16 October, 2014

Profile 89: FINISHED—"Shirley" - Curtiss P-40N as flown by Cliff Long, 51st FG

“Old men have no more dreams.  Instead we have memories.”
Hold that thought.

Finished—“Shirley,” the P-40N flown by Lt. Clifford Long, 51st FG, Baoshon, China, circa late 1944.

King Solomon, the wisest man ever to have lived, is alleged to have written, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning.” Perhaps it’s my own foolishness but I can’t agree here.  This particular commission has been so rewarding, it’s a shame to mark it “finished.”

The art really turned out well.  “Shirley” was one of the last P-40s to see combat in WWII and therefore had to look the part—tired, used, but still vital and deadly. The standard olive-drab paint was notorious for “chalking” under the pressure of nature’s elements and in the process, became a better surface for collecting dirt and oil stains, too.  “Shirley” was no hangar queen, that’s for sure.

Have a look at the photo below to get an idea of her natural surroundings.  It’s one of, if not the only, known color photos of 51st FG P-40s.   And the circled airplane is “Shirley” herself.  But if you squint just a little and let your mind go, you can hear the blare of the idling ’40 in the foreground and feel the warmth and dryness of the sun-warmed Chinese air.

Yet, again, “Shirley” is not about the art.  She’s about the story.  And if the art is good, the story is better (it always is).

Beginning a project has many parallels to building a model airplane.  The initial phone call, letter or handshake is like piercing the cellophane that surrounds the box, crinkling it up into a ball and  sliding the lid up off the bottom.  With a gentle “pphhumph” of vacuum, the contents are revealed and the plastic ‘trees’ of pieces are inspected.

In this case, the first “piece” I got to experience was not with Cliff, but his wife.  In the small-talk, I made a quick mental calculation and figured that they’d been married nearly seventy years.  It’s a fairly startling number and I couldn’t help but blurt, “What has been your secret to success?!”  She hesitated for a moment, obviously in thought, and then stated with a matter-of-factness that made it all seem so simple, “We help each other.”

One of my buddies has a phrase for ideas that pop in your head and wiggle around as they're being cogitated—he calls them “brain worms.”   Pop!  Though we chatted idly about weather and family, Shirley’s brain worm didn’t just wiggle, it struck camp…but I’ll get to that later.

Anyways, my interview with Cliff began shortly thereafter and the “model” begun.

Armchair historians like to poo-poo the P-40 as an also-ran piece of Allied aerial kit.  Citing lackluster performance stats and the superiority of contemporary equipment, these critics only show their ignorance.  Instead, the P-40 possessed the greatest qualities of any weapon of war:  availability and ease of use.  With nearly 14,000 produced, the P-40 series was built in numbers greater than the technically superior Corsair and the iconic B-17.   Durable and powerfully armed (no differently than the P-51 Mustang, F6F Hellcat and Corsair), the P-40 was also easy to fly.  Pilots qualified on the P-40 with regular ease.

How regular?  And how easy?  This is were Cliff weighs in.  At age 18, the Army Air Force felt confident enough in his abilities to give him wings and throw him the keys to the thing…and at age 19, they sent him to China where he would then take the '40 into mortal combat.

Though the P-40 was used in every theatre of WWII, “China” is where it’s most often identified. First-used in the famous American “Flying Tigers” mercenary group, the P-40, its branded “shark mouth” paint scheme and leaping tiger emblem have become permanently identified as symbols of the CBI (China-Burma-India theatre of operations).

By 1944, when Cliff arrived, the P-40 was being phased out of front-line combat in favor of the faster, more powerful and longer-ranged P-51.  But such a transition took time and the 51st FG was somehow low on priority list and all the while, Cliff racked up missions in the P-40.

Of course, there are marked distinctions between types of missions:  recon, escort, ground attack…each one requires a certain set of skills and faces a certain number of dangers.   By summer of 1944, Allied air superiority was well established.  The same could not be said for the war beneath the clouds, however.  In the jungles, hills, crags and steppe of southwest China, northern Burma and eastern India, the Japanese prevailed, arguably up until the last minutes of the war.

“Close air support” (not unlike the future war in Vietnam) was relied upon to destroy Japanese positions.  Armed with bombs (and sometimes rockets) the 51st used their P-40s as dive bombers.  The risk was, of course, huge.  Anti-aircraft fire could be withering and the liquid-cooled engine stopped cold with a single slice of shrapnel to the coolant line. It’s tough, impersonal work to run such a gauntlet.  It’s much more satisfying to pit skill against another man in an aerial dogfight.  At least the ‘luck’ factor is mitigated by the controllable quality of ‘skill.’  Right?

Cliff didn’t necessarily think so.  “John, the best tool for the job is the one you know best.  Our work, any work, demands focus and attention.  That I had so much experience in the P-40 was a factor in my success.  I knew the dynamics of that airplane and it was that knowledge that kept me alive.”

Recalling the moment where his Commanding Officer asked for volunteers to transition to P-51s, Cliff said all-hands shot up but not his.  Training and practice were times to learn.  Combat, on the other hand, was a time to fight.  As a bomb-delivery device, the P-40 was excellent and as long as that was the mission at-hand, the P-40 would be the mount.  He described how two highly experienced pilots but fresh with P-51s met their deaths in combat situations that may have been different had they stayed in more familiar aircraft.

“The P-40 brought me through 104 combat missions.  Of course it's my favorite airplane.  Why wouldn’t it be?!” he chuckled.   “But I’ll tell you something else about those missions,” he stated cooly, “103 of them were before I turned twenty.  I was just nineteen.”  Cliff emphasizes his age, still amazed that such youth could have been entrusted with such circumstances.  “I flew my 104th and last combat mission on my birthday.” (March 3, 1945).

Cliff left the combat arena with 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 4 Air Medals and the confidence that comes from survival and peer respect (he was regularly selected as a Flight Leader). “I never liked combat,” he said.  “To me, it was a time where I just gritted and prayed.  But I was proud that I’d passed the tests and made the grade.”  Transferred to Karachi, India in April of 1945, Cliff trained newbie pilots two and three years older than he in the ways of the wild and this further reinforced that the days to come would only be great.   But it wasn’t to be so.

“I am afraid that my main memory of WWII is a bitter one,” he said softly.  “When I came back, I had an offer to lead a Training Command and another to join the first operational P-80 squadron (the first operational American jet fighter).  But all this time, what I wanted to do most was get my girlfriend back-home out of circulation and go to college.  To me, the GI Bill offered the greater opportunity than the military.  So I left the service, got married and signed up for college at Penn State for Fall Semester, 1945.”   It was here that Cliff met a roadblock that is at once fascinating for its novelty and tragic in its commonality.

A little backtracking is in order.  

Cliff grew up as the second youngest in a family of eleven.   The Great Depression was in full-force and caring for the large family was Earl Long’s daily mission.  He held two jobs, the main one being a Tinsmith for one of the railroads.  “One of my father’s jobs was to make and repair cutlery for the trains.  Cutlery!” Cliff exclaims in emphasis.   It was a good job in that it was stable but the railroad still couldn’t bridge the gap between income and expenses.  “But dad need still needed to work two jobs.  So, he had an old truck that he used to haul coal off-hours.”

“One day, my father’s supervisor approached him and explained that the railroad was trying to keep as many people employed as it could and dad’s second job wasn’t fair to those who hadn’t any.  He was given the choice to quit the railroad or quit hauling coal.” Earl Long jumped the rails.

“I learned then that life was about discipline.  Not the switch kind (i.e. branch or stick used for beatings) but the discipline of your own life.  No one is going to look out for you.  You have to do it yourself.  And to do it yourself, it took discipline.”  The Long family’s pocketbook shrunk tight and Cliff remembers pitching in on deliveries of the black stuff.  But in time, one truck grew to two and coal delivery more than filled in any deficit caused by the loss of rail service.   His father’s example of risk and responsibility went to Cliff’s core; it is therefore no surprise that during his last year of High School, Cliff decided his time was better spent learning to fly airplanes than wood shop.  He left.

Fast forward back to Penn State.

Newly married, highly decorated, flush with confidence and backed by the G.I. Bill, Cliff was not prepared to hear that his admission to college was denied on account of his lack of a High School diploma.  “A High School diploma!” Cliff exclaimed.  “The service had taught me aeronautics, navigation, leadership and I’d passed the toughest tests a man can have only to have some 4-Fs in an office say I needed to finish…High School?!  I was twenty years old!”

The Altoona High School annual circa 1943.  Cliff was supposed to graduate in '43.  He didn't.

Cliff lost his place in college; the swell of returning vets filled the spot in a blink.  With a new bride, a life to start and of course, bills to pay, Cliff resigned to finding a job.  “After the war, there were no jobs.  There were so many people returning, there was nothing to do.”  Though he eventually found a spot working in a coal-crusted foundry (ironically for the railroad), his depression and bewilderment was so strong, it took decades for him to process it.

“At the time, I just buckled down and moved forward*. But as I got older, all of my life’s dreams have turned into memories.  And when I (finally had the chance in life to see) how my dream of college was blunted,”—Cliff’s voice trails for a moment—“I saw where that young man (himself) was let down and I understood the disappointment.”  He sighed.

Hold that thought.

If I’ve learned anything about interviewing “old guys,” its this:  Life is a trajectory that arcs from a definite beginning and ending. Along the way, highly personal circumstances are continually shaping, bumping and altering that trajectory.  At the beginning, life is about the goal.  But towards the end, the question, “How did I get here?” inevitably comes to mind and those one-time mercurial circumstances are now analyzed.  At once the “Old Guy” becomes satisfied—if not energized—by the clarity of understanding and frustrated at realizing exactly how much (or how little) a moment ended up shaping their life.

All us whippersnappers, are hereby put on notice, too.

Don’t get the impression that Cliff Long is angry.   I prompted his response when I asked him what the over-riding memory of WWII was.  He answered truthfully—he could accept the rules of war but somehow, the injustice of being held back for lack of a pedigree knocked his path in ways that it took decades to fully understand.  I took note to use care myself in how I might impact someone else’s trajectory, too.

“You asked,” he laughed. “But you know that P-40 represents the best (thing that had happened to me) don’t you?  It’s how I can also say I have so many good memories.” 

Of course, I did.  “Shirley” was named after the girlfriend that later became his wife.  

Off in the background, I heard her say something, Cliff acknowledged and then announced, “Well, that’s enough for today.  I have to go give my girlfriend a kiss goodnight.”

In my journal, I have written two sentences that, read apart, are thought provoking.  But together is the kind of advice that can lead a man through war, disappointment, success and a marriage that lasts seven decades:  

                       Remember that your dreams become memories…
                                            …and help each other.

By the way, during the print-signing, Shirley signed her name on top of the cowl.  Rightfully.

*Cliff eventually worked his way into a Sr. executive position for a large oil company with the predictable success that came from a man who learned discipline and leadership at an early age.