19 October, 2013

Profile 82 - FINAL: "Cocktail Hour" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

She's finished - it's "Cocktail Hour"!

Though I can't verify exactly how many times Lt. Raymond Plank flew her, this particular B-24 has become a most interesting symbol of his service.

Let me explain.

If you can get past nose artist Sarkis Bartigian's obvious high points, the piece itself is a brilliant look into the closing months of WW2, especially as seen through the eyes of war-weary soldiers.  Note the bright lights, big city, stars, music (and of course her).  Now, close your eyes and imagine rhythmic blasts from a swing Band in the corner, clinks of drinks and the excited, optimistic chatter of people blowing off the steam of a week's stress...

Or, as a buddy of mine is wont to proclaim around 4:30pm on a Friday, "Hey!  It's 5'oclock somewhere!" and then announce the Watering Hole in which he'll be holding court.

"Cocktail Hour" was a late-war B-24.  Though Bartigian is no longer around to interview, it's easy to see how his artwork represented the sentiment of so many; "It's time to get this damned war over and onto better things!" Indeed, the first recollection of WW2 that Raymond shared with me was not a combat mission but of a historic moment that, in his mind, sealed the end of the war.

The day was August 9, 1945, the location was an air base within the Okinawan island chain called "le Shima."  The day's missions were scrubbed,  the 43rd's B-24s grounded.  Raymond, never one to sit still and always reading between the lines, was quick to figure that 'something was up,' and managed an impromptu and unauthorized check flight in a C-46 Commando transport plane that an old buddy, Joe Sharpe, had flown in a day or two earlier.

Sneaking off like kids in their father's car, the two climbed over the ocean to the north.  Toward the crumbling empire of Japan.  "It seemed like we were flying a long time, (but that was probably) due to us doing something we weren't supposed to do!" Raymond laughed.   "We didn't know where we were going but I wanted to see if I could see it!"

What was "it"?

Fueled by a hunch, the two scanned the northern horizon, growing more anxious with each career-killing minute until,  a few minutes after 11am, poking up from the gentle curve of the earth, they saw IT— the boiling rise of a mushroom cloud.  "By gawd, that's where the sum-bitch* is!" Raymond exclaimed, laughing.  "We flew on toward it for another 20 minutes or so but then got the hell out of there!"

Raymond knew then, beyond a shadow of doubt, the war was over.

(photo: National Archives)

The next week, on August 17, three Japanese G4M "Betty" bombers, freshly painted in the universally accepted color of Surrender (white) landed at le Shima.  Though the moment was just a punctuation in the awkward, complicated process of ceasing hostilities, it was a momentous one for all present in that it was an undeniable punctuation to the times.

(photo: Raymond Plank)

"So you were there with your camera?"

"Yes.  I took that picture."

"That had to be an incredible moment!  Describe it for..."

"Yes!  I went up to the Major.  'Major Parker?  It looks like my services are no longer necessary!  May I hitch a ride to Manila?!"

"Huh?!"  I asked, confused by what Raymond was saying. I was expecting something about the sweetness of surrender, the defeat of the enemy, the triumph of the American will...but Raymond was on another track altogether.

"...and he said FINE!  What a guy.  Major Parker was a great guy!  He cared more about getting what was needed to get done than how it got done."

"So.  Wait a second.  You just...quit?"

"Well it was more complicated than that, but yes.  I had my Points (a method of scoring that would allow prioritization of returning to home based on wartime service) and I wanted to go home.  Finish my degree.  Start a business."

In other words, for Raymond Plank, the winding down of defeated engines was not the sound of victory but a metaphorical shriek of a work whistle signaling the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Lt. Raymond Plank caught the first ship home and did exactly as he'd planned.

So, how did that work out?  Click here.  That's the business Raymond started— the Apache Corporation. Those aren't millions of dollars, they're billions of dollars.  In other words, Raymond Plank had one helluva Cocktail Hour.

It's rare enough for me to talk to WW2 bomber pilots.  Rarer yet to talk to ones that were there at momentous moments in history.  And, of those that went on to create and lead billion-dollar companies?  Raymond is the only one.  And will likely be the only one.

Ok.  Hold that thought.

People say to me all the time, "Geez it must be great to get all those old stories!"  It is!   Flak barrages, atomic bombs and topless women on B-24s are sexy topics.


The more time I spend with 'old guys,' the greater my belief that we Americans are living in tragically deficit times.  Not the deficit of money, natural resources or international prestige but of the the thing that is eminently more valuable: Wisdom.

Think about it—from Social Security to Boca Raton, FL, the removal of the elderly from daily life has been so systematic, it reeks of a conspiracy to keep the rest of us in a state of foolishness.  Disagree?  Well, this past week, during the clamor of our government shutdown, very few people I talked to actually seemed to understand that we elected those people...

Look.  80% of my interview-time with Raymond has been spent on learning about the things that took him from a $250,000 ball of venture capital to over $50 Billion in market revenue.  I have hours of notes on topics like ethics, character, risk, energy policy, opportunity, reward, regret... I know it can be argued that Raymond's success is an anomaly but the truth is, I've heard it all before from old guys like Wendell Hanson, Don Bryan, Bill Creech, Steve Pisanos, Claude HonePunchy Powell, JD Collinsworth...and my list of Vietnam-era 'old guys' is growing at a priceless rate, too.

There's so much to be learned from how others have minted success from molten adversity.  That's the truly great stuff to me and I wouldn't have gotten a bit of it had I not talked to Old Guys; it's how I make up my own tragic deficits in wisdom and heartily recommended to others as a tonic for the times.

A toast to Lt. Raymond Plank the bomber pilot and Raymond Plank the Captain of American industry.

It's Cocktail Hour.

Time to get to work.

NOTE:  Raymond wrote a book.  If you want to learn something, you can buy it here.  Or, if you really want to make his day, buy it here or here.

AND...if you'd like to buy a print of Cocktail Hour, signed by Raymond, go here.

*That'd be the second atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki.

11 October, 2013

Profile 82 - UPDATE: "548" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

Have a look.  I'd say it's maybe... 40% done.   Maybe.  I'm kind of grumpy about it.  I loathe the "middle" of a difficult project as it's too late to turn back and too much left to do—rather ironic considering the story you're about to read.

The next and final post will show Raymond Plank's B-24 in her sex and booze fueled glory. (smirk)  At least a B-24 that Raymond flew.  Once or twice.  Regardless, you'll just have to wait as I'm just not that good at drawing topless women.  (Too distracting).

However, to know anything about WW2 in the Pacific, one of, if not the dominant forces dictating American military strategy was the sheer size of the Arena.  Aside from continental Asia, WW2 was fought over islands sprinkled over the earth's largest ocean.  Look at the map below.  The battlefield was HUGE.  And no one appreciated the expanse below like the airman.

There are no landmarks over open ocean.  Get lost?  The choice is brutal: ditch the airplane and risk being smashed upon impact or bail out and hope the life preserver holds air (by the way, the water was full of teeth and a speck of yellow bobbing in millions of square miles of rolling ocean is nigh impossible to spot).

Thousands of men, airplanes and bombs shuttled their way to and from targets over and over and over.  Being war and all, the efforts of both sides to destroy the other were mighty; it's impossible to tell how many aircraft (Japanese and Allied) were downed over open ocean but it's safe to put that number in the thousands, too.

Frankly, it's impossible for 21st Century folk to fully appreciate what it must have been like for Raymond Plank and his crew of nine to do their work.  To know that the next five to ten hours would be marked by monotony over open water, punctuated by a few fast minutes of terror at the target, only to return home in a potentially damaged machine is jarring.

Yet last week, Raymond attempted to fill me in.

The time was early 1945.  Japan was, of course, losing the war in a big way.  The Japanese Army Air Force was a shred of its former self and the Navy's aircraft had long lost their sea legs due to the decimation of her aircraft carriers.  But, as the Japanese were nowhere near admitting defeat, they defended their targets against the Allied aerial armada with legendary ferocity.  Namely, "Ack Ack" or, anti-aircraft guns.

On this particular mission—the actual date lost for the moment, but we'll get that figured out—the target was a Japanese air field on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).  From the freshly recaptured Clark Air Base in the northern Phillipines, the trip was approximately 1,000 miles round-trip.  In case you're wondering, that's a 6 hour trip.  Half over water.

Ray remembers the approach rather well.  The flak began as the peppering of black smudges in the tropic sky and soon rose to a crescendo of unusual violence.  Though a 30 ton giant, Ray's B-24 still shuddered under the impacts of supersonic shards.  Against the roar of the engines, the delicate "tink!" and "dunk!" of flak pieces were deceptively subtle.

Want to get a feel for it?  Click on the movie below, (it might take a second to load) turn your volume up all the way and imagine small handfuls of rocks being tossed at your window...(I made that little film while riding in a B-24, btw).

"We were taking very heavy flak.  Very heavy." Raymond stated in his distinctive, scholarly drawl.  "And then, a 120mm (guessed) shell perforated our right wing.  The entry hole was about the size of the projectile but the exit blew all to hell.  So much that the rubber seals in our wing tanks were obliterated and gasoline streamed out."

Stop there.  The Japanese 120mm gun fired an explosive round.  In Raymond's case, however, the round did not explode.  It simply passed through the wing like a hot poker through a candle.  Had it exploded, Raymond Plank and crew would have been blown to pieces over the China Sea.

With reflexes honed by repetitive training, Raymond quickly feathered the #1 engine to eliminate the chance of a spark igniting the raw spewing into the atmosphere.  Did they complete their bomb run?  Jettison their bombs?  Raymond doesn't recall.  All he remembers is the gentle, ginger sway out of the formation to get out of the combat area and head for home.

With one dead engine, a dramatic loss of fuel and hundreds of miles to fly, the return flight was, to say the least, nervous.

I tried to capture the moment with my iPad using my brand-new Wacom pen.  It's cheesy, but I think you'll get the gist of what it might have looked like to take a hit in the wing....*

What I couldn't draw is what was happening in the cockpit.  In the fury of the moment, Raymond began to realize that, in addition to the seismic damage to the airplane, three men in his crew were wounded; casualties of the blizzard of metal they'd flown throw.

"Our nose gunner took a piece of metal to his foot.  He was screaming like mad..." Raymond explained.  "Our bombardier pulled him back to behind the flight deck.  He was bleeding a lot, so he decided he needed a tourniquet.  (Once that was applied), he pulled off the boot and worked the jagged metal through the foot.  It had to hurt like mad!   He loaded him up with (morphine) and sulfa powder."

One of the waist gunners took a piece of flak to his head.  Fortunately, he'd put his combat helmet at the first sign; the piece dented the helmet and bruised the soft tissue.  Surely without the helmet, the gunner would have been killed instantly.  The tail gunner too was hit, his specific injury lost to the the passing of seventy years of life...

"We'd made it back to base.  An ambulance, a fire truck and a Chaplain were waiting for us,' Raymond explained. 'But our left tire was in shreds.  It'd been hit by flak.  We couldn't land with only one tire or else we'd ground loop (essentially a high-speed spin-out on the airstrip).  We knew we had to equalize the landing gear somehow so I got out (Raymond was co-pilot on this mission) and went back to the waist gunner's spot where we held one of the crew out the window into the slipstream where he could blow out the tires with a .50 cal."

Yes, I asked.   "Really!?  You hung a guy out with a .50 cal. machine gun to shoot the tire?!"

"Yes." Raymond replied matter of factly.  "I held onto him and someone else was hanging onto me!"

(Note: If the sight of a man trying to manage the explosive power of a Browning .50 heavy machine in the raging slipstream is too fantastic to imagine, please know the crew tried to shoot out the tire with a .45 sidearm pistol.   The taught, reinforced rubber only deflected the big bullets, necessitating the raise in calibre.)

Minutes later, the B-24 ground its way to a halt at Clark, a battered wreck.  With the wounded quickly Jeeped to the base hospital, the crew stood back to appreciate their mount; it was holed 367 times.  Unworthy of repair, a few necessary parts were stripped and the rest of her pulled to the side and tagged for scrap.

Raymond, on the other hand, had no idea that he had inaugurated a charmed life...

And, you'll read about THAT in the next and final post of Raymond's B-24.**

* ** Update:  Just got off the phone with the man (Raymond).  He and I had a miscomm; in the little animation, I drew the #3 taking a hit when instead, it was the #1 (outboard).    Also, Raymond wanted to make sure I got the point across that he flew a number of B-24s; three of which were written off.  The B-24 to follow will be no more "his" than any of the other crews that flew her.

06 October, 2013

Profile 82 - BEGINNING: "???" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

He stated it three times in expressing the one thought.  Each time, he spoke the word in that old-school fashion of putting the emphasis on the last syllable.  Like a command.  Like a privilege.

"They gave me responsibility.   I was 22 and had responsibility.   The responsibility of 9 men and of killing thousands of Japanese."

But I didn't hear the word at first.  I was still stuck on the "9 men" and "Killing thousands of Japanese."

He held eye contact for another brief moment—crisp blue eyes in a face of delicate features, chiseled and smoothed from 92 years of life—then returned to buttering his pancakes, allowing my mind catch up to what my ears had brought.  It was then that I understood what he was saying.  Responsibility is not a thing or a task.

Responsibility is power.  And if you have responsibility for something, it's a big deal.

Ok.  Have a look at the B-24 above.  It's going to change a lot as I'm not quite sure on the particular serial numbers, nose art and model.  Drawing the oddly shaped B-24 is an additional challenge because the type had so many different variations...

I'm not complaining.  The B-24 that I settle upon will be one flown by Lt. Raymond Plank of the 64th Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group during the final but shockingly vicious months of war against Imperial Japan.  This morning's breakfast with Raymond generated six pages of notes including one particular story that I'll share in the next post.

However, the most fascinating aspect to this story is not the moments of terror and hours of anxiety over ocean and enemy but Raymond's whole life of...

... responsibility.

Stay tuned.