16 June, 2021

Profile 153: TWENTY YEARS LATER...North American P-51B Mustang as flown by Robert "Punchy" Powell, 352nd FG, 328th FS

Twenty years of progress, five years too late.

This post is a little light in History but heavy in appreciating its value.

Twenty years ago, I began — in earnest — my practice of “interviewing old guys and drawing their airplanes.”   Of course, I’d been drawing airplanes since I was able to fist a crayon.  But by 2001, technology provided a whole new paradigm.   Thanks to WWII ace and American hero, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, I was given extraordinary access to the fellowship of WWII pilots and aircrew.  It didn't take long before realizing the value of these people’s lives stretched far beyond the skies of war...

It didn't take long before collecting a group of amazing friends and mentors that changed my world-view. They became the grandfathers I never had.  

Today, those influences are the bedrock to my psyche as well as providing me the means to affect many, many, many others.

That's me with "Third Greatest Fighter Pilot" (in the Universe) Bill Creech.
One of over 150 "old guys" interviewed.  

Funny anecdote - one day, Bill called up and commanded, "You've been interviewing me six years!  When do I get to see it?!?"

"Hmmm.  When I get it right!"

Bill Flew West in 2012.  And I'm still working on the interview.   

What started as a lark to learn leadership has turned into something unexpectedly greater.   I've drawn over 200 specific-moment airplanes and in some fashion, told their tale.  

True story - four years ago, I was spotted in an airport and asked, "Are you that guy who draws airplanes?!"  Since then, the recognition has only increased...and in the world of aviation artists, I'm not even one of the most popular!

"History" is becoming legit. :).  Good times, eh?

Anyway, I remember getting dogged at a Veteran’s event in 2005 by a sharp-eyed critic who pointed out that my drawings weren’t  anywhere near as good as other aviation artists, especially when it came to how I drew the most crucial aspect of an aircraft - the wing.  He said they looked like knives.  


Yeah, well... he had a point.  I explained that sometimes deadlines to make an interview rushed things and wasn’t the real value of the art the pilot's signature??

    “Your wings look terrible!”

    “It doesn’t matter.  Punchy autographed it.”

    “Maybe.  BUT.  Your wings look like knives!”

Whatever.  Thankfully, a career in advertising had thoroughly beat my ego to hell.   I persisted with the interviews, the stories, the visits…and drawing their airplanes.  

Nevertheless, last year, the (gobsmackingly awesome) photographer John Slemp contacted me to use one of the very first printed drawings I’d done for a book he’s publishing featuring the iconic, painted leather jackets worn by so many airmen of the era.

He wanted to use my drawing of Lt. Robert “Punchy” Powell’s P-51B, “The West ‘by gawd’ Virginian.”

The answer was easy.  “Absolutely-freaking-NOT.”

    “Why not?”  

    “Because it’s awful.”


    “The wings look like knives!”

Punchy with a piece of the actual nose art from his WWII P-51.  He was involved in a horrible accident right after take off that resulted in most of the airplane burning up.  Crew Chief Bob Lyons salvaged this piece of history and gave it to Punchy as a token of his good fortune. 

©John Slemp

* Break break *

Let’s be real.  I’m no Troy White, Marc Poole, Robert Bailey, Rick Herter… and I never will be.  And Punchy Powell helped me realize that when one afternoon we ended up talking on the phone for over an hour and never brought up WWII or aviation once. The art wasn't my passion.  The person, however, was.

The pilot of The West ‘by gawd’ Virginian was no longer just a hero.  He was a buddy.   

You know how fantastic it is to share friendship with someone who’s got three times the life experience that you do?  IN ADDITION  to duking it it out with the enemy at 25,000 feet?!

Jealous?  Stop it.   Do yourself a favor,  pick up the phone, write an email…and make time for coffee/beer/whatever with your own gray haired heroes.   And don’t stop.  Stick with it.   You’ll find that the secrets to success are as universal as they are pin-pointedly personal.

I remember Punchy describing how he felt that 80 years old was a new plateau for him; he’d just joined a medical research project to measure whether geriatric patients could build muscle mass. He and I walked Omaha Beach at low tide for nearly an hour — he described the D-Day landings from his vantage point, from take off to landing… and a press photographer following us had to stop on account of being exhausted trying to keep up.  

Could geriatrics build muscle mass?  Uh... yeah.  Thank gawd I don't skip cardio or else I'd been left in the dust, too.

Back to Slemp and his request.

Could he use my artwork?  No, at least not that one.  But if he would wait, I would do a new one.  Last week, I finished and  day'um...twenty years of practice has paid off!

The color is better...

The lines are more accurate...

The nose art is more accurate...

The markings are more accurate...

The wings don’t look (nearly as much) like knives...

Have a look — I've added a bit of time-lapse effect so you can see the difference yourself.


But.  The progress, though obvious, has lost much of its luster in that Punchy and SO MANY of that initial cohort of WWII vets have “Flown West” as they say.  

On 22 June, 2016, five years ago, Punchy did just that.  I got the wretched honor of writing his (somewhat famous in that it went viral) obituary… read it for yourself, here.

You know, it's a shame that sometimes the inspiration for a thing doesn't get to see it's fulfillment.   Frankly, I think it's probably just-as-well that so many of "that generation" isn't here to see the anger, division and self-absorption that's come to represent America.   But I'm optimistic that the fruitlessness of our self-absorption will make itself known and we'll do the hard work to get back to more reasonable behavior.

But.  I hope it doesn't take twenty years to notice the difference. 

BLUE SKIES, Punchy Powell!   Tell the rest that we're all still working on it!*

Robert "Punchy" Powell in his leather jacket.  I've seen the galleys and it's going to be an AWESOME BOOK.   Look for it next year!  (Photographer John Slemp is still working on it...)

©John Slemp.

*I'm SO NOT religious but the Bible's Philippians 4:8 has some good words that I know Punchy would approve.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.   MSG