16 June, 2021

Profile 153: TWENTY YEARS LATER...North American P-51B Mustang as flown by Robert "Punchy" Powell, 352nd FG, 328th FS


Twenty years of progress, five years too late.


This post is a little light in History but heavy in appreciating its value.


Twenty years ago, I began — in earnest — my practice of “interviewing old guys and drawing their airplanes.”   Of course, I’d been drawing airplanes since I was able to fist a crayon.  But by 2001, technology provided a whole new paradigm.   Thanks to WWII ace and American hero, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, I was given extraordinary access to the fellowship of WWII pilots and aircrew.  It didn't take long before realizing the value of these people’s lives stretched far beyond the skies of war...


It didn't take long before collecting a group of amazing friends and mentors that changed my world-view. They became the grandfathers I never had.  


Today, those influences are the bedrock to my psyche as well as providing me the means to affect many, many, many others.




That's me with "Third Greatest Fighter Pilot" (in the Universe) Bill Creech.
One of over 150 "old guys" interviewed.  

Funny anecdote - one day, Bill called up and commanded, "You've been interviewing me six years!  When do I get to see it?!?"

"Hmmm.  When I get it right!"

Bill Flew West in 2012.  And I'm still working on the interview.   


What started as a lark to learn leadership has turned into something unexpectedly greater.   I've drawn over 200 specific-moment airplanes and in some fashion, told their tale.  


True story - four years ago, I was spotted in an airport and asked, "Are you that guy who draws airplanes?!"  Since then, the recognition has only increased...and in the world of aviation artists, I'm not even one of the most popular!


"History" is becoming legit. :).  Good times, eh?


Anyway, I remember getting dogged at a Veteran’s event in 2005 by a sharp-eyed critic who pointed out that my drawings weren’t  anywhere near as good as other aviation artists, especially when it came to how I drew the most crucial aspect of an aircraft - the wing.  He said they looked like knives.  


WHAT?!


Yeah, well... he had a point.  I explained that sometimes deadlines to make an interview rushed things and wasn’t the real value of the art the pilot's signature??


    “Your wings look terrible!”


    “It doesn’t matter.  Punchy autographed it.”


    “Maybe.  BUT.  Your wings look like knives!”


Whatever.  Thankfully, a career in advertising had thoroughly beat my ego to hell.   I persisted with the interviews, the stories, the visits…and drawing their airplanes.  


Nevertheless, last year, the (gobsmackingly awesome) photographer John Slemp contacted me to use one of the very first printed drawings I’d done for a book he’s publishing featuring the iconic, painted leather jackets worn by so many airmen of the era.


He wanted to use my drawing of Lt. Robert “Punchy” Powell’s P-51B, “The West ‘by gawd’ Virginian.”


The answer was easy.  “Absolutely-freaking-NOT.”


    “Why not?”  


    “Because it’s awful.”


    “What?!”


    “The wings look like knives!”



Punchy with a piece of the actual nose art from his WWII P-51.  He was involved in a horrible accident right after take off that resulted in most of the airplane burning up.  Crew Chief Bob Lyons salvaged this piece of history and gave it to Punchy as a token of his good fortune. 

©John Slemp


* Break break *


Let’s be real.  I’m no Troy White, Marc Poole, Robert Bailey, Rick Herter… and I never will be.  And Punchy Powell helped me realize that when one afternoon we ended up talking on the phone for over an hour and never brought up WWII or aviation once. The art wasn't my passion.  The person, however, was.


The pilot of The West ‘by gawd’ Virginian was no longer just a hero.  He was a buddy.   


You know how fantastic it is to share friendship with someone who’s got three times the life experience that you do?  IN ADDITION  to duking it it out with the enemy at 25,000 feet?!


Jealous?  Stop it.   Do yourself a favor,  pick up the phone, write an email…and make time for coffee/beer/whatever with your own gray haired heroes.   And don’t stop.  Stick with it.   You’ll find that the secrets to success are as universal as they are pin-pointedly personal.


I remember Punchy describing how he felt that 80 years old was a new plateau for him; he’d just joined a medical research project to measure whether geriatric patients could build muscle mass. He and I walked Omaha Beach at low tide for nearly an hour — he described the D-Day landings from his vantage point, from take off to landing… and a press photographer following us had to stop on account of being exhausted trying to keep up.  


Could geriatrics build muscle mass?  Uh... yeah.  Thank gawd I don't skip cardio or else I'd been left in the dust, too.


Back to Slemp and his request.


Could he use my artwork?  No, at least not that one.  But if he would wait, I would do a new one.  Last week, I finished and  day'um...twenty years of practice has paid off!


The color is better...

The lines are more accurate...

The nose art is more accurate...

The markings are more accurate...

The wings don’t look (nearly as much) like knives...


Have a look — I've added a bit of time-lapse effect so you can see the difference yourself.


TWENTY YEARS OF PROGRESS.  No. Kidding.


But.  The progress, though obvious, has lost much of its luster in that Punchy and SO MANY of that initial cohort of WWII vets have “Flown West” as they say.  


On 22 June, 2016, five years ago, Punchy did just that.  I got the wretched honor of writing his (somewhat famous in that it went viral) obituary… read it for yourself, here.


You know, it's a shame that sometimes the inspiration for a thing doesn't get to see it's fulfillment.   Frankly, I think it's probably just-as-well that so many of "that generation" isn't here to see the anger, division and self-absorption that's come to represent America.   But I'm optimistic that the fruitlessness of our self-absorption will make itself known and we'll do the hard work to get back to more reasonable behavior.


But.  I hope it doesn't take twenty years to notice the difference. 


BLUE SKIES, Punchy Powell!   Tell the rest that we're all still working on it!*



Robert "Punchy" Powell in his leather jacket.  I've seen the galleys and it's going to be an AWESOME BOOK.   Look for it next year!  (Photographer John Slemp is still working on it...)


©John Slemp.


*I'm SO NOT religious but the Bible's Philippians 4:8 has some good words that I know Punchy would approve.


Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.   MSG


06 June, 2021

Profile 152: Martin B-26B Marauder as flown by Donald Wolfe, 391st BG, 575th BS

 


How cool is this?!?  — "You'n me" are partners in a priceless artifact of history!  


'Tell you what I’m doing to celebrate — I’ve got a date on the deck with some great friends, an adequate bottle of Willamette Valley Cabernet… and the weather weenies tell me that it'll be a gorgeous day.  If you've never experienced the sweet sun under the canopy of South Dakota skies, there's nothing like it!


Proof below.



A Canadian Harvard Mk. IV perched under a canopy of South Dakota BLUE. 
"No it isn't!  It's a T-6!"
"Uh, no it isn't!  It's a Harvard!"
Oh the stupid things we argue about, eh?
(it's a Harvard, btw)

©Me

Ahh... fat, happy and rich.  That's the way we roll, eh?

Anyway, back to that priceless piece of history that you and I own together.  It's not the red-tailed Harvard Mk.IV trainer in the photo above.  That's the proud possession of a buddy who cares for it like the treasure it is.  He'll never sell, either.

Neither is it the artwork of the greenish Martin B-26B Marauder with the peculiar black & white stripes* on the fuselage.  That's actually the bomber that South Dakota native Don Wolfe flew during WWII.  It was commissioned by two guys who wanted to honor the man and his family.  

Actually, the priceless piece of history that we own is the darkly ominous photo shown below.  


Our priceless artifact!  Yay!
This photo and everything about it is public domain.  What does that mean for you and me?  It means that the 'rights' to this moment in time are shared by EVERYONE.

Feeling rich?


It's a photo taken from a landing craft that had just deposited E Company of the 1st Infantry Division onto "Omaha Beach," during the Normandie landings of D-Day.  History nerds will know the day well - 6 June, 1944, seventy seven years ago.
 
Someone named the photo, "Into the Jaws of Death" and rightly so — in a few moments, over 2/3rds of the people depicted will be casualties of war.  A few months later, at the close of the battle (generally agreed to be the end of August, 1944) — well over half a million casualties, including 20-30,000 civilians, will have been killed or wounded. 

So, um...yeah.  The photo above is the "priceless artifact of history" we all own.   How so?  As a the photographer, Robert F. Sargent,  was serving as a photographer in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, he surrendered his legal ownership to the image as part of his military service.   Thus, this photo falls under a legal metric called "Public Domain."  This means that the rights to this photo is assigned to the general public — so, we all share in its ownership with rights to value it as we wish.

Please have another look at the photo.  A whole lot of people paid for it.

Oh.  That got heavy quickly, didn't it?



The hand-off.

The past meets present, patron meets pilot; proof-positive that 'young-people' care about their past.

©2021 used with permission from patrons.   



Guilt-trip?  Not a bit.  Guilt is a dumb choice as it just makes people depressed and unproductive.  However, living up to ones legacy is a smart choice as it inspires us to live up to what we've been given.

So, tell you what.  Today, let's you and me put the glass of wine/beer/soda/fizzy-water down for a few moments, look towards the northern coast of France and remember the day when leaders and followers of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Greece, Denmark, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway and France put self-interest aside and charged into the maw of tyranny.

Then, lets toast to our good fortune...and if we end up weeping for the souls that paid the tab, so be it — in the currency of humanity, tears outweigh gold.

Today is a great day to think deeply about what it means to (as the title of Don's artwork states) "Live as if you'll never be forgotten."


*Those black and white stripes are commonly called, "Invasion Stripes" and were hastily applied to aircraft flying over the Normandy area so nervous gunners would know friend or foe.  

17 May, 2021

Profile 150: (UPDATE) Boeing B-17G-20 as flown by (Shhhh) of the 390th BG, 569th BS



This post is in response to two reader's recent questions regarding my work. 

Q:  How many people does it take to draw an airplane?

A:  It depends.  But in this case, seven!

I can't name-names but on a typical-bases, here's the break down:

1. Patron(s)


Click here.  It tells the story of "Patrons."

You've heard the expression, "Starving Artist"?   Yeah, well being an artist is great.  Starving only works for super-models.  So, I work to get paid, hence my appreciation for the word, "Patron."

But the Patron does more than simply bankroll the project.   The Patron is actually the vibe-setter which, is  absolutely as important as having a check that 'clears.'

Patrons are individuals, organizations — sometimes families — that originate the idea that "we need to make sure (insert name) gets memorialized.  Nevertheless, most of what people have heard about 'creative types' is true; we can be mercurial, capricious and (sometimes) clueless.  Thus, a Patron also establishes "Why" the project is important as the "why" is the bedrock that supports getting the project started and completed (on time).

In this particular case, the Patron is an organization that desires to honor a living WWII veteran currently playing an extraordinary role in his community.  More on that later (and you'll like it)!

Nevertheless, when a Patron contacts me for a project, he/she/it begins what is called a Commission.  But, Commissions are simply marching-orders.  The 'work' needs to begin!


2. Promoter(s)


That'd be "Heath'uh."*
She's the grand daught'uh of WWII ex-POW Chris Morgan.
To me, she personifies "Promoter" as she connected me with Chris
and has been a tireless supporter of his story.  She's shown in Burma (Mayanmar)
at the grave of Chris's friend, Jim Drake.  Click the link, watch the film.  Don't be "...dead by Christmas", ok?


Promoters are the support-folk behind the Patron.  They're employees, family, friends that help make sure the Commission proceeds as desired, as needed. 

Promoters help with research, obtaining reference material (historical photos, artifacts, lining up conversations...).  Promoters also end up with making sure the desired audience is aware of what's going on.  Sometimes that means email blasts, social media campaigns, media interviews... and sometimes putting a lid on the whole deal.

True story:  a Patron (whom I never got to actually meet) told one of his/her/its employees to "...have (me) draw my airplane as a gift for "Tom Smith."  I ended up working with a woman who had no idea what I was actually drawing but had a perfect idea of what needed to be done.  She was firm, direct... and when the drawing was completed, she let me know in no uncertain terms that 'this project' would be kept wholly secret and forever (otherwise) unknown.   Hmmm, a mystery! 

Secrecy or not, without Promoters, the art doesn't stand much of a chance to get anywhere beyond my desk.

In this case however, the Promoters definitely want to make this B-17 drawing a big deal. Once completed, there will be NO mystery.  But for now...  (nothing to see here, move along)

Except someone's got to make sure it's right, right?  After all, B-17s had purple tails, right?

Uh, say hello to...


3.  Rivet Counters(s)



94.36% of the time, Rivet Counters become the crucial players in a project.


Out in public, Rivet Counters are otherwise-invisible people we pass in the grocery store aisle, ignore at the intersection stoplight or never really engage at the office.  Faceless and nameless, they putter through life doing this/that until...

...their precise, technical, historic encyclopedia of knowledge is needed!  Then, they spring to power like the superheroes they are. In this particular case,  three RCs have provided crucial commentary to ensure that the coloration** is correct.  The markings are correct.  They weathering is correct.  The shape is correct...

Bottom line:  without the RCs, my artwork stands a great chance of being far worse than it looks.  True-story:  the RCs that help with my projects are diverse and legion; they're located in England, Ireland, Finland, France, Germany, Vietnam, Hungary, Australia, Japan... and of course the United States.

I love RCs.  They also drive me nuts.  Especially when they reveal a fatal flaw two hours before a press check! Just for the record, I have a few RC tendencies but there's a reason I like the full-blown versions hanging around the Studio.

Nevertheless, there's a time when the critique must be closed and the artwork sent to...


4.  Vendor(s)


The TBF-1C I drew as flown by Ben Phillips, VMTB-134.
It has JUST come off the XEROX 800 press. 

My style is not "fine art."  As much as I'd think it'd be amusing, there will never be a private exhibition/wine tasting/Ferrari Concours to 'feature' my work.  What I do is made for (low) quantity production. And, as it's a representation of a physical, defined object (as opposed to impressionist or abstract artwork), "it is, what it is." 

But, that doesn't mean the artwork doesn't have extraordinary value. People put it on the wall for their own inspiration — oftentimes, for totally different reasons:

"Grandpa's airplane."
"I love America!"
"A time when people came together."
"I love (insert aircraft name)!!"
"Something to remind my clients of..."

The moment I get Commissioned, my first thought is, "How many people will want this piece?"  To that point, I become dependent upon the technology, skill and quality of various sorts of printing operations.  

Ink formulations, paper composition, packaging are technical details that have a boggling number of permutations that totally affect the finished piece.  The vendors that reproduce my artwork are among the very, very best in their professions, having experience that span decades.  Additionally, they're people who truly share the passion for what we're all trying to accomplish.

True story: a partner of a particular vendor came into work on a Sunday morning to supervise a particular job to meet a particular deadline.  Remarkable?  Yes.  But that he was in the middle of excruciating chemotherapy and needed help getting into the shop from his wife is even more so.  RIP, Terry***.  You will never, ever be replaced...

Nevertheless, after the printing press ceases its work and all the prints are nicely 'jacked' and sealed, my airplane drawings are about to meet their moment of glory via...


5.  The Story.


Ben Phillips, pilot of the last TBF Avenger produced by Grumman, signs
my prints.  They were once ink-on-paper. 

Now?  They're historical artifacts.

At last count, my art is in museums, galleries and collections in fourteen countries.  Is it because I'm a brilliant artist?

Nooooo. 

Do you know how many people draw airplanes?  Lots.  Do you know how many are better-at-it than me?  Lots.  Four names come immediately to mind — Marc Poole, Rick Herter, Ian Garska and the AMAZING ROY GRINNELL...   

The power behind my distribution is fueled by the STORY behind it.  And that story is embodied in the signature of the person who made the story human.  There is no mistake: this is what Patrons (and their audience) truly want to see.  I could draw an airplane with a Q-tip™ dipped in nail polish and if the eyewitness-to-history signs it, the work steps out of 'art' and becomes an artifact.

People want to be inspired by this real connection and that's way beyond  anyone's involvement.  Frankly, it's especially great for me because it makes sure that any artist-ego I have is rightfully checked at the door.  

We stand on the shoulders of giants, eh?  A humble spot, but from here, if the sky's clear, we can see for miles!




So, that all being said, you should see the next "Progress Update" on this B-17!

Many hours span the distance between the progress-shot at the top of this page vs. the one below.  But if I've held your attention, you'll also see that those hours have included a terrific group of people, hand-to-plow, for the purpose at hand.

So... when will it be finished?  

In the next post, I'll show the next-to-last update as well as delve into the actual history of the aircraft. 

It will also be the the last one before The Event.  There won't be exotic cars on the lawn, exquisite Bordeaux or impossibly dressed art-types.   But, there will be grateful souls coming together to remember a fantastic moment in history and the life-long service of a remarkable man.

You're invited and there'll be more than a few that will like to meet you — the fact that you're reading this post at all means that somehow, some way, you're already part of the team.  

Please put the 390th BG Museum on your to-do list for 26 June, 2021.  And if you can't make it to Tucson, we'll see about live-casting the moment.

Details in the next post.

HA!! DON'T LOOK.

An RC totally trashed this to the point I had no spiritual recourse other than to redo it.

The next update is better.

Promise.  You can go back to your lunch, Bob.  Thank you.  And go away.  For now.



***


*Chris Morgan spoke with a (very) New Yahk accent.  True story - he left a message for me on my phone a few weeks before he died.  I have kept it and periodically listen just to bring back the powerful memories of a good man.

**Coloration.  Ha.  Don't get me started on what-color "Olive Drab 41" really was/is.  History writer/pundit Barrett Tillman once told me, "Nothing is true in markings!"  Paint two P-51s with the same lot of 1943-spec Olive Drab paint, ship one to rainy, cool England and send the other to muggy, hot India and in two months, the airplanes will look like they're world's apart.  Which they were. 

***What is it with Printers in that they simply can't stop working?!?  If you know one - especially the old-schoolers who have real ink jammed up their (oft tobacco stained) fingernails, send them some love & appreciation.  But hold your critique; they'll never slow down.  Ink is in their blood. 



12 May, 2021

Profile 150: Boeing B-17G-20 as flown by (Shhhh) of the 390th BG, 569th BS

 


Wait wait!  Don't look at the above yet!

Let's do some History Learnin! 


Trigger warning!  This graphic may offend lazy Jedi™ gym coaches.

(clears throat)

How many WWII veterans are alive today (12 May, 2021)?

Let's figure it out!

According to the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, at the end of September last year* (2020), there were 325,574 WWII veterans alive; roughly .001% of the total U.S. population of 333,000,000.

So, that means, last year, in a community of 100,000 Americans, 100 will have been (statistically) WWII veterans.  

However, the National WWII Museum did a little mathwork and came up with the graph below.  Assuming they used middle-school level statistical analysis, they predict that about 25% of that 325,574 will have passed into eternity by the end of September of this year (2021), leaving approximately 242,000 WWII veterans alive.

Have a look.

More here.  Gotta love the National WWII Museum! 


Considering that we're splitting the difference, let's say that this means today, 12 May, 2020, in a community of 100,000 people, about 85 will be WWII veterans. 

Next question.

How many living WWII veterans are combat veterans?

Well now.  That's a completely different question! 

I remember spending time volunteering for "Honor Flight" (a program providing WWII veterans a trip to see the Washington D.C. monuments to their service).   The number of veterans that fulfilled administrative, non-combat roles were high.  I met a LOT of typists, clerks, messengers... of course, their service was absolutely important to the 'war effort!'   But, when it comes to the visceral imagery of "war," the imagination only visualizes the tip of a very long, complicated spear.  

Starting with today's generally accepted percentage of 10% of military service people actually get deployed to a combat zone, the number who experience mortal combat is mercifully low.  However, in WWII, a much larger number of personnel were deployed overseas - about 75%.  So, let's say 66% of those deployed overseas were actually deployed in a combat zone.

Going back to our hypothetical community of 100,000, of the 85 WWII veterans alive, let's figure 56 will have been combat veterans.

Next question.

The most influential person in my career, WWII fighter (triple) ace, Clarence "Bud" Anderson. He not only gave me my start as a writer/drawer/filmmaker, he's alive and well at 99 years of age!

If you know who he is, you know he's an absolute American hero of the highest order. If you don't know who he is, click here.


How many living WWII veterans are combat pilots?

Hmmmm.  Ok, this is getting challenging!

But, if we take the USAAF (United States Army Air Force) the number of service people who made the grade of Pilot was 200,000 — of course there were more Navy/Marine pilots but for right now, let's just use USAAF.

Figuring 16,000,000 Americans served in WWII, that means .012% were USAAF pilots.  Figuring that today (12 May, 2021) about 280,000 WWII veterans are still alive, about 3,000 of them are pilots.  Using 66% as our 'combat' number, that means 2,000 pilots are combat pilots. 

Going back to our hypothetical community of 100,000, of the 85 WWII veterans alive, the number of combat pilots in that number is practically ZERO.

* break break *

A few years ago, a Vietnam War veteran answered my question, "So, why did you publish your memoir?" with the darkly poignant reply, "Because my kids tell me that when an old man dies, a library burns."

Chilling quote, eh?

If you're like me, the data analysis is one thing but it takes the notion of seeing the value of a life's experience burn up in flames to really appreciate history!

So what's the value of a library?


My Challenge Coin.  If we ever meet, you will have a 20% chance of getting one.  

Thanks to Vietnam War F-4 pilot Richard Hilton for
the phrase and thanks to the "Geezers" of the Friday Pilots for printing a book
featuring their Life Wisdom.  The hard copy is SOLD OUT.  But the digital version
is in mercifully infinite supply (as long as the power stays on).


Hmmmm.  THAT is probably the best question to consider!

We'll start here.  Have a look above at my opening pencil sketch of a Boeing B-17G "Flying Fortress."  It's been commissioned to honor (the statistical improbability of) a living WWII combat pilot.  

And even rarer, the man, nearing 100 years of age, still holds down a job.  Gads, 'that generation' is a humbling one, don't you think?!

There's a push to get the art done in order to honor the man in a public ceremony; I will be working late and starting early to get the art done (as accurately as possible), printed and delivered on-time.  I'll try to get two, maybe three more posts here showing progress on the artwork as well see what we can learn from the man who flew it.

Until then, here's your library card, serial number 42-31603.

It's time to check out the life of... (stay tuned)








04 May, 2021

PROFILE 149: Cessna A-37B Dragonfly as flown by Col. Từ Đễ, North Vietnamese Air Force

 




"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
             - Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

This is how it came down.

I was on a rented shuttle bus, rumbling from Ho Chi Minh City to a 'farm' somewhere on/near the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. We were traveling to be the guest of one North Vietnam's great aviation heroes, Nguyen Van Bay.

There were eight of us — Rick Lingberg (heavy-lifter for the show "Old Guys and Their Airplanes"), ex-POW CAPT Charlie Plumb USN (Ret.), four ex-North Vietnamese fighter pilots, a translator and myself.

Rick, Charlie and I knew, maybe, four words in Vietnamese.

Our translator was (thankfully) AWESOME.

Anyway, one of the ex-NVAF pilots decided to start reading our palms. Charlie was seen as macho, tough and strong. Me? I was a weenie intellectual artist-type. Dang. It's not as if I hadn't heard that before but still...

...I was little piqued. So, I asked what made him significant and he replied that in addition to being a fellow macho, tough and strong fighter pilot, he partook of the raid on Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in 1975.

* break break *

We Americans do a horrible job of teaching/remembering The Vietnam War. IMHO, the moment (1964 - 1973) did more to affect American culture than anything since, including 'the internet' or anything the Kardashians have ever (ever, ever!) done.

However, recognize this: on April 28 of 1975, the American military was scrambling to evacuate all of its friends & family from South Vietnam while North Vietnamese forces advanced towards the capitol of South Vietnam, Saigon. And when I write "scrambling," I mean it! Think, "You've got five minutes to cram your life into a bag and meet me outside or else you're not going!"

What did that mean? Well, depending upon your perspective, Vietnam was about to be united or South Vietnam was about to fall. The United States was reneging on a sworn duty or the United States was finally finished with a grueling war.

Regardless of your point-of-view, one point remains clear: four North Vietnamese pilots used freshly captured South Vietnamese A-37s to attack Tan Son Nhut Air Base, located just outside of Saigon. At the time, the base was a whirlwind of activity as South Vietnamese and Americans alike, as I wrote before, scrambled to leave.

In spite of his palm reading skills, I was fascinated by the pilot's history. Of course, I offered to draw an airplane representing his service in exchange for an interview. It's taken a few years to finally make good, but I'm pleased to introduce you to Col.Từ Đễ, born 1949, MiG-17/Su-22/Su-27/A-37 pilot with 923 FR, veteran of Vietnam air war (1968-1975), former Vice Chief-of-Staff of VNP AD&AF Service, former Vice Head of Operational-training Department of VNP Army, (Ret.)

The following is our conversation, edited only (by myself) for formatting and clean up the most noticeable of grammatical/translation issues.

Btw - yeah, yeah... there will be argument on any number of points. My brand is built on hanging out with people who've experienced important moments in history. I don't hand out Report Cards and frankly, no one wants one from me anyways.



A quick pic snapped at Ho Chi Minh City - L-R, Vietnamese fighter pilots
Dr. Nguyễn Sỹ Hung, Col. Từ Đễ, General Le Hai and Charlie Plumb.


********************************

Me: So... tell me about how you grew up? What was your childhood like, what were your parents like?

Từ Đễ: My father and my father-in-law are both French-trained doctors, so they brought the French cultural model in the life and they are really good doctors. Besides basic knowledges, we have the chance to learn more on arts, for example, I was learned to be able to drawing, one my brother learned to play the violin, the youngest was to do sports. During the resistance war against the French, they all followed Ho Chi Minh and when the US involved to Vietnam conflict, they continued to fight against the US until the victory. I have been studying in Schools for 10 years since Hanoi had liberated from French(1954), furthermore, we received good teaching from the French-trained teachers an furthermore we got very early personalities: love of freedom, honor and deep love for the country.

My aspire was to become a military officer: brave, strong and disciplined like my father. In addition, as many young boys, I also want to be a good boy, that get attractive from girlfriend, because like a old Vietnamese idioms has saying: “Boys in wartime, girls in peacetime”


Me: So, tell me about how you got interested in aviation?

Từ Đễ: The way to enter the Air Force, it should be noted that, my generation was able to usually watch movies, photos, and books praising the Soviet Red Army in fighting with the German Nazi Facism. All of us as young people want to become a fighter pilots, but that dream seems a bit far-reached. Unexpectedly there was once, a my boy friend went to a selection committee and passed over the exams to be able to become a flight cadet, which made me decide to go to the medical examination to try to test my lucky fate, and surprisingly, yet I passed. At the beginning, I didn't dare to inform everyone, and only when I got an official call from Medical Committee I informed to my friends and especially the girlfriend, whom I secretly loved for a long time. At that time I was only 16 years and 3 months old. When you thought about a distant dream comes true, there is no great(er) joy.


Me: Describe your thoughts on (what you call) "The American War"...

Từ Đễ: Thoughts and impressions of the war with the US... I thought that when the French was defeated in Dien Bien Phu Campaign, then US would jump in to involve the conflict, it might has been that some plan-markers of the US thought that they had never lost to anyone during its history, so it would win this war. I think that the Vietnam must be fought and won this war to prove that Vietnamese people is not afraid of any invaders, either France or the US. In fact, in the Vietnam air war neither the Soviet Union nor the Chinese gave us any lessons and training courses in tactics and experience getting from Korean war, we had to find-out the way to fight against US Air Power by ourselves. The VNPAF pilots were very proud of their commanders of VNPAF at that time, the two our Lieutenant Colonels, who had to/confronted/faced/ with four/or may be more/ 4-star Generals of the USAF & USN for 8 years and won/get/the victories. That was a big surprise!

This is my drawing of Gen. Le Hai's MiG-17. The "PF" is similar but has
a big bump on the front of the nose to accommodate the additional radar.


During the war, I myself used to fly on MiG-17PF with radar that only detected targets at about 4 km range, but still took off at night time to find-out and destroy helicopters during the search and rescue mission of the US Air Force, of course, by the same time,- I became a target to be destroy by the USN's F-4B flying MiGCAP and escort missions. They managed to fire missiles at me twice with 4 AIM-7s, but I avoided them thanks to the tail alarm system, there (was once a near hit) from a missile that detonated at about 500 m away from my MiG-17. Realizing that our forces was small and weak, we only chose favorable opportunities to intercept and fight with US aircrafts, except the engagements on 10 May 1972, when the air engagements lasted throughout all day, and ending with the score of ratio 5 / 5.

In 2016, when former USN pilots visited Vietnam, I had the opportunity to meet F-4J pilots who attacked us at Kep airport that day (note: Mr. Curt Dose, living in San Diego).

In April 1972, I also witnessed the MiG-17 attack on two USS battleships, that were USS Higbee and Oklahoma City of the USN 7th Fleet on the coast of Quang Binh on April 19, 1972.

If an aggressive war happened now, I would have acted the same way, to protect our motherland, but I believe that our opponent will not be the United States.


Me: What can you tell me about your thoughts regarding the "War with the South"...?

Từ Đễ: On the conflict with the South... I still keep the idea of comparing this war with the Civil War of the South and North in United States (in the 18th century). It is a war to unify the country according to the wishes of the people of entire country. The mental consequences of any war may last several generations, but the country of Vietnam develops like it is today proves that our choose was right. And now an independent and unified Vietnam want to have friendly relationship with all nations in the World in peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual benefit.

Progress shot on Từ Đễ's A-37. It's a mess. I ended up redrawing about a third of it
because I had so much wrong. And at this point, I wasn't quite certain of
the markings anyways. 


Me: What can you tell me about how you acquired and learned to fly the A-37s?

Từ Đễ: When we took over/got in/liberated Danang airport, there is a pile of A-37s, F-5s aircraft and Helicopters that the South VNAF left at Da Nang airport (some sources figured a total more than thousand aircrafts and helicopters of South VN AF). With the assistance of the technical staff of the both VNPAF and the South VN AF captured technicians, we quickly picked up aircraft’s components from many aircraft and combined back to fit-up to be have two good flyable A-37s aircraft, that could be in operation status. in fact at that time we were experienced pilots, who participated in many air battle with American pilots, some time,-even we experienced our fly skills by making some adventurous flying movement in the skies/I don’t know exactly what in English called this action, but in Russian and Vietnamese air force language, we call it, "hooligan in the air."

Obviously, we are self-confident to fly steadily in all weather conditions, when operations away from the GCIs. In a very short time -with assistance of 2 captured pilots of the South VNAF - I had study the aircraft manual and got acquainted with the A-37B cockpit and was ready to have my first fly in A-37B.

I was the one assigned to be the first VNPAF pilot, that implemented first fly of the conversion training from MiG to fly in A-37B. This is the first inspection flight. With the initial feeling, I believe in the American aviation technical system (ease of use, high modular connectivity and high reliability). Thinking like this I confidently take the first test flight. This flight was accompanied by a captured- pilot of South VN AF- lieutenant Phạm Ngoc Xanh, and after only 15 minutes of flight, I was able to master of the aircraft, found the feeling of flight and quickly returned to the airport to save the flight reserve time for other VNPAF pilots. After those 15 minutes, I was the first person approved to successfully complete the conversion course from Soviet build-MiG into fly in US A-37B. The remaining MiG pilots in the squadron only flew 2-3 flights per person to complete the extremely short conversion course from the MiG soviet aircraft to the American A-37 aircraft(from 25 to 27 April 1975).

Fortunately, the A-37 has two seats, so each flight we can do training for two pilots. The very next day (April 28, 1975), we took off from Thành Sơn airfield, with 5 aircraft carrying 4 MK-82 bombs and 4 additional fuel tanks, flying and heading toward Tan Son Nhất airport . When taking- off from Thanh Son airfield, we had to turn-on the screen system/mode just from the take-off first stage in order to minimize the take-off run, because the plane was too heavy with maximum takeoff weight.

Regarding with the pilot’s parachutes used on this mission, we had to wear the MiG-17 parachutes instead the A-37 parachutes. The A-37's parachute is the (worn on the back), while the Mig-17's parachute is (one we sit on), so I have to bend down low to hold the aircraft stick, like character hunchback in the Notre Dame Cathedral of French Victor Hugo.



Attack leader Than Trung (left) and Từ Đễ post-mission - it's quite possible
this was a publicity photo. Credit: Nguyen Xuan At


After I finished bombing, I still followed Nguyen Thanh Trung* aircraft until he shouted that his bombs were went out, just I lost him in sight. Seeing Saigon from above look so beautiful I decided to take a round trip of Saigon downtown at a altitude of 300ft, this causing the anti-aircraft gun protecting the president building to drop red bullets when Saigon skies were getting dark. When I pulled- up, I suddenly saw a C-130 aircraft turning right after taking-off and flying to the sea, I followed, flying by at a distance of about 10-15 m. Thinking that the A-37 could threat and shoot at his aircraft, the pilot of C-130 got level and flew straight. Actually, I just want to tilt my wings to say goodbye to this friend/guy, “I wish you safe flight back to America ". I guess this vehicle was carrying civil evacuees and now the US troops were withdrew, so it was no longer an enemy aircraft.


Burning C-130 during the attack on Tan Son Nhut. 
Source: wikipedia

Actually, the war has ended, everyone should go home for their family-wife and children. Because I was spend fly time to ‘’cruising around the City center”, when I flew back to the airport, my fuel almost run-out, I had to turn off one engine when approaching the airport, and when I flying at a altitude of only 1 meter above the run-way, the other one also stopped. All five A-37B of my Squadron was landed safely, after accomplish bombing mission. God saved our life. Post-mission assessment point-out that actually we only need 3 aircrafts to bombs in the combat aircrafts storage, and rest two A-37 should use to bomb the parking area of the F-5E (in the night time of that đay,and in the next day morning, two F-5E flew to attack Thành Sơn airport, but getting not any damage to aircrafts and peoples).


Me: So, go into greater detail on your role in the April 28 mission...

Từ Đễ: I flew number 2 in a group of 3 attackers A-37, the two other assigned to support us, if we met the VNSAF F-5.By the way, I am not highly assessed the F-5 pilots, because they never really have any air engagement, and perhaps could not effectively fire airborne guns. Note: The USAF did not equipped with missiles for the South VN AF aircraft.

Since Trung had previously flown the F-5E at the Tân Sơn Nhất Airport, he was assigned to fly in the first position to indicate the target. But because during the attack Trung’s bombs didn't come out, so I decided that when diving to attack, i switched the bomb-switch from throwing a series to single-shot mode to indicate the target. Because I had seriously study the air navigation map of Tan sơn Nhất, so I have accurately image about the targets, and my indicating bombs were drop precise.



Publicity photo of North Vietnamese pilots post-attack. Leader Nguyen Thanh Trung is
far left, Từ Đễ is third from left. Clearly, these guys have the swagger of victors.
Note the motley mix of A-37s from various ex-South Vietnamese units... Credit: unknown


** break break **

Right now, a lot of Vietnam/American war veterans are reading this, pouring over Từ Đễ's words — this interview is historic for many reasons, not withstanding the fact that it's the punctuation of nearly thirty years of conflict. I respect Col. Từ Đễ as well as rest of history's witnesses. For me, this kind of interview is exactly what I hope to bring to the world.

However, recognize that wars are fought by people. If I've learned anything by interviewing old combat veterans it's that we are a fundamentally homogenous species. To know the "enemy" is to know oneself.

[Back to the interview]

Me: Let's just talk about airplanes. What's your favorite?

Từ Đễ: (It) is true that the aircraft (is) operated by pilot, so in my opinion, the Mig-17 is one of best aircraft. Later I flew in some modern airplanes like the Su-22/27, actually, the plane was controlled by a computer system, humans were interfered by computers so I didn't like it, and MiG-17 is the most favorite aircraft, the A-37 was also cute one.

(Personal note - I think A-37s are 'cute' in a squished-frog sort of way, too).

Me: So, what do you think it means to be successful in life?

Từ Đễ: The most important thing that I believe (helped) me to get success in life: Honesty and courage.

Me: If you could go back in time and visit yourself, what would you say?

Từ Đễ: If I can go back in time to the past, and could to tell myself something...I would say that, I still like to fly, and enjoy doing some adventurous flying movement in the skies, and ready to fought against any invader to protect my Fatherland.

Me: Who are the people you admire most?

Từ Đễ: The person that I most admire is my commander, Ace-pilot MiG-17, Colonel Nguyen Van Bay** (A). He is the legendary of VNPAF.


This is me doing what dorky intellectual-artist-types do when we get to
hang around people who've accomplished something - that's Nguyen Van Bay (right).


Me: So, what is then your greatest achievement?

Từ Đễ: My greatest achievement is having a harmonious, and happy family- through the war time –I should say thank my wife, who is my classmate-girlfriend more than 60 years ago and she is a Sen. Col. military doctor also.

** break break **

Last year (2020), I got to partake in producing a film, live Q&A and Educator's Kit (in partnership with the Distinguished Flying Cross Society) featuring Col. Marty Mahrt's famous rescue from North Vietnam on May 10, 1966.

Marty returned to Vietnam to serve with MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) where he helped with the evacuation of Saigon. He witnessed, first-hand, Từ Đễ's bombing run on Tan Son Nhut. I let Từ Đễ know of Marty's eyewitness experience and it fostered a connection that was brokered through email; I share it below.



Marty Mahrt c. 1965. Interesting that he'd STILL be in Vietnam TEN YEARS LATER.
Photo: USAF, courtesy Marty Mahrt.


[Back to the interview]

Từ Đễ: About Colonel Marty Mahrt seeing the group of A-37 bombing Tân Sơn Nhất at 28 April 1975-, It is very interesting and I would like to ask you to extend my best regard to Him. 

Taking this opportunity I would like to ask him a question. If he was at Tan sơn Nhất airport on the afternoon of 28 April 1975, so how you think about a point of time that the Commander of SGN AF realized that these A-37 are not friends, and the airport was bombed by North VNAF A-37? After that attack, did you go to the scene to see the results of the bombing, if so what would you see the situation at the airport at that time, and why does the CIA recommend using helicopters instead of air transport planes to carry-out the mission of evacuation,- causing public panic and creating a bad image of the chaotic evacuation of US Embassy and US staff (in these photos that were captured in that day in Saigon by some international photographers).

Marty Mahrt: I was loading the VNAF wives and their children on a bus to go to the processing center to depart. I saw 3 planes coming on initial and didn't suspect anything unusual until they went in to a dive angle. I shouted for them to unload and get under the bus. (The wives and children) were unharmed but the runway was in disarray and a C-130 was aflame.

The VNAF themselves were trying to evacuate, so they did not even try to retaliate. Most all the planes were being used to evacuate — the helicopters took many trips to the USS MIDWAY (aircraft carrier) which was stationed in the South China Sea. Some VNAF took their F5s to Thailand. C141s and C130s were used as well. It was chaos and we (25 officers) evacuated at 9 pm, leaving the area to the Marines to clear and burn the MACV headquarters. We were evacuated to the Midway and sailed to Thailand to safety.

***

Từ Đễ: Anyway, thank you for remembering and learning about the history of the air force of the two countries, that happened for so long time ago.

Me: You. Are. Welcome. (checks palm)

***

Parting comment — on account of my experiences in Vietnam with "their" veterans, I'm oft asked if there's any antipathy towards Americans. So far, that's been extraordinarily rare. In fact, I experienced it only once and that's a story for another time.

Instead, I've been consistently reminded of a familiar Vietnamese saying. Từ Đễ referred the sentiment and frankly, I agree with it wholeheartedly.

We remember the past, but we must move forward…



_______________________________________________________________


*Hopefully, I'll be talking to him very soon. Stay tuned...

**There were/are two "Nguyen Van Bay" pilots, "A" and "B." The one I met is "A" - a hero by anyone's standard.



Credit needs to go to Hungarian VN War/Soviet aircraft expert/photographer, Dr. Istvan Toperczer. He's a huge resource for all-things-MiG (and appropriate ops). Also, aviation enthusiast Pha Truong Son was also a huge help in hunting down photos - the next twenty beers are on me. And that goes for both of you.

23 February, 2021

PROFILE 149: Cessna A-37B Dragonfly as flown by... not quite sure about all-this yet...

 

Mystery plane!   

Not that the airplane itself is a mystery — the Cessna A-37B "Dragonfly" is certainly a remarkable, significant aircraft for any number of reasons:  trainer, attack aircraft, participation in historic events, vicious engine noise... the mystery here is that I've been asked to draw a specific A-37B that took part in a specific moment on a specific day.  

Currently, I know the event, date, time and even pilot.  But the aircraft?   Not specifically. 

I'm working it out.  Mysteries are meant to solved.

Anyway, it's going to be a fascinating project as it involves all the stuff humans tend to find interesting — drama, sadness, victory, regret, ambition, power, struggle.  And this airplane is a symbol for all of it.

In the meantime, have a look at the pencil sketch above.   I threw it together to help get a handle on the A-37s peculiar, 'squished frog' aesthetic and also set my brain to start learning about an aircraft that, frankly, I haven't given much thought to.

Right now, I'm learning the basics.  For those of you who aren't as smart on All-Things-A-37, follow along with me.

The A-37 is a re-purposed T-37 "Tweety Bird/Tweet", a twin-engined trainer used by the USAF for a whopping fifty two years.  That kind of longevity isn't surprising because the manufacturer — the Cessna Aircraft Company — knows a thing or two about long-lived designs.  The ubiquitous Cessna 172 is the most produced aircraft of all time and it has been flying for seventy two years!  Though the Cessna 172 does not play any part in this project, I throw it in because it reinforces the idea that there's power in 'time.'


Gawd bless Cessna.  Geniuses at teaching people to live & love aviation.

Still, these kind of numbers are staggering for the average person steeped in modern consumerism.  "We" are lead to believe that stuff typically has a much shorter shelf-life.  Cars 'go bad' after three-four years, phones after 18-24 months and clothes?  They're disposable.  Thinking about using something for years and years and years seems to be increasingly hard to wrap one's head around.

Like, 1975, the year in which this particular project originates.  That was FORTY SIX years ago.  Gads, looking back on where I was forty-six years ago, I am barely able to conjure up images of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal and watching cartoons on Saturday morning.


In the1970s, THIS was my world.  
But what-the-heck.  At least the U.S. wasn't in a Civil War.

I digress...

Back to the A-37.

Though the essential airframe is the same as the T-37, the A-37 had a very different mission - it was a light attack aircraft designed to appeal to nations looking to transact war on a limited budget.  To this end, a significant amount of engineering went into converting the Trainer into a Warrior:

•  More powerful engines: 5,600 lbs of thrust (combined) vs. 2,100 lbs

•  A 7.62mm mini-gun + Swiss Army Knife™-like array of ordnance

•  Armor/protection

The end result was an aircraft (almost) ideally suited for the war that would come to define its image, the Vietnam War.  Or, the American War depending upon your point-of-view, which in this case, is irrelevant because Americans weren't involved.  No, scratch that... that's not entirely true, but I'll get to that later.  

Anyway, back to the A-37.


Have a look above.  The photo on the left shows the 7.62mm 'gatling' style machine gun featuring 3,000 rounds per minute with an ammo-load of 1,200 rounds.  That's almost 30 seconds of hell-fire.    The photo on the right shows what could be packed under the wings — up to 5,000lbs of even more hell-fire.  Considering that a WWII B-25 Mitchell would normally carry about 3,500lbs, the half-sized A-37 was truly an evolution in combat aviation design!

The other day, I got to talk to two A-37 pilots; one who flew it in Panama, Lt. Col. John Stiles USAF (Ret.) and another, Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd USAF (Ret.) who helped train South Vietnamese Air Force to fly it in South Vietnam.

Stiles also has significant combat-time in the RF-4C over Vietnam (including meeting an Atoll missile hell-bent on ruining his day).   He's a pragmatic, no-nonsense kind of guy who gets to the facts, quickly. 

Me:  So.  Give me some idea what it would be like to transition to flying the A-37 (from another type).

Stiles:  Fill it up. Put air down the intake. Push the start button as you advance the throttle. Taxi out. Point it down the runway. Advance the throttles and it will fly off. Very simple. Learning the weapons systems is almost that easy. 

Me:  How about a MiG pilot.

Stiles:  Yes, a MiG pilot could learn to fly it. 

Ok.  So, why did I ask about whether or not a MiG pilot could fly one?  I certainly wasn't making any derogatory comments about MiG pilots!  In fact, every MiG flown during the period (MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21) had much higher performance than the A-37.  Any MiG pilot would and should be able to transition into an A-37.  

Stiles sent this Panama-period photo of A-37Bs in flight to me.
It shows the tandem-seat configuration as well as a neat formation-shot. 
Photo: USAF, photographer unknown

Now, geek-minded readers will realize the A-37 wasn't sold-to any country that flew MiGs.  At least in the 1960s and 70s.    But they were captured by a country that flew MiGs.  

I bet you're going, "Hmmmm..."

So am I.

Anyway,  General Shepperd weighed in, specifically on training pilots of a country that flew A-37s (besides the USA), South Vietnam.

Me:  So you trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly the A-37...

Shepperd:  Yes!  I was at (England AFB, Alexandria, LA), 4532nd CCTS* training Vietnamese students in the (airplane).  I was there from November of '68 through October of '69. 

Me:  You had experience in Vietnam...

Shepperd:  Yes, I'd just finished 247 F-100 combat missions, 58 were over the North.  (Note:  Don was one of the famed MISTY FAC pilots - his book, "Bury Us Upside Down" is an excellent read.)

Me:  How'd (the Vietnamese pilots) do?  

Shepperd:  Well, I really enjoyed the experience training them.  They were smart, hard-working and well-prepared for missions.  There was a bit of a language problem with some students but I admired them and wondered how I would have done going to language school, then pilot-training, then right into the war. 

Me:  I heard that somehow a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese pilot snuck into training. Is that true?

Shepperd:  After the war, we found it was true! But at the time, it was only a rumor. 

Now I bet you're REALLY going, "Hmmmm..."!

So am I!

As of now, I have no idea what the markings will be other than it'll be one of three options.  I'm eagerly awaiting conclusive evidence one way or the other.  But even more than that, I'm looking forward to discussion with the pilot and of course will share what I learn, along with the finished artwork.

Until then, it needs to be said how fortunate we are to be living in an age where poking around in the back-pages of history can be so easy.   A few keystrokes and a click can sustain connections minted via a willingness to swap some money for experience.  Today is a great time to be a history geek!

Nevertheless, have I the opportunity to jump in a time machine and go back to my cereal-snarfing self, transfixed by the electric glow of Scooby Doo, I would of course replace the bowl of cavity-inducing crunch with something better and kick my butt outside to play.  

But I would encourage some TV time.  The nightly news may not have been much but it was better than nothing.  Just like the progress shot of my art below. 

Stay tuned, more's coming.  In the meantime, a little bit of insight into the times, courtesy of CBS Nightly News, c. March, 1975.




*Combat Crew Training Squadron