26 November, 2009

Profile 38 - "696" as flown by Lt. Claude Hone

Thanks to a bad case of insomnia, "696" has awoken from her 65 year sleep. Forgive the lousy allusion. It's late even now as I write.

This Corsair is my third - the first one being of Medal of Honor winner and triple-ace James Swett. I did it for the American Fighter Aces Journal a few years ago and frankly, I wish my rendering was up to the man who remains a bona-fide hero. I won't post my poor drawing here. Trust me when I write that my skills have improved a bit.

What you see is Lt. Claude Hone's Corsair. You don't see Japanese kill markings* on the side because Claude...never shot any down. He also didn't get the Medal of Honor. He was an ordinary Marine pilot in an ordinary, hard-working squadron. The sole marking, "696" reflects the austere life they lived on Efate, a hot, sticky island in the New Hebrides island chain. I worked to show the effect of sun-cooked paint, pitted by regular roars down gritty runways...I think it's okay.

Anyway, if you're like me, when you think of "History," defining moments come to mind - specific days, named heroes, revolutionary technology. But in reality, History is stitched together by the mundane and or unsung. WW2 was no exception. The Big Battles make the books, but the anxious, tedious times in-between get ignored.

Especially today, people want reality to be amazing. No, make that Amazing! In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm also wondering if readers will appreciate the airplane of a guy who did what he was called to do, without flinch, without ceremony.

Of course you will. Because such things are, in the end, rare enough to be amazing anyway.

PS - Claude's the guy suited up, ready to go, standing on the left with 696's other assigned pilot and the airplane's ground crew.

PSS - Claude was on the first Marine fighter-bomber mission into Tokyo in February 16, 1945. 8 planes went in, 4 came out.

The photo below is of Claude (back row, standing, far right) with fellow Marine and a couple Navy pilots. Taken in San Diego late April '45, the smiles are pure; their tour is done and they're confident they won't be going back. Yet, the war went on for three and a half more months...

*Marine squadrons didn't typically mark their airplanes with victories anyway but you get my drift.

OH! One last thing. I hope you don't get the idea that Claude is anything like his well-worn "Hog." He's 90 and has a spark of life that is positively brilliant. True story - a month ago, he challenged me to a duel of leg-lifts. He won. Of course, there was a trick to it and I'm looking forward to a rematch.

08 November, 2009

Profile 37: "Dolph's Devil"

Five, six years ago, a buddy asked me if I had any interest in the Korean War and if so, would I think about ever "...drawing (a particular airplane) of that era?" At the time, I wasn't.

For me, there's value in learning of the noble traits of sacrifice, focused creativity and belief in an Ideal. That's why I can so easily call the ordinary service of the WW2 generation, "Heroic."

But Korea? That was the war that pulled the WW2 guys away from their young families. That was the war that taught me that politicians can determine targets. Yeah, I'm generalizing, but the first taste I had of the Korean Conflict was watching "The Bridges at Toko Ri" on late night TV. A fantastic film, but it left me - even at age ten or so - with a kind of emotional heartburn. The movie ends with the quote of grizzled Admiral asking the audience, "Where do we get such men?" Like I wrote, Korea is the war that pulled the WW2 guys away from...

My understanding is that the Korean Conflict was not about the disease - (Communism) - but about the spread of the disease. That doesn't quite make sense. Patton may have been crazy, but he may have been as a fox when he stated that the Allied world should plow through Russia and met MacArthur in Japan.

Would Korea have happened? The Eastern Bloc? Vietnam? Or did the Yin/Yang of Capitalism & Communism somehow stabilize the world?

Bah. I'm wasting time on a non-issue. But suffice it to say, in the past few years, I've learned that though I don't understand the politics, the same wonderful traits of character were all the more apparent in the heroes of 1950-1953.*

And so, thanks to Morton, I am starting on the machine of a particularly heroic pilot named Dolph Overton. You'll like this one.

*Even now, the "Korean War" isn't officially over.

06 October, 2009

Profile 36 - YO-YO as flown by Senator George McGovern

Presenting "YO-YO" - a B-24J Liberator as it flew with the 741st Bomber Squadron, 455th Bomber Group, 15th Air Force, Italy, circa 1944.

Some historians have recorded George flying a B-24 named "Dakota Queen." No photographic reference exists of that airplane. However, George's logs show that he flew "YO-YO" in combat and being that ample photographic documentation remains of this airplane, I went with what could be verified.

I hope to soon get the Senator's blessing on the artwork, but I'm confident enough that YO-YO is on-target, so I'm posting it now.

Anyway, I believe that in WW2, unique cultures emerged within each aerial discipline. Whether by nature or nurture, I can't quite tell, but suffice it to say, fighter pilots tend to act like fighter pilots, bomber pilots like bomber pilots, recon pilots like recon pilots...My explanation is that the man had to fit the mission.

A fair number of history buffs read this blog so the following may be old-hat. Nevertheless, the job of a WW2 bomber pilot was governed by a strong value system. Teamwork, consistency and single-mindedness were absolutely necessary for their mission. Strength was in numbers, security in discipline and success by collectively doing the job so well, it needn't be done again.

Today, there is no proper analog to the job George did. The image of the bomber pilot, working to hold his clumsy machine in formation, trundling through clouds of supersonic shrapnel* and parenting a crew of eight, ten men is forever locked in the 1940s.

Thankfully, the inspiration of such dedication and focus is timeless. Without a doubt, George's sense of public service and passion for the rights of others was honed in that cockpit. I remember that during the 1972 presidential election, George took more flak for his aggressive opposition to the Vietnam War, Though history has vindicated his position, I wonder if back then people really understood that he
knew what he was talking about...**?

Today, George is nearing his fifth DECADE of leadership within Food for Peace, a program that distributes food overseas. John F. Kennedy appointed him Director in 1961. A few weeks ago, George stated Food for Peace's purpose rather simply. "Every kid needs lunch."

What a brilliant mission - and he shares leadership roles with none other than Bob Dole. Talk about beating bombs into plowshares, eh?

Oh - George turned 87 this year and maintains that he could horse a B-24 off the ground if the chance remained. Two years ago, he proved he could yet fly and land a BT-13 (the airplane he learned to fly in Basic Training).

*The lethal blast radius from a German 8,8 cm FlaK shell was approximately 50 feet and sprayed 300+ shards of metal at initial velocities of around 2,000 fps.

**George McGovern flew 35 missions in combat, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters and twice experienced battle damage that resulted in casualties and/or scrapping the airplane. If we figure that George commanded an average of 4,500lbs of bombs on each of his missions, he was responsible for about 80 tons of explosive dropped on the enemy.

Photo: George McGovern, Ground School Flight Training, July '43, Carbondale, IL - George is standing 2nd from the left.
Photo courtesy of The Senator George McGovern Collection, McGovern Library Archives and Special Collections, Dakota Wesleyan University

Note: Special thanks to historian Dave Ungemach for his provision of excellent photographic documentation of "YO-YO," especially that silly bunny on the side. I spent a whole night at the kitchen table drawing that stupid rabbit; if it weren't for Dave, I'd have ended up drawing a big old happy Elmer Fudd proudly dangling Bugs by his ears.

11 September, 2009

Profile 36: PREVIEW "YO-YO" as flown by Sen. George McGovern

10/6 Update: Almost done...

As a lark, I sketched this little aerial combat scene - no clouds, but a single German Bf.109 G-6/R6 arcing in on a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable...

I prefer interviewing fighter pilot & crew, hence the very name of this blog. But sometimes, opportunities pose themselves that simply make personal preference seem silly.

Buddies Greg and Jim have cleared the way for me to spend time with Senator George McGovern. He's a riot! So far, we've talked mostly "History," but I'm here to draw his airplane. Well, actually, an airplane that he flew. YO-YO was technically assigned to a different crew, but crew often shared airplanes. George's logbook shows he was Pilot-in-Command of YO-YO in combat. Also, YO-YO was well photographed, providing me with excellent documentation. So, we go with what we know.

George was a B-24 pilot and flew with the 741st Bomber Squadron of the 455th Bomber Group out of Italy in WW2. When I finish this piece, I'll post what I hope to be a suitably interesting story here. Until then, the following anecdote will have to suffice.

Fighters, of course, are the Glamorous Ones of the air war. Man, machine, duels to the death, that sort of thing. Bombers, on the other hand, were the lumbering trucks in a freezing skyway, hauling loads of explosive iron, their crews captive to the will of whatever fates rolled that day.

Most people are acquainted with the movie stereotype of the bomber pilot clenching his teeth, yelling to "Stay off the radio!" and to "Stay in formation!" while the airplane bounces from the heat blast of flak and the amputations caused by slashing enemy fighters.

If you're like me, you've thought, "Those guys were either jar-headed or immensely brave.

The fact was, the bomber crews of WW2 were beyond brave. They were highly trained, experts who's act of service were, in no uncertain terms, heroic. If you ever get to one of the American Cemeteries scattered around the world - the ones with the rows and rows of perfect-white crosses - notice the casualty lists. Over 25% of the Army casualties in WW2 were Air Force. Of that number, the majority were bomber crew.

Bomber pilots from other nations didn't fare any better - I shudder to think of what the casualty rate of Japanese bomber pilots must have been. I'd guess 70%. (Note to self: remember to ask Barrett Tillman).

I can understand the life of a fighter pilot - commanding ones own fate. But the bombers, on their droning straight-line path, plodding through a wickedly random, lethal gauntlet, seem, well, cruel. Wasteful. Foolish.

Well, more on that later.

In the meantime, I'm learning all-things-B-24J. This will be an interesting task because the Liberator (the B-24's nickname) I get to draw is mostly natural aluminum. I've not come even CLOSE to achieving what I think is an acceptable aluminum finish. Maybe I'll make progress here? The other difficulty behind the B-24 is that it was essentially a flying box; the sides were huge slabs of metal and rivets, absorbing the regular irregular patterns of warps, stress and dimples of combat flight.

Wish me luck.

06 August, 2009

Profile 35: "Four Six One" as flown by Kyösti "Kössi" Karhila

Kyosti "Kossi" Karhila was a fighter pilot in the Finnish Air Force. He shot down well over 32* Russian airplanes in air-to-air combat, at least eight** of which were downed flying "MT-461" as shown - a German-built Messerschmitt Bf 109 G6/R6 fighter.

From an artistic standpoint, "Four Six One" was pure work. I have always thought the 109 was rather peculiar and never could get my head around how the the Messerschmitt looked. Too many subtle curves, bumps and quirky design shapes - the airplane's lines are not simple like an F6F or elegant like a Spitfire. A page from my sketchboook is included below - it was as a way to get into the "Luftwaffe vibe." When I finished that 109 in-flight (red arrow), I was surprised it looked even somewhat like a 109. I thought "Wow! How'd I do that?!"

The camouflage drove me nuts. Balancing the vague grays and weathering probably took a few days off the useful life of my eyes. I'm not 100% happy with the result, but Kossi approved and I'm in optic pain. I'm letting it go.

However, the history part of the process was utterly fascinating. This project began with a chance meeting in Cambridge, UK with one of the board members of the Finnish Aviation Museum Society. Earlier in the day, my buddies and I were talking about how (aside from a little incident with the Brits in 1812), America had never been invaded. War is something that has happened, "over there."

Having a beer in England, we were in one of those "over there" countries. In short order, our table grew to include 3 Americans, 1 Brit, 1 Belgian, an Australian and 3 Finns. Discussing politics and history with our new friends, the reality of human aggression and all of the gray, blurry decisions that arise from it became clear. And we Yanks had to come to the grateful understanding that we were culturally ignorant of war's doorstep experience. Thank. God.

Finland's history during WW2 is extraordinary. The Finns were Pro-West, Pro-Democracy, Pro-human rights, Anti-Communist, Pro-German, tolerant of Jews and masterful of the Russians and then ended up beating the Germans to appease the Russians...if you're interested in politics or history, Finland will fascinate, if not confuse.

Suffice it to state, the Finnish culture is strongly self-reliant and will do whatever it takes to stay whole. Bear in mind that Helsinki, along with London and Moscow, was one of only 3 European capitals that didn't experience some sort of occupation in WW2.

Aside from staving off the Russian juggernaut, Finland created and managed an amazingly effective air force with mostly obsolete aircraft. As a point of fact, of the 1,435 confirmed air-to-air victories over "the Ruskis", almost 1/3 of them were obtained by Finnish pilots flying the Brewster "Buffalo" - an airplane regarded as one of the worst combat aircraft of all time.*** It wasn't until the Finns bought fighters from the Germans that they had truly first-line aircraft to fight against the Soviets.

Back to Four Six One.

The airplane shown is a Bf 109 G-6/R6. Though the Bf-109 series was the most produced series of fighter aircraft in the history of aviation, the individual variants are wide and varied. The G-6/R6 variant was created as a bomber-destroyer by tacking on two 20mm gun pods beneath the wings. The results were both impressive and depressing at the same time. On one hand, the increased fire power was awesome - a well aimed 'tap' on the trigger was an instant kill. On the other, the added gun pods were not unlike a Porsche owner entering a road race while towing a boat; the increased drag and weight of the guns turned the 109 into a clumsy truck.

Beacause of these encumbrances, many fighter pilots didn't like the G-6/R6. Except for Kossi. He chose to embrace the airplane's tremendous power, giving Four Six One the affectionate nickname of, "Cannon Battery."

You must remember that most of the great aces in WW2 were stalkers, not brawlers. They became experts in get-in-get-out tactics, relying on speed and marksmanship. Twirling duels in the sky were dramatic, but could also be wasteful of physical energy, fuel and ammo. Kossi was not in the service to perform aerobatics but to defend Finland from invaders. All he really wanted was that precise moment in time and space where the enemy would cross paths with a few well-placed cannon shells and...


At the risk of showing my embarrassingly poor physics acumen, the kinetic energy of a pound of explosive shells, traveling at 2,500 feet per second and hitting a thin-skinned airplane is, well, lethal. Kossi was a brilliant shot. Of course, he had to be. - the tradeoff of maneuverability for firepower gave a well-flown "R6" only a momentary advantage.

In the end, though my "artistic" skills were raised, my appreciation for Finland was rather more so. In learning about Kossi, I was reminded of how important the individual can be in shaping reality for many. This blog post will undoubtedly get shared among many Finns who will read of a countryman who rose to the occasion of Service and Country. That, is a good thing.

Anyone, everywhere, owes their lot -in part- to individuals. To those in poverty and ruin, to fools. To those living in peace and prosperity, to heroes.

I'm pleased to add Kossi to my list of heroes.

Oh - some sketches I made of Finnish Brewster, 109 and Hawk 75 planes.

And a sketch of MT-461 in flight - it looks like I tried to give it that "chopped roof" effect that hot-rodders do to their cars! (laughs)

*32 confirmed, but possibly more than 42, based on post-war Soviet archive searches.
**8 victories in MT-461 are confirmed, but with the addition of unconfirmed victories, it may be 16.
***The Finns took their unloved Brewsters and made Mad Max-like modifications, boosting the airplane's survivability. But, there's no motivation quite like fighting for sheer survival and I'm sure that played heavily into the Finn's success with the airplane.

26 July, 2009

Profile 34.6 - Yellow 6 as flown by Kyösti "Kössi" Karhila

8/2/09 update - tail and fuselage shown...but Kossi thought the cockpit area was too "fat" so I'm not showing that quite yet.

The airplane above, to me, represents life in its hard, cold ambiguity. It's a German-designed Messerschmitt 109 G6/R6 flown by Finnish Air Force ace, Kyosti Karhila.

For most Americans, the closest they get to Finnish culture is using a Nokia phone (you're not alone if you had thought all this time that the company was Japanese). And to be frank, Finnish history is devilish in its complexity. Suffice it to say, for the past 100 years, Russia has wanted Finland and the Finnish people haven't let them have it. Of course, people died in the process. Most of them, Russians.

Now, two things have to be made clear (and this will only add to the confusion). First, though there was a fascist element in the pre-WW2 Finnish government, the swastika on the side of the Messerschmitt has nothing to do with the nazi symbol. The Finns maintain they were using the design in 1918, way before Hitler thought of using Graphic Design as a way to motivate the masses.

Second, the Finns saw Stalin's communism as a greater evil than Hitler. Russia was shooting. Germany wasn't. So, they got the help where they could. I wouldn't want to have to choose between Stalin and Hitler, that's for sure.

I have a growing respect for Finland's tenacity and tough choices. Today, they are a thriving nation with its own rich culture. They've been the "David" to Russia's "Goliath" and worked very hard for their own Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. When the opportunity presented itself to do a print-series of an aircraft flown by one of her national heroes, I was compelled to take it.

Hopefully, Yellow 6 will be done sometime in August and have the prints submitted to Mr. Karhila in September for signing. More as this develops, but until then, I've only managed to get a handle on just the tip of Karhila's airplane...much like my grasp of Finnish history.

23 June, 2009

Profile 34: KAY II as flown by "Sandy" Moats

"KAY II" was a last-minute request to support Colonel Len Kloeber's book, "Victory Principles - Lessons from D-Day." Len was specifically looking for an airplane that had some sort of connection to the momentous June 6 date and noted Sanford "Sandy" Moats' Kay III (Profile 8).

Profile 8 was never intended for a production-print run. In fact, the artwork was a fast lash-up for a symposium at Seattle's Museum of Flight and though the rendering worked for the presentation, it simply wasn't good enough to light up a press.

Now, I know as an aviation artist, I'm a solid grade "C" - up-close, I get a C-. From 20' away, I can pull off a C+. But I do try to be accurate with two things - nose art and markings and I knew there were a couple errors that would need to be corrected before sending the artwork to the printer. When Len's request came in, I simply couldn't find my one photographic reference of Kay III and therefore, couldn't correct what I knew was "wrong" with the version shown in this blog.

So, I offered to provide another D-Day plane. God knows there are a bunch - though the ground forces met with their own hell on the beachheads, the pilots ruled the skies over Normandy. Only two very brave Luftwaffe pilots made any kind of showing on D-Day. Len however, insisted on Moats' plane. The only other shot we had at getting a decently documented piece of art was Kay III's older sister, Kay II.

Just to be clear, Kay II and Kay III were not over the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. But her pilot was. Nevertheless, there's no doubt Sandy Moats went on practice the higher points of Leadership (he made 3 stars as a General in the Air Force). So, Len's choice of Kay II as a premium to promote his book was fitting.

ANYWAY, I had three days to bring Kay II to life and get her to the printer in order to meet Len's public appearance schedule. Sam Sox, a brilliant historian of the 352nd, was invaluable in getting the art right - notice the slight difference in blue between the two panels that hold the KAY II lettering versus the surrounding blue. Sandy was given a new plane sometime late-summer/early fall '44 and asked that the old "KAY" artwork be pulled off of his old plane and put on the new. Sam helped me get the "old blue" and the "new blue" right.

However, in the end, Moats himself ended up providing the necessary reference by giving me an invaluable help in lettering, coloring and positioning of the nose art, his own photo of the moment KAY II's panels were transfered to the new plane.

FYI - Sandy's on the far left.

06 June, 2009

Profile 33: 03 as flown by William "Bill" Creech

"03" is an A-36 Apache, the P-51 Mustang's older, quirky brother. The airplane was given the "A for Attack" appellation, partly because it was fitted with metal grates that would pop out of the wing to control descent in a dive-bombing run. It was also an okay Fighter, but her Allison engine was best at low altitude; good enough because the typical mission of an A-36 was close air support and not swirling dogfights in the stratosphere.

At first, I wanted to do the airplane William "Bill" Creech was flying the fateful day he was knocked down over Japanese-occupied Burma. But government records, pilot memories and photographic evidence were scarce. In the end, I took Bill's blunt advice, "John, just draw one that looks like it'd been ours. Regardless, I flew it."

Up until I met the Dragon Flys, I had an idea that combat aircraft were personalized, lovingly groomed, nursed when ill, mourned when lost. I remember how Bud Anderson openly showed emotion as he described how his crew cared for his famous Mustang, "Old Crow."

Yet the 528th were a world away in a different climate, culture and mission. They had a more workman, utilitarian regard for their tools. Flipping through one of the pilot's photo album, I could see why - jungle heat, rot, rain and dysentery played havoc on plane and pilot. Dingy, dinged, the planes looked like they'd been recovered by archeologists. The Ground Crew were absolutely brilliant in keeping them mechanically ready. But I soon learned Burma was no place to get affectionate about anything.

Crew & pilots alike slept in surplus burlap tents. Cobras and boot-sized centipedes crawled the rotting jungle floor. Monkeys freaked in the trees, malarial mosquitos swarmed over anything warm with blood. The squadron toilet was a log - watch for things that bite before sitting.

It seemed that elsewhere in the world*, the Winged Warriors wielded eagles while the 528th battled with buzzards. And battle, they did, flying close-air support for a group of bad-ass commandos called Merrill's Marauders.

To give you an idea how hard these planes were flown, on one day in Summer of 1944, a record 76 sorties were flown. Considering 4-5 airplanes were out-of-commission at any given time, that meant 20 airplanes flew at least 3 combat sorties a piece. Regardless of your role in the squadron, if you weren't working, you were sleeping...or on that log (everyone had dysentery).

And yet, having spent a fair amount of time with Dragon Fly luminaries, not one has grumbled about their service. Not even a hint. Ground crew are remembered with reverence, Merrill's Marauders with awe and their individual service as a chosen duty. They flew hard, fought hard and kept a soft spot for things that mattered.

I'm working on a more detailed presentation of Bill's "walk out" of the jungle - a feat of independence, confidence and courage. But until that's finished, I hope "03" serves as a totem to memorable sacrifice in a "forgotten" theater.

Oh...just so you know, the 528th received a Presidential Unit Citation for their outstanding combat record. I've held the actual document and it is beautiful.

*Joe Foss painted a pretty rough picture of flying from Guadalcanal, too. Either group of guys would have likely found the other's quarters to be equally interesting.

Photo courtesy Meyer Newell, 528th FS.

Temporary post - D-Day's unforgotten casualty

Unfortunately, I don't have an airplane ready to post today.

But I do have a picture and a story to share. The strangely tinted photo above was taken at a place called, "Bodney." Right now, it's a patch of ordinary land in East Anglia, England. But during WW2, it was the base of the 352nd Fighter Group. The building shown is all that remains of the 352nd's base - the all-important Control Tower. It's also the site of one of D-Day's earliest casualties.

As you can see, the place is rather decrepit. But on Midnight, June 6,1944, though unfinished, the tower was part of a hub of anxious activity as the men of the 352nd prepared for their huge moment - provide air cover for the invasion of Hitler's Europe.

If you have any imagination, picture this - inky darkness, the steady, urgent clump of boots, sober, low toned voices, clanks of metal...and about 1:30am, clunks of boots on aluminum wings followed by the fire-belching coughs of Merlin engines...

If we were to go back in time, and stand in that spot where I took the picture, we'd look left as 16 Mustangs of the 486th Squadron* taxi down the field to turn around for their take-off run. The sound would be hypnotic - the crackling lope of 30,000 some horsepower, trundling away, down the field. The visuals, of course, would be vague shadows and indistinct shapes save for the soft flicks of blue and white fire sparking from the exhaust.

Then, just as the seconds would tick to 2AM, engines would howl as the first four Mustangs begin their race toward the tower, galloping down the barely marked field, laden with fuel, ammo...and a sweaty pilot with very little experience in taking off in the black.

A few seconds pass as these airplanes roar closer. Your instincts tell you to get out of the way! Louder, louder, louder...we flinch and step back as the heavily burdened machines leave the ground. If we could see each other's faces, we'd be wide-eyed and breathless, perhaps even buffeted by propwash. If you were near me, you'd hear me blurt, "COOL!"

Then just as the first are airborne, another four roar towards...louder, louder, louder, we flinch again...BOOOM! A supernova of flame blinds us, a blast of heat slaps our faces, the sweet smell of aviation fuel is blown into our sinus...and those bullets, thousands of them, explode like the coughs of demons...

Come back to that photo. Notice the little overhang on the far left corner. On June 6, 2:00AM, that whole corner was ripped from the building as Lt. Robert Frascotti's P-51 smashed into the new tower, shearing the reinforced concrete into pieces, instantly killing him.

Just after I took that photo, Robert Powell, a pilot with the 328th FS, pointed out the vague distinction between the original structure and where the corner had been repaired. This "new" concrete and brickwork can just be barely made out. Powell then stated soberly, "The rest all took off by the light of his flames."

As you can imagine, the story of Frascotti's death is worthy of more words than I've provided. In fact, click here for the full story.

Nevertheless, there's an inspiring message in the ugliness of this early, perhaps first, casualty of D-Day. Today, when you go out to mow the lawn, shop, have a beer on the deck with friends, think about, talk about, if only for a second, the people who, in the words of Red James (Profile 31) "Did what they were supposed to do."

*The 352nd Fighter Group contained 3 squadrons - the 328th FS, the 486th FS and the 487th FS. Each Squadron flying 12 airplanes.

24 May, 2009

Profile 32: SNEEZY as flown by Donald "Mac" McKibben

"Olive Drab" is the official name but in reality, the color runs everywhere from forest green to sludge brown. Sun, rain, oil, sand all played a role in altering the hue after the plane left the factory. We'll never know exactly of the true shade of SNEEZY's Olive Drab. Instead, a handful of people make their educated decrees - "a little browner..." or "...kinda more darkish sorta."

To someone watching the process, I bet we appear nuts.

Yet, SNEEZY, a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, blew a fast one at me when her pilot revealed the airplane was polished with car wax. And, not some government issue car-wax, but the best stuff girlfriend* Nita could find back in Long Island. Mac recalls that she "...virtually corner(ed) the market for Simoniz (and shipped) it off to me in Bodney (England)." No kidding about cornering the market - there's at least four Buicks in a single P-47; can you imagine the number of cans it took to complete the job?!

And I wonder, "How on earth do I get a car-polish sheen on this thing?!" Well, you be the judge. Mac maintains the polish didn't so much change the color as it did merely add sheen. However, the main reason for the polish wasn't about the shine, but the speed.

Drag is "cubed" as velocity increases. In other words, the faster something goes, the resistance from drag grows stronger and stronger. The result of eliminating dust, dirt and scratches through a thorough polishing has been estimated to have provided as much as a 10 knot increase in airspeed! Those extra mph's could mean life and death, adding an extra second to close in on a surprise bounce or another inch distance away from an otherwise mortal bullet.

Suddenly, little details of paint become rather more interesting, don't you think?

The photo below shows Mac on SNEEZY's wing, and Crew Chief, Luman Morey. Though Mac trusted his life to Morey's mechanical prowess, he maintains that plenty of his own sweat was scrubbed into SNEEZY's Simoniz job.

*Nita later became Don's wife.
**"Sneezy" is named after one of Snow White's seven dwarves.
***Yes, Walt Disney's Sneezy had a tan coat. Mac's had a blue coat.
****Oh - Bill Creech (profile 17) Simonized his squadron's F-100s in Vietnam. Ironically, they were the 352nd FS.

Photos courtesy of Don McKibben via the 352nd Fighter Group Association.

23 May, 2009

Profile 32: SNEEZY Preview

This is my latest work-in-progress, a P-47 Thunderbolt flown by "Mac" McKibben of the 352nd FG. I wanted to get something up in time for Memorial Day. For some reason, I always start with the nose.

Anyway, historian Marc L. Hamel published a story about this particular airplane that's quite fascinating. Marc's letting me share his retelling of the account - click here for a downloadable .pdf on the details of a harrowing day for both pilot and civilian alike.

Nevertheless, "SNEEZY" heaved her last breath on March 8, 1944 over England when the airplane (and Mac) was involved in a multi-airplane mid-air collision. They were assembling formation in extreme fog and someone moved a few inches in the wrong direction...kabang! Tons of aluminum, gasoline and ammo clashed at 200knots. A multi-plane pile up in the sky.

Mac bailed out, SNEEZY augured in. Again, click here to download Marc's in-depth version.

Suffice it to say, accidents killed more of the 352nd than the Nazis. Accidents, such as those that happen while trying to get a formation of 12,000lb fighters together in 10 foot visibility. Risking one's life in mortal combat with the enemy may be honorable, but loss and pain because of an accident before the battle begins seems especially cheap and tragic.

Today, in peace and safety, a pilot would be using basic reasoning to stand on the airfield and announce to the wall of cloud, "No way am I going to take off in this soup!" But in 1944, the greater good overruled and the 352nd climbed to meet their particular responsibility.

The facts are, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are the result of decisions made regardless of odds or circumstances. They don't happen by accident.

Oops! Just found out that SNEEZY was a P-47 C-5 instead of a D-5. Perish the thought!

17 May, 2009

Profile 31: 18 as flown by Eugene "Red" James

History buffs will quickly recognize that the airplane above isn't WW2 vintage. For those who aren't so buffy, the clue that this Corsair is post-1945 is the red bar on the insignia. That feature was added circa 1947. To 99% of the population, such things aren't important. I could put "WW2 fighter plane" under the bottom and most wouldn't care any more or less. But I’m a history buff and try to get the details right.

Nevertheless, "18" was flown during the Korean Conflict by "Red" James, a Marine pilot. He flew Corsairs in both WW2 and Korea. I chose to do his Korean mount because of the sheer number of reference material - in fact, “18” is on display at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Easy details - just look.

Last Friday, Red told of how he was "called up" again for service in 1951. Remember, the American military had just decommissioned its gigantic WW2 force when the Korean situation ignited. Plenty of combat-experienced personnel were available for the call, almost immediately. For specialized warriors like pilots, a month or two of refresher courses is much more efficient than a year or more of raising pilots from scratch.

But by the time the North Korean Communists moved South, Red James had added a new experience to his resume on top of Corsair and carrier qualifications. He was a dad with two little kids and a wife. Though Red had a lot to offer the Marines by virtue of his skill and experience, he also had a lot more to lose.

Through these interviews, I’m challenged to think about beliefs on war, justice, duty - working to distinguish the feel-good thoughts from true conviction. In the course of Friday’s conversation, we discussed a word that can fan flames in emotionally-charged circles - Cowardice. I asked Red how he defined the term and his answer was devilishly simple - "Someone who doesn't do what they're supposed to do."

The men that I’ve interviewed are no longer the pilots of 1943 or 1951. They’ve gone on, living whole new lifetimes that proportionately, make their moments in combat just blips in time. But when they share their wisdom - hardened by The Great Depression and war, softened by some of the most prosperous decades in American record - I learn fine points that I could never get on my own.

The details of history offer the courage to do what "we're supposed to do."

I am grateful for Red's example.

Update: Red's granddaughter asked me to post a picture of him from his service days, so I here it is. It's an "official" Marine Corps photo. The paper is thick and brittle but the grain is unbelievably tight. No digital pixels, no washed-out insta-matic film - this is crisp, clear life circa 1944. I swear I can smell developer chemicals on my fingers after holding the photo.

Anyway, I've never met Red's granddaughter. But a round-about set of circumstances caused her to write me a note (real paper!) to "...talk to my grandfather! He flew Corsairs!" So, I call, write, draw, send, talk, email, post...and through the glory of 21st century technology, we're connected. She'll send this post onto a bunch of people, my kids will read this after dinner, someone else, somewhere will see the censor scratches on the photo and email, "Why did they do that? And so on.

Flash, 1944 blends with today. Trite? Naw. It's freaking amazing. Ordinary people being inspired by the reality of life makes history so very present and powerful. And, if we do what we're supposed to do, we all live forever.

24 April, 2009

Profile 30 - MAJ MAC as flown by Morris Magnuson

Firstly, the response to this blog has lead me to believe readers would like to learn more about my interviews and what I "do." So, please click here for web presentation that goes into greater detail on MAJ MAC. I hope you like it.

One of the great honors in interviewing these pilots and crew is the chance to hold, touch their historical documents and artifacts. Maybe I'm goofy, but the more I experience the wisdom of these men and their pasts, I believe the "self-help" genre can be replaced by old fashioned listening & learning.

Just today, I was flipping through the Cadet Yearbook of class 44-A and was struck by the positive, encouraging tone of the copy. Sometimes, popular media portrays leadership, command as cold, steeled and unyielding. Certainly General Patton cultivated that image (in reality, he was rather emotional, however). But the greater number of people respond to shine rather than shiners, even warriors.

To this end, I ask every veteran about who they regard as their most effective "Leaders." To a man, they are remembered as relational, expressive and positive. The "Easy's Angels" painted on the tips of 23rd FS rudders refer to Major "Easy" Miles - a particularly well-liked Group Leader who, in the words of Morrie, "Gave us a job and we all felt good doing it."

Hamilton, "Mac" McWhorter (see profile 21) stressed leadership's ability to inspire and encourage as contagious, something one would want to pass on to the next person. These are good words - right now, as a parent, I'm looking at my 3 year old and wondering how to LEAD her to stop unloading every darned drawer in the house onto the floor...

The scan below is a page out of that 44-A Yearbook...

04 April, 2009

Profile 29.75 - MAJ MAC Preview

The next profile, a P-47D-28 flown by a member of the 36th Fighter Group is not quite finished. The sketches shown were done on our kitchen bar with one of my kids' colored pencils. They're all I want to show right now.

In fact, tomorrow, I'm going to be going over a draft with the airplane's pilot. He hasn't seen a complete picture - artwork or photograph - of his old mount for sixty four years. The last time he was in a P-47 was when one rocketed out from under his tumbling body, belching black smoke and flames. But more about that later this month.

My reason for this post is to share a little bit of the behind-the-scenes efforts behind my artwork. Currently, I'm figuring at least 20 people all over the world have been helping identify the specific markings and colorations of this particular airplane. Wow! Their work and understanding of "getting it right" is humbling. Yet, the effort is essential. Once this particular plane graces the Internet, a historical record will be created. As time passes, my tolerance for mistakes is decreasing because I'm continually learning the wisdom of "measure twice, cut once."

Realize that Group Commanders were under a tacit order to keep cameras away from their planes for security reasons. Of course, the gagillion books, movies and websites on WW2 aviation are loud testimony to the fact that the order wasn't enforced that well. But, the CO of the 36th did his best - compared to many 8th and 9th AF units, the 36th FG exists only in text. As fortunate as I am to call on excellent, reputable historians, only seven photos of 36th FG/23rd FS P-47D's have been available to me for reference!

Every Group, Squadron had their own little quirks of markings. Yellow might have been fresh and bright on one plane, dingy and chipped on another. Some squadron letters might have that military "stencil" effect, others might not. Serial numbers may show all seven digits or just six...photos are essential for accuracy.

However, undoubtedly the greatest challenge is interpreting black and white photographs for color illustration. For example, the photo below is the best shot the pilot has of his mount. Does it show a red and yellow nose? A black nose and gray-painted cowl panels? Black and yellow? Five different "official" sources showing five different color combinations don't help. Yet, the plane must fly off the press sooner or later. Stop back in a few weeks to see where we landed.

In case you're wondering why the pilot just doesn't 'remember' the details, the question is valid, but the answer isn't as simple as it may seem. The age of these pilots isn't so much a factor - please know, I've been interviewing these guys for years and to this day, they're still sharper than many of my buddies. (No offense). Their memories of the past are astounding and can be backed up with journals, log books...the problem is that these pilots looked at their aircraft as mere tools. They had no idea they'd be quizzed a lifetime later!

15 March, 2009

Profile 29 - RUSTY as flown by William R. Preddy

Visually, "Rusty" is a rather unremarkable P-51. The 339th FG color scheme was, by WW2 standards, somewhat hum-drum. However, to me, this airplane represents a bold reality of living that I often choose to ignore - that life can be horribly unfair.

William Preddy was the younger brother of 8th AF ace, George Preddy. George's machines are shown twice in this blog - Profile 1 and Profile 23...and the elder Preddy's legend is well documented through book, museum, foundation and memories of the grateful men who served under and alongside.

Bill was an excellent combat pilot in his own right. According to the Preddy family, George believed Bill was on his way to achieve at least the same aerial success he had. And, there was none of that "big brother shadow" for Bill - he trained and achieved on his own skill. The Air Force may have appreciated the elder Preddy, but nepotism had no place in putting pilots into expensive technology and work where competence could mean the life and death of many, many others.

Bill learned of George's death almost a month later. The following is an excerpt from his letter home to mom & dad:

"What I have to say now is difficult to explain because I hardly understand it myself. There is no use to say not to grieve for I know that is impossible. It is useless to say try and forget, for we can’t and shouldn’t. We should remember, but in doing so we should look at it in the true light.

A man’s span on this earth is not measured in years. Above all, that is least important. To find happiness, success, and most important, to find God is the Zenith of any man’s worldly activities. I think a man has not lived until these things have been achieved. ... Yes, George knew a full, rich life. He surely reached out and touched the face of God many times. ...

I close offering you my eternal love and devotion. Let us carry on as George wanted and may we arrive at his standard.

Always Love, Bill"

Bill wrote that the day after he learned of George's death. Geez. What an attitude! To be able to lose a beloved to the senselessness of war (and friendly fire, no less) and maintain a level of objectivity is impressive, especially so in today's culture of self-gratification. At the risk of being trite, would the situation happen today, would Bill have been pressured to contact a lawyer?

We'll never know. Bill died on April 18, 1945 at a Czech hospital from wounds he sustained from being shot down by German ground fire.

Two sons - the best of the best, so wholly deserving of what the world may offer as success, dead because a small group of sociopaths...bah. It's not fair at all.

The picture below is one I took at St. Avold American Cemetery in France. Bill's cross is on the left, George's is on the right. It was a gorgeous day.

Note: "Rusty"has 2 victory markings (one earned by Bill, the other earned by Rusty's prior pilot, Lloyd French).