24 December, 2014

Profile 98: IN-PROGRESS— "Kunk's Klunk," the P-38J flown by James Kunkle, 370th FG

I probably shouldn't doodle in church.  But sometimes, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Have a look above at the progress shot of "Kunk's Klunk" - the P-38J-10 from the 401st FS of the 370th FG.  Below, you'll see my opening sketches, drawn on my journal, the day this project was started, December 7.

Typically, I have a little 'nicer' pencil sketch to open a project, but this one had a sense of urgency that put it on the fast-track.  I'd just sent out a notice to a group on my email list that I'd been commissioned to fill a P-38-sized hole on a patron's office wall.  Since I try to always pair my artwork with talking to the pilot, I put out the call, "Anyone know of any WWII P-38 pilots around?!" and the response was not only quick but remarkable in that it was echoed:  "You have to talk to Kunkle!"

If I've learned anything about interviewing old guys, it's this:  opportunity is like the UPS guy—when it knocks, it isn't going to wait.  So, I pushed what was on my 'drawing table' out with one hand and dialed the man with the other.  Of course, it hadn't hurt that a few folks had cleared my approach but he was more than willing, "Draw my airplane?! Sounds great!  What do you want to know?!"

Ok.  Pause that train-of-thought.

Virtually everyone has had that "Think fast!" moment.  Usually, it involves something hard like a frisbee.  "Think fast!"  Ziiiiinggg - bonk!

Throwing frisbees at unprepared people is not a recommended practice.  But if there's an arena that honors quick-thinking, it's that of aerial combat.  Everyone knows this, there's nothing new in that thought.  However, I've always wondered why there are some people who can make quick decisions while others can't.  Why some people can quickly duck and/or snatch the frisbee and whip it right back...while others get a black eye.

Though I don't really have any solid conclusions yet, my experiences seem to point to the idea that the ability to make quick decisions isn't necessarily born and it isn't necessarily a function of 'aggressiveness.'  Instead, it's as if it is somehow stored.  Like a computer program.  When it's not needed, it sits there.  But when it's needed, point-click, engage.

Joe Foss had a thought about this—he believed that some people were dead before they went into combat.  He attributed this predilection to lack of a quantity of confidence.  But Don Bryan had a different take; he attributed the success or failure probabilities to a quality of preparedness.   Though the debate is probably academic, think about it—imagine what would happen if we could eliminate the failures of panic, fear or indecision; what would that look like?

Well, until the elixir is bottled and packaged, "it" looks like Jim Kunkle.

In the photo above, Jim is standing in front of a P-38 Lightning, the main aircraft he flew during WWII.  With her twin engines, long wings and twin fuselages, it's one of the most distinctive looking aircraft ever built.  Though it was a rather-good fighter plane (America's top ace Richard Bong flew one), it was also an effective tactical fighter-bomber.

As a strafer, it was brutal.  Four .50 caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon poked out of the nose of the fuselage-pod.  In Star Wars terms, a steady burst from her guns could bore-through buildings, trucks and trains like a light saber.  But the real damage was done by the 3,000lbs of bombs and/or rockets hung underneath.   Compare that to the 4,000lbs carried by a B-17.  Granted, the B-17 would carry more bombs.  But in terms of efficiency, nothing could beat the tactical precision of the 9th Air Force's P-38s (and P-47s).

You can well imagine the harassing power of a squadron of well-armed P-38s scrounging around the Front Line, looking for anything that moved...

Anyway, have a look at the graphic below.  It's not completely to scale, the spacing is too close and I may have the actual positions off a bit.   But for now, those factors aren't important as this will give you enough of an idea of what is going to happen next.

There are 16 P-38s shown.  Four flights of four, each in the distinctive "finger-four" formation.  In each flight of four, there are two elements.  And in each element, there's a leader and a wing man.   Got it?  Ok.   Now, see the purple heart?  That's what's called "Purple Heart Corner."  Or, as some others have called it, "Tail End Charlie."

Regardless of what you call it, it's not a desired place to be for all the obvious reasons.  Anyone who's watched a nature show knows that it's always the antelope at the back of the pack that gets nailed by the cheetah.  Of course, having a good wingman around to help each other "check six" mitigates the misfortune but on this day, Jim's wingman aborted, leaving Jim alone.

Last.  Guy.  In.  Line.   And headed to Aachen.  Germany.  Where they were not welcome.

"Around August (of 1944), the Germans started using different tactics against us.  Since we were mostly attacking ground targets, they'd wait until we were busy and vector into us from the rear.   So, what we did was start putting the more experienced guys in the back of the formation.  Our job was to look backwards." Knowing the threat-potential and perhaps doubly-keen on account of being without a wingman, Jim knew his role and constantly checked behind.

And wouldn't you know it, there they were—a rapidly expanding smudge to the west.

"BREAK!  BREAK!"  Jim hollered.  "BREAK!"

But there was no break.  A few fruitless twists of knobs and flicking of switches made Jim quickly realize that his radio was out!  And being the last guy in the formation, any waggling of the wings was useless, especially with target just ahead...

What's a guy to do?!

Well, for ME, I have to complete this project.  But for you?  Come back in about two weeks when I post the finished P-38.  And when I state "finished," I mean it—as in 'finished into a million pieces.'