Turn the Cup

Last week Lt. Col. Richard Cole, USAF-Ret., passed away on April 8. Col. Cole was the last surviving member of Doolittle’s Raiders at 103. During the mission he flew as copilot in the lead airplane.

One can only imagine what Cole felt during that mission, but try, if you will, for a moment, to put yourself in his place. It is the morning of April 18, 1942. America and its Allies are losing the war in the Pacific.

Pause and reflect on that. Seventy-seven years ago, this country was losing its war against Japan. Japan started the war with a surprise attack against the US Navy’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The day before that attack, the overwhelming majority of people in the US were against any involvement in the war in Europe, or active involvement in the war between Japan and China. Afterward, on the morning of December 8, young American men lined up for blocks outside of recruiting offices to enlist and fight Japan.

Only America didn’t have a lot to fight with, and wouldn’t for months to come. Those young men lining up to enlist that Monday morning would learn close-order drill with obsolete Springfield rifles, at best, and at worst, they’d drill with broomsticks as their fathers did in World War One. On that morning, America’s air forces had only a handful of heavy bombers to carry the war to the enemy, nearly all of them obsolete or obsolescent. The fighters that would clear the skies of Axis aircraft were still in their test phase. Medium bombers like the B-25 and the B-26 were only beginning to come off the assembly line.

The oceans protecting America from attack also prevented us from easily reaching our enemies in Europe and Asia.

But we could put sixteen B-25 medium bombers on the deck of an aircraft carrier, something neither bomber nor carrier had been designed for, and send that aircraft carrier close enough to Japan so that those medium bombers would have the range to attack Japan and fly to airfields in China. That was the plan. It gave the bomber crews at least a chance of survival.

In the event the task force sent to attack Japan was dis covered by a Japanese picket boat who radioed the news of their presence before being sunk.

Doolittle and his men had the range to strike Japan. They didn’t have the range to reach the Chinese airfields where they might reasonably hope to land, and live to fight another day. At best, they could reach the Chinese coast, most of which was occupied by the Japanese, where the odds of capture were very high. To attack Japan now meant the odds of surviving the mission were very small indeed.

It was already a volunteer mission, but the discovery of the task force well east of their planned launch point changed everything. Doolittle again asked for volunteers. He got them. All of them volunteered to go, knowing the odds against survival, already bad, were now much worse. It hadn’t become a suicide mission, but it was close.

I suspect, sitting in the cockpit of Doolittle’s B-25, looking at a very, very short stretch of flight deck, pitching up and down in the heavy sea running at the time, Richard Cole was afraid. I suspect he wasn’t alone. But I’m also certain he focused on his job, which was to help Jimmy Doolittle get their B-25 off the deck of the USS Hornet. I know that, because every B-25 got off the deck of the Hornetand attacked Japan.

That moment in history, along with many others in those first grim months of the war that put America’s back to the wall, should have served as a warning to the dictatorships of Japan and Germany that democracy does not produce weaklings or cowards. Democracy produces men and women whose stake in their country is far greater, even immeasurably greater, than those who serve the whim of a single person. To die for the Emperor, or der Fuehrer, is to die for a man, however vainglorious the trappings of office. To risk your life for America is to put your life on the line for every single one of your compatriots, for all Americans, that the idea of America may survive. Not for a man. For the ideal.

I believe everyone on that mission understood that ideal. And now the last living link to that moment, that mission, is severed. But their willingness to risk that sacrifice, in that mission, in that moment, meant the survival of the ideal that is most truly America.

The damage done to Japan by the bombs of Doolittle’s Raiders was relatively insignificant. Japan itself barely noted the raid.

Imagine the effect, though, upon discouraged Americans, bludgeoned by one defeat after another, with the forces of the Axis seemingly unstoppable and triumphant, when banner headlines carried the news: TOKYO BOMBED!

The exaltation of a moment when hope is renewed, when faith is renewed, when belief is renewed, is something we should seek to understand and always remember. It shouldn’t be moments in a war, not alone. When justice prevails in this country, when freedom is renewed and strengthened for every American, when the future becomes brighter and more accessible to all, those are the moments when the ideal of America is clarified. And those are the moment from which we draw the courage to look down a heaving flight deck and fling ourselves into the unknown to keep that idea, that ideal, alive.

In an earlier post I wrote about Richard Cole and the cups the Doolittle Raiders drank from at their reunions. One by one, as the survivors of the mission and the war passed away, those cups were turned over. Now the last cup is turned, and the last living link to what it was like to fly off a carrier deck and bomb Japan, in what, truthfully, was no more than the sort of gesture that tells an enemy the fight isn’t over, that link is dissolved.

Now all we have is history too easily forgotten. For the last cup, the last living link, is turned over. Now we must all remember the meaning behind those cups.

For those of us who remember, though, thank you, Col. Cole. Thank you for drinking from the cup. Thank you, and all who were with you, for your part in America.

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Good Airplane Movies

If you hang out with pilots for any length of time and the movies come up you’ll very likely hear the more or less unanimous opinion that Hollywood doesn’t make good movies about aviation.

I agree good aviation movies are few and far between, but it should be noted that an aviation movie is about people flying or otherwise involved with airplanes. An “aviation movie” should let the non-flying viewer glimpse what motivates otherwise normal people to learn to fly and deliberately, even eagerly, perform the unnatural act of flying.

Pilots don’t tend to talk about the faults in the story. That’s sort of secondary. They tend to focus on technical inaccuracies about the airplanes or the techniques of flying them. A particularly egregious example is a movie where a Spitfire pilot manages to break the speed of sound by “cross-controlling” – possibly a misunderstanding of the control reversal phenomenon experienced by some airplanes as they near Mach One – an event that, even at the time the film was made, was known to be not merely incorrect but something that would lead to the destruction of the aircraft and probably its pilot. Exceeding Mach One in a propeller-driven aircraft is an aerodynamic impossibility, anyway.

My personal favorite mistakes include identification of one type of airplane as another. The film “Midway” (1976) had aerial shots that identified an airplane with four engines (probably a C-130 Hercules) as a twin-engine PBY Catalina; a long shot of an aerial dogfight where the airplanes involved all appeared to have in-line engines, whereas all the airplanes at Midway had radial engines; or the scene where an American TBF torpedo bomber is identified as a Japanese “Kate” even though the white star of the US national insignia, as opposed to the red rising sun of Japan, is plainly visible.

Directors would probably argue, with some justice, that to most people an airplane is an airplane is an airplane and what the blank, they’ve all got wings, don’t they? So what difference does it make? Besides, it costs a lot of money to shoot those aerial scenes right. Look at Howard Hughes nearly going broke shooting “Hell’s Angels.”

So what’s the big deal?

Well…you don’t become a pilot unless flying means something to you beyond the ordinary, and given the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually become pilots, much less professional pilots, maybe it isn’t surprising that so few people understand why it’s important to pilots to get these “little details” right.

Because, you see, to pilots, especially professional pilots who may have lives riding on their skill and expertise, there’s no such thing as a small or unimportant detail. Little things can kill you.

So I suspect at least two reasons why pilots scowl at aviation movies. First, as noted, if overlooking details can result in damage, death, or disaster, then one can understand why pilots – the ones who tend to live longest, anyway – tend to acquire a thorough and painstaking knowledge of their craft and the airplanes they fly. It should also be understandable why pilots tend to be intolerant of mistakes and ignorance. Those can get you killed.

That seems pretty obvious, but there is a second reason, a little more subtle, and it involves the craft of writing a story. The fiction story usually requires something called “dramatic conflict” – a compelling reason, interesting to the reader, for the character or characters to be confronted with a problem to be solved. The detective story is a perfect example; the actions of the detective in solving the case carry the action of a story in a most satisfying way, if properly written.

If a pilot performs properly, aviation, from outside of the cockpit, appears uneventful, a transit between two points in varying degrees of comfort. Pilots work very hard indeed to achieve that level of apparent lack of drama.

When things go bad and pilots do what they’re supposed to do in an emergency, far more often than not dealing with the emergency, from outside the cockpit, still has that aura of the ordinary and uneventful. It’s not every day that Sully Sullenberger has to put an airliner into the Hudson, less than three minutes after departure, because both engines of his airplane ingest birds and flame out. I got a real kick out of listening to the tape of Sullenberger on the radio with the air traffic controllers. They’d ask him if he could reach this airport, or that airport, and Sully, being perhaps a tad busy, consistently replies with nothing more than “Unable.” That recording is available on YouTube. Listen to Sully’s voice. It’s the voice of a master at work.

Even more, it’s not every day that a flight crew is confronted with engine failure combined with hydraulic failure resulting in inoperative controls, a condition highly likely to lead to a catastrophic departure from controlled flight, as nearly happened to United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. That crew, aided by a United Airlines training check airman who was aboard, gave new meaning to cliches like “used every trick in the book” and “snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Victory in this case meant most of the passengers survived the crash landing, when casualties could easily have been 100%. They survived because the members of the flight crew were consummate practitioners of their craft.

In aviation, dramatic conflict usually means death or the danger thereof. That’s how most people see it, anyway. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t like aviation movies. No one likes to be reminded of how things can go to pieces and leave you to pick up the mess, if you can. Especially when the blank-blank details are wrong. Some fool kid might think it was right, go try it, and end up in a smoking hole at the scene of the accident.

All of that being said I’m going to recommend the following five movies as good aviation films, maybe not always spot-on with details, but true at least in spirit. These films, to me, show something very close to what it means to be a pilot. Feel free to agree or disagree with my choices, and by all means make other recommendations.

“Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

“Dawn Patrol” (1938)

“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954)

“I Wanted Wings” (1941)

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Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.

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Merry Christmas!

Here in Hickory, NC, it’s just after 7:00 a.m. on December 24.

But I have friends and readers in New Zealand and Australia, and, going east with the sun, in India, Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain. For many of them it’s already Christmas Day.

So it doesn’t seem in the least premature to me to wish everyone, worldwide, whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, a very happy and a very Merry Christmas!

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Searching for Monsarrat

Some weeks ago I was in a used-book store – the only one surviving here in the metropolis of Hickory, NC – and the cover of a book caught my eye. The book itself was the memoir of a U-boat commander, but what caught my eye was the advertisement of a foreword by Nicholas Monsarrat.

Nicholas Monsarrat, as a young man, served as an officer of the Royal Navy during World War II, eventually commanding a frigate in the North Atlantic. He wrote a novel about it, titled The Cruel Sea, which was also the first of many books by Monsarrat that I read. Seeing his name made me think it would be interesting to reread The Cruel Sea, since I lost my copy in a move twenty years ago.

Alas, the used-book store didn’t have it. That was disappointing but not surprising. You don’t go to a used-book store for consistency, you go for the delightful surprise, now as much as forty years ago.

It also didn’t surprise me that Barnes & Noble (the only surviving big-box bookstore in my aforementioned metropolis of residence) didn’t have it. They have Hemingway, and occasionally such former lights of the literary scene as C.S. Forester or Robert A. Heinlein, but not The Cruel Sea nor anything else by Monsarrat, a man who enjoyed enormous success as a writer for three decades.

What did surprise me was that, although some few of Monsarrat’s books are available on Kindle, those few did not include The Cruel Sea.

I still remember taking home The Cruel Sea, and opening the first page. One of the things I love most about reading is how one can be in a different time or place, or even a different world, when one opens a book. That experience is what Monsarrat delivered. I spent the next few days aboard HM Corvette Compass Rose and HM Frigate Saltash. I learned something of why the sea is cruel, and men more cruel still. I learned about the convoy war in the North Atlantic, not as broad sweeping history, but from a skilled writer who was an eyewitness and distilled his experience into a message I haven’t forgotten to this day.

In subsequent years I took other voyages with Monsarrat. Not only did I learn why the sea was cruel, but I learned about policing in British Colonial Africa in The Tribe That Lost Its Head, and how a ship (well, a motor torpedo boat) could die of shame, of how a Kappillan of Malta led and comforted his people in time of war, and, finally, sorrowfully, of a Master Mariner who lived for centuries, only to see the lights go out on Nelson’s flagship after Trafalgar. That master mariner was supposed to sail on after Trafalgar, but Monsarrat died before he could complete the tale.

Mark Twain once wrote that if a writer is remembered more than 50 years after his death he’s a great writer indeed, and there may be some truth in that. Homer’s prose has endured for millennia, partly because The Iliad and The Odyssey are good stories, and partly, one suspects, because they provided accessible examples for generations of school-children to learn the Greek language. Would we know Homer today if it weren’t for the latter reason? Possibly; but we cannot be sure of what makes any given body of work endure, or even to exist in the first place. The process of writing requires time, and leisure time was hard to come by for most humans throughout the great majority of human history. It could also be that in any time there are few writers like Shakespeare, whose works are good enough to appeal and so create a market where preserving their work is profitable. Good enough, one might point out, to be printed and read in times when printing was a relatively expensive process,and books accordingly dear and so inaccessible to many even among the relatively educated.

So perhaps in this digital era when publishing is accessible to anyone who cares to make the relatively modest effort required to do so, the observable fact that writers come and go on an even shorter scale than a half-century should not surprise us.

But it is less than a half-century since Monsarrat died in 1981. As far as I can tell I was not the only one to think Monsarrat talented and worth reading. Perhaps not a Homer, nor yet a Shakespeare, even though both writers, apart from the demi-god status posterity has conferred upon them, might find Monsarrat a worthy colleague.

According to Wikipedia, The Cruel Sea is the only one of Monsarrat’s many novels that is still widely read. Perhaps; but if so you would never know from how hard it is to find. Doubtless there are a variety of reasons for that, but for me, I’d like to stand once more on the deck of Compass Rose in the freezing North Atlantic, or the sunnier route to Gibraltar, and see what insights age and experience bring to the reading.

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What Charlie Davis Saw

Tag end of September at the Hickory Aviation Museum and a little bit of magic happened with the arrival of Madras Maiden, a B-17G owned by the Liberty Foundation.

When you get a chance just to see a B-17G, walk around it, go inside and spend some time at the crew stations, take that chance. If you get to talk to the crew, do it. Get to know some of the people that keep pieces of history like this alive. If you get a chance, help them work on the airplane! Maybe you don’t know anything about Wright radial engines, but I bet if you offer to help them wash the oil from those radial engines off the airplane they’ll be more than happy to let you.

I doubt I’ll ever get to fly a B-17, but at least I did get to sit in the pilot’s seat, and I’d like to thank John Hess of the Liberty Foundation for that. And John, as you probably figured out, I somehow managed to squeeze my over-large self into the left seat without bumping the controls or switches!

That’s how I got to see what Charlie Davis saw.

Shameless self-promotion: Charlie Davis is a character in my novels. He flies B-17s from the first book, Everything We Had, and continuing through the fourth book, Thanks for the Memories.

When, in the second book, A Snowball’s Chance, Charlie looked out over the left wing at that “blank-blank No. 1 engine,” here’s what he saw:

OK, OK. So in my mind’s eye I deleted the fuel truck and the ramp, the tower and the terminal and all that other stuff belonging to KHKY and the present day, and the wing was olive-drab all the way down, and the airplane was actually flying, enroute to Darwin from Del Monte Field on Mindanao, at a time when we were losing the war.

And so in my mind’s eye I looked ahead of the airplane to see what Charlie might see, and here it is:

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So you have to ignore the jets at the right and the modern artificial horizon at the lower left corner, but I love the evening sun streaming in from the right. Up ahead of the instrument panel you see the astrodome, which was there only on the “E” and following models of the B-17. But imagine Al Stern sticking his head up into the astrodome to shoot the sun, and maybe grin at Charlie before returning to his navigator’s table.

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You look to the right to check on your co-pilot, where so many of Charlie’s ill-fated co-pilots sat.

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And there are things in this picture that wouldn’t be there in 1941 or 1942, but I hope most people realize that, among other things, the plastic water bottle wouldn’t be there.

Maybe it isn’t perfect. But going to Shiloh or Gettysburg, and looking at those carefully manicured and tended fields, that’s not the way it was on those bloody days that made those awful battles remembered.

Here’s what matters to me: I got to sit there and imagine, and, yes, dream a little bit.

If you get the chance, you should too, just to see what Charlie Davis and the real-life people I drew him from saw.

Thanks again, Madras Maiden. You really are the stuff of dreams.

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A Friend Is Gone

When I got back from a long sojourn out of town I found out that a friend, Col. John Parker, USAF-Ret., had died.

A few years back John told me he wanted to live to be at least 102, because then he and his two brothers would all be over 100 years old. John was, I think, 97 years old, and if you live through 33 missions over Germany and a lively career in the USAF which included service in Vietnam, living into your late 90s ain’t bad.

In the time I was privileged to spend with John I learned to always carry a voice recorder. John would tell stories that started from the here-and-now but then, with no more transition than a sentence or two, would take you into his seat at the navigator’s table of his B-17, guiding the bomber to a target in Germany with flak exploding all around. Sometimes it could take your breath away and make your hair stand on end, to be sitting with this little, quiet guy, telling you in his soft, matter-of-fact voice about seeing the lead bomber take a hit from flak and start burning. And that would happen right beside you, and the seventy years distance in time fell away.

I hope I captured a little of that, because now that direct line to the past is gone. That’s part of my mourning for John’s passing.

Because it can be quite an education, being around someone like John Parker. Little bits and pieces of the past, of how it was, would simply be there for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to listen. And there’s something about those guys who served in World War Two that was hard to put your finger on, for all it was there.

Maybe because that time was still with them, still part of their lives, who they were.

Like the time I thought I’d have to keep John out of a fist-fight with another old codger. See, once upon a time we had a lot of WW2 guys at the Hickory Aviation Museum, and one of them was named Bob Morgan. (Bob would be quick to tell you he wasn’t THAT Bob Morgan. You know, the “Memphis Belle” guy.) Bob was special in his own right. He logged 37,000-odd hours flying cargo and charter after being in Air Transport Command (ATC) during the war, flying, among other things, the Curtiss C-46 over the Hump to China. That wasn’t safe duty. Losses to weather and terrain on the Hump run were pretty much the same as in flying combat.

So when Bob Morgan met John Parker the first time they shook hands and had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, went something like this:

BOB: Well, John, you look like you were old enough to be there. What did you do?

JOHN: Me? Navigator. Eighth Air Force. You?

BOB: ATC.

JOHN (innocently): ATC? Oh, Allergic To Combat?

And Bob’s face got red and his teeth gritted, and after 60+ years that wartime gibe stung to the point where I thought Bob would take a poke at John, and I found myself repressing laughter and getting ready to step between them if I had to.

Here’s the thing: John wasn’t a big guy, maybe five-five, with big ears and a resemblance to the cartoon character Sad Sack. Bob wasn’t all that big, but he was a good bit bigger than John.

And not that Bob wasn’t a tough old bird.

It’s just that I know who I would’ve bet on to finish that fight.

Bet on, without thinking about it.

But John is gone, and the world diminished by his passing.

I miss him.

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