09 November, 2008

Profile 28 - DEL-O-MINE as flown by Burton Hawley

"Dell-O-Mine" took her pilot Burton Hawley over German-occupied territory in southern France, northern Italy and everywhere in between, sneaking photos of shipping and troop movements.  

The "F-5" is a relatively unknown airplane.  However, the F-5's brother, the P-38 Lightning, is one of the significant fighter aircraft of WW2.  Indeed, the United States' highest scoring ace, Richard Bong, racked his score of 40 in a P-38 over the Southwest Pacific.   But there's no way Burt would have ever made ace in his F-5.  The airplane was completely unarmed, save for rolls of large-format film.

To help understand the reality of being "unarmed," imagine going to work without the obvious tools of the trade.  A doctor without medicine.  An engineer without plans.  A teacher without curriculum.  A minister without a holy writ.  A fighter without guns.

I asked Burt what it was like to fly into enemy territory without the ability to defend himself and his normally cheerful demeanor changed.  "You have to keep your wits about you," he said solemnly, eyes narrowing, face tightening - just a bit. He cast a quick glance toward the door, then laughed.  And so it is - the "recon" pilots I've met have been exceptionally aware - like cats.

One story Burt shared was when he was bounced by an Me-109.  Typically, a P-38, loaded with ammo, fuel and armor, was less than a "match" for the German Messerschmitt.  However, the F-5 version was lighter.  Without guns, without armor, the twin-engined camera was speedy and relatively agile.  Burt was able to hold his own, keeping his airplane out of his foe's line of fire. 

The fact that Burt's machine was unarmed was probably known by the German pilot. Burt recalled being in a tightly banked tail-chase, close enough to look up through his canopy and see the 109 pilot work his throttle and shoot back a hunter's scowl.   At such a distance, the camera bulges and absence of gun barrels would have been obvious.

Of course, in 1944, many of the Luftwaffe's better pilots were dead.  More and more, newbies were required to complete their training in combat against the steady supply of well trained, well equipped Allied boys.  Maybe the 109 pilot was such a tyro. Maybe not.  One thing is for certain, if Burt would have tried to cut and run, the 109 could have had him dead-to-rights.  He had no choice but to stay in the swirl and dodge like an armless boxer on nimble feet.

And then, the 109 turned away.  Out of fuel?  Out flown?  A moment of mercy?  Who knows.

Burt then went back to flying his intended mission.  Shaken, stirred.  But unwilling to give up his duty.

Having never been in combat, I'd imagine there's an obligation to colleagues, to one's honor and the "mission."   Knowing Burt, I can see how he'd put the narrow escape behind him and get back to the job he was called to do.  However, a scan of the actual Combat Report is below. Having read most of his combat reports, Burt was rather practiced at getting out of harms way...and shooting nothing more than film.

PS - "Dell-O-Mine" was a shared airplane.  While Burt named "his side" of the plane after his t0-be wife, Bob Vogel named his side, "The Green Weenie."

Burt was no weenie.

The artwork of Burt's airplane is the result of painstaking research. Dozens of photos, books and individual memories were scoured to ensure accuracy. But in the end, no one is quite sure that Dell-O-Mine #709 was as its shown.  The known photos of her are obscure and changes on the factory floor happened often. Additionally, the 23rd PRS didn't have consistent standards on markings. So, it's likely that details have been missed - which is ironic because 709's mission was all about "the details" - this machine was a photo-reconnaissance airplane designed to take highly detailed photos of the enemy during WW2.