27 July, 2008

Profile 22 - 22 flown by Jack Hankins

Seems like everyone has one of those Weird Stories that make a person wonder if there are unseen forces at work.  My Weird Story involves the research behind this particular aircraft.

The artwork was commissioned by a businessman who knew the pilot and wanted to honor him by dedicating a large work of Jack's Hellcat at the man's hometown airport in Martinsville, Virginia (the original print is hanging there, btw).

The print was to be a surprise but there were no known photographs or references of any of the specific aircraft Jack flew in combat.  The man paying my tab wanted either hard documentation and/or Jack Hankin's personal blessing that "...that Hellcat was the one he flew."

Since I interview pilots often enough, I was able to quiz Jack on vitals (markings, numbers, coloration) without arousing too much suspicion.  However, Jack admitted he didn't have any photographs of any of the Hellcats he flew in combat.  Like so many pilots I've interviewed, he said something similar to "If I would have known then that 60 years later, someone was going to need references on the oil stains on my windscreen..."

He then embarked on one of those rambing memory joggers  - "Hmmmm. I might have a photo...no, no...hmmm....maybe I could call up so'n so...no, he wouldn't have..." 

After a bit, Jack sighed and drawled, "Well, the only photo I know of me in a Hellcat is from the August 1944 issue of National Geographic."

Now it gets weird.  The next day, I bump into a guy at the gym - a guy I know only casually - and I get this peculiar urge to ask him if he had any old National Geographics.  Up until this point, there was nothing in our casual "Hey!"  "How's it goin'?" relationship to warrant any hope that he'd be any help at all.  I'm not even a mystic - skepticism runs strong in my veins - but I followed my impulse.

"Hey.  Jean.  You know where I can get any old National Geographics? From the World War Two?"

He looked at me a little crosseyed, stopped and replied, "Well, my mother has a couple.  Not many.  Maybe. What one?" 

The next week, he shows up with an August 1944 edition.  (insert spooky sound effects).  Jean was as wide-eyed as I was after I explained the significance - he said his mom had a mere handful of NG's!  Peeling open the pristine, but brittle pages, sure enough, on Color Plate "V", there was Jack on the Yorktown, idling in "22" awaiting the cue to take off!

I called Jack that day and he had a howl.  We discussed markings, paint schemes and settled on the art above - the greenish nose, the larger fuselage insignia and the block "22."  Of course, he thought I was documenting his plane for some article...and was blown away to see his plane at the surprise presentation held at the Martinsville airport later that Summer.  

He had a lot to remember from his days on the Yorktown...

“It was just a scratch! About an inch long - it bled, but there wasn’t even enough for a single stitch!” Jack recalled, laughing. “Just a scratch. Looking at my airplane, I just couldn’t believe that I’d take a hit like that and get just a little cut. The engineers made a quick decision, grabbed the color film from the cameras and just pushed my Hellcat overboard. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to repair. I just got a scratch.”

He couldn't remember if "22" or some other Hellcat was the one pushed over, but the story of improbable events that lead through circumstance and crook to the Martinsville airport remains fascinating.  I like to think that somewhere in the Pacific, "22" is sitting in the deep, blissfully unaware of the happenstance that pushed it to print.

24 July, 2008

Profile 21 - 9 flown by Hamilton McWhorter

The Grumman Hellcat wasn't the fastest American fighter. Nor did the pilot enjoy great visibility. Even the machine's aesthetic qualities leave room for improvement.

However, with (what is reported to be) the highest serviceability rate of any American fighter, the second highest number of victories, a whopping 19:1 victory ratio over the enemy, and the legendary durability of its air-cooled engine,  the Hellcat may have been the best investment of allocated fighter resources in WW2. 

Hamilton McWhorter would agree, too. He was the first Hellcat pilot to make the coveted "ace" status of five victories and eventually achieved eleven victories in the airplane. However, enemy aircraft weren't the fighter's only target.

Hellcats were also used for additional fire support during attacks on Japanese island ports and bases.  Mac recalled such a mission - I believe late 1944 - where he took part in such an attack...

"As I approached the line of warships from about a mile or so out, at about 100 feet off the water, they all opened up with every AAA gun, including the main 8” batteries.  There were many, many muzzle flashes and smoke from stem to stern on each ship as they fired at me.  I can attest to the fact that you can see an 8” shell coming toward you - they spin slowly, leaving a thin trail of smoke and you have time to move out of the way, hoping they don’t explode as they pass nearby.”

Traveling at over 400 miles an hour, rushing into a hose of supersonic metal darts, danger’s threat is silenced by the hours of training and self discipline.  Hamilton squeezed the trigger, unleashing a spray of bullets from his Hellcat’s six .50 caliber machine guns.  Firing at a combined rate of 3,600 rounds per minute, the volley of bullets cut into the cruiser.

“I can still remember that in spite of the intense AAA fire I was flying through, I was amazed at the huge number of bright flashes as the API’s (every fifth round was an API armor-piercing bullet) hit on and around the open AAA batteries.  As I passed over the cruiser, about mast high, I looked down and saw the Japanese gunners looking at me!”

As a footnote, Mac passed away earlier this year.  In the words of his wife, "...he was a man who had only good to say about everyone."  

15 July, 2008

Profile 20 - BLACK DEATH flown by Bruce Porter

"Black Death" is one of my favorite illustrations because I got the lighting and metal texture right. It's also a favorite because of the nose art - a bottle of Schenley's whisky.

Bruce proofed the art and pronounced it good when compared to photographs of his plane. Thankfully, the actual nose art was rather crude (and thereby easy to duplicate). There aren't many bottles of Schenley's around to use as a reference!

The story behind the nose art was told with a chuckle - when first presented with the airplane above, a red heart and the name, "Millie Lou" was painted on the cowl. Bruce was looking to make a "tough guy" impression on his new ground crew and ordered that the love-sick scrawl be immediately painted over with something "...that sounded a lot meaner."  On the spot, he ordered "Black Death" and "a bottle of Schenley's!"  

Of all the fighter pilots I've interviewed, Bruce is the only one who comes close to the brawling, hard-drinking image and even then, he seemed to play it for laughs. Still, he was clearly thrilled that fortune had honored him with the title of "ace fighter pilot."

Me: So, what does any fighter pilot need to be successful?

Well...let’s see...first of all, above average intelligence, man!  And, I think another thing too is following directions...paying attention...and then utmost is to be alert and know where you are. When you fly head on in a dogfight, you’ve got a closure rate of...600 miles per hour and you’ve got to be thinking...whereever you go.

I’m still jumpy...my wife comes in the room and I still jump...I guess it’s combat. You never get it out of your system.

If you’ve got self-discipline...and survive, you go out and can do things in life. It’s like eating habits...you don’t see fat fighter pilots.

I would put all the fighter pilots in the top 5% of whatever in the world...maybe not in math (laughs)...but in grasping things.

13 July, 2008

Profile 19 - 18 flown by Milton Tootle

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Milton Tootle. This art was commissioned by a buddy who met Milton and decided to take it upon himself to honor the man by hosting a celebratory dinner. The closest I got to being there was knowing that this illustration was given to him as a present. Afterwards, I found out Milton was thrilled with the event and surprised his deeds were respected so many years after the fact - a common feeling among these aerial warriors.

There's something inherently humble about heroism. For the most part, "heroes" seem to have an accidental quality about their circumstances. Instead of recognizing or calculating their moment, they simply "do." Aside from their moments, heroes are surprisingly ordinary, with the exception that when the "moment" comes, they have an automatic reaction of selflessness. Instead of retreating, ignoring, blaming or hiding, they do whatever the moment demands.

To be fair, combat pilots were trained to be instinctive and this "rote behavior" is undoubtedly why so many of them were able to perform so well under pressure. Practice, practice, practice and when the moment comes...

A snippet of the Tootle's Navy Cross citation is below:


The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Milton Tootle, IV, Ensign, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron THREE (VF-3), embarked from the U.S.S. YORKTOWN (CV-5), during the "Air Battle of Midway," against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. While engaged in an assault against Japanese aerial forces about to attack his aircraft carrier, Ensign Tootle pursued a Torpedo Plane so relentlessly that he came under a fierce barrage of antiaircraft fire from his own ship. Although the resultant damage to his plane caused the cockpit to become filled with smoke, he nevertheless pressed home the attack until his gunfire struck down the Torpedo Plane and sent it exploding into the sea. Despite the terrific hazard of flying his battered and smoking craft, he continued to carry on with grim determination and magnificent fortitude until ordered to crash-land in the water. As a last resort he was required to bail out and a short time afterward was picked up by a friendly destroyer. The outstanding courage and determined skill displayed by Ensign Tootle were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 311 (February 1943)

10 July, 2008

PROFILE 18 - 53 flown by Joe Foss

Joe Foss is one of WW2 history's most documented figures and anything I would contribute about his military or post-military career would be just parroting someone else's stuff.

Nevertheless, some people are uncomfortable in their own skin and strive to conform it to their surroundings. Joe knew that behavior be a form of vanity, of conceit and avoided it like fetid water. If the reader has ever wanted to look into the mechanics of a someone who achieved the Zen of Leadership, look no further; you may differ with Joe's views, but his integrity is an example to everyone.

He was a man without Guile, without Pretense...and one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

07 July, 2008

Profiles 14-17: The Dragonflies

Profile 17 - DOTTY flown by William "Bill" Creech

"Dotty" just about didn't happen. On June 17, 1944, Lt. William "Bill" Creech was flying an A-36 "Apache" on a ground-support mission in Burma.  These missions were performed at very low level - often times, at shoe-top height.  However, on that particular day, Bill's airplane took a hit in the cooling system from bomb shrapnel. In short, he survived a nasty belly landing in the Burmese jungle and managed to hack his way back to base - an amazing story in and of itself but it will have to be saved for another time...

Nevertheless, Bill went on to fly a considerable number of missions* in China until on March 15, 1945, Bill and his P-51B (Dotty as shown above) were hit again and he was forced to bail out 150 or so miles North of Sian.

The following is from an advance, unedited draft of Bill's book, "Third Greatest Fighter Pilot" (google it.)

The coolant temp wasn’t even rising and this confused me a bit but not for long. Suddenly she started running rough and the oil temp rose to the red line. She started vibrating quite a bit and losing power. She started down slowly and as I was intent upon keeping good control throughout, kept the airspeed above 120 mph. I made up my mind that five thousand was my limit. I was planning to stay with her to that point, then over the side. As I approached five thousand, I pulled the canopy release and it was gone in a flash. I had her all perfectly trimmed so I stood up in the seat, with one hand on the windshield and the other on the rear canopy, and dived as hard as I could toward the right wing tip, just as we were trained to do. As I went over the side my flying suit was splattered with molten aluminum from the burning engine. In retrospect that old Merlin was trying to save my ass and was still actually running and producing power! Don’t tell me that airplanes don’t have souls!...I tumbled a time or two, pulled the ripcord, and was delighted to see the chute blossom above me. I landed rather hard on my butt and realized that the desert floor was frozen.

In case you're wondering how Bill's family found out their boy was having a hard day in China, the graphic below is a scan of the Western Union telegram delivered to his mom.

If I ever publish my book, Bill Creech and a few other 528th pilots will undoubtedly take up a chapter or two!  

04 July, 2008

Happy 4th!

Liberal, Conservative, Independent...if we're not impressed by the selfless leadership of the people who wrote the American Constitution, it's because we haven't read it.

01 July, 2008

Profile 16 - "1031" flown by Hank Snow

From Hank Snow's personal log:

"May 5, 1945: Mission #88; this mission was scheduled as four flights of four aircraft each to destroy a radar station located on the Yellow River just 90 miles from Sian. Ironically, it was a station which I had seen several weeks earlier. Lt. Col. Donald “Flash” Gordon, our commander briefed that I was to lead the third flight and was to bomb and then strafe the site until he called me to break off because he would be in low level for a napalm drop. My flight consisted of Horace Cumberland and William Knavel. I do not recall the name of the fourth pilot who had aborted on take-off due to a rough engine.

"We bombed on schedule and started strafing. We were on our sixth pass which is next to suicidal, because Lt. Col. Gordon had not called a break. I got hit hard, knocking out my radio and starting a fire somewhere underneath me. I crossed the river into friendly Chinese territory and climbed to about 3,500 feet before I bailed out. When I jettisoned the canopy, I got a face full of hot coolant which added to the severity of the situation. What saved me was discipline in having thought out what I would do ahead of time so everything went as previously planned. I slowed the aircraft to just about the stall speed, got my left leg up on the seat, let go of the stick, grabbed the edge of the windshield and cockpit and launched myself face first toward the wing. I kept my head down so that if any part of my hit the tail, it would be my legs. I fell clear with not contact, did a flip or two, was impressed with how quiet it was once I left the aircraft. I grabbed my “D” ring, pulled it and threw it halfway across China. My chute opened but one of the risers hit me on the right temple, an injury which I did not discover until several hours later. That is what adrenaline will do for you.

"The aircraft had nosed over, crashed and was burning furiously below me, so I started pulling the risers in an attempt to avoid the fire. As a result I got to swinging back and forth so that when I contacted the ground, but I did so on my rear end, hard enough to jar my eye teeth, but luckily, it was freshly plowed ground which prevented injury. As I stood, I was looking down the muzzles of 8 rifles held by Chinese soldiers. I raised my arms and said, “Americano! Ding Hoa!” and turned so that they could see the flag on the back of my jacket. They lowered their guns and gathered up my chute as we started walking toward the aircraft which was still burning. As we drew near, I saw a Jeep and recognized Lt. Lang, an American laison officer with the Chinese forces, whom I had met at Sian. Lang said, “Snowball, nice of you to come visit us!” I had a few choice words in reply..."

Most combat pilots have 50-80 combat missions. Bomber crew might have a few less, reccon pilots might have a few more. Hank Snow has 666 spread over W.W.II, Korea and the Vietnam conflict and that also includes a combat parachute jump into North Vietnam! One might expect a man who’s literally beat death’s gamble beyond all odds to be a braggart or boorish. Not so with Colonel Snow. He's a real life version of the cartoon, "Mr. Incredible" - affable, paternal and when he can get away with it, silly. But when it comes to the raw dynamics of leadership, he is a master of the most effective method - Example.