Archive for the 'military history' Category

The Wild Blue Yonder Revisited

DSC00105I am a captive to the evocative and iconic aspects of vintage military aircraft, particularly those from the mid-1930s through the mid 1950s, the period from the Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” through the F-86 “Sabrejet.”

In the company of several other knowledgeable and similarly afflicted aficionados, I left for a local airport where a non-profit outfit, “The Collings Foundation,” had flown in several of its vintage aircraft; a B-24 “Liberator,” A B-17 Flying Fortress” and a P-51”Mustang.” For a nominal fee of twelve-bucks visitors can go out on the tarmac and get up close to the planes, even clamber aboard.

For those with deeper pockets, much deeper pockets, a couple of hundred bucks will get you a group ride in one of the big bombers, and for a couple of grand you can get a seat in the Mustang fighter, even get to handle the stick in flight. We choose the twelve-buck option.

I’ve seen restored Mustang fighter planes up close, and I believe that they are in fact one of the most beautiful aircraft ever to fly. And in their later modifications toward the end of WW II, arguably the high point of propeller-driven aviation. The big, four-engined bombers have become a more rare species. Static, that is non-flying versions of the once giant craft, can be seen at some of the major air museums around the country. But to see working, flying, sixty-five-year-old heavy bombers is well worth a short car trip and a modest entry fee.

The beautifully aerodynamic B-17 is probably the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War, made famous by the USAAF’s, Eighth Air Force for the daylight bombardment of targets in Europe. Postwar movies like “Twelve-O-Clock High” with Gregory Peck and “Command Decision” starring Clark Gable, himself a veteran Eighth Air Force combat air crewman, established the B-17 as the face of the nation’s air war.

The rather ungainly, if not homely B-24 actually saw wider global service in the war, and was produced in greater numbers, over 18,000. The more comely B-17s numbered 13,000. With passage of over six decades, I found myself struck more by the physical presence of the rather dowdy and less famous B-24 “Liberator,” a solid manifestation of pure function.

Seeing both of the heavy bombers in the flesh, triggered some contradictory perceptions. On one hand, compared to today’s sleek supersonic jets, the F-22 Raptor for example, the WW II bombers appear hopelessly primitive. They came into being less than four decades after Wilbur and Orville first took to the air. At the same time looking at the two large multi-cylindered radial engines on each wing, and at the maze of cockpit instrumentation, navigation, communications equipment and the weaponry, the dominant impression is one of an almost overwhelming complexity.

Scrambling through the head-bumping maze-like interiors was like trying to move through a series of eccentric, poorly connected closets, spaces designed purely for the function of aerial warfare, oblivious to the simplest of human needs. What must it have been like to fly missions in one of these? What must it have been like to actually engage in high altitude combat in something like this? My own reactions were feelings of awe and a respectful humility. I remembered reading that Eighth Air Force aircrew casualty rates exceeded those of any other category in WW II, including combat infantry and submarine crews.

While we debated where to go for lunch, an announcement was made to clear the tarmac, all three of the planes were about to depart for a show at some distant airport. One after another, nine great engines came to life, belching black smoke before settling down. As they turned to taxi toward the runway, we braced against the prop wash until they disappeared down the runway to prepare for takeoff. One by one they roared past and then circled slowly overhead before fading away to the east. I wondered what it must have looked like and sounded like in the 1940s when these then giant planes rose in their thousands to do battle all over the world.

To end on a more realistic note, an extensive, in-depth study of the entire strategic bombing campaign conducted after the war implied that the game really had not been worth the candle, that the resources expended in strategic bombing could have been more effectively deployed elsewhere to shorten the length of the war. True or not, that conclusion in no way diminishes the epic heroism and absolute wonder of the whole enterprise.

Another War Story


At one stage of my grown-up period when I was attempting to pass for a serious corporate type, I found myself in a conference room of a Harrisburg Holiday Inn, a last-minute, substitute delegate at a committee meeting of a statewide trade association.

I’d never before met any of the ten guys in the room, and had no clear idea of what I was supposed to be doing or not doing at the meeting. I knew only that I was there to show the company flag and to get through the day without embarrassing myself. The other committee members, this was 1976 and they were all men, were a good deal older than me, each representing utility companies from around the State, and they all seemed to be on easy, familiar terms with each other. I felt like a crasher at a private party. There was little serious attention paid to the meeting’s prepared agenda, and I figured that for most of those present, it was a day out of the office with best of all, a free lunch.
And it was to be good lunch indeed.

Deserting the Spartan accommodations of the Holiday Inn for a high-end, overpriced streak joint, we entered a dining room filled with state legislators drinking and chowing-down, all accompanied by smiling lobbyists. In an “aha!” moment, I concluded that like the politicians, we were about to dine well on somebody else’s money. The understanding among my fellow committee members was that the association’s marketing consultant, who had been chairing the meeting, would be putting the lunch tab on his expense account. I watched as my fellow committeemen ordered from the top of the menu. There were drinks all around, a hearty lunch and lots of good-old-boy jocularity. I did my part, smiling, grunting, eating, drinking and nodding.

After lunch and over coffee, one of more outspoken of the group, the association staffer, a big stuffy guy, self-important and decked out in full Ivy League drag, lit one of the cigars offered by the generous consultant, almost everyone still smoked in those days. “Mr. Big Deal” as I’d christened him, sent out his first clouds of smoke and began what would be a long monologue about his wartime years, all spent in the peaceful environs of Hawaii. “Best days of my life,” he went on. “Plenty of booze and horny women everywhere…,” and on and on. After a few minutes of that and looking for any escape, I turned to the guy seated next me, a guy from a gas and water company in Reading. I knew his name was Bernie. He looked about the right age. So I asked him, matter-of-factly, “hey Bernie, were you in the war?” Bernie was a little guy, even shorter than me. He wore one of those waffle-weave polyester blazers that were sold on the premise that they’d never wrinkle. It was mustard yellow. He too was puffing on one of the consultant’s freebee cigars.

Pausing as if to consider answering, he slid the cigar from his mouth and gave me a slow, flat, “yeah, I was in the war.” Willing to do anything to maintain an alternative to the “Remember Pearl Harbor” soliloquy going on across the table, I followed up with an equally disinterested “what were you in.” My new friend Bernie barely acknowledged my inquiry. In fact he actually turned his head away from me as he quietly said, “the air corps.” He said it like it didn’t really mean anything to him. It was my serve again, and I was beginning to tire of the whole thing. “Did you fly,” I asked. “Yep,” was all he said. Approaching terminal tedium with Bernie and his one-syllable answers, I asked what I thought would be the requisite and final question of a dead-end conversation. No longer at all that interested in Bernie, not in his war, not in his hideous sport coat – his necktie was worse – I threw out a casual, “what did you fly.” With a studied slowness, he pulled the cigar from his mouth and for the first time in our little back and forth, looked me in the eye. It was a look to say, “you really fucking want to know, don’t you.” Deliberately, slowly, and enunciating every syllable, he smiled for the first time and said, “P-38s.”

My outburst of “no shit” was involuntary and turned every head at the table in our direction. Catching myself, I allowed Mr. Big Deal to resume his Hawaiian rhapsody before trying to recapture Bernie’s attention with another “no shit, Bernie. Did you really fly a P-38?” He knew he had my attention. I got another sly smile and a modest, softly stated, “sure did.”

I was eight years old when the Second World War ended. Coming into awareness in the excitement of the biggest war ever fought, the content of the imagery inside my head anticipated the entire film library of the History Channel. My default settings for action, for excitement, for cool were all referenced to the photojournalism, the newsreels and the movies that had covered the war. I hadn’t cared a damn for sports, for cowboys, for cops and robbers. Nope, it was all tanks, Iwo Jima and John Wayne. I had spent the first conscious years of my life devouring the data, the statistics, the trivia of everything that came my way related to World War II. I knew that the .30-caliber, M-1 rifle, gas-operated, semi-automatic Garand was clip-fed, and had superceded the 1903 bolt action Springfield, that the Thompson submachine gun used the same .45-caliber ammunition as the Colt .45 automatic pistol, and that the Japs were real bastards.

On an unconscious level, too many of my aesthetic paradigms were weighted toward the imagery of the Second World War, toward the gracefully lethal. And of all the internalized configurations; the silhouettes of destroyers, of the Schmeisser machine pistol, even of the shark-toothed Curtis P-40 of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, it was always the supercharged, 400 mile-an-hour, double-boomed, twin-engined, Lockheed Lightning P-38 single seat fighter with its nose full of firepower that came closest to defining the absolute embodiment of deadly cool.

In “Populuxe,” his treatment of the design concepts that came to define the postwar consumer culture, Thomas Hine pointed out that Detroit’s addition of tail fins to American cars was a direct lift from the profile of the P-38. But that came later, after I’d let my enthusiasm for things military burn itself out while marking time for two years as a draftee in an army motor pool in Germany. In that expensive steak joint in Harrisburg, my brief conversational gambit with Bernie “whats-his-name” had struck and unearthed something primordial, something on which I was compelled to follow through.

After a couple of “wows,” and a “really,” I began pumping Bernie about what it had been like to actually fly one of those Harleys of the sky. The intensity of my enthusiasm seemed to disarm the laconic stoicism of my tablemate. “Well,” he said, “it’s not something you quickly forget about. I was only twenty-years old at the time.”

I got him warmed up, and I found out that he had flown in a fighter group based in Italy during the final months of the war. He had flown combat missions. He had been shot down. And, yes it had all been exciting, most of it anyway. He told me that it had been like hanging out with your high school friends. “Hell, we were all kids, really. Six or eight of us would go up together, loaded for bear. That plane had six fifty-calibers and a 20-millimeter cannon in the nose pod. “Christ,” he said, “you could cut a tree down with one burst from that sucker. And, it was fast, I mean really fast.”

He went on to tell me that the first time he was hit, a German plane had gotten behind him before he knew it. And that it wasn’t until the enemy plane shot past him that he realized he’d been fired on. “My one engine was smoking and he’d shot away most of one side of my tail.” He said he’d been at about ten-thousand feet and had had to bail out. “I didn’t have time to be scared until my chute opened, and then I worried all the way down.” He was over Allied lines and before he could gather his parachute, there was a jeep coming across the field to pick him up.

The second time, he told me, he hadn’t been as lucky. “We were shooting up trains and railroad tracks along the Inn River in Austria,” he said. “We were low, and I took a big hit, anti-aircraft fire, flak. I started losing control of the plane.” He told me that was too low to jump and had to ride the burning plane down, crash landing on a farm road, going through a hedge and finally stopping just short of a herd of dairy cattle. “It’s funny,” he said. “The last thing I could remember was those goddamned cows. One of them turned its head and looked at me. I can still see the big bell it had around its neck.” He said that was when he passed out. “I was pretty banged up,” he went on, “and I guess I had a lot of shrapnel in my legs. The local krauts must gotten me out of the plane before the fire reached me,” he said. “And that was the end of the war for me.”

“Boy! Bernie, that’s an amazing story,” I said. “I guess everything since must seem kind of flat after going through stuff like that.” “Well, not quite,” he said. “Looking back, I could have just as soon done without the whole thing.” A pause and then, “I didn’t get out of the hospital for almost a year and a half, Christmas of 1946. I’ve had nine operations on my legs.”

The waiter was clearing the coffee cups. Mr. Big Deal had finally finished the saga of his glory years, and the consultant was looking at his watch. Time to go back to the Holiday Inn and the conference room. Leaving the restaurant, I noticed that Bernie lifted each foot with the studied concentration of a man who wasn’t too sure he would actually be able to make the next step. I served on that committee for another four and a half years, for one six-month period I even chaired it. Bernie, his last name was Penowski, almost always got to the meetings before me, and he always saved me a chair next to his.

A Tank Is A Tank Is A Tank, Of Course

images2As a broadly curious dilettante, I know just enough about a lot of things to create an impression among the uninitiated that I might even know what I’m talking about. Last week during a tour of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Museum and Restoration Facilities in Aberdeen, Maryland, the shallowness of my knowledge became all too evident.

A friend had invited me to the tour, and since I can glibly ID on sight, things like an M-4 Sherman, or a British Centurion, a Panzer Mk IV, or a Soviet T-34, I accepted the invite. And by the way, a 155-mm rifled gun was the primary armament on the Cold War version of the Centurion.

The Aberdeen tour was arranged for a convention in nearby Havre de Grace of an organization of affable eccentrics called AMPS, “The Armor Modeling and Preservation Society.” These are the highly skilled and even more highly knowledgeable hobbyists who build detailed scale-models of armored fighting vehicles, i.e. tanks. They periodically gather to bond and to pass judgments on each other’s works. Mostly middle-aged to older males, they tilt heavily toward the “gearhead,” engineer, “gosh gee-whiz” personae.

During the orientation preceding the tour, I began to get intimations of what I had fallen into. Surrounding me, were jackets and hats featuring embroidered tanks and the patches of the various regional chapters of AMPS. The fleece jacket on the camera-laden man to my left announced his membership in “AMPS, Ottawa.” The back of the T-shirt on one of the guys in front of me sported a silk-screened image of a Wermacht-era King Tiger and large Gothic letters proclaiming “Panzerfest 2007.” There I was, embedded among the true and obsessed literati of the machines of war.

There were almost one hundred or so AMPS attendees, just about all male. The few women present seemed to have the same attentiveness to the subject matter as the men. One guy, far too young to have served in WW II, wore a vintage khaki shirt with T-5 stripes and the shoulder patch of an armored division that had been deactivated in 1945. I felt I was staring out onto that slippery slope that separates a somewhat rational interest in the minutiae of history from the totality of reenacting.

Following our orientation, we were divided into groups, and in what turned into a complete muddle, dispatched to the restoration shops. With different disassociated crowds of lost armor tourists, we wandered the post’s workshops and warehouses in search of the restoration facilities. Being among the lucky, we found a workshop where a French, Renault FT-17 tank, used by the AEF in France in 1918, was being restored for display. That the AEF was equipped with Renault tanks was a reflection of the war ending before American factories could provide a suddenly gigantic U.S. Army with tanks, aircraft or artillery pieces.

The first thing that struck me about the shell of the Renault was its size, not much bigger than a VW Beetle. The thickness of the steel that made up the shell was as remarkable to me as the complexity of the over ninety-year old wheel assemblies that carried the vehicle’s tracks. Everything had been stripped-down and water-blasted to bare metal, a process that also removed any residual muck of a long-ago Western Front.

While I ruminated on this little wonder of a fossil in the evolution of armored warfare, an AMPS member next to me was busy shooting photos of a pile of stacked up tracks when one of his fellows walked up and began pointing at the tracks and excitedly going on. “See! See! I told you that the numbers on the underside of the tracks were on the inside as well as the outside.” I sensed it was time to move away.

Falling in with another group, we were passing a line of derelict and rusting vintage tanks that a Proving Grounds staffer told us were awaiting restoration for museums around the world. One enthusiast near us began shouting and pointing at a particular tank. “Look at that M-4. It’s an ‘Iwo’ tank.” Like a school of fish, we turned as one toward this “Iwo” thing. What had captured the attention of the group were the flotation rings on the hull which according to our excited expert had been fitted to a number of M-4 Shermans for the amphibious landing on Iwo Jima in 1945. In an aside to add credence to his declaration, he noted that he’d been on Iwo thirteen times, but being about forty-years too young for the battle, he announced that he’d been there as a “battlefield” tour guide. If that wasn’t enough, a guy standing near me noted that another M-4 actually had an A-3 turret. As all heads turned toward this new discovery, a murmered “Very rare, very rare” filled the morning air.

I discreetly suggested to my buddy, that perhaps it was time for us to get the hell out of there. What if this whole business was contagious?

Glory Days In Dayton

At the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, standing with arguably the world’s most beautiful airplane, ever; the 1932 Boeing P-26 “Peashooter,” was the U. S. Army Air Corp’s first low-wing, all-metal pursuit (fighter) plane, an aesthetic jewel of an airplane. 

Unfortunately for my prospects of worldly success, I am a person who can identify, on sight, virtually every military aircraft to have seen service in any air arm in the world, between 1935 and 1955. 

At the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, I spent an ecstatic day wandering among the beautifully restored wonders of military aviation. They were all there, the P-39 Bell Airacobra with its through-the-nose cannon, the P-51 North American Mustang, considered the ultimate propeller-driven fighter, the Korean War jets, the F-86 Sabre and the F-84 Thunderjet, last of the machine-gun armed, dog-fighters.  While it’s always the fighters that catch my imagination, it was the bombers that got me thinking. The B-17, the B-24, the 36, the 47, the 52 and even the newest Stealth models, all testifying to the strategic reasoning for the existence of a national air force, independent of its antecedent role which until 1947, was as the aviation branch of the U. S. Army. Continue reading ‘Glory Days In Dayton’