January 12, 1968 An Air Combat First

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns.

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky.  Like bantamweight boxers, each attempting to strike the winning blow.

The Snoopy story is fun but in the real world, Manfred von Richthofen was killed by a single bullet from the ground, while pursuing a Canadian pilot behind Allied lines.  The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died mere moments later. He was buried with full military honors.  By his enemies.

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Manfred von Richtofen

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber modified to hunt submarines, in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns, but these three entered a full-on dogfight.

02b_am2015_milcoll_xviii_maxwell_5_live-ct.jpgStripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns ablaze. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber, shredding hydraulic systems and setting the right wing ablaze.

Rear-gunners returned fire as crew members frantically jettisoned depth charges.  With engines #3 and 4 dead, Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. kicked in full right rudder, throwing the massive aircraft into a skid and crash landing in the water, the aircraft breaking into three pieces.02d_am2015_b24_flak_live.jpgMaxwell had dubbed his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked.  Seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do to keep the soaking wet combatants from resuming the fight, on the decks of the destroyer.

The “Brass” got into the action in November 1942, when general Eisenhower and a high ranking entourage left London destined for Gibraltar in a fleet of 6 converted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Five made the crossing without incident but one turned back due to mechanical problems.  Sure enough, the lone American bomber was lumbering overhead the following day when set upon by a flight of four German long-range fighters.c01d0637794c357f99670b25d4224b7f.jpgWith crew reduced to a minimum it was one-star General Jimmy Doolittle (yeah, That Jimmy Doolittle), who took the stick from a wounded pilot.  A Colonel, a Major and two senior civilian officials pitched in while one-star general Lyman Lemnitzer manned a machine gun, holding the fighters at bay.

The German squadron peeled off, probably low on fuel.  The B-17 made it with what must have been the most senior combat team, in aviation history.

The final air-to-air combat of WW2 took place on April 12 1945, between unarmed spotter aircraft. Two Americans were flying low near Berlin when the pair spotted a German Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft, even lower. Having the better air position the Americans opened fire with service pistols. As the Storch attempted to escape, the aircraft brushed a wing on the ground, and it was over.

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Last air-to-air combat of WW2

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, a single Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems.

The last anyone saw of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed into that hillside.

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Low Level, terrain-following radar

Later in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got so spooked he bailed out of a perfectly good aircraft, before a single shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from a base in North Vietnam headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain was long used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerrilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800-foot massif.

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Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire contact was over in less than 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

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Ann Holland holds a 2017 calendar — “Secret Ops of the CIA” — that represents the place where her husband’s unit was overrun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Mel Holland was on a mountaintop radar station that guided B-52 bombers toward targets in North Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

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An Air combat First.  H/T artist Keith Woodcock

January 11, 1935 Amelia

“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”. – Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the first surviving child of Samuel “Edwin” and Amelia “Amy” Otis Earhart. Amy didn’t believe in raising “nice little girls”, she allowed “Meeley” and her younger sister “Pidge” to live an outdoor, rough and tumble “tomboy” kind of childhood.

AmeliachildEd seems to have had life-long problems with alcohol, often resulting in an inability to provide for his family. Amelia must have been a disciplined student despite it all, as she graduated with her high school class, on time, notwithstanding having attended six different schools.

Earhart was certainly independent, saying later in life “The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”.

Amelia and her sister saw their first airplane in 1908, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It was a rickety old biplane in which Edwin was trying to interest them in a ride.   Earhart later described that biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”  At the time, the girls preferred the merry-go-round.

earhart-98-e1544117412522.jpgMeeley and Pidge worked as nurse’s aids in Toronto, in 1919.  There she met several wounded aviators and developed a strong admiration for these people.  Amelia would spend much of her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield.

Around that time, Earhart and a friend were visiting an air show in Toronto, when one of the pilots thought it would be funny to dive at the two women. “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper,’” she said, but Earhart held her ground.  “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

A ten-minute ride at a Long Beach California air show in 1920 changed her life.  From that time on, Amelia Earhart knew she wanted to fly.

Earhart worked at a variety of jobs from photographer to truck driver, earning money to take flying lessons from pioneer female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook.

She bought a second-hand Kinner Airster in 1921, a bright yellow biplane she called “The Canary”, flying it to 14,000’ the following year, a world altitude record for female pilots.

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Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart, 1921

Short funds grounded her for a time, by 1927 she was flying out of the Dennison Airport in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Earhart invested in the airport and worked as a salesman for Kinner airplanes in the Boston area while writing about flying in the local newspaper.

Charles Lindbergh’s New York to Paris Flight on May 20-21 of that year was the first solo, non-stop transatlantic crossing by airplane. Aviatrix Amy Phipps Guest wanted to be the first woman to make the flight, but later decided it was too dangerous. Instead she would sponsor the trip, provided that “another girl with the right image” was found.

“Lady Lindy”, Earhart became that first woman on May 21, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh.

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On this day in 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person of either sex to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

Two years later, Earhart and copilot/navigator Frederick J. Noonan attempted to fly around the world. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca picked up radio messages that the aircraft was lost and low on fuel on July 2, 1937, and then it vanished.

The $4 million search and rescue effort covered 150,000 square miles and lasted for sixteen days, but to no avail.

amelialostphotosFollowing the end of the official search, Earhart’s husband and promoter George Palmer Putnam financed private searches of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Fanning (Tabuaeran) Island, the Gilbert and the Marshall Islands, but no trace of the aircraft or its occupants was ever found.

Earhart was declared dead in absentia on January 5, 1939 at the age of 41, Noonan on June 20, 1938.  He was 44.

For years, the prevailing theory was that Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra ran out of gas and plunged into the ocean.

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“Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. During its modification, the aircraft had most of the cabin windows blanked out and had specially fitted fuselage fuel tanks. The round RDF loop antenna can be seen above the cockpit. This image was taken at Luke Field on March 20, 1937; the plane would crash later that morning”.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been exploring a 1½ mile long, uninhabited tropical atoll once called Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, in the southwestern Pacific Republic of Kiribati. After eleven visits to the atoll, TIGHAR sonar images revealed a straight, unbroken anomaly under the sand, remarkably consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra.

The traces of a long-dead campfire were discovered in 1940, along with animal bones, a box from a sextant, and thirteen human bones.  A doctor judged them to have belonged to a male and American authorities were never notified.

Those bones were subsequently lost, but computerized re-evaluation of their measurements suggest that the skeleton was probably that of a white female of European ethnicity, standing roughly the same 5’8″ as Amelia Earhart.

A specially trained team of four border collies was brought to Nikumaroro to search for bones in June 2017.  Thus far, the answer to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, remains elusive.

Nikumaroro is no tropical island paradise.  There is no fresh water and daytime temperatures exceed 100°F in July. The island’s only inhabitants are Birgus latro, commonly known as the coconut crab, The largest land-dwelling arthropod in the world, specimens weigh up to 9-pounds and measure over 3′ from leg tip to leg tip.

Gifted with a keen sense of smell, the adult coconut crab feeds on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees but will eat carrion or just about anything else if given the opportunity.  Virtually any food source left unattended will be investigated and carried away, giving rise to the alternative name “Robber crab.”

It’s anyone’s guess how those two aviators spent the last hours of their lives, or who it was who lit that fire or left those bones. Looking at the size of the island’s only inhabitants, it’s not difficult to imagine why there were only 13.

December 20, 1943 Special Brothers

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, his commander had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

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Franz Stigler

At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August, earlier in the war.

Stigler was no Nazi.  This was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills, doing what the nation required him to do.

On December 20, 1943, Stigler needed one more kill for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber struggled overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

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Charles Brown

21-year-old Charles Brown held the throttle of that B17, an aircraft named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew had paid a dreadful price.

Brown’s bomber was set upon by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail ripped off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.yeoldepub.jpgThe battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude.  The American pilot was well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into each other’s eyes.  Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” was Brown’s reply. This had been his first mission. He was sure it was about to be his last.

Long ago before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer Lt. Gustav Roedel, had explained the warrior’s code of conduct:  “Honor is everything here. If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”.

The German ace must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified American airmen inside that B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.big-hole.jpgThe German had to do something.  Nazi leadership would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and peeled away.

Ye Olde Pub lumbered on, pierced and holed through and through, across 250 frozen miles of the North Sea.  At last, she made it to Norfolk.

Bf-109-pilot-Franz-StiglerOver 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada.  Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter, explaining that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on December 20, 1943.’  Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said of that first meeting. “Like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

Ye-Old-pub-9The two former enemies passed the last two decades of their lives as close friends and occasional fishing buddies.

The two old warriors passed away in 2008, only six months apart. Franz Stigler was 92, Charles Brown 87.

A book called “A Higher Call”, tells the story in greater detail, if you’re interested in reading more about this signal act of kindness, between once mortal enemies.

In the two obituaries, both men were mentioned each as the other’s, “Special Brother”.

 

October 13, 1926 We’ll Come Back for you

A Naval story for this October 13, the day we celebrate as the birthday, of the United States Navy.

A boy was born this day in Hattiesburg Mississippi, the son of poor tenant farmers.  Jesse LeRoy Brown had all the disadvantages of a poor black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but Julia and John Brown kept their son on the “straight & narrow”, insisting he stuck with his studies.

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, son of the Irish American owner of a chain of grocery stores from Fall River Massachusetts, who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy, in 1939.

Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner could not have come from more different backgrounds.  The lives of the two came together with the United States Navy, the two men becoming pilots and serving together during the conflict in Korea.

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“Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first African-American Navy aviator, walks across the flight deck of the USS Leyte in November 1950, about a month before he was shot down and died in North Korea.” – H/T Stars & Stripes

On June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000 man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were retreating south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, nearly 100,000 troops of the People’s Volunteer Army had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay. On December 4, Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner were flying one of those missions.

The two were part of a 6-plane formation of F4U Corsairs, each pilot flying “wing man” for the other. Brown’s aircraft was hit by small arms fire from the ground, leaving him no alternative but a crash landing on a snow covered mountain. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured and struggling to get out of the burning aircraft, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit.

airplanepictures_2272_51351289Hudner acted on instinct, deliberately crash landing his own aircraft and, now injured, running across the snow to the aid of his friend and wing man.  Hudner scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the bitter 15° cold, burning himself in the progress while Brown faded in and out of consciousness.  Soon, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot landed, to help out.  The two tore into the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The Marine and the Navy Pilot were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with the axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Leroy Brown’s final words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner would later explain, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.

Jesse Brown could no longer hear him.

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Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Hudner stands in front of a vintage Corsair in this undated photo. H/T Stars & Stripes, COURTESY OF JOSE RAMOS

Hudner pleaded with authorities to go back to the crash site, but they were unwilling to risk further loss of life. They would napalm the crash site so that the Chinese couldn’t get to the aircraft or the body, though pilots reported that it looked like the Brown’s body had already been disturbed.

Captain Hudner expected a court-martial for intentionally downing his aircraft.  USS Leyte commander Captain Thomas Upton Sisson told him, “Personally, I’ve never heard of a more wonderful act than what you pulled out there.”

Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first Naval Aviator of African ancestry, earning his wings only months after President truman, integrated the military. He was first to die in the Korean War, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, both awarded, posthumously. Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner was the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

Thomas Hudner visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in July 2013, where he received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time, but weather hampered the effort. North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

In May 2012, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer to be named USS Thomas Hudner. Four years later, 91-year-old Thomas Hudner wrote to the Secretary, on behalf of his wingman:

“It pains me to ask for any favor, but there is one last cause to which I must attend”.

Hudner requested that a ship be named after his wingman.

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Retired Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner salutes while “Taps” is played during the Centennial of Naval Aviation wreath-laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial in Washington D.C., in 2011. H/T Military Times

Captain Hudner lived out the last years of his life with his wife Georgea, at the couple’s home in Concord Massachusetts.  He passed away on November 13, 2017 at the age of 93.

A year later nearly to the day, December 1, 2018, the USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) was commissioned in Boston Harbor, members of both families, in attendance.

Jessica Knight Henry, Brown’s granddaughter and namesake, summed up the meaning of this day.  “Jesse and Tom’s stories have been intertwined since that fateful day”.

Jesse LeRoy Brown’s remains were never recovered.

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October 8, 1942, Once!

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft and refused to fly on such a “broken down crate”.

Harl-Pease-croppedThe Municipal Airport in Portsmouth New Hampshire opened in the 1930s, expanding in 1951 to become a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. The name was changed to Pease Air Force Base in 1957, in honor of Harl Pease, Jr., recipient of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that led to his death in World War II.

The Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable in the early months of the war. In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

Harl PeaseUnited States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was ordered to lead three battered B-17 Flying Fortresses to Del Monte field in Mindanao, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, to Australia. One of the aircraft was forced to abort early, while the other developed engine trouble and crashed. Pease alone was able to land his Fortress, despite inoperative wheel brakes and used ration tins covering bullet holes.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft and refused to fly on such a “broken down crate”. The General would wait two more days before making his famous exit, saying, “I shall return”.

Harl Pease wasn’t supposed to go on the “maximum effort” mission against Rabaul, since his aircraft was down for repairs. But he was determined.  Pease and a few volunteers grabbed an old trainer aircraft on August 7, too beat up for combat service. Its engines needed overhaul, some armament had been dismounted, and the electric fuel-transfer pump had been scavenged for parts. Pease had a fuel tank installed in the bomb bay and a hand pump was rigged to transfer fuel. In fewer than three hours, he and his crew were on their way.

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells what happened next:

Cmoh_army (1)“When 1 engine of the bombardment airplane of which he was pilot failed during a bombing mission over New Guinea, Capt. Pease was forced to return to a base in Australia. Knowing that all available airplanes of his group were to participate the next day in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain, although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Capt. Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at this base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions. With the members of his combat crew, who volunteered to accompany him, he rejoined his squadron at Port Moresby, New Guinea, at 1 a.m. on 7 August, after having flown almost continuously since early the preceding morning. With only 3 hours’ rest, he took off with his squadron for the attack. Throughout the long flight to Rabaul, New Britain, he managed by skillful flying of his unserviceable airplane to maintain his position in the group. When the formation was intercepted by about 30 enemy fighter airplanes before reaching the target, Capt. Pease, on the wing which bore the brunt of the hostile attack, by gallant action and the accurate shooting by his crew, succeeded in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the hostile base as planned, this in spite of continuous enemy attacks. The fight with the enemy pursuit lasted 25 minutes until the group dived into cloud cover. After leaving the target, Capt. Pease’s aircraft fell behind the balance of the group due to unknown difficulties as a result of the combat, and was unable to reach this cover before the enemy pursuit succeeded in igniting 1 of his bomb bay tanks. He was seen to drop the flaming tank. It is believed that Capt. Pease’s airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames, as they did not return to their base. In voluntarily performing this mission Capt. Pease contributed materially to the success of the group, and displayed high devotion to duty, valor, and complete contempt for personal danger. His undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit”.

Pease was presumed lost until the capture of one Father George Lepping, who found Captain Pease and one of his airmen, languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even among some of his Japanese guards. “You, you ah, Captain Boeing?“, they would say. Pease would stand up straight and say, “Me, me Captain Boeing.”

Japanese officers were a different story.  They would beat the prisoners savagely on any provocation, or none at all.

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Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Photo courtesy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society

On October 8, 1942, Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was taken into the jungle along with three other Americans and two Australian prisoners. They were given picks and shovels and forced to dig their own graves.  And then each was beheaded, by sword. Captain -Pease was 26.

Many years later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away.  His family found his war diary. The old man had been a soldier once, one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

The diary tells of a respect this man held for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten nearly senseless, his arms tied so tightly that his elbows touched behind his back, Captain Pease was driven to his knees in the last moments of his life. Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese. “Once!“.

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July 20, 1969   Sick of Space

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

It’s hard to turn on the TV this week, without hearing about Apollo 11.  Fifty years ago, those famous words spoken by the first human being, to set foot on the moon.  “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind“.

The moon landing of July 20, 1969 was the culmination of tens of millions of man-hours, a twelve-years long space race with the Soviet Union, five dead astronauts and the young President who had dared them to do it, himself shot through the head some six years earlier.

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

Ten years earlier,  NASA needed to know what happened to the human body in space.  The Soviet space program was halted for nearly a year, so sick was the #2 (human) “traveler in the cosmos”.  Astronauts would be subjected to weightlessness, G-forces beyond imagination and constant rotation.  A world where up is down and down is up and the delicate sensors of the middle ear cry out, Enough!

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The vertigo and the nausea of motion sickness has played its part, from the earliest days of human history.  The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about it.  The Roman philosopher Seneca writes of the misery of a long voyage in which ‘he could bring nothing more up’.  The lyric poet Horace writes of seasickness as a great social leveler, in which wealth is no protection and the rich man suffers just as much as the poor man.  The sea-going military exploits of Julius Caesar are replete with tales of vomiting legionaries and seasick horses.

To the Great good fortune of the Protestant England of 1588, the terrifying Armada sent by Spanish King Phillip II to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an Army general with little to no experience at sea. Sidonia suffered such severe seasickness that this, combined with a stroke of exceptionally bad luck, destroyed the Spanish Armada and paved the way to the next three hundred years in which “Britannia Ruled the Waves”.

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Were you to catch the early space travelers in a candid moment, many are the tales of less-than-heroic moments, spent wiping the product of space sickness from the interiors of craft from the Gemini program to the Space Shuttle.

From the beginning, scientists needed to understand the mechanisms of space sickness.  So it was that, in the mid-twentieth century, NASA happened upon a group of space pioneers, you’ve likely never heard of.  What better group with which to study motion sickness, than those literally immune to it.  The profoundly hearing impaired made deaf by spinal meningitis and without a functioning vestibular system, that delicate inner ear structure which gives us sense of balance.

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Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a grammar school for the deaf and blind and remains to this day, the world’s premier institution for the higher education of the deaf and hearing impaired.  In 1961, researchers with the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine paid a visit.  Hundreds of faculty and students were tested and a handful selected, for further tests.  There were parabolic flights.  Some were suspended for days, in swinging cages.

One group was deliberately taken into a severe storm off the coast of Nova Scotia, an outing former students remember as a lark, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.  Researchers didn’t enjoy the trip quite so much, passing the voyage in a state of green and gut-wrenching decrepitude.

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Gallaudet Eleven

Eleven Gallaudet students were selected as early as 1958, to spin for nearly two weeks in a room-sized centrifuge.  Though it was hard work, participants viewed the study as an adventure.  One remembers his experience as a way to serve his country, since he’d never be allowed to join the military.

Today, their names are all but forgotten.  Barron Gulak.  Harry Larson.  David Myers and others.  The forgotten pioneers of those early days of the American space program, without whom the first astronauts may well have viewed the moon landing, from the bottom of a barf bag.

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Featured image, top of page: “Space Sickness”. Hat tip graphic designer Douglas Noe (aka “Robotrake”), and society6.com

April 27, 1941 The Guinea Pig Club

The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

The attraction of taking flight in time of war is unmistakable.  For a lad of nineteen, twenty, twenty one, he is a latter-day knight at the prime of his life, mounting his steed of steel to do battle with evil.  Life seems indestructible and without end at that age, except, reality is shockingly different.  Of a group of 100 RAF airmen in the early phase of World War Two, a mere twenty escaped being killed, captured or incinerated alive.

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Flying Officer Desmond “Des” O’Connell was just nineteen when he joined the British Royal Air Force, in 1938.

O’Connell was assigned to RAF Limavady in the north of Ireland in the early months of World War Two, around the time the Capital Battleship Bismarck cleared the Kiel Canal and emerged into the Baltic Sea. On this day in 1941, Desmond O’Connell and six other flyers were assigned to find and take out the German warship.

The twin engine Whitworth Mark V ‘Whitley’ medium bomber never had a chance, overloaded as it was with extra crew, tanks full of fuel and bombs. The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and clipped the mountains outside of Limavady before striking the ground, and breaking apart.

Desmond O’Connell miraculously survived as did the rest of the crew, but his ordeal had just begun.  Soaked with fuel and suffering a skull fracture, he was crawling on his hands and knees when the fire caught up.   He remembers peering through the flames at his hands, as pieces came off of his gloves.  But those weren’t gloves.  The flesh was burning from his hands.

Archibald Hector McIndoe took to medicine at an early age, earning the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, at only 24. Dr. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and, unable to find work, joined in private practice with his great uncle, fellow Kiwi Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery by this time, made famous through his work in the Great War as “The Man who Fixed Faces“.

Dr. McIndoe was a talented surgeon:  confident, precise, and quick on his feet.  Under Harold Gillies’ direction, Archibald McIndoe became a leading figure in the field of plastic surgery.

With the outbreak of WW2, Dr. McIndoe took a position at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he headed up a center for plastic and maxillofacial surgery. A trickle of patients from the “Phoney War” period soon turned to a flood, during the Battle of Britain.

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The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

Dr. McIndoe treated no fewer than 649 of these men, not only Brits but Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.  There were Americans and French, Czechs and Poles.  Each man required dozens and sometimes hundreds of surgeries over agonizing years.  Sausage-like constructions of living flesh called “tubed pedicles” were “waltzed” up from remote donor sites on patient’s own bodies, to replace body parts consumed by the war.

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To be rendered hideous and unsightly in service to one’s nation, a subject of horrified stares, is more than most can bear.  McIndoe understood as much and his treatment methods threw convention, out the window.  Inmates were treated not as patients or objects of pity, but as men.  They wore not the ‘jammies or those degrading hospital johnnys with their asses hanging out but their own clothing, and even uniforms.  They had parties and socialized.  Those who were able went “out on the town”.  They were the “Guinea Pig Club”, they socialized, threw parties.  More than a few relationships were formed with nurses, many ended in marriage.

“Others met women from East Grinstead, a place the ‘guinea pigs’ referred to as ‘the town that never stared’”. H/T nzhistory.govt.nz

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Dr. McIndoe was knighted in 1947 and passed away at only fifty nine, but his work lives on in the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) for which he once served, as president.  The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, and continues to conduct research into new methods of wound management, to this day.

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The Guinea Pig Club turned seventy-five years old in 2016.  Most of those early RAF members are gone now, but the organization lives on.  Today, new members come from places like the Falkland islands.  And Iraq.  And Afghanistan.

 

Feature image, top of page:  A scene from the 2012 play “The Guinea Pig Club”, depicts the agonies of WW2-era RAF airmen, treated for severe burns

 

A Trivial Matter
“Until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters”. H/T HistoryExtra.com