Book Report: the Kamikaze Hunters

My commute to and from work involves a 20-minute ferry ride, which gives me time to catch up on some reading. The first book I polished off was one that had been staring at me from the book store shelves until I finally succumbed to it Will Iredale’s the Kamikaze Hunters (2016, Pegasus Books).

 

The title’s a little deceptive – you might be inclined to think it was about U.S. Navy or Marine Corps pilots. Not so – this deals with a much less thoroughly covered area of World War II, the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm’s operations in the later years of the war.

 

And it doesn’t just cover the Pacific – combat starts with the Home Fleet’s attacks on the Tirpitz in European waters. But really, the book starts much earlier, with the training of a handful of men who would go on to fly Corsairs from British carrier decks. Iredale mixes in contemporary letters and recent interviews splendidly to paint fully realized portraits of these men. One trick he accomplishes is to avoid tipping his hand that one of these men doesn’t survive the war. Usually, authors telegraph someone’s demise by quoting only their letters or third-person versions of their stories; Iredale deftly avoids this so when the pilot is lost it’s a genuine surprise.

 

The attacks on the Sumatran oil fields are discussed in depth, as are the raids capping the Japanese special attack airfields. Iredale does an excellent job of explaining these raids; I’m building a Firefly FR.I that flew during them, and I was unaware their primary task, improvised on the spot, was to bust barrage balloons (which they were not great at!).

 

Of grim interest are the accounts of kamikaze attacks on the British Pacific Fleet and its armor-decked carriers, which were more resilient in shrugging off suicide planes than their American counterparts (but paid for it in carrying fewer aircraft). Just the same, the crews suffered horrible injuries and death the same as any men exposed aboard U.S. carriers.

 

The book also touches on the incredible aircraft attrition rate for the FAA – only about 15 percent of it suffered during air combat. The rest owed to deck accidents and kamikaze damage.

 

There are a couple of boo-boos – Iredale repeats the myth about the Japanese carries at Midway having packed flight decks when they were bombed, and at one point says the carrier crews overpainted their aircraft’s camouflage with blue paint (in reality, attrition and a change in painting specs turned FAA carrier units blue all on their own).

 

Corsairs take center stage, but there are also Hellcats. Avengers, Barracudas, Fireflies and Seafires – a virtual airshow of types. But it’s the brave young airmen who are the stars of this excellent and eminently readable book. Strongly recommended for students of the Pacific War.

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Stuff that came to my house this week

While I wasn’t paying attention, this little nugget slipped into print:

As I’ve said, this is the “Aces” version of the longer-form version I initially wrote as an “outline,” which illustrates how backwards we authors can be. The book has lots of photos and some excellent profiles from Chris Davey – oriented horizontally, which allows them to be bigger, which is a nice change. (Plus, this is a two-Chris effort, so how can you go wrong?)

The book (which you can take a peek at on Amazon here) was just one nice thing that came in the mail this week. I’ve been thinking of building the Heinkel 176, the first all-rocket aircraft, and what should arrive but a book called “The First Jet Pilot,” the biography of Erich Warsitz, who flew the He 176 (and He 178, and a lot of other exotically-powered aircraft which could have easily resulted in his early demise). The book has some nice photos of the He 176, which was a rarity in my library and which stalled the He 176 project until now. The He 176 was a tiny aircraft – maybe twice as big as the BD-5, with the pilot sitting in an open cockpit. Think about that – a rocket-powered plane with an open cockpit. How many times was the phrase “Tighten you goggles, Erich!” used before each flight?

That was a nice surprise. Today, I received something I expected – my Roll Models order of the month. It included another Eduard P-51D Mustang set; the canopy rails I talked about in this post both managed to fling themselves off the model and into oblivion, so I need to pirate them from this set again. And, since I can’t just get one thing, I also bought three decal sheets (one of Xtracals’ Battle of Britain sheets, Lifelike’s P-47 sheet with 354th FG Thunderbolts and a sheet of seven P-61s from Kits World). Revell’s set of 1:72 RAF figures was in there, too; they look very much like Prieser figure sets, with lots of detail, although there are only about eight basic figures, and several are seated. That might be nice for a pre-flight diorama scene.

The big model in the bunch was Italeri’s RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. You don’t get any idea of how big these drones are until you see the kit; without a cockpit, photos are very deceptive. This thing is enormous – maybe as big in wingspan as a B-17 – and rather bulky in the fuselage (although skinny in the wings). Without a cockpit, it shouldn’t take too long to go from the sprues to the finishing process. If you like painting and weathering, the Global Hawk and the smaller Predator are perfect. I like cockpits, but I look forward to bringing something this huge to a model club meeting soon. Although it may not fit in my display case. Hmm…

Friday’s talk: I’M speaking, and YOU’RE in the audience?!?

Friday’s talk to the Aviation Enthusiasts in San Jose went very well. I must admit I felt like I was in a bit of an altered state looking out at a room full of pilots, crewmen, mechanics and others who have done the things I only write about – it’s a pretty humbling experience. I worried that my talk would be too low-level, but I brought out all the Fourth Fighter Group chestnuts – the first mission flown over occupied France by Spitfires with non-standard six-pointed stars, Blakeslee’s “help! Help! I’m being clobbered! Down here by the railroad tracks!” and “it had damn well better be able to dive – it can’t climb!”, Kidd Hofer’s antics, Gentile and Godfrey and the ace race, and Gentile pranging “Shangri-La” on his last flight. The old stories got laughs (luckily, in this case, that’s what I was aiming for!). Elizabeth was there as my spotter and she said I didn’t speed up or freak out from nervous tension, although I thought that’s what I was doing! I had to get things right – Bill Gillette of the Fourth was right there in the audience! Here’s the two of us…

Chris and Bill Gillette

During the question and answer period, anything I couldn’t answer was handled by Bill, an almost-ace (4.5 victories!), who sat next to Elizabeth and I. Naturally, there was almost a P-47 pilot vs. P-51 pilot face-off – even 65 years later, fighter pilots remain fighter pilots. Guy Watson had the last word – Guy was a P-38 driver, so for a toast to the birthday boy, B-17 pilot Sherman Gillespie, he recited the poetry of Tech. Sgt. Robert Bryson:

Oh, Hedy Lamarr is a beautiful gal
And Madeleine Carroll is too;
But you’ll find, if you query, a different theory
Amongst any bomber crew.
For the loveliest thing of which one could sing
(This side of the Heavenly gates)
Is no blonde or brunette
Of the Hollywood set,
But an escort of P-38s

The next most humbling thing was that the audience bought a LOT of books – and they asked me to autograph them! Bill Gillette and I traded autographs, and I signed for the many fighter pilots, bomber jockeys, and even a TBF Avenger driver. Why on earth was I the one signing autographs – they’re the heroes!

Anyhow, it was a humbling afternoon and one which I hope will result in many more articles and a few models, to boot! I still need to build Sherman Gillespie’s B-17G, and I may have to sneak in Archie Maltbie’s P-47D, since I met him and the namesake of his three “Joanie’s!” Here’s Sherman and me.

Sherm and Chris

There is so much history living so close around us, and we so often fail to realize it. If you know a veteran, make sure you capture his or her story before it’s too late. Not only is it a huge service to the future, but, as you can see, it can be a lot of fun!

In the company of heroes…

A few days ago, I talked about Sherman Gillespie and mentioned I was speaking at the Villages Aviation Enthusiasts’ Group in San Jose on Friday, which is also being held in part because it’s Sherman’s 88th birthday. Yesterday I received a list of the folks who are in the club and who had RSVP’ed. It kind of freaked me out.

Why , you ask? Well, take a look at the list:

  • Bill Adams – Worked on remote control gun turret design for the Boeing B-29, WWII
  • Ed Batinich – Flew B-17s, 379th BG, 8th AF ETO, WWII
  • Larry Berke – Instructor AT-6 AF Advanced Training, WWII
  • Lois Ann Blair – Stewardess, United Airliner DC3
  • Carl Brizzi – Ball Turret Gunner, 306th BG, 8th AF ETO, WWII
  • Chappy Chapman – Army Air Corps 1936, Air Transport Command, WWII. Boeing 747s, United Airlines
  • Wally Currey – Naval Aviator, WWII. Flew TBF Torpedo Bombers
  • Jeanette Davis – Husband Lew Davis, Naval aviator, flew Grumman F6F Hellcats, WWII
  • Sherman Gillespie – Flew B-17s 96th BG. 8thAF, WWII, on 1st Daylight mission to Berlin, March 6, 1944. Interned in Sweden, April-Oct. 1944
  • Bill Gillette – Flew P-51s, 4th Fighter Group, 8th AF, WWII. Credited with 4 1/2 Enemy Aircraft. Flew on 1st Shuttle Mission to Russia, June 1944
  • Rich Gray – Flew P-47 Thunderbolts, WWII, 366th FG, 9th AF, ETO
  • Bud Hough – Flew as a passenger in Ford Trimotor, “The Tin Goose”
  • Charles Hughes – Flew B-24s 44th BG, 8th AF, WWII. Ploesti Mission, Aug. 1, 1943. Interned in Turkey—escaped!
  • Sven Ingels – Glider pilot. Still enjoys sailplane flying with a friend.
  • Tom James – Flew B-26 Marauders, WWII. 391st BG, 9th AF, ETO
  • Jim Larsen – Served in 6th AF 1946-1949 Flight Engineer
  • Jack Leathers – Flew B-47 Jet Bombers, Cold War, SAC
  • Frank Licha – Flight Engineer, Top Turret gunner, WW II, 301 BG, 15th AF, Italy
  • Archie Maltbie – Flew P-47 Thunderbolt, 365th FG, 9th AF. ETO WWII
  • Mary Miller – Private Pilot License, 1980s. Flew Cessnas, Sacramento Area
  • Peter Perham – Worked for De Havilland, 1942, building “Mosquito fighter bomber” –The RAFs Wooden Wonder. WWII
  • Pete Petterborg – Naval Aviator WWII. Flew Lockheed PV-1 Vegas in the Aleutians. Interned in Siberia! 1944
  • Curt Reed – Flew B-24s, 456th BG, 15th AF, Italy, WWII.
  • Jerry Rosenthal – Radio Operator, B-25 Bombers. 57th Bomb Wing, WWII, Italy.
  • Leo Steinert – Flight Engineer, B-29s, 498th GR, 20th AF, WWII, Saipan, 32 missions
  • Dale Swift – Radio Operator B-24 Crew, 15th AF Italy. WWII. Shot down on 35th mission. POW, Rumania
  • Guy Watson – Flew P-38s, 5th AF, WWII. Philippines; P-51s, Japan, and CA Air Nat. Guard, Postwar
  • Wil Willard – Flew B-17s, 12th AF, Africa, WWII. Career with Pan Am

I’ll take plenty of photos and share them here following the meeting. Now, I have to get a good 20 minutes of talk together… gulp!

How Sherman Gillespie changed my life

On Friday, I have the wonderful honor of speaking to the Aviation Enthusiasts club at the Villages, a retirement community in San Jose. The club is comprised largely of retired pilots, mechanics, engineers and others who have real-life experience with aircraft (as opposed to my semi-real life experience!). I was invited because the head of this group, Sherman Gillespie, is also celebrating his 88th birthday that day. Sherman and I shared an experience that literally changed my life.

Back in 2002, I worked as the editor of several small community papers in San Jose (how small? They were monthlies!) and a similar magazine called 50 Plus, which I think was perhaps the best idea for a magazine in that group. That’s an audience that’s only getting bigger, and a magazine dedicated to active people – and those trying to become active – in that age range is just a natural. Anyhow, one cover story I wrote for 50 Plus was about Jim Lund, who at the time had 1200 built 1:72 models and spoke about how the craft kept him mentally sharp, motivated and physically active (within reason). Jim appeared on the cover of the magazine “applying the final touches” to a DC-6 in 1:72 (actually, he was rubbing a clean paintbrush on the side in a staged photo that I took!). This caught the eye of one of the members of the aircraft enthusiasts, who called and said that the head of their group had been a B-17 pilot in World War II.

At almost the same time, I received a note from the EAA that its B-17, “Aluminum Overcast,” would be in the area. They invited me and another member of my staff to come on a flight. Since the staff was, essentially, me, I had an unclaimed pass. That’s when I got the idea to call Sherman.

I phoned him up. “Mr. Gillespie, you don’t know me, but I’m the editor of the community paper and 50 Plus,” I said. “I have an invitation to go up in a B-17 – would you like to come along?” Sherman said he’d have to check with his wife. When he called back, he said “Barbara said I’d have to be crazy – not to go!”

We drove up to Hayward for the flight, and I found him to be a warm, outgoing man. After the war, he became a high school teacher specializing in Spanish, and had a long career before his retirement. He flew 17 missions before his plane was badly hit and he was forced to divert to Sweden, where he was interned. Later, the U.S. swapped Sweden a batch of P-51s in exchange for several hundred airmen, who were shuttled across occupied Norway and back to the U.K. “The Brits made us go through customs!” said Sherman.

Someday I hope to tell the story of the interned airmen in Sweden, who lived a strange – but not unpleasant – existence in Sweden. Although they were able to mingle in town, get paid through the U.S. legation, and enjoy themselves in Sweden, most felt bad about being out of the war. They felt worse when U.S. magazines ran articles implying they were off on holiday in Sweden while other airmen continued to fight; the reality was that for most of them, their options had been a landing in Sweden or an icy death in the North Sea. After they landed, they simply functioned under the circumstances in Sweden as best as they could.

The flight was memorable, and even more memorable was how the modern crew of the bomber was fascinated to hear Sherman’s stories. They spent 45 minutes asking him questions and learning more about the aircraft they were flying. I wrote up the event in 50 plus and in the community paper (which resulted in several letters from Sherman’s past students!), and, encouraged by Tom Cleaver, pitched the story of Sherman’s last mission to Flight Journal magazine. They picked it up for a B-17 special issue; it was the first World War II story I had ever written and my real entry into writing about aviation. I owe all of that to Sherman. He truly changed my life.

It’ll be a lot of fun to speak about the Fourth Fighter Group to the Aviation enthusiasts – especially since one of those who’ll be in the audience is Willard Gillette, a member of the Fourth who’s actually mentioned several times in the book! That also means I’ll have to be at the top of my game; there’ll be someone in the audience who knows the story better than I do! That – and seeing Sherman – promise to make this a wonderful, memorable Friday. I’m really looking forward to it.

Book Report: Hell Hawks!

I’m working on a book on the 362nd Fighter Group; Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones recently published their book on the 365th Fighter Group, Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  I’ll write a full review of this for the IPMS/USA Journal; here I’ll discuss the differences between the approach taken by Dorr and Jones and my approach.

First off, Hell Hawks! Is targeted at a much wider audience than the work I’m doing. I say that not because it lacks in detail, but because the authors have to spend some time explaining things that I took for granted. For instance, I don’t feel compelled to describe the P-47 in detail; I think readers who come to my book will already know a bit about World War II aviation. Also, the style is very different from my approach; it’s much more florid and action packed. To be honest, when I was reading the first chapters, I was a bit put off by the emphasis on details that the authors had no documentary evidence of – the appearance of clouds, the way the ground looked and other things that were not recorded back in 1944. I’m reluctant to add those embellishments, but they do help paint the picture of what’s going on and to be fair, many action reports at least include notations like “8/10ths cloud,” from which an author could extrapolate such things.

I also feel more compelled to get everyone in a unit into the story if they scored a victory, commanded a squadron and, especially, if they lost their life. This is the one shortcoming of Hell Hawks!; at times, the fallen go unnamed, and there’s no listing of the losses the 365th suffered in combat. To be honest, one of the most rewarding side-effects of writing these books is providing family members with insight into how a grandfather or uncle was lost, since many still do not know. Hell Hawks! Certainly includes many stories of pilots’ losses, but it sticks to the ones that are most useful in telling the story, which strengthens the narrative and keeps it uncluttered but also lessens it as a history of the group.

The other difference in approach is that Dorr and Jones use flashbacks and fast-forwards at times to group similar experiences, a device that works reasonably well here. I prefer to let the narrative roll, because I find that a chronological telling has a dramatic effect that’s just as powerful as any that a writer could craft. In my book on the Tuskegee Airmen,  there’s a report from a pilot about escorting a crippled bomber to Corsica, where he receives the thanks of the bomber crew and indicates exactly how the airmen’s escort broke down racial barriers 10 men at a time. You really get to know the man through his words and the way he tells the story. Later, when the same pilot is killed in action, the reader feels the loss – we may know him as a character, but no character is invulnerable to the realities of war.

By centering a lot of the book around the veterans the two men interviewed, a bit of that is lost – obviously, those men survived the war. One notable exception is Grant Stout, whose letters are prominently featured though the book’s first three quarters; Stout’s final mission is detailed toward the end. Showing up in a book like this in letters is sort of like beaming down in a red shirt on “Star Trek;” your chances of being alive at the end are pretty slim, and the savvy reader knows it.

Those are really small points, though. The book is darned good, and the 180-plus people the two authors interviewed over a long period represent an awesome effort to get first hand-documentation in place. I also like the inclusion of brief post-war biographies of the major figures covered in the book, although I wish there had been more of them. I’ll be borrowing that idea for my own book! The Ninth Air Force and its vast efforts during the war are still little-known, and this book will help that story reach more people through good story-telling. It’s a good book and well worth a read.

Why one reads the footnotes…

I haven’t blogged for a while, primarily because of footnote.com. This remarkable site has most (but not all) of the USAAF’s Missing Aircrew Reports (MACRs) from the U.S. National Archives on line in a somewhat searchable form. I say “somewhat” because the various pages of MACRs are split up; you can see one document at a time, but often it takes two or three documents to reveal the entire story. These MACRs contain the name of the pilot and the aircraft involved in a loss (and sometimes even the plane’s nose art name!), and once you have the number, you can search on that at bring up a virtual dossier on that aircraft, usually including an eyewitness report of the loss. As you can imagine, for a guy writing a couple of books, this is titanically useful . Events which had a short sentence now have full eyewitness accounts, some causes of losses are corrected, and for days when a group flew more than one mission, it becomes much easier to determine on which missions planes were lost.
From a modeling standpoint, it’s also golden. I now have several new schemes for Roy Sutherland of Barracudacals, and I was able to track down data on some planes he’s wanted to do for a long time. But from a personal standpoint, it’s even more satisfying.

In 2006, James Kitts asked me to help find the details of the loss of Lt. Ken Kitts of the 379th FS/362nd FG, who went down April 8, 1944. At the afternoon briefing, the pilots were informed that 70 trains were moving from Arras to Rouen. The found only seven, but shot them up just the same. The 379th made repeated passes, with Capt. Thurman Morrison, Lt. Kent Geyer and Lt. Vernon Ligon knocking out one locomotive and Lt. Clough Gee and Lt. Jim Ashford destroying a second. Unfortunately, flak hit Lt. Ken Kitts’ Thunderbolt “Loko,” P-47D-15 42-75624, at 1500 feet. Kitts’ flight leader, Col. Morton Magoffin, radioed a warning to Kitts, who called back that his oil pressure was dropping, and he asked his wingman, Lt. Gordon Larsen, to accompany him home. “We flew toward the French coast for about five minutes when Lt. Kitts called me and said he would not be able to make it,” said Larsen. “We were flying at 5000 feet and just below a cloud layer. In about a minute, I observed that his engine had cut out. He immediately started to get ready to bail out. He left the ship at about 2500 feet. As he bailed out, he hit the horizontal stabilizer. I followed him down until he hit the ground.” Kitts was probably knocked unconscious, because his never made any attempt to open his parachute. He fell to his death in the St. Saens area.

His family had been unable to find the MACR for Kitts, and Jim wanted to build a model of his uncle’s plane. There’s a nice color photo of the nose art of “Loko,” but the rest of the details were unknown. I now have the pleasure of letting James know that the plane was P-47D-15 42-75624; I’ll go through my photo collection and see if I can find a tail fin and aircraft call letter to match that serial.

More discoveries as they happen…

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