Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Profile 85: FINAL - "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS, 311th FBG

Finished!

"The last three years have been harder than any Japanese prison camp."

What?!  What could be harder than the worst POW system of WW2?!

I'll get to that.  But first...

Killing a person with a .45 is easy.  Pull, snap and BANG!  At ten feet away, he wouldn't know what hit him; the big slug would obliterate the Jap's head like a baseball bat on a pumpkin.  He also wouldn't know who hit him; the enemy had his back turned to Chris.

The Burmese jungle is a dense, creature-infested salad.  Bill Creech told me that it took him an hour to hack through a mere 50' of the stuff.  So, while the enemy stood, listening for the little crackles and pops that would reveal a hiding human, it was understandable that he would have no idea just how close his quarry really was.  Hollow heartbeats, drips of sweat, a chirp of an insect...and then, inexplicably, the soldier continued on his way.  Chris exhaled in a restrained purge of nervous breath, lowering his trembling arm as to not make a sound.  

It had been an awful three days since the three pilots had bellied-in.  Major Nameless, the guy who got them into their current mess, was captured right away.  Chris and the other pilot, however, managed to stay one-step-ahead of the search party.  Close-calls, a stolen canoe, quicksand and fresh tiger tracks brought anxious thrills while sweet berries pulled from the jungle thickets provided food.  It'd be a great Reality TV show had it not been so real.

But, the reality was, though a highly trained fighter pilot, Chris was really just a bright kid from New York with less than a single week in-country.  He was no more prepared to survive in the Burmese highlands than one of their own would be had they been picked up and dropped into the concrete jungle of Manhattan.   Capture was inevitable.
Chris Morgan, Primary Flight Training, circa 1942.

As it happened, the two men were betrayed by a chance encounter with Burmese natives.  The locals promised to point them back to India but instead, delivered them to their new Japanese overlords. On October 19, 1943 the lost fighter pilots found their fate before the clenched fists of front-line, war-hardened Japanese Army soldiers.  Ouch.

Then, the hurt began—BANG!  The hard butt of an Arisaka rifle cracked against Chris's head.  A shot rang out*, and the ex-fighter pilot went down.  Repeatedly.  It didn't stop until an English-speaking officer was able to intercede and begin the interrogation "properly."  That moment was a scene out of a B-grade war flick—rote questions followed by Chris's courageous proclamation of name, rank and serial...BANG!   What did you...BANG!   Who is your...BANG!  When will you...BANG!

An ex-POW from Vietnam let me know that, once torture begins, "...everyone talks.  Everyone spills the beans.  Everyone confesses.  Of course, anything you say is pure bullish*t, but if you're getting the sh*t beat out of you, you talk!"

Chris finally admitted that his "commanding officer" was none other than General "Hap" Arnold (about the equivalent of admitting you knew who the President of the United States was).  Chris also rattled off whatever other answers his ringing head could conjure...he can't remember and it didn't matter.  Anything he said was as ridiculous as their situation.

However, in the course of "conversation," Chris did describe the soldier that he had almost plugged.  This piqued the interrogating officer to the point that he had to know, "Why didn't you shoot him?  Why didn't you kill the soldier that was looking for you?"

Chris answered, "He had his back to me.  I didn't want to shoot him in the back."  Somehow, that struck a sympathetic nerve in the officer's soul and he responded unexpectedly.

One can only imagine the scene—the crisply uniformed Japanese leaning back, steepling his fingers and saying, "So.  You showed...honor."  Some how, some way, the anecdote attached itself to Chris (and the whole Lost Flight) and it became a perverse endorsement that followed them on their forced-march to their final prison camp far, far to the South.

"From then on, we seemed to get a little better treatment," Chris explained.  "Not much better.  Maybe they didn't hit as hard.  But looking back, I feel that not shooting that Japanese soldier somehow helped save us, too.  At least on our trip to (our prison in) Rangoon."
A drawing of Rangoon Prison. The artist's last name is Ratcliffe.

It was an 800 mile journey that would last almost three months.  The trek was made on the bed of a transport truck, on train, on elephant, but mostly on foot.  And that "aura" of protection?  It was academic.  At each waypoint, the trio was still welcomed by a gauntlet of angry, war-curdled militants.  CRACK!  BANG!  SPIT!

If there was any mercy in the moment, it was when Major Nameless stepped to the front of the line at each of these vicious receptions. "I got you guys into this mess,' he'd remind them. 'I should go first."  Of course, there was no way this act of honor could deliver them out of their misery but it did reassure the other two that their former Flight Leader understood the ethic of Responsibility.   Though the facts were impossible to forget, Major Nameless's willingness to pay-extra for his sin triggered a spirit of forgiveness in Chris.

I asked if how he thereafter got along with Major Nameless and the other pilot, (Lt. Mel Bowman) and Chris made a point to tell me of the time he was crippled with Beriberi.  They were still 200 or so miles from Rangoon when the disease hit.  Mel and the Major fashioned a stretcher from bamboo and some old burlap and carried Chris the rest of the way 'home.'   Major Nameless didn't complain.   Mel, on the other hand, did.

"Mel would sit by me and say, 'Chris, 'you just going to lay there and whine?!  Chris, 'you just going to lay there and die?!  Chris, 'you just going to moan all day?!'"  Mel's taunts lit a fire in Chris that overruled his physiological decay.  "Mel did it deliberately.  To make me mad!  And it worked; I got so mad that I pulled through those days until I actually got healthy again.  Mel did that for me."

Chris had entered a particularly challenging School of Hard Knocks. Major Nameless taught Chris how to forgive, Lt. Bowman taught Chris the power of determination; it may have been a tragic education, but it was persistent.

"After I got healthy, the Japanese put me and another guy in charge of the camp's Cholera ward.  It was a terrible place with all the mess and death.  But I remember (when the other guy) announced, 'Chris, if we don't get rescued by Christmas (1944) we're going to die! We're going to die!' That was in June of '44.  Sure enough, we weren't rescued on Christmas and sure enough, he died.  On Christmas day."

I need to fast-forward; after the time when Chris listened as a 13-time bayoneted British infantryman blessed his wife with dying breaths.  After Chris learned to survive by eating things he won't mention. After Chris learned how to harden his soul to anything pleasant and dwell only on the moment by moment dichotomy of life or death...we're going to fast-forward to after the war.

Ok.  Try this—wrap your pinky and thumb around the thick part of your forearm.   Can they touch?  If they did, you understand what Chris looked like the day he was repatriated in May of 1945.  He was a shell of a man.  Yet,  the human body is amazingly resilient; 30 days later, he was cleaned up, half-way back to his pre-capture weight and standing on the porch of his parent's home.  He needed every bit of that strength he'd gained as both his mother and father collapsed onto him at his unexpected arrival.  The moment became an indelible scene as for so much of his captivity, his parents had written their son off for dead.

The letter Chris wrote to his folks shortly after being repatriated. 
He said he lied a little to keep them from worrying.
("Jupes" was Chris's nickname)

"So what next?" I asked.  "Did you have trouble adjusting to civilian life?"

Chris sighed.  "I learned to drink.  A lot."

"Did you get a job? Or did you just sit in a bar somewhere?"

"I was given the choice to stay in the Service or get out; the popular convention was to get out and so I did.  I regret that as it turned out the Service had more regard for POWs than the civilians.  And I just drank more."

"Really?!  You mean people didn't accept that you were a POW?!"

"Let me tell you something.  I was speaking at a War Bond Rally just after I got home and I told the audience what I had went through and I could read their faces—they didn't believe me.  But how could they?  They had no idea!  And when people found out that I was a captured because someone had gotten lost?  I heard laughter.  Laughter!  I couldn't—(pause)—I couldn't deal with that.  No more Bond Rallies."

"So then what?"

"Like I said, I drank.  I drank my way through five years of college.  I didn't graduate."

"And what about the rest of your life?  Did you still have any effects?"

"Aside from (the life that came from) drinking?  I'd wake up screaming.  Even today,  I can't get introduced without someone saying, 'This is Chris Morgan, he was a POW of the Japanese.  That was 70 years ago and it's still my life."

"So have you forgotten the memories?"

"Years ago, I would wake up screaming.  Which brings up that the last three years have been the hardest in my life."

One more pause, I promise.  Right about now, it's easy to see how you can be completely laid-low by this story.  Reconciling the injustice of it all is like trying to slake thirst by drinking vinegar.  But.  You should know that Chris Morgan is no victim.  As it turned out, Chris built a successful career in the insurance industry, raised a family and devoted years lobbying for veteran and POW rights.  Year by year, Chris gained altitude and the lost life was gradually redeemed as any man would want.  But it wasn't easy.  As it took Major Nameless to get Chris lost, it took another to get him found.

"Why's that?  What's been so hard about the past three years?"

"My wife, Connie.  She died three years ago.  Hardest thing I've ever been through.  (pause) Harder than any Japanese prison camp."

If you're one of the thousands who have been reading this story from the onset, Connie is new to the equation.  See, the challenge of these war stories is that, they are not confined to defined spans of time.   Granted, between October, 1943 and June of 1945 Chris Morgan learned, in dramatic fashion that grudges didn't pay and still, fury can be a life-line to extend one day to another.  Good lessons in survival for a POW, but what of "normal" life?

How long can a guy treat his wounds with beer?  How long can a guy be darkened by the shadow of someone else's failure?  How can a guy cope with challenges by any other means than to get angry?

Ha!  And here is the surprise ending that I warned you about in the previous posts.  Have a look at "030" again.   It's not an airplane lost. It's an airplane restored.

It was Connie that got Chris to temper the drinking.  It was Connie that got Chris the job that ended up bringing back self-respect (and later lead to financial success).  It was Connie that reminded Chris that the same Will that kept him alive in a POW camp was needed in the ease of post-War America.  It was Connie that got up with Chris during the nightmares...


"It all made sense later.   Life is about Will and the reason to persist. Connie helped me put the pieces together."

This isn't a war story.  It's a love story...of one man's amazing strength and a woman's amazing patience.

This about right, Chris?





_____________________

* The Japanese apparently fired the shot into the air in an act of terror.  It's possible the gunshot was somehow an accidental discharge of the weapon but it's doubtful.  The IJA were highly disciplined and most likely had exceptional control over their weapons.

Postscript:  Two readers asked the questions, "Did Chris forgive his captors?" and "Where there any Guards that tried to help you?"

To the first question, the answer is unequivocally, "Yes."  Chris answered that plainly to me.  He holds no grudge against the cruelty of war, recognizing that war is its own ethos.   He reminded me that the 6 .50 caliber machine guns and 2x 500lb bombs mounted on his A-36 were truly terrific weapons.  "Would I have been able to do horrible damage to them?  Of course.  It's just a part of war."

To the second question, Chris replied by retelling the story of how the IJA officer was impressed that Chris hadn't shot the Japanese grunt.  Chris worked to understand Japanese culture and realized later that, to them, an inglorious death would somehow taint the afterlife.    In sparing the life, he brought honor to the soldier's family.

However, Chris also described a moment when a lower ranking Japanese officer approached him and stated, "Though our nations are at war, we can be friends."  The officer then silently stood by Chris for a few wordless minutes as a display of kinship.  What prompted this act of personal revelation lies buried in the passing of time but it remains to Chris as a bright moment in a dark time.

____________________________________________

To the family of Chris Morgan, he is one of those giants we stand upon to see the future.  Thank you for letting me into your story.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Profile 85: UPDATE - "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS, 311th FBG





"He was a good man. A good officer.  But he should have never been behind the stick of an airplane."*

Well now.  That's a heck of an opening line, don't you think?!

But before we go any further, it's important that we come back to the topic of "Unfair" that was brought up in the first post on this airplane.

Unfairness is a powerful toxin.  Think back to that moment you first experienced it—something was taken from you, a promise unkept or perhaps an outright fallacy grafted upon your reputation—where you three?  Four?  Yeah.  You experienced it early (we all have)  and from then on, things were just a little different, tainted, perhaps.  Right?

However, I want you to decide right now to bear with the fullness of this story as its reconciliation is at once beautiful and startling.  It will not disappoint, and you'll never suspect where it ends.  Never.

Ok?

Good.

Look above.  You'll notice that I've been at work but not quite finished.  The challenge has been to really understand the color, "Olive Drab."  Sure, there is/was a formula, but that's just a recipe.  Differences in pigments, sun, oil, rain, storage...it's like buying two Big Macs from two different McDonalds.  They won't ever be the same.

But, I do understand the markings.  In a word, Basic.  Chris' A-36 was one of 40 that had been shipped straight from the Group's home airfield at Waycross, Georgia.  No personal, group or squadron livery were applied - just "star'n bar" and serial number, 42-84030.  "030" was a workin' bird, not a peacock.

Why so bare?  Well, they simply hadn't had the time.  When the 529th arrived at their Dinjan, India base on October 11 (1943), mission planners were already hovering over maps trying to figure out where to hit first.  The Squadron had only four days to get ready; October 16 was showtime.  The push to perform was so intense, the Squadron hadn't even logged any orientation flights!  Remember, they'd just "gotten off the bus" from eight thousand miles away...

Oh man...you know where this is going already, don't you.  (sigh)

Anyway, 12 airplanes (3 Flights of four) made up the attack force with a mission to bomb Japanese placements near the town of Sumprabum, Burma.  Fast at low-level and easy to control, the A-36 was pretty-well suited to provide the kind of close-air-support needed to aid the fevered and splintered jungle-fighting below.

There was "good" reason for the urgency to get into action, however; arriving in-country was a big deal. Not only was it the Inaugural act of the unit, it was part of a bold push to support the beleaguered British ground forces and establish the Americans as the strong players in the Theatre.  Remember, this was back in the days when the British had an Empire and Japan wasn't just expanding their empire, they were taking British (and French and Chinese and Dutch and American...) property.

The CBI was so much more than a battle ground.  It was the entitled land of tremendous ego, power and investment!  That the Japanese—upstarts and newcomers to the Industrialized World—could flip their middle finger at so much of the world establishment was an outrage.

Understand this—the 529th wasn't just off to bomb the enemy.  They were there as an opening round of violence to punish the Japs and return something far more valuable than all-the-tea-in-China:  Pride.

It should be no surprise that the Mission attracted its share of big-shots.  The leader of the first Flight was Brig. General William Old, one of the architects of American air power in the CBI.  The second Flight was lead by Colonel Harry Melton, a West Point grad with a slew of missions under his belt.   The third Flight was lead by—well, his name isn't important right now.

So, the three Flights took off toward the target, setting up a course that shot almost straight east-southeast toward Sumberbohm—some hundred and sixty miles away—where the Japs would soon learn who the real Boss was.



Now, there's something more you should know about the concept of a Flight.  A Flight has four airplanes—two Elements of two, of which one of the pilots is the Flight Leader.  It is the Leader's job to lead the rest to the target.

Ok.  If you've ever flown in a small airplane, you know that the machine, especially at altitudes below 20,000 feet, is subject to the lifts and sinks of air currents.  Like a boat on water.  For a flight of four, flying in formation (about 10 feet apart) is not as easy as driving four cars down the freeway.  It's focused business.  Drift a little this way or that and a collision can happen.  Or you fall away and expend precious fuel and focus to get back into place.  It's complicated, but the pragmatic, hammered-home truth is that being IN Formation was good.  Out was bad.  And follow the leader.

I hope this aspect of Aerial Discipline is fully appreciated because what happened next is a moment of supreme...unfairness.

Taking off into the vast, cloud packed aerial sea,  General Old's and Colonel Melton's Flights found each other.  Chris's Flight, lead by Major Nameless, however, somehow missed the others.  It wasn't for lack of trying; the Major wanted nothing more than to find the rest. Not only for the effectiveness of the mission but getting lost with "The General" up front could not help the Major's career, 'know what I mean?

So, the third Flight weaved, searched, looked, circled...and in that process of never-finding the rest , three terrible things happened.

1. The bomb-laden airplanes burned a prodigious amount of fuel.  So much fuel, they soon reached the point where they could not return to base.

2.  Chris's wingman caught a glimpse of the other Flights and peeled off to join them.  Without letting the rest know.  Ugh.  (This was verified after the war).

3.  The Flight Leader doomed the flight with a single act of arrogant insecurity.

Here's how it went down.

But one last time, hold that thought because you need to now take another look at the map above.  Notice the green hills?  That's not the picturesque stuff of New England.  They're the Kachin Mountains and that green is a canopy of jungle.  Underneath are the rocks that cut their way North to the Himalayas (home of Mt. Everest).  Parachute into there?  You'll die.  Ditch your airplane in there?  You'll die burning (or at least have your bones crushed into shards).  And the enemy is down there.  Somewhere.

And, remember this is before GPS and maps of the area were not the rich photographic imagery that anyone can instantly click-to today.  The map looked more like the map below.  It doesn't tell you much, does it?


Umm...yeah.  Being lost over Northern Burma in 1943 meant you knew only one thing—you were in trouble.

Back to the Flight.

Chris, following a gut feeling, tucked up on the wing of Major Nameless, got his attention, and flying wingtip to wingtip, rising and falling in the mountain-heaved air, pantomimed with his hands that he knew where they should head.

"I can do this.  I can get us home!" Chris shouted through leather-gloved gestures.  "Let me lead!"

The Flight Leader then made a most regrettable decision.  Lost, embarrassed, pressured, he chose to honor his one last vestige of Control; he reached around with his left hand and flicked the Major's insignia on his collar.   In other words, he pulled Rank.

Oh.  No.   Major Nameless let pride prevail over facts...ugh.

He also sealed their fates.  While there remained debate as to exactly where they were on the map, one fact could not be argued—they needed to find a flat place to put their airplanes down.  All things considered (namely the rocky peaks below) the first smooth spot to be found was the only option.  And there it was—a rice paddy at the foot of where the peaks and hills transitioned into a giant, ancient valley.

One by one, the three pilots resigned to their plight.  Chris and another pilot picked a rice paddy while Major Nameless chose a sandbar in the narrow nearby river.   All three bellied-in in a strap-straining grind of metal and dirt...close your eyes and see if you can imagine the chaos of neck-snapping deceleration, the howls of bending metal, the slurp of mud... then the sudden silence of halt while the hot engine sizzles the wet away...

It had to be horrible.  First mission.  Got lost.  Someone wouldn't listen.  Ditched on the enemy's door.

Ok.  Take a deep breath.



The photo above is Chris Morgan, circa 1943.  Have a good look as this will be the last we see of his fullness of face and healthy glow.  In three days, he will be captured by the Japanese and experience the wrath of these cruelest of captors.

And all because Major Nameless...

Stop right there. If you're like me, you're fu'll of vinegar for the Major and every other lump-head "Leader" that's lead you astray.  Bastards; every one of them.  Right?  And this story won't get better.**  But, the very reason I get to complete the tale at all is because I promised Chris that we wouldn't dwell on the pain.  Or the suffering.   Or the stupid things people do.

Like I wrote, you cannot guess where this story is going.

Never.

So please.  Stay with me on this.

I won't lead you astray.

(wink)



*The names of every man mentioned in this story are known.   A good researcher can probably have them in an hour or two, too.  But for this particular telling, it does no good to name them.

**Actually, it does.  It just takes...well, you'll see.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Profile 85 - BEGINNING: "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS.



"They didn't even get to try..."

Wedding day tragedies, first-time skydiving accidents, straight-off-the-lot car crashes—these are the "worst" of stories, don't you think?  There's nothing so horrible as seeing hope and opportunity ripped from a person; injustice and unfairness inflame anyone with a conscience.

Well, have look at "030" because she represents just such a story.  But right now, a little background is in order.

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre remains the least-remembered major Theatre of WW2.  Of course, the shark-mouthed P-40s of the American Volunteer Group are a permanent part of WW2 lore.  However, the Theatre itself, with its Chinese duplicity, Japanese conquest, British defeat and American frustration, remains a mere paragraph in the "book" of WW2.

This oversight is not for lack of action or drama.  In fact, the typical history nut, upon discovering the Theatre, is inevitably astounded at the depth and breadth of all-things-warfare.  And if it's "personality" you're looking for, the CBI's starring characters rival Hollywood's Patton, Rat Patrol or Colonel Kurtz.  Don't believe me?  Look up the names Wingate, Stillwell and Chennault

"Why don't we learn more about the CBI?"

The fact is, I don't know.  Maybe the CBI's forgotten status is due to the wretched climate. After Guadalcanal, what reporter would want to continue on?  Maybe the awful insects and disease had something to do with it; would you like some dysentery with your malaria?   Maybe the Japanese victories didn't help the war effort back home or maybe Chiang Kai Shek's Chicago-style corruption would have utterly offended a generation coming off the Depression... who knows?




But the fact remains—WW2 was fought in the CBI in typically bloody, icky, gruesome fashion and American aviators were there in force.

Ok.  Getting back to those tales of woe.

Being a Prisoner of War (PoW) has to flat-out suck.  But like everything, there are degrees and on the WW2 PoW Treatment Scale for allied prisoners, the Japanese were the suckiest.  How sucky?  Well, 40x worse than the Germans!

Let's roll the numbers.  According to a U.S. Navy study, 90-some thousand U.S. military prisoners were interred by Germany in WW2.  Just over 1,000 died in captivity, resulting in a 1% death rate.  But.  The Japanese held 27,000-some U.S. prisoners and of those, 11,000 died.  That's over 40%.  This time, read the number with feeling:  FOUR. TEE. PERCENT.

Fast forward a few years and I'm talking to Bill Creech of the 528th FS at a bar in Washington D.C.  He is explaining both times he was shot down—once over Burma, the other over China—and he shuddered when I asked him what he would have done had he been captured.

"Rumor was they would eat us."  EAT?!  Really?!  (deep breath, swallow hard) Really.*

So I asked Bill if he knew any ex-POWs of the Japanese that I could talk to.  After a scrunched face and a little hesitation, he gave me a name.  And a number.  And I called.  And the resulting conversation was as if I poked a chained bobcat with a hot wire.  The pilot slammed the phone on me after hissing that he had spent all of his life trying to forget and what right did I have calling him up...

Later, Bill apologized to the effect of  "Sorry John.  I knew he never really got well but was hoping he would talk to you and get it out."  Two weeks later, I got an eloquent apology from the pilot with the firm request to never contact him again.

Fast forward a few more years and I, like so many, read Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken."  Of course, my mind went back to that ex-POW I'd talked to and wondered if I could ever find any surviving POWs of the Japanese to interview.  Not for the gory details—after a while, that stuff becomes like pornography and does the soul no good— but to learn how they survived...

Ok.  Take one more look at the sketch above.  "030" was one of 40 A-36's sent to the CBI and soon, I will clothe her with the simple livery she wore on October 16, 1943.  It was a red letter day of sorts, the first combat mission of the 311th Fighter Bomber Group and the first combat mission of her pilot, Lt. Chris Morgan.

Chris didn't come back from that mission.  He was downed due to a regrettably poor decision on the part of his Flight Leader and became a PoW of the worst captors a man could imagine.

Tragic, right?

Stay tuned.

*Empty stomach?  Click here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Profile 84 - FINAL: "573" as flown by Bob Mock and John Stiles


The peasant in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail was correct-rocks really do float.  And not just the really small ones but the big ones, too.

It's a bizarre process.  A complicated recipe of forces shift, blow and nudge to move big rocks upward through the earth where they breach the soil like a released cork popping to the surface of a lake.  But, to be clear, it's not as dramatic.  The process moves itself along at a glacial pace, millimeter by millimeter.

Don't believe me?  Ask a farm kid if the Spring job of "picking rocks" ever ended.  Or, ask if the rocks got progressively smaller over time.  The answer to both will be "No." (and followed by a groan of frustration).

Alright. Have a look at 573.  It's an RF-4C Phantom flown by pilot Bob Mock and weapons systems officer John Stiles during the Vietnam War.  The "R" in the name stands for reconnaissance; the military application of the word is taking recording activities of the enemy for future action.  In other words, the RF-4C was a camera plane and its job was to take incriminating pictures.

Look at the nose.  See the black trapezoidal shape? Notice the subtle bumps under the nose?  These are the portals for cameras—brilliant cameras that could focus and record tiny actions with incredible detail.  As a point of reference, the picture below was taken in 1944 by recce pilot (pronounce: recky) Burt Hawley.  I have an original print and the clarity is AMAZING.  Imagine what the cameras of nearly thirty years later could do!


Anyway...

On January 20, 1972, Mock/Stiles were out looking for SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) launchers. The missiles were mobile, pulled by trucks, and protected like a Mad Max convoy of anti-aircraft guns and ground personnel.   Spotting these convoys was obviously a high-risk job; alone, unarmed, the R-F4's only real defense was moving fast and returning to base with the damning proof.

So, spotting such a convoy, the duo made a camera pass—about 4,000 feet above—and turned to reposition themselves for one more photo run...  

Ok.  Time to switch gears for a moment.


SAM missiles were complicated, expensive and, if I can use the word, precious to the North Vietnamese.  Acquired from the Russians, these giant rockets were no mere deterrent; they were intended to destroy American airplanes with a surety and terror that couldn't be matched by a hail of smaller calibre machine gun bullets or artillery shells.  Remember, as wasteful as War can be, it does tend to honor efficiency!

So, ironically, the SAM convoy was protected by smaller calibre 37mm cannon.  These guns would spew their explosive bullets, about 1 to 2 per second, at the enemy aircraft above.  Now, the ratio of 37mm shells fired to each one that actually hit a target, has to be a ridiculously lopsided number.  Likewise, like hunting ducks, the job of being an anti-aircraft gunner required natural ability as well as practice.  Being that this was war, gunners varied in quality.  Inevitably, the mediocre were many and the expert were few.  So, when Mock and Stiles noticed the glowing darts reaching up like fireworks, they weren't afraid.  They had learned to adapt to the gesture via a combination of simple maneuvering and the practical knowledge that the gunners would, most likely, miss.



(Click to enlarge)

But then...

BANG!  573 was smacked sideways as if hit by a titanic baseball bat!  The force required to move 19 tons, moving at 500-some miles per hour sideways is enormous—imagine what it would take to do something similar to a car speeding down a highway!  However, the explosion didn't merely move the Phantom into the other lane, it also flipped it over, sending it spinning like a frisbee.  Upside down.  It was pure, unmitigated chaos.  BANG!  Just like that!  And in case you're trying to visualize what 573 is doing in the air, know that 19 tons of flightless metal doesn't glide.  It plummets.

Ok.  If anyone doesn't believe in the value of "practice," they have either never understood Success or they are absolute idiots.  What happened in the cockpit of 573 after that incredible hit is yet one more testiment to the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared."  Spinning, upside down, disoriented, dropping to earth like a rock, Mock and Stiles spent their next SIX SECONDS readying for the ejection.  Keeping calm, going through procedure, taking stock...

What exactly did they do?  No idea.  The specifics are lost to the ether of time.  But this much is known—Bob managed to flip the dead Phantom onto its belly, allowing the ejection sequence to trigger just as the tips of the trees were crossing the edge of the cockpit...

And BLAST!  A wave of heat pushed smoke, cinders and, of all things, insects into John's face as he caught, snapped and swung from a tree, just over the flaming metal carcass below.  And the enemy, of course, saw it all happen and were hot on the trail.

Fast-forward:  Fortune favored Mock and Stiles.  Though deep within enemy territory, they were snatched up by mercenary helicopter pilots flying under the CIA "Air America" program and hauled home.  But the RF-4C was buried where she landed.  The official cause of death for 573 was listed as 37mm cannon fire.

Ok.  If you've been reading this blog at all, you know that there's a MiG in this story. 37 years later, while researching his own Vietnam story, General Dan Cherry (ret.) met the North Vietnamese fighter pilot that he had shot down, NVAF fighter pilot, Nguyen Hong My, in Hanoi.  The MiG was Dan's one documented aerial victory. However, Dan discovered that Hong My had an aerial victory himself.

Time for a pause.


You probably get where this is going, so I'll be brief:  for 37 years, John Stiles was under the impression that he had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire.  But in 2009, through Dan's meeting with Hong My (and a little digging here and there) resulted in the inescapable conclusion that 573 was actually Hong My's aerial victory. 


So what does this mean?


Getting back to those rocks that inch and ache their way to the surface, it meant that John Stiles was not the victim of a spray of semi-random shells but the willful, single intention of a man.  To a Warrior, there is a difference. One could be rationalized as a roll of numbers.  Bad luck, perhaps.  But to know that the killing blow was calculated and delivered by an unseen stalker, and know that that same stalker was still alive...?!

Hmmm. 

I can't imagine what it must be like to revisit an uncomfortable, but resolved past with a new host of could-haves, should-haves, what-ifs and why-nots.  John, in fact, didn't like it.  And it only got more distasteful when Dan called him up one day and suggested John actually meet Hong My!

HOLD THAT THOUGHT.

In a few weeks, John Stiles is going to Hanoi to meet Hong My.  Now, it won't be the first time the two have met; they got that awkward moment out of the way back in 2009.  But it will be the first time John has set foot on Hong My's home turf.

It took 37 years for the truth of John's shoot-down to come to the surface.  That is a long time.  Do you think though, that anything else has worked its way up, too?

Hmmmm.  I wonder.  And, to that end,  I plan on finding out because I get to go along.  With a video camera.

Stay tuned.

NOTE:   The expenses of this trip are, as you might figure, rather enormous.    That we have managed to raise so much of the money to go is a testimony to the incredible interest this story has generated.  But, if you would like to participate (as in please do!) click here

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Profile 83 - FINAL/UPDATE: The MiGs of the North "5018" as flown by Nguyen Hong My and "573" as flown by Bob Mock and John Stiles.



Here it is —"5018" as flown by Lt. Nguyen Hong My, Vietnamese Peoples Air Force, on 19  January, 1972.¹

It's a sinister looking thing don't you think?  For me, it seems more like something out of a 1960s Japanese Godzilla movie than an actual, historical fighter plane.  But in fact, the MiG-21 is the single-most produced jet fighter plane, ever.  If you count the Chinese copies, nearly 14,000 of the metal dragons were built with the last ones coming off the line in 2013.

To the North Vietnamese Air Force, however, such numbers were pure fantasy as the VPAF only received about 220 MiG-21s between 1966 and 1973.  Based on typical jet serviceability, total fighter numbers, rates of delivery and a little one-eyed guesswork, it's easy to believe the common legend that the VPAF only had about 60 jets
² in-service at one time.  Tops.

It seems ridiculous to think that such a small force would be even worth the effort against the massive amount of American airpower at-hand.  Yet, they were, and they were utilized rather well.  Depending upon the source, the US:VPAF kill ratio in air-to-air combat was very close to 1:1.
³  A far cry from the WWII days when Navy F6F Hellcat pilots could boast of a 13:1 ratio over the Japanese A6M Zero!

The reasons behind the VPAF's comparative success are not mysterious.  For one, the VPAF had an excellent but frugal command and control system.  In other words, the MiGs weren't scrambled without good reason, good timing and a good chance for success.  For two, the American pilots had the burden of the attack.  Managing the target, weapons systems, battle plan, avoiding missiles, AAA and MiGs was simply more to manage than the defender's single focus.   Yet, it's perhaps the third reason that is most revealing; the VPAF had achieved the Warrior's Zen.  Pilot Nguyen Hong My said it best,  "We (felt like) were going to die.  We accepted this.  So, we didn't fight to survive any longer.  Instead, we fought to merely lengthen our life, moment by moment."

Understanding this statement may seem like an exercise in semantics but it's rather clear if you think about it; the Vietnamese air force created an ethos of efficiency. And, like any organizational culture, it couldn't tolerate those who didn't fit in. For any reason.

Ok, time for a rabbit trail.

The American "Sidewinder" missile is one of the great weapons of all time.  It's simple, cheap and so effective, its obsolescence is still at least twenty years away.  Pretty good for a 1950s design!  It is also so good that the Russians, when they got their hands on one in the early '60s, didn't bother to improve it.  They just copied it lock-stock and fin and called it the K-13.  NATO, on the other hand, called it "Atoll."

If you've ever wondered if anyone ever really used high school trigonometry after graduation, the guidance system designers of the Sidewinder did.  In a nutshell, a little temperature-seeing "eye" is in the nose of the missile taking regularly spaced "pictures" of the target ahead.  When the eye sends a picture to the missile's "brain," it compares it to the previous one; the differences result in rapid flicks of the missile's fins to keep the missile following the trail of heat generated by the other jet's exhaust.  This is why Sidewinder missiles are called "heat seekers."

Anyway, MiG-21s used Atoll missiles.  Most 21's carried but two.  But the MiG-21MF, like Hong My flew, carried four. 


Ok, so to the VPAF bean-counters, four missiles should be four times as effective.  Right?  Well…maybe not.  See, missiles are a lot like your wife buying a dress on the internet - it looks one way on the screen but when the dress is removed from the cardboard box and held up in front of the mirror?  Maybe n0t-so-much.

Under ideal conditions, the Sidewinder generated a 90% success rate.  In combat practice, it only had an 18% success rate.  That’s a 72 point spread!  So, in other words, the Sidewinder system was one that depended on a large number of variables for success.  It's a lot like how hamburgers almost never look exactly like the photograph on the menu board.  No one says they NEVER look EXACLY like that, but we all know they don't!


 Now the above numbers were for American-made Sidewinders.  The Russian-made Atolls were supposedly far less effective due to manufacturing inconsistencies.   Kind of like what would happen if Burger King tried to copy the Big Mac.

Follow me?

Ok.  Back to Hong My's MiG-21.

Now, remember the Vietnamese penchant for efficiency?  This meant that their time-on-target was carefully calculated to be the least amount of time with the greatest chance of success. At first blush, Hong My's 4-missile MF variant, with twice the regular firepower, should have doubled the chance of success.  But it doesn't necessarily work that way in an environment that is constantly dynamic and a system that operates under complicated variables.


In other words, a practical x% hit-rate might be expected for two missiles, but four would not necessarily generate a 2x% hit-rate.  It's quite possible that, on a missile by missile basis, 4 missiles may actually have been less efficient than 2!  

Follow me?   That’s ok.  I’m sorta lost too...

'It's time to bring Hong My back into the conversation.

"On 17 January (1972), I was in flight with Khuong Le (another VPAF pilot).  We were directed towards a large formation of, maybe, 30+ US aircraft.  We maneuvered in and each of us fired our missiles. Eight in all…”


Alright ONE MORE rabbit trail.

The Vietnamese weren’t foolish.  
As precious as the missiles were, as valuable as the MiG-21s were,  the pilots were even more so.    The VPAF weren’t going to put their best and brightest against an American formation in a suicide mission.  So, if Hong My were to survive against long-odds, he was going to have to take a 4-missile pot-shot and get the HELL OUT OF THERE!

“…but no shoot-downs!  I landed and was disciplined (by my superior officers). 'You can't fire missiles and not hit!' Me being a good pilot was not good enough; I had to prove it.”

To some people, there's an inherent unfairness in being chastised for "bad luck."  Yet, those who have accepted the mantle of Responsibility understand that luck doesn't can't exist.  Responsibility can only be born by a human being.  Looked at another way, if a missile success would bring glory, a missile failure, no matter how intangible the cause, should likewise bring shame. 


And so it was, 17 January, 1972.  

Ok.  Time to introduce you to Lt. John Stiles...



...and my artwork of his RF-4C Phantom.





Now.  Have another look at 5018 and notice the date.  Obviously Hong My got another chance to fly with four missiles.

But this time, he would only use two.

Stay tuned...

¹There is some question between records whether the event was on the 19th or the 20th.  More research is going into this question at a later date.
²Jets of all varieties - MiG 17, 19 AND 21s.
³My sources varied between 1.2:1 and 2:1 in favor of the Americans.   There's a LOT more to this and I'll cover it in a later post.
Hong My remembers having a number of missiles shot back at him, too.  That he or his wingman weren't hit only adds to the mercurial nature of the technology.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Profile 83 - UPDATE: The MiGs of the North; "5018" as flown by Nguyen Hong My



Imagine a penny.

I know what probably came to mind—coppery, somewhat dingy and Abraham Lincoln’s profile.   And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the 40-some percent of readers that come from elsewhere in the globe, imagined the same thing.  The American penny is ubiquitous.

But what of the back?  How many of us imagined that side?  Probably a smaller number.  And of those that imagined both sides of the penny at the same time? Minuscule, I bet. Yeah, yeah, the “History is like a coin because it has two-sides” phrase was minted long ago.  But that doesn’t mean it’s no less true.

Alright, pause for a moment and have a look at the MiG above.


The picture shows my progress-shot of a MiG-21 fighter that Hong My flew during the 1972 air war over Viet Nam.   Hong My was put into the spotlight a few years ago when General Dan Cherry wrote a pretty-cool book about how he shot Hong My down and later on, met him and became friends.  The book is called, “My Enemy, My Friend.”  Read it.  It’s good for you.  However…

One more time...I need to digress again.

So, Dan, upon learning of my trip to Viet Nam, suggested that I meet Hong My and helped get us introduced.  It was a supremely cool experience save for the vast language barrier.  Hong My knew about five times more English than I knew Vietnamese (I know how to say 'Hello,' 'Shrimp' and 'Beer'). In other words, the conversation quickly degenerated into my ridiculous attempts at pantomime and Hong My’s gracious patience. 


I felt utterly foolish and feared that I was wasting Dan’s endorsement and Hong My’s time. But toward the end of our “conversation,” I asked the question, somewhat absentmindedly, “You? Shoot down? Any of…us?”  I pointed at my heart.

Momentary silence...





His eyebrows raised, then lowered.  Then, in a quick gesture, he flicked his finger across his chest and stated firmly but quietly, “Yes.”

Boom. I understood.   And with the kind of clarity that transcends all language, all emotion, all logic.  I was sitting next to a real, bona fide, in-the-flesh, enemy.  Granted, an ex-enemy, but the first one at that I ever met who had not only fired at America in anger but had been victorious at it, too.

And I was in his town.  His country.  And I had just agreed to draw his MiG.  Not the one that Dan shot down, but the one that he used to shoot down Bob Mock and John Stiles, January 20, 1972.  In other words, “US.”

Ah yes.  The other side of the penny.

Have another look at the MiG.  We’ll see how far we can push this “My Enemy, My Friend” stuff in the next post.


And, I’d like to introduce you to John Stiles' RF-4, the airplane that wound up in  Hong My's missile-lock.

Stand by—Stiles is preparing to give his perspective on the matter...




Saturday, November 30, 2013

Profile 83 - BEGINNING: The MiGs of the North; "5018" as flown by Nguyen Hong My




It is one thing to write about an enemy.  It is yet another to buy him dinner.

And yet another to salute to his honor.

Recently, I was able to spend a few weeks in Vietnam.  The experience was a cannonball-dive into the culture; I got to know Vietnam's higher education system by lecturing at several universities*, dined outside of the stream of tourists, slept with all the modern conveniences of home and quickly learned to suspend all previous notions of what vehicle traffic should look and act like.


And of course, I managed to meet a few "old guys and draw their airplanes."

The sketch above is the MiG-21 flown by Nugyen Hong My, pilot, warrior, victor and victim.  He is the first "enemy" pilot that I have met and the first enemy pilot that I will record via my artwork.   

Watch this space as Hong My's fighter takes shape and his story is told.  And recognize that 5018 merely the first of at least three (maybe more) to come.

Strap in.  We're going North.

Really North.


PS - The sketch above is rougher than my usual roughness as I did it while trying to work through a translator.  It's incomplete and vague, a reflection of the opening of a relationship that spans so many years. The blurring in the upper right hand corner is the name and email of a USAF pilot who may or may not become part of this series.

And... thank you to General (Ret.) Dan Cherry and Stuart Maas (334th TFS) for getting this ball rolling.  You'll be hearing more from them, too.

Oh!  As for Hong My,  that's him below looking at my opening sketch. Our translator, Huyen is getting a crash-course in all-things MiG...  




*Foreign Trade University, Hanoi University, National Economics University and University of Language and International Studies

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Profile 82 - FINAL: "Cocktail Hour" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS




She's finished - it's "Cocktail Hour"!

Though I can't verify exactly how many times Lt. Raymond Plank flew her, this particular B-24 has become a most interesting symbol of his service.

Let me explain.

If you can get past nose artist Sarkis Bartigian's obvious high points, the piece itself is a brilliant look into the closing months of WW2, especially as seen through the eyes of war-weary soldiers.  Note the bright lights, big city, stars, music (and of course her).  Now, close your eyes and imagine rhythmic blasts from a swing Band in the corner, clinks of drinks and the excited, optimistic chatter of people blowing off the steam of a week's stress...

Or, as a buddy of mine is wont to proclaim around 4:30pm on a Friday, "Hey!  It's 5'oclock somewhere!" and then announce the Watering Hole in which he'll be holding court.

"Cocktail Hour" was a late-war B-24.  Though Bartigian is no longer around to interview, it's easy to see how his artwork represented the sentiment of so many; "It's time to get this damned war over and onto better things!" Indeed, the first recollection of WW2 that Raymond shared with me was not a combat mission but of a historic moment that, in his mind, sealed the end of the war.

The day was August 9, 1945, the location was an air base within the Okinawan island chain called "le Shima."  The day's missions were scrubbed,  the 43rd's B-24s grounded.  Raymond, never one to sit still and always reading between the lines, was quick to figure that 'something was up,' and managed an impromptu and unauthorized check flight in a C-46 Commando transport plane that an old buddy, Joe Sharpe, had flown in a day or two earlier.

Sneaking off like kids in their father's car, the two climbed over the ocean to the north.  Toward the crumbling empire of Japan.  "It seemed like we were flying a long time, (but that was probably) due to us doing something we weren't supposed to do!" Raymond laughed.   "We didn't know where we were going but I wanted to see if I could see it!"

What was "it"?

Fueled by a hunch, the two scanned the northern horizon, growing more anxious with each career-killing minute until,  a few minutes after 11am, poking up from the gentle curve of the earth, they saw IT— the boiling rise of a mushroom cloud.  "By gawd, that's where the sum-bitch* is!" Raymond exclaimed, laughing.  "We flew on toward it for another 20 minutes or so but then got the hell out of there!"

Raymond knew then, beyond a shadow of doubt, the war was over.

(photo: National Archives)

The next week, on August 17, three Japanese G4M "Betty" bombers, freshly painted in the universally accepted color of Surrender (white) landed at le Shima.  Though the moment was just a punctuation in the awkward, complicated process of ceasing hostilities, it was a momentous one for all present in that it was an undeniable punctuation to the times.

(photo: Raymond Plank)

"So you were there with your camera?"

"Yes.  I took that picture."

"That had to be an incredible moment!  Describe it for..."

"Yes!  I went up to the Major.  'Major Parker?  It looks like my services are no longer necessary!  May I hitch a ride to Manila?!"

"Huh?!"  I asked, confused by what Raymond was saying. I was expecting something about the sweetness of surrender, the defeat of the enemy, the triumph of the American will...but Raymond was on another track altogether.

"...and he said FINE!  What a guy.  Major Parker was a great guy!  He cared more about getting what was needed to get done than how it got done."

"So.  Wait a second.  You just...quit?"

"Well it was more complicated than that, but yes.  I had my Points (a method of scoring that would allow prioritization of returning to home based on wartime service) and I wanted to go home.  Finish my degree.  Start a business."

In other words, for Raymond Plank, the winding down of defeated engines was not the sound of victory but a metaphorical shriek of a work whistle signaling the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Lt. Raymond Plank caught the first ship home and did exactly as he'd planned.

So, how did that work out?  Click here.  That's the business Raymond started— the Apache Corporation. Those aren't millions of dollars, they're billions of dollars.  In other words, Raymond Plank had one helluva Cocktail Hour.

It's rare enough for me to talk to WW2 bomber pilots.  Rarer yet to talk to ones that were there at momentous moments in history.  And, of those that went on to create and lead billion-dollar companies?  Raymond is the only one.  And will likely be the only one.

Ok.  Hold that thought.

People say to me all the time, "Geez it must be great to get all those old stories!"  It is!   Flak barrages, atomic bombs and topless women on B-24s are sexy topics.

But...

The more time I spend with 'old guys,' the greater my belief that we Americans are living in tragically deficit times.  Not the deficit of money, natural resources or international prestige but of the the thing that is eminently more valuable: Wisdom.

Think about it—from Social Security to Boca Raton, FL, the removal of the elderly from daily life has been so systematic, it reeks of a conspiracy to keep the rest of us in a state of foolishness.  Disagree?  Well, this past week, during the clamor of our government shutdown, very few people I talked to actually seemed to understand that we elected those people...

Look.  80% of my interview-time with Raymond has been spent on learning about the things that took him from a $250,000 ball of venture capital to over $50 Billion in market revenue.  I have hours of notes on topics like ethics, character, risk, energy policy, opportunity, reward, regret... I know it can be argued that Raymond's success is an anomaly but the truth is, I've heard it all before from old guys like Wendell Hanson, Don Bryan, Bill Creech, Steve Pisanos, Claude HonePunchy Powell, JD Collinsworth...and my list of Vietnam-era 'old guys' is growing at a priceless rate, too.

There's so much to be learned from how others have minted success from molten adversity.  That's the truly great stuff to me and I wouldn't have gotten a bit of it had I not talked to Old Guys; it's how I make up my own tragic deficits in wisdom and heartily recommended to others as a tonic for the times.

A toast to Lt. Raymond Plank the bomber pilot and Raymond Plank the Captain of American industry.

It's Cocktail Hour.

Time to get to work.

NOTE:  Raymond wrote a book.  If you want to learn something, you can buy it here.  Or, if you really want to make his day, buy it here or here.

AND...if you'd like to buy a print of Cocktail Hour, signed by Raymond, go here.


*That'd be the second atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Profile 82 - UPDATE: "548" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS


Have a look.  I'd say it's maybe... 40% done.   Maybe.  I'm kind of grumpy about it.  I loathe the "middle" of a difficult project as it's too late to turn back and too much left to do—rather ironic considering the story you're about to read.

The next and final post will show Raymond Plank's B-24 in her sex and booze fueled glory. (smirk)  At least a B-24 that Raymond flew.  Once or twice.  Regardless, you'll just have to wait as I'm just not that good at drawing topless women.  (Too distracting).

However, to know anything about WW2 in the Pacific, one of, if not the dominant forces dictating American military strategy was the sheer size of the Arena.  Aside from continental Asia, WW2 was fought over islands sprinkled over the earth's largest ocean.  Look at the map below.  The battlefield was HUGE.  And no one appreciated the expanse below like the airman.

There are no landmarks over open ocean.  Get lost?  The choice is brutal: ditch the airplane and risk being smashed upon impact or bail out and hope the life preserver holds air (by the way, the water was full of teeth and a speck of yellow bobbing in millions of square miles of rolling ocean is nigh impossible to spot).

Thousands of men, airplanes and bombs shuttled their way to and from targets over and over and over.  Being war and all, the efforts of both sides to destroy the other were mighty; it's impossible to tell how many aircraft (Japanese and Allied) were downed over open ocean but it's safe to put that number in the thousands, too.

Frankly, it's impossible for 21st Century folk to fully appreciate what it must have been like for Raymond Plank and his crew of nine to do their work.  To know that the next five to ten hours would be marked by monotony over open water, punctuated by a few fast minutes of terror at the target, only to return home in a potentially damaged machine is jarring.

Yet last week, Raymond attempted to fill me in.

The time was early 1945.  Japan was, of course, losing the war in a big way.  The Japanese Army Air Force was a shred of its former self and the Navy's aircraft had long lost their sea legs due to the decimation of her aircraft carriers.  But, as the Japanese were nowhere near admitting defeat, they defended their targets against the Allied aerial armada with legendary ferocity.  Namely, "Ack Ack" or, anti-aircraft guns.

On this particular mission—the actual date lost for the moment, but we'll get that figured out—the target was a Japanese air field on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).  From the freshly recaptured Clark Air Base in the northern Phillipines, the trip was approximately 1,000 miles round-trip.  In case you're wondering, that's a 6 hour trip.  Half over water.

Ray remembers the approach rather well.  The flak began as the peppering of black smudges in the tropic sky and soon rose to a crescendo of unusual violence.  Though a 30 ton giant, Ray's B-24 still shuddered under the impacts of supersonic shards.  Against the roar of the engines, the delicate "tink!" and "dunk!" of flak pieces were deceptively subtle.

Want to get a feel for it?  Click on the movie below, (it might take a second to load) turn your volume up all the way and imagine small handfuls of rocks being tossed at your window...(I made that little film while riding in a B-24, btw).




"We were taking very heavy flak.  Very heavy." Raymond stated in his distinctive, scholarly drawl.  "And then, a 120mm (guessed) shell perforated our right wing.  The entry hole was about the size of the projectile but the exit blew all to hell.  So much that the rubber seals in our wing tanks were obliterated and gasoline streamed out."

Stop there.  The Japanese 120mm gun fired an explosive round.  In Raymond's case, however, the round did not explode.  It simply passed through the wing like a hot poker through a candle.  Had it exploded, Raymond Plank and crew would have been blown to pieces over the China Sea.

With reflexes honed by repetitive training, Raymond quickly feathered the #1 engine to eliminate the chance of a spark igniting the raw spewing into the atmosphere.  Did they complete their bomb run?  Jettison their bombs?  Raymond doesn't recall.  All he remembers is the gentle, ginger sway out of the formation to get out of the combat area and head for home.

With one dead engine, a dramatic loss of fuel and hundreds of miles to fly, the return flight was, to say the least, nervous.

I tried to capture the moment with my iPad using my brand-new Wacom pen.  It's cheesy, but I think you'll get the gist of what it might have looked like to take a hit in the wing....*



What I couldn't draw is what was happening in the cockpit.  In the fury of the moment, Raymond began to realize that, in addition to the seismic damage to the airplane, three men in his crew were wounded; casualties of the blizzard of metal they'd flown throw.

"Our nose gunner took a piece of metal to his foot.  He was screaming like mad..." Raymond explained.  "Our bombardier pulled him back to behind the flight deck.  He was bleeding a lot, so he decided he needed a tourniquet.  (Once that was applied), he pulled off the boot and worked the jagged metal through the foot.  It had to hurt like mad!   He loaded him up with (morphine) and sulfa powder."

One of the waist gunners took a piece of flak to his head.  Fortunately, he'd put his combat helmet at the first sign; the piece dented the helmet and bruised the soft tissue.  Surely without the helmet, the gunner would have been killed instantly.  The tail gunner too was hit, his specific injury lost to the the passing of seventy years of life...

"We'd made it back to base.  An ambulance, a fire truck and a Chaplain were waiting for us,' Raymond explained. 'But our left tire was in shreds.  It'd been hit by flak.  We couldn't land with only one tire or else we'd ground loop (essentially a high-speed spin-out on the airstrip).  We knew we had to equalize the landing gear somehow so I got out (Raymond was co-pilot on this mission) and went back to the waist gunner's spot where we held one of the crew out the window into the slipstream where he could blow out the tires with a .50 cal."

Yes, I asked.   "Really!?  You hung a guy out with a .50 cal. machine gun to shoot the tire?!"

"Yes." Raymond replied matter of factly.  "I held onto him and someone else was hanging onto me!"

(Note: If the sight of a man trying to manage the explosive power of a Browning .50 heavy machine in the raging slipstream is too fantastic to imagine, please know the crew tried to shoot out the tire with a .45 sidearm pistol.   The taught, reinforced rubber only deflected the big bullets, necessitating the raise in calibre.)

Minutes later, the B-24 ground its way to a halt at Clark, a battered wreck.  With the wounded quickly Jeeped to the base hospital, the crew stood back to appreciate their mount; it was holed 367 times.  Unworthy of repair, a few necessary parts were stripped and the rest of her pulled to the side and tagged for scrap.

Raymond, on the other hand, had no idea that he had inaugurated a charmed life...

And, you'll read about THAT in the next and final post of Raymond's B-24.**

* ** Update:  Just got off the phone with the man (Raymond).  He and I had a miscomm; in the little animation, I drew the #3 taking a hit when instead, it was the #1 (outboard).    Also, Raymond wanted to make sure I got the point across that he flew a number of B-24s; three of which were written off.  The B-24 to follow will be no more "his" than any of the other crews that flew her.