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.