29 June, 2008

Profile 15 - JOHNNY REB - flown by John O. "Doc" Perritt

John Olin "Doc" Perritt's Mustang, comically titled “Johnny Reb” received hits numerous times. “I was very scared...very scared. I’d be thinking about [bailing] out, which I didn’t want to do. They’d skin you alive if they caught you.”

Fortunately for Doc, none of the hits he received were severe enough to cause him to bail out or crash. He always returned from his missions, a fact he states with a humble pride. Doc recalls considering a decision to stay with his flight or return home.

“My tachometer went out. It measured engine speed. It was a necessary instrument and one that we needed to fly the mission. I was flying as wingman on my Flight Leader and I needed to stay there. (In the end) it was a magician’s trick that I learned that kept me there. The eye processes things in cycles and if you take a strobe light and shine it on a fan, you can make that fan look like it wasn’t moving. I was able to make sure my engine was running at the same rpm as my Flight Leader by tucking up under his tail and looking through my prop arc, match it against my Flight Leaders...and adjust the speed so my prop looked like it was standing still. Then I knew I was running the same rpm as my Flight Leader.”

“When one of us had to turn back, we always sent two. You never sent a guy back alone.” One reason to abort a mission meant two less planes on the attack run, four less bombs on target, thousands of fewer bullets fired and possibly one more munitions train would get through, arming one more garrison for one more day...one more day of soldiers on both sides being killed. The ripple effect of one abort could spoil the whole mission, requiring a second, more costly attempt.

Doc, and so many of the successful airmen, had a belief that above all, the worst thing a guy could do in combat was to let the other guy down.

28 June, 2008

Profile 14 - PUNCHY'S PAL - flown by Earl Ashworth

Note:  Earl Ashworth died February 4, 2009.  He leaves a void that can't be filled.  

Earl Ashworth grew up a poor kid, even by Great Depression standards.  From the moment he recognized his status, Earl longed for nothing more than to leave it far behind.  The imaginative little boy could not have comprehended that one day, he'd end up as far away from Wilco, West Virgina as a human being could get - China.

Arriving with the 528th Fighter Squadron in 1944, Earl was also trained to fly Tactical Reconnaissance - photographic missions designed to evaluate potential and past targets.  Though his combat record would earn him honor, (DFC) he remains one of the few combat pilots to have spent any time at all with the enemy.

"Two days after the war was over, I was assigned to fly a Recon flight over a route that would take me over a pretty large city named Suchow.  It was only a two-man flight and I had a wingman who had only a few weeks in the squadron.  I don't believe that he had ever flown a mission before.

"Anyway, as I neared Suchow, my engine begun to run rough and it was the first time (I had ever) had an engine problem!  I knew there was a Japanese airfield there, so I was attempting to make that rather than face the possibility of bailing out.  As it turned out, the engine lasted until I was over the base.  Since the war was over only 2 days, I wasn't sure the Japanese had received word they had surrendered.  Still, I chose to land.  I instructed my wingman to circle the base until I cleared him to return...after landing, the engine was running well enough for me to taxi to a hangar.

"There were a few hundred Japanese that came out of the hangar!  I flipped my machine guns on, got my .45 cocked...my wingman was circling, ready to strafe the ramp around me in the event (they) were hostile.

"A Chinese officer approached, climbed on my wing, and I was ready with the .45 until (I trusted) his identification. He spoke English and told me the Japanese knew the war was over and it was safe fro me to come out.  I did, and soon a Japanese Colonel approached and inquired if he could see my plane up close! He seemed like a nice guy...and I did let him in the cockpit.  He stayed there for almost half an hour.  (When he got out) he saluted me smartly and walked off mumbling. 

"I spent the night in a Catholic College run by an American Bishop.  We talked until the wee hours and he told me the Communist would take over China in a matter of a few years.  That was in 1945 and the Communists fulfilled his prediction in 1949.  That Bishop was ultimately captured and spent, I believe, over 20 years in prison in Shanghai.  But that night, I had been the first American military man he had talked with and the first American outside of the college he'd seen in over 4 years."

Earl went on to fly combat in the Korean War, test aircraft for North American Aviation and retire from the U.S. Air Force in 1967 - achieving levels of leadership, opportunity and success far, far beyond Wilcoe, WV.

Note:  The name "Punchy's Pal" scrawled across the nose of Earl's P-51 is in respect to his boyhood buddy, "Punchy Powell".  See Profile 12 in this series.

Profiles 1-12: The Bluenosed Bastards of Bodney

27 June, 2008

Profile 12 - THE WEST by gawd VIRGINIAN - flown by Robert "Punchy" Powell

There are a number of websites, books and magazines containing pictures of the illustrated P51B Mustang, "The West 'by Gawd' Virginian with its middle section burned out lying in the middle of an English field. One would think that having an ammo and fuel-laden airplane burst into flames shortly after takeoff and having to belly-land it would be enough of a thrill.

However, pilot Bob 'Punchy' Powell tells of a mission that he maintains gave him a more meaningful thrill. On May 4, 1944, the 328th Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group, led by Col. John C. Meyer, Jr., took off on a "Ramrod" (bomber escort) mission. Four flights of four, 16 Mustangs in all, climbed into a low-hanging overcast expecting to breakout at about 8,000 feet.

Typically, the squadron leader flew on his instruments and the other 15 pilots, flying only 15 to 20 feet apart, focused intently on the silhouetted aircraft next to them to maintain their position with virtually zero visibility.

But the human element is a slippery factor. Just imagine 16 aircraft loaded with fuel and ammunition, flying in dense, dark clouds just a few feet apart and the intense concentration required of these pilots just to maintain their position in the formation. Someone must surely crack . . . lose their cool. Or, loosen up a fraction, and slide a few deadly feet left or right...or maybe forget to switch fuel tanks, and the sputtering engine slows the plane just enough to collide with an airplane behind...

The reported 8,000 foot ceiling never opened. Instead, the thick clouds (called soup) continued up and past the assigned 27,000 feet altitude of the formation. There, they got a call that the bombers had been ordered to abort the mission. No Ramrod today. Time elapsed? About 90 minutes.

Anyone who's ever driven in a white-out blizzard at 5 mpg can testify that after 15 minutes, nerves get frayed. To imagine nearly two hours of the stuff, in wing-to-wing traffic at 250 mph is staggering!

Nevertheless, the 328th wasn't going to stay in the air forever, and landing at one of the plentiful Luftwaffe airfields wasn't an option. So, J. C. Meyer called to the three squadrons to make precise, incremental turns, still on instruments, to return to base, still depending on their skills and fortitude to get home safely. Regardless of one's affections, faith becomes quite tangible considering the variables offered them.

Each of the three squadrons began their 180 degree turns and opting to let down to try to get under the dense clouds. (Punchy recalls cold sweat on his face and body from the lengthy stress of flying tight formation for such a long period). Finally, they punched through the base of the overcast still over enemy territory. Without a word of command, these pilots quickly moved to combat formation as if on signal. Punchy remembers his feeling of pride in this exhibition of precise teamwork on this memorable mission, one of the 87 he flew.

24 June, 2008

Profile 11 - DREAMGIRL flown by James Brocklehurst

This past year, a man who lived next door to the wartime pilot of DreamGirl, James Brocklehurst, had an aneurysm that laid him up in the hospital for some time.  James was kind enough to take care of the man's home as well as shuttle the man's family to and from the hospital.   The family had no idea of James' combat service - only that this neighbor was unusually compassionate and attentive without asking for anything in return.

However, as time passed, James and one of the family members got to be friends and James casually mentioned he flew Mustangs in WWII.  Blue-nosed Mustangs.  That particular fact stuck and came out in conversation that passed like a virus from mouth to ear...until it landed on me.

Knowing of the family's gratitude to James and of the 352nd's motto of "Second to None," a whole host of historians, veterans and amazing people conspired to present James and his family with prints of the airplane he flew in WWII - as a totem to his service, then and now.  

The picture in the lower right corner of the profile was taken last weekend.  It's James and the framed print of his DreamGirl, sixty four years later - an unexpected and tearful thank you for a man who never stopped serving.

21 June, 2008

Profile 10 - LITTLE ONE III flown by Donald S. Bryan

"In addition to getting the first shot, (being the Leader) made you responsible for the success or failure of the action.  Like, in strafing.  Everyone knows that if you stick around long enough, someone is going to get clobbered.  So, get in, get it done and get the hell out.  I never lost an aircraft in my flight or section.  Mostly luck? But I damned well tried to make (that luck) happen."

Don is one of those guys given the gift of gab and a sharp mind.  This whole blog could be filled with his anecdotes and observations on life.  But one of Don's best quotes came out of a discussion on the role fear plays in decision making (we were talking about business, not airplanes).  "No plan survives the first thirty seconds of combat."  He stated.  "The best you can do is just be damned good at what you do before you show up."

Can't argue with that.

"Little One III" is the succession of a number of airplanes, starting with a razorback P-47 and ending with the P-51 shown, named after his wife Francis.  She is indeed, "little" at barely 5' tall.  Don's no physical giant either, towering over her by a handful of inches.   But I guess what'd be a liability on a basketball court wasn't anything at all in the cockpit of a P-51.  

Don ended the war with over 13 confirmed aerial victories and one of the top aces of the 8th Air Force. 

16 June, 2008

Profile 9 - SOCKY flown by James White

James White, a pilot with the 352nd FG, got a chance to climb inside a P-51 Mustang again, some six decades later.  Only this time, he's riding in a decidedly post-war "2nd seat" modification. "No stick time for you, pal!"  

Before he got in the plane, I handed him my camera and asked that he take some pictures. When he landed, he could have spent the whole day talking about how much "fun" it was to be back in a P-51.  Strange that a weapon of war be regarded as "fun."

Studs Terkel wrote that WWII was a "Good War." When you think about it, the enemy was straight out of The Book of Evil, the weapons were gorgeous, the stakes were high and so many people loved their nation...

Hmmm.  I asked James if he'd 'do it again,' and this is what he stated: 

"If I were 18 (again) I do not think I would like years of technical study to become a fighter pilot.  Contemporary technical aspects of flight would turn me into a human robot who could respond only to technical demands.  I joined the AAF when I was 18 for the pleasure of flying in a free uninhibited manner, with a vigorous application of enthusiasm....in WWII, fighter pilots were the happiest of all warriors."

Profile 8 - KAY III flown by Sanford "Sandy" Moats

Sandy Moats is accomplished at many things - leadership (he's a retired Lt. General in the Air Force), being a fighter pilot (he's an Ace with nine victories) and a craftsman (he builds airplanes, too). He's also one of the most interesting story tellers I've ever been around. His passion for history, sociology and fact comes out in ways that make me wonder if Sandy would have been an even better High School teacher!

The then-Lieutenant flew an eventful mission a few days past the June 6 invasion at Normandy, France. His P-51 developed engine trouble and he was forced to land on a hastily converted airstrip on one of the French beachheads. One has to appreciate the huge number of Allied aircraft going back and forth over the English Channel at the time - aside from the obvious hazards of combat, these aircraft were worked thin and mechanical breakdowns were inevitable.

Being a continual student of life, and a pilot, not a foot soldier, Sandy was curious to get a little "sight seeing" in on the fresh battlefield. Standing near one of the now-relic concrete bunkers of Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach, he described a time 60 year's prior, examining a belt of ammunition hanging from a silenced German machine gun - not so unusual save for the fact the bullets were wooden.

For those who are experienced with shooting, the idea of wooden bullets working in the violent and volcanic breech of a machine gun may sound impossible. However, wooden bullets were indeed used. There are a lot of reasons - wooden bullets conserved strategic resources, they inflicted nasty wounds...nevertheless, I'll never forget the mental pictures his story inspired, the ground-bound fighter pilot, recalling his awestruck taste of what life was like for those who had to fight on the ground below...

15 June, 2008

Profile 7 - ELEEN & JERRY flown by Alden Rigby

Alden Rigby may well be the "last" ace of WWII.  In 2000, the American Fighter Aces Association confirmed an aerial victory at "Y-29" (see post on Dean Huston) raising his tally to 5 enemy aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat.

To meet Alden in person is to shake hands with a man who looks you in the eye, listens to your words and responds with a confidence and humility that can't be overlooked.  Frankly, Alden's the real McCoy of a man.  As this is Father's Day, I'm toasting Alden as this is being written - "Eleen & Jerry" was named after his wife and baby daughter.

Not to be sappy, but dads will understand that raising kids is like Alden's late-confirmed victory - we never really know if we've "made ace" until many years later.  In Alden's case, he's still married to Eleen and the proud dad of a whole tribe of Rigbys.

“August 16 (1944) the was the first real combat mission for me. The mission was to a target just south of Berlin and a little more than I expected. Escorting the bombers was quiet until just before the bomb run. We then had reports of bandits hitting the bombers ahead of us.

We dropped our wing tanks and headed for the front box of bombers. I still had about an hour’s fuel left in mine and hated to release them. When we located the action, I was so busy trying to protect my leader’s tail that I couldn’t see much of what else was happening. I did see my first enemy aircraft, but even my flight leader did not get any shooting.

I recorded in my log book that both Me-109s and Fw-190s were encountered. My flight leader had a lot of combat time, but only 2 victories. Now, I would not want to accuse him of running away, but I thought we left the scene a little early. We were separated from our Squadron, so we joined three other P-51s escorting a box of 36 bombers. We circled above them until after the target and then had to leave because of fuel.

I write to [Eleen] about how grateful I am to be flying fighters, as I also describe the heavy flak in the area of the target. I had seen it in many films, but now it became a part of real life. I soon learned that the time to worry, or take evasive action was when the red flame is seen in the black explosion, when it is close enough to be heard over the roar of the engine...shakes the aircraft or all of the above. After this experience, I wondered if I had gotten too far away from the farm...”

Happy Father's Day, Alden!

12 June, 2008

Profile 6 - LITTLE SKUNK - flown by Charlie Price

"Squadron" and "Group" can be confusing. Simplistically, Sections fit into Squadrons.  Squadrons fit into Groups.  Groups fit into Air Forces and Air Forces fit into the giant AIR FORCE.  At least it works for The Air Force.  

Anyway, in WWII, the 352nd Fighter Group was a Group of three Squadrons that painted the noses of their P-51 Mustangs blue.  The three Squadrons, the 328th, 486th and 487th, painted their tails red, yellow and blue respectively.  Typically, fighter pilots in WWII identified themselves with a Group rather than a Squadron...and even then, the number was identified with a nickname.  In the case of the 352nd, the pilots and crew were proud to say, "I was a Bluenoser!"

Though Charlie Price arrived late enough in the war to not get a full tour of duty, he is no less passionate or proud of his association with one of the Air Force's most decorated and excellent units.  But, this pride isn't selfish or egocentric.  Instead, it's the kind of pride that includes and welcomes.  One night, over a beer Charlie explained how happy he was that people were so interested in history;  that playing a part in something bigger than oneself was vital.  One day, Charlie explained, the people of the 352nd would be gone.  What would remain would be all they stood for - excellence, service to others, duty to country. He asked us "young guys" if we agreed with those values.  As if there'd be any argument!  

We clinked glasses, drank to the 352 and winking, Charlie deemed us all worthy Bluenosers. But we knew he was just being gracious...

11 June, 2008

Profile 5 - CAROL flown by Raymond Mitchell

Ray tells a story that illustrates the utter need for expert Ground Crew and support for the pilots and planes. When the 328th FS moved from Bodney, England to a forward base in Asch, Belgium, the pilots were the first to arrive, in their planes, with the Ground Crew arriving a few days later.

Stuffing his belongings into the nooks and crannies of his P-51, Ray was given a set of spark plugs for Carol's 12 cylinder Rolls-Royce engine. Standing on that same airfield in 2003, Ray laughed easily at the event. "I wouldn't have had the slightest clue what to do with them! I hadn't ever opened the hood of the plane let alone change the things!"

Though Ray admits a level of ignorance in the mechanics of the engine, he remains deeply in-tune with the souls of his countrymen.

Ray and I stood by the grave of a fallen Bluenoser at a military cemetary in England - one of those with manicured greens and rows and rows of white crosses... anyway, it was a cold day, the clouds were low and the chilling rain spat at our faces.

To be honest, I wasn't really into the moment. For some reason, however, I stood by Ray as he, in his soaking Spring-weight jacket, looked at the cross. We didn't say anything for maybe 10, 15 seconds, then he reached out and touched the bleached marble. His hand no more than brushed the smooth polished surface, and he stuffed it back into his coat pocket. “They’re so cold,” he said matter of factly, almost under his breath. A few seconds passed and he added somewhat self consciously, “I don’t know why I expected it to be warm."

Warriors remember their dead.

10 June, 2008

Profile 4 - THE HAWKEYE-OWAN flown by Dean Huston

In a nutshell, on January 1, 1945, the Luftwaffe made a massive raid on Allied forward airfields across the freshly occupied continent.   Some 800, maybe as many as 1,200 odd German fighters took off and made their way to more than a dozen bases in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.  Y-29 was one of those bases.

The whole affair is a fascinating story of desperation, bad leadership, quirky intuition, confidence and plain old luck - it's really worth checking out in depth.  But, the short of it is, 50-70 German planes attacked Y-29 as 12 airplanes of the 487th Fighter Squadron were idling in their planes, waiting for clearance to take off!

The moments that followed was a chaotic mess of hundreds of machine guns and cannon sprayed over the snowy Belgian countryside.  To those below, they had a ring-side seat to a real dogfight raging above their heads.  To the 487th,  just taking off, they started shooting before their landing gear were raised!

Amazingly, the Squadron shot down 24 airplanes without loss of any of their own...well, one, that is if you count losses due to friendly fire.  "One single bullet!" huffed pilot Dean Huston in disbelief, so many many years later.  "One single bullet hole through the engine!"   

Hundreds of guns, thousands and thousands of bullets flying around...and it's the single well-intentioned and poorly aimed one that does you in.  I'd huff too.

Profile 3 - MISS HELEN flown by Ray Littge

Circumstance doesn't get much weirder than this -  Ray Littge flies Miss Helen in WWII.  War ends, and the P-51 is sold to the Swedish Air Force.  Later, in 1953, the plane is sold to Israel where it serves until ending up as a  playground toy.  Recovered in 1976, it's transported to England, where the airplane's history is revealed and in 2000, restored to the original, WWII markings of Miss Helen.  Thus, this particular machine is one of only two (to my knowledge) combat P-51 Mustangs in existence flying in their original markings.

Then, in 2003, when Littge's grand nephew happened to be traveling in England, hook met crook and the guy ends up meeting Miss Helen's owner and gets a ride in "Uncle Ray's plane"!    

09 June, 2008

Profile 2 - PINKY flown by Elmer Smith...and Iggy.

"Pinkie" exemplifies the collaborative spirit that created the P-51 Mustang fighter.  Born of British need, American airframe, British engine* and American manufacturing, the Mustang is no lucky compromise.  Instead, it's the product of the rare magic that happens when people truly work to serve a need.  

In pilot Elmer Smith's words, he would have "rather taken a beating" than suffer the pre-combat jitters that wracked his nerves.   Yet, he knew once he engaged the Starter on those 1,700-odd horses under the cowl, the shakes would blow away, leaving him fresh and focused on duty. No fear.  No worry.  Elmer could take courage in the sureness of his machine.

For Ignazio Marinello, Pinkie's Crew Chief, the ritual was just the opposite.  Under his care, Pinkie was a labor of love, an expression of his brilliant mechanical mind.  But once it left the grass field at Bodney, England, bound for the Reich across the English Channel, the doubts, the worry, the wonder..."Did I do it right?!" 

In the end, Pinkie landed every mission, no small thanks to Iggy's care.  Two of these prints have Iggy and Elmer's signature, signed at the same time at a dinner some 60 years after war. A reminder of how our differences mesh together, serve a shared purpose and reap reward.

“I got antsy. Once we had the engines started, everything was ok, but until then, I’d have rather taken a beating.”

*The first series of Mustangs had American Allison engines, but it wasn't until being harnessed to a British Rolls Royce engine did the P-51 become Legend.

Profile 1 - CRIPES A'MIGHTY flown by George Preddy

"Cripes A'Mighty!" was George Preddy's patent phrase when gambling with squadron mates - fitting he'd name his combat mounts same. This particular plane was Preddy's fourth and last combat mount to bear the name.

Preddy was a lazy scriptwriter's dream of a hero - poet, patriot, philosopher, pilot...type all the superlatives, gushes and adoration into a big heap and even his critics would be reluctant to disagree. With nearly 27 confirmed aerial victories, he remains the USAF's leading ace in the airplane that symbolizes America in the air war, the North American P-51 Mustang.

I've met a dozen or so people who flew with or knew George, including one woman who gleefully announced she was to have a date with him in the Fall of 1944. Her husband, a 3-star general and ace himself, seemed to smirk at the realization that he'd stolen a victory from the Legend.

However, it's the memory of the men who shot him down that are most striking - those who manned the American Army anti-aircraft battery that accidentally sent a dense burst of .50caliber bullets into his thin-skinned Mustang on Christmas Day, 1944; they reported seeing Cripes A'Mighty, inverted and angling into a dense wood...

Preddy is burried next to his brother at the Lorraine Cemetery in St. Avold, France.