06 December, 2015

Profile 113: "Unknown" - the B-18 "Bolo" bomber as crewed by Stan Lieberman, 86th OBS

“…get your gear. We’re going up.”

Have a look above. It’s the B-18 Bolo the Army Air Force used to photograph Pearl Harbor on December 9, 1941. Ugly airplane, even uglier day. In case your history teacher let you down, December 9th’s significance is that it was two days after the Japanese attack on the Navy port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

You know—the day that, according to President Franklin Roosevelt, “…will live in infamy.”

Last week, I had the chance to talk to one of the day’s few remaining survivors, Stanley Lieberman of the 86th Observation Squadron. He was an aerial photographer that “shot” from the back of the guppy-shaped 0-47. But as fate would have it, his sole experience in combat would take place on the ground at Wheeler Field, Oahu, during the attack. His sole battlefield experience would occur over the harbor itself in the B-18 shown above.

O-47 Observation airplane.  Obsolete at the time of the start of WWII - didn't see combat.
Photographer:  unknown

The opportunity's timing was uncanny—it came to me a week before the attack’s 74th Anniversary and thus thought it a great way to commemorate the day. However, with so little time to interview Stan, research the moment and draw the airplane, I am afraid the haste may have showed up in my work.

Of course, I could have waited, put this project in line with all the other ones and maybe published it next year. But somehow, there seemed to be a sense of urgency. Maybe that urgency was fueled by my typical type-A nature. Maybe the attack on San Bernardino had something to do with it too. And of course, Stanley is 98 years old…

It doesn't matter. Back to Stan.

Of course, I had to ask the question, “What was it like?!” The man has been asked this question hundreds of times over the years but I was surprised at the thoughtfulness and generosity of his answer. He spoke, not with from rote reply but with surprising spark and emotion. He wanted me to know.

“First, I remember the vibration of my cot and then the BOOM! A bomb exploded just across the road from our barracks. That was (about a quarter to eight) in the morning.”

This is an awesome map of the Japanese' Task Force's trip to Pearl and back.  It took them a month.
It also shows the position of the American Lexington and Enterprise carriers.
Today, this wouldn't happen.  But then again, who's attacking us with aircraft carriers these days?
Source: unknown

Wheeler Field was the first “official” target of the Japanese; the scores of American aircraft lined up in perfectly straight rows were outrageously simple targets for the Japanese aircraft to strafe and bomb. According to Stan, the aircraft had been properly dispersed the prior week but the day before the attack, were lined up as if on parade and fueled. The "infamy" of Pearl Harbor was as much a product of poor planning as it was the attack itself.

"Did you know what (the explosion) was? Who it came from?"

"No! But we figured it out quickly!” I remember getting into a group of five guys and heading to the armaments shack. So we could get guns. It was a little room inside one of the buildings, surrounded by chickenwire—rifles, guns on a rack—and there was a .50 cal machine gun in there, too. Only there was a Sergeant in front, standing guard, and we came in there, asked for the guns and that Sergeant says, (Stan pauses and chuckles with incredulity) 'I can't release these guns without the signature of an officer!"

"So what did you..."

"We tore the chicken wire down and got the machine gun!”

I wanted to ask about the hapless Sergeant but it was apparent that the pedantic bureaucrat was overruled if not overpowered.

Browning M1921 liquid cooled .50 cal.  It wasn't popular, it wasn't common but it was available.
Considering the heat these things generate, I'm surprised it made 30 rounds before melting...
Source:  U.S. Army

"We (set up the machine gun). One of the guys had ran off to grab some .50 caliber belts from (the airplanes) and we lifted the top (of the gun) loaded the ammo and started firing (at the Japanese airplanes strafing the airfield). I was supposed to keep the belt straight as it fed into the gun (to keep it from kinking and jamming). We got off about 30 rounds before the gun stopped. (The gun) was liquid cooled and we didn't know to hook it up to water."

"So what did you do then?!"

"That's when someone handed me a (1905 Springfield) rifle. It was the first and only time I'd fire a gun in combat.”

See if you can imagine the moment; the Doppler blat of airplane engines, crackling staccato of machine gun fire, thump of explosions and the hiss and tinkle of debris and shrapnel…who prepares for this?!

“I’d never fired a gun in my life! The airplanes were low. And close. I could have hit one with a shotgun. And slow (flying) about 80, 90 miles per hour. I remember one flew by me, strafing, and seeing the faces (of the pilot and gunner). I could see their faces!

This is a ridiculous sketch I made while sorting through the story.  After the war, Stan learned to love hunting and he stated that he'd wished he'd had the shooting skills then that he'd acquired later.

I remember lying down on my belly in the doorway of the barracks. I picked an airplane flying past me, a tan-beige one. I pointed, aimed—no one had told me about how to lead a target. Today (after hunting and fishing had become a part of his life) I wouldn't have missed! But then? I fired. I didn't hit anything.”

The rest of the day was an adrenalin-tinged blur of fire, smoke, debris and the gradual stuttering of senses to center, regroup and do one’s job. Stan ended the day guarding a building with five other young men. As the setting sun and blackout-order cloaked the island in inky black, nervous anti-aircraft gunners shot at anything; sounds, suspicions and even American aircraft.*

And, in a fashion, the shooting didn't stop until September 2, 1945.**

Back to the B-18. Have another look.
Stan Lieberman in the back of the O-47.  He wasn't flying in this type on December 9 but he was using that kind of camera.

“That morning (December 9), I was told, get your (camera) gear. We’re going up. And we walked out to a B-18. They were still bulldozing the burned up airplanes (at Wheeler Field).

We climbed out for about fifteen minutes, then flew over the harbor for the next hour and a half. I stood in the belly, over my camera, taking pictures.”

“Describe what you remember…”

“Dark, black film over the water, over the whole harbor. It was oil. And small boats going everywhere, this way and that. We flew over about 500’—and (I remember) a ship half submerged that I think was the Oklahoma***; men crawling over the sides. Did you know they heard (men trapped in the hull) tapping?”

I had indeed read of the survivors, trying to signal people on the outside, desperately clanging whatever they could to attract help.    The idea that sailors were forever trapped inside the bowels of these huge ships, unable to be rescued, is disturbing to say the least.

(Stan paused, sighed). “That was my only combat experience in WWII.”

"Where are those pictures?"

Pearl Harbor, from the air.  I couldn't find a source but it's supposedly taken on December 10, 1941.
Maybe it was one of Stan's and incorrectly dated?  Who knows.
Source:  Unknown
"Don't know. And I would sure like to see them. As far as I know, the photos I took for the Army (Air Force) haven't been published. But they were good pictures, I'm sure."

I spent some time looking through the wilds of the internet, hoping to see aerial shots of Pearl Harbor with an Army or Air Force credit but came up short. Somehow, someway, the Navy won the credits and their excellent work remains in the official record. Could one of Stan's shots been appropriated? Maybe, but who can know? All I know is that it'd have been so cool to have found them and deliver the man's work, 74 years later.  Instead, for now, this rush-job B-18 has to suffice.

Yet, there's a strange reassurance that comes when history is still with you as Stan is.  One of my friends illustrated this when, after I told him I was talking to (another)**** Pearl Harbor vet, he exclaimed, "Cool! I didn't think there were that many around! That's great!"  It was as if he were acknowledging that the world was somehow a better place because of Stan (and others) mere presence.

Perhaps it's just the tendency for people to be attracted to nostalgia.  But I can tell you this—thinking of a day when we don't remember December 7th's significance is not reassuring at all.

And to that end, Stan (and Cass), I hope you live forever.

To own a print of Stan's B-18 (autographed by Stan) click here.

*During the night of December 7, five Navy F4F Wildcats were shot down by nervous anti-aircraft gunners.  Three pilots were killed.

**The Japanese formally surrendered.

***429 aboard the Oklahoma died, comprising a sixth of the total number of Americans who were killed in the attack (2,471 killed, 1,203 wounded).  

****Cass Phillips is my second Pearl Harbor vet.  Check him out below. :)

Profile 110: IN PROGRESS - PBM Mariner as flown by Cass Phillips, VPB-20

That's a LOT of black!

Considering the PBM Mariner was nearly 30' longer and 5 tons heavier than a B-25, it should be a lot of black, too.  And that's the problem.  I've drawn, re-drawn and re-drawn this best at least three times. 

But that's no big deal because today, December 7, 2015, has more to do with the above airplane's pilot than the airplane he would fly.  See, Cass Phillips is one of the few alive today who can remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

So, though the airplane above will probably change some more, her pilot's memories—I hope—will remain with us forever.


VPB pilot Cass Phillips remembers "Pearl Harbor"
Source:  Me.

06 November, 2015

Profile 111: START to FINISH— "Dakota Warrior"; Douglas TBD Devastator as flown by LtCmdr. John C. Waldron

Drive-by history.  It’s a shame but what else can you do?

Hold that thought for a moment and look at the art above.  It's the start-to-finish animation of LtCmdr. John Waldron's TBD-1 Devastator circa the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.  It's a rare airplane for me in that I was unable to talk to her pilot.  As for real-life examples to use as reference, the only surviving TBDs left are dissolving on the ocean floor.

See, this airplane was Waldron's pyre.  The ocean, his grave. 

It's not easy drawing a dead man's airplane, especially one that was cut down so tragically;  Waldron lead his squadron, Torpedo 8,  on a valiant charge against the Japanese carrier Kaga (or was it Soryu?)  during the opening rounds of the battle.  It was the squadron’s first time in combat, first time with live torpedoes…I figure within five minutes of making their bomb runs, they were all downed—the entire squadron of 15 airplanes, 29 men, gone.

Among history geeks, "The Story of Torpedo 8" is well known.  It has every element of the classic tragic tale—valiance, naivety, incompetence, duty, valor, foolishness… Even today, on the cusp of the 21st Century, the story can bring a man to tears.  I know this because the man who commissioned my artwork did just that. 

“We can’t let this story die,” he said. “At least not like Waldron did.”

I made this little doodle to get an idea of what was going on when Torpedo 8 attacked Kaga (or the Soryu, or the Hiryu...).
It doesn't show any other Japanese ships or the defending Japanese Zero fighters.
Ok, hold that thought.

Last month, I got to get a little closer to Waldron’s story when I had the chance to get up-close-and-personal to Waldron’s Navy Cross.  In terms of ranking, the medal is the second highest award of the U.S. Navy.  Only the Medal of Honor ranks “higher.”

Now, in my interviews, I’ve learned that 99.99% of the time, no one sets out to “win a medal.”  In fact, I bet if you were to approach some of history’s heroes beforehand and say, “Good morning!  Today is the day you win the Navy Cross! (or whatever)”  most would blanch.  In hindsight, I can only imagine coming alongside Waldron in the ready room and saying, “Psst.  Today, you’re all going to die.”

Of course, that’s a silly thought because time-travel doesn’t exist.  But it does pose some interesting thoughts.  After we put away Waldron’s medal, National Museum of Naval Aviation Director, “Buddy” Macon made the comment, “They had to know!  They had to know!  They had to know that they were dead men—how on earth do you get up into the cockpit when you know this?!”

John Waldron's Navy Cross.  My journal. Stuff like this makes my day.
Though I didn’t ask him to clarify, I suspect Buddy wasn’t referring to Torpedo 8’s mystical appointment with fate.  Instead, I believe he was drawing upon the facts of the day.  41 TBD Devastators took off from the aircraft carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown.  6 returned. All things considered, flying the TBD against the Japanese was a death-sentence.  In other words, Macon was asking the perennial question, “What makes people attempt, what odds are indicating, the impossible?”

Think about that for a moment...

Of course, there are real books written about the Battle of Midway.  Heck, it's such an incredible moment of American history, my dad wrote his ROTC Officer's Thesis on it and he was Army!  But in the end, the Battle of Midway was simply the beginning of the end for the Japanese.  They were crushed.  So why the tragedy for Torpedo 8?

Firstly, the Battle of Midway was still on the left-end of the learning curve for naval aviation.  The war in the Pacific was barely seven months old and Midway marked only the second time America's carrier-based aircraft would be used in full-scale warfare.  Attack procedures, tactics and equipment were more based on theory than practice.  This is, of course, is the reality of things and proof of the adage, "No plan survives the first 30 seconds of combat."  

Secondly, the TBD Devastator was obsolete.  Five years prior it was state-of-the-art. By 1942, tech had surpassed the poor bird's standard.  Loaded for combat, the airplane could barely crack 95 miles per hour.  That's fast on the interstate but against 300mph enemy fighters and a blizzard of ship-fired anti-aircraft guns, 95mph was practically stationary.

Thirdly, the TBD was poorly kitted for combat.  The .30 caliber nose gun might have been fine for deer hunting but firing it against something like an armored warship was not even annoying, let alone deadly.  The rear gunner was also armed with a single .30.  Against the thin-skinned Japanese fighters, the odds increased but not by much.  To this end, Waldron insisted on fitting Torpedo 8's TBDs with an extra .30 machine gun, doubling the defensive power (bear in mind, the British put FOUR .30 caliber guns in their turrets, but let's not go there right now).
This photo (credit unknown) is supposedly a shot of Waldron's double-.30 gun modification.  Better that the original single-gun mount but in reality, nowhere near good enough.
In terms of attack ordnance, the Mk.13 torpedo purely sucked.  According to the 1952 publication,  U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance in World War II, defects were so numerous and so bad, over 100%* of the things were defective!  If you look closely, you can see there's what looks to be yellow fins on Waldron's torpedo—that's actually a plywood box that was hastily added to the fin structure to keep the torpedo from (at least) running too deep.  Once the torpedo hit the water, the box would momentarily stabilize the weapon before disintegrating into the ocean. Talk about Rube Goldberg...

Fourth, Torpedo 8 was ridiculously managed.  Now, I wasn't there.  But according to Robert Mrazek's excellent book, "A Dawn Like Thunder" the Air Group from the USS Hornet (1 fighter squadron, two dive bomber squadrons and one torpedo squadron) was poorly lead.  Instead of giving the slow, poorly defended TBDs fighter protection, the battle order placed the fighters high above the wave-riding TBDs.

To get your head around how weird putting all the fighters "on-top" was, the next time you fly commercial, listen for when the flight attendant announces that you, "...can now use portable electronic..."    When that happens, you're around 10,000 feet.   Look out the window and watch the ground.  Imagine down there, a squadron of tiny lumbering torpedo planes chugging along.   Now, double your altitude to 20,000 feet.  Now imagine what happens if you're in charge of protecting them—the enemy could make two, three passes by the time you can make any difference at all!

I have no idea what "they" were thinking.  Neither did Waldron.  Reportedly he asked numerous times for fighter cover.  Three maybe only two F4F Wildcat fighters would have been enough.  But no, the TBDs of Torpedo 8 got nothing.

Lastly, however, is the factor that remains somewhat controversial as it involves Waldron's disobeying command.  Some how, some way, Waldron had an issue with the course that the Air Group was to take in order to find and attack the Japanese fleet.  Putting a metaphysical point on it, Waldron's instincts told him that the attack force was heading the wrong direction.  Some how, some way, he knew where the Japs were.  After requesting a course correction twice (and being denied), Waldron pulled Torpedo 8 out of the formation and led them on, alone. 

Who knows if, had Waldron been given a covering group of fighters, if they would have followed suit.  It doesn't matter.  The Hornet's attack force never found the Japanese fleet, wasting the battle resources.

Waldron did.  You can re-read the third paragraph now...
I bought the August 31, 1942 edition of LIFE magazine.  This is the spread they gave Torpedo 8.
The little TBD models are ones I bought to use as references.  Waldron is marked by the red arrow and George Gay, the only survivor the Hornet's TBD force, is circled.
Before you think Waldron was really just a mutineer, recognize this—while Torpedo 8 was getting cut down by Japanese fighters, dive bombers from the USS Enterprise were able to sneak in and crush the Japanese carriers, effectively ending any hope for Japanese victory.  Period.  In the end, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers to the American's loss of one.  

Waldron's instinct led he and his squadron to death, but in the end, it became the key to American victory in the Pacific.

Think about that for a moment...

Ok.  One more diversion.

This afternoon, I had lunch with a doctor that practices medicine in another country.  He’s been doing it for years; it’s his passion to serve the people and do what he can to raise the standard of medical care there. 

Evidently, this country used to provide free medical care to its people but are now loosening the controls to the point where the average citizen is paying for his/her own care.  Same with education, too.  A government-paid University degree is becoming a thing of the past. 

I asked him how it’s going over and his comment was interesting, “Well, they realize that if they’re going to improve and grow, it’s going to come at a cost.”

But after another bite of his meal and a few thoughtful chews he struck me cold, “But that’s not the way we think about it (in America).  I think we’re forgetting the idea of reaping what one has sown.  You know, the idea of cause and effect.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“We want things to be free.  Let someone else pay the bill.”
I found this on the inter webs. It seems to make a certain sense.
Hmm.   Now, this is not a political rant.  This is a post about a WWII airplane and her pilot. 

(deep breath)

It doesn’t take too long to learn some remarkable facts on Waldron.  For one, he had Native American blood.  His mother and grandmother were Native Americans and he spent time on at least two Indian Reservations.  For two, he was a South Dakotan.  You can’t get any further from the ocean than South Dakota.  That he ended up a Naval Academy graduate is even more ironic. For three, he was 41 years old when he died, a veritable old man that should have been back at the carrier with a cup of coffee.  For four, he was a husband and father with everything to live for.

I can state with utter confidence that Waldron did not have a death wish.  Instead, he was driven by principles and values that somehow, someway transcended the notion of safety.  And, these were the kind of principles and values that led every other member of Torpedo 8 into their machines.  

In fact, I’d say that Waldron’s story is no different than anyone's who is willing to risk something dear for something greater.  Of course, this kind of thing is hard-wired into our military, law enforcement, first-responders, doctors…but what about other kinds of venture like business, human rights or (gasp) politics?

Right now, there’s a plaque at the foot of the John C. Waldron bridge that crosses the Missouri river between Waldron’s birthplace of Fort Pierre and the state capitol of Pierre.  It was put up in 2002 and I’ll be damned, I just found out about it last week.  
Photo from JohnWeeks.com  I drive across this bridge 4-5x a year and never knew it was named after a bona fide hero.
And to think Caitlyn Jenner* is better known than Waldron...
Riveted to a slab of rock, it’s a fine plaque but it’s simply another piece of drive-by history; “names, dates and places” with a few dramatic words sprinkled in.  Of course, there’s no problem with the placard in and of itself.  The problem really lies in that this is it

So, please have another look at the drawing—the pencil-sketch genesis to its finished form.  I was paid to do it, but in exchange for money, I put in nearly 60 hours and involved at least a dozen people around the world (fact checkers, detail wonks, history geeks).  There was nothing “free” about this drawing; its quality is the result of many coming together for an idea that John C. Waldron’s service symbolizes something worth keeping alive.

Everything worthwhile has a price.  And if we want to truly own it, we need to pay for it.

I suspect that’s what Waldron would say to Buddy Macon.

I suspect that’s what Waldron would want on his plaque, too.

I even suspect that Waldron would approve of the advances made by the country that my doctor-friend serves.

But for me, I’d like to see this in the classroom.


...in myself.

Thank you for the example, John C. Waldron.

*The Mk.13 torpedo often had multiple defects like having dead motors, sinking to the bottom, turning in circles instead of going straight, running too deep and simply not detonating.  Today, there'd be a headline and a trial.  Back then, however, it was understood as part of the process.  Go figure.

**I have no issue with whatever Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner wants to be.  My problem is that somehow, this year, he became news, displacing things of greater consequence.  

Profile 112: JUST STARTED—QT-2PC as flown by...who?!

This is how it goes sometimes...

A call came in, an unknown phone number from Texas; I answer and someone drawls, "Yuh'interested in a storah?"

Anyone else might hang up.  Or at least say, "Pardon me?" But I know better, especially if there's a Texas accent attached to it.  So, I sat down on the front step and readied for the moment.  "Storah?" I replied.  "It bettah' be a good'n!"

Have a look at my sketch above.  It's one of the coolest looking warbirds EVAR and chances are good, you have no clue what it is (because I didn't either until my Texas Buddy explained it).

It's the QT-2PC, one of only two of the type that flew during the Vietnam War.  It's role was to loiter over combat areas and spot Viet Cong traffic at night.  Built around the excellent Schweitzer 2-32 glider, this powered version was, in many ways, an ancestor to today's drone.
Photo of the QT-2PC's godfather, the QT-2 (prototype).
Notice the little strips of aerodynamic tape to help indicate airflow...
Credit:  (probably) Lockheed Missiles and Space Company
Now, here's where things get a little...strange.  At the time, there were no markings other than a giant numeral on the tail and those that built it refer to its military sponsor as a "Customer" rather than a specific branch or unit. As a fact, the Army claimed ownership but the project team was actually tri-service (Army, Navy, Air Force).

However, the overriding project was actually managed by DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA, though sometimes clouded in mystery (some truth to that) was created in 1958 as an R & D  lab to develop new technologies for military use.  Basically, if the Air Force ever got jet packs, the Navy flying subs, the Marines computerized body armor or the Army "smart" bullet, DARPA prolly done'it first.  In 1967, with the war in Vietnam all hot and heavy, DARPA got wind of a Navy pilot's idea for a low-altitude observation plane that could fly for long periods of time and be undetectable via sight or sound.

Now, here's where things get a little...confusing.  I think I'm getting better at understanding the labyrinth of how government works but I still can't get past square one.   So, when "mil-speech" starts happening—the jumble of acronyms, unit numbers and contacts—my brain starts to skip.  However, my Texas Buddy wrote the following to me regarding the program's authorship...

At the project onset, we were LAC’s LMSC Advanced  Concepts Airborne Systems Quiet Thruster Program working in a secure corner of the Lockheed Aircraft Service Executive Transport Service Hanger in San Jose (really different and almost independent from the main plant – Skunk Works, North. We were known in the “White World” as “San Jose Geophysical” and we answered the phone with “Stan’s Cleaning and Pressing”.

We did not become Prize Crew ‘til late in the year – after we overwhelmed the competition in an acoustic “fly-off” competition. At that time (approx end of Sept), our onsite DARPA (to say the least) recommended the experimental  aircraft converted to tactical versions (in 90 days), sent to and evaluated in Vietnam (The Prize Crew Operational Evaluation  (OpEval).

I know of two specific sites/reasons for the deployment, but don’t which is correct. Whatever, DARPA could not field the project, so the Army Transportation Corps did so. And, because they were paying the bills, we ended up in “Target Rich” IV Corp (IV CTZ)!

Make sense?  Sure it does.  And if I have any say in the matter, it'll make even more sense the next post!  But until then, let me explain the phrase, "Prize Crew".
A progress shot.  The color is bizarre; its very apparent that it was a custom job and not part of any prescribed formula.
I'll be adding quite a bit of gray, white, yellow and blue to help match the handful of decent color shots I have.
"Prize Crew" was the code name for the Operational Evaluation project that encompassed the QT-2PC's trial in combat.  It's an interesting name that harkens back to the swashbuckling era of capturing the enemy for ransom.  In this case, the Prize Crew team 'captured' civilian-style gliders from a military procurement order and turned them into these spectral birds.

Though only two were ever deployed in-country, they logged nearly 600 combat hours, hawking the trails and terrain of South Vietnam, looking for Viet Cong.   No fewer than 5 DFCs were awarded to its pilots, too.

The Prize Crew mission isn't really new information any more.  There are a couple solid sites that you can click on (here, here and here) for great background.  So, I won't reinvent the wheel (so to speak).

Which gets me back to that Texan who called me up offering me a "storah."

Shhh.  I think I hear a few comin'...  or is that just the wind...?

(watch this space)

And watch the movie below.

30 October, 2015

Profile 110: JUST STARTED—PBM Marlin as flown by Cass Phillips, VPB-20

Now here's one that doesn't come along every day, the Martin PBM "Mariner."

Frankly, even if opportunities to draw this plane were more common, I am not quite sure I'd have given it its due on account of looks alone.  It's ugly.  In fact, it's so ugly, it's like someone tried to do it on purpose—different teams working on different parts of the airplane and never communicating with each other until that one day when someone turns on the lights...

It's a big, fat flying clog.

But—and this bears repeating—I don't talk to pilots in order to draw their airplane.  If I did, all I'd ever draw would be P-51s and Spitfires.  Instead, I draw the airplane so I can talk to the pilots.  In this case, the pencil sketch above is an easy sacrifice in order to get one of my most fascinating interviews to-date.

Before I get into that, a little background on the PBM is in order.
A PBM-1 in pre-War Navy markings from VP-56, circa 1940
It's a late '30s design intended to be an inventoried alternative to the famous (and slightly less ugly) PBY "Catalina."  Looking at the vital stats, however, I'm not quite sure why it was procured.  Though about 20% larger, the PBM's range of 2,600 miles and bomb load of 4,000lbs are essentially the same as the PBY's.   Then again, those were the days when equipment strategy valued diversity much more than it does in today's one-aircraft-to-rule-them-all thinking.  Perhaps I'll get to the bottom of it in this process but in the end, 1,300-some PBMs were delivered to the Navy and Coast Guard (as opposed to  2,600-some Catalinas).

Now, I've been pretty negative on the Mariner so far.  In the spirit of fairness, aside from looking like a Babushka and me-too performance stats, the PBM was a pretty solid combat aircraft.  According to my cursory research, PBMs took part in at least 10 successful U-boat sinkings, laid mines in both oceans, sunk a number of ships (mostly in the Pacific) and rescued untold numbers of extremely grateful people from an otherwise watery doom.

And the best endorsement is this:  her pilots actually liked flying it!  And if there's anything I've learned over the years it's this—your favorite airplane is the one your flying.

Ok, have a look at the picture below.

An AMAZING model showing a typical seaplane tender arrangement.  I found this photo on the web
and would really like to give the builder credit.  It's really a spectacular creation.

What you're looking at is a typical PBM Mariner base.   The ship is (of course) a Seaplane Tender.   It's job was essentially to be a floating gas station, which is good because most Mariners were built without traditional retractable landing gear.   It was a true "seaplane."    If you can imagine it, picture the scene above taking place in dozens of secluded harbors and bays in the South Pacific.  Hot sun, the gentle slap of waves on aluminum and the day's mission being whatever came through on the tender's radio.  A rescue, chasing a sub, spotting a Jap ship...

Now, notice one other thing: the markings.  Whoever built this diorama has captured the brilliance of the mid-war Navy "Tri-color" camouflage.   Aside from the giveaway of a shadow, the Mariner and ship blend into the dappled sea beautifully.  Knowing the pilot had flown virtually every sea plane in the Navy's inventory, and knowing he preferred the PBM, I readied my minds-eye for rendering acres of slab-sided dark blue, medium blue and white paint.   Imagine the surprise when, after asking for confirmation of his beast's Bureau Number and aircraft number, he said, "And it was black.  All black."


"Yes. All black.  I was a Nightmare pilot."

Ok.  It's time for you to meet the pilot, Cass Phillips of VPB-20 and the current state of progress on his airplane.  I figure I'll have this Nightmare done in time for Christmas and in the next post, we'll understand what it was like to fly this coal-colored boot straight into the Japanese worst dreams.

Oh.  And back to that comment I made about drawing airplanes in order to engage the pilot.  Cass sat down for a little interview at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  Though there's a lot more to share, this is the kind of stuff that makes me look forward to my golden years.  I only hope I have half of Cass's sense.

More to come.  In fact, I've got about 60 minutes video of the man let alone finishing out his PBM!

27 August, 2015

Profile 107: FINISHED—"Charlie's F-4" of VF-114

"It was hard.  But good."

Those are Navy Captain and ex-POW Charlie Plumb's words in regards to the trip he just took to Vietnam.  And I got it; I was—for good, bad and indifferent—there with him.

Deep breath.

Ok.  you should know that I am currently supervising the production of the next episode of my video show, "Old Guys and Their Airplanes."  This next episode features Charlie's story, hence the production title, "There. And Back."

We'll have a full Trailer ready in a few weeks but in the meantime, you can view five "Teasers" by clicking here.  But for now, I'm sitting here, late at night, wondering just how we'll capture all the details of this incredible story.

But for now...

Progress shot, about 33% complete.  
...this is my first Navy F-4; all the rest have been USAF versions.  This bit of trivia is rather strange in that the F-4 is, in its heart, a naval aircraft.  If you're like me, you think of the F-4 in its green and brown USAF "SEA" camouflage, bristling with bombs, missiles and fuel tanks.  Yet, the F-4 began as a Navy plane and that means the typical gray paint scheme. And the Navy also defined the F-4's original role as an "Interceptor" (as opposed to the aerial Swiss Army Knife that it would eventually become).

Ok, this is where learning about the nuances of history really provides leverage for elevating one's brain.  Did you ever hear the phrase, "No plan survives the first thirty seconds of combat"?  On one hand, it's an amusing rejoinder.  But on the other, it's prophetic warning.  Birth, School, Work and Death are liberally sprinkled with examples of how one thing is intended but another prevails.  Some people shrug their shoulders and accept Fate while others wonder, "Hmmm.  What can we do to make this work?"

Kind of like Charlie Plumb's morning aboard the USS Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  His plan was to fly his 75th mission, return to the carrier and go home to wife and country.  It didn't work out that way.

Charlie in front of a SAM missile.  The one in front is a real SA-2.  The one in the background is a decoy
that the North Vietnamese made out of woven bamboo/reeds in order to attract attacks.
Charlie's F-4 was hit by a decidedly "real" SA-2.
Nevertheless, think about this concept of "No plan survives..."  for a second.  Today, you're planning on going to work, the grocery store, work on the car...but tthe future' has another idea altogether.

Makes you think, eh?

Anyway, going back to the F-4...

Designed by McDonnell-Douglas, the airplane was intended to counter the Soviet threat of bombers reaching the U.S.  This is why they referred to it as an "Interceptor" —it intercepts.  It's meant to climb fast, get to the target fast and do its job fast.  Versus a commie bomber loaded with nukes, the traditional role of aerial gunfighting is a pure waste of time and energy.   So, the F-4 was designed without a typical dogfighter's weapon, the gun.  Tucked into elegant recesses under the fuselage, four ultra-high-tech Sparrow missiles were to be fired (from a distance) at whoever was stupid enough to start WWIII.

The Interceptor job was a brilliant one for the Navy, too.  Launched from carriers, F-4s could pick off any threat WAY before it reached the American continent.  

Charlie remembers "ground" training for future F-4 missions in a space suit connected to a portable air conditioner (see below).  Yep, that's real Buck Rogers stuff.  But it wasn't meant to be.  

Charlie's first F-4 flight suit looked kinda like this one.  Shown, NASA pilot Bill Dana and
the incredible X-15 rocket plane.  Source:  NASA archive
We all know what happened next, right?  Uh...yeah.  "Vietnam," and with that, previously accepted strategy, tactics and tech were rewritten to accommodate what the designers of 1955 couldn't know.  In the next ten years, the F-4 was adapted to carry a huge variety of bombs, more missiles and all kinds of electronic gizmos. Eventually, the USAF managed to stuff an actual dogfighting gun in the nose (the Navy refrained and maybe even wisely-so but that's another topic altogether).

Nevertheless, it's interesting to note here that the Navy was extraordinarily successful with the F-4.   According to one source, the USAF ended up with a 3:1 aerial victory ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force.  But the Navy managed a 6:1 ratio.  And the Navy's figures are an average between the struggles of the war's early years and the later when new, adaptive tactics showed their worth.

Go Navy, eh?



Now, I've done a fair amount of jumping around even for my patented ADD writing style.  But I wanted to try establish the concept of "adaptability." The F-4 was intended for one thing and was forced to adapt to another.   Charlie Plumb signed up for one thing (life aboard a carrier, flying jets) and was forced to adapt to another, too (six years in a torturous POW camp).

This past July, right before we left for Hanoi, Charlie asked me what kind of a story I thought I'd get by following him around.  In a rare moment of wisdom, I deferred to the reality of Fate and replied, "I really don't know.  We'll see, I guess."  And off we went, tugging 300lbs of gear on an 18,000 mile journey that took us from Hanoi to Haiphong to Saigon to some hellishly hot river near the Cambodian border...

I'll leave it like this for now: the whole trip came down to single picture that I took with my iPhone.

Intrigued?   I hope so.

In the meantime, have a look at the F-4B below.  It's the airplane that  Charlie and RIO "Gary" Anderson launched from the Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  It was a day they never figured would happen and yet would forever alter the course of their lives.

Stay tuned for more information on the next episode of Old Guys and Their Airplanes, "There.  And Back."
Finished.  This is how Charlie asked for it - no tanks and with a sidewinder hung off each of the rails.
To him, it's a reminder of his past.  To me, it's a reminder of what can happen.

Profile 106: FINISHED—"0641" as flown February 18, 1973

Chances are REALLY good that you give no thought of how much your life revolves around the word, "Logistics."

Bold statement, eh?  And how do I know?  Because I don't think about "Logistics" much either. 

Regardless, have a look at the airplane above.  It's a Lockheed C-141A Starlifter.  It's big, it's loud, but on an air show flight line, the "F" and "B" airplanes always seem to attract the bigger crowds.  "C" planes are really just big pickup trucks.  Right?  I mean, what self-respecting 10 year old, staring up at the model airplanes hanging over their bed, wishes, "Some day, I'm going to fly Cargo planes."

General Eisenhower, however, made a comment that those 10 year old would-be combat pilots would do well to think about:

“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have
been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”

All that stuff in the grocery store?  Food at the restaurant?  Stuff at the store?  Logistics—the practice of hauling stuff from point A to point B.  Put another way, no cargo?  No combat.  Period.

Let's take a moment, step back and prepare to appreciate the most important aspect of any force, Military or Civilian.  And in this case, the C-141 is the Queen Mother.

Designed in 1960, the C-141 was a response to what the military learned in WWII—the world was getting smaller and military activity depended on moving materiel over huge distances, quickly.  We all have our opinions on whether or not the United States should have military presence in this country or that* but the reality is, if we don't want to fight HERE, we have to fight THERE.   And "there" means moving a lot of gear.

On paper, the potential of the C-141 had to be an outrageous dream.  Yet, compared to its WWII equivalent—the C-47 (aka DC-3)—the Starlifter truly lived up to its name.  Have a look at the graphic I put together...
The C-47/DC-3 is largely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest aircraft ever built and there are solid reasons why.  But in the military application, look at the numbers:  The Starlifter had twice the range, three times the speed and nearly twenty times the payload.  If you work out the ratio of cost/unit compared to hauling capacity, the C-141 crushes the C-47 by being three times as efficient.

Go ahead, do the math...I'll wait.

The C-141 was a simply amazing aircraft!

For all the news coverage of government waste, I wish the average folk could realize that, for the most part, the engineers of American industry and the bean counters of Military Procurement do their best.   And it's a pretty fine "best" too.

Sad to say, the Starlifter is no longer moving stars.  The last military flight occurred on 6 May, 2006.  It was a pretty big deal and someone did a great job documenting it on YouTube (click here).  But wait a bit before clicking on it, ok?  There's more you should know.

Today, the American airlift capability is practically spread out over three basic types - the C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules.  I made another graphic so you can see the how the heavy-lifting is distributed.

Somewhere between the ginormous C-5 Galaxy and the "jack of all trades" C-130 lies the former domain of the C-141.  Today, the C-17 is doing the 141's job and from what I've read, even more efficiently. 


Logistics isn't always about "the numbers."

Sometimes, Logistics is about...this.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, "Burst of Joy" by Slava Veder.
Please. Click here.

You knew it was coming.  "0641" was not just hauling stuff.  This C-141 was one of 16 that ferried 592 American POWs from Hanoi to Clark, AFB during Operation Homecoming.

Take another pause, ok?  Think about what it would be like to have someone you hold dear taken away from you, held in uncertainty...and then returned.  Forever changed.

(I was serious. Take the pause)

The process took almost a month and a half.  C-141s would lumber into Hanoi's Gia Lam airport l and pick up the POWs as they were processed out of the infamous North Vietnamese prison system. 

Each C-141 would carry about 20 POWs.   Of course, a Starlifter could carry many more than that, but Operation Homecoming wasn't a cattle car operation.  Instead, it was a strange diplomatic maneuver that took a month and a half to work out.  I bet it drove the C-141 crews crazy, too.  Left to their own devices, they could have probably had them all home in 12 hours.

This all being stated, have a look at the drawing again—0641 is the very C-141 that flew into Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport on February 18, 1973 to return 20 POWs, one of which was then Lt. (jg) "Charlie" Plumb.

Ok.  The C-141 retirement video mentioned previously is really a fine piece that captures what the C-141 was all about.  But before you do, watch the video below.  The man shown is Charlie and the song is one written and performed by the POWs for President Nixon as an act of gratitude.

Logistics, indeed.

(Special thanks go to the Plumb family for putting together this very cool clip).

IMPORTANT NOTICE:  Charlie signed a number of prints of my artwork featuring his F-4B Phantom and the C-141A Starlifter that carried him to freedom.  If you'd like to purchase one, proceeds are going to the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.   CLICK HERE.