I recently finished writing a book of stories based on my experience as a combat pilot in World War II. While at work on the book I realized that I had started training for war when I was four years old. I would guess that most boys in the United States start that early. Veterans of sibling rivalry, sports, commercial TV, and computer games, by the time we are seventeen most of us are about half trained for any shooting war that happens along. Some of the terrors of combat, already rehearsed, come to us as no great surprise. Others we could not have imagined.
I've been asked why I waited so long to write my war stories. The first answer, I guess, is that I'd have to face those experiences again, and for many years I wasn't ready. When I returned to college, hardly anybody talked about the war. Those who did were considered a little cracked, living in the past. They acted as if the war was the biggest thing that ever happened to them, which it was, and had been for all of us, but we weren't about to admit it. A few guys plunged into their studies with the focus of a fighter pilot trying to center a Zero in the ringsight. It may have been their type of self-medication. What most of us did was drown our post-traumatic stress syndrome (at that time lacking a diagnosis) in beer and bourbon and sex. There was still a certain panache attached to the college drunk, the guy who could cut class and party all semester, buy the lecture notes and crack the text a day before the final and pull a C in the course.
Another reason I held off writing about the war was that I dreaded boring my friends as I'd been bored by old doughboys bragging about their experiences in World War I. Who knows, if any of them had been pilots I might be giving a different account of myself. By the time I started getting interested in writing about the war I had a family to support, and not enough time and perhaps still not enough courage to relive my experiences with the clarity I needed in order to write well about them.
What finally got me started was the curiosity of my own sons. They were approaching draft age during the Vietnam War. There were things they wanted and needed to know, not from just anybody but from their father. I was honored. I started cautiously, afraid to bore them as I'd been bored, but my sons wanted more. I saw that it was not just the experiences they wanted, not just the facts. They wanted to know what I felt about those experiences, what values I placed on them, how they affected me, how I came through the war whole and, arguably, sane. They wanted to know what those experiences meant to me.
The accounts I gave my sons were as close to the literal facts as I could make them after so many years. But those accounts started a process. It seemed to me that I could give my answers more life by making stories that were partly the literal truth as I remembered it, and partly imagination based on truth. The gift of my children's questions got me to writing about that war in the least boring way I knew a way intended to reach the heart, mind, and gut simultaneously, which is the way of literature.
During the Second World War I flew forty missions as a bomber pilot in the South Pacific and South-east Asia. My unit was the 370th Bombardment Squadron, 307th Bombardment Group, 13th Air Force. I flew a B-24 Liberator, a four-engine bomber carrying a crew of ten. I arrived in combat as a co-pilot in September 1944, and eventually became a first pilot. My bomber group was known as the Long Rangers because we specialized in reaching targets as far as 1500 or 1600 miles away, where the Japanese thought they were fairly safe from our bombs. My flight log tells me that my longest nonstop mission lasted thirteen hours and thirty minutes, takeoff to landing.
I flew most of my missions from Morotai, a jungle island about halfway between New Guinea and the Philippines. From Morotai we struck oil refineries in Java, Sumatra and the east coast of Borneo, Japanese shipping in the South China Sea, and enemy bases throughout the Philippines. By making one landing to refuel at Puerta Princessa, Palawan, we could reach Saigon harbor. On one mission the four squadrons of my group bombed two battleships and their escort ships and caused enough damage to make the fleet turn back to Japan.
Most of the island of Morotai was still held by the Japanese. We occupied just enough territory for our bomber base and a squadron each of U.S. P-38s and Australian Spitfires. For ten months my home was an open-sided tent with a wooden floor and frame set on six fifty-gallon oil drums among the surviving trees of a coconut plantation. The entrance side of the tent looked out across a coral beach and a bay with Navy ships and freighters unloading war supplies. On a clear day we could see thirty or forty miles across the water to the mainland of the Halmaheras, where it was said that 50,000 Japanese troops had been isolated as the war bypassed them. Once in a while a suicide mission tried to get across the straits to us at night, but none ever made it past the pt boats that patrolled those waters. Somewhere on the main island the Japanese had managed to hide a few twin-engine Betty bombers, and with these they bombed us every three or four nights, forcing us to spend part of a sleepless night on a damp coral floor in a palm log and sandbag bomb shelter.
My third mission was my baptism of fire, flown from an island off the coast of New Guinea before we moved to Morotai. Our target was a Japanese base north of Manila. To fly fourteen hours nonstop we had to install fuel tanks that filled three-fourths of the bomb bay. We became a flying bomb ourselves, needing only an incendiary bullet in one of the tanks to blow us to kingdom come. Also, with this load the plane was so heavy that we had to use every yard of runway to get off the ground. Fortunately, the runway ended at the edge of a shallow lagoon. Once in a while a bomber that couldn't get airborne simply shot off the end of the runway and settled into the water while pt boats sped to the rescue.
On that mission we had no fighter escort because our P-38s had not yet developed sufficient range. A half hour from the target the sky swarmed with Japanese fighters coming at us from every angle, flashing through our formation so close that I could see canvas helmets, goggles set on high cheekbones, and white scarves around the necks of the pilots. Every so often I thought a Zero with its guns flickering like little red snaketongues would fly right into my windshield, and my body tensed up for the impact of a kamikaze. My bomber came home full of holes and with one tail fin half gone. This was the first of my long-range missions, and as far as I knew at the time it was about what I could expect on all of them.
At one point in my combat tour I volunteered for a series of long-range, single-plane missions to fly across Borneo and destroy Japanese ships along the edge of the South China Sea. In order to avoid detection by Japanese radar as we approached Borneo we had to fly under the beam, which meant an altitude of no more than a few hundred feet. We crossed the coastline and continued at tree-top level up over jungle-covered mountain ranges, then down the river valleys that led to the harbors on the western coast. Spotting a ship, we would level off at two hundred feet above the water, high enough to clear a ship's masts and low enough to skip a bomb into the side of a ship. We had the element of surprise on our side, but a few gunners on the ships usually got to their turrets, and a fighter or two got off the ground. Because the missions were considered unusually hazardous, those of us who volunteered were offered credit for two missions each time we flew. We would get home to the States that much sooner.
In spite of the occasional terror (or maybe because of it), these single-plane strikes soon made the usual mission seem dull. For one thing, a favorite pastime of all the pilots I knew was flying as fast and as low as possible. Prominent in our fantasies was buzzing the girlfriend's house, or roaring down Main Street between the buildings. A few pilots actually got to do it. In training for heavy bombers I flew a B-17 down into the Grand Canyon. It was forbidden, and my commanding officer must have heard about it, and had probably done similar things himself. Low-altitude flying was a chance to experience speed and to see a world I could not see at safer altitudes. On one flight my crew and I discovered a perfect Chinese city of pagodas and gardens and narrow cobbled streets and red tile rooftops nested like a jewel in the remote jungle highlands of central Borneo.
That my crew and I survived I attribute largely to luck. On one low-level mission a Japanese ship exploded directly under us. Our skip bombs had two-second delay fuses to let us get away before detonation, but this time the bomb punched through the hull directly into the ship's magazine, where the impact instantly ignited the ship's munitions. We flew through a cloud of wreckage containing a sailor with a look of astonishment on his face at apogee outside my cockpit window. On another mission I nearly killed us all, trying to see down the throat of a volcano newly risen from the Celebes Sea. On yet another flight we surprised three cruisers steaming north toward the Philippines. My radio operator could get no reply on iff or voice frequencies to tell us whether they were ours or the enemy's. As a test, I opened the bomb-bay doors, whereupon the sky around us exploded with anti-aircraft bursts, some of them close enough to rock the plane. It took four squadrons of B-25 bombers to sink one cruiser and disable the others. Three-quarters of our B-25s were lost.
What were we thinking, volunteering for those missions in the first place? The other pilot was in a hurry to get home to his wife. I was bored, sitting on the ground three or four days between missions. Apart from sex, flying was the most exciting thing I'd run across in my twenty years on this planet. For some reason it hardly occurred to me that this kind of flying greatly increased my chances of not getting home at all. When my wheels left the runway I felt the thrill of some godlike power and freedom. The clever machines I flew defied rules by which humans had been bound for millions of years. No matter that in a few hours my plane and crew would be a thousand miles from home, with no hope of rescue if we survived a water landing or a parachute jump.
Lest my passion for flying seem a glorification of war, it is important to distinguish between the flying part and the combat part of the job. The time we spent bombing and shooting and being shot at was over in an hour or less. We spent the rest of the ten or twelve or fourteen hours getting to the target and flying home again. We cruised at an altitude of 10,000 feet, where we could see much that is invisible from the window of today's airliner. We flew around and between backlit clouds like vast sculptured monuments slowly changing shape, over coral islands and turquoise lagoons, volcanoes just emerging from the sea. We studied all the moods of wind on water, and watched the sun rise or sink slowly over tropical oceans. Even after twelve or fourteen hours in the air I sometimes felt a vague disappointment when I began to hear the faint call signal of home base in my earphones.
One of my stories concerns a gang of boys in the mid-1930s who built themselves a flight trainer. The story is modeled on my own experience. We knew in our bones that war was coming. We constructed miniature forts and bombarded them with clods from the orchard, and ran around shooting at each other with cap guns, but our serious preparations had to do with airplanes. The aces of World War I and the barnstorming pilots of the thirties were our gods and heroes. Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic only a few years earlier. Every week, it seemed, some pilot set a new record for speed or distance or altitude. We lived in California, where the dirigible Akron, a thousand-foot-long aircraft carrier, rumbled overhead every few days on the way to its hangar at Moffett Field. We lived, breathed and dreamed flying.
One morning during my senior year in high school I learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I knew then that I would fly, and that I might be killed, but unlike many soldiers who went to Vietnam, I had some clarity about the reasons. For all we knew, the Japanese warships had paused at Hawaii only long enough to neutralize our Pacific fleet, and were even then steaming toward the beaches of California with an armada of troopships and landing craft. There was nobody to say it was not so no global net, no long-range air patrols for early warning. Within a week of Pearl Harbor, gun shops from San Diego to Seattle had sold their entire stock of guns and ammunition. Men in my own family were collecting bottles and rags and kerosene for Molotov cocktails, and preparing to burn their farms and crops the way the Russians were doing as the Germans advanced. We heard of sisters and mothers who said they would commit suicide before they'd let themselves be captured by the Japanese. The invaders were soon in the Aleutian Islands, working their way toward our farms and cities. There was no such thing as resistance or protest as there was in the Vietnam War. We knew who the enemy was and where he was. He was at our throats.
Though we had no affection for killing or being killed, it is worth noting that in the air our experience of death was different from that of soldiers on the ground. Killing in the air was more impersonal and remote than it was on the ground. In a heavy bomber we almost never saw the destruction caused by our bombs. We might see black smoke towering three or four miles in the sky from a burning oil refinery, but we did not witness the human suffering on the ground. With rare exceptions, a fighter pilot did not see the effects of his bullets on the body of an enemy. A stricken plane, enemy or friend, usually went into its last dive and crashed far from home. Rarely were there torn, bleeding bodies as in the infantry. No medics, no stretcher, no ambulance or helicopter. No body bag. Pilots almost never saw death happening. It was easier for them to cling to their youthful illusion of personal immortality. Without it, they might not have been able to do the work they'd been sent to do.
Though I went to war as a bomber pilot, I've written many stories about fighter pilots. We received the same primary, basic, and advanced flight training, and in the Pacific, at least, fighter and bomber pilots led a similar kind of life. We both came home to a shower, a hot meal, and a clean bed every night. There was usually a clubhouse, however primitive, where we could drink, play poker, and generally unwind. Often a volleyball court on white coral sand, and somebody had a football. For both of us, when we fell from the sky we might be a thousand miles from home without any hope of rescue. If we ditched our plane in the ocean or lived through a parachute jump we were at the mercy of sharks, headhunters, or the Japanese who had a nasty habit of executing American and Aussie fliers.
The lives of fighter and bomber pilots also differed in important ways. With the help of belly tanks and some advice from Charles Lindbergh, the range of the P-38 was eventually extended so far that a pilot sat cramped in the cockpit for six or seven hours at a stretch. Often, on landing, the crew chief had to pull his pilot from the cockpit and hold him upright until his legs began to work again. A bomber pilot sat in a roomy cockpit, and he could get up and walk back through the bomb bay to the waist section, talk to the gunners, even take a nap while the flight engineer and the other pilot looked after the plane. If a fighter pilot found himself chased by an enemy he could take evasive action, while bombers had to hold to a sober, steady course much like the flight of an airliner. Anti-aircraft cannons on the ground had time to compute the bomber's course and altitude. The only reason I ever found for preferring the life of the bomber pilot over that of the fighter pilot was the comfort of the cockpit and the greater range, which allowed me to see more of this beautiful planet while somebody else paid for gas and maintenance.
Potential fighter pilots made themselves visible in primary flight school by the maneuvers they were willing to try. The standard aerobatics menu of loops and rolls was not exciting enough. They taught themselves upside-down spins, snap rolls beginning and ending upside down, inverted loops, vertical snap rolls with three or four rotations. A few of us believed we could actually fly backward for a few feet by cutting power and reversing the controls when we lost flying speed at the top of the vertical climb. We were fortunate to be flying Stearman biplanes, a plane so sturdy that it hardly mattered what we did with it or at what speed, it seemed impossible to tear the wings off. For some of us the sheer exhilaration of flight inspired maneuvers that verged on lunacy, such as flying at each other head-on and breaking right or left or up or down at the last second before impact. Or diving straight down to see how close we could come to the ground and still pull out before we blacked out.
By the time I graduated from advanced flying school, long-range heavy bombers were rolling off U.S. assembly lines in vast numbers. Bomber pilots were in greater demand than fighter pilots. To my dismay, I was sent to bomber school. Perhaps my instructors hadn't spotted the born fighter pilot in me. Whatever the reason, my disappointment at being sent to bomber school ranks with other unrequited loves in my life. Before long I developed great affection for the heavy bomber and the type of flying I describe in some of my stories, but of all the world's aircraft, I loved the P-38 fighter the best. In my fantasies I never stopped flying them. Once in a while some compassionate crew chief would allow me to climb into the cockpit of a P-38, start it up and sit for a while listening to the song of the Allison in-line engines on either side of me, feeling the plane tremble like a bird eager to be in flight.
The nearest I ever came to the actual experience of flying a P-38 was a day over the Halmahera Straits when I was giving a modified B-24 a test flight. My bomb group had an old war-weary B-24 called the Fat Cat, with its gun turrets removed and the bomb bay rebuilt to carry cargo. For a while after I finished my missions and was waiting to go home, a flight engineer, a radio operator and I flew it to Australia every week for produce, gin, and whatever contraband the three of us could smuggle aboard. It was called the Spam Run. I had finished checking out the plane and was tooling around at seven or eight thousand feet enjoying the blue sky and the cloud formations when a P-38 flashed past my side window as if he'd just made a mock attack on my tail. He banked as if he was about to make another run. My body reacted without thought. Simultaneously, I rolled the old bomber over on its side, hauled back on the wheel, fed in some top rudder, dropped a few degrees of flaps, and had the P-38 straight down my nose in the crosshairs of an imaginary gunsight. The P-38 tightened his turn, trying for a shorter radius so my imaginary bullets would miss. I hauled back on the wheel and fed in more top rudder. He rolled over to turn the other way and I almost lost him, then I had the Fat Cat on its other side and the P-38 in the crosshairs again. He tightened his turn; I tightened mine. He tightened more, and as I felt my controls begin to go mushy near stalling speed, the P-38 fell from the sky. Soon he was up at altitude again, trying to get me in his sights from the rear. My radio operator, enjoying the duel as much as I was, yelled that the P-38 had stalled out again.
That evening in the officers' club a P-38 pilot showed up, looking for me. He'd taken the Fat Cat's ID number from the side of the fuselage. He wanted to know how I'd done it. I reassured him that it had little to do with his skill or mine. On its side, a P-38 has about as much lifting surface as a needle. The B-24 has a deep-chested, flat-sided fuselage and two big tail fins that give as much lift flying on their sides as the wings of a P-38 flying straight and level. This is an exaggeration, but perhaps not much. In a Lufbery circle, without the weight of the gun turrets, the B-24 had the advantage.
As I look back over more than a half century, it seems like kid stuff. Yet that is what we were—kids of nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, piloting the world's top-of-the-line fighters and bombers, full of testosterone, adrenaline, and the irrepressible spirit of youth. All that we were, we still are. What we were then is merely buried underneath all that we've added to ourselves since. I feel as if I never entirely lost contact with the boy who dived at the ground and flew head-on with his buddies, and wanted to be an ace. A few years ago I decided to get in touch with him again through the alter ego of Steve Larkin, a young fighter pilot in many of my stories, and let him live out his dream of flying a p-38. Naturally, it did not turn out as either of us expected. Steve wasn't thinking much about death or dying in that magic moment when he climbed into the cockpit for his first flight in a P-38. He was only thinking about the privilege of flying that magnificent machine.
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