10 November, 2016

Flown West - Col. Hank Snow.

Hank Snow after 666 combat missions over three wars.
I asked him what he thought of this photo and he replied,
"There's a tired young man, John.  I just wanted to go home."

Who is the greatest Warrior you've ever known? If you're fortunate, you've known one.  Or two.

But none like Hank Snow.

Godspeed and Blue Skies...

Hank Snow

Gawd man, you're going be missed...

30 October, 2016

Profile 124: FINISHED—"EB F" as flown by F/L John Wilkinson, 41 Squadron

Have a look—there will never be a shape like this again.

It. Is. Beautiful.   But, the Spitfire Mk.XIV was also a beast.

If you look closely at the cowling, you'll see a distinctive bulge over the airplane's shark-line nose.  Such space was necessary as it helped streamline (and contain) the Rolls Royce "Griffon" engine's 2,000+ horsepower.  Putting this into perspective, the American P-51 Mustang got by on 'only' 1,500hp.  The two airplanes weighed about the same, making the horsepower differential all-the-more interesting!

(insert daydream: If I could only go back in time...)

But, as interesting as facts and data are, the real beauty in this kind of work is 'the story.'

Again, my airplane drawings are just drawings.   But the history?  That's life.

Above—a month or so ago, I received an Apple Pencil and of course, started goofing around with it right away.
This is a time-laps of one of my first sketches (probably 90-120 seconds of actual work) and depicts
John Wilkinson flying a "razor-back" Spitfire Mk.XIV circa 1944

Meeting "EB F's" pilot, F/L John Wilkinson, was an exercise in the frustrations of story-getting; it was too brief.  Of course, it always is—how do you tell a man's tale in any span less than his actual age?!

Still...'got 16 minutes?

Have a look below at our latest Short entitled, "The Gentleman Next Door."  Though it's not long enough, it will give you a glimpse into what it's like to spend time with these rare partakers of exceptional history.

The Gentleman Next Door - The John Wilkinson Story from John Mollison on Vimeo.

I hope John's story has inspired you to have a conversation with someone important in your life.  And if you think John's story can help inspire someone else, please share the link. 

An 11 year old girl meets a 94 year old man (F/L John Wilkinson).
This is where the baton gets handed off...
Photo:  Me, taken at the film Premiere of "The Gentleman Next Door," South Dakota Air & Space Museum

Profile 122: "221" as flown by The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS

So, this past summer, an interesting conversation transpired between me and a rising star of a large corporation.  We were discussing (clear throat, cop a stuffy British accent) the preeminent topic of anyone who desires Command and Control—leadership.

It sounds all-lofty and pompous... but I suspect we also sounded a bit silly, too.  After a while, one realizes that if Leadership could truly be contained within bullet points or anecdotes, society would collapse in a huge narcissistic dog pile*.

But Leadership remains a great topic for discussion.  Part art, part luck, part genetics, part practice…and mysterious as all-get-out because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the universe shifts.

Still, the ambitious executive’s question stuck with me, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

Break Break.

Have a look above.  It's an F-4E Phantom in the livery of the 336th TFS, circa 1972, Ubon, Royal Thailand Air Force Base.

There are a few points to note, too.

Firstly, the squadron was called, The Rocketeers; probably the coolest name and logo since WWII's the 487th Fighter Squadron's "Petie."  You have to appreciate the skill and talent of those tasked with memorializing a military unit with an icon—whomever designed the Rocketeers logo designed one of the best.

The 487th FS logo (L) and the 336th TFS's logo (R).
I know "JC" Meyer thought-up the baby with the buggy whip but if you have any idea on the Rocketeer's logo, email me.

Secondly, it's a “Linebacker” bird.  Operation Linebacker was the code name for President Nixon's reaction to North Vietnamese forces that crossed into South Vietnam during January of 1972.

That year, The United States armed forces were in withdrawal from Vietnam and smack-dab in the middle of handing the war off to the South Vietnamese military (a weirdly-named process called “Vietnamization”).  The North couldn’t have picked a more clever time to move into the South as they threw their punch when the U.S. and South Vietnamese military were distracted.

Now, Nixon may have been disturbingly paranoid but he wasn’t indecisive.  He also knew that insanity (ironically) was, “…doing the same thing but expecting different results.”

So, Nixon acted powerfully against the North’s ability to make and sustain war.  You’d think this act would be a “Duh!” moment but in the scope of all-things-Vietnam-War, his decision was actually rather novel in contrast with the bureaucratic and remotely-controlled policies of Kennedy and LBJ.

I threw this map together to give some idea of the geography of it all.  It's generally accurate but I wouldn't want to write a doctoral thesis using it as sole authority.  Just sayin...

Thus, Linebacker was born.  Between May and October of 1972,  North Vietnamese power plants, bridges, air fields, supply depots—the stuff that should have been crushed in 1964—were pummeled.

Do your own research on the matter but suffice it to state, Linebacker was a full-court press on North Vietnam that the United States conducted (virtually) exclusively by air.

Ok.  Back to the F-4.

The jet’s loadout is rather atypical for the period as it reflects something called a "Chaff Mission."  If you look closely, the centerline rack contains four M129 Leaflet and Chaff containers. They look like bombs but they’re not.  Actually, you can only see bits of two as the containers are side x side.    And they’re also obscured because the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and wing-mounted 370 gallon fuel tanks block their view.

Also, there’s an AL/ALE-38 Chaff Dispenser on the other side but you’re going to have to walk around to the other side of your monitor to see that.   (joke).


Here’s how a Linebacker Chaff Mission typically worked— an "eight-ship" of F-4 Phantoms would fly straight and level, line-abreast (about 1,500 feet apart) into North Vietnam and let loose a blizzard of a small metallic strips in a 100-mile long, 5-mile wide “corridor” of radar-confusing fuzz.  Though it only lasted about 15-ish minutes, that brief time was just enough time for bomb-laden F-105s and F-4s to zip in, hit the target and zip out. 

The Chaff would not only spread out horizontally (width) it would also spread out vertically (height).
Of course, gravity takes its toll on any object no matter how light it is.  A Chaff cloud would only last
about 15 minutes, depending upon any number of variables.

Great idea!  In fact, the Brits pioneered it in WWII against the Germans.  30 years later, the basic science still proved itself, much to the delight of those tasked with hitting the targets. I’m not completely confident on this but I heard from two reliable sources that no bomber was ever lost on a mission that used a flight of “Chaffers” to cloud the way.

But.  If you ever meet an F-4 pilot that flew in Linebacker, ask them if they ever ‘flew chaff.’  You’ll get one of two responses.  “Nope!” (and a smile).  Or “Yes, gawd’ammit!” (and a scowl).  

Remember, a Chaff mission required straight, level and utterly precise (and therefore predictable) flight.   Let that sink in.  Ever see that picture of the fife and drum line marching into a Revolutionary War battle?  

"The Spirit of '76' by Archibald Willard.

Um…yeah.  Though the Chaff did terrific work in cloaking the whole Force from AAA and SAMs,  it also served as a brilliant pointer to where the chaff-laying, level-flying, sitting-duck F-4s were.  Que MiGs.   I have no idea how many Chaff Bomber F-4s were lost to MiGs but according to my sources, there were at least seven resulting in at least six POWs (with four crewman being rescued and four more KIA).

Enough said.

Now, wipe that bit of aerial dirty-work out of your mind and focus on the crisp and clear numbering on the tail—221.  

Originally, I was commissioned to do "235"—the F-4E flown by MiG-killer team of Pilot Fred Sheffler and Weapons System Officer, Mark "Gunner" Massen.   And, I complied—complete with red-star on the splitter-plate.**

Fred and Mark's F-4E.  If you squint, you can see the red-star on the Splitter Plate.

Fred tells a great story about the victory.  He even let me have the original cockpit recordings and an amazing record that pretty-much maps-out he and Mark's victorious moment on 15 August, 1972.  In fact, it's so well documented, I plan on rolling it out here on a later date.  But I put 221 on top as my representative of the Rocketeers on account of its relevance to the opening paragraph.

Ok, so...

I ‘get’ the quest for power.  There was a time when I was an avid student of anything that promised to lead me to greater power and more riches.  From these sources, I learned much. Some of it has actually been useful, too.  But, the only true test of Leadership that has consistently born itself out is impossible to teach:  the test of time.

Does that mean The End justifies the Means?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  This dilemma is why the qualities of Character and Ethics are so crucial.  Add Humility to the mix, too—I’ve met some amazing Leaders over the years and the best of them, though never-perfect, are careful not to stand in front of a mirror too long.

Ok, break break.

Have one more look at 221 because, next, I’ll be sharing an account of a conversation I had with one of the Rocketeers.  Actually, it’s really an amalgam of numerous conversations with different members.  Though I don’t like inventing reality, the utter consistency of each member’s words make it legitimate.

Pilot:  ”You're going to come to our Reunion, right?"

Me:  ”Yeah.  I will.  It'll be nice to meet all you guys."

Pilot: ”You know you're not coming to meet us, right?"

Me:  ”What do you mean?”

Pilot: ”You're coming to meet the best squadron commander we ever had.  And you ask any one of us.  We'll tell you the same.  We're all going to there for him.”

Me:  ”Hmmm.  Tell me more.”

And “they” did, taking me back to Seymour-Johnson AFB (Goldsboro, NC) when the 336th just received their orders to take part in Linebacker.   The squadron was moving and moving now—Pack your bags? Sure.  Kiss the wife?  Maybe.  Stop for lunch?  Not unless it’s in Hawaii, half-way  between North Carolina and Ubon AFB, Thailand.

Picture day.  The Rocketeers arrive in Ubon to take part in Nixon's plan.
Photo:  Unknown

He described the challenges of landing in a foreign land and being ready for combat sorties a mere three days later.  He described the differences of the various characters and the qualities that endeared and/or divided them from one another.  From an Organizational Psychology perspective, the whole process was fascinating and illustrated how a fighting Squadron is not unlike any other team tasked with a function.   Yet, woven through it all was the anecdotal but consistently reverent mention of the Squadron Commander.

"John, we were a good team back then.  And, I'm looking forward to seeing all of the guys.  But don't kid yourself we still are a good team.  And that’s because of D.C.”

That’d be the 336ths “Leader”, Lt. Col. D.C. Vest.

"John, we'll still want follow him.  You have to understand that."

Hmmm.  There’s an object lesson here but before I get to that: 

To The Rocketeers of the 336th TFS, thank you for letting me have a glimpse into your brotherhood and most of all, thank for letting me be the expression of your gratitude and honor for Squadron Commander.

But, to my buddy who was part of the discussion at the beginning of the post—in answer to your question, “How do I know if I’m a good leader or not?”

If, in 45 years, your staff can still get together and toast your name, you’re a "good leader."

Or, if you ask a Rocketeer, you're like D.C. Vest.

Col. D.C. Vest in front his F-4E.
Note the signatures on the matting; those are from "his Rocketeers."
This kind of thing makes all those years screwing around in school doodling dogfights totally worth it.
Photo: Gale McVicker

*Everybody wants to be a "leader."  But we also (in the nasal words of Bob Dylan) "...gotta serve somebody."

** The splitter-late is a thin piece of metal that is situated between the fuselage air-intake and the fuselage. Enlarge the drawing of #235 and look for the red star—that's the splitter-plate.

Profile 123: "DORRIE R" as flown by Jerry Yellin, 78th FS

If you haven’t had sex for a long time…

(insert my shocked expression as this 92 year old man stated it so plainly)

…the next time, you’re all caught up.

Laugh, snicker or be offended all you want, there’s truth to Jerry’s words.  Ah, the stuff you learn from old people…

Okay.  Look above—it's "DORRIE R," the P-51 Mustang, circa May 1945, flown by Jerry Yellin of the 78th Fighter Squadron.  The Bushmasters, as the squadron was called, were based at Iwo Jima during WWII.  If you've heard Jerry's name before it's because he's become a darling of the internet world and for good reason—Jerry represents the “end” of WWII in many ways.

For example, he flew the war’s last combat mission.  His guns spewed the last bullets, he fired the last rockets and soberingly, he was the last one to lose a friend to war’s maw. Today?  Jerry is alive, well, strong, sharp…and working to make sure that his generation's legacy will survive.


Anyway, a few years ago,  a short video was posted where Jerry described his service. It's not gory, it's not dramatic, but the man's words are eloquent enough to have warranted viral status.   In fact, I lost count of how many times people emailed it to me with some sort of exclamation that "Everyone needs to watch this..."

The bottom line is that it kind of made the guy "famous."

If you haven't yet, please watch the clip below.  You won't be disappointed...

Ok, back to that opening quote. I won’t blame you if you’re wondering how it pertains to airplanes, fighter pilots or WWII.   But, his words were actually in response to a question I posed to him regarding whether he felt as if he were a “late bloomer” —you know, someone who comes into their-own sometime later in life.
But before I get into that, a little background is in order.

All-things-Iwo-Jima is a fascinating topic and highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand WWII.  The island was scene to especially fierce combat; a veteran Marine described the battle for island ownership thusly—as if by reflex, his shoulders drooped and  face fell into a grimace, eyes downcast.  Then he shook his head and whispered, “No…” 

There are times I wish I could download someone's memories and experience them for myself but that was not one of those times.

The Battle for Iwo Jima was declared “over” on 26 March (after nearly a month and a half of fighting) and just eleven days later, the island was amazingly ready to launch P-51s.  But,  the battle's impact was certainly not 'over' as, to this day, Jerry remembers the cleanup of the dead rather vividly.  Put that into perspective—even after two weeks, "the dead" were still being buried.

I've been told the movies “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Flags of Our Fathers and the particular episode of Steven Spielberg’s “The Pacific” are good portrayals; I’ll take their word for it.

Moving right along, interested in some period-film of some 78th FS P-51s?  Click below:

Anyway, back to the man— Jerry Yellin was a late-war fighter pilot.   His 19 combat missions were flown from Iwo Jima to Japan in the effort to destroy the Japanese war machine once and for all - either as escort for B-29 bombers or as part of a pack of fighters on search and destroy missions.

Though many WWII fighter pilots accumulated more combat missions (100+ wasn't uncommon), Jerry's were extraordinary for their length.  For reference, a three-four hour mission over the European Theatre of Operations was considered a big deal.  But over the Pacific, three hours could mean you weren’t even half-way there!  

Look below.  It’s a map of Iwo Jima in relation to Japan.  The missions from Iwo to Japan were 8 hour trips with the majority being over deep, uninhabited (save for creatures and submarines) ocean.   On paper, these missions were called "VLR" (short for Very Long Range).  But in practice, they were simply grueling.

Iwo Jima to Japan - a long ride.  Thanks to Google Maps for making
this incredible distance shorter.

How grueling?  Well,  flying a high-performance prop fighter is work. Granted, there's immense pleasure at horsing a beautifully trimmed machine around in the sky, letting g-forces gently pull and tug at the senses; air shows make it seem all the more fun.  On VLR missions (especially) the reality was different.

Seven, eight hours in a cockpit is much different than a marathon drive in the family car.  There's the constant need to hold the aircraft in formation amidst the sharp tremors and rolling swells of air currents.  Consider too that the airplane needs to be flown; fuel is burning off, changing flight characteristics, the gauges must be watched (continuously) and the constant drone of the engine vibrates the brain like a steady, dull hammering of what it is, noise.  At least there's no conversation as radio-silence must be maintained.  

An "upper" container circa mid-20th Century.  It was sent to me by a reader who's a "Shrink" with
one of the world's most renown hospital systems.  He confirmed that soldiers were doped.
Source:  Photo unknown.  The doctor who sent this to me?  He prefers to remain anonymous.
To stave off the body's response to go to sleep, Benzadrine pills (uppers) were given to the pilot to keep them alert.  Of course, once the coast of Japan is sighted, the body would react with a blast of adrenaline...after the fight, there was the return home.

Again, Jerry flew these VLR missions not once but 19 times.

So, one more time—have a look at my art at the top of the post.  Notice the title, "The Last Warriors.”    If you click on the graphic, you'll see a faint image of a P-51 silhouette just offset from the detailed rendering.   Holding the actual print to the light—just so—the faint image will glimmer.  But twist the page just-so and it seems to disappear.*

The real DORRIE R was destroyed on June 1, 1945.   Jerry wasn't flying it at the time though.  Instead, Jerry was temporarily grounded due to problems with his wisdom teeth.  Dental pain is bad enough but add the fluctuating pressures of altitude and the pain ratchet’s-up to an unbearable level.  So, another pilot took-off in Jerry’s place, in Jerry's plane.

Jerry (right) shows Lt. Denny Mathis the fine points of formation-flying.  Specifically, Jerry is showing Denny how to lead a 2-man group (called an Element) within a 4-man Flight.  I was particularly grateful for this picture as it helped me draw
the "DORRIE R" nose art (painted on both sides of Jerry's P-51).
In one of those strange-but-true moments, 100 P-51s (in close formation) from that June 1 mission entered a storm line.  In the ensuing turbulence and dark-swirled chaos, 27 Mustangs  collided mid-air.  2 pilots were able to bail-out but 25 were killed; one of those being the pilot of the DORRIE R.  Jerry suffered a mouth of pain but it ended up preserving his life.   Thus, this rendering of his airplane represents the capricious whim of fate that we all face in life.

The silhouette also represents that last mission of 14 August, 1945.  Jerry—and as many as 143 additional P-51s**—were on a VLR mission to strafe a series of fighter bases near Tokyo.   After conquering the demon of combat one more time, Jerry and the rest crossed the Japanese coast to return home.  Entering another cloud bank, the Force went into the black...

...and emerged missing one man, Phil Schlamberg.

Phil was Jerry's wingman.  And friend.

This is Phil, age 19, circa 1944.  Jerry sent me the picture; it's of an enlarged version that Jerry carried in a parade to memorialize Phil.
Courtesy:  Jerry Yellin 
What happened?  No one knows.  Maybe a Japanese anti-aircraft shell pierced his airplane and the P-51 slowly bled its fluids to death.  Maybe Phil had a stroke.  Maybe an enemy fighter snuck in.  Maybe...the demon got him.

After a while, the cause is immaterial.  Jerry was crushed and Phil became the last Air Force combat casualty in WWII; by the time the squadron returned to their base at Iwo Jima, the war was declared over.

(deep breath).

Ok - fast forward to a few days ago and Jerry and I were having a conversation and that lead to the comment that opened this blog post.  Again, the context was the delayed satisfaction of being a "late bloomer."

After the war, Jerry did what so many people do who endure hardship, he stuffed it aside and moved on.  But stuffing a traumatic past never works.  Trauma is caustic and eventually eats through whatever mental containment a person can conjure.  In Jerry's case, though happily married, he skipped through various careers and opportunity, never really settling until the day when his son announced that he'd be marrying a Japanese woman.  The daughter of a Japanese fighter pilot, in fact!

On the 1988 trip (to Japan) to meet his future daughter-in-law, 'something snapped' (as it always seems to do) and the demon came back to taunt and condemn.  This time, Jerry, now a bit older and a bit wiser, fought back—not with guns or pills—but with the idea that he'd either have to adapt to the future or forever live in a haunted past.

You gotta read Jerry's book.  Click here.   But suffice it to state, it has a happy ending. Through hard work and medicating his mind with a meditative practice called "Transcendental Meditation," (TM).  Jerry was able to put the demon of war to death.  Yet, this beast, though gone, left a number of reminders.  One of them was particularly difficult to hear as it represents just how far-reaching war's impact really is.

That December of 1945, three or so months after WWII ended, Jerry went to visit Phil's parents and return what remained of their son—a handful of uniform insignia and the condolences of a buddy.  The meeting ended before it began.  Phil's mother, in the desperation of grief, lashed at Jerry with the words, "It should have been you that died on that mission!"

I asked Jerry about how he reacted and he said that he stood, alone Phil's porch for an hour in utter shock...

(insert kick to gut)

"I was probably 51 (years of age) before I began to get any satisfaction out of things.  (And) put things back in order.  I'd been living with this thing called PTSD all my life.  TM helped me do that."

That was a surprising quote for me.  People are supposed to get their 'issues' figured out before then, right?  "51?!  That's a long time to wait to get your life figured out!"

"Yeah. It is."

"But I look at what you've done, (i.e. book, working with veteran's support charities, returning to Iwo Jima to pay respects to both sides, etc.) and you've certainly come into your own late in life..."

"Yes.  It's my Zone.  I am in the zone."

Jerry Yellin, me and Claude Hone at the Sioux Falls Airshow.  Jerry had just flown in after taking
part in a pretty cool fly-by at the Pensacola Beach Airshow led by buddy Roy Kinsey
Click here. 

'What did your wife think?"  (Helene passed away last year.  They were married 65 years).

"She was proud of me.  She liked my message."

"And what's your message?"

"You know, any man, regardless of race, nationality, culture, can get any woman of any race, nationality and culture pregnant.  What does that tell you?"

(I laughed)  "You tell me, Jerry."

"We, as human beings are the same.  If all of our differences can still be put together to reproduce, we're fundamentally the same.  Look.  We have the ability to destroy the earth with war.   But for all of our differences, we can create from each other too.  I want people to think about that.  I want people to look at life the way Nature intended.  We should be caretakers.  Not warriors."


So, riffing on Jerry's opening quote, maybe one day, someone will say, “You know, we haven’t had peace on this earth for a long time,” and then suddenly, we’ll have peace.  And then, in Jerry’s words, we’ll be all caught up.

And, we’ll all be late-bloomers, too.

Update 12-30-17.  A very limited number of prints (signed by Jerry) remain.  Please contact me for availability and pricing.  Click here.

*It’s a cool little effect I can use because of the Xerox technology that the printing company uses to reproduce my artwork.

Look below:

Hot off the press; my drawing of Jerry's airplane represents Phil Schlamberg, too!
Thanks, Xerox!

**Three Fighter Groups were on this mission.  Each Group contained 48 aircraft.  Of course, there may have been aborts but the number should be considered generally accurate.