Sunday, December 27, 2015


            My father grew up in a world dominated by the wonder of steam power when the fastest speed record had been set by a locomotive at 100 mph. At the time of his death, a man-made vehicle called Sputnik was circling earth at 14,000 mph. By the time I came along, a New Jersey neighbor named Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic in a monoplane, and another young airman named Jimmy Doolittle was setting speed records flying a stubby red racing plane called the Geebee Racer in which just months before my own birth he set a world speed record of 296 mph. And that was the world in which I grew up. One Saturday Dad would take me to the giant rail marshaling yards at Edgewater, N.J. and tell me true stories of his youthful wanderings around the country hitching rides on logging trains, and the next day-off we would drive to Caldwell, N.J. where Curtis Wright tested airplanes, propellers and air frames, and I would lecture him on the fine points of the Curtis P-40 pursuit plane.
            Although I would not have been old enough to take note, the infant Douglas Aircraft Co. changed commercial aviation for decades to follow when they launched a hallmark “airliner” which became the DC-3, whose “modern” design would become the very image of passenger flight across the world. It was 1934, and people began to take notice of the gleaming silver, twin-engine airplanes whose profile aloft drew so much attention. With planes arriving and departing LaGuardia airport on one side of us and Teterboro the other it seemed that I had a seat on the 50-yard line of history. And I loved it. Because I discovered the joy of books and learning even before school, I quickly became the neighborhood “expert” – at least among kids – for all things airborne, and my Dad’s big heavy Zeiss binoculars almost dragged on the ground as they hung from my scrawny neck much of the time.
            It would be that same DC-3 which, wearing the logo of Northeast Airlines, would afford me my first flight years later. Because the “Gooney Bird” was a “tail dragger”, I recall that uphill climb to a seat behind the cockpit crew where I could see almost everything. Before takeoff, the stewardess came around with a thermos of coffee and cookies I’m sure she made herself before leaving home. It was all very friendly and casual; no need for tickets or boarding pass; seating was based on “first come, first served”.
            In succeeding years I would fly in every model of the Douglas “family”, including a long flight from Japan to Vancouver, Canada in a DC-7, the last of the decades-long propeller fleet carrying that great name. Of all the piston-era airliners, I confess to having an all-star favorite in the Lockheed Constellation with a flowing line to its airframe that made it look like a giant curvaceous bird born to fly. With its triple-rudder tail-plane and tall nose-wheel stance, there was no confusing it with any other passenger plane anywhere. It was a comfortable and stable flyer and wherever you might be seated, you knew you were aboard a proud queen of the skies. Because my home in Kansas City was also home to TWA whose president, Howard Hughes also controlled Lockheed, the builder of the “Connie”, it followed that for six years most business air travel helped to nurture this personal love affair. It even carried me on the first stage of my journey to war in 1952.
            During my military years, I had a near-opposite relationship with what was the largest troop carrier and cargo transport of the Korean War era. Built by Douglas and known as the C-124 Globemaster II, the giant double-decked transport with huge clam-shell doors at the nose looked (and flew) like a pregnant whale. It answered to the nickname “Old Shaky” for good reason. Scheduled to fly to Tokyo on one in the summer of 1953, my first R&R ended up being cancelled when the R&R Globemaster scheduled for that operation crashed on takeoff at Tachikawa Air Base in Tokyo killing all 129 passengers and crew a week before. Today the equivalent aircraft is the Air Force heavy lifter, the jet-powered and globe-circling C-17. By interesting coincidence my grand-nephew flies, commands and loves this modern-day “Goliath.” I am waiting for a cockpit familiarization tour one of these days. 

   Cockpit of USAF C-17 on training flight over Hawaii,
                                                                                                                 USAF Photo

            My personal diary records 47 airplanes of all types in which I have flown, and ten which I have piloted, including the Piper Cub in which I soloed on July 10, 1956 and which I happen to know- with the same Continental engine -  is still flying today for an owner in Wisconsin.
             I look forward to the day when I can once again meet up with my Dad; and bring him up to date with all the things life on earth has shown to me since we talked about locomotives.

Monday, December 21, 2015


December 25, 1952                                                                           Near Chi hyang-ri, South Korea

            Until today, I had never given much thought to just how much Christmas had to do with home, family and friends. Except for the dozen-or-so Christmas cards hanging from a belt of .30 caliber ammo. over my cot, there is nothing to connect me with Christmas. Nothing except a “bank account” full of memories.
            The men who share this tent with me this Christmas hail from Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maine. I have only known them briefly, but this year they are my family.
            Bailey is the comedian. When I came into the tent one night, it was pitch black except for the slight glow of the pot-belly oil stove. Turning on a light I discovered Bailey tucked into his down sleeping bag, red and blue poker chips propped in his eye sockets and a camera flash bulb stuck in his mouth. He will be going home soon and is the envy of those of us who have just begun to accumulate “hash marks”. He has seen a lot and was with the outfit during two of its hasty “bug outs.”
            We call Mead and Miller the “Missouri Twins.” They go everywhere and do everything together. They also seem to look out for one another. Miller is the “clown” and Mead the “straight man” in their Laurel-and-Hardy relationship and they manage to keep us all laughing with their antics. Although about the same age as most of the rest of us they remind me of little kids in no hurry to grow up. Miller is noted as a sound sleeper. One night we picked him up, cot and all, and moved him outside. It was below zero and snowing. We placed bets on how long it would be before he came storming into the tent, blue-faced and angry. He never did. We finally had to go out and carry him back in, still sound asleep and oblivious to the snow beginning to stick to his cherubic face.
            John Barnes Allen is probably my best friend so far, and totally unintimidated by the difference in rank which tends to set me apart from the others. He is the only married man in the section. He drinks too much, cries a lot, and entrusts me with the dark “secrets” that trouble him deeply. I doubt he will make it through his tour over here; he has a death wish.
            Pierce is our “movie star.” Tall, darkly handsome with his magnificently-coiffed R.A.F. mustache, he always manages to look as if he just came from central casting. His combat fatigues always have sharp creases and his jump boots stay spit polished. He is our automatic weapons man and loves his work. He can detail strip and reassemble anything from a B.A.R. to a .50 caliber machine gun blind-folded and in record time.
            Sergeant Steinbarger is still an enigma to me. An “old-timer” with WWII combat experience he is cool and remote from the rest of us, but strictly a professional. No one ever questions him or gives him a hard time. I wonder if I can ever be like him. He leaves for stateside soon, and I am his replacement.
            Armed Forces Radio has been playing Christmas music interspersed with our current favorites: Jambolaya, Kay Starr belting out Wheel of Fortune, or every G.I’s dream girl, Theresa Brewer singing ‘til I Waltz Again With You.
            General Ridgeway broadcast a Christmas message to the troops, and in the News the nation’s capitol is preparing for Eisenhower’s inauguration; B-29s have hammered Pyonyang, and I Corps has taken heavy casualties (as if we didn’t know.)
            Bailey is playing his harmonica, the guys are heating cans of Hot Toddy on the oil stove and the wind is making the tent roof flap noisily against the frame. The artillery fire goes on almost continuously, so somewhere above the 38th the 7th Cavalry are taking another pounding.
            It’s coming up on 2300 hours and it’s time to get ready. I go on duty at midnight; my turn to go outside the wire tonight.  SILENT NIGHT. . . HOLY NIGHT. . . .ALL IS CALM . . . ALL IS BRIGHT.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


             The doctrine of daylight precision bombing was at the core of military thinking and planning among the most powerful group of USAAF generals and thinkers in the prewar days of the late 1930s, many of them mentored by General Billy Mitchell and adherents to the writings and predictions of Alexander de Severski and others. Across the Atlantic where an independent Royal Air Force had already had its birth there was a similar cadre known as “the bomber boys”. In both cases a lot of water and flying miles separated them from likely foes and multi-engine warplanes were a natural industrial component of military thinking and developing manufacturing capacity.
            Most of these thinkers were beguiled however by the belief that no matter what, “the bombers would always get through”; that protected by altitude and the combined defensive fire power of their own heavy weapons systems they would be able to survive fighter attack and ground fire. RAF bomber command had already learned the fallacy of this thinking. At high altitude they couldn’t hit the targets while they paid a high price in men and aircraft to both flak and enemy fighters; they had long since gone to night-time bombing and from lower altitudes. The Americans would learn the same lesson at a high price right up to the disastrous Schweinfurt/Regensburg raids of 1943 (the straw that finally broke the “8th Air Force back”.) What was needed was a fast, long range, high-altitude fighter capable of protecting the bomber formations all the way to the targets and back. Something the vaunted Spitfire, Hurricane and even Thunderbolt couldn’t do.
            The story of the P-51 Mustang begins in the British anxieties about a European war in 1939, when that country’s air ministry approached North American Aviation with the intent of ordering a number of Curtis P-40s to be built to augment the Spitfire/Hurricane inventory. Noting that the P-40 design was already an out-dated one, “Dutch” Kindelberger of North American proposed coming up with a totally new fighter his company might build. Given only 120 days to produce a test model, necessitating a few temporary adjustments, the first prototype NA X-51 first flew on Oct. 26, 1940. It would eventually  out-perform the Spitfire. The laminar flow wings would produce a higher speed and greater range than any contemporary fighter, even with the specified Allison V-1710-39 engine which turned out not to be a good match. The Allison was a fine engine by the way, and performed well in the P-38 Lightning. The Brits were sufficiently impressed to initially order 620 of these planes. But the first P-51s did not perform well enough when compared to the German Bf-109 and FW-190 at altitude. British test pilot Ronnie Harker was asked to fly the plane before the decision would be made to scrap the order. In the process, he measured the engine compartment and discovered it was an exact match for the Rolls Royce Merlin power plant which was the mainstay for the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito and most British bombers. Wind tunnel tests bore out Harker’s prediction that the Mustang when matched up with the Merlin would be superior in performance at any altitude over any other fighter then flying. And with wing tanks then coming on line, it could protect the B-24s, B-17s and Lancasters to Berlin and back! Harker would be one of the plane’s saviors.
            The real problem was political. The Mustang was a “hybrid”: Built in America, but designed and developed to British specs.. The USAAF and its purchasing bureau were committed to the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-38 Lightning and the (worthless) P-39 Airacobra platforms along with the industrial giants awaiting those orders. And then there was the Rolls Royce engine, intrinsic to the final design and the heart of the plane’s extraordinary performance, but whose manufacturing capacity was needed to support nearly all the warplanes England would be flying for the duration of the war. Both countries needed the Mustang, but neither wanted the other to have the credit for coming up with it!
            Thanks only to a small handful of patriotic middle-level officers and supporters (and the quiet intervention of Roosevelt and Churchill,) did the USAAF avoid making the costliest mistake of WWII. In the end the Packard Motor Car Co. was licensed to manufacture the fabled Rolls Royce Merlin engine in the U.S., and American industrial genius was able to send 14,819 Mustangs to change the balance of air power in the skies over Europe and all the way to the Japanese surrender in the Pacific.                                            

                                            A North American P-51D Mustang with tear-drop canopy and dorsal fin.