Colonel Kurtz.  Don't believe me?  Look up the names Wingate, Stillwell and Chennault

"Why don't we learn more about the CBI?"

The fact is, I don't know.  Maybe the CBI's forgotten status is due to the wretched climate. After Guadalcanal, what reporter would want to continue on?  Maybe the awful insects and disease had something to do with it; would you like some dysentery with your malaria?   Maybe the Japanese victories didn't help the war effort back home or maybe Chiang Kai Shek's Chicago-style corruption would have utterly offended a generation coming off the Depression... who knows?

But the fact remains—WW2 was fought in the CBI in typically bloody, icky, gruesome fashion and American aviators were there in force.

Ok.  Getting back to those tales of woe.

Being a Prisoner of War (PoW) has to flat-out suck.  But like everything, there are degrees and on the WW2 PoW Treatment Scale for allied prisoners, the Japanese were the suckiest.  How sucky?  Well, 40x worse than the Germans!

Let's roll the numbers.  According to a U.S. Navy study, 90-some thousand U.S. military prisoners were interred by Germany in WW2.  Just over 1,000 died in captivity, resulting in a 1% death rate.  But.  The Japanese held 27,000-some U.S. prisoners and of those, 11,000 died.  That's over 40%.  This time, read the number with feeling:  FOUR. TEE. PERCENT.

Fast forward a few years and I'm talking to Bill Creech of the 528th FS at a bar in Washington D.C.  He is explaining both times he was shot down—once over Burma, the other over China—and he shuddered when I asked him what he would have done had he been captured.

"Rumor was they would eat us."  EAT?!  Really?!  (deep breath, swallow hard) Really.*

So I asked Bill if he knew any ex-POWs of the Japanese that I could talk to.  After a scrunched face and a little hesitation, he gave me a name.  And a number.  And I called.  And the resulting conversation was as if I poked a chained bobcat with a hot wire.  The pilot slammed the phone on me after hissing that he had spent all of his life trying to forget and what right did I have calling him up...

Later, Bill apologized to the effect of  "Sorry John.  I knew he never really got well but was hoping he would talk to you and get it out."  Two weeks later, I got an eloquent apology from the pilot with the firm request to never contact him again.

Fast forward a few more years and I, like so many, read Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken."  Of course, my mind went back to that ex-POW I'd talked to and wondered if I could ever find any surviving POWs of the Japanese to interview.  Not for the gory details—after a while, that stuff becomes like pornography and does the soul no good— but to learn how they survived...

Ok.  Take one more look at the sketch above.  "030" was one of 40 A-36's sent to the CBI and soon, I will clothe her with the simple livery she wore on October 16, 1943.  It was a red letter day of sorts, the first combat mission of the 311th Fighter Bomber Group and the first combat mission of her pilot, Lt. Chris Morgan.

Chris didn't come back from that mission.  He was downed due to a regrettably poor decision on the part of his Flight Leader and became a PoW of the worst captors a man could imagine.

Tragic, right?

Stay tuned.

*Empty stomach?  Click here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Profile 84 - FINAL: "573" as flown by Bob Mock and John Stiles

The peasant in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail was correct-rocks really do float.  And not just the really small ones but the big ones, too.

It's a bizarre process.  A complicated recipe of forces shift, blow and nudge to move big rocks upward through the earth where they breach the soil like a released cork popping to the surface of a lake.  But, to be clear, it's not as dramatic.  The process moves itself along at a glacial pace, millimeter by millimeter.

Don't believe me?  Ask a farm kid if the Spring job of "picking rocks" ever ended.  Or, ask if the rocks got progressively smaller over time.  The answer to both will be "No." (and followed by a groan of frustration).

Alright. Have a look at 573.  It's an RF-4C Phantom flown by pilot Bob Mock and weapons systems officer John Stiles during the Vietnam War.  The "R" in the name stands for reconnaissance; the military application of the word is taking recording activities of the enemy for future action.  In other words, the RF-4C was a camera plane and its job was to take incriminating pictures.

Look at the nose.  See the black trapezoidal shape? Notice the subtle bumps under the nose?  These are the portals for cameras—brilliant cameras that could focus and record tiny actions with incredible detail.  As a point of reference, the picture below was taken in 1944 by recce pilot (pronounce: recky) Burt Hawley.  I have an original print and the clarity is AMAZING.  Imagine what the cameras of nearly thirty years later could do!


On January 20, 1972, Mock/Stiles were out looking for SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) launchers. The missiles were mobile, pulled by trucks, and protected like a Mad Max convoy of anti-aircraft guns and ground personnel.   Spotting these convoys was obviously a high-risk job; alone, unarmed, the R-F4's only real defense was moving fast and returning to base with the damning proof.

So, spotting such a convoy, the duo made a camera pass—about 4,000 feet above—and turned to reposition themselves for one more photo run...  

Ok.  Time to switch gears for a moment.

SAM missiles were complicated, expensive and, if I can use the word, precious to the North Vietnamese.  Acquired from the Russians, these giant rockets were no mere deterrent; they were intended to destroy American airplanes with a surety and terror that couldn't be matched by a hail of smaller calibre machine gun bullets or artillery shells.  Remember, as wasteful as War can be, it does tend to honor efficiency!

So, ironically, the SAM convoy was protected by smaller calibre 37mm cannon.  These guns would spew their explosive bullets, about 1 to 2 per second, at the enemy aircraft above.  Now, the ratio of 37mm shells fired to each one that actually hit a target, has to be a ridiculously lopsided number.  Likewise, like hunting ducks, the job of being an anti-aircraft gunner required natural ability as well as practice.  Being that this was war, gunners varied in quality.  Inevitably, the mediocre were many and the expert were few.  So, when Mock and Stiles noticed the glowing darts reaching up like fireworks, they weren't afraid.  They had learned to adapt to the gesture via a combination of simple maneuvering and the practical knowledge that the gunners would, most likely, miss.

(Click to enlarge)

But then...

BANG!  573 was smacked sideways as if hit by a titanic baseball bat!  The force required to move 19 tons, moving at 500-some miles per hour sideways is enormous—imagine what it would take to do something similar to a car speeding down a highway!  However, the explosion didn't merely move the Phantom into the other lane, it also flipped it over, sending it spinning like a frisbee.  Upside down.  It was pure, unmitigated chaos.  BANG!  Just like that!  And in case you're trying to visualize what 573 is doing in the air, know that 19 tons of flightless metal doesn't glide.  It plummets.

Ok.  If anyone doesn't believe in the value of "practice," they have either never understood Success or they are absolute idiots.  What happened in the cockpit of 573 after that incredible hit is yet one more testiment to the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared."  Spinning, upside down, disoriented, dropping to earth like a rock, Mock and Stiles spent their next SIX SECONDS readying for the ejection.  Keeping calm, going through procedure, taking stock...

What exactly did they do?  No idea.  The specifics are lost to the ether of time.  But this much is known—Bob managed to flip the dead Phantom onto its belly, allowing the ejection sequence to trigger just as the tips of the trees were crossing the edge of the cockpit...

And BLAST!  A wave of heat pushed smoke, cinders and, of all things, insects into John's face as he caught, snapped and swung from a tree, just over the flaming metal carcass below.  And the enemy, of course, saw it all happen and were hot on the trail.

Fast-forward:  Fortune favored Mock and Stiles.  Though deep within enemy territory, they were snatched up by mercenary helicopter pilots flying under the CIA "Air America" program and hauled home.  But the RF-4C was buried where she landed.  The official cause of death for 573 was listed as 37mm cannon fire.

Ok.  If you've been reading this blog at all, you know that there's a MiG in this story. 37 years later, while researching his own Vietnam story, General Dan Cherry (ret.) met the North Vietnamese fighter pilot that he had shot down, NVAF fighter pilot, Nguyen Hong My, in Hanoi.  The MiG was Dan's one documented aerial victory. However, Dan discovered that Hong My had an aerial victory himself.

Time for a pause.

You probably get where this is going, so I'll be brief:  for 37 years, John Stiles was under the impression that he had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire.  But in 2009, through Dan's meeting with Hong My (and a little digging here and there) resulted in the inescapable conclusion that 573 was actually Hong My's aerial victory. 

So what does this mean?

Getting back to those rocks that inch and ache their way to the surface, it meant that John Stiles was not the victim of a spray of semi-random shells but the willful, single intention of a man.  To a Warrior, there is a difference. One could be rationalized as a roll of numbers.  Bad luck, perhaps.  But to know that the killing blow was calculated and delivered by an unseen stalker, and know that that same stalker was still alive...?!


I can't imagine what it must be like to revisit an uncomfortable, but resolved past with a new host of could-haves, should-haves, what-ifs and why-nots.  John, in fact, didn't like it.  And it only got more distasteful when Dan called him up one day and suggested John actually meet Hong My!


In a few weeks, John Stiles is going to Hanoi to meet Hong My.  Now, it won't be the first time the two have met; they got that awkward moment out of the way back in 2009.  But it will be the first time John has set foot on Hong My's home turf.

It took 37 years for the truth of John's shoot-down to come to the surface.  That is a long time.  Do you think though, that anything else has worked its way up, too?

Hmmmm.  I wonder.  And, to that end,  I plan on finding out because I get to go along.  With a video camera.

Stay tuned.

NOTE:   The expenses of this trip are, as you might figure, rather enormous.    That we have managed to raise so much of the money to go is a testimony to the incredible interest this story has generated.  But, if you would like to participate (as in please do!) click here