23 August, 2008

Profile 26 - 13 as flown by Josef Priller

Josef Priller died in 1961 of an apparent heart attack. He was 45 years old - way before I was born.  From all that I've read about Priller, he would have made an excellent interview.  Jovial, puckish and sociable, Priller seemed to defy the Nazi illusion of obedient, marble-faced zealotry.   He ended WW2 with the claim to an astounding 1,307 combat missions and over 101 aerial victories.   The aircraft Priller flew was the excellent FW-190 - I drew the A8 variety without the belly bomb mount and A4 canopy. Your source may vary...
Nevertheless, the FW-190 was an outstanding fighter plane - fast, powerfully armed, rugged - and fortunately for me, EASY TO DRAW.  My grade school notebooks are jammed full of little doodles of this brutal plane.  Strictly from an aesthetic perspective, the FW is one of my favs.

One of my "fav" combat stories comes from JD Collinsworth (profile 24) and it involves him in the airplane shown versus an FW-190, over the desert of North Africa. Of course, the camouflage pattern of an North African FW-190 is more appropriate to the tans and browns of desert than Priller's Western European-based "13." Still, try to picture the legendary duel between Spitfire and FW-190 against Jerry's own words...

...the Fw 190 obviously had been coming up on me but was not quite within firing range until I was just barely past Woody. So, naturally he just "latched onto" Woody. This was the first we knew that they were anywhere around. Of course, the Germans were going faster than we were and so the man who shot Woody "zoomed up" to the base of the clouds trying to slow down And get behind me. I yelled "M-Es!" but they were really Fw 190s - the distinction didn't make any difference. Well, you can imagine my consternation! We had been attacked suddenly without prior warning. We didn't know where they came from, how many of them there were and we didn't have much time to try and figure it out. So, I hollered into the mike "Into the clouds!" even though I couldn't fly instruments. Mitchell came back immediately with "Hell no; I'm going to fight these S.O.B.s!"

In the meantime I had made a sharp turn to the right to try and get behind the fellow who had shot Woody down. He then broke left over me and at this time we were about parallel to one another although he was at 800 feet and I was down about 500. Just at this time I saw a Spitfire go into the clouds so I assumed that Mitchell had changed his mind and had decided my comments were appropriate.

So I pulled up and into the clouds although I could not fly instruments. I didn't plan to remain in them for long. As my Spit entered the clouds I took my feet off the rudder pedals and hands off the control column. I had entered the clouds while in a slight left bank. After only a few seconds, I managed to drop out of the clouds - thank goodness! Upon emerging the first thing I see is three aircraft down very near the ground in a very tight dogfight. I assumed it was Mitchell and two Fw 190s which, as it turned out, it was. In the meantime, the German pilot who had shot Woody down apparently had decided I was "gone" and had started down to the three ring dogfight.

Fortunately, when I came out of the clouds I was behind him about 500/800 feet. I immediately "shoved everything to the firewall" and headed down for him. I knew exactly when he saw me for black smoked poured out of the FW, and I knew he had gone to full throttle. But, since I had accelerated earlier than he and had 300/400 feet of altitude on him, I was gaining on him. He went to the 'deck" but that was only about 400 or 500 feet. I wanted to avenge Woody's death if possible so I left Mitchell and the other two FWs to their fight...

JD got his vengence by the way.

15 August, 2008

Profile 25 - FLYING DUTCHMAN flown by Robert Goebel

"Flying Dutchman" is an old rendering that was hastily masked and updated to meet a signing deadline.  Unfortunately, it's beyond my usual standard of imperfection.  Flying Dutchman's pilot, Bob Goebel, was articulate in discussing a warrior's own imperfections.

“Of course I have seen pilots, some old and some new, vomit their breakfast before getting into the cockpit for a mission. I always thought that it took real courage to fly under those circumstances and I still do. One of my close friends finally took himself off flying status but none of the rest of us held it against him. We just felt that he had some inner demons which he could not control. ”

I had the chance to sit in a P-51 on a small airstrip north of London. The owner was kind enough to let me sit and imagine for a bit - the sun bright, gleaming in the curve of canopy...and it struck me that if I were high in the sky, I would have no where to hide.  No place to duck.  No nook to protect myself.  Just a shoulder-high skin of thin aluminum and a backrest of armor plating.  No wonder the pilots always warn to "turn into the attacker" instead of run away.  

Would I have been a pilot who turned into the attacker?  Or would I have abandoned my confidence, my training and tried to hide in the great expanse of sky?  Feet on rudder pedals and stick in hand, the senses of g-forces and skid seemed real enough - the big black propeller blades in front were easy to conjure into a whirl of power...and curving into the path of a gray green Me-109, chattachattachattachatta.... 

All I can remember of my first victory is that I was leading a flight of four aircraft to Vienna and after my victim, an Me-109, was shot down, I babbled shamefully on the R/T to the rest of my flight to make sure they witnessed it. Once on the ground my colleagues, who came into the group with me from Panama, quietly congratulated me.

Robert Goebel's combat record spanned six months. In those months, he tallied over sixty missions in southern and eastern Europe flying with the relatively unsung but highly decorated 31st Fighter Group. He shot down eleven Me 109s in the process of protecting bombers and managed to survive mortal combat without injury to self or machine. His military decorations include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal with seventeen oak leaf clusters and the Presidential Unit Citation with one oak leaf cluster.

10 August, 2008

Profile 24 - DIMPLES flown by JD Collinsworth

It's a shame "Dimples" isn't one of my better pieces because JD "Jerry" Collinsworth is an unforgettable, excellent man of far greater honor than reflected by my almost-lousy rendering of his Spitfire.  He possessed the rare skill of Encouragement - not the arm-around-the-shoulder, "Aw, you can do it!" but the kind that's more pragmatic, systematic - "Let's examine the facts..." kind of guy.

JD had asked about my interest in WWII aviation and in the course of explanation, I said something to the effect of, "I'd have liked to have been born earlier so I could have tried my hand at a Spitfire, but my eyes are too bad."

"Funny you should say that..." he drawled, and  told of the time he stood in line at the end of his Army physical, convinced he’d lost his chance at being a fighter pilot because of his sub-standard eyesight.

The way he told it, I could picture him shuffling along a row of underwear-clad men, awaiting the stamp of approval or rejection from the doctor at the head of the line. With every dull THUD! of inked rubber on paper, Jerry would wince, knowing that his rejection was next...

His eyes swelled up - his dream of flying in the Army Air Corps crumpling  like an airplane crashing through a forest of concrete pillars. Thud, rip, smash... “Next!”

Eventually, Jerry took his turn to stand before the doctor and present his damning documents. Without a word, Jerry handed the paperwork over to the doctor. He could contain his pride, but he could not contain the single tear that made it’s way down his cheek. JD was specific about the "single tear."

He was a “Thud!” away from tethering his dream of flying fighter planes.

It was then that the doctor looked up at Jerry, rifled through the papers, perhaps paused a moment or two over the eye examination, and instead of stamping a rejection, scribbled the words, “Sunglasses, Prescription Ground” on the form, and passed Jerry on the flight physical. Now, a fighter pilot just didn’t wear prescription glasses! Yet, most wore sunglasses - if the lenses needed tweaking a little, what would that matter? Jerry was approved and passed on down the line, dumbstruck and generations later, still grateful.

Perhaps that doctor could sense the potential for success inside Jerry. Maybe the doctor wanted to be a pilot too? Looking back, Jerry seems to believe the doctor saw the single tear. Why the doctor offered this bit of compassion, Jerry was never able to find out. But because of that unexpected approval, JD Collinsworth went on to shoot down six Nazi fighter planes over the sands of North Africa and rocks along the Mediterranean.

One of my computer monitor’s “wallpaper” is of Jerry sitting in the cockpit of his Spitfire fighter plane, wearing those “prescription ground” sunglasses.

By the way, "Dimples" was named for a "cute girl from Taft" California.  They never dated, but she sent him mail before he went off to England in 1943.

05 August, 2008

Profile 23 - TARHEEL flown by George Preddy

George Preddy was just another combat pilot in the South Pacific, flying rugged but outclassed P-40E's against the agile Zeros of the Imperial Japanese Navy. By July 1942, he was in the hospital, recovering from injuries sustained in a mid-air collision with another P-40 during a combat-zone training exercise.

By October, Preddy was on the boat home - a likable, smart guy, but otherwise just another pilot flying a (then) losing war.  But things change.

By 1944, George Preddy was in Europe, on his way to become the 8th highest scoring American fighter pilot.  He had become a celebrity of sorts, earning the love and adoration of superiors and subordinates alike.  Clever, charming, philosophical, Preddy's Kingdom had come.

On Christmas Day, he was killed while following a German Fw-190 over a "friendly" anti-aircraft battery.  Bang.  Obscurity, fame, finish - a fast climb, a horrible crash.  

Earlier this week, I finished the airplane above for the Preddy Memorial Foundation - a group set up to keep George's uncanny knack for leadership alive and well.  The profile was a team effort.

No less than four WW2 fighter pilots have weighed in on "Tarheel," offering advice on exhaust patterns and weathering. Every known photograph of the actual airplane was scoured, ensuring that this rendering is the most accurate yet.  

This morning, I received an email from one of the pilots who flew with Preddy on his fateful Christmas Day flight...and also, talked to a pastor friend who gave a short sermon at George's gravesite in France; both men commented on the need for hope and leadership, personally and nationally...

Time flies, things change, and then, they don't.

Waxing selfish, this kind of intertwined history is my fuel.  Preddy was a poet, artist who rose from obscurity to greatness, then after that life was extinguished, was resurrected (sorta) by others who experienced inspiration from his short-lived but vibrant example. 

Thank you to the Preddy Memorial Foundation for this opportunity.

"I must go back, Back to do my part, Back to fly and give again; And I am not afraid. My plane may be shot away; But I shall not fall, For I have wings-- Wings not of wood or steel or stuff, But wings of a firmer kind-- Wings God gave my soul. Thank God for wings." George Preddy to his pastor.