Borrowing a famous line from Fredric March in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), I found that this issue has an unintentional theme. When I leaned back and looked at the lineup after we had cast it in concrete, I could see where every article speaks to individual warriors putting it all on the line and persevering—this, even though the odds looked as if they were very much against them.
Certainly, the biggest “hero tale” in this issue is that of Col. Jim Howard, USAAF, and it is wonderfully told by master wordsmith Barrett Tillman. If you have any gray around the edges of your hairline (or if your hairline is nonexistent), you already know the name of Jim Howard. Some young’uns probably don’t. The only fighter pilot in the ETO to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Howard’s aerial derring-do, when faced with upward of 30 German fighters, is one of the legendary combat tales of World War II. With no other Allied fighter within striking range of a large force of 109s, 190s, and 110s pouncing on a bomber formation, Howard, a 30-year-old Mustang pilot who had gained valuable combat experience with the Flying Tigers, did what fighter pilots do: It wasn’t an overwhelming force; it was a target-rich environment.
After the fight, the AAF authorities, who didn’t believe in awarding MoHs to fighter pilots, were forced into it by the kudos streaming in from the many bomber pilots who witnessed the 25-minute duel. If you don’t know the saga of Jim Howard and his P-51B, “Ding Hao,” you’re going to love this. It’s a threedimensional Dwayne Johnson/Tom Mix/John Wayne saga at 20,000 feet.
On the other side of the war, Flight Journal regular Jim Busha tells the tale of Ensign Robert Turnell onboard the USS Wasp, part of the aerial force that was tasked with softening up the Japanese home islands in preparation for an invasion. Flying an overloaded F6F Hellcat, Turnell and his shipmates staggered off the decks, day after day, for weeks, bombing one enemy emplacement after another. Predictably, the Japanese fought hard to defend their homeland. It was inconceivable to any in the Japanese armed forces that foreigners could land on their sacred soil, so they were determined to fight to the last man standing.
In the final installment of his series WW II Diary, Barrett Tillman goes through the war, beginning to end, and picks what he thinks were pivotal battles and campaigns. Some, like D-Day, were decided in a day, while others, like Guadalcanal, dragged on for months. The outcome of each, however, became building blocks in the eventual victory. Barrett analyzes them, pointing out each side’s moves and what those moves contributed to the eventual victory or loss. In only a few pages, he is able to tell the story of five years of worldwide agony in a way that is logical and understandable. It’s a fitting finish to a well-done series.
And then there were Marine Majors Ray Latall and John Van Es, carrying the designation for the South Vietnam mission of Helborne 513. They were roaring around under ceilings as low as 200 to 400 feet at 350 knots in their A-4 Skyhawks, as they made repeated runs to lay down their bombs and napalm. A Marine unit was facing an overwhelming wall of NVA troops backed up against the stony ediface of the Citadel at Hue that were determined to wipe them out.
Only Helborne 513 stood between them and disaster. Guiding them was a Cessna 0-1 that, at 100 knots and 100-foot altitudes, eventually ran out of luck while marking targets with hand-dropped smoke grenades. Flying jets in very low ceilings with highly limited visibility is well beyond being simply white-knuckle flying. The results are usually catastrophic. Read Eric Hammel’s telling of the mission to find out the results.
As for “Where do we get such men?” there is no solid answer. They just appear, when the need is greatest. Let’s hope the trend continues.
Left: Lt. Col. Jim Howard, a one-man air force (photo courtesy of Jack Cook). Above: Ensign Robert Turnell, Hellcat pilot over Japan (photo courtesy of Jim Busha). Background: A-4 “Scooter,” hero of the Citadel at Hue (photo by Paul Bowen).