06 November, 2017

"South Dakota Warrior" - new OGTA episode

All I can say is this—no story has challenged my views on Leadership, Courage and Duty like this one.  There's more art and more story coming too.

But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy, "South Dakota Warrior - the John Waldron Story."

OGTA #11 - South Dakota Warrior: the John Waldron Story from Old Guys and Their Airplanes on Vimeo.

24 September, 2017

Profile 127: Hawker Hurricane as flown by... of 6 Sqn.

"We're scraping the bottom of the barrel, I'm afraid.  But at least we have this one."

Break break.

A quote has been making its way around screens—attributed to some ancient Chinese philosopher named "Lao Tzu"— that makes a bit of sense.

If you are depressed, then you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

It's great work if you can get it—but for me, though emotionally delicious, the quote rings to me as simply another platitude for this reason:  'the present' is an impossibly imperceptible moment birthed by the past for a yet-unknown future purpose.


In other words, sitting still (at least to me) is a waste of an incredible resource:  Time.

Have a look above.  Not at the meditating man but at the scrawl at the very top of the page—it's the opening pencil sketch of a Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV.

A little background is in order.  The Hurricane— or "Hurri" as they're sometimes referred—was one of the two principle British-designed fighters of WWII.  The other was the absolutely perfect Supermarine Spitfire.  It's no secret that the Spitfire remains one of the most outstanding (and beloved) combat aircraft ever.  But, it's also no secret—at least to History Geeks—that the Hurricane was just as great and hugely dissed by the rank & file of wing nuts.

Strong, uncomplicated, terrifically armed (one production variant had twelve .303 machine guns!) and   free of aerodynamic vice, there's little to criticize.  Surely, it was slow and had the aerodynamics of an oak tree...and sitting next to the lovely Spitfire, homely.  In many ways, the Hawker Hurricane is the Susan Boyle of fighters:  brilliant, wonderful, heartwarming but isn't (insert the name of any pretty face) more interesting?!

Ok.  Back to the story at hand.

The number of "WWII Stories" that are fresh and fascinating are simply all about GONE.  Like the quote at the beginning of this post, the barrel is not only empty, it's also dry save for insignificant specks that are so wedged into the woodwork, they're just not even worth the effort.

Still, picture me and another gentleman, torso's hidden in the cavernous empty of time's cask, magnifying glasses in one hand, tweezer's in the other, muffled voices of frustration...until...one says to me, "John!! Look at what we have HERE!"

And there, like stepping onto a crisp $100 bill resting on a busy Target® parking lot, lay a WWII story that had never been told, never been noted and at the same time, was absolutely present.

"And look!  There's not just one of them...there are THREE!"

Thus has begun an anxious scramble to capture a story that, by its scarcity and conditions will bring me no rest, no peace... only the wonderful hope that we all can read/watch a beautiful story before it's too late —that'd be depressing. :(

"Split Second" - OGTA episode

Jim Kunkle's P-38 has been a rewarding project... for one, it turned out pretty well.  For two, Jim was grateful for the gift.  For three, Jim's story is really fascinating.  Read here for more.

But, the fourth reason is the best—Jim's a great interview.

Last March, my show, "Old Guys and Their Airplanes" was fortunate to be able to record Jim talking about his Sept 16, 1944 moment.  On Sept 16, 2017 (73 years later) we have been able to bring the story to a greater audience.

So far, the stats have been remarkable—Jim Kunkle's "Split Second" episode has resulted in the fastest-watched, longest watched we've created.   If you haven't watched, and have 14 minutes to spare, you may see why:  it's simply a great story told by a great man.

OGTA #12 - Split Second - The Jim Kunkle Story from John Mollison on Vimeo.

14 August, 2017


It's a bit of good fortune to know that this is a "popular" blog.

However, it's shameful that other events conspire to make it look like I'm not valuing it the way I should - my apologies.  MiGs, Zeros, AC-130s, F8...all those are coming.

But I thought you should know that my distractions have been legit; we're finishing production of our next episode of Old Guys and Their Airplanes, "South Dakota Warrior."

We're working very hard to earn your patience...in the meantime, I hope the trailer gives you a bit of a thrill (it did ME—I was in the back of the Helldiver!).

01 June, 2017

PROFILE 126: IN PROGRESS - A6M2-21 Zero flown by...who?!

Just so you know, 'this' all starts with the scratch of graphite on paper.  The picture above is my pencil-work of a Mitsubishi A6M2-21 "Zero-sen" fighter aircraft, circa June, 1942.

Hold that thought.

The picture below is a cheesy auto-generated image from my t-shirt retailer, "Redbubble."  Click here if you want to know more.  But regardless, look past the nameless model's sultry awesomeness and focus on the message...


Want one?  Click here.

It's a phrase that I first-heard from a Vietnam War veteran who offered it up as a rationale as to why he wrote his memoirs.  Since then, it's become a brand-statement of sorts, telegraphing the motivation that drives me to "interview old guys and draw their airplanes." A Generation is only as good as the education they've received...and the lives of Old Men and Old Women are indeed "Libraries" that can provide the necessary knowledge and wisdom to build the future.

But, like any physical Library, the Library of one's life is useless unless its volumes are (metaphorically speaking), "checked-out."

So, back to the Zero.

Me, drawing, "filmed" for your amusement.  All-told, this one took me about 5 minutes.  I also used my 1/72 scale Corgi® die-cast Zero display model as a reference.  And as a tax deduction, too. 

Zero's are easy to draw.  In fact, if we ever meet, challenge me to sketch one; I guarantee you'll have a respectable rendering in less than sixty seconds!   But this particular specimen has been an exercise in hardship as the markings are impossible to verify.  Specifically, I'm trying to figure out an A6M2-21 that would have absolutely attacked VT-8* as it zeroed-in on the Japanese fleet on 4 June, 1942.

This means...

A. What carrier?  Why?  Because the fuselage stripes changed depending upon which IJN carrier the squadron was assigned.

B. What status was the pilot?  Why?  Because the stripes on the tail corresponded with the pilot's status as flight leader, squadron leader...**

C. What was the aircraft number?  Why?  Because "this" is ultimately the identifier of a specific airplane's moment in history.

And, more specific to the moment...

D.  What specific Zero pilots flew CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over the IJN fleet?  Why?  Because four IJN carriers had planes in the air on 4 June, 1942.  Some went to attack Midway Atoll, some were CAP and some where still on the carriers.

E.  Which Zero CAP pilots were flying at the time VT-8 made its run on the carriers?  Why?  Well, this helps me narrow it down all-the-more.

Typically, these kinds of questions aren't that difficult to figure out. Militaries tend to keep decent records and being war and all, the eyewitnesses tend to be plentiful and engaged.  Of course, there's room for dispute—after all, we're dealing with the enemy (right?). But, in this particular case, the definitive answers to my questions are impossible to answer as the eyewitnesses are dead and any physical evidence is lying on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Hmmm.  I do have this though...

This is the only substantive bit of flight ops for IJN Zeros on 4 June, 1942.
Dan King, author of the book "The Last Zero Fighter" translated it for me and it brought some
fascinating information to light.  I'll share what he discovered in the next post.
Graphic courtesy of Alvaro César Lino

Anyway, 75 years later, it sometimes seems that the only people who care about these things are  history-nerd-types who, at times, are willing to resurrect the war itself with arguments over one detail or another. Yet, if you're going to start WWII all-over-again (this time over a beer instead of a battlefield), 4 June, 1942 is a terrific place to start.   Why?  Because it's all-about The Battle of Midway (BoM).  As a refresher, BoM was the turning-point of the Pacific Theater in WWII.

For those that don't quite have a grasp on what it means to be a "turning point,"think about it this way:  if the BoM would have not happened as it did, WWII would have been prolonged.***

It doesn't look like much but it reflects about 25 hours of fussing around and in the end?  I'm starting over.

And, when wars are prolonged, the toll rises, costs increase and the pain continues.  Playing, "What if?", what if WWII would have gone on another day?  Another month?  Another year?  You—especially if you've got Pacific G.I. in your family line, might not even be here!

"Real life" Historians hate this game of "What if?"  So, to honor the "real life historians" that suffer through this blog, I'll stop.  At least for a month or two.  But nevertheless, you won't find a time in history so chock-full of miracle moments, mystifying circumstances, ridiculous leadership, heroic action and teachable treasures like The Battle of Midway.

Now, back to figuring out how to rebuild the long-burned-out library of at least one old man who's last chapter of life still speaks volumes today...

Same model, different shirt.
Want one?  Click here.

*I'm referring to the TBD-1 Devastators of the USS Hornet's VT-8.  True History Geeks will know that VT-8 was actually deployed in two elements with the second flying TBFs from the island base on Midway Atoll.

**This bit of information is potentially useless as maybe a Leader's particular airplane would be undergoing maintenance and another aircraft actually flown during the telling sortie.

***Ok.  Got me.  We don't know for certain if an alternate history of the BoM would have prolonged WWII.  But it's a pretty good guess.  And even if the lengthening were just one more day, isn't that extra day significant enough?  Ha!  The Red Herrings are schooling madly but at the very least, it makes you think, eh?

Reprise: Requiem for the Unsung; John DeBerg "hitched a ride" West...

Who do you want to make your hamburger?

Who do you want to fix your car?

Who do you want to remove your appendix?

Who do you want to write your Business Insurance policy?

I know who— the best one at the job.

There is nothing—nothing—more attractive than being excellent.

A couple years ago, I drew "Mary Pat," a B-17F assigned to the 385th BG.  At the beginning, the project was rather novel as I wasn't drawing it for any of the Flight Crew but for the Crew Chief; in essence, the airplane's chief mechanic.

John DeBerg never physically flew combat on the Mary Pat.  However, he undoubtedly participated in every one of the aircraft's 59 missions over Germany; 59 flawless missions over Germany.

Here—have a read of what the U.S. Army Air Force wrote about John's work:



JOHN R. DEBERG, 17037566, Master Sergeant, Army Air Forces, United States Army.

For meritorious achievement in the connection with military operations against the enemy from 17 July 1943 to 25 August 1944.  Through Sergeant DeBerg's proficient service, performed under many adverse conditions, his aircraft completed fifty-nine (59) consecutive operational missions against the enemy without having to return because of mechanical difficulty or failure.

This enlisted man, by courageously and wholeheartedly devoting his skill to a vital task, has made a noteworthy contribution to the successful record in combat established by his group..The initiative, resourcefulness, and devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant DeBerg reflect highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United Sates.

Put another way, DeBerg's service is the equivalent to...

...never screwing up the hamburger.

...never having the car break down.

...never botching the surgery. 

...never leaving a customer exposed.

And, just to be clear, DeBerg's work wasn't during the comparatively "easy" missions of late 1944/45, when Hitler's broken bones were justly pulverized.  Instead, John's birds flew the toughest—the ones where scared flight crew learned their trade, enemy flak and fighters were at their fiercest and manufacturers like Boeing were scrambling to improve their machines based on the urgent lessons learned from continuous combat.

So, now that there's some context here, did you whisper, "Wow..." under your breath?

So did I.

I like how John signed this print of Mary Pat at work.
Photo: The DeBerg family
Anecdote—having coffee with John, he produced a little hand-held gizmo and placed it on the table as a physical representation of his days.  It's called a "Disk Speed Indicator" and was used to measure anything that relied on precise rotary motion, be it the gyroscopes in a bombsite to the crackling rumble of an idling aircraft engine.

"I got to the point where I could hear what an engine was doing," he said, tapping the device.  "But I used this to check anyway.  We had to do it right, you know?"

What struck me was the man's sincerity.  He stated his concern as if he were still sweating out the return of 'his' airplane, knowing that if the flak and fighters didn't hurt the crew, sloppy workmanship would just as easily.

It's days like this that I feel so lucky in circumstance and inspired to be a better human.

And it's days like this that I wish would be more common.

But they aren't.  But they should, you know?

Anyway, last year, on 28 October, John DeBerg died.  However, it was only a few days ago that I found out; where had the time gone that I would have missed such news for six months?!  Did I miss an email?  A voice mail?!  (sigh) Regardless, the detail was lost on me.  Ugh.

In the end, the man was 98 years old and left behind a legacy of impeccable workmanship to machine, community, family and friend alike...

...and a welcome inspiration for the future.

And if you're interested in that kind of inspiration, Click.

John DeBerg's  Disk Speed Indicator and Bronze Star.
The chunk in the middle is a piece of German "flak" that did it's damnedest to  take Mary Pat out of the war.

PROFILE 127: IN-PROGRESS - AC-130A flown by "...the rest of the guys."

Bah!  I couldn't find it!  I just spent nearly an hour looking for what is—at least to my wingnutty mind—one of the greatest Saturday Night Live sketches of all time.

It aired on 21 January, 1978.  I was but a punk—a model-airplane building, patriotic punk—that stayed up late and watched TV.  So, when actress Jane Curtin actually evoked the hallowed name of "B-52," I snapped-to!

Here's the gist - SNL had a skit called "What if?" and it was centered around a ridiculous (but totally awesome) question regarding changing history.  In this sketch, the question was, "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at the Battle of Waterloo?"

This is all I could find of the "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at the Battle of Waterloo?" skit!
Dan Akroyd is the B-52 pilot with the silver helmet, John Belushi is Napoleon and Loraine Newman is Napoleon's wife, Josephine.
©NBC or something like that.  No idea who to credit. :(

Of course, imagination went wild; What if the Brits had a Vulcan during the Battle of Britain?  What if Patton had an A-10 in North Africa?  What if the Marines had F-18s at Chosin Reservoir?

And recently, on this eve of the 73rd Anniversary of D-Day, I wonder...What if Eisenhower had an AC-130A in 1944?

Have a look at the opening-sketch of an AC-130A.  It's being done as a Thank You to a guy who, for now, doesn't want any attention...and I'll get to that, later.

So, moving forward...

For those of you who don't understand all-things-AC-130, recognize this:  the airplane is a flying battleship.  First flown in combat in 1968 during the Vietnam War as a tool to halt traffic on the "Ho Chi Minh Trail,"  (actually more of a system than a single trail), the aircraft set a new standard of what could be expected from "air support."

Of course, the airframe is the iconic C-130 Hercules cargo plane that virtually every human being on earth has seen.  Since 1954, over 2,500 of the hulking heavy-lifters have been built, serving in just about any capacity, any where, in over seventy different variants.

Here's a really cool photo that I found.  It's the LC-130.  No idea what "L" means but for now, let's say it stands for LOOK'IT THIS!

LC-130 on snow/ice.  How cool is this?!
Photo: USAF
But the adaptation to "A" (for Attack) turns the workhorse "Hercules" into fire-breathing beast from the Dark Dimension.  This version is nicknamed "Spectre" but in terms of names, I think it's just a little understated.


Well...let me count the ways.  In one second, a typical AC-130A can spew 200 rounds of 7.62mm bullets (2 x 100 rounds/second), 84 rounds of 20mm shells (2 x 42 shells/second) and (about 2) rounds of 40mm shells (2 x 5 shells/second).  That's almost 300 rounds in the time you can say "Found'ya."

And that's for just the A-model.  Starting with the AC-130E, the aircraft have been equipped with 105mm howitzer cannons and the current model, (The AC-130W) is also equipped with a battery of missiles.  Though this may seem like ridiculous over-kill (pun intended), it's really rather reassuring because the USAF can target with incredible (and ironic) life-saving efficiency.

Watch the video below and then imagine my "What if?" scenario for D-Day.  I figure three, maybe four AC-130s would have effectively ended WWII in Europe in...maybe a day.


So, I'm at this party.  It's a hot southern summer night, I've experienced my first "Mullet Fry," (delicious!), the patio is a loud cackle of drawled conversation...great time...and someone nudges me and whispers, "John, y'all need to meet that gah,' nodding towards a shortish, blonde-haired fellow in a flowered print and baggy shorts.  'He flew AC-130s and I think he got a DFC in Panama."


"Yeah.  C'mon. I'll intruh-doos ya."

Two hours later, I'm in the party-shirted warrior's living room, looking at his wall full of memorabilia that read like a book of post-Vietnam military history.  I was blown away by just how little of it I'd heard about, too.


"Sure,you can tell the DFC story," he stated.  "But it's not my story.  It's ours.  It's about all of us."  He pointed to a picture of a very specific AC-130A and the listing of its crew.  "And every one of us gets a print, okay?"

"Yes'sir." (of course!)

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll get everyone to weigh in—it's hard to wrangle 14 people into a coherent conversation.  But I think I've got enough to tell a story you've never heard before and yeah, there's a big "What if...?" attached to it, too.

This is as far as I've gotten for now.  There's an extremely awesome logo I've got to paint on this beast's fuselage
that will take some serious practice. 

PS - This guy died recently.  He plays a pretty prominent "behind the scenes" roll in this whole story.

31 May, 2017

Profile 128: IN-PROGRESS MiG-19 of the 925th FR (pilot named in a month or so)

Behold!  My opening sketch of the MiG-19!

Well...actually, it's a Shenyang J-6—the Chinese-built version of the mostly-forgotten, mostly-troubled Russian combat jet.  Surely, it was the Communist Bloc's first bona-fide (i.e. level-flight) supersonic fighter.   But the original Russian design was also hampered by the problems that come from rushing technology into practice.  As a result (so they tell me), ruined pilot's days with alarming frequency.

It was the 'little things' that marred the airplane's reputation— such as locating the fuel tanks between the hot engines, lack of a dual-seat trainer version and a flight-envelope made of (metaphorical) Kleenex.

Anyway, here's a joke.

Two Russian "Ministers"* are standing at an air base, inspecting their collective work when suddenly, a thundering CRACK! shatters the frozen air...

"Comrade! Did you hear the glorious and revolutionary sonic boom?!"

"Perhaps!  But I think we should order another MiG-19 just in case!"

Aurora Model's plastic MiG-19 model circa 1955.  It doesn't look much like the real MiG-19 but Aurora didn't have Google back then, either.  Photo source: unknown
You can do your own research into the MiG-19/Shenyang J-6's problems but for this post's purposes, they're not that terribly important.  To be fair, the Chinese engineers also worked out many of the MiG's bugs, making the J-6 a more serviceable machine. What is important, however, is that this particular jet will be one of the 54-ish J-6's that the North Vietnamese purchased from China in 1968.

To put things in context, both the American and North Vietnamese Air Forces were working out strategies and tactics that had been hard-learned in the previous years. The NVAF's decision to acquire the J-6 reflected the fact that the MiG-17 was simply too-slow and didn't have the tech to effectively carry the latest Russian air-to-air missiles.  In other words, the MiG-19 was seen as a logical upgrade.

In the end, however, the J-6's tactical advantages filled a need that didn't materialize.   When aerial combat got low and slow, the MiG-17 was still the better gun fighter and when things got hot and fast, the North Vietnamese's more advanced MiG-21s were in their sweet spot (and STILL remained maneuverable!)   So, only one Fighter Regiment—the 925th—was equipped with the J-6 and placed at the airfield of Yen Bai, north north-west of Ha Noi.

This is an SR-71 photo of Yen Bai airfield circa 1968.  It was released by the Freedom of Information deal
in 2009 but obviously, no one in the department was informed that slapping a photo on a photocopier is a pretty lame way of sharing (normally) high-res pictures.
Ok.  Readers of this blog know my shtick—with very few exceptions, I only draw aircraft of pilots who are alive and willing to be quizzed.  So, guess how easy it is (these days) to find pilots who flew MiG-19s/J-6s in combat... uh, NOT.

But, I found one.

However, until I'm more comfortable with the language barrier, source materials and relationships, I think it's best to ask questions that don't require fact-finding and data-wonking.  For now, I'll stick with the "subjective" and ask questions about what it was like to fly this quirky jet against the USAF and USN.

These kind of illustrations are technically accurate but practically useless.  Still,  for 'spot in time,'
and extremely specific conditions/circumstances, it's useful.  Sorta.

In other words, stay-tuned, this is just starting.

Oh.  One more thing.  This particular piece is being done for an aviation museum's future Vietnam War exhibit.   If you know of a similar venue that may benefit from having a pilot-signed print to display, let me know, asap.  There will be a modest cost and I'd prefer it accompany my MiG-17 and MiG-21 pilot-signed art.  However, the finished work will be a rare curio into the life of a former enemy and certainly add a bit of novelty to a Vietnam War display.

Oh!  And what is there to know about this ex-NVAF pilot?

Good question!  All in good time...(patience, grasshopper).

Besides. I have a lot more work just getting the basics of his airplane down...

Thanks to Dr. Toperczer István (highly published author on all-things-North-Vietnamese-Air-Force) for the help in figuring out which references to trust.  He's already pointed out a few mistakes in prior work (ugh!) and this one will be my most accurate NVAF MiG to-date.

*In 1946, the Russian masters decided to eliminate the word Commissar and replace it with Minister. I think they should have stayed with Commissar as Minister sounds too Lutheran to me (and Lutheran evokes troubling memories of pot-luck dinners with carrot/lime-jello and sun-baked potato salad).

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.