30 January, 2015

Profile 100: FINISHED—"Our Mary" as flown by Edwin Cottrell, 48th FG

You know, you just never know do you?

Stop there and have a look above.  It's "Our Mary," the P-47 that Lt. Edwin Cottrell was flying on a fate-filled Sunday over northern continental Europe.

The Battle of the Bulge had just ignited; it was Hitler's audacious—but ultimately stupid—move to shock the Allies into negotiating terms of surrender.   Yet, though he was in the thick of it, battle strategy wasn't on Lt. Cottrell's mind as he looked up and saw...look below.

Click the picture to see the guns firing. 

"I'd just made one pass (dropping bombs).  One pass on a grouping of tanks that were staging for the Bulge.  (I can remember) pulling up over the woods, the trees, the snow and that 109 coming at me, guns sparkling—and then I saw them all!  I'd never seen so many (German airplanes) in my life!"

BANG!...zip zip BANG!  Machine gun bullets perforated "Our Mary's" thin skin as easily as an ice pick slammed into a soda can.  But it was the slower firing nose cannon that did the lethal damage; the German's 20mm shells exploded into the starboard wing root and cowl, severing oil lines and destroying eight of the airplane engine's eighteen cylinders.

Considering that the enemies closed at a collective rate of about 600 miles per hour and the German's bullets were traveling about four times faster, the moment began and ended in a blink of time.

"There was no time to really think. When I first saw (the particular 109 angling in from Ed's one o'clock position) I turned to face him head on.  Then, his nose started sparkling and then Bang!  The engine started to 'chug' and oil blew all over my windscreen.  I couldn't see and I knew I'd been terribly hit."

Ed announced on the radio his situation and the flight leader immediately commanded, "Get out'a here! Two-seventy, West!"  Of course, there was no argument on Ed's part.  He used the remaining airspeed to carve a path Westward in the hope of making the front line of Belgium before he would have to bail out or belly in.

"Our base at St. Trond was close to the bomb line (Front).  In fact, at the time, we were the closest forward field.  So, getting to the front line meant that I probably wouldn't be taken POW."

However, with a trail of inky smoke behind, "Our Mary" was a conspicuous point in the sky and drew  the attention of more Germans.

"I was looking.  Over my shoulders.  And I saw these two 109s coming up behind me.  I was going slow, but as fast as I could.  I could see they were criss-crossing in an effort to slow down.  I settled into my seat and waited.  I was dead or going to be a POW for certain.  But when the bullets didn't come, I looked out to the sides.  And there they were."

"Where?"  I asked.

"Close.  Close formation.  Just off my wingtips."

Stop for moment to let this sink in.   Especially in air combat, there's practically no opportunity to really see your enemy for their true shape and personality.  The transactions of war happen in flashes, sparks.  There, bang! gone.  It had to have been a surreal moment, being so close to the enemy and so powerless.

Compared to the blunt-nosed bulk of a P-47, the Me-109 was an elegant wisp.  In fact, there was over a ton and a half difference in weight between the two.  Of course, that extra weight of heft, armor and American engineering had just prolonged Ed's life.  But one must appreciate the eerie sight of these two wholly foreign beasts, so close and so lethal,  just a few feet away.

Seconds ticked by.  Ed's airplane shuddered,  rattled...and all the while, the ground below passed by at an interminably slow pace.  Ed was bewildered.

"What were you thinking?!"

"Hmmm," he paused, then answered in the questioning voice of a man who's unsure of his answer.  "Whether I was going to live?  Die?  Will I make it to the bomb line?"  Ed laughed.  "Here I was, being escorted by two Messerschmitt 109s!"

A 2 minute sketch.  Ed assured me, the 109s got even closer than they're depicted here.
"And then what?!"

"We just crossed the bomb line and I looked over (at the German pilot off Ed's right wing) and he made the OK sign.  Then, he peeled off.  I looked (to my left) and he peeled off too."

"And then what?!"

"I was able to make it back to base."

With an obscured windscreen and rattled motor, Ed brought "Our Mary" to landing at his base.  As if from a movie, the engine seized solid and coaxed the airplane to a silent stop.

"I was in shock."

Ed describes the debriefing as nervous, he was understandably, rather shaken up by the blenderized emotions of the past hour.  When I asked him about the reactions of his squadron mates, he remarked that they were—as expected—fascinated but ultimately, such acts of Grace were not uncommon in war.  Ed explained that though his extraordinary store was certainly momentous to him,  they were one of the quirks of combat that happen.

Ed finished out the war, flying his 65th and final combat mission on May 7, 1945 (the war ended on the 8th).

Fast forward to the 21st Century.

Screen-shot of the West Chester University web page highlighting Ed.
The picture above is from the website of West Chester University.  Actually, it's a pretty interesting page because it's the one that describes the "Dr. Edwin Cottrell Entrepreneurial Leadership Center."  And of course, that's Ed pointing to a picture of his WWII self.

After WWII, Ed earned his doctorate in Health and Physical Science from Penn State and settled at West Chester University where, among a whole list of things, he became somewhat of a legend as a golf coach.  Now, in case you're wondering, Ed didn't set out to create the ECELC as a monument to his ego.  In fact, he didn't create it at all.  The Center was a gift from a grateful former golf student who made good.  Pretty cool, eh?

Over the years, I've learned that people who are especially good at motivating or encouraging others to be successful are also especially good communicators.  They're clear, concise and, to a soul, positive.  Asking the question, "Can you summarize your life's advice?" caused only a few seconds before replying, "Respect."

The next half hour was a wonderful discussion of what that actually meant.  But for here, it simply means to recognize that an individual's work and actions ultimately reflects on others.  I couldn't help but think about those two Luftwaffe pilots who, seventy years prior, decided to "Respect" as they did with Grace instead of condemnation.

Now...just to be clear, until humanity evolves to the next level, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) expresses reality rather clearly—there is a time to kill, a time to heal.  A time for war, a time for peace.   A time to be born and a time to die.  And in the mystery of cause-and-effect, who knows how and why stuff comes out the way it does!

But because two Luftwaffe pilots decided to Respect as they did, one man was able to Respect, too.  Ed Cottrell is 93 years old and thinks about December 17 often; he wonders what was going on the minds of those two German pilots...

Ed Cottrell, circa 1944.
NOTE:  Ed wanted me to make sure that anyone who reads this realizes that he was, "...just a scared 21 year old American hoping to stay alive.  I hope youth and people in the the future will not forget how terrible war is and how it effects people's lives."

Note:  Forgive the shameless plug but if you'd like to put a little Respect on your wall, click here. ("Our Mary" shows up towards the bottom of the page).

Profile 101: START to FINISH— "Luck and Stuff!" as crewed by SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, 446th BG, 706th BS

Viola!  Another awkward moment is over—drawing semi-clothed women while maintaining an open-door policy with my kids can make for interesting times!   But you know what's really awkward?  Knowing that I'm drawing a family heirloom.  For a man the family has never met.

Yeah.  You read that right.  For a man the family has never met.

Have a look at "Luck and Stuff!" from the 706th Bombardment Squadron of the 446th Bombardment Group.

Rewind back to April 29, 1944.

According to the 446th Bombardment Group history, the day featured a 22-plane misson to Berlin. From their base in Bungay, England, the German capitol was pretty much a straight-shot East.  A thousand miles round trip and, counting forming up for formation and mission debrief, a full day's work.

If you've ever watched a "bomber movie" like the acceptable "Memphis Belle" or the far, far awesomer "12 O'Clock High," you've probably realized that it's impossible to convey the experience of riding a bomber into combat.  The hours of sitting, standing, looking outside...the drone of engines, the random shakes and mysterious metallic shudders are either hypnotizing or infuriating depending upon your temperament.

Here...watch the video below.  It was shot while sitting in the tail-gun position of the Commemorative Air Force's B-24.  Turn the volume up full-crank to really get the effect.  And listen to it 3,000 more times.  Thats the sound of about 7 hours of "bomber mission."

Now, would you mind watching it again? This time, pay more attention to the P-51, only imagine it coming in at 3x the speed.  And with a dappled green/gray paint scheme.  And big black crosses on the wings.  And the nose and wing guns ablaze...and you, firing back.  Not for fun, not for "high score," not even for God and Country.  Instead, you fire back because that's all your brain can process at the moment.

Hold that thought.

Here's what happened to "Luck and Stuff!" on that Spring day...

Inbound, the Luftwaffe kept their distance.  In fact, the only one that got too close, ended up as a funeral pyre thanks to an escort of P-38 Lightnings; a fairly routine flight. It wasn't until the last twenty or so minutes before the target that the monotony was broken.  As the Liberators puckered up for their bomb run, the flak began, peppering the sky with deadly smudges.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—the No.2 engine was hit and began bleeding oil into the frigid slipstream.  In spite of the wound, Luck and Stuff! stayed in formation and completed the run.   Yet, 1,000lbs of bomb remained hung up in the bomb bay.  The added weight of the un-dropped bombs plus the reduced power caused the B-24 lag behind.  If you look at the map above, we're probably mid-way on the top red line, heading west...into a head wind.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—at least three German fighters were spotted by tailgunner Jimmy L. Calhoun, coming in fast, guns sparkling.  According to crew testimonies, what happened next also happened fast; both engines on the starboard side (No. 3 and No. 4) were set alight.  Top Turret/Flt. Engineer SSgt Charles E. Hill was caught in the middle of a fuel-transfer (mid-fuselage) and the hot bullets burst the flammable lines creating a curtain of fire...

We can only imagine the chaos.  Groaning metal, shrieking wind, smoke, shots of flame, shakes, shouts; with three engines out, a fire inboard and a bomb bay full of explosive, the crew tumbled out into the blue.  Moments later, Luck and Stuff! blew apart, pieces tumbling earthward like hot embers from a just-spent firework.

Before the war's end, 1019 B-24s would be lost over Europe, many in the same fashion.  And that's not counting the B-17s, B-25s, B-26s, P-38s...in fact, 8th AF aircrew had a 12.38% KIA rate compared to the U.S. Marines of 3.29%  Put another way, the 8th Air Force suffered the highest loss rate of any American branch of service.*

And now you know why so many people are utterly fascinated by what happened in those bombers...

Ok.  Back to the drawing.  The graphic below is a quick time-lapse that goes from initial pencil sketch to completed illustration.  It's about 40 hours condensed into a few seconds.  It's crude but if you're really bored you can see a few fits, starts and corrections.

Is it perfect?  Probably not.   But I am hopping it's nearly-so because this piece will be going up on the walls of many homes as a memorial to the tailgunner, Jimmy.  He was the one who first spotted the incoming German fighters and, presumably, the first to fire back.  He was also the first to die.

For a man the family has never met.

You know, I've been consciously avoiding any cute references to the irony of this bomber's name in comparison to her fate.  Not that I'm pious or extraordinarily reverent (not even close).  Maybe I would have had it not been made clear, "This is for us to remember Uncle Jimmy."  On one hand, it's a drawing.  But when memories, family, life gets involved, things change.

Like I wrote at the beginning, it's awkward when a kid walks in: "Watcha doin' dad?  "Drawing a naked woman."  "Oh.  Who's it for?" "Tailgunner's family."  "Oh.  Cool.  See ya, dad."  "See ya."

But it's much, much more awkward  when I realize that compared to Jimmy's family, I have it easy.

To the crew of "Luck and Stuff!"

See ya.

CREW PHOTO LIST UPDATED 28 May, 2024 (thanks to an eagle-eyed reader and son of Lt Thomas Brigham; THANK YOU!)

Lt  Weems Jones, Pilot, POW (#7 or #10)
Lt  Joseph Kwon, Co-pilot, POW (#7 or #10)
Lt  Thomas Brigham, Navigator, POW (#9)
SSgt Charles Perry, Nose gunner, POW
SSgt Charles Hill, Top gunner/Engineer, KIA (#4)
TSgt Arnold Kaminsky, Radioman, POW (#2)
SSgt George Radle, ball gunner, KIA (#3)
SSgt William Ingraham, Left waist gunner, POW (#1)
SSgt Lester Baker, Right waist gunner, POW  
SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, Tail gunner, KIA.  (#5)

*This is a commonly understood figure and relatively easy to find.  But, the 398th BG Association makes it easy.  Go here: http://398th.org/History/KIA/index.html

Profile 97: UPDATE— the "Pave Knife" pod of the 433rd TFS

"Uh...nice.  What is that?!"

You don't know?!  Why, it's the Pave Knife pod!  One of only six used by the USAF in SEA. This one will be #2.  Eventually, I intend on hanging it under an F-4 drawing that I'm working on.  But for now, I'm just getting my head around the gizmo's strange proportions, and it's even stranger affect on the act of warfare.  It actually made war (clears throat, nervous glance at the door, lowers head) better.

To understand what "better" means, imagine what would happen if a police department addressed a crime by arresting a whole neighborhood in order to get at a single perp.  Of course, it's a ridiculous idea*.  You can't just go around punishing the innocent in order to ensure prosecution of the guilty.  Can you?!

Well, warfare has enough "issues" let alone those caused when the innocent get involved.

Ok, hold that thought.

A few years ago, I had lunch with Dick Rostrum, a lead Bombardier from the 401st BG.  Understand the distinction; he was not a "Toggelier."   During the last year or so of the war in Europe, the 8th AF found that bombing accuracy was improved when one man (Bombardier) would do the actual bomb aiming and the rest in the squadron simply dropped on his command.  Hence the name Toggelier as they simply "toggled" the bomb-switch.

Anyway, I asked Dick if he ever felt responsible for bringing death to innocent people.

Stop for a second and think about that question.  Not that I had the temerity to ask it.  But that the question is actually acknowledgement of the grim reality.  And, as horrible as it may seem, to deny it is to insulate one's brain against the wickedness of war (and therefore sanitize its filth).

"No!" Dick bumped his fist on the table.  "That is why I hated him!"

Who did Dick (even after seventy years) hate?  Adolph Hitler.  He went on, "I read about him and we had to beat him.  I did my part, I did my job with excellence.  To beat him!"

I got it.  Dick was punching-back at the bastard as best as he could.  Thankfully so, too.  But.  Was every German guilty?  Certainly not.  Still, thousands paid, with their lives, for the sins of a few.

Have a look at the image below.  It's a B-17—like Dick flew—on a run on the Reichstag, circa 1945.  As focused, as expert, as determined as Dick was, the averages stated that only 70% of his bombs would land within a 2,000 foot circle.  Do you think there were innocents among that circle?  Of course there were.  Especially considering that virtually every 8th AF bombing raid in WWII was done with numbers far in excess of a mere one B-17!

Now, let's say Dick wasn't in a B-17 but somehow, was now a WSO aboard a Vietnam War F-4 Phantom equipped with a Pave Knife laser-guided bomb.

Have a look at the image below.  Click, boom!  Hitler's dead.  Along with a few of his toadies.  But the collateral damage of innocents is effectively nullified.

Is that "better"?

You're crazy if you can't agree.  Yes, it's "better."

War is here to stay.  However, if one can stomach the notion, war—as a practice—can be improved.  In fact, it's a moral responsibility to do so.  Yeah, yeah,  it's a warped view but I'd rather make a tiny (but guilty) step forward than be paralyzed by righteous indignation.

Have another look at the pod with its sinister profile and diabolical name...if you've ever wanted a feel-good moment amidst the concussive blast of a bomb and shredding of shrapnel, this is it.

On the next and final post, I'll try to describe how Pave Knife worked.  After that, we'll hang it on a rail and take it "up North."

Btw, I'm pretty sure Dick would have done anything for a Pave Knife pod.

OH!  Just occurred to me that I have a little clip of Dick describing an especially memorable moment with a bomb...

RIP, Dick.


Profile 102: JUST STARTED— "280" as flown by the 523rd TFS

Every profession has its lore.  Teachers reminisce about the age of pencil sharpeners.  Doctors of the day when patient records were contained between the ears.  I've even listened-in as pizza makers describe a certain oven with such care and detail, I too wanted one of those thousand-pound granite-based behemoths.

But make no mistake about it—no profession (repeat) can equal the passion, devotion and deification between (hu)man and machine like aviation.   Aviation is a Faith and each aircraft, a denomination*.

I'm really tempted to push the whole 'aviation is a religion' thing here but I won't because this particular F-4D is on holy ground of its own: it was the mount of the 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron and my job is to bring it to life.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be opening her logbook to songs of praise and parables from those who know her best.

Lets go for a ride!

*I am confident that God is not offended by this statement as it is clear that flight is not only a Divine creation it is also a Calling and act of Devotion.  In fact, I have heard no more fervent prayer or decisions of righteousness than in an aircraft.  Especially during severe turbulence.