It was peacetime. It was a balmy evening in Spokane, Washington, in 1941. A very young Gwendolyn Yeo had mixed feelings about the fellow escorting her to the cinema. She could not guess that one day he would be fighting Hitler’s jets or that he would become her husband of seventy-plus years.
He was clean-cut, eager, and nineteen years old. To her he was a force of nature. He filled any room he entered. She knew quite a bit about him, but what Gwen knew most about Clayton Kelly Gross was that she didn’t want to go to the movies with him.
“I’d rather try a picture with a little romance in it,” she told him, shaking her head at the marquee. These were the days when a single theater offered a single film.
“You’ll love this movie,” he said.
She didn’t. She was still saying so decades later. But she liked him. It was mutual. Both of them soon abandoned other steadies in order to be together.
Against Gwen’s wishes, the couple sat through all 135 minutes of I Wanted Wings, starring Hollywood newcomers William Holden and Veronica Lake. It was Clayton Kelly Gross’s choice. He was smitten with Gwen, but the aviation bug had gotten to him first.
Gross told her that like the men in the movie he wanted to fly fighters for the army.
The newsreel that night included footage of Adolf Hitler giving a speech. It was something about a newly begun operation on the eastern front to “crush our opponent in the east.” To Gwen, to Kelly, to most Americans, this was far away, on the far side of a vast ocean.
Months later, Americans were looking toward the other ocean on December 7, 1941, when Japanese carrier planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Clayton Kelly Gross looked around among his friends in Spokane and saw shock and anger. “I knew the U. S. fleet was there,” said Kelly. “I knew what the attack meant.”
DECEMBER 7, 1941
Urban L. Drew was at the movies, at a Sunday matinee in Detroit, with his brother Earl and his mother, Olive, on December 7, 1941. Drew, better known by his nickname Ben, was just seventeen years old. Years later, he was unable to remember which motion picture they saw that day. I Wanted Wings was still in theaters and is a possibility.
When he and his family came out of the theater, people on the street were talking on the radio about the news. Ben’s mother told him the obvious: he would soon be wearing a military uniform. Ben had no doubt what he wanted to do in the military.
“I had piles of books with lurid drawings of Spads and Fokkers splashed in color on their covers,” he remembered later. “I had all the pulp adventure stories of the era, including G-8 and His Battle Aces [stories]. I knew that G-8’s wingmen were Nippy Weston and Bill Martin. I read ‘Smilin’ Jack’ in the comic strips. I visited an airport whenever I could. I built tissue-covered airplane models and balsa wood airplane models. I was hooked.”
Ben Drew’s first experiences in the cockpit of an airplane were not encouraging. The Detroit youngster was not a natural, an instructor told him. He was more than good enough to instruct, though, which is why he found himself in Bartow, Florida, instead of the war zone.
Yet soon moviegoers Clayton Kelly Gross and Urban L. “Ben” Drew would have plenty in common, including the fact that the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter was part of their future.
An army flying cadet named Edward B. Giller said there was nothing remarkable about December 7, 1941, for him. “We knew there was trouble in Europe and we knew that trouble was centered in Berlin. I was an aviation cadet in flying class 42-D at Lubbock Field, Texas. I was in the barracks that Sunday when somebody came through and announced that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Somebody told me, ‘We’re going to be in the war, too,’ and he was right.” Giller was from Jacksonville, Illinois. He would later pilot the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang and find himself fighting Hitler’s jets.
A huge number of Americans didn’t know much about Hawaii or Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but eighteen-year-old Robert Des Lauriers knew it firsthand.
Des Lauriers was a product of the Los Angeles basin. Though he had been born in Illinois, he grew up near Covina—at that time partly residences and partly potato fields—and went to high school near Watts. He was ordinary in appearance and remarkable in his achievements: Bob played the trumpet, raised homing pigeons, became an Eagle Scout, and—of course—built model airplanes. When the battle for France ended and the Battle of Britain raged between July and October 1940, Des Lauriers and other Los Angeles boys learned the recognition features of the Supermarine Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109. At a time when Adolf Hitler’s fighter pilots were arguably at the peak of their prowess, Des Lauriers built replicas of their planes out of balsa wood. But flying was only one of his many interests. He wanted to be an architect.
“We lived across the street from a movie theater so we went to the shows on Saturday,” Des Lauriers recalled. “I loved Tom Mix western movies. We had radio and newspapers at home, of course, but we got our visual news from the Saturday newsreels. We looked at that guy Hitler delivering fiery speeches and we thought he was very far away and very distant from our lives.”
In September 1941, the Des Lauriers family received passage to the American territory of Hawaii, where Bob’s dad was under contract from the U.S. Engineering Department to build bomb storage facilities at Wailoa. A buildup of sorts had been taking place in America’s distant territory in the Pacific and bomb storage was going to be needed for the new, four-engined bombers that were going to be key to American air power policy.
Bob was just short of his eighteenth birthday when he began working at Wheeler Field, where Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk fighters were stationed.
On December 7, 1941, Bob was in the family home at Wailoa. When it began, he was in bed. He heard aircraft. The previous day, people had been talking about a mock war unfolding between the army and navy on the adjacent island of Kauai, so he assumed a war game was under way. Bob rolled over in bed and went back to sleep. Hours later, soldiers were stringing up barbed wire around the compound where his house was located. While Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s First Air Fleet was attacking Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, and other places in Hawaii with 135 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero 21 fighters, 135 Aichi D3A1 “Val” dive bombers, and 144 Nakajima NB5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers, killing 2,403 Americans, Robert Des Lauriers slept through it all.
His brother Jerry was among agricultural workers in a nearby pineapple field that morning and saw Zeros approaching at low level. For a moment, Jerry ran a race with a Zero that came up alongside him, accelerated, and kept going. The family saw the aftermath of the attack and listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio, and for the first time in his life Robert Des Lauriers wanted to fight. He had never been one of those kids who built models or read Air Trails magazine, “but now I wanted to fly and fight,” he said. Des Lauriers would one day find himself in a B-17 Flying Fortress under attack from a Messerschmitt Me 262.
BUSH AND BUSCH
Before Hitler’s tanks went grinding into Poland, before the Battle of Britain, before Pearl Harbor, two boys with similar names, Robert Bush and Hans Busch, celebrated their fourteenth birthdays in 1938. Robert thought he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Hans thought he wanted to be a sailor on a submarine.
Robert lived in a community called Hillcrest, where southeast Washington, D.C., butts up against the Maryland state line. His father worked downtown for the government, a fortunate situation at the height of the Great Depression, and after a long commute via streetcar and bus Dad sometimes had a gift in hand when he arrived home at the end of the day. Sometimes it was a copy of the aviation magazines, a major investment at twenty-five cents. Sometimes it was a Strombecker wooden model airplane, which could cost a dollar or more and which father and son built together, paying careful attention to authenticity and detail. A member of the Boy Scouts, Robert found it difficult, when the model was almost finished, to apply the decals properly using water and thumb pressure. Sometimes, he carried a finished model around with him.
He thinks he remembers reading in a science magazine about Nazi Germany’s Ritscher Expedition to Antarctica around this time. For a few months (between December 17, 1938, and April 12, 1939), the merchant ship Schwabenland, with two Dornier Do 16 flying boats on board, lingered in the Antarctic region now known as Dronning Maud Land. Approved by Hermann Göring, the expedition was publicly aimed at improving German prospects for whaling, but conspiracy theorists later said its real purpose was to establish beneath the ice shelf a secret Nazi base, which in postwar U.S. writings would become the SECRET NAZI BASE.
In years to come, a veteran of German naval service would claim that the expedition left people and equipment in a very special natural ice cave, the entrance to which was reinforced with steel walls and stairs. Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Karl Dönitz, the veteran would claim, is supposed to have referred to the location in Antarctica as having been built for the Führer in “a Shangri-La on land, an impregnable fortress.” But nothing like this was reported at the time. “I think it was just an article about a scientific expedition,” said American youngster Robert Bush.
German youngster Hans Busch lived in a rural area not far from Lübeck. He got good grades in school. His father encouraged him to be busy in activities with other boys. He and a friend were working on a model submarine when he joined a group that was building an actual aircraft, a glider called an SG-38. It was a high-wing, cable-braced, single-seat primary-training glider in which the pilot sat completely out in the open. Once exposed to what flying was all about, Hans abandoned his dream of sailing beneath the sea. He left his submarine model at home when he went to meetings of the Flieger (aviation) group of the Hitlerjungen, or the Hitler Youth.
“I knew we had a strong leader in Adolf Hitler,” said Hans. “I didn’t know about politics or about the dark side of things in Berlin. I just knew that our country was on the rebound from difficult times and it was a good time to want to fly.”
Germany had risen to “become a favorite vacationland,” Busch would later write—and be accused by a critic of being a political naïf. He also noted, “During the Olympic Games in Berlin many people came to Germany and found that the country that had been in shambles [just years earlier] was now flourishing, was very industrious, and was friendly and open to visitors. The world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic in a single-engined aircraft, was very much impressed. Later, when he said that American should not get involved in a war in Europe he was black-balled for his politically-incorrect statements.”
Busch appears to have regarded the Third Reich as nothing worse than “politically incorrect,” but he would become very much involved in the war in Europe. He would eventually fly the Me 262 jet fighter.
TOO SMALL, TOO BIG
December 8, 1941
After Pearl Harbor, everybody was mad as hell at the Japanese. Everybody wanted to fight. Jim Vining was pretty sure he would get into the fight, even though he was a little guy and was too young to sign up. Born in Louisiana in 1925, Vining was a small youngster, a veritable bantamweight. He had something in common with Clayton Kelly Gross, though. He wanted to fly.
“My dad, too, was interested in flying, but he was a farmer and I was the oldest of ten kids: We were poor and I knew that if I wanted to fly I would have to do it in the army. When I first inquired at age fourteen in 1939, they told me you had to have a minimum of two years of college and had to be twenty years old. That seemed so far away it was all but out of reach,” he said.
“I graduated from high school in 1942 and won a four-year scholarship to Southeast Louisiana College in Hammond,” he continued. “Just when I was about to go into pilot training, I ran into my next obstacle. They put a freeze on new student pilots. The freeze was lifted on January 1, 1943, when they announced that ‘We need twenty thousand aviation cadets each in the army and navy.’ But then, the doctor told me that I was ten pounds under weight to become a pilot! I was then five feet nine inches in height and weighed one hundred twenty pounds, while a pilot was required to weigh one hundred thirty.
“The doc sympathized. He gave me three weeks to gain weight. I went home and ate up an extra plate and had an extra jug of milk every day. My mom made a lot of extra heavy biscuits for me. I really, really wanted to fly.”
With bright blue eyes and looking something like an eager puppy, Vining had instant appeal for girls and he knew how to ingratiate himself with guys. He had real charm. And he used it on the flight surgeon.
“I went back to see the doc just before my eighteenth birthday. I had gained eight pounds, but he gave me a break and called it ten! As soon as I became eighteen, they sent me off to preflight in San Antonio, Texas. I was a member of flying class 44-A.”
It was not until January 4, 1944, that Jim Vining pinned on his pilot wings and lieutenant’s bars and became, at eighteen, the youngest airplane commander of a B-26 Marauder medium bomber in the U.S. Army Air Forces. “The first time I flew a B-26, it was a religious experience. I’ve been a believer ever since,” he said.
If Jim Vining was a little guy who could, Val Beaudrault was the big guy who almost didn’t. Valmore J. Beaudrault, also known as Val, looked big and gruff but was as good-natured as they come. A product of Nashua, New Hampshire, when that location epitomized smalltown living, Beaudrault was, the town’s historian wrote, “big, husky, burly and formidable. He looked like a north woods lumberjack or a football lineman, which he was at Milford High School.” He became a machinist at the Abbott Machine Company in Wilton, where the foreman always asked him to move heavy machinery when needed. Beaudrault began dating his Nashua girlfriend, Priscilla Pero, right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They later got engaged. To his fiancée, Beaudreault was a little like the portly P-47 Thunderbolt he was soon to fly—“big, sturdy, imposing, and yet easy to get along with,” she said.
On December 7, 1941, Priscilla Pero was at a church event with friends in Nashua. “That Sunday afternoon, we were talking about church events and people that I didn’t know started coming up to me and saying, ‘Have you heard?’ The local newspaper’s office was just up the street, and they always put the latest issue in their display window. We ran up to the paper’s offices and saw the headline telling us that our country had been attacked by Japan,” she said.
Priscilla Pero, later to be Priscilla Beaudrault, was just fifteen years old.
Val Beaudrault, who did not remember having met Priscilla as a child—“his mother took care of my grandmother,” she recalled—was busily working at Abbott Machine. Like Clayton Kelly Gross on the other side of the American continent, Beaudrault had already logged some air hours. On weekends he begged, cajoled, and sometimes paid to get flying lessons at Nashua Airport. He wanted to be a fighter pilot. On December 7, 1941, Val and fellow machinists were gathered around a radio listening to the news and one of them asked the question that so many Americans were asking: “What’s a Pearl Harbor?”
Beaudrault told a recruiter he wanted to fly fighter planes.
“You’re too big,” the recruiter responded.
“You’re too big. You won’t fit in the cockpit.”
At that moment, it’s possible neither the recruiter nor Val knew that a fighter called the P-47 Thunderbolt came with a very roomy accommodation for its pilot. They also probably didn’t know that throughout the war the U.S. Army Air Forces were always inconsistent about how they applied height and weight restrictions.
“I’ll find a way,” Beaudrault told the recruiter. Ahead of him lay the same long, seemingly almost leisurely training that American pilots would undergo—and, after that, an encounter fighting Hitler’s jets.
EARLY JET POWER
During the years 1938 to 1942, when they were being hastily transformed from boys into men, the future combat pilots of this narrative—Gross, Des Lauriers, Bush, Busch, Beaudrault, and others—possessed the means to know about jet propulsion and other new technologies, but none of them remember being exposed that early. It also appears unlikely that Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or Adolf Hitler received briefings on jet power until long after the first jet research aircraft had completed their maiden flights.
All the way back in 1928, a junior Royal Air Force cadet named Frank Whittle submitted his ideas for a turbojet engine to his superiors. On January 16, 1930, at age twenty-two, Whittle applied for his first patent, for a two-stage axial compressor feeding a single-sided centrifugal compressor. Whittle would later concentrate on the simpler centrifugal compressor only, for a variety of practical reasons, while his German counterparts would take the riskier route of the axial-flow configuration. Whittle had his first engine running on a test stand in April 1937. It was loud, powerful, and unreliable, and at times it would simply stop working for no visible reason. Still, Whittle told a visitor that his primitive turbojet meant that “we’re now in a new age of propulsion.”
In 1935 Hans von Ohain started work on a turbojet engine design in Germany, unaware of Whittle’s work. Ohain held meetings with Ernst Heinkel, one of the great aviation industrialists of the era—albeit, one soon to be out of favor with Hitler—and the way was set for what would become the Heinkel He 280 jet fighter. First, however, Ohain and Heinkel teamed up on their first—and the first—aircraft to be propelled by jet power. The simple, compact, and very plain-looking Heinkel He 178 accomplished its maiden flight in the hands of pilot Erich Warsitz on August 27, 1939, at Rostock-Marienehe aerodrome on the Baltic coast. This was the world’s first flight by a jet aircraft.
Italy flew its Caproni-Campini CC.2, resembling a long cigar with wings, on August 17, 1940. The Italian aircraft had no propeller, relying on a piston-powered ducted fan to push it through the air. It was a “jet” in a sense, but different in design from the gas turbine–powered planes being developed in Germany and Britain. The ducted-fan concept never led anywhere. No air force in the world ever fielded a warplane with this form of power.
The first British aircraft to fly under jet power, the Gloster E28/39, made its maiden flight on May 15, 1941, piloted by Lt. Gerry Sayer.
The Messerschmitt Me 262, so much a vital part of this narrative, first flew on March 25, 1942, but using a reciprocating engine. The evolution of the Me 262 into a tricycle-gear, jet-powered, combat-ready fighter was destined to be incremental.
Pearl Harbor had not yet happened when the Me 262 took flight, so the Americans were not yet in the war. Nevertheless, they were contemplating building not one but two jet military aircraft, starting with the Bell XP-59A Airacomet (it would take to the air piloted by Robert Stanley on October 1, 1942). The early Heinkel and Gloster planes were research craft while the XP-59A was arguably the first of the jets that was equipped and ready for a combat mission, although it would turn out not to perform very well at it. Britain would fly its first jet fighters, the Gloster Meteor and De Havilland Vampire, on March 5, 1943, and September 20, 1943, respectively.
At Lockheed, young engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson had proposed a jet fighter way back when Hitler’s tanks were first grinding into Poland and the Army Air Forces (AAF) had ignored his proposal. Designed in a Burbank, California, facility that would later be called the Skunk Works, Johnson’s L-133-02-01 was a futuristic canard that would have relied not on a British import for power but on two company-designed L-1000 turbojet engines. If the AAF had invested in it when Johnson first mooted it in 1939, the entire war might have unfolded differently. But Johnson would not produce a jet aircraft until his spinach-green XP-80, wearing the name Lulu Belle on the nose, flew on January 8, 1944, with Milo Burcham in the cockpit. It wouldn’t see combat in this war, but would shine in Korea as the F-80 Shooting Star.
READY TO FLY
Getting a chance to fly, even during wartime, was a real draw for many of the young Americans, who had already experienced a lot of sacrifice as children of the Great Depression. At least that was how Don Bryan saw it: “We didn’t have high expectations, but we were drawn by the glamour of aviation.” They were young men who wanted to fly and who felt their heartstrings drawn by sleek, silvery new planes like the magnificent P-38 Lightning—which captured the imagination of every young air enthusiast but later proved to be the wrong fighter in Europe. “When I saw a P-38, I knew I wanted to fly something like that magnificent fighting machine,” said Bryan, who ended up at the controls of a P-51 Mustang instead.
They wanted to fly, but it seldom occurred to them that they might have to kill. “I always aimed at the enemy airplane, not at the man in it,” said Bryan, who was gifted with flawless eyesight and eye-hand coordination. And, yes, Bryan had seen I Wanted Wingsat the cinema, too.
Bryan was a California boy, eager, handsome, smiling. If he had anything other than a routine West Coast, middle-class upbringing, his buddies never discerned it. A friend called him a “loveable crank” and a “philosopher,” but he was mostly just an ordinary very young man who may have been less impacted by the economic hardships of the era than many. Like so many who went through the rigorous flight training regimen described in later paragraphs, Bryan was devastated when he got it all behind him only to find himself in the cockpit of a P-39 Airacobra.
“I had such wonderfully high expectations and then I was assigned to the P-39 and I thought, ‘Oh, no. This was not what I was meant to do.’ ”
Roscoe Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., and he was inspired by famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Roscoe Turner and grabbed every opportunity to visit airports and see airplanes. A decade before the author of this book did the same three things, Brown visited Bolling Field, visited Naval Air Station Anacostia, and made his first flight in a transport aircraft at Bolling, all before finishing high school. Not everyone who became a pilot in World War II was a near fanatic about aviation at an early age, but Brown was. He was fixated on just two things: flying and sports.
The Americans introduced in this narrative came from all over a country that still had regional differences, dialects, customs, and cultures. But all those introduced so far in this narrative had one characteristic in common: They were white.
Brown was black. He took segregated military officer training while still in all-black Dunbar High school in Washington. He read about a training program for black pilots that had been launched (in early 1941) in Tuskegee, Alabama. “They were accepting only the ‘best of the best’ into the program, and I felt I could become one of them,” said Brown. He knew that the U.S. military would not relax its requirement for a bachelor’s degree for black pilots—although it eventually did for everyone else—so he enrolled in Springfield College in Massachusetts.
“On December 7, 1941, I was listening on the radio to a game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Brown said. The two football teams were competing at the New York Polo Grounds and celebrating Tuffy Leemans’s Day in honor of the Giants’ star running back who was himself intending to become a pilot.
“They interrupted the radio coverage of the game to tell military service members to report to their units because the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Because of my military training in high school and in my first year of college, I knew that the U.S. Fleet was in Hawaii. I knew we would be at war,” Brown said. “I also knew that if I wanted to become a pilot, I would have to finish college.” He would eventually graduate in 1943 and surrender a reserve commission in order to become an aviation cadet—a Tuskegee Airman.
Clayton Kelly Gross had ninety hours in his logbook. Under the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), Gross made his first solo flight in a Porterfield 75-C aircraft at Felts Field in Spokane in March 1941. CPTP was a product of its time and was responsible for giving a start to many of the best pilots destined to fight in the war ahead. The backstory goes like this:
During the Great Depression, the number of pilots trained by the U.S. Army Air Corps decreased until in 1937 only 184 graduated from pilot training. In 1939, responding to a call for expansion by Roosevelt, the air corps announced a plan to graduate 4,500 pilots in the following two years. It was too ambitious by half.
Lacking facilities to train so many cadets, in mid-1939 the air corps contracted with nine of the best civilian flying schools to begin training pilots. When France fell to Germany in 1940, the air corps increased the number of pilots to be trained to seven thousand per year. By December 1941, the air corps had contracted with forty-five civilian flying schools. Only 257 new pilots graduated at Randolph Field, Texas, in 1939—while I Wanted Wings was being filmed there—but two years later 2,000 were enrolled in each class. When the Army Air Forces (AAF) was formed on June 20, 1941—two days before a proclamation by Hitler announced an attack on the Soviet Union—the U.S. air arm was beginning a training effort that would graduate 250,000 pilots from its schools during the war ahead.
The training that Clayton Kelly Gross underwent is outlined here as being typical for all American pilots of the era. The scheme, which included three stages of flight training—primary, basic, and advanced—suggests that an American nation rich in both resources and manpower could afford the luxury of taking its time to preparing a pilot for combat duty. In early days, the Third Reich exercised the same luxury—Hans Busch’s pilot training would be lengthy and exhaustive—but as the war progressed men would be climbing into Messerschmitts with fewer and fewer logbook hours.
Gross’s Army Air Forces Flying Class 42-H underwent weeks of preflight training in Alabama before shipping to the small town of Coleman in the Texas panhandle to begin flying. There, Gross encountered the Fairchild PT-19, an open-cockpit, mostly-fabric, low-wing trainer with a tail wheel. Already experienced in a cockpit, Gross said he stepped down from his first PT-19 flight feeling like Rickenbacker himself.
“We were warned that the PT-19 had a wooden center section, and if you made a hard landing, you could break the aircraft,” said Gross. “Our instructors told us that if we broke a PT-19, we’d be carrying a rifle as close to Germany as they could send us. We were jealous of student pilots who flew the Stearman PT-17 biplane. I don’t remember anybody disliking the PT-19, but I don’t remember anybody loving it like pilots loved the Stearman.”
After a brief stay in Waco, Texas, Gross continued his leisurely training at Randolph Field in San Antonio, where the cadets met Veronica Lake. Gross flew the relatively rare North American BT-14 basic trainer, powered by a 450-horsepower engine. After four weeks of basic flying, he transferred again to adjacent Kelly Field and flew the AT-6 Texan advanced trainer. The course lasted several more weeks and included sixty-five hours of flying time in the AT-6, a nearly all-metal monoplane that may have been the best trainer in the world at the time. When Clayton Kelly Gross pinned on his silver pilot wings and gold second lieutenant bars on September 6, 1942—and married eighteen-year-old Gwen Yeo the following day—the American taxpayer had invested some fifteen months and almost $100,000 into making him a pilot. Every man who followed him would have similar training. By the time they got overseas, American pilots were ready for what came next.
Gross’s first assignment was to the 329th Fighter Squadron at Hamilton Field, north of San Francisco. The squadron was flying the Bell P-39 Airacobra. “It was said that your first one hundred hours in the Airacobra were dangerous because it had characteristics unlike any other plane,” Gross said. It had tricycle landing gear, a cannon in the propeller hub, an automobile-style door, and an engine behind the pilot. “We did lose a lot of pilots in training in the Airacobra and a lot of them disliked the airplane intensely. I didn’t feel that way. In fact, I loved the aircraft,” he said.
He may have been almost alone in that feeling, and he was not modest about being a fighter pilot. Few were. On a typical flight he took off from Hamilton Field and headed toward San Francisco. “I leveled out and searched the sea to the horizon for an invasion fleet. By God, the Japanese will not make a sneak attack while I am up here defending the coast! When I rolled out straight and level, I caressed the gun handle switches,” Gross said. “I would have charged them, but I wasn’t sure how to uncharge them. I flew back to make what I thought was another perfect landing. I was sure the powers that gave me this job had made the right decision. This is where I belong.”
Also assigned to the 329th Squadron at Hamilton Field after fourteen months of training was 2nd Lt. Robert Bush, from Washington, D.C. “I was like everybody else,” Bush said. “I wanted being a fighter pilot to be glamorous. And then they put me in a P-39 and I thought, ‘There’s nothing glamorous about this!’ ”
The Army Air Forces operated fifty-five civilian-operated primary flying training centers across the country.
According to records that were kept but not released at the time, more than twenty thousand men died in stateside aviation accidents while training to participate in a war they never reached. It’s impossible to remember these men without thinking of Nile Kinnick, the Iowa running back who received the Heisman Trophy in 1939 and was killed in the 1943 crash of an F4F-3 Wildcat fighter on an aircraft-carrier training flight off the coast of Venezuela. He was a naval aviator who never reached the war. Another naval aviator hopeful, football’s Tuffy Leemans, was sidetracked by a playing field injury before he could ever climb into a cockpit.
From December 1941 to August 1945, the Army Air Forces lost 14,903 pilots, aircrew, and other personnel, plus 13,873 airplanes, inside the continental United States. These losses were the result of 52,651 aircraft accidents (6,039 involving fatalities) in forty-five months. As author Barrett Tillman wrote in a blog, that’s 331 men and 308 aircraft lost in a single month, or eleven men and ten planes in just one day. In addition, almost one thousand AAF aircraft simply vanished while being ferried from the United States to locations overseas.
Others got there but never came home. There was enormous attrition from the AAF, which reached its peak strength in 1944 with 2,372,000 personnel. No fewer than 43,581 AAF aircraft were lost overseas, including 22,948 on combat missions (18,418 in fighting in the Mediterranean and Europe) and 20,633 attributed to noncombat causes in the overseas combat zones. U.S. forces suffered 291,557 battle deaths and 113,842 other fatalities during the war, including total AAF combat casualties of 121,867. A little-known fact is that more U.S. airmen were killed in World War II than U.S. Marines were.
THE P-39 AIRACOBRA
Of the five principal fighters flown by Army Air Forces pilots during World War II (the P-38, P-39, P-40, P-47, and P-51), only one does not have an association for pilots who meet to share their experiences at reunions. Only one is not included in the fighter memorial at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Only one is the brunt of almost universal disparagement by those who flew it—even though almost none of them flew it in combat. And it was, in fact, a far better fighter than is generally acknowledged. At low altitude it was faster than, and as maneuverable as, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero.
The Bell P-39 Airacobra was also the best pursuit ship to have if you needed to travel on a highway rather than in the sky. Robert Bush fantasized about “driving” a P-39 down the two-lane highway from Hamilton Field and across the newly built Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where he planned to use the Airacobra’s menacing nose 37mm cannon to stick up a grocery store. The idea may have had its genesis when another 329th Fighter Squadron pilot followed up an emergency landing on a dirt road in northern California by taxying twenty miles to a filling station where he pulled in and phoned for help. Another 329th pilot, 2nd Lt. Nathan Serenko, really did fly under the Golden Gate Bridge and was rewarded with an assignment to the infantry.
“Having the engine behind the pilot created an unpleasant smell that we never forgot,” said Bush. The P-39 Airacobra was the first army single-seat fighter with tricycle landing gear. Its undercarriage was dictated by the desire to mount an American Armament Corporation’s T-9 37mm cannon (later built by Oldsmobile) in the nose. The decision to locate the cannon to fire through the propeller hub meant that the engine had to be mounted within the fuselage, directly above the rear half of the wing with the propeller driven by an extension shaft, which passed beneath the cockpit floor. Bush, Gross, and other Airacobra pilots feared the damage the drive shaft might inflict if it should break loose or be damaged in combat. In fact, the arrangement proved safe.
The Allison V-1710 was a 1,300-horsepower liquid-cooled, twelve-cylinder inline engine, which also propelled the Curtiss P-40 Hawk series. At the core of its problems was the fact that the Airacobra lacked a supercharger for high-altitude performance.
The XP-39, progenitor of eight thousand Airacobras to follow, made its first flight at Wright Field, Ohio, on April 6, 1938. Twelve months later, following extensive evaluation by the U.S. Army, twelve YP-39 preproduction versions were ordered, plus a planned YP-39A that did not materialize. At first designated P-45, the Airacobra (based on an XP-39B test ship) went into production on August 10, 1939. The army then ordered 369 P-39Ds in September 1940. The first operational squadron was the 39th Pursuit Squadron, 31st Pursuit Group, at Selfridge Field, Michigan.
Great Britain signed contracts for 675 planes initially dubbed the Caribou and later known as the P-400. Britain quickly rejected the fighter and sent examples to Russia via convoy. Others returned to U.S. hands and ended up on Guadalcanal.
Although Bell incorporated changes in the P-39F, P-39J, P-39K, and P-39L, essential features of the Airacobra remained unchanged over the war years. The P-39M, P-39N, and P-39Q, the latter two earmarked for Soviet use, had only minor changes.
The Airacobra was introduced to combat by the 8th Fighter Group, which flew P-39Ds in New Guinea in 1942. On April 30, 1942, Lt. Col. Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner led a battle against Zero fighters. The magazine for Bell employees sang the praises of pilot 1st Lt. Paul G. Brown, the first Airacobra ace, according to an August 1942 article. Brown is officially credited with three aerial victories, but Wagner attained ace status with five aerial victories (one of only two Americans to rack up that many in the Airacobra, which, again, saw little combat in American hands).
September 14, 1942
At embattled Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, P-39D-2s and repossessed P-400s (British export Airacobras) fought Japan’s best, including the vaunted Zero. First Lieutenant Wallace L. Dinn Jr. of the 67th Fighter Squadron, 58th Fighter Group, pioneered the use of the Airacobra as a dive bomber to attack Japanese shipping, a role for which the P-39 had never been designed, but at which—with proper technique and tactics—it excelled.
On September 14, 1942, fourteen P-39Ds and Fs of the 54th Fighter Group flew from a steel-planking Aleutian airstrip as part of a force that made the first counterstrike on the Japanese in the region. Airacobra pilots strafed antiaircraft gun positions with their nose cannons and shot down two floatplane fighters.
It’s unlikely, as was claimed, that Lt. Clyde G. Rice shot down a Zero with a single 37mm round high over the Aleutians. (Rice was said to have gotten several Airacobra victories in a 1942 article, though he is not officially credited with any). However, Lt. Gerald R. Johnson scored half a dozen Zero kills in the Aleutians at the controls of a P-39D Airacobra of the 42nd Fighter Squadron, 54th Fighter Group, before raising his total to twenty-two elsewhere.
Most combat operations in the Airacobra were carried out by the Soviet air force in support of the Red Army. Radio newsman Robert Magidoff on the NBC News roundup on May 25, 1942, spoke about the Airacobra in Russian hands: “The squadron I visited brought down eighty-six enemy planes since the outbreak of the war. Twenty-nine of these were laid down by flying Tommyhawks [a reference to the Curtiss Tomahawk], Kittyhawks, and Airacobras.” Magidoff added that the Airacobra would be the key to victory over Hitler in 1942.
Russian pilots had opportunities to engage the Messerschmitt Bf 109 at low altitude, where the American-built fighter performed best. Flying the Cobrastochka (Dear Little Cobra), Lt. Col. Alexandr I. Pokryshkin became the Allies’ second-ranking ace of the war with fifty-nine aerial victories, forty-eight of them accomplished in his Airacobra.
Some 4,924 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union, of which 4,758 reached their destinations. Between 1939 and 1944, 9,529 Airacobras were produced. The U.S. Army Air Forces reached a peak inventory of P-39 Airacobras in February 1944 with 2,105 aircraft. Production ended with assembly on July 25, 1944, of the final P-39. Most army Airacobras remained stateside for use as trainers, and nearly all pilots who achieved fame in other fighters flew the P-39 Airacobra at home first.
That was true of the Americans who later found themselves fighting Hitler’s jets.