February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Hannah Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

Hannah Reitsch wanted to fly.  Born March 29, 1912 into an upper-middle-class family in Hirschberg, Silesia, it’s all she ever thought about. At the age of four, she tried to jump off the family balcony, to experience flight.  In her 1955 autobiography The Sky my Kingdom, Reitsch wrote:  ‘The longing grew in me, grew with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky, with every cloud that sailed past me on the wind, till it turned to a deep, insistent homesickness, a yearning that went with me everywhere and could never be stilled.

94329f643cf875a2a36889aec9d1162c--hanna-reitsch-medical-schoolReitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  In 1936, Reitsch was working on developing dive brakes for gliders, when she was awarded the honorary rank of Flugkapitän, the first woman ever so honored. In 1937 she became a Luftwaffe civilian test pilot.  She would hold the position until the end of WW2.

A German Nationalist who believed she owed her allegiance to the Fatherland more than to any party, Reitsch was patriotic and loyal, and more than a little politically naive.  Her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.  Like the victims of Soviet purges who went to their death believing that it would all stop “if only Stalin knew”, Reitsch refused to believe that Hitler had anything to do with events such as the Kristallnacht pogrom.  She dismissed any talk of concentration camps, as “mere propaganda”.

Hubschrauber Focke-Wulf FW 61 V1 in Berliner Deutschlandhalle 1938
In February 1938, Hannah Reitsch became the first person of either sex to fly a helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-61, inside a building, Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

As a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life in an attempt to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened, before she collapsed.

Hannah ReitschDoctors did not expect her to live, let alone fly again.  She spent five months in hospital, and suffered from debilitating dizzy spells.  She put herself on a program of climbing trees and rooftops, to regain her sense of balance.  Soon, she was test flying again.

On this day in 1944, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of the Gold Medal for Military Flying. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class, the first and only woman in German history, so honored.

It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that Reitsch suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.

Hanna-Reitsch-2Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”

The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.

In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Adolf Hitler was dead.

Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.


In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.

Hannah Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.

592644327Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost“.

Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there’s no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that after all those years, she may have finally taken that cyanide capsule.

January 11, 1935 Earhart

A specially trained team of four border collies was brought to the atoll to search for bones in June 2017, but the answers remain elusive.

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.

AmeliachildEdwin 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 that “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 the biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”  At the time, the girls preferred the merry-go-round.

Meeley and Pidge worked as nurse’s aids in Toronto in 1919.  There she met several wounded aviators, developing a strong admiration for these people and spending 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.

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.


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.

“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 9lbs and measure over 3′ from leg tip to leg tip.

Coconut crab

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 chance.  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 the 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.


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December 23, 1972 Miracle in the Andes

Warm and well-fed members of the media made a hysterical fuss in the days that followed, about the manner in which those last few had survived. There were lurid headlines and grisly images of cannibalism, while others treated the whole thing like it had been some kind of glorious adventure. It was neither.

On October 12, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force turboprop flight #571 departed from Carrasco International Airport. On board were 5 crew, and 40 members of the Old Christians Club rugby team from Montevideo, on the way to a match in Santiago, Chile. It’s a relatively short flight, equivalent to a trip from Boston to Chicago, with one major difference.

This flight has to get over the Andes Mountains.


Poor mountain weather forced an overnight stop. The flight resumed on Friday the 13th, making its way through a mountain pass that afternoon. The pilot notified air controllers that he was over Curicó, Chile, but it was a fatal error. With zero visibility, he was forced to rely on dead reckoning, but strong headwinds had slowed them significantly. Cleared to descend 55 miles east of where he thought he was, the aircraft clipped two peaks at 13,800′, first losing one wing and then the vertical stabilizer, and finally the other wing.

The battered fuselage crashed down on an unnamed peak, later called “La Glaciar de las Lágrimas”, “Glacier of Tears”.


12 died instantly or shortly after the crash, including the team doctor. By the next morning another five were gone. Several had their legs broken, as the plane’s seats tore loose and piled together. Those who could move built walls of suitcases to shut out the cold.

For a week they waited for rescue, while aircraft from three countries searched in vain for a white aircraft in snow covered mountains.

You can only imagine the despair they must have felt on the 8th day, when survivors heard on their small transistor radio that the search had been called off.

andes-crash-b-800Stranded and alone in the high Andes, meager supplies soon gave out. A few chocolate bars, assorted snacks and several bottles of wine. It was gone within days, as the survivors scoured the wreckage for crumbs. They ate leather from suitcases, tore apart seats hoping to find straw, finding nothing but inedible foam. Nothing grew at this altitude. There were no animals. There was nothing in that desolate place but metal, glass, ice and rock.  And the frozen bodies of the dead.

The conclusion was unavoidable.  One by one the survivors agreed. They had to eat their dead friends, or none of them would survive.

An avalanche swept down on October 29, killing another 8 and burying the fuselage under several feet of hard packed snow. The survivors were buried alive, compressed into a horrifyingly small space from which it took three full days to claw their way out.

The days were above freezing as what passes for summer spread over the Andean highlands, but nights were bitter cold. Several set out soon after the avalanche, but had to return to the crash site after nearly freezing to death in the open.


They spent several weeks scrounging materials and sewing them into a makeshift sleeping bag for three. Three of the strongest, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa and Antonio Vizintín, began their trek out of the mountains on December 12, 1972. It was two months after the crash.

It soon became clear that the distances were vastly greater than they had believed. Three were rapidly going through their meager rations, so Vizintín left the small expedition and returned to the crash site. This hike down the mountains was their only chance, and now there were two.

viven5The Juan Valdez of the coffee commercials is an “Arriero”, a man who transports goods using pack animals.  Parrado and Canessa had hiked for almost two weeks when they were building a fire by a river, and spotted such a man on the other side. Sergio Catalán probably didn’t believe his eyes at first, but he shouted across the river. “Tomorrow”.

The 14 survivors waiting and hoping at the crash site heard the news on their transistor on December 22.  They were saved. The first helicopters arrived that afternoon, flying out with the weakest of the survivors. Altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy and malnutrition had all taken their toll. They were one decrepit bunch, but they were alive. The second expedition arrived on the morning of December 23, removing the last survivors around daybreak.

Warm and well-fed members of the media made a hysterical fuss in the days that followed, about the manner in which those last few had survived. There were lurid headlines and grisly images of cannibalism, while others treated the whole thing like it had been some kind of glorious adventure. It was neither.

Nando Parrado later wrote “There was no glory in those mountains. It was all ugliness and fear and desperation, and the obscenity of watching so many innocent people die”.

December 20, 1943 When Enemies became Brothers

The battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot 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 one another’s eyes.

Franz Stigler
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. This man was no Nazi. He was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills.  On December 20, 1943, he needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, a plane 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 heavy price.

The aircraft had been savaged 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 torn 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.

big-holeThe battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot 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 one another’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.

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Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “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 US airmen inside the 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”.

The German had to do something. The Nazis 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 then peeled away. Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before finally landing in Norfolk.


More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada, when Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter. It said 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”.

The two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies until their passing in 2008, six months apart. Franz Stigler was 92, Charles Brown 87.  A book called “A Higher Call”, tells their story in far greater detail, if you want to know more about it.

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


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November 9, 2013 In the Company of Heroes

On April 18, 2015, Richard Cole and David Thatcher fulfilled their original bargain, as the last two surviving members of the Doolittle raid.  Staff Sergeant Thatcher passed in June of last year, at the age of 94.  As I write this, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole age 102, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the only man in the world who has earned the right to open that bottle.

On November 9, 2013, there occurred a gathering of four, a tribute to fallen heroes. These four are themselves heroes, and worthy of tribute. It was to be their last such gathering.

This story begins on April 18, 1942, when a flight of 16 Mitchell B25 medium bombers took off from the deck of the carrier USS Hornet.   It was a retaliatory raid on Japan, planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Forces.  It was payback for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, seven months earlier.  A demonstration that the Japanese home islands were not immune from attack.


Launching such large aircraft from the decks of a carrier had never been attempted, and there were no means of bringing them back. This was to be a one-way mission, into enemy occupied territory.

Fearing a breach in operational security, the mission was forced to launch 200 miles before the intended departure spot.  The range now made fighter escort impossible, and left the bombers themselves with the slimmest margin of error.

Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo was inspecting military bases at the time of the raid. One B-25 came so close that he could see the pilot, though the American bomber never fired a shot.

After dropping their bombs, all but one aircraft was able to continue west into Japanese occupied China. That one landed in Vladivostok, where the pilot and crew were interned for a year by our Soviet “allies”.

A quarter of a million Chinese were murdered by Japanese soldiers, as they hunted for Doolittle’s raiders. Eight of them were captured, three were executed and one died in captivity, but most of the 80 who began the mission survived the war.

There was little serious damage done to the Japanese home islands, but the raid had a decisive effect. Japan withdrew its powerful aircraft carrier force to protect the home islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Midway, thinking it to have been the jump-off point for the raid. Described by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”, the battle of Midway would be a major strategic defeat for Imperial Japan.

The Doolittle raiders have held a reunion every year, from the late 40’s, until 2013. In 1959, the city of Tucson presented them with 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of one of their number. They are on display at the National Museum of the Air Force, in Dayton Ohio.


With those goblets is a fine bottle of vintage Cognac, 1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born. There’s been a bargain among the Doolittle raid survivors that, one day, the last two of their number would open that bottle, and toast their comrades.

In 2013 they changed their bargain, just a bit. Jimmy Doolittle himself passed away in 1993. Twenty years later, 76 goblets had been turned over, each signifying a man who had passed on. The last four were Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Cole, co-pilot of crew No. 1; Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Hite, co-pilot of crew No. 16; Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Saylor, engineer-gunner of crew No. 15; and Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher, engineer-gunner of crew No. 7. These four agreed that they would gather one last time. It would be they who would finally open that bottle.


Robert Hite, 93, was too frail to travel, so his son stood in for him.  So it was that a 117 year-old bottle of cognac was cracked open on this date in 2013, and enjoyed in the company of heroes. If there is a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.

On April 18, 2015, Richard Cole and David Thatcher fulfilled their original bargain, as the last two surviving members of the Doolittle raid.  Staff Sergeant Thatcher passed in June of last year, at the age of 94.  As I write this, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole age 102, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the only man in the world who has earned the right to open that bottle.

October 13, 1926  “We’ll come back for you.”

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside, the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the entire Korean Conflict.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born this day in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.  He had all the disadvantages of a black boy growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”, insisting that he stuck with his studies.

Thomas Jerome Hudner, 1950

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

The two could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became United States Navy pilots, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

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.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, 1950

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, crash landing on a snow covered mountain side.  Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit as he struggled to get out of the burning aircraft.

Hudner deliberately crash landed his own aircraft and, now injured, ran across the snow to the aid of his wing man.  Hudner scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the progress while Brown faded in and out of consciousness.  A Marine Corps helicopter pilot landed, and the two went at the stricken aircraft for 45 minutes with an axe, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The pair was considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with the axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time.  Jesse Brown’s last 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.

Cmoh_armyHudner pleaded with authorities the following day 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.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first Black Naval Aviator in history.  The first to die in the Korean War.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, 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, he 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.

At the time I write this story, Thomas Hudner is 93, living in Concord Massachusetts with his wife, Georgea.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown are still on that North Korean mountainside.


October 8, 1942 “Once!” 

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!”.

The Municipal Airport in Portsmouth NH was 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 part of the war.  In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

United States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease 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 planes 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.

Harlan Pease
Captain Harl Pease, Jr.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft, and refused to put his wife and son on board. The family would wait two more days before MacArthur made 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. Harl 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.Cmoh_army

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells the story: “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 Father George Lepping was captured, finding him and one of his airmen languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even 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.

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 25.

Decades later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away, and his family found his war diary.  This man had been one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

Pease_planeThe diary tells of a respect this man had for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten almost 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!“.