How long were you with the 23rd stationed in China?
I was in China in the 75th Fighter Squadron of the 23rd Group from November 1943 through March 1945.
What was the main plane over there and what were its shortcomings?
The P-40 was the main fighter over there for most of my stay. We were re-equipped with P-51s in my squadron in October 1944, although some of the other squadrons had them earlier. It was limited in speed and altitude but handled well. We did not go to high altitude except on the few occasions that we escorted B-24s. Maneuverability was not a problem because nothing we had could maneuver with the Oscars and Tojos and using Gen. Chennault’s tactics we never tried to turn with them. The P-40 was well suited to the ground attack missions in the hilly terrain that constituted the bulk of our missions. We all loved it.
Did you know General Chennault personally, and either way, what did you think of him as a leader?
I was introduced to him, as were all the new pilots as far as I know, but I can’t say I knew him personally. I probably knew him as well as any second lieutenant knew a major general. I had and have the greatest respect for him. He was a true master of fighter tactics and his training and leadership were largely responsible for the fine record the AVG, and later our group, achieved against the Japanese.
Who was your squadron leader, wingman/men that you remember and was there a person that you remember spending a lot of time with?
I had five squadron commanders during my tour and four of them, Majors Elmer Richardson, Phil Loufbourrow, Don Quigley, and Clyde Slocumb were fine fighter pilots and fine leaders. We did not have regularly assigned wingmen. Pilots were assigned to a position in the flights on the night before the missions. You started out as a wingman and as you gained experience you moved up to element leader, flight leader and then mission leader. A pilot usually had more than 50 missions before he could lead missions. We spent most of our off the flight line time with our roommates and with others from our flying school class or who had trained with us at Sarasota or at Landhi Field in India. My roommates through almost all of my tour were Dick Jones, Jesse Gray and Earl Green. Jesse was killed but I see the others from time to time.
How many usually went out on a mission and were missions usually quiet or was there action on most trips out?
On our almost daily ground attack missions we routinely used two flights of four airplanes. We would fly together to as far north as the mission called for and then the mission leader would take his flight down to strafe and bomb while the second flight provided top cover. When the first flight was low on ammunition the flights would change places. When the second flight was almost out of ammunition they would climb to rejoin the first flight and return home together. We always encountered a lot of ground fire (small arms and light flak) but only ran into enemy planes about once every five missions or so and often the Oscars just made halfhearted passes at us and then left. Much of our air fighting took place on interception and escort missions. We lost more airplanes to ground fire than in air combat.
What missions do you remember the most and can you describe the events for us?
We were operating out of Lingling, about 100 miles south of Hengyang, the 75th with P-40s and the 76th with P-51s. In the late afternoon after several strafing missions we were scrambled to intercept a group of Oscars. There was a thin overcast at about 10 or 12 thousand feet and Tex Hill, the group commander, told the Pontiacs (76th) to climb above the overcast and the Charlestons (75th) to stay below. I was Charleston Red Three, leading the second element of the first flight. After making a few circles of the field at the base of the overcast I spotted a large group of Oscars descending through the clouds at about 5o’clock from us. I called them out to the leader but he could not see them so he told me to take the lead. The Oscars split up as we approached and I started a pass on one of them but he turned so sharply that I broke off and went after another one. He started a tight turn to the right and I was going to break off when for some reason he reversed the turn and I blasted him as he was rolling into the left turn. I think I killed the pilot but as he went into a dive I fired a long burst into him to make sure and he crashed on the edge of the field.
Can you tell us about one of the strafing bombing runs?
One I remember quite well is when we flew right on the deck up the river in very bad weather and surprised a large group of Japanese soldiers who evidently did not think we would be flying that day ( they usually advanced by night in good weather). There were hundreds of them marching through a deep railway cut with steep sides about thirty feet high. We dropped our parafrags on both ends of the troops and then strafed them until our ammunition ran out. We returned to our base, refueled and rearmed and went back and repeated the earlier mission as a great many of the surviving troops were still in the cut. It was too dark when we finished to run a third mission but they were pretty well wiped out by then anyway.
What did you do for R&R and did you hear the Japanese/Tokyo Rose Broadcasts?
Most of the time we were not near any towns worth visiting so we read, played cards, hunted rats in the hostel, attended the movies when available ( usually pretty bad movies but welcome nevertheless). We played volleyball and occasionally softball on the flight line. I was not much of a card player, preferring to read. I was wiped out in the first round of the Great Hengyang Gin Rummy Tournement. We did listen to Tokyo Rose whenever we could pick her up on the radio. She called herself Orphan Annie and played good big band music.
In the virtual world we are not subject to the physical trauma of high gees, blackouts, extreme cold. etc. When engaged in combat are these factors noticeable or does the intensity of the moment push them out of the conscious perception of the pilot?
We seldom flew at high altitude and we did not engage in high gee turning fights so we were not bothered by those problems. I know that later as a test pilot I had a lot of flights in which I pulled high gees for long periods and I was really worn down by the end of the day. I think long exposure to cold would decrease the pilot’s combat ability
Pappy Boyington has a lot of mystery surrounding his time overseas. What do you know about his escapades and what people thought of him?
He was long gone from China when I got there and no one discussed him. I do know from talking to AVG members after the war that he was regarded as a bum and a liar and was kicked out of the AVG. They also said that several of his victory claims were false that he had only two victories instead of the six he is credited with.
When you first realized an action of yours had taken a life (granted in a heroic and correct cause) what was the impact on you as a man? Then and now.
No impact at all, then and now. I was there to kill as many of the enemy as possible. At the time we regarded the Japanese as little better than animals because of their inhuman behavior and atrocities. We felt worse about killing their horses than about killing them.
What were the tactics used against the Oscars and when the Tojo (Ki 44) came out later in the war did the tactics change any?
When possible we tried to stay in pairs, attack from a dive at high speed and break away zooming to get ready for another attack. We never tried to engage in a turning fight although I did shoot one down in a turning fight because for some reason the Oscar made what were gentle turns for an Oscar and I was able to turn inside of him. I was at long range and at least 60 degrees angle off and he might not have realized I could hit him from that position. We used the same tactics against the Tojo because while they could not turn as tight as an Oscar they could still turn well inside of us. Sometimes though they would try to dive away instead of turning and we could nail them in the dive. They could dive faster than an Oscar but not as fast as a P-40.
You’ve stated that most missions were flown with eight or so planes instead of the hundreds that flew normally in large operations. With such small groups of planes flying out on missions, how did you keep from losing each other?
The biggest problem we had in keeping together was the leader of the top cover flight trying to follow the low strafing flight. The camouflaged P-40s were hard to see against the terrain. It was easy when they were crossing back and forth across the river and we could often spot the tracers when they fired. In general though keeping together was not a serious problem.
What can you tell us about your test pilot days?
I was a test pilot at Eglin field, Florida, The Air Proving Ground Command. We tested new weapons and developed the tactics for employing them. My almost six years (1945-1951) there were the best flying years of my life. I was able to fly all the fighters, bombers, trainers and transports in the inventory at that time. Airplanes were always available for weekend cross-countries and for just flying when we had spare time. I flew all the jets from the P-59 on, and took the first or one of the first jets to Alaska for cold weather testing. It was a great life.
Did you ever “fall asleep behind the wheel” while on a long mission and how long was a mission usually?
No, I never fell asleep or even felt sleepy but our longest missions were never more than 4 ½ hours and they were usually about 2 ½ hours.
The P-40 was the main plane over there, but you managed to get a kill in the P-51 also. What was that plane like and can you describe that particular mission?
The P-51 had much better performance that the P-40 but did not handle as well. The main problem we had with the P-51Bs and Cs was that they only had four guns instead of the P-40’s six and that they would jam if you pulled any G’s while firing. I lost two possible victories because of that. There was no way to clear the guns in flight so you were unarmed for the rest of the mission. The same problem occurred in Europe but they had major technical facilities and they installed electric boosters in the ammunition feed and solved the problem We later got P-51Ds that had six guns and no G problem. We got an intelligence report that there were Japanese airplanes on several of the airfields where we had been stationed earlier, Hengyang, Lingling, and Kweilin. WE were flying out of Chihkiang, about a hundred and fifty miles west of the three airfields which were in a north and south line about 150 miles apart. I led a flight of 15 Mustangs to inspect the middle airfield, Lingling. Finding nothing there I led seven planes south to inspect Kweilin while Captain Kelley led the other eight north to Hengyang. We were almost to Kweilin when I heard the Hengyang group had been jumped by Japanese fighters. I turned north and proceeded at top speed toward Hengyang. Long before we arrived all the chatter had ended and when we arrived over Hengyang there were no planes on either side in view. I circled for a few minutes and then spotted a flight of Oscars led by a Frank below me at about two o’clock. They had not seen us because they continued descending straight ahead I made a quartering head on pass on the Frank which started smoking and diving toward the cloud cover. I lined up on an Oscar but I had to pull fairly high Gs to hold a lead but when I fired all my guns jammed. They all dove into the clouds and we could not locate them so we returned to base. Kelley’s flights had been jumped from out of the clouds and three Mustangs were shot down immediately and one was damaged and the pilot bailed out safely on the way back to Chihkiang. One of our pilots was killed, one taken prisoner and managed to evade the ground troops and eventually get back safely.
How did you do while you were in training and what was your biggest mistake and success?
I had no trouble in training and don’t remember any particular mistakes. My biggest success was being selected to fly my last ten hours as a cadet in a P-40.
As Acting Director of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC which is part of the Smithsonian Museums, where do you see the direction of that museum going? Will there be another one to house all of the exhibits or will this one be expanded?
The main museum will continue on as usual and will continue to be the most visited museum in the world. We are planning a new facility for this museum at Dulles Airport where we will be able to fly in many of our large airplanes that could not be displayed downtown, including the fully assembled Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle “Enterprise” and the prototype Boeing 707 (367-80). The airplane building will house some 180 airplanes at three levels. We are raising the funds for its construction and plan to open on December 17, 2003, the 100th Anniversary of the Wright Brothers Flight. We welcome all donations to that cause (National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue at Sixth Street, SW, Washington DC 20560-0310)
The controversy of the exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atom bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima was about how history should portray the bombing of Japan and how this event would be remembered. Many were asking for the U.S. to publicly apologize for this event and even wanted the exhibit to become sort of an apology. What do you think about then Smithsonian Secretary Michael Heyman’s decision to dump the revisionist historians’ theme and present a more straightforward view?
I think the original script was a disgrace and the the dropping of the bomb was fully justified by the situation. Secretary Heyman was correct and courageous in his decision and he took a lot of heat from academics for that decision. The exhibit he organized was straightforward and very well received by the general public and by the WW II veterans.