Two Presidential Citations * Distinguished Flying Cross *
Purple Heart * Belgian Croix de Guerre *
Copyright 2016 Conquistador Publications
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
AS A LATINO TEEN running wild around Los Angeles, I could tell you from experience how to sneak into every movie theater from downtown to Hollywood. So it’s hard to believe that just four years later I was at a U.S. Army outpost in Germany, pointing to a map so that I could show Gen. George S. Patton’s top brass how to cross the Rur River as they pushed back the Germans’ last offensive, the Battle of the Bulge.
I was a “Hell Hawk.” That was the name given to the pilots in the 365th Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps. Among my many missions, I flew in several decisive operations against the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe in the waning days of World War II.
It’s odd to think about when you look back, though: I was a boy in the early days of downtown Los Angeles in the ’20s and ’30s. My brother and I would pretend we were pilots, but I never really thought I would one day become one. As a teen, I spent time as a cowboy, learning to ride horses on the New Mexico range where my family had our roots. Then, I helped the Allies finish off Germany and used my flying skills as part of the Korean conflict, too. And finally, for my victory lap as a fighter pilot—no, I’m going to save that for the end.
There’s a theme to this story, though and it’s this: Instinct.
One of my earliest memories as a boy in Los Angeles was the night our two-story wooden Victorian mansion went up in terrifying blaze of flames shooting skyward. It was 1928 and I was five years old. After we all ran out, I realized my little sister was still inside! Without a moment’s hesitation, I ran back in, grabbed her and rushed us both out to safety. Everybody said I was a hero. There was nothing heroic about it. It was instinct.
On the ranch in Socorro, New Mexico, a group of us cowboys were out riding one day when my horse Tiger and I were separated from the rest of them and I wasn’t sure how to get back. I guided Tiger into a rushing river, and Tiger trusted me and I trusted him. We made it to the other side and then back home. When the others found us later, they said they were relieved: they had been looking for us because they didn’t think we’d made it across. Instinct. (Tiger’s, too, this time.)
At flight school, I was far from the brightest star among my peers. I wasn’t book smart and my classroom responses were sometimes just north of embarrassing. But once I got in that plane—CLICK. I just had a feel for it. There were smart guys in my group, way more adept at theory, math and reasoning than I was. But some of them washed out right away. They just didn’t make that CLICK with the plane. Instinct, again.
Up in the air, at war, all those instincts kicked in just the way you’d want. I had some experiences that stand as my personal towering achievements and that’s because they were moments of history; I’m so grateful that I got to live them and then live on.
On Oct. 21, 1944, all my training paid off. The Hell Hawks were dogfighting with the Luftwaffe – a deadly ballet of planes firing at each other in the skies over Solingen, Germany. The American strategy was to stay in pairs, with a wing man covering a leader. Thanks to that maneuvering against the Germans, who flew solo, we destroyed or damaged 30 German planes, including one I hit. We lost only one of ours.
And on Nov. 28 of the same year, we were flying a reconnaissance mission when we spotted a row of Tiger tanks on the banks of a river, and a tent encampment on the other side. We strafed the tanks and were surprised they didn’t move, until we saw the German troops running from the tents across a bridge to get to their heavy artillery! We strafed the bridge until it fell apart underneath them, but took fire while we finished off the rest of the tanks and their troops. We destroyed the entire Panzer division. If we hadn’t spotted them by chance, who knows how much damage they could’ve inflicted on Patton’s troops as they made their way into Germany.
Crazy enough, it was after the war was over that I crashed a transport plane carrying a handful of men to Frankfurt. The weather turned and suddenly I was flying into treetops; I pulled up my nose so we hit the mountain on the plane’s belly and slid up instead of smashing straight into it. As I went back into the burning cockpit to get my chute and jacket, I realized that just like my sister in the burning L.A. Victorian of my childhood there was a man who didn’t make it out, so I went in and got him. Only later did I realize that both my ankles were broken and I shouldn’t have been able to stand up, let alone pull a man from the wreckage of a crash. Instinct.
There’s another theme, too: My guardian angel was always with me.
I made it through that war, then flew under fire in Korea, and made it home from there, too. I had a good life with my lovely wife Maria, four kids and two grandchildren. Today, I’m 93 and I’m still flying! As I look back on my service, I think of the ones who didn’t make and those who came back, but with injuries that later killed them. I’m especially thinking of my cowboy friend from our Socorro days, John, who returned war after getting shot in the gut but never really recovered. This is dedicated to him. Goodbye, John: You gave your all for us.
MY FATHER AND MOTHER were descendants of the original settlers of New Mexico, the recipients of the Spanish land grants. Their ancestors came from Spain, some via Mexico, before the first English settlers at Jamestown in 1607. We had already built ranches, haciendas and related businesses as we settled the Great Southwest—what would become California, Arizona and New Mexico.
My mother was Ida Trujillo. As the 1900s began, Ida’s father, Ramon, was a merchant; he had set up a general store in Albuquerque. His brother was the owner of a sprawling cattle ranch across the Rio Grande in a town called Pajarito, which means little bird.
My father was Ramon Lopez. His family were landowners, with holdings in what is now Old Town Albuquerque and south to Socorro County. (Also of that generation was my father’s uncle, Anastacio Torres, who had real estate holdings in much of Socorro and became a state Senator. He was also publisher of the town’s only newspaper, El Defensor, which still exists today as El-Defensor Chieftan. Socorro County is a landmark in the history of the Wild West—it is the location of Fort Sumner, where Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid.
I never learned how my parents met. They were from different places, but a comparable social class. After they married, their two oldest daughters, Tomasita and Celia, were born in Albuquerque. Then, in the early 1920s, dad decided on a move to California. He had learned his trade as a baker by apprenticing in Albuquerque, and wanted to strike out on his own, so he sought work in Los Angeles and was immediately hired by Continental Baking, which produced Wonder Bread. Once he settled in, he sent for my mother and two sisters and they joined him.
And that’s when I was born. They were living on a very nice neighborhood by Washington Boulevard and Hooper Avenue. It was a lovely area! I came into the world on July 17, 1923, at home, or as my parents and siblings always said, “in the back of Mr. Brown.” The family called it that because our house was in a house behind one that belonged to a Mr. Brown.
Soon after I was born we moved to Bunker Hill, near the landmark Angels Flight cable car. My brother Hugo was born in one of the Victorian-style mansions there, when the neighborhood was the exclusive domain of L.A.’s wealthy. The rich began moving away from downtown at about that time, though, and left the huge, beautiful houses for working class families like ours to rent. Some were pulled up from their foundations and moved to South Pasadena, where they still stand today! While we were living on Bunker Hill, my youngest sister Dorothy was born. She completed our family.
The work at the bakery was taking off, and allowed dad to move us into a nicer home at 21st Street and Griffith Avenue. It was mostly white, except for us and a colored family living across the street. They had a son my age, about five, and Reginald and I were childhood pals. We fell out of touch later, but wound up in the same high school graduating class.
One of the key moments in my life was about to occur. My parents were away, and my older sister, Thomasita, who was a second mom to us all our lives, was in charge. The house suddenly erupted in flames and we all ran out. But then I realized that my little sister was still inside, in her crib! I didn’t think about the danger at all. Instinct carried me back into the house, up the stairs, through smoke and flames, into her room. I grabbed her from her crib and ran back downstairs and out the front door. There was no thought process involved. I was five years old and I rushed into a burning building to save my little sister. All I can say is this: When you get into a situation like that, knowing that someone you love is in danger, standing and watching is not an option! I have no other explanation for what I did that day.
We stayed at the house while it was repaired. Later, we moved to 23rd Street and Maple Avenue. Our lives changed after that, though. First, dad and mom weren’t getting along, so they separated and he returned to New Mexico to be with the rest of his family. Mom was left in Los Angeles to support five kids. Second, the Depression didn’t make life easier for anyone, least of all a working-class single mom.
Los Angeles County provided aid. In fact, so many families were on government assistance that people had shorthand for it: “We are on the county.” But that was only for food. Mom still had to work to pay the rent. By that time, I was seven. Today, this wouldn’t make sense, and wouldn’t even be allowed: I did my part to support my family by selling newspapers on the corner. The money went to pay for my own clothes.
On weekdays after school, I would take my papers down to San Pedro Avenue and sell them to passers-by one by one. On Sundays, I’d get up at 3 a.m. to deliver the Examiner and the Times on a paper route. I stacked them on a little red Radio Flyer wagon and pulled the load down the street, throwing the papers on the porches.
One more thing: my brother Hugo and I would go to the huge wholesale produce center on Tenth Street, where the produce dealers would give us bags of fruits and vegetables that were too ripe for sale. It was the Depression and times were hard, so there was no shame in scavenging.
But it wasn’t all strife. It was Southern California, and there was always the beach. My mom would take us to Playa Del Rey with a group of her friends and their kids in the evening and about ten of us would sleep on the wet sand by the surf as it pulled out for the night. Then, when we woke up in the morning at low tide, we’d walk along the water’s edge and look for spouts shooting from the sand. When we saw one, we knew: A clam! So we’d dig up clams and take them home and Mom would make the best clam chowder that I’ve ever tasted—even to this day. It was so easy in those days. I don’t think you can find edible clams on the beaches of Los Angeles anymore.
WE WERE IN AN UPSTAIRS APARTMENT at Maple Avenue and 23rd Street. The five of us were in the kitchen. The date was March 10, 1933. I was nine. There was a loud rumble and the house began to shake so hard that it felt like the walls were coming unglued and the floor was being ripped to pieces. I had never experienced an earthquake before, but had heard talk that one could happen. And that you’re supposed to be prepared. But there was no way that anyone could have been ready for what hit that day. The jolt hit so suddenly there was no time to think, let alone react. It was as if a train had shot through the middle of our living room. The shaking was so violent that it knocked us off our feet as everything flew across the room. My first quake turned out to be a big one!
It lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed like forever. No houses in our neighborhood fell, but many if not most were damaged. And we were in Los Angeles, about 30 miles away from the epicenter of the quake in Long Beach!
In that port city, walls peeled clear away from building facades and you could see into or even through the structures. More than 100 people were killed. Most of those were hit by falling debris as they fled from inside. They feared the walls would fall in on them and they’d be trapped inside. In those days, many apartments got their water from rooftop tanks. As they were very heavy and held up by bracing, some toppled and crashed into the top floors of the buildings.
Along with most everyone else in our neighborhood and the area, we were too shaken up to be indoors. So most people pitched tents in vacant lots. In those days, there were a lot of vacant lots in Los Angeles. Since I was still a kid, I thought it was great fun to camp out with the whole community! And even looking back, there was something wonderful about it: Everybody pitched in and helped each other. Someone set up an outdoor stove—that was before the days of barbecue grills—and we did communal cooking.
That lasted about a week while we rode out the aftershocks. Then people started to return to their homes, pick up the pieces of broken dishes, patch their walls and try to return to normal life. We went back after living in a tent that week, too. And what a mess we found! Everything was in shambles. What struck me most was seeing that the pictures on the wall had all fallen off and were broken on the floor. It did take us some time to clean up, but slowly everything was put back where it belonged.
I was young, so I didn’t realize how serious the earthquake was and how many people suffered and how hard they were hit. I got news only by word of mouth, so I didn’t understand how hard Long Beach was hit. We heard that many people lost everything. The recovery was easier for us, as we weren’t hurt and didn’t have that much in the way of possessions to begin with, so what was damaged or destroyed was easily replaceable.
Still, it was always one of the most vivid memories of my childhood in Los Angeles, though. I’ve been through other earthquakes since, but nothing like that.
THEN WE MOVED to a bungalow 29th Street and Maple Avenue. Due to our low income, mom was always looking to get the best deal on rent. That’s why we moved so often. I went transferred to the elementary school nearby. I also attended catechism classes at St. Vincent de Paul, which was and still is one of the most beautiful church buildings in Los Angeles. Oil tycoon Edward Doheny helped pay for the construction. He needed spare no expense in making St. Vincent an extraordinary place of worship. I remember it well because I made my first communion there!
At about that same time, I also had my first girlfriend, Beatrice. She lived around the corner. We were schoolmates. I showed my affection by sneaking into her yard and slipping gifts such as dime-store bracelets and gumball machine rings through a hole in the window-screen of her bedroom.
One day she got mad at me or I got mad at her over something someone said or a petty jealousy or whatever happens to tarnish the first romance of two little kids. Nothing remarkable about that, except how I decided to mark the occasion of my first breakup. I put some dog poop on a piece of paper and slipped it through that hole in the screen. I wonder if she remembered me later. I’ll be she did.
At John Adams Junior High, on 30th and Broadway, life got more interesting still. I kept my paper-selling business going, selling the afternoon editions on the sidewalk and delivering the Sunday news, and even added a new line: I got to sell the Saturday paper during football games at the Coliseum! That meant I saw USC play their home games! And they were a blast to watch. I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket, so either the newspaper distributors got us in or we did it old school: hopping the fence!
And right next to the Coliseum stood the Olympic Swimming Stadium, and I learned to swim at the pool there. I took classes from a young woman there: Esther Williams. She later became the star of films that showcased her aquatic talents in amazing choreographed water ballets. It was a great place to grow up.
I loved Exposition Park. The Natural History Museum and Science Center were very popular back then, drawing crowds from around the region—remember, that was before television—and there were sunken gardens where my friends and I would go to catch frogs. The Sports Arena is on the site of what used to be the tennis courts. We used to pick up stray balls outside the fence there to bring home for games of catch. I didn’t know it at the time, but Pancho Gonzalez, who would become one of the greatest players of his day, was learning to play there while I was picking up balls that flew off the court.
One of the guys on the block was named Len Love and we used to hang out together often. I would climb on the handlebars of his bicycle and we would ride all over the city together. A favorite destination was Westlake Park—now MacArthur Park, renamed after the war in honor of the general. Len and I would ride double, carrying our fishing poles, to the lake there and cast our lines. We didn’t have success every day. But every now and then we would hook a few and we’d pack them up and ride back to Len’s house with them. Len’s mom would cook them up for us and, believe it or not, for carp caught at the bottom of a lake in the middle of the city, they tasted really good!
By 1937, we were living at 42nd Street and San Pedro Avenue near what was then Wrigley Field, built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. As the name suggests, that’s where the Chicago Cubs came for spring training. It was also the home stadium of the original Angels of the Pacific League.
In spring training, some of the other major league teams would come for exhibition games against the Cubs, and I would go with a friend to stand behind the left field bleachers and catch fly balls that were hit over the fence. We got a lot of free major league balls that way. And we also got to know who was who in the stadium. Bill Sweeney was the manager of the Angels at the time. This would not be significant except that his widow and I became neighbors years later in Arcadia in the 1960s. It’s a world full of coincidences.
Another friend from those days was Gilbert Perea. He and I discovered how to gain free entry into the downtown movie houses. There wasn’t a theater downtown that we couldn’t sneak into. We could see anything that was playing at the RKO Hillstreet, the Pantages, and even Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. If there was a movie we wanted to see, we would find a way to get in.
At the Paramount, which was on Sixth and Hill streets, we would climb up the fire escape on the alley side, then cross the roof and take a ladder on the Hill Street side that brought us to a window near the ladies’ lounge. When we saw a lady coming, we would knock and she would open it. Because we were just kids, the ladies would laugh. Not only they didn’t mind, they thought it was cute and even got a kick out of us! I remember seeing most of the movies that came out in those days. Gulliver’s Travels was one of them. Sometimes there were even stage shows before the main feature.
These adventures almost always went off smoothly. Almost.
One time, Gilbert and I went down to the United Artist Theater, although we didn’t know what was playing. We climbed the first ladder up to the roof and then another one down through the middle of the building into an open courtyard. Once there, we opened a door that led to the dressing rooms, then went through another door right into the orchestra pit. We had done this before and knew that we could usually count on front row seats, as most people don’t like to sit that close to the screen. So we took our usual places.
But on that particular evening, guess what was showing? The Los Angeles premiere of Gone With the Wind! With black-tie guests walking the red carpet and formally dressed women on their arms, the photographers taking their pictures with those huge Speed Graphics cameras and giant flashes, the whole shebang. So it didn’t take long for people to notice that Gil and Ed in our scruff corduroy pants and T-shirts looked a little out of place—just a bit. So the people in charge of the Hollywood premiere of one of the biggest films in history soon had their goons grabbing us by the seat of our pants and tossing us out the nearest exit with extreme haste and little consideration for our dignity.
Most of the big beautiful theaters that Gil and I used to sneak into fell into disuse and disrepair over the years. But the El Capitan has been revived, the Pantages features touring Broadway shows and they still have big budget movie premieres at the Chinese Theatre, now called TCL. Catch a matinee there sometime and think of me and Gil. We’re still there in spirit.
ABOUT THAT TIME, the summer I turned 14, my mother decided I should spend a year with my family in New Mexico. So I said goodbye to mom and my brothers and sisters and took the train east.
It was my first time leaving California. I was amazed at how different places looked as we passed through the towns of Arizona and New Mexico. When I got to Albuquerque, it was like going to another world. It was nothing like Los Angeles. It was a small town and I was used to the big city.
Like the towns I had passed through on my trip, most of the buildings there were made of adobe. The thick earthen walls kept them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. When I went inside them, I was surprised at how comfortable they were. Thanks to the old Spanish and Mexican architectural influence, the houses and stores were different than the ones I had grown up with.
I got acquainted with my grandparents very quickly. My grandma was a sweet gray-haired little old lady with kind eyes. But old grandpa was something else. He was no-nonsense kind of guy. He was raised a strict Catholic, and he got up every morning at five to attend Mass. He had white hair and a big matching moustache; he looked like Colonel Sanders, the friend chicken guy! But was always very serious-looking, I don’t think I ever saw him smile. He was very matter-of-fact and didn’t have time for nonsense. Grandma, on the contrary, was cheerful and always presented a happy face. Funny how two people so different can end up together.
I loved the change of pace from Los Angeles to New Mexico. Grandpa had a horse that he would hitch up to his wooden wagon and let me drive around town. The hills around Albuquerque sprouted a variety of wild plants, including wild onions that I gathered by the sackload. Sometimes we would travel across the river to the town of Pajarito, where my granduncle lived on his ranch. It was dotted with fruit trees, and I would fill up sacks of apricots, peaches, pears and plums. He also herded cattle on the ranch, and seeing that happening up close was really impressive.
Then my grandparents sent me off to visit my father in Socorro, about 75 miles south of Albuquerque. Socorro, population about 5,000 at the time, is a small town steeped in western tradition. Most of the people were either cattlemen or students at the School of Mines, which was right outside town. I took a Greyhound. It wasn’t unusual for kids to travel alone back then; people took it on themselves to watch over me and make sure I got off at the right stop.
I hadn’t seen my father in such a long time that I was afraid I wouldn’t remember him. But when I arrived at the Socorro bus station, he was waiting for me and he hadn’t changed that much. He was very happy to see me.
The journey from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to Socorro required some adjustments on my part as a young teen. I had to adapt to the places getting smaller and smaller. My father lived in a small house at the center of town. It was late by the time I arrived so he took me to a diner for dinner. After we ate, we took a walk around the town square and talked, just catching up. He presented himself in a good light, and I wanted to see him that way, too. He gave me some cookies and took me back to his place and we slept.
The next morning, he took me to work with him. He was the only baker in town at the only bakery and he still had his magic touch of making the very best bread. His only competition came from Albuquerque, but he had home court advantage as his bread was baked there in Socorro so it was always fresher. The bakery owner was never there, so my father ran the shop himself.
I enrolled in school. It was very different than what I was used to in Los Angeles. I still remember the teacher, Mr. Stapleton. His family owned a large general merchandise store in the center of town. Naturally, it was called Stapleton’s. But going to school also meant this: I soon met the local boys. Being from California, I was somewhat of a curiosity to them. But they all seemed to like me, and even gave me the nickname “Califa.”
The school had a football team and we played games against kids from smaller towns such as Belen and Magdalena. But the most memorable game we played was against a school from Albuquerque. We rode there in a rickety old bus that was threatening to fall apart the whole way. We played the best we could but lost 14-0. The Albuquerque boys were much bigger than us and they were better athletes, too. But it didn’t matter. We had more fun on the ride home than we did playing the game. We all sang together, we joked and in the end really didn’t care much that we had been stomped.
And it was an important trip for me on another level, too. I got to know a girl on that bus, a cheerleader who came along for the game. I had noticed her many times at school. Her name was Rosalie Lopez—no relation—Rosie for short. After that we became friends. And I wanted to know her better, so I made it my business to find out where she lived—a pretty easy task in our small town. I met her family and discovered that they were the owners of a big cattle ranch along the river from Socorro.
The ranch was operated by the oldest son, Antonio, and their number one cowhand, Bob Lukesh. He later married Rosie’s sister, Pablita. Mr. Lopez, Antonio’s father, stayed home and ran the business and ownership side. It was odd hearing Anglo cowhands such as Bob Lukesh and the others speaking Spanish and English; the two languages were both common currency there and it wasn’t long before I was speaking Spanish like a native even though it was my first exposure to the language.
Antonio and I got along really well. Once we got to know each other, he let me help around the ranch and taught me what I needed to learn so that I could help out. At first he let me help on the weekends when there was no school, but once summer came around I was there all the time. It was great. I got to know Rosie better and I got to experience life on the ranch. It was not like Los Angeles at all.
I learned how to round up cattle. I learned how to take care of the horses. I was astounded by their intelligence. I had never imagined they could be so smart. With hardly a coax from the cowboy, they could run out in front of a cow or a steer and push them back into the herd. If a cowboy roped a steer, the horse knew to back up in order to keep the rope taut so that the rider could “bulldog” him for branding—meaning the cowboy rides a horse alongside the steer, then ropes the steer, then jumps off the horse and wrestles the steer to the ground.
The sharpest of the horses was named Careto. He was a light buckskin with a white face. Careto was Bob’s favorite on the range. Then there was Pete, a dark roan with classic lines, a deep chest and tapered hindquarters. Pete and Careto were great pals; they’d always be standing together when they were out in the pasture, just enjoying each other’s company. Then there was Peanuts, and also Tiger. When I look back on it, I still marvel at how well this city boy adapted to ranch life and got to know these magnificent animals so well. I knew these horses just like they were people.
I got to know what to expect from each one. Tiger was the horse that I rode the most. That horse was different from the others. He was a dancing horse. He was constantly dancing. He would dance so much that he was always coated with a sheen of sweat. But that was a problem—he could wear himself out! He wasn’t good at rounding up cattle, though, so none of the other cowboys like to ride him. But he was great at riding alongside the herd to keep them close together.
But the best thing about Tiger was when I got to ride him into town. He got me so much attention and that made me feel so great. People would stop walking to look at my dancing horse as if we were in a parade!
Back at the ranch, cattle weren’t fenced in, they roamed freely and fattened up on grass and mesquite wherever they could find it. They’d often wander down to the river for a drink. One of our chores was to patrol the river to look for cattle that might be stuck in quicksand along the shore. If we spotted one, Bob or Antonio, on horseback, would put a rope on its horns and haul it out of the muck. As they got free, the ungrateful bovine would try to dig its horns into the side of the horse, but the horses were to smart and nimble and could always avoid the charge.
Sometimes the cattle would be stuck for so long that when we finally pulled them out of the muck they were so tired from struggling to free themselves that they could hardly stand up. Curiously, not even that stopped them from trying to charge at the horses, even though they’d fall to their knees while making the attempt.
After the cattle’s season of their freedom, roaming the range to breed and give birth, came the big roundup. Antonio hired extra cowhands to help. The cattle were herded into corrals and the newborn calves would follow. The cows were branded and with the Lopez Ranch insignia and earmarked, too. The steers were castrated so they’d grow big and fat for market and the heifers that hadn’t bred yet were put in a corral with a breeding bull so they could produce offspring.
That turned out to be one of the funniest scenes I remember from the ranch. Once, we left a bull with a number of cows, but he wouldn’t pay any attention to them—except for one. That wasn’t good; he was supposed to impregnate all of them! He was only interested in this one cow. He followed her all over the corral and ignored the rest of them. So we took her out of the corral and put her out of his reach. Or so we thought.
In the morning when we went out to check if the bull was working his magic on the other cows, lo and behold! He had jumped a six-foot fence and had reunited with his loved one. How in the world could a bull weighing more than 2,000 pounds clear a wooden fence without even breaking the top board? We could never figure that one out. Love is a powerful force.
One day, after a roundup, the cows in the corral were getting pesky—as they sometimes do once they’re cooped up after some time out on the free range. One of the cowhands walked where he shouldn’t have and an especially wild cow charged him. She had sharp horns, but fortunately he wasn’t gored. He did get tossed up into the air pretty high and landed quite hard, but his pride was hurt more than his body.
He was so angry he pulled out his knife and he was going to kill the cow for revenge. But Antonio advised him he would have to pay its market value. So he must’ve controlled his emotions by weighing the cost and decided to put his knife away. That was just one of the many colorful incidents on the ranch. It was great fun to be a young cowboy.
In addition to the ranching operation, there was some farming to grow feed. The Lopez family had a few acres of alfalfa and clover that had to be mowed and baled. This was before the days of motorized farm equipment, remember, so everything was done by horses. Two powerful beasts pulled the mower, the hay wagon and turned the baler. One was a 2,000-pound Belgian, the other was an equally heavy Persian. Both were massive animals, but gentle as lambs. After the alfalfa was mowed, it would be stacked and ready for baling. The baler compressed the hay as the horses turned in circles around it, somewhat like an old mill grinder worked. While the bale was being compressed, it was my job to feed the wire into the machine so that someone else could pull it out the other side and tie it. The work was pretty simple but I liked it anyway. After they were packed up, the alfalfa bales were stacked on a wagon, taken to the barn and stored to feed the livestock through the winter.
In the off season, the horses were moved to a corral behind the house in Socorro. That way, we’d have them to ride to the ranch for whatever work needed to be done. They knew where they were going, too. They loved the ranch and as soon as you started heading in that direction you would have to hold the reins tight to keep them from running too fast for you. But when you would be bringing them back to Socorro, you’d have to urge them on because they didn’t want to leave.
One day a heavy rainstorm hit. Afterward, Bob and Antonio took me to the ranch to check for any flood damage that needed urgent repair. Getting to the ranch meant crossing the river, but the rain had rolled down the mountains and turned the water from slow and lazy to strong and fast. We were scouting for the best place to cross when we got separated. I thought maybe I hadn’t seen where Bob and Antonio rode into the river, so, carelessly, I rode Tiger, the dancing marvel, into the current. He was up for the challenge and dived in without hesitation—as I said, he loved the ranch and always wanted to go back there and he knew that’s where we were heading.
I quickly realized we were in danger. We were in deep water and getting carried downstream in a swift current. Tiger was swimming like a champ, his ears were perked up and his long face pointed straight toward the opposite bank. I knew that I loved Tiger, but this was the first time I saw that he had this mighty character and I realized what a truly remarkable animal he was. The water was up over my hips but I felt as stable as if I were on a boat. All the silly dancing he did, all his over-exuberant prancing that tired him out so quickly on rides, that was all forgotten. He redeemed himself completely on this ride. He knew he was going to the ranch and no river was going to stop him.
I had learned to swim in Los Angeles, so I thought that if I had to, I might be able to make it across in a crunch. Maybe. But I was sure glad I had that solid horse under me and didn’t have to test that theory. He got to me to the other side, a few hundred yards downstream, but we were both OK. He stepped right out of the river, shook himself off and headed straight home to the ranch without me guiding him.
Bob and Antonio weren’t there yet. I climbed to the top of the ranch windmill to see if I could spot them coming. But before I could start getting worried, they appeared in the distance, heading up the trail toward us. They were relieved to see we were still alive. They had found our tracks going into the river but they couldn’t see where we got out! The river had taken us so far downstream that they hadn’t been able to find us and thought we might’ve drowned! Not only were the happy the day hadn’t ended in tragedy, but they expressed a new and deeper respect for me—and Tiger, the tiresome dancing horse who was now also a tireless swimming horse.
One day I went along with the Lopez family to an outing on the ranch. Everyone piled onto a flatbed truck and off we went. When we were on horses, we could just cross the river. But on the truck, we had to go ten miles south to a town called San Antonio and crossed at a bridge there. The roads were not paved, just dirt trails through brush, so the truck had to be tough and make its own way. It was slow going, so sometimes I jumped off and ran alongside to lighten the load and because I was impatient. I was excited, too: It was the first time I was on a trip with Rosie.
When we got to the far side of the ranch, we walked down to the pasture. At one end of the field, the fences met in a V-shape, and that’s where we could corner the horses so they would let us saddle them up. We had them rounded up in the corner, when Tiger, my pal, decided he was not going to be wearing a saddle that day and made his escape. When he bolted, he headed straight at me, the devil. I saw the mortal danger and hit the ground just in time to feel his hooves pounding inches away from my head. That was as close as I ever came to getting trampled. Don’t know what got into Tiger. But Careto and Pete, those two pals, were calm so I led them back to Rosie and Pablita. The girls jumped right on as if nothing had happened, as if Tiger hadn’t almost killed me. Rosie and Pablita took off on their ride; it was the first time I had seen them on horseback and boy, I was impressed at their skill. You don’t see girls riding like that in the city. I guess growing up on a ranch makes a difference.
There were all shapes, sizes and colors of wildlife around there amid the wooded plains. I’d hunt with a .22-caliber rifle for cottontail rabbits and take them to the butcher in Socorro, who would buy them from me for 25 cents each. Doesn’t seem like much in today’s money, but in 1938 I could buy a lot of things for 25 cents!
One day out hunting, I heard an otherworldly bone-rattling bellow. It was a huge, wild sound and I had to know what it was. So I bent down and stayed quiet while I headed in its direction. After a few minutes of low and slow stalking I got to a clearing and saw two enormous bulls facing off, snorting and scraping the ground with their front hooves. They eyed each other, circling the clearing sideways, blowing steam from their nostrils. I watched them for a long time as they tested each other. One would charge a few steps, then stop when he saw that the other wasn’t afraid. Neither of them went all the way to a fight, but neither of them was backing off, either. They kept staring each other down until I got tired of watching so I left them to what may have been their daily ritual. I often wondered if they ever actually fought, or if that was just what they did to entertain themselves.
Along the riverside, there was a cottonwood grove where we hunted for mushrooms that grew on fallen trees. They were delicious when the ranch cook prepared them for us. He was only there during roundups, though, when the extra cowhands came around. He would ride in with them, cook while they worked, and ride out with them afterward.
I never got tired of watching the Lopez boys. They were real cowboys. They were tough. They could rope a steer and ride a bronc without a moment’s hesitation. I watched many times while they broke in wild horses. Sometimes, just for fun, they’d try to ride a wild-eyed Brahma bull. Those are the ones that are tall and look even more imposing because of that big hump on their shoulders. Their main purpose on the ranch was for bull riding.
John was the youngest of the Lopez cowboys. He reminded of the comic strip character L’il Abner. He was so kind, so naïve—and strong as the bulls he rode. I once saw him lift a loaded wagon with his bare hands.
John and the others weren’t uncultured, though. Antonio played guitar, John played fiddle, Andres played the coronet and one of their friends played drums in a band that gigged at community parties at a dance hall my uncle owned. One night the drummer couldn’t make it so they had me sit in! All I could do was count four on the foot bass drum, so that’s what I did! And it was fun anyway.
Every now and then, I would catch a glimpse of a spectacular sight on the hill beyond the bluff of the ranch: a beautiful white stallion leading a herd of wild horses. It was something you’d see in a movie, but this was real. We chased them every now and then to get a closer look at the stallion, but he was too smart for us. He knew every ridge and canyon in those hills, and you would never be able to catch up to him. To outrun him and put a rope on him? Highly improbable, as he could go much faster than any horse carrying a rider. He’d watch us as we approached him, just standing there, head high, ears perked, absolutely beautiful and with all the confidence in the world, knowing he could break away and outrun us any moment he chose. Bob often said he was going to catch that horse, but he never did.
Here’s another funny story about New Mexico; this one’s about my great uncle, Anastacio Torres. As a former state senator, he had a pretty high profile in the community, so he knew if he played a practical joke it would attract attention. I read about this later when he pulled a prank just for laughs, right before the war:
A highway had been built through his property in Socorro. So one day he built a fence across the highway and put up a sign declaring that all drivers had to pay a toll. His property was on the original land granted by the Spanish to our family sometime about 1800. The right of way had never been legally acquired by the U.S. government, but he didn’t really care. He just thought it was worth a joke even though he was legally in the right. So he called the newspapers and word got out and it even got a write up in Life magazine! That’s where I saw it.
I had many experiences that year and those memories sustained me during the good times and bad times of the war, and cheered me through all the years after. Tiger at the river, the two battling bulls, the white stallion, the sights, sounds and feel of New Mexico cowboy country. One stands out as the strangest of them all, however.
We had spent the afternoon riding fences and were headed back at nightfall. Bob, Antonio and I were riding through the trees near the river. We were taking it easy, walking the horses, and they got spooked. They reared up in unison and started charging away like racehorses out of the gate. What happened? The horses bolted so fast I couldn’t tell for sure, but I felt, or saw, or imagined, an enormous flying presence, some bat-like creature but huge and spread out above all of us, hovering behind us as we were carried away. It took a while for the horses to slow down and when we calmed them and asked each other what happened, I told Bob and Antonio what I thought it was, and—sure enough—they felt, or saw, or imagined the exact same thing.
“What was that?”
“Did you see it?”
“I didn’t quite see it. More like felt it.”
“It was big.”
“Yeah. I think it had wings.”
“Yeah, it had wings.”
We never knew what it might have been, but whatever it was, the horses knew to get away quick. The next day, we were so intrigued, that Bob and I went back to the scene of the apparition.
To this day, I know something was there. I know the horses sensed something. But we never learned what it was.
It was an unforgettable year. I met so many wonderful people—my family, the ranch hands, and so many wonderful animals—Trigger, Pete, the bulls, the stallion. It all played a big part in making me who I am. The Lopez boys taught me how to be a cowboy and I also saw what it meant to be a man, there, too. They showed me kindness, courtesy and love. I learned the history of my family. And this city boy learned the cowboy way. It was great fun and I grew up a lot.
But then it was time to head home to Los Angeles. I took the bus back to Albuquerque and met my grandparents there. My cousin Sara had been visiting from Los Angeles with her new husband, Henry. Thanks to that happy family convergence I got to ride home in style—their brand new 1939 Plymouth!
COMING HOME felt as if I had never left. All my friends were still around, but they had been living what I saw as the dull life of the city. I had not written any letters while I was away, so I regaled them with tales of my cowboy adventures.
Then I got right back into the swing of things at John Adams Junior High at 30th Street and Broadway, rejoining my old pals in class. The old routine was familiar and fun. On the weekends we headed to Muscle Beach for workouts on the bars and rings. And we were always finding ways to keep busy. Whenever the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, we would amble down as they were setting up the big up on Washington Boulevard and Hill Street, and in exchange for help from our young muscles they gave us free passes.
And on weekends we started making money by diving off the end of the Venice pier. The people in the crowds watching the waves roll in got a little extra entertainment by throwing quarters into the incoming tide and watching us crazy kids jump in after them. It could be dangerous. The swells could be as high as fifteen to twenty feet, so you had to time your dive for the high water so you’d only be breaking the surface after a ten-foot fall. If you missed, you could hit the surf thirty feet down, and that impact could certainly result in pain or even injury. I was usually good at timing—instinct, as always.
The water was pretty clear in those days, not the dark green brine that it is now, so you could see the quarters shining at the bottom. I’d go to the bottom, scoop up a few fistfuls, and stuff them in my mouth so I could use my hands to swim back up to the surface. Once after a long dive I couldn’t help myself from shaking my head when I got to the top, and I had to open my mouth for air and the coins all went clattering past my teeth and back to the bottom again. I caught my breath and dived straight back down, going ape to recover my lost treasure.
Getting to the beach was almost as much fun as being there. Sometimes we hitchhiked and people let us pile into their cars. Or sometimes if a delivery truck passed with an open back door and it was going slow enough we hopped on. And guess what? Sometimes those trucks were carrying produce such as grapes or apples from the farmers market to local grocery shops, and we would have a feast before reaching Venice. The truck drivers were never the wiser, they never knew that they had provided both transportation and food to a bunch of fun-loving but hungry kids.
But by the time summer came around again I was nostalgic for my second home, Socorro. It was 1940 and New Mexico was calling to me and Gilbert, my partner in movie-house adventures. He had roots and family there, too.
I didn’t tell my family I was going. They figured I knew how to take care of myself at that point. Mom was confident I was OK.
We walked down to the train yard and hopped into the open door of a box car. We were young and barely knew which direction we were heading, let alone how to tell if our train was going to take us toward our destination. The first train didn’t take us very far; it stopped in San Bernardino, only about thirty miles away. We jumped off and waited for another train to make a move. A couple of hours later we spotted a long train on its way out of the yard. It looked promising. Well, by promising I mean at least it was heading east. So we hopped aboard.
We were riding on one of the flat cars. The open air seemed more inviting than the stuffiness of one of the enclosed box cars. It was like riding in a convertible—we had the air cooling us off! It was hot during the day, the wind was in our faces and when night fell we had the stars in the sky. We still weren’t sure exactly where the train was going, but it was headed in the direction of New Mexico and that was good enough for a pair of 16-year-olds.
It was a trip out of every boy’s dream, free as you’d ever want to be, enjoying a ride across the country, seeing sights you would never see from a highway. Once we left the city and its buildings behind, we were traveling through miles and miles of orange orchards. Then grapevines covered the landscape all the way from the flatlands to the mountains. It was everything you’d imagine: chaparral, desert vistas, trees, majestic rock formations on the horizon under the big blue sky, and we soaked up every minute, each view imprinted in our spirits for a lifetime. It was like living the song America the Beautiful and the purple mountains’ majesty from sea to shining sea. What a beautiful country we are so blessed to live in.
The train itself was a marvel. It looked like it was about a mile long. It chugged slowly around curves but got going at a pretty good clip on the straightaways and stopped only every few hours, about every 150 miles or so, to take on water. That would give us a chance to stretch our legs and wet ourselves down, too. It was summer in the desert, so it was getting pretty hot. We passed Kingman, then Seligman, and then we were chugging around cliff-sides where the tracks had been cut alongside a high canyon, with a mountain wall on one side and a sheer drop of 2,000 feet or so on the other. The scenery was breathtaking.
At Flagstaff, the train stopped to take on more water and shunt some cars. Once we saw that it was going to be a long stop, we walked into town for a visit. Soon we found ourselves bumping into other rail-riders. The train was so long we hadn’t seen them climbing on or getting off. They were hobos and they told us about life on the road. They were friendly fellows, older than us, but they were kind and treated us kids very nicely.
(We were lucky. These were the days when Caryl Chessman also hopped freights as a young man. In his book, he said he was sexually assaulted by hobos when they were riding the rails. His name is fading into history, but generations knew him as was the notorious “Red Light Bandit” and rapist in Los Angeles. He was executed in the electric chair.)
As we saw the train started moving again we hopped back on and settled back onto our flat car and continued to enjoy the scenery. We made another stop in Winslow. By then we were both hungry; we hadn’t eaten since we had left home. But since we were so caught up in our adventure, we hadn’t thought much about food. I had a few dollars in my pocket so we went into town and ordered hamburgers. We wolfed them down and then hurried back to the railyard. We got back just in time, hopped back on and settled down for sleep, bellies full thanks to the burgers. The darkness gathered and night fell.
When we woke up at sunrise we were out on the open range. We didn’t know if we had crossed from Arizona into New Mexico until we hit Gallup. I remembered the city from the last time I had passed through there when I had visited my grandparents the year before. The train stopped again in Gallup, and Gilbert and I took another walk, staying within eyeshot of the railyard so we could run to the train if it started moving again. But we needn’t have worried. They were taking their time in the yard—maybe the engineer had a girlfriend there!
We found a washroom to freshen up then hopped back on the train to Belen, which was a perfect stopping point, because it was south of Albuquerque and north of Socorro. Gilbert was headed to Albuquerque and I was going to Socorro, so that’s where we parted company and made a date to meet the next week. I hopped a train for my second home town.
When I got there my friends were really surprised to see me! I hadn’t written ahead or called. They were even more surprised when I told them the story of how I rode the rails to get there! My father wasn’t in town anymore; he had moved back to Los Angeles although I didn’t know it. So I stayed with Bob Lukesh and Pablita—and was happy to see Rosie again.
Bob took me for a look at the ranch and I was sad to hear that Careto, that awesomely smart horse, had died. Bob and the Lopez boys had gone out on the range for a long ride—yes, the goal was to capture that white stallion. When they spotted him they started the chase, but as usual the stallion would only let them get close enough to think they could catch him, almost like teasing, then take off like a lightning strike. They chased that stallion for three days, sleeping at night then picking up the trail in the morning. They were hoping to wear him out.
But it was Careto who ran himself to death. That horse had a heart as big as all outdoors and he did not give up the chase until he dropped dead. He was a great horse and it was fitting that he died that way. Like a soldier, in the heat of battle. Tiger was still going strong, though, and was just the same rambunctious prancer. I like to think he remembered me, the boy who crossed the Rio Grande on his back while the river raged.
I had a wonderful time during that week’s visit to Socorro, touching base with everybody I had met there my first trip, and it was too soon to leave but I had to get back to Belen to meet Gilbert. So I said goodbye, and for the first time, I actually kissed Rosie. It took me some time to work up the nerve to do it, but she seemed to feel it was just natural. I was soon on a freight rolling back to Belen.
When I got there, I went, I looked around for Gilbert, but didn’t see hide nor hair of him. Since it was still early in the day and we hadn’t mentioned an exact time or place, I went across the street to a park that was near the railyard. There was a girl my age sitting there and I struck up a conversation with her. She was cute and we talked and talked while we walked around most of the day, I told her about my life in Los Angeles and my adventures in Socorro, she told me about her life in Belen, and we made such a great connection! I’m sure if I would have stayed in that town we would have become an item, but it was getting late and I spotted a train that was pointing west and ready to roll. So with or without Gilbert, I had to make a move.
And then came one of the craziest parts of this adventure. I left the Belen girl quickly and ran through the railyard toward the train. Who do I see running right in front of me about to hop the same train? Gilbert! I was behind him, so he didn’t see me as I jumped on the train. But once on the train, I passed him and the train was picking up speed, so I didn’t think he could make it—and I jumped off! But just as I jumped off, he jumped on! So I ran and ran and ran as fast as I could to get back on the train, my legs straining, my lungs burning and I reached up and by an inch and a millisecond I managed to grab a ladder on the side of a box car, barely holding on, knowing that if I couldn’t keep my grip I would be swept under the wheels of the train and that would be it for me. I think all the training I did on the rings in Venice Beach paid off, because I just managed to pull myself up and away from certain death.
When I found Gilbert farther up on the train we both got a good laugh once we compared notes. We had both been in Belen for the day but hadn’t seen each other! Maybe it was because I was so wrapped up in my conversation with that girl in the park.
The trip home was just as good as the trip out. We jumped off the train at each stop and hopped back on as it left. We were old pros by then! What a way to travel. I’m so grateful I got to do that, it was an experience of a lifetime, one that Gilbert and I always cherished.
Hopping trains and riding the rails is something that every boy should be able to do, but nowadays it would be too dangerous, you’d probably wind up dead or in jail. At the time I thought that maybe we should plan a longer trip, now that we knew how great it was, maybe going all the way to New York and back. That didn’t happen, but I did have more traveling ahead of me. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Doing handstands with Gilbert
WITH SUMMER OVER, things were changing. Gilbert joined the Marine Corps. It was 1940, so he signed up before the draft.
I wasn’t ready for the service yet; I wanted to stay in school. My other friends were all enrolling at what was then Jacob A. Riis High School—named for the famous documentary photography whose pictures of New York tenements led to social reform—an all-boys school that was an early version of what today is known as “continuation;” an alternative school for kids who didn’t quite fit into the system. Or perhaps more accurately, those whose antics wouldn’t be tolerated in regular high school. But enrollment was voluntary. About 90 percent of the student body had chosen to go there, not by forced transfer, and the guys were pretty close already. It was more like a club where everyone knew each other.
I stayed at Riis only one semester even though I really liked it. And I was on the swim team and was torn because I didn’t want to stop going to meets. But Polytechnic was closer to home, and more significantly, there were girls, and that would make my life more interesting. So I transferred for the second semester and it didn’t take me long to fit in. I had gone to junior high with most of the kids there.
My grades—well, let’s just say I was you average student. But I did do well in physics and geography, and what I learned at Poly would definitely help me later with my years in the military. But the subject I hated most was English literature. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why on Earth they made us take that class. (And look at me now: I wrote a book! Only seven decades later!) But it was a requirement for graduation.
I wasn’t big enough to join the varsity football team, but I did get onto the B team, which was the best in the city. We won the city championship that year! I was OK at football, but we had other really good players. Looking back, I was lucky they picked me. I rode the bench a lot and only got to play when he had a good lead.
I did better on the gym team, where I was a natural thanks to years of workouts at Muscle Beach and Exposition Park. My coach was Mr. Lundy, an all-American gymnast. He later wrote me a letter of recommendation that helped me get into the Army Air Corps.
Then came the Day of Infamy. Sunday morning Dec. 7, 1941. We were reading the Sunday paper when the news came over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor and didn’t have the slightest idea where it was. I soon gathered it was in Hawaii. Out in the street, all the neighbors were talking about the attack and President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Sirens wailed all over the city. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars were rolling down all the main roads. The government had expected an attack on Los Angeles, but it didn’t come.
After the initial shock and fear that bombs might start falling, emotions cooled, but it was a new world. I can’t say that things got back to normal—they didn’t. The city was blacked out every night. We had to put up curtains so that no light could be seen from outside after dark. Volunteer wardens patrolled the streets and stood sentry at strategic points to warn of any attack. Shields were added above traffic signal lenses—that was to prevent any aircraft from seeing them and targeting the city in the dark. They’re still there! I guess they thought it was a good idea.
One night we were awakened by the sound of gunfire. We ran outside and watched in awe as huge searchlights swept the sky and anti-aircraft shells burst in the air. I didn’t see any enemy aircraft and I don’t think there were any. I believe some trigger-happy military man pushed the panic button and started shooting at imaginary enemy planes. My theory isn’t groundless: there were several documented cases of panic over supposed enemy attacks on the U.S. coasts after Pearl Harbor.
But for us, in the days that followed, we tried to go about our business. The war was so far away. Our only contact with it was through newspapers and radio reports. Slowly, life changed even more, though. Sugar and some foods were being rationed—and gasoline. But I didn’t have a car and didn’t use much sugar, so I wasn’t directly affected. But the faraway war would soon have an enormous impact on my life.
WHEN WE WERE LITTLE, my brother Hugo and I used to play pilot. We would make flying helmets with goggles and chin straps, like the ones we’d seen in pictures of airmen in biplane dogfights over Germany, and chase each other around the apartment making rat-a-tat sounds. We probably looked really silly, but we didn’t care. It was great fun to pretend to be a pilot. There was a radio show about a young pilot named Jimmy Allen. We listened each week and never missed even one episode. That was years before the war started, years before I graduated high school, years before I joined the Air Corps. Coincidence or destiny?
Even before Pearl Harbor, the Luftwaffe was in the headlines as they demonstrated the fearsome power of their Stuka dive bombers, as the Japanese were renowned for their Zero fighter planes. I followed as best I could as the air war intensified, especially with the bombings of London. I wondered if our planes were going to get into the fight.
When we traveled to Redondo Beach, I saw a P-38 fighter sitting in a meadow near the roadside. Next to the plane was a small tent where the pilot would sleep. I assumed he was there on high alert in case of an attack on Los Angeles. It is one impressive plane: The Germans called it the “fork-tailed devil.” It had twin props on booms attached to a central fuselage for the cockpit. The all three were connected at the tail, hence the name. I looked like a flying trimaran.
The war was going badly for us. We were losing battle after battle in the Pacific and hadn’t officially entered the European theater. But everyone knew that America was mobilizing and building up strength to defeat Japan in the Pacific and eventually defeat the Nazis in Europe.
That’s what was going on in the background of my last months in high school. After graduation, I spent a little time relaxing, hanging out with friends, enjoying the last weeks of the routine. I can’t say I was scared: I didn’t think about what was waiting for me. So the thought of joining the military and the possibility of dying in war wasn’t much on my mind. We were young and dumb.
But soon the date was Aug. 13, 1942. Time for me to enlist. I high-tailed it down to the Pacific Electric Building at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, where there was a recruiting office. Guess who I bumped into when I walked in?: Clark Gable. He signed up the same day I did. He was there to join the Air Corps, just like me. One of the most famous men in the world entered World War II side by side with me, a Latino scamp from Los Angeles. Funny, huh? He was very unaffected and chatted with us all as if he were just one of the boys, which he was. He joked about being the old man among us. He didn’t look old, but the rest of us were all just eighteen, so I can see how he felt out of place.
Gable was 40. He had enlisted after his wife Carole Lombard died in a DC-3 crash during a war bonds tour. He wanted to do more for the war effort, so he joined up alongside me. He became an officer, a photographer and an aerial gunner, assigned to a Hollywood contingent charged with pro-American war media. Most didn’t go overseas, but Gable did, making a propaganda film, Combat America, about gunners.
We signed enlistment papers and took an oath, then boarded buses to Fort MacArthur, the base in San Pedro. When we go there, the clerks gave us bedding and showed us to our barracks and bunks. We made our beds then went to the infirmary to get inoculated against every kind of sickness known to man.
Then we marched down to the supply station for our uniforms and gear, including gas masks, canteens and the rest. We got a dress uniform, fatigues, for both winter and summer, underwear, socks, boots and leggings. We had to learn to tie them with our pants tucked inside. And of course, a duffel bag to put everything in. Getting all of that done took a big part of the day.
We also got our dog tags. Those were very important, it was explained, in case we went and did something stupid like getting ourselves killed, so they would know who had died.
Once all that was taken care of, it was time for chow. So we marched down to the mess hall and I had my first Army meal. It was surprisingly good! We were marched back out for the lowering of the flag, then back to our barracks to sack out. Taps was blown at 9 p.m., lights out followed and everyone tried to get to sleep. I’ll bet the other guys had the same trouble dozing off as I did: I’m sure we were all thinking about all the things that had happened that day. But soon we’d have no problems falling to sleep at night, because days would be filled with training and exhaustion would take over after taps. Fort MacArthur was not the boot camp; it was called an “indoctrination center.” We had to check the bulletin board daily to see if our name came up with our destination for basic training.
Every day was the same: Make sure you had all your equipment and were ready to ship out if ordered. Then chat, play cards, chat some more, read.
It took about a week for my name to come up on the board, where I saw I’d be sent to Shepherds Field in Wichita Falls, Texas. That was great news, because it was an Air Corps training center and meant that I’d be going into the branch I’d wanted. Not everybody did. Especially if you waited for the draft, you’d most likely be assigned to the infantry, which wasn’t bad if you didn’t mind being a foot soldier.
The assignment meant I’d have to pack that night and be ready to leave the next morning. But the first thing you learn in the military is that you always have to hurry up and wait because nothing happens on schedule but you have to be there on schedule anyway. Wake-up was 5 a.m. like it was every morning, then out for roll call, then back to barracks for Triple-S: Shit, Shower, Shave. Fresh and clean, we grabbed our duffle bags and headed out to the front of the fort and waited for the buses to Union Station. We stood there for three hours before they came. Once they’d rolled up, the staff called our names one by one and we boarded.
At the train station, the lieutenant in charge warned us not to make any phone calls or talk to anyone about where we were going. Every move was supposed to be top secret. But I was never one to pay attention to these sorts of commandments. I was still a kid. I saw a pay phone in the lobby and called my mom to tell her that she did not have to worry about me, that everything was OK and I was doing well. But the lieutenant saw me, walked over and started chewing me out so I hung up on her in a panic. He said I would get extra duties for disobeying his direct order. But I got lucky: He either had second thoughts, realizing that my transgression was not so dire, or had too many more important things to take care of than Ed Lopez calling his mom, because I never heard another word about it. Soon after that, we all climbed on the troop train for the first of many train rides that would take me to many bases across the USA.
It took about five days on a slow troop train for us to get to Wichita Falls. Army trucks shuttled us from the station to Shepherds Field, a few miles from town. Then we marched up the street with rows of barracks on either side. The men who had just completed their basic training and were getting ready to leave were sticking their heads out the window and saying: “You’ll be sorry.” Of course I found out later that truer words had never been spoken.
To put it mildly, Shepherds Field was a hot, humid, dusty, muddy hell hole. You could be knee deep in mud but still be choking on dust from a few feet away where the ground hadn’t gotten as wet. Reveille sounded at 5 a.m. every morning. The drill sergeant was as charming as anything you’ve ever imagined. He’d come into the barracks right after the bugle blew and yell “UP AND AT ’EM” so that you could hear it even if you were deaf. And believe me, everyone got up in a hurry. We jumped into our fatigues and ran out to the front of the barracks, stood at attention for roll call then dashed back in for Triple-S. After changing into dress uniform, we marched out to the flag pole to stand at attention while the Star Spangled Banner played over the loudspeaker during the raising of the flag. We performed that ritual every morning. Then we marched to the mess hall for breakfast, which was scrambled eggs, hot cakes, coffee or milk. There was an occasional change-up in the routine, a treat of chipped beef on toast, famously dubbed “shit on a shingle,” which is what it looked like.
After breakfast we went back to barracks to change into fatigues again for close order drill—that’s when you march while the instructor is screaming in your ear—and then to the firing line for get-acquainted sessions with our M-1 rifle. Before we were allowed to fire it, we had to learn every part by heart, how to take it apart and reassemble it—blindfolded. I never understood why. I couldn’t imagine being under fire and having the time to assemble a rifle so I could shoot the enemy. But we soon go to shoot that hard-kicking gun, and our shoulders took quite the beating.
Our first challenge was to stop tensing up in anticipation of the kick, to learn to relax enough to squeeze off a shot real easy-like and hit the target. It was fun once I got used to it. But the firing range was the only fun part about basic training. The rest of the time was all hard work and classroom study. The toughest hours were running laps in a pasture amid the 100-degree Texas heat. After each run, everyone scurried to the water: canvas bags, three-feet wide and five-feet tall with five spigots along the bottom. The bags were filled with water and chunks of ice. We drank some and filled our hats with ice cold water to pour onto our heads. We ran so much in basic training that you’d have thought we were training for a marathon. But I’ll say one thing about that: We all got in shape in a hurry.
And as for the classroom work—today people talk about becoming “lifelong learners.” Well, I learned that was the case my first months out of high school when I joined the Air Corps. When I graduated from high school, I had thought education was over. But it was only just beginning. I would go to classes from the day I enlisted until the day I was released from active duty.
And now I want to mention one class that I really did not appreciate, not at all: the gas chamber. That was where they taught us how to use our gas masks. They put us in the gas chamber and we sat on a bench, holding our masks on our laps. The sergeant released the gas from outside. The test was to make sure you learned to unbuckle the mask and put it on before you inhaled any of the gas.
The lesson was this: Always be ready with your gas mask because you never knew when you could be hit with a gas attack. And another lesson was this: If you were hit by a gas attack when you did not have your mask handy, the best thing to do would be to urinate into a handkerchief and use the hanky in place of a mask. And the final lesson, to make sure we remembered to keep our masks ready, was this: The sergeant told the story of a soldier who was caught in a gas attack without a mask. He couldn’t pee so he had to ask his buddy to wet the rag for him. I have always doubted this story was true—but nevertheless, for the rest of the war, I noticed that the troops were pretty good about keeping their masks at the ready. I think they might have remembered the story about the guy who needed his buddy’s pee.
Despite my perfectly justified dislike of gasmask class, I made it through basic training. I survived those runs in the brutal heat of that Texan summer in Shepherds Field, the dust, the hours and hours of classroom lessons and even the gas chamber.
We got questionnaires asking us what kind of training we wanted for Air Corps duty. Some chose to be mechanics. Others wanted to learn administration. But me, like a lot of my classmates, I wanted more action. So we said we wanted to be trained as gunners on an air crew.
I got what I wanted and was assigned to Las Vegas for gunnery school. Soon I was on another slow troop train headed to Nevada. We stopped in Salt Lake City, though. And waiting there for about a week.
Las Vegas during World War II was not what it is today. It was a sleepy town with a main drag cut into the middle of the desert. No big casinos, just a few saloons and a gaming hall. McCarren Field, now at the south end of the strip, was five miles out of town. But it was still much better than Texas—just about anything would be.
A P-38 Fighter, such as the one I saw parked in Redondo Beach
FOR ONCE, we didn’t waste a lot of time when we got to McCarren. Right after check-in, the staff gave us a tour of the base, showing us the different areas where we would be practicing gunnery. We started with a lot of classroom time and some calisthenics to keep us in shape each morning, then some marching—but not for the sake of marching, to get from class to class. No close-order drilling. They were clear about our priority: To become the best aerial gunners in the world!
But I thought they over-taught us. For example, we had to study and learn the intricate workings of the upper and lower turrets of the B-17 and B-24 bombers. Both bombers were equipped with two 50-caliber machine guns in each turret and those guns were complicated pieces of machinery. If anything went wrong in combat, we wouldn’t have the time to fix it, nor the tools nor the workspace. Our job in flight would be to shoot down enemy planes at high speeds, not to do complex mechanical repairs. Some knowledge would have been very useful to quickly trouble-shoot and unjam simple problems, but the knowledge they gave us to do a full repair job would not have been applicable in second-by-second life-or-death situations. But by the time we went out to the shooting range, at least we know our weapons forward, backwards and even upside down.
One of the earliest training drills was sitting in the back of a Jeep with a 12-guage shotgun. As the Jeep drove around an oval track, we passed by some huts where clay pigeons were launched. We would have to get the angle right, get the lead right and then factor the speed of the Jeep into the equation. Like trap-shooting, only from a moving vehicle, making it much more challenging to hit the flying targets. I must say, it was a lot of fun.
We did lots of ground practice, then it was time to get our first taste of shooting from aerial positions. It was a crazy experience, because for me and most of the other guys, it wasn’t only our first time shooting from the air, it was our first time in the air, period. Flying around my apartment with Hugo in our imaginary biplanes didn’t count.
We were in the back seat of an AT-6. The targets were canvas banners, about ten feet long and four feet wide, and we shot at them while they were towed by another airplane. My first attempt was a disaster. Not only did I fail to hit the target, but I got really sick and when we landed I fell to my knees and barfed. At least I didn’t throw up in the plane. I got a severe chewing-out by the pilot and was told I needed to do much better if I wanted to be an aerial gunner.
I looked at things from his perspective and figured that as a second lieutenant he was probably pissed off in general at having to play nursemaid to a bunch of wannabe gunners when all he wanted to do was to be fighting for his country in combat in the Pacific.
Whether it was my determination to prove I was better than I first looked, or I just naturally improved, my second flight went much more smoothly. I was hitting the target. We could tell whose bullets had hit by the color they would leave. Each man was given different colored bullets so that our performance could be evaluated. Slowly we moved into full-time aerial practice, leaving ground practice behind.
The planes were ATs—or advanced trainers. I had no idea at the time that I would be spending many hours in the planes learning to fly; I still thought I’d become a gunner after our six weeks of training. We graduated as full-fledged gunners, marched out on parade and stood at attention in an open field. When my name was called, it was a big moment for me. I advanced forward, front and center, and received my gunners’ wings and promotion to Buck Sergeant, along with a diploma confirming I was an aerial gunner in the Army Air Corps.
Off I went, not into the wild blue yonder yet, but back on another troop train to Salt Lake City, waiting for an assignment to a combat crew. I waited there another four days. We played cards. Talked baseball. Went into to town to pick up girls. What you’d expect. Then took another train to Gowen Field near Boise, Idaho.
It was a beautiful setting, surrounded by majestic mountains under pristine blue skies. But the work wasn’t idyllic at all. Gowen Field was the training site for the men who’d be flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, which were used to drop masses of bombs on German industrial and military sites. The crews included pilots, navigators, bombardiers and us gunners and we weren’t there to enjoy the Pacific Northwest, we were there to learn to become mission-critical airmen. Each team also included non-flying crewmembers, such as mechanics, armorers and radiomen. Our team was assigned a plane and we started doing practice bombing runs in short order, learning how to work together as one unit. I was assigned the position of tail gunner. That meant I squeezed into a cramped space mostly taken up by two 50-caliber machine guns—that could be spun in all directions.
The first runs were strictly for takeoff, navigation and landing. But soon, we were dropping dud bombs on targets—wooden rafts—that were floating in a nearby lake. We did one of those exercises on Thanksgiving Day 1942. I had been in the service for three months. When we got back from the lake, we walked into the hall for the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had, or could ever have imagined, with all the fixings. Everything you could think of was laid out for us. It was impressive—they outdid themselves. Maybe they thought we deserved it because it could be our last Thanksgiving. In some cases, that was what happened. A few of the guys that I ate with that night did not get another Thanksgiving.
About that time, the Air Corps was backing up the British Royal Air Force in the war against Germany. Americans were flying daylight missions and the Brits were flying at night. Us Yanks were sustaining heavy casualties due to German anti-aircraft and dogfights with Luftwaffe squadrons. That was in the newspapers and on the radio. But I was young and didn’t think it would affect me much. After all, I was training to be a gunner on the B-17 bomber.
But soon after Thanksgiving, a notice was posted on the bulletin board. Due to the chaos in the skies over Europe, the Air Corps was in serious need of pilots and was testing anyone who might be interested. And I was. I was interested indeed. I signed up to see if I could be an aviator.
AT-6 planes; I learned both gunnery and how to fly on these!
READY FOR TAKEOFF
IT WAS ALMOST too good to be true. When I was a kid, I used to play at being pilot. Now I had a chance to live my childhood fantasy! I put my best efforts into the test, which suited me. It asked questions about geography and physics, but there were also a lot of questions that required just common sense. I passed and a week later were we assigned for classification at a center in Nashville. Along with a few other guys, I was advised to pack my gear, fill out the paperwork and get ready to ship out.
The train was different than the ones I was used to. We were not at G.I. level anymore so it was not a slow-moving troop train. We were on our way to becoming pilots, and as future cadets we had porters waiting on us, Pullmans to sleep in and diners to eat in. We had a grand time on the trip—lounging, reading, betting on card games. It only took five days to reach Chicago, our first stop. We disembarked and they even put us up at a fancy hotel, but we didn’t take full advantage of the accommodations because we were out on the town, sampling the food and the nightlife of the Windy City. But what I remember most about that night was the bitter cold whipping off the lake. I had a thick army coat on and the chill bit through that wool like it was nothing at all. Chicago in December was really, really cold for a California boy.
By the time we got to Nashville, there was snow on the ground there, making everything look pretty, and it wasn’t as cold as Chicago, either; all things considered, it was rather pleasant. On Christmas Day some of the boys got a poker game going on. I didn’t feel like playing, so they asked me to go into town and scare up a bottle of whiskey. I took a bus into town and back. When I returned, they wanted me to join them and were surprised to find out I didn’t drink alcohol. So I just watched them play and drink. That’s how I spent my Christmas in 1942. I remember it vividly.
During my short stay in Nashville, the Army gave us all many different types of tests. The goal was to determine whether we would be best suited to be pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Again, it looked like my childhood dreams were coming true: I was classified as a pilot trainee. And I was assigned to Santa Ana, a 30-mile drive from home in Los Angeles. So that meant I was back on the train, but again, not in the old troop trains, but in a plush compartment on a cross-county luxury ride suitable for the elite of the military—pilots. I was getting used to this better treatment; it was a big improvement from the transportation I had learned to live with as an enlisted man.
In Santa Ana, we got a class number, 43-J. That designated the year and month our class was scheduled to graduate. The year was 1943 but the month was not January, June or July, it was October: J stood for the tenth month. I retained my rank as sergeant so that if pilot training didn’t work out for me—not everybody would make it through—I could revert to my status as an aerial gunner. And I was still receiving sergeant pay, $75 each month, plus a stipend for flight pay, $175 each month—so I got two upgrades. I was stylin’!
And I got to dress up spiffier. The first thing on the agenda upon arrival at the preflight center for the Western Training Command in Santa Ana was getting a cadet uniform, including form-fitting blue trousers with a white-strip down the side of each leg, and a hat with a propeller emblem. In the place of fatigues, we got dressier exercise pants and shorts. I looked sharp! Things were good on every level.
We had six weeks of classroom work, where the trainers explained what we were going to be doing. The courses covered everything we’d need to know about aviation but non-flyers wouldn’t even know how to ask: Theory of flight, weather, navigation, engines and more. The next phase of training was going to be the real thing: flight school. When we weren’t in class, we put on our exercise clothes and did calisthenics out in a field to stay in shape. Our weekends were free, so I could go home and spend time with my family.
There were several flight school locations. Some were out in the desert, others were in the San Joaquin Valley. But we all wanted to go to the one in Chino, because rumor was that it provided country club amenities. Once again, my luck held. That’s where I was sent. (They called it Ontario, but it was really in Chino.) The training site, Cal-Aero Flight Academy, was run by civilians under military contract. Today, it’s home to an aviation museum called Planes of Fame.
And the country club rumor proved true. No more barracks and bunk beds. We had first-class motel rooms, two cadets per room, with a private bathroom, desks, a nice lamp—nothing but the best for aviation cadets. Plus, there were no guards at the gate; you were on your honor not to leave the base, unlike other military installations where you would sometimes feel like a prisoner. But if you violated the honor system, you stood a good chance of being washed out, so we were hardly tempted to go AWOL. The risk far outweighed any reward. We were very determined to become pilots.
And our wardrobe was completed with flight gear: jumpsuit, jacket, and a leather helmet with goggles. The helmets also had ports at the ear for the tube, the Gosport, so you could hear the flight instructor talk to you over the roar of the engines while you were in the air; there was no radio in the plane for person-to-person communication.
Things went pretty fast: We were soon told to put on our flight clothes and march down to meet our instructors. Each instructor was going to train six cadets. My instructor had the unlikely name of Elmendorf—even though he spoke with a Spanish accent. He had a thin mustache and immediately impressed me with his flight skills; this guy could handle an airplane as if were an extension of his body.
The training planes were PT-17 Stearmans. We sat in the cockpits of the biplane and got familiar with the controls and instrument. Looking back, it was an excellent plane for training of beginning pilots. You had to control the plane from the time you started the engine until you landed and shut the ignition. By that I mean you had to pay attention to everything that was happening every second. The narrow landing gear would make it easy to ground loop out of control if you weren’t alert to how you were handling it. Most people who grew up after the war saw them at air shows or even crop-dusting—or just in photographs. But when I learned to fly at Cal-Aero there were as many as four hundred of them parked in Chino; it looked like rush hour on the freeway.
We had to take some razzing from the upper class. I realized later that there was a purpose to that. You had to learn respect, but when you graduated as an officer in the Army Air Corps, you had to learn to take orders as well as give them. Plus, the razzing was nothing we couldn’t handle.
One of our drills required us to march around the base in a stiff, straight-up attitude, and when we came to a corner, we had to extend our arms as if they were wings, then stop and look under and over each arm, and then continue. That was to teach us to look in all directions when flying.
That part might seem silly, but I have to say: I really enjoyed the marching. That’s because we sang while we marched. Most of the songs are not for sensitive ears. But I still fondly remember:
I’ve got sixpence, jolly, jolly sixpence, I’ve got sixpence, to last me all my life
I’ve got two pence to spend, and two pence to lend, and two pence to send home to my wife—poor wife!
I would sing at the top of my lungs. Singing as we marched was a great morale booster. I loved to sing as we marched!
But all the while, we wondered: Would we make it as pilots, or would we wash out?
There were about 150 us in our class. Twenty-five percent washed out in preflight training; they couldn’t grasp the basic theoretical concepts of the aerodynamics of taking off and landing. Another 10 percent didn’t make it through the primary flying courses; they just didn’t have the coordination or the common sense.
At last, the time had come to fly my first airplane and I would soon find out if I could be a pilot or not.
I HAD LOTS of airtime as a gunner in the back of the AT-6, and then the belly of a B-17. But this was different.
I was in an open cockpit with the wind in my face and nothing to keep me from falling out except my safety belt. The only measure of comfort was that we were equipped with parachutes. We knew that the average training time before a cadet would be allowed to solo was eight hours, so the pressure was on. Could I perform well enough during my training hours to be allowed to solo after eight hours?
As I mentioned, the vintage biplanes were the perfect choice of a training plane. Not only did you have to pay attention every step of the way, but they offered a level of simplicity that any beginner could grasp; there were only basic instruments: An airspeed indicator, altimeter, tachometer and temperature gauge. We had to watch our air speed to make sure we weren’t going to stall. We had to watch our altimeter to make sure we had climbed to the correct height. I’m making it sound simple, but on the first flight, that was plenty for an untrained mind.
The biggest challenge of the Stearman, though, was landing. Because of its high, narrow landing gear, it had a tendency to go out of control once it touched down on the runway: ground looping. But our instructors were top-notch and always reminded us: land in a three-point position, with the rear wheel down, too, for added stability. I quickly mastered the landing and was sent up to solo after less than the eight-hour average training time. The Stearman was the most difficult plane to land that I ever flew throughout my time in the Army Air Corps and even later in the Air Force.
So I passed my training period. But now the pressure was really on. Flying solo.
It was a critical time. Many of the cadets couldn’t get the hang of it and washed out. It didn’t matter how brilliant you were. Some of the brainiest cadets didn’t make it through Cal-Aero. They had lots of book smarts, but didn’t have the coordination or common sense that they needed for this. I was by far not the most intelligent nor educated cadet in my promotion. As a matter of fact, I admit I barely got by in class.
But flying came naturally to me, just like horseback riding. I had no trouble soloing. I was the first to solo in my class. All that meant, though, was that I did well with an instructor behind me, guiding me through the training flights by talking to me through the Gosport. And training wasn’t over once I started soloing, either. My instructor would join me after every few solo sessions to show me something new, and then I would go up for a few flights to practice my new skills on my own. And I had a lot to learn.
My instructor’s forte was aerobatics. He showed me unbelievable maneuvers. And even now that I write all this down, maybe it was this aerobatic training that got me through the war. Loops. Lazy-Eights, Cuban Eights. Chandelles (banked U-turns). Spirals. Power on and off to learn how to handle a stall. Flying upside down. Split S (dogfight combat maneuver). And of course, the outside loop.
In a normal loop, the pilot is on the “inside” of the loop, and the G-force is positive. In other words, centrifugal force is pressing you “into” the plane, and the blood flows from your head to your seat and your feet—and drains from your head, which presents a risk of blacking out.
But in an outside loop, you feel negative G-force—in other words, your seat belt is the only thing keeping you from being pulled out of that open cockpit. Plus it puts huge stress on the plane. The Stearman may be the only plane that could routinely take that kind of punishment without breaking apart. But we had to learn that maneuver well. It would come in handy for both evasion and attack if we were in combat dogfights.
Flying solo was great for my confidence. But we were also taught that confidence can quickly become overconfidence. There was even an airman’s term for it: “Your head is up and locked.” That was the nice way of saying “Flying with your head up your ass.” It’s one thing to learn that it can happen. It’s another thing to experience it. And experience it I did, very soon.
One day I was practicing my aerobatics and having a great time. The flight went perfectly well. But I got into trouble as I approached the runway. I was in my normal landing pattern and about to touch down when a gust of wind came in and lifted my right wing, sending my left wing dragging on the runway. The sudden burst of wind took me by surprise and I failed to reacted and correct—I had grown complacent and wasn’t prepared. But fortunately, I then managed to avoid ground-looping. Needless to say, the left wing was damaged. And perhaps my record.
I had to face the consequences. I was immediately grounded. I went before an evaluation board. They asked a lot of questions. They were especially interested in my attitude in addition to my aptitude—whether I was forthcoming and honest about what happened.
After that, I had to have a check-in ride with an instructor. The check pilot told me to do whatever I wanted so he could observe how I handled the plane. So I did a few maneuvers, nothing too fancy, and then he told me to shoot a landing.
I had learned my lesson and so I was completely aware of each instant and each eventuality. I came in on a perfect pattern, gliding onto the runway in a flawless three-point landing. The check pilot told me he did not even feel the plane touch down and hadn’t even realized we were on the ground until afterward. So that was the end of my probation and I was back on flight status. That would be the only plane I ever damaged due to pilot error. But it was also the closest I came to washing out.
It was an excellent learning experience, however. From that moment on, I learned to fly expecting the worst. I was always alert and ready to take corrective action when coming in for a landing. You have to be ready to get hit by a crosswind so that you can either “crab” into it—push sideways—or lower your wing on the wind side so the other wing doesn’t dip like mine did. It’s a good thing that happened to me. It woke me up. They say you shouldn’t invest with a broker who hasn’t lost his first million yet. The piloting equivalent is that you shouldn’t fly with anyone who hasn’t gotten into and out of a jam. You don’t know who you are until you’ve been tested.
There was one more measure to take following my botched landing. During our evening meal at the flight school’s restaurant (we called it a mess hall, but we had separate tables and waitress service), each cadet who had a mishap had to stand and explain to everyone what happened, how he got into the predicament and how he would avoid it in the future. When it was my turn, I tried to add a little humor.
“I wet my finger and stuck it out of the cockpit, it didn’t do much good, because it seemed like the wind was coming from the nose of the plane and I just couldn’t understand that.” Everyone knew I was kidding of course, but I concluded my speech in all seriousness with a reference to the saying about “head up and locked”: No matter how good of a pilot you are, “you must always keep your head out of your ass!” I got some laughs, but everyone knew that the joke conveyed a lesson, too.
We also had military pilots come to evaluate us, as the Cal-Aero instructors were civilians. Once we were approved by the civilian trainer and the military evaluators, we were ready to move on. That process took three months. We were pretty good pilots by then. Or so we thought. We had big surprises coming, and not just in terms of what we would have to learn. On graduation day about 120 of us marched out on parade for review by some high-ranking military officers. Our days at the country club came to an end.
Our orders came the next day for transfer to military flight school. Some cadets got sent to desert bases and others to the San Joaquin Valley. I got sent to Gardner Field, near Taft, just south of Bakersfield. It was the closest school to Los Angeles, so I thought I was lucky again, but as we’ll soon find out, my luck had run out.
And not just because the country club life at Cal-Aero was over. It was because I would be set back for three promotions because I was assigned there.
Gardner Field was a military base, with military instructors and all the oppression of military life. There were no more private rooms, no more waitresses taking our orders and bringing us our plates. It was back to real barracks and a real mess hall. We were sleeping in bunks and lining up for chow again. And you had to take only what you could eat because you were under supervision to prevent any food from being wasted. If you had any food on your tray when you brought it back, an officer would send you back to finish every morsel. And there were guards at the gate so you had to have a pass to leave. You only got a pass on weekends, but that was good enough more me. I could still catch a bus home to Los Angeles and spend my down time with my mom and Hugo and my sisters.
Our instructors took us out for a look at the plane we’d be flying, and when we say the cockpit of the BT-13, what a shock it was. We thought we were pilots because we had mastered the Stearman, but when we saw all the instruments in the BT-13 we were overwhelmed. It looked like we were going from basic math to theoretical physics, or from Dick and Jane to Dostoevsky. How in the world were we going to be able to learn to fly this thing? There were so many instruments that we’d never seen before and had never even heard about. There was the control for the variable pitch propeller. There was a manifold pressure gauge. There were trim tabs, flaps and what looked like a whole cockpit full of switches and dials. Wow!
We had a lot to learn—again. The instructors were very capable teachers, though. They did a really good job of communicating the fundamentals. Fortunately, one of the first things they taught us was not to be intimidated by the instruments. Sure, there were so many, but you only had to glance at them once in a while to make sure they were all in reading in the green, and above all we learned never to get hypnotized by fixating on one gauge. Always keep your eyes moving, not only in the cockpit, but out the window. If there were two planes in the air and the pilots weren’t paying attention to each other, that was a recipe for a midair collision. Those two planes would almost inevitably come together.
It didn’t take long to solo in the BT-13. After an hour of dual instruction we were let loose. It was a very stable airplane. It was—and felt—much heavier than the Stearman. Plus it had wide landing gear, which made touchdown much easier. You had to be a real dunce to botch a landing in the BT-13. But there were a few real dunces, and those cadets couldn’t handle the plane and washed out. So there was always a risk of getting eliminated from the program.
The training went fast. After only a few hours of flying in the day, we were introduced to night flying. We learned to touch down at night without our landing lights by using the runway lights as reference. I actually liked that better than using the landing lights. It seemed that I could feel the runway better that way and it was more satisfying.
Night flying had its surprises, though. We were taught to never look straight into a light at night, always look at it from the corner of your eye. Nevertheless, one of the cadets made a mistake—he flew his plane straight into the ground. He survived but the crash shattered his lower jaw and wiped out a BT-13.
The guy was bunking next to me, so I had a chance to talk with him once he got out of the hospital. He had seen a red light coming at him. He tried to duck it, jammed the stick forward and dived to avoid a collision. Before he knew it, he crashed. I thought to myself, “How stupid can you be?”
But just a week or so later, I was doing some night flying when I noticed a red light heading for me. I could have sworn it was flying straight into the cockpit. So I started to dive the airplane—just like he did!—and I remembered my bunkmate’s experience and my training, and turned my head to see the light from the corner of my eye. Sure enough, there was a red light. But it was about ten miles away on top of a mountain. I pulled back on the stick to regain the altitude I’d lost. That experience taught me a very valuable lesson: Never judge another pilot’s mistake unless you know from experience what happened. I never looked directly at lights when flying at night again.
Our instructor, Lieutenant Green, was a great teacher. In no time, we were flying the BT-13 like old pros. Green would take us out on simulated dogfights that included advanced aerobatics. I was proud when he picked me to fly alongside him in tight formations practically wingtip to wingtip—it showed he must’ve liked my flying.
He would push his right rudder and opposite aileron and I had to know what he was doing and follow right along to stay in tight. Our aerobatics included Split S formations, which were tricky. If he rolled to me, I had to roll under him and if he rolled away I had to roll above him. It was an amazing exercise in coordination. And we did a lot of advanced navigation.
There was one level of uncertainty, though. We didn’t know whether we would be fighter pilots or bomber pilots. Either way, we’d have to know how to navigate. But bomber pilots had their own navigator on board as part of the crew. Fighter pilots, of course were solo fliers so they did their own navigating. And we did not know which advanced flight school we would be assigned to yet.
We also practiced landings. One of the most challenging was one we had to do with a cable stretched about thirty feet high across the runway. The goal was to come in right over the cable and then land as close to it as possible. It was practice for short-runway landings.
So here’s how I learned to do that: Come in nose high, just above stalling speed, then chop the throttle at the cable. The plane comes down fast, but right before touchdown, you add a smidgen of power to ease the landing. With just that little touch, you wouldn’t fly up from the stall and the prop wash gives you just a bit of lift, then you chop the throttle again.
Everything was going fine. Then …
As graduation approached, I started feeling really weak and I wasn’t functioning well. I went on sick call and they diagnosed me with Valley Fever, a lung infection caused by spores released from soil dust. I had thought I was lucky when I didn’t get sent to the desert, but I contracted it at Taft in the dust of the San Joaquin Valley. They didn’t have antibiotics for it like they do today, so I was hospitalized for three months until my lungs cleared. I played cards with other patients. I read. They checked my lungs constantly. There were quite a few other guys on my ward at the big military hospital right at the airfield. But I was the only pilot. They looked up to me as if I were some kind of celebrity! So my graduation was delayed from October 1943 to January 1944.
When I got out of the hospital and restarted my training, they gave me refresher courses to get back up to speed, including flight practice. I was relieved to see that I had not lost any knowledge or ability to do a good job in the cockpit. It only took me a short time to catch up and graduate from basic flight school with the class of 44-A. The advanced flight schools were in Arizona and Texas. It was time for my assignment to come up.
I was sent to Chandler, Arizona, to learn to be a fighter pilot! The base was Williams Field, just outside Phoenix. We would be flying the AT-6, the same airplane I’d flown in the back seat during gunnery school.
By that time, the cadets who could get the hang of flying had been washed out. If you had gotten this far, your chances of getting your wings and your commission were pretty good, in terms of not getting dropped from the program. There was another way to get eliminated, though. You could be killed in a crash. That didn’t happen in my classes, though—no fatal crashes.
The war would be different. American pilot fatalities in combat and in non-combat accidents constitute stunning statistics. About 40,000 pilots died, and a similar number of planes were lost. Many of the pilots were killed in non-combat crashes, including training. That is about one-tenth the number of all American military dead in World War II of about 420,000.
For comparison, for Vietnam, the total number of American deaths in all military branches was about 60,000.
Even though I had flown in in AT-6 before, I had never had to concern myself with the cockpit. It was just as overwhelming as when I first saw the BT-13. The plane was more complex and a higher-performing plane than anything I had flown before, loaded with instruments plus the controls for the retractable landing gear. And the landing gear was narrower than the BT-13 and it was much heavier, too. Nevertheless, it proved easier to land than the old Stearman.
We had to spend a few hours in the cockpit just to get acquainted with all the gauges, dials and controls. But we still didn’t know if we were going to be flying single-engine fighters or dual-engine aircraft in the war. Soon we were back in the air with the AT-6 for a few hours. Then, we moved right on to the dual-engine RP-322 (a version of the P-38). It had tricycle landing gear, so it was a snap to get onto the runway. Instead of having a third wheel on the tail, it was right behind the two front wheels, so you didn’t have to “three-point” it, just land on the main wheels and let the nose come down slowly, like the planes of today.
We met in the ready room for instructions on what we had to practice: landings, aerobatics, formation, navigation. After a few hours of practice, we were checked out by our instructor. We usually flew alone, except when we practiced instrument flying, where we put on a hood that limited our line of sight. It allowed us to view only the instrument panel, so you could not see outside the cockpit to orient with the horizon. That trained us for zero visibility.
It was tough, but you got used to it. Your sense would tell you one thing and the instruments would tell you the opposite. Believe your instruments and forget what your sense are telling you, we were taught.
Another way to practice instrument flying was the flight simulator. I spent many hours in the one they had there, called the Link Trainer. It paid off.
After many hours of flying under the hood and our simulator time, we had to pass our instrument flight check with a very strict check pilot. I passed, of course.
We continued our practice maneuvers. It was fun flying alone. Boring holes in the air made me feel like I was detached from the rest of the world, soaring like a bird with the whole sky to myself. But I got an even bigger charge out of flying formation with my fellow cadets. We were flying very tight echelon formations and other groupings, inches apart at speeds of 160 miles per hour.
I’m making it sound like we were flying a lot, and we were, but we spent more time in the classroom, marching and exercising. Classroom work at that point was learning how to be an officer and a gentleman, learning how to take orders and how to give them. The exercising was to keep us in good physical condition as that helped us stay mentally alert.
I can tell you that I was with some of the brightest youths in America. And that was hard for me to believe. How I could keep up with them, I will never know. Most were smarter than I was. But only a few others had the natural ability to take to the air like I did. I noticed this many times. While other cadets had trouble learning a new maneuver, it came to me very easily. So that boosted my standing with the instructors on the flight line, even though I was hardly the teacher’s pet in the classroom.
But the day finally arrived, the day we had all been dreaming of but fearing it might never come. All the challenges of learning, the studies and the worry over being washed out were behind us now. We were ready. It was graduation day, the day we earned our wings.
We had a big parade and there were dignitaries—including celebrities whose sons were in my promotion—watching the ceremony. We marched in review and sat in front of a stage to wait for our names to be called. My family could not come that far. But my classmates had parents who could and did. It was only then that I realized some of them were from famous families. If the cadet’s family was present, the wings were given to the parents, who pinned them on. When they called my name, I walked with pride to the stage and got my wings and second-lieutenant bars. As my mom wasn’t there, a high-grade general stuck them onto the breast of my uniform. That was a big moment for me. I was radiating pride and joy. I was a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
As an officer, it is customary to give a dollar to the first enlisted man who salutes you. The G.I.’s were walking all over the base to salute anything that was walking. I gave many dollars away. I didn’t want to disappoint the guys who thought they were giving me my first salute, so I let them believe they were. It got a little expensive.
So I was ready to go. Ed Lopez from Los Angeles, waiting for my order to join a combat fighter squadron. But that didn’t happen. I don’t know why, and it made me wonder if I had scored low on flying or if they didn’t trust me enough to send me into combat for some other reason. It was a real cause for concern.
Instead, I got orders to report to Chico as a basic flight instructor. It was a disappointing blow, although in hindsight it was a blessing. The pilots who went directly into combat from flight school did not have anywhere near the experience I would have after the hours I would accumulate as an instructor. In any case, this was the military, and you do as you are ordered and keep your mouth shut. I was ordered to report to Chico after a short leave.
It made me really happy to spend a weekend away from military life. But if I had wanted to hang out with my friends, the choices were very limited; most guys my age were in the service by then.
Two exceptions were Len Love and Fernando Lancon, both 4-F medically exempt from the draft. Fernando was 4-F because of a hernia. Len because of eyesight; he wore bottle-bottom glasses. But that didn’t stop him from being the motorcycle boy of the neighborhood.
So when I got back, we were hanging out and he was showing me his new bike. He took it for a drag down the street so I could hear the impressive sound of him revving the engine amplified through his custom exhaust pipes. He thought he was pretty cool. Until a cop drove by and wrote him a ticket for “excessive noise.” And here’s why I’ll always remember that day.
As the officer was writing the ticket, I made an offhand comment:
“Good God, they give you a ticket for anything these days.”
The cop gave me the stink-eye and held his gaze on me as it turned from stink-eye to death glance. So I asked:
“What the hell are you staring at?”
And he said:
“A dumb Mexican.”
I was in my military shirt, but without any indication of my rank. He didn’t know whom he was insulting, so I used my officer training and politely and professionally informed him:
“You are staring at an officer in the U.S. Army Corps, and if you want to keep staring you had better start smiling. And if you want to escalate this, I dare you to. I dare you to call the Military Police.”
I reached to my back pocket to produce my military I.D., which placed me out of his jurisdiction, but he made a jump as if he expected me to pull a knife or a gun on him. Fortunately, I showed my card before he had a chance to shoot. Once he saw it, Len’s ticket problem was solved. But my heart was beating a little faster. Maybe the military had spoiled me, or I just never realized how the world worked. That was more hate than I’d encountered before. And more excitement than I needed that day. After that week at home, I headed north to Chico.
Chico is smack in the middle of Northern California. It is God’s Country. Forests, mountains and beautiful streams full of trout. I completed the usual paperwork and got settled into the BOQ—Bachelor Officer Quarters—and reported to the CO—commanding officer. He gave me a briefing on what the procedures were for leading the cadets through the basic flying course.
The next day I was assigned five cadets to train in the morning class and five more for the afternoon class. So I was going to be teaching ten cadets to fly, and that promised to keep me busy in the coming months. It was funny to think about: It didn’t seem that it was all that long ago that I myself was a cadet learning to fly the BT-13, and now it was my turn to pass on my knowledge of its instruments and characteristics. As a cadet, I had learned to fly in the front seat. Now I was flying in the back seat, and that gave me an entirely different perspective. I did not have the visibility I was used to; I had to read the flight only on my instruments.
Things went smoothly, for the most part. There’s one little story that sticks in my mind as both good and bad. I was walking to the PX—post exchange, the general store on a base—and bumped into an old school chum from Poly High. We caught up for a few moments, but he had bad news: He had just washed out of flight school. And now that he knew I was a trainer, he asked if there was anything I could do to get him back in. I would’ve loved to help, and in fact I did what I could.
I went to my CO and tried to talk him into getting on board with me to help a friend. But even if he had wanted to, we quickly determined it was too late: The paperwork had been processed, so there was nothing we could do. I hated going back to my friend with the bad news, but I was happy to be able to tell him that I went to bat on his behalf. So that was good. And he went on to perform other duties in the Air Corps; he learned plane maintenance, so I’m sure that prepared him for a great career after the war.
One of the best things about this part of my military career was meeting all the cadets from different parts of the United States. And learning more about people.
When I was a pilot in training, I really hadn’t noticed too much difference among my classmates, but then I didn’t really need to. I was just there to learn to fly. But as an instructor, I became much more aware of how different personalities take to training. Some were eager to please and gave it their all. Others didn’t seem so enthusiastic and I had the impression that they were just doing the minimum. But to a man, they all treated me with the utmost respect. Maybe it was just the military culture, or maybe they were intimated by the knowledge that I had the power to wash them out.
That said, I was happy that I never had to use that power. On the contrary, I did everything I could to avoid failing anyone. If I saw a kid that was a little bit weak in some area, I spent extra time with him practicing whatever maneuver he needed to improve.
And as I mentioned earlier, the biggest difference between being a student and being a teacher was the flight time. As a cadet you might fly two or three hours a day. As an instructor, you would fly with different cadets throughout the day and into the night. First, one class of five in the morning, and then with another class in the afternoon. Then extra night flights were scheduled. All this flying was from the back seat. And not only was I building up flying time, I learned lessons by teaching, too. It may not seem like flying behind a pilot while offering guidance and expertise could teach you anything, but it can and did for me.
One of my students needed an extra session to work on his night landings. He nailed it just fine and we were taxiing back to the runway to go up again and come down for more practice. I dropped my notebook pad and leaned over to pick it up. Suddenly the plane picked up speed! I bolted upright, yanked the throttle and applied the brakes. When I chewed him out over that near accident—we could have hit another plane—he said he had thought I was in control of the airplane. That was, obviously, an incorrect assumption—his fault.
But it taught me a lesson: always communicate who is in control by stating loud and clear as possible: “Mister, you’re in control,” or “I’m taking control.” The tower called to ask if everything was OK because the controllers had seen us taxiing at excessive speed, but I said all was well. But it is a wonder we didn’t run up another plane’s tail.
I was having a great time with all the flying, the maneuvers, shooting landings, night flying and cross-country navigation. In so many ways training is a great way to learn. But ….
As much as I was enjoying myself, my goal was to go overseas and join a fighter squadron. So after about two months, I requested a transfer. I suppose I should’ve been flattered when my CO told me “You’re needed here.” After all, that was a real testament to my success as a teacher. Obviously the cadets were learning well and I imagine they spoke highly of Instructor Lopez.
So I tried to take it in stride. But I still made it a habit to go back every month and requesting a transfer. I wanted to go fight for my country. I wanted to help win the war. Not just by sending skilled pilots into combat, but by flying against the enemy myself. Every young man wants to test himself in some way. Some climb mountains. Some do long-distance bicycling. Some push the limits on drinking, women and maybe even drugs. I was a fighter pilot and I wanted to go to war.
And my wish came true after just a few months.
I got my orders to report to a fighter pilot replacement training unit at Luke Field near Phoenix, just across the valley from Williams Field near Chandler where I had graduated just a few months before. About 40 of us got training to fly high-performance aircraft, but we could only practice on the old reliable AT-6.
I had enough free time to renew some old friendships in the Phoenix area, especially with a girl by the name of Polly Berlin. (Funny enough, I’d soon be flying missions that would help Allied forces get to her namesake city.) Then we were transferred south to Ajo, in the middle of the Sonoran desert, where the temperature can reach 115 degrees in the shade. That was where we were introduced to the P-40 Warhawk.
The plane best known because of its use by the Flying Tigers, Americans who sided with China during the invasion by Japan. That was my first fighter and it carried some significant aviation challenges to master. It was slow compared with other fighters in the air at the time. And it was another plane that had narrow landing gear so you had to be aware of what could happen as you hit the runway. The cockpit was farther back than I was used to, midway between nose and tail. Because of that, when you were making a three-point landing, you were looking up and could not see the runway. So in order to keep your bearings, you had to look out the side to orient yourself with the leading edge of the wing and the side of the engine, called the cowl. So my experience as an instructor in the BT-13 was very valuable, as I was an expert in narrow landing gear and the challenges of keeping the airplane straight down the runway.
Of course, you could see the runway if you kept the plane horizontal until the front wheels touched the ground and then you’d bring down the tail wheel. But we were military pilots and we landed on three points. Call it three points of pride.
Oh, and I should mention: It was a killing machine. The P-40’s wings each carried a bomb rack and three 30-caliber machine guns. I was flying a metal angel of death.
After some airtime to get acquainted with the characteristics of the airplane, we did some target practice and dive-bombing with dud explosives. The practice flying at Ajo wasn’t very extensive, about a dozen hours during the two weeks there. Then our contingent transferred back to Luke near Chandler.
BT-13s were much more complicated flying machines than the Stearmans
… while the P-40s were flying death machines
MY GIRLFRIEND POLLY was waiting for me when I got back to Luke from Ajo. She was wearing my pilot wings; I’d given them to her to demonstrate my love. Our reunion was short but intense. I want to point out that even though I knew many girls during the war, she was the only one that got my highest compliment—her name on the plane that I flew into combat. But I had to say goodbye to her again, too soon, because I was then on my way to Baton Rouge in Louisiana. I reported to Harding Field where I trained to fly the powerful and heaviest fighter in the world, the P-47 Thunderbolt, or the “Jug” as it was called by those who flew it best and knew it best.
Some people think you finish high school and stop learning when you go into the military. Well, I can tell you that my military years were constant education, in the classroom and in training. At Harding Field I was back in class studying the P-47 and taking required courses on a lot of other subjects, too. All the knowledge from those classes helped us become better officers: world history, military history, science—especially related to aviation and aeronautics. College level stuff. We all got knowledgeable fast.
But the classes were in rooms without air-conditioning, only fans blowing out the hot air for low pressure inside; when a door opened a rush of relief would pour in. That was the only way they could cool off the rooms to make them tolerable for human occupancy.
Learning the P-47 was purely theoretical until flight time. Our instructor would not be with us on even our first flight, because the Jug had only seat and that was for the fighter pilot who flew it. So before we could take our maiden voyage, we had to get used to the controls. The first step was a blindfold test: We had to find the various instruments controls on command and without seeing them. There was a lot more. But there’s only so much you can learn on the ground. The rest comes when you take to the air.
My first flight was memorable, if that’s the word for trying to control a heavy metal beast of 2,400 horsepower—compared with the AT-6, for example, which only had about 600. Here was what was really memorable though: At the approaching end of the runway there was a small hill you were supposed to clear before touching down. I was OK on my approach, but I underestimated the tremendous weight of the Jug and chopped the throttle so the thing dropped like a rock. And because of the small hill, I was out of sight of the instructors and other pilots who were watching so they thought I had crashed. But—whew—I caught it on time and pushed the throttle forward, cleared the hill and landed safely. I came into their view a second later, much to everyone’s relief. But I was there to learn, so I learned to keep the final approach high, then glide in with power off at a steeper angle than other planes needed.
Adding to the challenge of learning to fly the Jug was the environment. The Louisiana air was hot and humid enough to make the cockpit feel like an oven. Even if you taxied with the canopy open, you still got drenched with sweat so tried to take off as quickly as possible, climbing to a higher altitude where it was cooler. Even up in the sky, though, the humidity was so dense that you’d pull vapor trails off the tip of your wings—a pretty sight, though. We’d leave contrails, too, as moisture condensed on our wings as we passed through the humid Louisiana atmosphere. It looked like smoke was pouring off our planes but it was only vapor.
Another new challenge was the landing pattern. Until then, we made a rectangular pattern, 45 degrees into the downwind, then the final approach. But in Louisiana we would come down flying in a four-ship echelon formation on the runway and peel off in three-second intervals with one plane landing on the right side of the runway and the other on the left. That we could land the whole squadron in a very short time.
We got to know the Thunderbolts really well. We were doing a lot of formation flying and simulated dog fights. We used Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans to practice our gunnery and dive bombing. The P-47 was equipped with eight 50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing. And brother, that was a lot of firepower.
The pilots I was flying with had been cadets just the month before; their wings were still new. Meanwhile, I had been an instructor for eight months, racking up hours—and experience in the air. I didn’t think about that until one day when we did a simulated dogfight.
Two of us took off together and climbed to 10,000 feet and broke off. The object of the game was to get on each other’s six o-clock, air lingo for tail. But I quickly maneuvered under the other pilot, so he couldn’t see me. I was flying formation with him but he didn’t know it. He banked away in one direction looking for me, but I stayed under him, making the same bank; then he’d bank the other direction, ditto. After a time doing this, he decided he’d lost me so he headed home. That’s when I gave my plane a little more power, staying under him so he couldn’t see me but ahead of his nose nevertheless. When I figured that I was far enough in front of him, I hauled back on the stick, popped up vertically right in front of his windshield for a split second, then looped over his plane and got onto his tail.
It was a blast for me but I’m afraid I scared the living bejesus out of him. You can imagine how he felt having a plane suddenly soaring up in front of him like a rocket! When we landed, he was spitting-mad at me, red-faced, cursing and waving his arms in rage. And he never forgave me. He never addressed another word to me again.
I shouldn’t have done it. I had much more experience than he did. It’s more evidence in the case that I’ve made: When you teach, you learn as much if not more than your students.
And now that we learned to fly the Jug, it was time to go to war.
We left Baton Rouge on a troop train headed to Fort Dix, N.J. That train ride was a blast. We lounged around, did some reading, played poker or different card games that the guys knew from their hometowns. The favorite game was hearts, a simplified bridge. And of course, you could always find a dice game in one of the cars. It was a rolling party. Everybody was happy. We felt we had been training long enough. Now we were going to do what we were trained to do: Shoot down enemy planes and drop bombs on their buildings.
We didn’t worry about the risks. We knew them. We knew we could get killed in a crash and we knew we could get shot down. But we were young. You don’t understand death, so you don’t live by fear. You live by courage.
At Fort Dix, we went straight to an enormous military transport ship—as big as an ocean liner. The pilots were not the only ones going overseas.
The Americans and Allies had stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and were powering across Europe. So the need for troops and materiel was enormous. Remember that the war wasn’t won on D-Day. It was the just the beginning of the war for us.
Our transport ship was packed with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, the elite force of paratroopers. There were so many men on that ship that every sleeping cabin was filled to capacity, upper and lower bunks. The pilots got to stay together though, so we continued our camaraderie—amid the frustration of waiting to set sail. We stayed in harbor for two days. We could not imagine what could’ve possibly been keeping us there so long and we getting a version of cabin fever—claustrophobia. Were they fueling the ship? Loading cargo? We were nearly going mad; what was taking so long?
What a relief when we finally started to slowly move out to open sea. We passed the Statue of Liberty on our way out to the waters of the Atlantic and started a zigzag course to England. We were not alone, in two respects.
There were a number of other ships in our convoy, all zigzagging along with us, so as not to present an easy target to German U-boats. We could’ve been hit by a torpedo at any time. From the moment we sailed past Lady Liberty, we were in harm’s way. At night the ship was blacked out so it couldn’t be seen through the periscope of a U-boat. If a German sub could hit us, many men would’ve been lost before ever seeing combat.
I spent most of the time in the library, leafing through books and escaping from the more crowded quarters of the ship. Other times, I would go to a deck and gaze out onto the ocean waters. Sometimes I’d see a dolphin leap out of the water; maybe to have a look at the ships on our way to the war in Europe?
It took five days to get to Liverpool, where we were loaded onto buses. The pilots were delivered to fighter bases in the heartland of England. My base was about five miles outside Shrewberry, a quaint English country town that dated to the Roman Empire. There was an old road still visible that had been built by Roman soldiers. And back in the days of the legendary British highwaymen robbing travelers, Shrewberry was a famous stop for carriages traveling between London and Wales.
Something really surprising: When I first saw the flight line where the P-47s were parked, it was disorienting. I was used to planes stacked on the ramp, wingtip to wingtip, but as this was a Royal Air Force base, the planes were lined up in RAF fashion: far apart and in concrete embankments to protect them from Luftwaffe bombing raids. They were spread out so far that each pilot had his own bicycle to ride to the flight line. Fortunately, we weren’t burdened by carrying the parachutes on our backs; they were stashed in the cockpits, which was also unusual.
The countryside around Shrewberry was beautiful with green rolling hills and valleys. The landscape was almost alive with rabbits. I saw more rabbits than I had ever seen before. I was nostalgic for my days on the ranch at Socorro. I would have had a field day there if I had seen that many rabbits.
I met a girl in town, Ginger. We were sweethearts—or at least very close friends. She was a typical redheaded English lass and I got a big kick out of listening to her talk. It would be “bloody this” and “bloody that”—but what I was most intrigued by was that she would leave out words. She would say “give it me” instead of “give it to me,” leaving out the word “to.” I decided that Americans might speak better English than the English themselves. I saw her almost every night for the month I stayed in Shrewberry.
All troop movements were secret. We never even had a hint. Suddenly an order came: “All personnel are confined to base.” I never had the chance to say goodbye to Ginger. One day, no doubt, she went to the pub to look for me and I wasn’t there. She must’ve thought I was killed in combat. Whatever she thought, I never saw her again and I never heard from her, either. We boarded an English train and headed south toward the Channel. The trains in England were small by American standards, but they got the job done. We got to the coast, quickly boarded ships and crossed the Channel to the Continent, where the war was still raging as Americans faced intense fighting in the goal of driving the Nazis out of occupied territory and then defeating them in Germany. That’s where I would come in.
The P-47 in flight; notice the machine gun barrels protruding from the wings
IT WAS TWO MONTHS after D-Day when we disembarked in Normandy, but the beaches were still littered with burned out Jeeps, tanks and halftracks that had been shot up by the Germans. The bodies of our dead soldiers had been cleared away, though.
As we marched into France, we passed a town I have always remembered. Here’s why: Saint Lo was the site of a fierce fight that had occurred as American forces advanced off the beaches. The town was reduced to ruins. But as we crossed it, reminders of my faith appeared to me here and there. Small shrines to Christ and the Virgin Mary stood amid walls pock-marked by gunfire, but the statues had been spared even the slightest scratch.
Five miles in, we were picked up by army trucks and driven to the Ninth Tactical Air Command in Paris. TAC’s mission was to provide air support for ground troops advancing toward Germany.
At this point of the war, after D-Day, TAC pilots were flying from airfields that kept moving forward to stay close to the front lines. (This was different from the mission of the Strategic Air Command based in England, where pilots flew heavy bombers, such as B-17s and B-24s, to hit strategic targets in enemy territories, such as industrial areas in Germany and Nazi-occupied territory, under protection of fighter planes such as P-38s, P-47s and P-51s.)
So the TAC pilots were set up in Paris to wait for orders to be assigned to a fighter squadron in France. Some of the other pilots and I took advantage of the down time to see the sights—Hitler had famously ordered Paris to be burned during the Nazi retreat, but it had survived nonetheless. The officers in charge of the Occupation of Paris had been convinced by the French that there was no point in destroying it for destruction’s sake. So we visited Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and I really enjoyed those landmarks. But what I loved about Paris the most were those beautiful, beautiful girls! I met one of the most beautiful blondes you could ever imagine, but it turned out that she wasn’t French, she was a Spanish war refugee! And she was thrilled to meet someone who spoke Spanish, which I had picked up from my cowboy summer in Socorro. We became very close during my four-day stay in Paris.
But soon we had to leave Paris and head for Reims. That was the base for the 365th Fighter Group—the “Hell Hawks.”
The Hell Hawks group was composed of three squadrons, the 386th, 387th and 388th. I joined the 387th. There were twelve planes in each squadron and about 1,000 men in the whole group, including pilots, mechanics and other ground support.
Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won the war through air supremacy. The Hell Hawks were a big part of that. We were one of the groups conceived by Major Gen. Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada. He started with a concept: Ideally, ground troops could call in support from fighter-bombers such as the P-47. A radio man could tell the pilots exactly where to go to strafe enemy troops and bomb enemy positions. Quesada then turned that concept into reality. As head of the TAC, he had seventeen other groups under his command as well, each as large as the Hell Hawks. So if you’ve seen movies where ground forces “call in an airstrike,” that began with us.
My squadron and the others had started action before the invasion. I was one of the replacement pilots, sent to fill in for those who were no longer flying. There were several reasons for the need for replacements. Some pilots were killed in action, others were shot down and taken prisoner, others were missing. Some were in a hospital recovering from wounds, others were promoted to a desk job or had rotated back to the United States after completing their allotted missions.
My squadron CO was Maj. John Motzenbecker and I quickly learned he was a very capable leader. He and I became good friends. I was also introduced to the rest of the pilots, all guys just out of their teens, like me. Anyone twenty-five or older was called “old man” or “pappy.” Everything is relative, of course, and to us, twenty-five was old!
But most significantly, they were mostly Anglos; I was the only Latino. But no one even looked at me with even the slightest question. I didn’t feel any different and they didn’t treat me as if I were any different than any other pilot in the squadron. The best part is that we soon gave each other nicknames. The other non-Anglo was a Native American; they called him “Injun Joe.” (It would be highly inappropriate today, but back then it was meant and taken as a term of pure affection and fondness.) They called me “Lopey.” Getting that nickname made me so happy—I was fully accepted.
As usual and as always, there was paperwork. As usual and as always I signed the form designating my beneficiary for the $10,000 payable in the event of my demise. “He bought the farm,” was the phrase commonly used to note the passing of a comrade in arms. In those days, the United States was still an agricultural economy, especially in the Midwest, and many G.I.’s were farm boys; they’d grown up on the farm and their parents still lived on the farm and were still struggling to make the mortgage payments. Most mortgages would be covered by a $10,000 death benefit, hence the expression.
Of course, in my case, nobody was going to be buying any farm. But this was the first time that I signed the form knowing that I was really going into combat. So putting pen to paper that day was more significant and more sobering.
Everything happened quickly from then on. I was quickly cleared to take out a P-47 on a spin to get used to flying out of Reims and returning. It’s also important to note that it was the first time I had to remember everything I learned in training and also watch my back for enemy aircraft. It took only three days to get settled in with my new squadron. Then I was scheduled for my first combat mission. That meant I reported for the early morning briefing. And by early morning briefing, they meant early. The briefings took place in the ready room at 5 a.m. That was when the squadron commander explained the target and method of attack. He told us where we could expect the greatest concentration of ground fire and how to avoid getting hit by it. He also reminded us that if we were hit, if we bailed out or were downed and captured, we were only required to give the enemy our name, rank and serial number. No more, no less. The enemy would want to know where we were stationed, the number of squadrons there were and how many planes we had. If we revealed that, even under torture, we could be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of our allies and the eventual victory of our enemies. So it was an important consideration.
The morning of my first mission we were told that our target was a munitions factory just outside of Cologne on the Rhine River. We synchronized our watches to make sure we all had the same time to the minute and were told to start our engines at 7 a.m. and taxi out for takeoff. It was all new to me. Even though it would soon become routine, I still remember the feeling of intensity on my first mission. After all that training, I was now playing for stakes.
I did not want to mess up on my first combat mission. So I was extra careful in checking the plane before starting the engine. I went out to the flight line and I checked that plane as well as anyone has ever checked a plane. I was always careful on my preflighting, but this time I checked everything twice. When I was sure everything was in order, I climbed in the cockpit, strapped on my parachute and buckled the safety belt. Then I had a few minutes to contemplate what I was about to do—fly on a war mission and bomb an arms depot. Then it was 7 a.m. and time to start the engine.
Sounded good, so I taxied out to the runway with the rest of the plane and did the final check before takeoff—we had to make sure the engines were firing on all cylinders. Each plane was carrying two 500-pound bombs, one under each wing, a tank full of 300 gallons of high-octane fuel and eight machine-guns fully loaded with 50-caliber ammo. So we were taking off with full weight capacity and had to make sure we had full power. My engine sounded perfect, thanks to the very capable hands of the ground crew. So we lined up on the runway and took off in elements of two planes at a time, one on the left side of the runway and one on the right in order to get the full squadron in the air as quickly as possible.
Thanks to the long runway that allowed us to get up enough speed for the powerful engines to hoist our heavy loads, we lumbered into the air and climbed to 5,000 feet, assembling over the airfield and then getting into combat formation heading toward the assigned target. The first thing to remember was to switch the fuel selector valve to the belly tank. Takeoffs and landings were always made on the main tank, then as we flew to a target, we would use the belly tank. We could jettison that tank to lighten our load for better maneuverability if we came under attack and then use the main tank for the rest of the flight.
I was flying wing man to my element leader. An element was composed of two planes. Two elements were a flight and three flights were a squadron—total twelve planes. We climbed to 20,000 feet so we would be out of range of antiaircraft guns and then set our gyrocompass to the target. A squadron of P-47s in battle formation is a beautiful sight to behold. I don’t think the Germans appreciated it as much as I did. In fact, we learned later that the German soldiers had their own nickname for the Jugs: They called them Jabos, or hunter with bombs.
As we approached our target, the squadron commander dipped his right wing, which was the signal to change formation from the V to echelon to the right as we dropped back down to 5,000 feet. And then it began. I can describe what happened, but it’s difficult to communicate the excitement. Saying that electricity ran through me doesn’t do it justice. It was the thrill of all thrills.
The leader started his dive by doing a wingover, which is a sharp turn, usually left to match the pull of the propellers. We followed at three- to five-second intervals. I saw little puffs of white smoke exploding around us, but soon the whole sky was filled with bursting shells of anti-aircraft fire. Amid the chaos, I armed my bombs and went into my dive, zigzagging slightly so as not to give the anti-aircraft gunners an easy mark. THIS WAS IT! I set my sites on the munitions factory, straightened out from my dive, blasted a burst of my machine guns and released my bombs. As I was approaching, I could see where the other pilots had dropped theirs. It was a big building, hard to miss.
I yanked hard on the control stick and pointed the Jug upward, at full throttle to get out of range of the barrage of flak guns. I could see the other pilots in front of me. I couldn’t resist, though, and I looked behind to see what my bombs did. But when I turned back around a half-second later, the plane in front of me had disappeared. As upsetting as that was, I couldn’t do anything about it. We returned to do strafing runs on the German gun emplacements. We hit them with our eight 50-caliber machine guns while we were watching secondary explosions—the munitions—bursting from the building. Then we turned back toward Reims, saving some ammunition in case we encountered enemy fighters on our way back to base. We reassembled at 10,000 feet and my fears were confirmed: The pilot who had disappeared in front of me was not there. I assumed that he must have sustained a direct hit and was blown to pieces. The Germans had the biggest and most accurate gun of the war, an 88 millimeter.
So amid the excitement, I also was instantly taught that this was not just fun and games. You could be killed at any moment. We were young, though, and those thoughts didn’t deter us. We learned to accept the loss of a friend and fellow pilot as a matter of course.
On that first mission, we only lost that one plane and one pilot. Several of the planes were damaged by anti-aircraft fire, though; but they took the proverbial licking and kept on ticking. I quickly learned to appreciate the P-47. Those Germans hit us with everything they had. But the Jugs were essentially flying tanks, so we could sustain some pretty severe hits and still be able to make it home.
Once we had returned from the munitions depot bombing and landed back at Reims, our planes were inspected for damage. Most of the damage was in the form of small, easily repairable holes caused by 20- and 40-millimeter shells fired from guns usually used in ground-to-ground combat. Those planes that sustained major damage were redlined and sent to the repair depot, where world-class repairmen got them back in flying shape with very short turnaround. These mechanics always showed why there were indispensable in maintaining a fighter squadron. If they needed to work all night in order to have a plane ready for the next day’s mission, that’s what they would do.
And the mechanics and the other members of the ground crews were all emotionally invested in us, too. They anxiously awaited our return, hoping that the plane and pilot they had supported made it back safely. They were extremely upset when a plane they had been servicing didn’t come back to base. The crew chief and his assistants were very close to the pilots; they treated us like family and that’s how we treated them.
After the post-landing plane inspections, we went to the ready room to be debriefed so that our commanders would know about any changes in German strategy that could be communicated to other squadrons. The Allies were doing well, our front lines were advancing east, so we only stayed in two weeks before we moved forward and set up on a base by the Belgian city of Chievres.
Although we spent most of our time flying missions while we were at Reims, I did find time to explore the town and I have a vivid memory of my visit to the cathedral there. It was built in medieval times, about 900 A.D. But when I saw it was sandbagged all around the outside in an effort to protect it from the war. Another great memory of Reims was this:
The people were very nice and they were extremely grateful for their American liberators. So they did us a special favor. They organized a dance, which was a big effort for them because the war was barely over and there were still hardships and significant tensions in France—80,000 people were being executed for collaborating with the Nazis. So they brought in girls from a local school to act as our hostesses and to dance with us.
But much to our surprise and disappointment, the school was a strict Catholic school run by hard-as-nails nuns, so there would be no hanky-panky going on. They had their hearts in the right place, but we were fighter pilots full of testosterone and that was not the kind of party we had been expecting. But even at the time, we had a good laugh about the whole thing.
Our next base, Chievres, was near the town of Mons, which is where I spent most of my time when I wasn’t flying. And Mons will always be my favorite of all the places of the war. I had a beautiful girlfriend there, Jeanette Villers. She was so nice, and so serious. She wanted to get married. That didn’t work out for me, of course. After the war, she wrote to me when I was back in Los Angeles. But the letters were in French, so I had to have someone translate them for me! I was too young for marriage. Later, she sent me a picture of her new husband, a nice-looking Belgian man. He’s a lucky guy and I was happy for them both.
The missions that followed my first one, the bombing of that munitions plant outside Cologne, were similar. Sometimes we would take off in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. We would be assigned to bomb marshaling yards, where trains were loaded with supplies for forces of the Wehrmacht, the Germany Army. We bombed the yards at Zellhausen, Aachen, Bonn, Zurloff, Cologne, Schmidt, Frenz, St. Vith, Trier, St. Ingret, Koblenz and Paderborn, just to mention a few from memory.
First we would hit the locomotives and watch them explode in a cloud of white steam. Many times they blew up just before I passed over them, and I would fly right through the steam cloud! We had gun cameras that filmed the bombings, and when we’d view the movies later, that looked really spectacular! Then we’d come back around and drop bombs on the box cars, and if they had any kind of munitions on them, which they sometimes did, they blew up really well, too.
That October, the weather was changeable and flying was often delayed. One day would be socked in with fog and no missions could be flown. The next day was clear and the group flew as many missions as possible.
Then came October 21, 1944.
Of all the dates of my 100-plus combat missions, this is a highlight. Even to begin with, the mission was unlike most others. About 90 percent of our missions were designed in support of our ground forces, but on October 21, our orders were different. There were no ground targets assigned.
Instead, the whole group was ordered to go on a fighter sweep. What did that mean? That all three squadrons of the 365th Fighter Group were to cover the skies over Germany, seek out enemy planes and shoot them down. Normally our missions were for one squadron of twelve planes that had a specific task, a specific target, a specific goal. But on this day it was all three squadrons, thirty-six planes total. What a sight it was to see all thirty-six planes in the sky at once.
The first squadron, the 386th, flew top-cover at 22,500 feet, staying a little behind us so they could see if we needed help. The 387th, which was my squadron, and the 388th were at 19,000 feet. Sweepstakes was our radio controller. He vectored us to Solingen but we didn’t find any enemy planes flying there. We were then sent to several other areas where bandit activity was suspected or reported either from ground intelligence or radar, but they were also negative—no enemy fighters.
Then Sweepstakes got excited. Really excited.
In a voice trembling with agitation and anticipation of action, he told the group commander to take a heading of 100 degrees. So made that sharp turn and within two minutes we spotted 30 German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. We dropped our belly fuel tanks and because we had the sun at our backs the Germans never saw us coming. The 386th flew over them so the enemy dropped down to get away from us, placing the Fw’s right in front of the 387th and the 386th. And seconds later the whole sky was full of Thunderbolts and Fw-90s in individual dogfights. But not quite individual.
I was a wing man, meaning I stayed on the tail of my element leader to protect him as he attacked the enemy. This duet system was the reason we were always successful in our dogfights. We fought in “elements” of two, while the Germans fought as individuals.
My element leader was on the tail of an enemy plane when another tried to attack him from the right. I quickly got on the attacker and fired my guns. I could even see where I was hitting him—his left wing. He then dove down and away from me. I wanted so badly to follow him, but that wasn’t my role—my job was to stay with my leader. I had protected his tail and had to continue doing so no matter how tempting it was to leave my post and try to finish off that attacking plane. The squadrons shot down several planes and damaged some others and by that time the remaining German planes had turned around and flown away. So we regrouped into formation and headed for home. But the adventure wasn’t finished.
Out of the blue came another group of enemy fighters, more Fw-190s. Another spectacular high-speed aerial ballet at began again as we shot down and damaged more Focke-Wulfs. Again, once the surviving Germans saw that they were being outmaneuvered they dove into the clouds to escape us. Of course we all wanted to go after them, but by that time—after two dogfights—we were getting low on fuel and had to get back to base.
Our total enemy planes destroyed on that mission was twenty-one, a twenty-second probably destroyed with another 11 damaged, including the one that I had hit on the wing. (I nailed him pretty hard; he may have crashed later without my knowing it. But we only counted what we knew.) We had no lost aircraft and no damaged aircraft. The mission earned the 365th Fighter Group a Presidential Unit Citation, and due to the high count of enemy planes that we downed we made the papers back home in the United States. The citation tells the story:
The 365th Fighter Group is hereby recognized for outstanding performance of duty against the enemy on the 21st of October 1944 in the Bonn-Dusseldorf area. This group engaged in a highly successful sweep which resulted in 21 enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and 11 damaged. With two squadrons flying abreast of each other and some distance apart and the third squadron flying top-cover about one thousand feet above and a squadron length ahead, thirty Fw-190s were spotted coming head on at one thousand feet below.
By feinting an attack, the top cover squadron forced the enemy planes to dive downwards thereby causing them to pass directly between the other two squadrons. The two lower squadrons viciously attacked the enemy, shooting down several and dispersing the rest. Reforming for the flight home the group began climbing to their original position, when top-cover reported 25 or 30 enemy aircraft at 24,000 feet. With utter disregard for the critical shortage of fuel which now existed, the group gallantly accepted this new challenge and again attacked in such a manner as to prevent the enemy from breaking off, and forced them into a situation where the group was able to repeat the same devastation as before.
The gallantry of the pilots and their exceptional flying ability demonstrated in the brilliant execution of these two attacks against the numerically superior enemy aircraft reflects great credit to this 365th Fighter Group and the Army Air Force.
And that’s why when October 21 comes around I’m always feeling good. Plus: It was my wedding day in 1956! So now it’s the anniversary of both my first dogfight and my marriage!
So that proved we could fight in the air. Nevertheless, most of our missions were designed to support the ground troops as they advanced toward Germany. We spent the rest of the year at Chievres. And it was an especially cold European winter. Snow was covering the airbase about a foot deep. Snow ploughs had to be constantly clearing the runway for takeoffs and landings. We flew almost daily.
To ease the tension, I went to Mons to meet Jeanette as often as I could. We would meet at a local ballroom called Minerva. If it’s still there, I’m sure it’s changed. I was always surprised by the restrooms in Europe, first France, then Belgium. In those days, they were unisex. And there was a urinal along one wall, and on the facing wall were the sinks and mirrors—where women would be putting on their makeup while we were peeing! It was tough to get used to, but who was I to complain about a custom that the locals seemed to accept? I’d also get to Brussels on occasion; I had a girlfriend there, too. But I think that one only wanted me for my body. Of course I was happy to oblige. After all, she was an ally!
It was a tough time in the war. The Germans had lost France, but they weren’t defeated yet. They were using V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets to rain havoc on England. On one mission in early November, our squadron was circling a German fortification, getting ready to strafe it, when WOOSH a rocket whizzed through the center of our formation. It was a V-2 rocket on its way to England. We could feel the pain of the British.
The V-2 was silent as it approached its target, so there was no way to run and hide or take cover. There was just an explosion, death and destruction. The buzz-bombs gave some warning: They made a putt-putt sound and if you heard it keep putt-putting, you knew it was moving past you. But if the putt-putt sound stopped, then you knew it was going to hit. Small consolation. This flying bombs and missiles, developed under the leadership of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, showed that the Germans were far ahead of the allies in jet propulsion and long-range weapons of mass destruction. But they were more indiscriminate than the bombing from planes that we did, which normally targeted specific military installations. The Germans were hitting civilians, schools and cities with their missiles. Funny that Von Braun came to the United States after the war and helped the Americans develop the first American space satellite, Explorer 1, and then the Apollo rockets that took man to the moon. But life is crazy and the world is complicated.
Our target that day was the V-2 base that had just launched the missile that could have knocked one of our planes right out of the sky. So it was with great pleasure that we got into our echelon formation and started peeling off one at a time to dive bomb the installation. But it was heavily defended.
The sky came alive with exploding 20- and 40-millimeter shells; some of our planes sustained significant damage right away. But the base was leveled in very short order. Not just from our bombs, but from secondary explosions of rocket fuel storage tanks—you can imagine the blasts that occurred when our bombs hit those things. But as that was happening, one of our planes was hit hard by anti-aircraft fire. We circled to protect the pilot as he floated to the ground in his parachute, where he was taken prisoner by the Germans. That same anti-aircraft fire drilled some holes in my wings, but not enough to bring down a P-47. Any other plane would have been out of commission, but I made it back to base with barely a sweat. The Jug was an amazing fighter plane.
The pilot who was taken prisoner did not survive. According to an official report unearthed decades later, a German officer paraded him in front of civilians and incited them to beat him. Three men later identified as miners took up the call. The officer then finished him off with a pistol shot. That is what was recorded on the death of Lt. Grant Stout. The officer and the miners were convicted of war crimes; the officer reportedly died in prison. However, some believe that the official report is highly suspect, as it would have been highly unusual for a German officer to execute a downed pilot—he would be more valuable alive than dead, from an intelligence perspective— and it is more likely that the civilians acted on their own. So the truth will likely never be known.
Another example: We went out on another armed reconnaissance mission in November, not carrying any bombs, just looking for enemy planes, but we spotted a sprawling ammo depot near Aachen. As we could not bomb it, we strafed the installation. We didn’t want to come back the next day; fuel is expensive and we took our targets where we saw them. We came in at treetop level so we’d be too fast for enemy counter-fire. I made several passes firing my eight 50-millimeters. On my last pass, I was directly over the buildings when they exploded with a terrific roar. The bottom of my plane received the full force of the concussion and I shot up from near ground level to 8,000 feet in the snap of a finger. Any other plane would have been blown to bits! The Jug was riddled with more holes than you could count, but thanks to armor plating around the cockpit, I did not get a scratch. I flew her back to home base and I watched the ground crew do the inspection. When I told them what had happened, they were amazed that the plane stayed in one piece and remained flying.
By then, the weather had improved and the European autumn was crisp and clear so we went back into our usual routine of flying close support missions designed to help ground forces advance. We were called upon to hit some particularly strong German gun emplacements that were poised to inflict heavy casualties on our troops. This is how we carried out missions such as that one:
The action was choreographed by the forward air controller. He was actually a pilot who completely grasped our capacities and technical abilities but was assigned to an armored unit in order to communicate with us best. He rode in one of the tanks and his radio was tuned to the same frequency as our planes and his job was to tell us the best method of attack. The high-stakes challenge was this: Our own troops were very close to the Germans, and we did not want kill our fellow Americans.
So what the controller did was: He had the tank shoot a canister at our target, and the canister would send up a pillar of colored smoke. But the Germans figured that out quickly, so they sent back another smoke signal that rose from the position of our troops to confuse us. We then used different colored smoke, but they figured that out, too. So finally our solution was to mark our targets with a combination of colors, for example, red and blue or green and white. By the time the enemy was able to copy the combination, we had already dive-bombed and strafed their positions.
War isn’t just fighting like a brawl. You use tactics and strategies to kill the enemy and in this case, avoid killing your own soldiers.
The Germans were moving mostly at night because they were afraid of our Thunderbolts. As November started, their activity stepped up. When we flew, we were blowing up anything that moved on the ground, and sometimes we even blew up things that didn’t move.
And then came November 28.
The squadron was on another armed reconnaissance mission—no bombs, just with machine guns loaded for aerial combat. We were circling a town called Frenz. There was a long row of tanks and other heavy artillery parked alongside some buildings. As we circled again, we noted there was a tent city just across the river from the town. Obviously, the Germans had set up camp in this town, with tents on one side of the river and their fleet of armored vehicles on the other side. At first we didn’t realize what a pretty picture that was.
But when we set up a pattern and started attacking the tanks and other weaponry on the town side of the river, each plane diving to strafe them at three second intervals, we were surprised that the tanks were not blasting back at us. But that was because all the soldiers—not just some—were still on the other side of the river. As soon as we started firing, the tank crews made a mad rush to get to their Tiger tanks, running across the bridge that spanned the icy river.
So we altered our pattern of attack to strafe the bridge. As I shot at the bridge I saw it coming apart and watched the German soldiers falling or diving off the wreckage into the half-frozen water below. We had stumbled upon a huge Wehrmacht position. There was so much to shoot that we ran out of ammunition.
Motzenbecker called back to the base for reinforcements, the 386th and the 388th, so that we could press our advantage. We headed for home to reload and refuel. We then coordinated rotations with the other two squadrons, flying back and forth to Frenz all day. While one squadron was strafing tanks, halftracks and the soldiers that operated them, the other two squadrons were coming and going from Chievres. We wiped out the entire German unit that was camped at the site. My understanding is that it was a Panzer division preparing for the offensive that history would call the Battle of the Bulge.
Our mission made big headlines back in the United States. We had annihilated an entire Panzer division, including tanks, halftracks, trucks and other equipment that would have been used by the enemy to kill Americans and Allies in the Germans’ final assault. Not to mention they soldiers we took out and did not survive to shoot at our G.I.s.
Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army was stalled at the Rur River. His troops were catching hell from Germany artillery. He had not launched an attack yet.
The city of Duren was a German citadel, dotted with anti-aircraft guns, on the other side of the Rur, right in Patton’s way. We attacked it many times. Sad to say, we lost a number of pilots over Duren. But before he got to Duren, he’d have to get through Eschweiler, and he was facing ferocious fighting. The Battle of the Bulge was about to begin; Germany’s last offensive of the war, and a surprise attack that cost many American troops their lives as the Nazis tried to push west against them on their border with Belgium and France.
So we were outfitted with a new weapon in order to support Patton and his troops as they fought in Eschweiler. Napalm bombs. When they landed, they blasted burning sheets of hellfire that stuck like glue to everything they hit and burned it to ash. The problem is that we had to come in low and slow to drop napalm bombs, which made us even more vulnerable to ground fire than usual as we were easy targets. So napalm was very dangerous for us even though it was it was the enemy’s worst nightmare.
Once Eschweiler fell, in part thanks to napalm, Patton’s army moved up to the river and stopped to regroup. They stayed there for a while before crossing the water, even though they were within range of German artillery in Duren.
As a fighter group, I think we might have even been growing complacent. Our missions were becoming routine, even though we were doing a lot of damage to German troops and their supply chain, our only apparent threats were enemy flak and ground fire, and the sturdy Jugs held up well to those. We were getting fat, dumb and happy. But then came a report that Germans had busted through the lines at Bastogne in Southeast Belgium. It was the surprise attack that launched the Battle of the Bulge. They had timed their assault to take advantage of the historic cold snap that hit the region. We had been grounded for days due to a thick layer of fog and couldn’t take off to support the ground forces. Visibility fell to zero. The German weather forecasters had helped the army plan for that, and exploited it to full effect.
So regardless of the weather, an order came from TAC to take off in order to support the men who were getting pummeled by the Wehrmacht. Early the first morning in the dense fog, we loaded the planes, then towed them out to the end of the runway. The air was too murky to taxi them; it was much safer to have them towed. I started my engines, lined up with the runway, set the gyrocompass and released the brakes. There was no point in looking out the cockpit windshield, couldn’t see a thing but the fog. Each plane tore down the runway, one after another at our standard three-second intervals, each pilot with his eyes glued to the gyro. I prayed: “Dear God, please don’t let our engines fail on takeoff.” We climbed and broke out above the fog at about 1,500 feet and then assembled over the field in battle formation.
The squadron leader, Major Henry, contacted Sweepstakes, our ground coordinator. He gave us a vector to the battlefield. Sweepstakes told us that the fog had lifted to fifty feet above land on the battlefield at Bastogne. So when we got there, one by one, we dove into the blanket of white obscuring the ground, flying on instruments only. Good thing he was right on the measurement: we broke out of the fog just over the battlefield.
First, we had to be careful not to crash into each other. Second, we were looking for German troops and tanks while flying low and fast. Third we had to make sure they were the enemy and not our own. I spotted a Tiger tank and gave it a burst from my 50-caliber machine guns. I saw flames shoot from underneath and enemy soldiers jumping out of the jump. But I couldn’t make another pass at the tank, everything was too tight under the fog and I was afraid of strafing my own troops. So, I pulled up into the fog and climbed until I was out of it. The other pilots did likewise. We tried, we really did, we absolutely wanted to help our guys—that’s what we were there for!—but with the fog the way it was, there wasn’t much we could do. Except lose a few good pilots and planes, which we did that day.
We couldn’t go back to Chievres, it was completely socked in, and we had drifted apart coming out of the fog. We all had to find landing sites on our own. Some went to Paris, I went back to Reims with a few other planes. We stayed there three days, then got clearance to return to base at Chievres. It was still foggy down there, but visibility had improved to the point where you could see the outlines of the runway. I still had to come in below the fog layer, so it wasn’t an easy, safe and sure landing, but it wasn’t unreasonably terrifying. Nevertheless, a phenomenal feeling of relief flooded through my body when I shut my engine down, safely on the ground. It took another week for the weather to improve enough so that we could take off again and help our encircled comrades fight off the Germans. They had taken a beating that month. They took to calling themselves “the battered bastards of Bastogne,” a nickname they had earned after catching hell from the Germans in those weeks.
But then we got back into the air. I can’t say we turned the tide by ourselves, but I’ve been proud to know all my life that we certainly helped. Soon, up in our planes again, we caught many enemy tanks and soldiers out in the open. But they had learned a new trick: They were using American uniforms and captured Jeeps. So we had to be extra careful not to strafe our own men.
Now that visibility was better, we could see how the positions had shifted: Pockets of Americans were surrounded by Germans. Little by little, the G.I.s were fighting their way out of the pockets and pushing the Germans back to where they were before this last gasp offensive. The Battle of the Bulge spelled the end for the Germans, it was the death throttle of their massive army, the final attack they were able to mount of that magnitude because the effort cost them severely in men, time and supplies.
As the weather held, we had command of the sky over the front. We heard reports from the ground that were truly strange. The Germans were using the captured Jeeps and uniforms not only to fool us in the air, but to blend in with American forces and spy on troop movements and plans. The Americans countered this ploy by arming their machine guns and halting all Americans they encountered, asking questions such as “Who won the World Series?” (And if they didn’t know it was the St. Louis Cardinals, they were highly suspect.) Or another one: “What’s the Windy City?” The Germans couldn’t quite pronounce the “Ch” in Chicago. Gotcha!
Even though we couldn’t fly as often as we would’ve wanted to, I always cherished my role and my memories of the combat that history remembers as the Battle of the Bulge.
We would win the battle, but even then the war wasn’t over yet. Certainly not for the Hell Hawks.
It was December 20, and we were in full assault in support of the Third Army. A new ground controller joined our team, Ripsaw, and four days later, the day of Christmas Eve, he vectored us toward a concentration of Tiger tanks and other armored vehicles to the town of St. Vith in Belgium, northeast of Bastogne. When we got to where he sent us, we saw what he was talking about. We dropped our 500 pounds and gave them a good going over with our machine guns. By the time we were through with them not a tank was left and more than a few German soldiers had made their last stand for the Fatherland.
Christmas Day was moving day for the Hell Hawks. We left Chievres, Belgium, which had been our home base for the autumn, and went to Metz, in France. As usual, there was no notice—I never got to say goodbye to my friends, and I especially regretted not exchanging an in-person farewell with Jeanette in Mons.
Metz turned out to be something else again. We faced unexpected hostility from the locals. Not just hostility. Hatred. And the French were supposed to be our allies! We had saved them from the Nazis! We were even given notice of the danger of sniper fire, and warned not to be wandering about town. I later learned that the reason behind this was tied to European history. Metz was in a region called Alsace-Lorraine. It had been German, then French, and back-and-forth across the centuries. The people there had alliances, ancestries and blood from both countries. So some felt more German than French.
At first we were housed at a chateau in town and had to be driven to the airfield every morning by Jeep or packed in a truck. That became too inconvenient so they set up tents on the base and moved us there; it was a relief not to have to worry about being shot by a sniper in the city. Still, it was quite a change from Belgium, where everyone had loved us; you never knew where you stood with the people of Metz, even though we thought of ourselves as their American liberators.
But there was danger everywhere. The war was still raging, despite the German defeat at the Battle of the Bulge. So we continued pummeling St. Vith, as the Wehrmacht seemed to be trying to hold their position there, with a large concentration of troops and equipment.
On December 31, the last day of 1944, our target was the marshaling yard at Krenzmach. We bombed a long train with many boxcars, some loaded with ammunition. Of course, they blew up in spectacular blasts.
Then we strafed the locomotive to stop the train. As I fired and hit the engine, it burst into a cloud of steam. I flew through the white smoke as I’d done before. Then we swung back and set our sights on the rest of the train. What we hadn’t known was this: Every fifth car was equipped with anti-aircraft guns and they put up a barrage of flak like you would not believe. Nevertheless, we managed to destroy the train. That counterattack cost us two pilots, though, when their planes were downed by the train-mounted artillery. My ship sustained some damage, but brought me back to base in one piece.
And then came January 1, 1945. That was another of my unforgettable days of the war.
We took off at 8:25 a.m., heading for St. Ingbert. My personal plane was still under repair for the damage that the flak had caused the day before, so I was assigned a replacement. It was an older model P-47, the D-15. The main difference was that it did not have a bubble canopy, it had a fastback design, that we called Razorback.
Before reaching St. Ingbert, we spotted a long train with a full head of steam. It was heading to Nohfeldon. We dropped our bombs on the train and were getting ready to strafe it, but I noticed my fuel was already getting low. The old plane I was flying was burning fuel twice as fast as I was used to. I called the flight commander to report my situation and he ordered me back to base as he was aware of the shortcomings of this particular older-model Jug.
When I was halfway back to Metz, I heard an urgent call from the tower operator at the base. In a panicky voice he shouted that the airfield was under attack by enemy aircraft! I pushed the throttle wide open, burning with desire to get there in time to mix it up with the Luftwaffe again. I still had my guns fully loaded with ammo. What I really wanted to do was get into a dog fight, just me against several German fighters.
But by the time I got back, the enemy planes had turned away and I was too low on fuel to give chase. The only ones I saw were those that had been shot down by our aircraft gunners, the wreckage scattered all of the field, burning. But sad to say, I saw a few of our beautiful Thunderbolts on fire as well. Before landing back at the base, our tradition was to buzz the field to let them know we made it back OK. So I did that, but it almost killed me! Our gunners on the field were still on the watch for enemy fighters, and they aimed right at me and almost opened fire. Fortunately, one of them identified me as friendly and stopped them just in time. I found out later that I had come within an instant of buying the farm that day from friendly fire.
Besides the damage inflicted on our once-beautiful planes, the men who had been on the base when it was attacked had scraped through the battle and came out the other side with terrifying tales of close calls. One in particular belonged to the pilot stationed on alert, sitting in his P-47 at the end of the runway. He did not even have time to start his engine when the German planes zoomed at him under our radar. He dived out of the cockpit and took cover as his plane was getting shot up and started to burn. Made it by a hair.
Twenty-two Thunderbolts were destroyed that day and eleven others were badly damaged. The ground crews were horrified. The ships they had babied and kept in perfecting flying condition were on fire, some exploding when the bombs that were still strapped under their wings went off. Meanwhile, shrapnel from exploding anti-aircraft shells was shooting up from the planes and raining down on the airfield. It looked like the whole base was ablaze, even after I landed. The Luftwaffe had gotten their revenge on the Hell Hawks.
But they paid a price—the attack cost them some of their best pilots and planes. Many Nazi aircraft were still burning; our guys had shot some down before I got back. I saw several of their pilots, their bodies torn to pieces. One vision engraved itself into my memory forever: A pilot whose face was smashed flat as a pancake, but his death mask still retained an expression of complete determination. Another German pilot survived by bailing out and was captured by our military police. He was the most arrogant S.O.B. I have ever met. He disclosed that they had planned the attack for New Year’s Day, thinking that the Americans would be nursing hangovers from New Year’s Eve. They flew in at low altitudes on radio silence, so they were undetected by our radar or radio operators. So they were undetected until they had zoomed over the mountains and were strafing the airfield before anyone on the ground knew they were coming.
It was not an isolated incident. The Germans blitzed as many airfields as they could that day, sending out 700 planes. We were astonished that they could mount such an attack, which destroyed 156 Ally aircraft, thirty-six of them American, including our twenty-two at Metz. A big consolation though: They lost many more planes than they destroyed, plus experienced pilots and key squadron leaders who were not expendable. It was another last gasp for the Germans.
And one more consolation from my point of view: Our squadron was on a mission, so our ships were in the air and away from the base when the blitz hit.
Metz had been a German air base. When they had left, they took all the flyable planes with them, but there were some that weren’t in working order so they left behind some Fw-190s and Messerchmitt Bf-109s parked among the trees. I climbed into the cockpits and pulled out the flight instruments, put them in a box and sent them home as souvenirs.
But even more fun was something else the Germans left behind: a set of parallel bars. I was thrilled because they were just like the ones I used to work out on at Venice Beach! I suppose the German pilots had some gymnasts among them. They really came in handy, but just for me—none of the other pilots were interested. I had a great time doing handstands and other workout routines, swinging around and balancing. We had Hell Hawks reunions over the years, and one of my old pals from Metz, Allen Mundt, surprised me with some photos he took while I was showing my stuff.
But it only took a week for new P-47s to arrive from Paris. So we were back to full strength and we couldn’t wait to try out our new flying machines. Some of the senior pilots, like me, got their own plane with his name and his crew chief’s name lettered next to the cockpit. And we got to personalize our planes even more, too! Most of the pilots had the names of their wives or sweethearts emblazoned on the cowl. Others just put words of wisdom. Some gave their planes funny names such as Big Ass Bird, Hot Body or Peg O My Heart. I decided to name my plane after the girl I knew best, Polly Berlin in Arizona. So I had the squadron artist paint a picture of a young woman shielding her beautiful bare breasts with a parrot. He also wrote Sweet N Lovely in big bright yellow and red letters. It was one beautiful fighter plane, and you couldn’t mistake it when you saw it fly by.
So thanks to the Germans we had brand-new planes to carry on, and carry on we did. We continued attacks on their tanks, troops and gun emplacements through January.
Another mission that stands out in my mind: As usual, we were flying at 20,000 feet to stay out of the range of ground fire. Especially when we were flying over the Ruhr Valley, where there was a high concentration of war industry sites. Anti-aircraft fire was very intense in this area and so we had to avoid it by staying high, dropping down only to attack targets we spotted. And that happened on this mission, when we spotted tanks and armored vehicles near Koblenz, outside the danger zone. Without hesitation, we attacked and destroyed them. We then assembled, climbed back to 20,000 feet and headed for home. But:
I don’t know if my vision that was sharper, or maybe my instincts, than that of my fellow pilots, but I was the only one to spot another cluster of tanks and halftracks. I advised the flight leader that I saw something interesting and told him I was going down to have a look. It was a hazy day and I wasn’t navigating, just flying in formation with the rest of the squadron, so they circled to wait for me while I peeled off and dived.
I didn’t go straight in, I used evasive maneuvers so I wouldn’t give their gunners an easy target, because I knew they’d be firing back at me. But the moment I straightened out to get them in my gun sights, the whole sky lit up like the Fourth of July. There was flak bursting all around me! My flight commander radioed me, screaming, “Get the hell out of there!”
His order wasn’t necessary; I had already pointed my ship up and was zigzagging rapidly skyward, thanks to the P-47’s enormously powerful engine. And let me talk about a special feature of the engine for a moment.
For emergencies, the plane was equipped with an injection button that shoots water into the cylinders to give it a power surge. We were taught that you could only use it for fifteen seconds, because after that the surge could blow your engine apart. I had never seen an engine blown apart and had no desire to do so. Regardless, I pushed the emergency button and I felt the plane jump ahead like a horse that had spotted a rattlesnake. I felt the cowl actually twist from the stress as I started this high-speed climb, the likes of which I had never experienced before. But then—THUD! And the plane lurched hard to the left. I looked out to my right wing. I’d been hit! A huge hole had appeared. But the amazing Thunderbolt, despite a gaping gash in the wing, held together and kept climbing as I shut the water injection within the allotted fifteen seconds. I got out of range within seconds and a minute later rejoined the rest of my guys, who had all watched as I almost bought the farm once again. And of course, as noted previously, if I had been flying any other plane besides the P-47, I would not have been here to relate this story.
Later, Motzenbecker looked over my ship and shook his head as if to say: “You dumb bastard, couldn’t you see you were over the Ruhr Valley?” Intelligence officers came to debrief me as to what I had seen on the ground, because no one else had been close enough to observe the enemy this close in that area. I gave them what I think was very valuable information about new camouflage they were using and indications that could be extrapolated into the type of tactics they might be planning. After that, I went to the hangar to inspect the plane. It was really a mess. The hole in my right wing was big enough to crawl through. I could see the only the thing that saved my sorry butt was the armor protection around the cockpit; it was dotted with metal that had been meant for me. That gives you something to think about.
The ground crew was amazed that the plane had stayed in the air with that giant hole in the wing and brought me home safely. They looked at me thinking: “Somebody up there likes this guy.” If they were religious. Or maybe just: “This is one hell of a badass plane.” If they weren’t.
It was January 25, and the Hell Hawks got orders to move from Metz back to Belgium, but not to Chievres; this time Florennes would be our home. The other pilots and I were very happy to be moving back to Belgium, maybe reuniting with our lovers there or finding new ones. That kind of fun had been impossible in Metz, where we were seen as the enemy and even felt that our lives were in danger. In fact, in all my service I had never seen a bunch of guys so happy to be packing up and moving. I know we’ll always cherish the people in Belgium as the nicest and friendliest of our allies.
At Florennes, we were housed in a magnificent estate that must have belonged to a very wealthy Belgian family. The chateau had many rooms and was very beautifully decorated. But the best was this: Our squadron commander made a super-sharp deal with a local baker. We would furnish the ingredients, which were still in short supply for civilians due to wartime rationing, if the baker made pastries for us. And those were delights such as we American pilots had never experienced before.
Maybe I should have gone to Mons to visit Jeanette, but instead I chose to do some sightseeing closer, crossing the border to Luxemburg, a quaint picturesque country. I was enchanted by the architecture of the historic buildings there. For a kid from Los Angeles, Luxemburg was an extraordinary visual experience—like going back in time. You could wander around a city and look at the buildings and know that you were seeing the same things that people saw hundreds of years before.
We were set up and flying out of Florennes beginning January 29 and through February. Our job was to patrol the corridor between Siegberg and Cologne, where the German army was still rallying its defenses. We attacked the various marshaling yards and the trains that were moving men, equipment and munitions into and out of them. The trains were clearly still carrying ammunition. You could tell by the remarkable explosions as we strafed them. We were busy causing chaos, hastening the collapse of the Wehrmacht.
Then I got a new assignment that would present a different view of the war than the one I’d had from above.
On February 25, the CO gave me the news that I was being temporarily assigned to the Third Armored Division as a forward air controller. I do not know why they chose me for this important post. Maybe my squadron commander just wanted to get me out of his sight for a while after I had dived into enemy fire and almost gotten myself killed. Or maybe it was a privilege he granted me for my courage. I packed a few belongings, climbed into a Jeep, and was off to join the ground troops for two weeks.
My job was to coordinate air attacks on a specified target, such as concentration of Tiger tanks or heavy gun emplacements. We wanted to soften them up with air strikes before our G.I.’s assaulted them, so we could take out as many enemy guns as possible—each one we hit wouldn’t be able to kill any of our guys. As an experienced pilot embedded with the lead tank, I could advise the Hell Hawks on the best way to attack a target via a radio tuned to the same frequency as our planes.
I met my Jeep driver, a young corporal, who was a delightful guy and clearly explained the Third Armored Division’s positions, plans and challenges. Things had been relatively quiet the past month, but he knew something big was in the works and he had an idea what it was so he picked my brain as to what I knew that could help as he drove me to camp near Eschweiler on the Inden River, west of the Rur River. Patton had stopped there to regroup and resupply the Third Army. They were getting ready for a big push across to the town of Duren on the Rur. I had flown many missions over Duren, but what remained there was still secured with artillery guns that were able to fire on us as we approached. Patton was soon going to on the move from the Rur to the Rhine, and Duren stood in the way.
As soon as our Jeep arrived I walked into a conference with Patton’s top brass. They showed me some aerial photos and discussed where we could best cross. (Think about this for a moment: Just a few years before, I was a little Latino scamp sneaking into movies in Los Angeles. And that day I was advising Patton’s top commanders, including Gen. Maurice Rose on how to cross a river.) I had known the bridges there pretty well, and it looked like all of them had been destroyed. I suggested that they have engineers build a pontoon bridge to get the troops and tanks across. We planned to begin the assault the next day, so everyone hit the sack early.
The war sounded and felt different on the ground, and I was amazed at how unconcerned these battle-hardened veterans were about the environment. Artillery shells were whining over our heads, sometimes hitting nearby trees with colorful bursts of fire and smoke. The G.I.’s knew when to dive for cover by the sound of the shell. Artillery shells gave a warning when they would hit close. Mortar shells, not so much. All of a sudden, they’d explode: You never knew what hit you. But mortar shells don’t have the same range as artillery shells, so they weren’t worried about them there.
We were in a large room and spread our sleeping bags on the floor. About halfway through the night, I heard a loud sound. “What the hell was that?” I said to myself. But no one else got excited about it, so I went back to sleep. In the morning, when we woke up, everyone saw what it was: An artillery shell had burst through the roof, bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. It was just sitting there; it must’ve been a dud. If it had exploded when it hit the roof, the wall or the floor we all would’ve been killed. But everyone ate their C-ration breakfast as if nothing had happened.
I was then introduced to the tank commander I’d be riding with. He was a jovial, happy-go-lucky guy with a lot of combat experience. He had just made it through the Battle of the Bulge. So this part of the war was easy. I loved him. I could not have asked for a better tank man.
“Lopez, welcome aboard!” he called out, extending his hand and walking toward me with a big smile, even as the sound of shells exploding in distance was echoing over our camp.
We pushed off toward the Rur River to a bridge that the engineers had constructed that would take us right into Duren. Thanks to all our heavy pounding from the ground and attacks from the air, the Germans had to move back from the river, and that allowed us enough breathing space to build the pontoon bridge that I had recommended without getting blown up. So we crossed the bridge over the Rur and entered Duren—or what was left of it. For the first time, I got to see the devastating result of our air attacks and fully realized that the missions I had flown had a real impact on the war.
With me inside, the commander maneuvered our tank between buildings and rubble. When he picked out pockets of German soldiers he fired the 76-millimeter cannon at them. The whole tank shook as if we’d been hit. It was a bone-rattling sensation.
The German troops then moved outside Duren and found a pocket where they entrenched and then flung everything they could at us. So I was asked to call in for air support to hit them hard in that pocket. I got on the radio and called for any P-47s in the area. I got a response from a squadron that was flying a recon mission, and vectored them to the target using the coordinates on my map. Once they were on their way, I told artillery to put the color-coded smoke signals onto the target, in a combination that the enemy couldn’t duplicate quickly enough to confuse our pilots. Then I let the flight leader know the color combination we were using. Then I told him the best angle of attack to minimize counter-fire.
And then it was my pleasure and privilege to sit back and watch what it looked it on the ground when the P-47s worked their magic. It was fantastic to watch them dive in Split S formation to hit their prey. Once the squadron was finished the strafing runs, it was much easier for us to advance. As we fought our way forward, we passed many dead soldiers. They lucky ones had died quickly. Or were captured uninjured. Once German officer who surrendered handed me his sidearm Luger. This will speak the proverbial volumes about the state of the war at that point: He smiled at me as he gave me his gun. He was glad that the war was over for him. I kept that pistol as a souvenir as I did with some other items I picked up—a shotgun, a Nazi banner, a German tank helmet—as we made our way into the heart of Germany.
The war was over for my new German acquaintance, but not for me. It was a harrowing experience to take fire from the German 90 millimeter guns that were on their Tiger tanks. And now that I’d seen firsthand what our G.I.s had been faced with as they fought, I realized how tough the war was on the ground. Of course, as pilots we had our rough missions and lost some comrades, but at least between missions we weren’t on the battlefield. The men I was with on the ground had either been on constant alert, perpetual danger from attack or actually in the middle of a fierce firefight. There was no break.
And the German Tiger tanks outgunned our Shermans. The Tigers fired 90-millimeter shells, our Shermans shot 76-millimeter ammo. Longer range. They could hold back and shoot at us while they were out of our range. But even with this handicap, our men kept pushing the Germans back deeper into the Fatherland. I know there’s a myth that the Americans showed up at the last minute and claimed they won the war, but I can tell you it wasn’t a Sunday in the park.
And in addition to the ground-to-ground attacks, the Luftwaffe was still in action. A squadron arrived to bomb and strafe us, just as I had been doing to Nazi troops. I got on the radio quickly and asked for help from my comrades doing air cover. I was on the radio shouting for backup when the tank was hit. I grabbed the radio in one hand and used the other to climb out of the tank a minute before I would’ve been burned to death. I ran to another tank, climbed in and called for help from any P-47s in the area. But by the time any of our Jugs arrived, the German planes were long gone.
It only took us another week to push forward to the Rhine. We were supposed to stop there but we found the famous bridge at Remagen and crossed over. We set up a bridgehead on the other side. We fought a long, hard battle from the Rur to the Rhine. We had won; there was no more need for air support so my job was done before my two weeks.
So I stayed on and worked with a soldier who was assigned to go from house to house looking for hidden weapons in Cologne, where my armored division stopped for a well-deserved rest. We did not know which Germans we could trust, so we confiscated anything that could be used against us.
What was really surprising on this duty was what I saw in the houses: They were loaded with expensive items the German soldiers had looted from the countries they occupied and sent home to their families. In one of the houses we entered, three old women sat in the living room, eying us suspiciously and with some fear. They were hoping we would not notice the young women in the back room. German soldiers had told them to kill the Americans if we arrived because we would rape their girls. I tried to reassure them as best I could in simple English that no one would be hurt, we were just looking for guns
The U.S. military was very strict in our orders to act like gentlemen. First, we were not allowed to fraternize with the enemy. Second we were ordered not to rape. Any transgressions would result in a court-martial. As an officer, there was no question about it: I was held to the highest standard and would follow all rules. But I did hear that some G.I.’s quickly hooked up with German girls. Set that aside for a moment, because:
In our house searches for weapons, I found something really wild. It was a three-barrel shotgun, with two 12-gauge barrels side by side and 30-30 below. This was clearly a boar-hunting gun, but a weapon is a weapon so I confiscated it. The ammo for the gun was not what I expected either; it took slugs instead of shotgun shells. Of course: You wouldn’t want to blow the boar to pieces. It was a beautiful shotgun, with hand-engraved silver plating. I kept it for myself and sent it home along with the Luger the smiling Nazi officer had handed to me upon surrendering. I still have the shotgun and the Luger. Among the other souvenirs I sent home: An officer’s dagger with the inscription “Alles fur Deutschland,” and a swastika banner. Normally, pilots do not get these mementos, but I obtained them thanks to my ground assignment.
We had accomplished our mission of pushing the enemy back to the Rhine River. By this time, my two weeks of duty with the armored division was done. So I got my gear together, along with my new keepsakes, and headed back to the Hell Hawks.
When I returned to base at Flanneres, I was the envy of other pilots. Not only had I experienced what our ground troops went through, but I got a first-hand look at the damage we had done to the German war effort. I was an eyewitness to the burned-out gun emplacement, destroyed Tiger tanks, gutted buildings and could describe them to my comrades. And I told them how grateful the G.I.’s were for our air support, how good they felt when they saw us bombing and strafing the German strongholds before they had to go in and fight them. And the other pilots were so jealous of my souvenirs. Motzenbecker fell in love with my silver-plated shotgun and asked me if he could have it. I thought about it for one second.
“Thanks for the offer to take it off my hands, but no thanks; I think I’ll hang on to this baby.”
It didn’t take long to get back into the groove, flying support missions for the Third Armored Division, the outfit I had just left. They had crossed the bridge at Remagen and were set up on the eastern bank of the Rhine. The Germans had wired the bridge for demolition in order to block our passage, but the explosives didn’t go off. That gave our infantry and tanks an easy passage over the river and points east.
As March began, we flew daily on combat missions to support our army on the other side of the Rhine as they were preparing to break out of the bridgehead. It was a significant turning point in the war—the Germans were now fighting to defend their homeland instead of just holding on to occupied territory. Even though the outcome of the war was already determined, they fought fiercely. They were putting everything they had left toward the defense of the Fatherland.
Then came another memorable air mission. On March 13, instead of supporting the ground troops, we got orders to do another fighter sweep. Our squadron twelve P-47s was assigned to patrol the skies over Ahrweiler. We did not encounter the Luftwaffe planes that we had grown accustomed to shooting down. Instead, what we did come up against was unlike anything we had fought before.
We were flying at about 15,000 feet when we spotted three Messerschmitt Me-262 jets flying at 5,000 feet in V formation. All twelve of our P-47s went into a steep dive toward the enemy planes. We were going at least 500 miles per hour and closing in on them fast. But the German pilots knew what they were doing.
They let us get near, but not close enough to hit them with our guns. Just when it looked like they were going to be easy targets—ZOOM! The Germans gave their planes full power, took off at a 45-degree angle and left us behind as if we were standing still. Those jets were far superior to anything the Allies could have put in the air. If the Germans had built enough of them sooner, they might have inflicted more damage. But even at that point, however, it would have been too little, too late. The Nazis lost the war when they opened the second front against the Soviet Union. There was no way they could fight and win two wars at once.
The next milestone came toward the end of the month, on March 24. The Germans were still putting up a stiff defense on the east side of the Rhine, so the Allies planned a major assault. It was called Operation Varsity. The Hell Hawks’ job was to provide top cover to C-46 and C-47 carriers that would be dropping paratroopers into the heart of Germany, along with other airborne troops in gliders. We did not encounter any enemy fighters, so there was little for us to do except observe the beauty of the operation. As one of the 36 pilots in the Hell Hawks group, I flew back and forth over our paratroopers to ensure their safety. What a sight it was to see the gliders and the men floating down to German land under their big parachutes!
I later learned that more than a thousand planes and gliders participated in the assault, with us high above like guardian angels. I don’t think anyone will ever see a sight like I saw again. Operation Varsity was one of the largest and most successful airdrops of the war, along with D-Day.
The last week of March was the busiest of my flying years. For the first time, I was flying two missions a day. And what happened at that point was this:
We had caught the attention of Hollywood. Warner Bros. was planning on making a motion picture about our exploits. They sent out a film crew and started shooting footage of our squadron. That name of the film was “Fighter Squadron,” directed by Raoul Wash and starring Edmond O’Brien and Robert Stack. So they equipped our P-47s with special cameras mounted under the wings in order to get real aerial combat scenes for the film. We already had our gun cameras in the wing to film what we fired at for intelligence purposes, but these cameras were special—they filmed in color! The film crew mounted a color camera on my ship. Some of the action in the movie was from my plane. You can see my point of view as I shoot up a locomotive, then fly through the steam that puffs up. I have the identical footage taken from my own gun camera in my personal collection.
The movie was released in 1948, when the war was a memory for me. A pretty fresh memory, but a memory. Great movie!
Then we moved from Florennes in Belgium to Aachen in Germany. It was the first Army Air Corps base in the enemy’s country. Aachen had been a beautiful city, steeped in history, much like the German equivalent of Reims. Unfortunately, we had blown a lot of it to smithereens. They had used the area as a central base for training Panzer units.
Our first problem was an airfield. What we could use as runways and taxiways were more hole than road, so our engineers built them from steel matting. Nevertheless, there were dips and bumps that we had to learn to avoid, and it was the late winter rainy season, so it seemed like they were always wet. Sometimes you couldn’t see a plane after it touched down because of the spray that shot up on both sides. It looked more like a boat plowing through a lake. Thanks to the heavy weight of the P-47, we could manage to steer a straight course down the runway. The first few times were challenging, but like everything else, we got used to it.
No more chateau like the one in Florennes, though. It was back to tents, which were not great but not so bad. The men who built them did a marvelous job making them as comfortable as they could.
Newspaper readers knew who we were and what we did, but now came the time for the radio and movie audience to learn about the Hell Hawks. The now-legendary newscaster Edward R. Murrow of CBS visited us to report on how air support helped with the war. He took a ride on a P-47 for a mission, crammed behind the seat of a cockpit. Other planes were also flying support missions, but the P-38 Lightnings or P-51 Mustangs had smaller cabins: You couldn’t have squeezed two people into one, so the Jug got the glory it deserved. Murrow filed a glowing report about what the 365th Fighter Group contributed to the defeat of the Germans, and his radio listeners and the motion picture audiences that saw the Movietone News reels before the feature got acquainted with us that way.
On March 20, orders came down from the TAC to give as much air support as possible to the troops holding the bridge at Remagen, who were under assault after I had gone with them to the Rhine. The Germans were determined to drive us back to the other side of the river. So we flew in to bomb and strafe German tanks and gun emplacements. Because of their position and the geography, we had to come in low, which was not an excellent situation. Here’s why: We were so close to the deck that we would have no chance to bail out if our ship was hit and going down. If that happened, you were either dead quickly or by some miracle survived the crash. If you survived the crash it was likely that the civilians would get hold of you. It would have been better to be dead quickly. The German citizens were known to treat downed pilots very badly, to put it mildly. The only hope was that you survived, were captured by the military and taken as a Prisoner of War. Then maybe you were better off alive. Maybe.
Once again, we bombed and strafed anything that looked German, moving or not. East of Remagen, we pounded the cities of Waldbro, Siegen, Dillenburg, Herborn, Wetzlar, Giessenand and Limburg. The Germans were hiding tanks and halftracks in all those towns, and using marshaling yards to bring in reinforcements by rail. In the air, we saw little of the devastation we were inflicting on Germany and the Wehrmacht. But I knew what things must’ve looked like on the ground from my experience as forward air controller. And we were also getting reports—along with thanks—from the ground forces for making the invasion of Nazi territory less deadly for them.
And then came March 30:
The Third Armored Division was advancing on Paderborn, the training center for Hitler’s infamous Panzer divisions. The instructors, specialists, cadets and tank trainees put up a furious fight in defense of that ground that was sacred to the Germans. They pushed into our lines and inflicted many casualties. Those included the division commander, Gen. Maurice Rose, whom I had met, not one to lead from the rear. He was killed when his column engaged a fierce German thrust.
Our mission took off at 14:32. We were not flying with a full squadron, but only eight planes. (We usually flew with the full squadron, but sometimes with eight and sometimes only four.) We each had two 500-pound bombs and a full load of ammo. We headed for the combat zone, Paderborn and a nearby city of Hovelhof. We circled awaiting direction. The ground controller told us there was a heavy concentration of tanks and armored vehicles just outside Paderborn. We soon had a visual on the tanks and peeled off one by one and dropped our bombs, destroying several Tigers. Then we flew over again to strafe.
We were giving the Germans our full firepower, but they weren’t taking it standing still. They were giving us as much as we were giving them and we were getting shot up very badly. On one of my strafing runs, I took a direct hit to my canopy. The bullet grazed my head and then shattered the other side of the shield. It wasn’t a deep wound, but I couldn’t have known that due to the gusher streaming down my face. Despite the blood over my eyes, I had spotted where the guns were that had shot me.
“I will get you now,” I said. “I will get you good.”
The guns were 20-millimeter Flakvierlings mounted on a halftrack. I wiped the blood out of my eyes so I could get a clear bead on my target. I came around, got them in my sights and shot up that halftrack and two others until they were scrap metal. I then pulled up, rejoined my squadron and headed back to Aachen with them. We landed safely with no loss of pilots but severe damage to the planes. I was the only one wounded. Hence my both my Purple Heart and my Distinguished Flying Cross. My DFC citation reads:
For extraordinary achievement in aerial flight on March 30, 1945, Lt. Lopez accomplished a highly successful close support mission when he executed a daring low-level attack upon an enemy vehicle, destroying three during the engagement, his aircraft sustained severe damage and he himself was badly wounded, despite these handicaps he continued his attacks and scored three more direct hits. Lopez’s bombing and strafing skill and courage reflect great credit upon himself and are keeping with the highest tradition of the Army Air Force.
My head wound healed quickly and I was back flying by April 3, when we were ordered to support the Ninth Infantry. We spotted a row of Tiger tanks waiting to ambush the American tanks and troops advancing on them. Our guys were rolling straight into a big surprise. But before the Tigers could open fire, we attacked them with sixteen 500-pound bombs from our eight P-47s. That alerted the American column as to what was happening; also we managed to destroy a good portion of Nazi vehicles. And the forces that escaped our bombs scattered, making them easy targets for the advancing Ninth Infantry column.
Not a bad day’s work, huh?
In mid-April we moved from Aachen to Fritzlar, south of the big city of Kassel. It was a former Luftwaffe base, which the Nazis had abandoned in a rush during a surprise attack. The Germans had no advance warning they were about to be hit, so they just ran for their lives, leaving every behind, including planes, tools, buildings, hangars and all their war materiel. And it was all in great shape, like an air base you might see in an U.S. city, with concrete ramps and runways. We hadn’t flown out of a normal base like this in some time!
Fritzlar was a quaint small town, happily untouched by the war. The surrounding countryside was lovely, spread out across open meadows crossed by streams and dotted by forests. You might never have known that there had been a war there. We were pleased to find two-story buildings in good condition and we occupied one as pilots’ sleeping quarters, complete with showers and everything else you’d find in a dormitory. Fritzlar was the best base the Hell Hawks flew from, and it would be the last.
I was still who I always was, though, a happy guy just looking for a few laughs. I took Sweet and Lovely up to 5,000 feet to celebrate our arrival in Fritzlar, then did a high-speed dive aiming right for the control tower to give the guys in there a little laugh. I was heading straight at them and just as it looked like I was going to hit, I lowered my left wing and turned away. I could see the guys in the tower ducking, thinking that I was going to wipe them out! But I knew no one was in any danger.
But when I landed, boy did Motzenbecker give me a good chewing out! He put me on alert duty for the rest of the week. That meant waking up at 5 a.m. and sitting in my P-47 at the end of the runway to protect the base in case of enemy attack. It was a disciplinary assignment and he gave me a verbal reprimand, but deep down I know that he got a kick out of my stunt and he wished he could have pulled the same prank—or a better one! Because Motzenbecker was a hot-to-trot fighter pilot just like the rest of us.
A noteworthy development occurred during our time in Fritzlar: We got new airplanes! It was the UC-64 Norseman, used in Canada by bush pilots. The plane was already well-known because it was the one that renowned swing band leader Glenn Miller was flying in when he disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944.
Most of the pilots in my squadron flew only when they had to. I guess they figured they had enough air time. But I loved flying, even during the war, I couldn’t get enough! So I was always taking Sweet N Lovely to tour the local area. And now I had a new toy! So I started taking the UC-64 all over Europe on the pretext of visiting different airbases in Europe. I could not understand why the other pilots weren’t doing the same. My little trips didn’t relieve me from flying any combat missions; I could only take my joyrides when I was off duty. Thanks to my seniority and experience, I also got assignments to ferry officers to meetings across the continent. That gave me a chance to keep busy as the war was winding down.
So here are some of my more delightful stories, which occurred as war turned to victory:
An important meeting was scheduled in Paris and I was designated as pilot to fly the ground officers in my squadron there. I plotted my course, checked the weather, loaded the passengers and took off for northern France. The trip took us over the battlefields of World War I. You could see the trenches where the doughboys fought. It was amazing to me that after twenty-five years they were still there and still very clearly visible from the air.
The rest of the trip provided views of the beautiful French countryside below. When we landed at Paris the officers tried to talk me into accompanying them into town, anticipating some fun times in addition to their meeting. I had seen Paris already on my way into the war, so I politely declined, saying I preferred a day of relaxation at the airport with the plane. So when they left I decided to take a stroll down the country road leading from the airport.
In the distance, I saw a bright flash of white on the road. What could it be? It seemed to be coming slowly toward me, getting bigger and more distinct—it was a beautiful girl in a white dress! She was just a little younger than I was, about 20 or so, very friendly and very, very pretty. I had picked up a little French from my lovers in Belgium, so I did my best to chat her up. After all, I couldn’t miss an opportunity to extend good relations between the United States and France! It only took a few minutes of some Franglish conversation to decide to sit down together in the wheat field by the side of the road where we could be more comfortable. It only took a few more minutes to start making love! Oh, how I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to be back at the airport to wait for my passengers to return. I don’t remember her name, and I’m not sure I ever knew it. “C’est la guerre,” they say in France. It means that you do things in wartime that you probably would not do in peacetime.
When my passengers got back, they were disappointed that they did not get any action in Paris. And when they heard about my adventure they were astounded. The could barely believe me and even walked down the road to see if they could find her just to verify she existed. They went all the way into town. They believed me, though. Those were things that happened during the war.
We decided to sleep at the base. When we awoke, we had a good French breakfast then climbed back in the plane to head back to Germany. But an hour out of Paris, the engine started spurting oil onto the windshield. I looked for a safe landing area, found a flat stretch near a small town and set the plane down there.
The townspeople came out to cheer us as American liberators—and also to have a close-up look at the plane. It was unusual for them to see that kind of craft up close as there was no airfield in the area.
Fortunately, one of the passengers was a mechanic. He pulled off the engine cowl and we saw that a rocker arm and gone through the cover. If we would have stayed in the air any longer, all the oil would have drained, the engine would have seized and we would have crashed.
The field we had landed in was about 100 yards from a small town with a U.S. Army outpost close by. So we carried the rocker arm cover to the base and had it welded there, a minor repair. The other passengers got a ride back to Fritzlar by car, and the mechanic and I walked back to the plane to fix it. By the time we got back it was late and we were too tired to work on the engine. So we opened some G.I. rations that were stored aboard and then got ready to sack out.
That’s when we received a nice visit from two young ladies from the town. I guess they must have heard that the plane was there from the other people and decided to have a look. In any case, they were excellent company and turned a dull night into a very interesting one, joining us in our sleeping bags. Ah, French girls. You have heard the stories about them and I can tell you the stories are true.
Once we got the engine purring like new the next morning, the takeoff was a bit of a challenge. The field where I had landed was not long enough to build up the speed I needed to lift the plane. I met with a local farmer and he agreed to take down a fence to give me a longer path. I gave him a carton of cigarettes for his trouble and he was very pleased with the transaction. I did not smoke, but we always carried allotments of cigarettes that we carried for situations just like this one. I could never understand why people were so happy to get them, but who am I to judge? Once he took the fence down, I paced off the area and checked it for dips and holes. We revved the engine to full power and took off. I circled the town at low level, rocking my wings to say goodbye to everyone, especially to our lovely friends who kept us company the night before. Flying back to Fritzlar was great fun. I kept low and buzzed the landscape as we went. People were waving us was we passed over. They were grateful to be free. And we got to see France and Germany differently—without the enemy shooting at us.
It was much more pleasant that way, as you can imagine.
Meanwhile, back at the front, it was still hellfire. The Wehrmacht had come to the conclusion that their total collapse was at hand. So they put all their efforts into inflicting as many casualties on the American Army as possible, to make us pay dearly for our victory. It was still April, and Patton’s Third Army was moving fast across the Rhine and encircling the Ruhr pocket, then heading east as the Russians were moving west. The Germans were getting squeezed tighter and tighter into a smaller and smaller area of operations. What was left became as easy as a turkey shoot for us. Our Sherman tanks had put bright red panels across their gun turrets so what we could see them better from the air—even though there was no mistaking them for Tigers, the best tank of the war, which had given a lot of grief to the American Army. So the G.I.’s were neutralizing the last of them with bazookas and anti-tank guns and the Hell Hawks were knocking them out of commission from the air.
It was an interesting match-up, though, seen objectively. The Tiger had a bigger gun than the Sherman and a longer range. But the Sherman was lighter and faster, so it could outmaneuver its larger opponent. Think of it as a lighter boxer who moves around a heavier opponent. He can jab quickly, then move out of range, but doesn’t have a knockout punch. But one direct hit from a Tiger could finish off a Sherman. That’s just objectively. In the end, the Panzers and the Luftwaffe were stretched too thin, fighting on two fronts against enemies that had greater resources despite the massive logistical challenges. They were no match for the Americans and our Allies.
We got a seven-day leave in order to give us a break from combat flying and headed down to the French Riviera in a C-47 and stayed at a very posh hotel in the lovely town of Nice. What I found particularly funny was that it was called the Hotel Martinez. A Latino name! But the French pronounced it Mart-NEZZ. I still don’t know why. Some of the pilots wanted to see the legendary town of Monaco. But I stayed in Nice and took a tour to the island where the legendary “Man in the Iron Mask” was believed to have been imprisoned for part of his three-decade ordeal. I found that fascinating and was impressed that they took you to see the cell where he was shackled and fitted with the hood that concealed his identity. I had never heard the story before so it was a great way to learn it. Louis XIV’s twin? Illegitimate older brother? No one will ever know.
I also spent as much time as I could on the beach at Nice. The French had a charming tradition there known as topless bathing. For women. They were walking around with no tops. Until you have seen it, you don’t quite understand what it is like for a young man to be on the beach with hundreds of beautiful bare-breasted women. I can only describe it as something like paradise. I thought that maybe the good old US of A might be behind the times and would catch up with the French soon. Alas, that never happened and I was disappointed.
Suffice it to say that the beach of Nice was a very welcome break from constant life of combat missions that had been my daily existence for the previous six months.
But while we were there the news came over that our commander in chief, President Roosevelt, had died. He was very well-respected in France, not surprisingly, and out of respect to his memory, many businesses closed down for the week, so the city was quieter. But the war still drawing to its close in Germany, so we were soon heading back to Fritzlar and the last of the fighting.
By April 21, I resumed flying combat missions in support of Patton’s Third Army, which by now was mopping up the last remains of the Wehrmacht. My final combat flight in Europe was May 1.
My obligation to stay on alert for combat ended that day. But I was free to fly whenever I wished. We needed to keep our skills sharp, so we did training flights with the whole squadron participating in gunnery practice, dive bombing and formation flying. That’s because the Army wanted to make sure we’d be ready to redeploy to the Pacific Theater of Operations, PTO. The war in Europe was ending, but the Japanese were still holding strong on the other side of the world. Our group was anticipating orders to move there.
I was also flying Sweet N Lovely as often as I could and the Norseman, too. If you counted hours, I did more flying for fun in May and June than in the months than I did flying combat missions. And that was when I saw an unforgettably lovely sight.
I was zooming around the skies in my P-47, putting Sweet N Lovely through its paces, boring holes in the sky, seeing what I could of Europe that I didn’t get to see during combat. It was a very nice day in May, a warm sunny day that wasn’t common during the spring in that part of Germany.
Atop a knoll in a meadow, I spotted a dozen women sunbathing. They were taking full feel of the sun on their skin. They were completely naked. I had to buzz them. I came in real close, my prop almost touching the ground before I pulled up above them. They made no move to cover up. Instead, they all stood up and waved at me as I passed, no modesty, no embarrassment, no fear. I did it again. And again. I kept buzzing them and they kept waving. I would’ve done it all day, but I was running low on fuel!
I made a mental note of where they were thinking that maybe I could find the spot after I landed and took a Jeep out to join them on the hillside. However, I couldn’t arrange enough time away from the base to seek out those lovely women.
So I had to content myself with a simple walk in the countryside near the base. There was a small brook nearby and I noticed a number of G.I.s having picnics with German girls near the water, with not a care about the non-fraternization rules. There wouldn’t be huge consequences if they were caught, but I was an officer so I couldn’t join them in the fun. I’m not sure other pilots were so respectful of the rules and I’m confident that they took German lovers.
One of the fun things that I did do, though, was tour the area on a German motorcycle that had on older-model engine with horizontally opposed cylinders. I inherited it from the fleeing Germans. I got to try out the autobahns, Germany’s new freeways. I added that to my comparative study of Europe versus the United States—topless sunbathing, freeways—and hoped that we’d catch up one day. I note in retrospect that they had freeways there long before they ever came here.
So my days were pretty relaxing although I kept busy. I explored the German countryside on that bike, and kept my flying skills honed. We set up target practice on a Bavarian lake, placing floating targets there and making gunnery passes. It was a beautiful site, with towering mountains climbing up from the waterfront. There was a castle near the lakeshore that we were told was Hitler’s retreat.
Back at the base, there was always a card game in the evening. Most pilots liked to play poker, but I was never much of a gambler, so I usually joined a foursome for bridge. One of the pilots was an expert, so I learned a lot from him and got pretty good at bidding!
Flanked by flying buddies Gale Phillips and Allen Mundt
LOOKING BACK, it’s truly odd that I made it through all those combat missions during the war with only a flesh wound and then this happened at the very end.
Hitler had committed suicide on April 30 and Germany surrendered on May 8. It was 1945. So by July 11, we were an occupying army. That’s when I was assigned to fly some materiel to Frankfurt, about 200 miles south of Fritzlar. I filed my flight plan at the operations desk and got briefed on the weather. The forecast was for high scattered clouds, twenty miles visibility, and light winds out of the east. Everything seemed in order.
I lined up the people who had signed up to go with me on the Norseman. There were a few enlisted men, a ground officer, and a tall blonde pilot. He must have been six-foot-four. He acted as my copilot; he didn’t have much experience but had just joined the squadron and was looking for something to do. We took off as usual, anticipating an easy flight to Frankfurt. Boy, did we have a big surprise in store.
About twenty minutes into the flight I noticed that the scattered clouds in the forecast were closing up and soon became a solid overcast. I called Frankfurt and they reported clear conditions; I thought it would be OK to continue so I kept on course even though I saw that the overcast was lowering. I continued south because I thought I would soon reach the clear conditions that were reported from Frankfurt. I was trying to stay under the clouds, but they got lower and lower. Suddenly the cloud cover was all the way to the ground. There was zero visibility, and I had no choice but to pull up into the fog and fly on instruments-only. There was no point in trying to keep flying toward Frankfurt.
So I made a left turn to head back to Fritzlar. I chose left because the pilot sits on the left, the propellers pull left—I learned later that things would’ve been different if I’d turned right. Turning left took me toward a high hill covered with trees. The moment the trees appeared in my sightline I put the plane into a steep climb. But even though we were climbing, I saw tall pine trees just off my wing. I pushed the throttle to its maximum and reach for the flap handle to give us more lift but before I could lower the flaps we hit the mountain. Because the plane was at a steep angle we crashed on its belly instead of nose-cone into the hillside. That’s what probably saved us all from being killed. The plane skidded up the hill and then flipped over in an endo, tail over nose, landing on its back. Then everything happened so fast that I had no time to think; my actions were all just automatic. I unbuckled my seatbelt, crawled out of the burning plane, and that’s what everyone else did to. Or so I thought. As I stumbled out of the airplane, something was bothering me, but I didn’t know what.
I saw I didn’t have my jacket and parachute, so I tried to run back to the burning plane to save them. But I couldn’t run, I could only stumble. Nevertheless, I was determined to get my leather coat and chute. I reached into the cockpit and grabbed them, and that’s when I realized what had been bothering me. I must have done a subliminal head count and saw someone was missing without consciously registering it. Is that what drove me back to the burning plane? One of the men was stuck in his seat, knocked out cold. I was having trouble dragging him out, so some of the other guys came over and helped me. Working together, we quickly freed him from the wreckage and pulled him to safety.
After making sure that everyone else was in good shape, I was stumbling around in a dream state, holding on to my precious jacket and parachute, and limped about twenty yards downhill away from the plane. Once I was far enough away from the burning aircraft to be safe—or so I thought—I collapsed in pain. Then I looked up at the plane and guess what? The engine fell out of the fuselage and started rolling down the hill right at me, a mass of hot metal that looked like it was going to turn me into a dead man. But as if by magic, it hit a depression on the hillside two feet above me and stopped. As if to say “Hi Ed.” If it hadn’t halted that instant I would’ve been crushed. I have no idea why it did not continue one more rollover and kill me. Except for this one: My guardian angel was at work once again and saved my life. Maybe everyone who survives war has a guardian angel. There were so many times I could have bought the farm during World War II and didn’t. I have no other explanation. I think the engine that rolled down the hill and stopped and said hello was the time I came closest. But there were other times, almost drawing friendly fire when our base was attacked; almost getting wiped out by flack over the Ruhr Valley. And maybe even times that I wasn’t even aware of.
Two German farmers had heard the crash and climbed the hill to help us. They also wanted to know if there were any big bombs on board that might explode. As we struggled with our language skills, or rather lack thereof, they quickly understood my assurance that we weren’t going to get blown to bits. That’s when I realized why I hadn’t been able to run back to the plane. When I tried to stand up the Germans pointed to my ankles and said “Kaputt.” Meaning that both ankles were broken and I had been stumbling around with my feet turned in. I also had bashed my face on the compass bracket and I looked like a bloody mess.
I knew that a body shuts down its nervous system when it sustains a high degree of pain, and that’s how shock protects us. That’s when I went into shock. The last thing I remember was seeing the paramedics arrive and start to check me over.
When I woke up I was in a Paris hospital with casts on both ankles up to my knees and bandages around my head. My first concern was to find out how the other men were doing. I was relieved to find out that no one else was critically injured. The copilot had a broken leg and the guy who had been knocked out was all right. I was the only one who had been seriously hurt.
Of course, I turned the crash over and over in my head. Why? Why? Why? It still amazes me. Why did the weather change on us like that after a clear forecast? Why didn’t the fog lift as we neared Frankfurt? Why didn’t I switch to instruments sooner? Why did I turn left instead of right? Why was no one killed when I crashed a plane into a mountainside? Why did the engine stop just before crushing me? I always believed: what is was meant to be. I can only confirm that belief due to the miracle that took place on that German hill.
When my face hit the bracket, it lacerated my forehead and nose and broke the left cheekbone. It also severed a nerve so that whole side of my face had no feeling, it was completely numb. I was also seeing double, although I didn’t know that right away. That problem became apparent when I recovered enough to play bridge with the flight nurses. I had a particular nurse who was my regular partner and she was getting frustrated with me because I was bidding wrong. I found at later that what I thought were hearts were really diamonds. So I covered on eye to see the cards clearly and started winning again! Little by little my normal eyesight returned.
With the war in Europe over in May I had assumed that once I’d recovered I’d be sent to the PTO as our fighter group was scheduled for deployment there. I stayed in the hospital in Paris for another month. Then I was transferred to a hospital at Fort Dix in New Jersey. I was on a medical evacuation plane, a C-54, over the Atlantic when we got word that we had dropped an atomic bomb (“What’s an atomic bomb?” we all asked each other) on Hiroshima. Another one leveled Nagasaki a few days later and Japan surrendered. That meant there would be no need for more combat forces sent to the Pacific. I stayed at Fort Dix for a week, then was transferred to Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, near my home in Los Angeles. That was Army policy, to place soldiers in a hospital near their family. I was in casts and on crutches so I wouldn’t have been very good company. Just as well that the family did not show up.
A vintage UC-64 Norseman
I HAD TO WEAR the casts for a few months. To my surprise, when they came off I had to learn how to walk again. I hadn’t walked since the crash and if you don’t use your legs, your muscles atrophy and your whole system has to be retrained. They put me in a swimming pool to practice walking with less weight on my ankles. I was at Birmingham General for about six months until I was fully recovered. I regained the use of my legs, but that was really no fun!
Meanwhile, of course, I was keeping up with the news of the 365th Fighter Group. The pilots were still in Fritzlar, but the group was returning to the United States for deactivation. Some of the pilots that had joined us in the last stages of the war had little or no combat experience. So they were assigned to occupation duty in Germany and stayed abroad. The rest of us had done our share.
In September 1945 the Hell Hawks were back in the United States and deactivated. So the 365th Fighter Group was no longer a living thing. Its glorious history and combat citations were put into the archives of the U.S. Army Air Corps to be remembered only by the pilots and ground personnel who served and fought as the Hell Hawks.
By February 1946 I was fully recovered and sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro to end my military career, exactly where I started only four years before—although it seemed like so long ago. I was just a kid when I walked in there for the first time, and knew nothing of the world. I had no idea that I would become a fighter pilot. But here I was a decorated combat veteran fighter pilot ready getting released from active duty. It was fitting that my Army career should end right where it began.
My ankles would never fully recover from the beating they sustained, so I was judged to be 10 percent disabled. I began receiving a modest compensation, enough to pay for my G.I. insurance, which still covers me to this day!
Back home in Los Angeles, the first thing I did was renew my friendship with my pal Gilbert, the guy I had ridden the rails with on our trip to New Mexico before the war. He had finished his service in the Marines.
We became regulars at the track in Santa Anita, going almost every day to play the ponies. We never hit a big winner, but if we came out even, we declared that a victory. But we got to see some of the great horses of that time: See Tee Cee, Jet Pilot and the famous Citation.
I still wanted to fly, so I took Gilbert to the Culver City Airport—it’s no longer there—and rented a Stearman. I gave him an aerial tour of Los Angeles and we had a blast. But renting planes was too expensive for my budget so I wanted to join the California National Guard to fly at their expense. This is not a happy story.
I got an appointment to meet the CO at Van Nuys Airport where the National Guard was stationed. The colonel took one look at me and abruptly told me I wasn’t qualified. I didn’t argue with him. I just turned around and walked out of his office. I knew right away, just from the way he looked at me, the reason he decided I wasn’t qualified.
He had no idea that I had more flight experience than most air veterans, plus the Distinguished Flying Cross, ten Air Medals, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Presidential Citations, four battle stars and a handful of campaign ribbons. And he said I wasn’t qualified. Of course I was qualified. He hadn’t even asked my qualifications. He was just a racist and he saw I was Latino. I found at later that this guy headed up the Anglo Flying Club, which welcomed actor Jimmy Stewart into its organization. Jimmy had nowhere near my experience, but he was famous—and he wasn’t Latino.
A while later a pilot in the National Guard was severely injured in a crash. I noticed his name when I saw the account of accident in a local newspaper. I knew him very well. I also knew that he had not flown in combat. But he was Anglo and I was a Latino. This discrimination could not happen today. I hope. That was 1947. I believe that things have changed.
So I went to fly for Uncle Sam with the Air Reserve at Long Beach, which was not equipped with the P-51 or P-38 fighters that were on hand at the National Guard. To keep their pilots current, the Air Reserve flew the old standbys, AT-6s and C-45s. So I joined the Army Air Reserve there to keep my flying skills honed, and fortunately no one there told me I wasn’t qualified.
Meanwhile, Gilbert stayed a civilian for only one year. He must have felt at home in the military. I had thought that he would rejoin his branch, the Marines, but he opted for the 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles. I was proud of him; that outfit had done a magnificent job fighting the Germans and I had the privilege of giving them air support. Gilbert did his career in the military: He served in Korea and Vietnam, for a total of three wars across our lifespan. Imagine that. First as a Marine in World War II, then as a paratrooper in Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, as a reservist, I was knocking around having fun when not on “weekend warrior” call. But I kept myself current by flying whenever I wanted.
At about that time, a fellow named A.J. Agajanian was promoting hot rod racing at a track called Carrell Speedway at 120th Street and Vermont Avenue. The cars were mostly 1932 Ford roadsters with Mercury engines. My friend Robert Lujan had a ’32 roadster so we got a Mercury engine from a mechanic we knew, Baror Verso. We joined the California Roadster Association, as membership was a requirement for competing. Once again, I was having a great time: I wore the German tanker’s helmet that I had liberated in the war. I did pretty well, coming in second a few times, but I never did get that checkered flag. I was always up there with the leaders, though.
Some of the guys I was racing with later became stars at Indianapolis, including Agajanian—he drove the Indy 500!
I didn’t stay long with cars, though; I quickly returned to my love of flying. I met Claude Maytorena, who had been professor of aeronautics at the University of Southern California and he was well-connected. He introduced me to movie actors Jon Hall and Robert Young, who were partners in a business at Clover Field—now Santa Monica Airport. So they hired me to fly their new Navions for them I got to meet all their movie star friends who wanted to see their homes from the air. I once shuttled them down to Mexico for a weekend getaway to Guaymas in Sonora once; we all had a great time.
I was showing my combat to films to some of them once, including Brian Donlevy, and Frances Langford, (Jon’s wife, who did USO tours with Bob Hope), and Rory Calhoun walked in and joined us. It was pretty heady for me to be hanging out with some of the most famous film folks of those days!
Those were fun times, but I needed to get serious about my future so I signed up for classes at Los Angeles City College under the G.I. Bill. But that posed some challenges in making money, so I went to work as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service, on the night shift. I was working eight hours graveyard and taking a full course load by day, starting studies that I thought would lead to becoming an architect.
I suppose I was pushing myself too hard. I soon started feeling really weak. My heart rate was 120 sitting still, so I went to see a doctor. He sent me to the Veterans Administration hospital to get treatment for an overactive thyroid.
As soon as I checked in to the Long Beach VA hospital, they started giving me radioactive iodine by mouth. It went straight to my thyroid and it was quite effective in cooling it down. Until then, I had no idea how your thyroid controls your personality. When it was overactive, I was an extreme extrovert. I was walking down the halls singing at the top of my voice, chasing the nurses in the hallways and picking fights for no reason with anyone I saw, even though I couldn’t have fought my way out of a paper bag. My weight was severely down and I was sweating profusely. Food went right through me; I burned it up as fast as I could eat it, and I ate a lot without putting on a pound.
But soon after starting the radiation my heart rate dropped to about 60. I ate less and my metabolism slowed so I could retain and use the nutrition, and gained weight again, from 110 back to 180. And I was exercising, so it built muscle—I got so musclebound that I could hardly straighten my arms!
And my behavior changed. I became an introvert. No more loud-mouthing, no more running after nurses. I was quiet and calm. But then I got really depressed and had to fight off the idea of suicide. There were a few others on my ward taking the same treatment and reporting the same problems. I don’t think anyone killed themselves, though. They checked our thyroid with Geiger counters every other day to make sure we were getting the right doses. It took about three months to get back to normal. Well, not entirely back to normal, but good enough to be released from the hospital.
I could not go to Air Reserve meetings at the time, so I was taken off the roster. That probably worked to my advantage again. While I was in the hospital, my reserve unit was called up for active duty in Korea, flying B-26 bombers. The unit was one of the first in combat there and I heard that there were heavy casualties among the pilots and crews.
When I got out of the hospital I decided that school and work was too much so I returned to my job at the post office but didn’t continue architecture studies. I had started as a temporary postal clerk but was promoted to a regular rank, which meant I could stay until retirement if I so desired. But that was not to be.
This Navion was once owned by actors Jon Hall and Errol Flynn; it’s now the property of my son, Gabe Lopez!
WHEN 1950 CAME AROUND, the fighting with North Korea was heating up, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union was an additional challenge for the United States. So it was no surprise when I received a letter from the U.S. Air Force, formerly the Army Air Corps, but now a separate branch of the military. The letter asked if I would accept a commission to return to active duty as a pilot.
A significant wave of bitterness swept over me. I was not qualified for the California National Guard, but the Air Force requested my services? So I had to consider. And I did consider. For a full two seconds. Then I sent back my reply saying I would return to active duty—I was happy to fly their airplanes.
In about two weeks I received my orders to report to a base near San Francisco for another indoctrination. The uniforms had changed from green to blue. I still liked my old pink and green duds, though, and they were tolerated until a reasonable amount of time had passed, then I was told to don the new blues. My disability pension was deactivated so I could return to flying, but would be reinstated when I left the service again.
Indoctrination at the base near San Francisco took about a week, then I was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At Lackland, a mass of other pilots like me were awaiting orders for training to perform other duties besides flying. They would then do those as secondary jobs. That seemed like a good idea to me. I’m an active person and it always seemed to me that our time could be put to better use when we weren’t flying. I spent a month in Lackland, flying about five hours a week, just enough to keep my skills awake. In the meantime, while waiting for my class assignment, I enjoyed life in San Antonio.
From there, I was sent to Lowery Air Force Base in Denver. That’s where I would be trained to be an armament officer. I would learn how to manage all the weapons and ammunition that goes into the plane. So my duties would be armaments and piloting.
Things had changed when it came to transportation, though. As I was now a full officer, it was up to me to get my ass to my new base of operations. So I hopped in my brand new 1950 Buick and headed north to Denver. I got to stop in New Mexico and visit Bob Lukesh and Pablita. We reminisced about the good times we had together on the ranch. I also updated them on my adventures and misadventures and got the latest scoop on what was happening in the world of Socorro.
John was the youngest of the Lopez brothers; I remembered him as the nicest. He served in the Army for the war. Isn’t it always this way: The nicest guys get the worst deal. He was severely wounded when he was shot across the middle of his stomach. He recovered, but was in constant pain. It was intolerable, so he did the worst thing he could do: He started drinking and became an alcoholic. His body gave out and he died.
He’s an example of the tragedy of war. Some of those who survive don’t make it out in one piece, mentally and physically. The war takes some of the survivors, too. John didn’t die on the battlefield, but the war killed him as sure as if he had. He was a true war hero, but no one memorializes him that way. It was really sad to hear what happened to him.
But life continued for the Socorro Lopez clan, including Rosie. In fact, Bob and Pablita drove me to Albuquerque to see her: She was happily married and had a beautiful blonde daughter.
On the way back to Socorro, Pablita turned to me and said:
“You should have married Rosie.”
Pablita must’ve known that I loved Rosie. But when I first knew Rosie, in school, before the war, I was too young for that. Marriage was the furthest thing from my mind. I wish I could have stayed in New Mexico and visited the ranch again, but I had an appointment in Denver.
Denver was so beautiful; I loved seeing the Rocky Mountains overlook the city. It was a different climate than I was used to; San Antonio was sub-tropical; Lowery was crisp and cold—but not so cold that you couldn’t stand it. I was assigned a very nice Bachelor Officer Quarters. The mess hall was not what you’d expect at a military base; there was a restaurant-style dining hall next to the officers club.
After another week of indoctrination at the base, I started armament training with about twenty other officers. Not all of them were pilots. The instructors walked us through the structures and functions of a wide variety of armaments that I was already familiar with, so it was pretty easy for me. The best part, though, was that I had the chance to keep up my flying skills on the AT-6s, which I really enjoyed flying. I would take off from Denver and head north to the plains of Wyoming, just south of Cheyenne. I loved buzzing the antelope herds that I saw on the range. I chased them around as if I were an aerial sheepdog herding his flock. I’d get them running west, then head them off and turned them east. Every now and then I’d spot a coyote crouching off to the side, waiting to see if he could pick one off for lunch.
Out on those plains, there were no buildings or any other obstructions to worry about. You could fly so low that it seemed your prop would scrape the ground. You had to be smart about it, though. High tension wires could be a hazard, so it was important to be aware. You couldn’t see the wires, of course—you had to spot the towers that held them up so you could avoid the wires by flying over or under them.
I also flew another plane, a C-45 twin-engine trainer. I took that one around Denver, which had its drawbacks because of the mountains being so close. Also, huge thunderheads would build up in the sky. It’s not for nothing that the city is known as the thunderstorm capital of the United States.
Some other pilots and I wanted to get out of Denver for the weekend and visit our families in Los Angeles, so we flew into Van Nuys Airport. It was a relief to get into the calm desert air of Southern California. But on our way back, we always hit thunderstorms. It was good training to maintain our proficiency in adverse weather conditions. Even though the primary purpose of our training in Denver was armament education, the pilots were still expected to keep our instrument rating current. So I spent hours and hours in the Link Trainer flight simulator, and hours and hours under the hood. When I took my instrument check in the B-25 Bomber I passed with ease.
After three months of education in armaments, there wasn’t a graduation ceremony or diploma, just a general order in my personnel file stating that I was now an armament officer. Then came an odd turn. I was given orders to report to an Air Force Base near Fairfield, California, in the Sacramento region.
It was an absolutely insane assignment on two levels. It was either a mistake or some colonel thought he’d play a practical joke on me. First, I thought I was called back into the service for my fighter pilot skills. But we were there to learn to fly the B-36, the largest production airplane ever powered by piston-engines.
But the second level of insanity was even more extreme. Our mission was to be aloft at all times with an A-bomb on board. We never knew if the Soviet Union was going to drop the big one on us. And they were developing enormous bombs of almost unimaginable destructive power.
So we flew the planes in shifts, ready for orders to head to the Soviet Union at any time and rain monumental destruction there. We flew the four corners of the United States: California to Florida, to Maine, across to Washington, and back to California. When we landed, another plane would take off with its A-bomb on board.
In the war, I had bombed munitions depots, marshalling yards and tank columns. I had strafed enemy soldiers. But I had never thought about dropping a bomb that could level a city—men, women, children, houses, stores, schools. And in fact we hoped that the bomb was destined for Soviet missile sites or military installations. Not cities. We thought. The giant atomic bomber was called the Convair B-36 Peacemaker.
The plane was a phenomenon in itself. It had six pusher-type engines and four jets, for a total of ten engines. The pusher-type engines were rear-facing props, so they pushed the plane forward rather than pulled it as front-facing propellers do. It was 160 feet long and had a wingspan of 230 feet. (The P-47 was thirty-six feet long and its wingspan was forty-one feet; so we’re talking about five times as big.)
It was so long that you rode a small tram from the nose to the tail. Not really a tram, it was a coaster on a rail. You rode it on your belly, head first, and pushed yourself down a chute.
The pilots at the controls were real pros. I was impressed by the way they handled that giant flying machine. I was there just to observe; I was not even a co-pilot. I was observing in anticipation of moving into a co-pilot seat when I was ready. It was a great experience for a fighter pilot, a new skill set to learn, but one thing I knew was that I craved action and after a few turns around the United States I got bored, even though I was sitting on top of a bomb that could kill tens of thousands of people with the push of a button. So I went to the CO and requested a transfer to a fighter group. It took three requests before he acted. And when he did, I think it was only because I had worn him down and he was sick at looking at my mug and listening to me bug him.
So I soon received orders to report to the Embarkation Center near San Francisco, where I was sent to join the 10th Liaison Squadron in Seoul, South Korea, at our base, K-16.
The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” carried a nuclear payload; the scale of the plane must be seen to be believed. Note the rear-facing propellers
THE WORLD HAD CHANGED since I first went to Europe. Instead of taking a slow boat across the ocean, I boarded a C-54, better known as a DC-4, a four-engine troop plane. We flew to Tokyo, refueling in Hawaii and on Midway. I didn’t get to see much of either place. But Tokyo in 1951 was fascinating.
It looked like the country had fully recovered from the devastation of World War II. But the traffic—or more like the sound of it—was shocking. Those people drove with their horns constantly blaring, enough to drive anyone nuts. In the United States, as you know, we have never used our horns like that. Can you imagine honking your horn like it was a wedding in Los Angeles or New Year’s Eve in Times Square all the time you’re driving? You would get a ticket for disturbing the peace!
A few other officers and I were put up in a nice hotel for a few nights near the headquarters of the Fifth Air Force. We soon moved to a central debarking area where we stayed for about four days before joining our outfits in Korea.
Seoul was physically close, but at the same time a light year away from Tokyo in ambience. It was in a country at war. Everything was in shambles, similar to what I had seen in Europe, where there was hardly a building left standing in some cities. The only traffic was Army trucks and Jeeps. Our base, K-16, was an island on the Hahn River with a bridge linking it to Seoul on one side and another bridge connecting to Yungdunpo on the other.
The pilots got to know each other quickly. All the others were young men just out of flight school. I was the only veteran from World War II in the squadron. At 27, I was the old man. But I didn’t mind at all. I felt just as young as they were.
I did not know what plane I would be flying. I was so hoping it would be one of the latest fighters in the Air Force. But when I visited the flight line, I saw it was going to be a Stinson L-5 Sentinel. It is comparable to the Piper Cubs you see flying today, a very light single-prop airplane. I felt like I was downgraded back to cadet and wondered why I was getting such a flimsy machine.
My disappointment didn’t last long. I found out that my missions were going to be very significant to our fighting effort and sometimes just as dangerous as flying a fighter. I would be dropping messages to our troops fighting close to the front lines. The 10th Liaison Squadron often had to dodge ground fire from the North Koreans entrenched within shouting distance. Radio messages could be intercepted, so vital communication had to be brought via aircraft. That satisfied my appetite for action.
The L-5 was in fact ideal for this mission. We could fly in and out of valleys, around hills and over mountains. But the plane wasn’t big enough to carry weapons—a significant drawback. The only arm I had was a Colt 45 holstered to my side. I surely could not do much damage with that. Out on the ranch in Socorro I might have been able to kill a sidewinder with it, but a cowboy gun wasn’t much use in a war. (In the Old West, the Colt 45 was nicknamed the Peacemaker, too, just like the B-36 I had been flying.)
But most of the time we didn’t have to land. I flew with an enlisted man in the back seat, buzz the camp to let them know we were there, then he would drop the message in a canister. Sometimes we would land to pick up outgoing messages. When that was necessary, the adventure added some adrenaline to my day—artillery shells were exploding all around me.
I did have to adjust my mentality. Fighting in Belgium and Germany, I was almost always on the attack. Now I had to get used to playing only defense. It was not as glamorous and there would be no recognition—nothing like the citations I earned for my European adventures. Plus, I had to take some razzing form the fighter pilots flying the F-86 Saber jets; they joked about how we were not the hot shots that they were. I just had to smile even though I had the distinct impression that their missions were milk runs compared to what I did in Germany.
Another duty I performed with my L-5 was shuttling top brass to various sites in Korea. By then it was the middle of winter and cold as all heck. Europe was cold, but nothing like Korea cold. And when we were dropping the message, we had to fly with the windows open! Now that was cold. We wore pants lined with sheepskin, heavy jackets and boots. Walking around outside the plane was extremely awkward with all that clumsy clothing on. But it sure did the job of keeping us warm. One very cold day I flew an Army captain to Taejon, about 200 miles south of Seoul. I was wearing my full woolies, but the captain climbed into the back seat wearing only his parka. He got the full Korean big chill experience. And so did I, in a different way than just low temperature:
To keep warm in that climate, the people of Korea burn coal. A lot of it. There was a smog layer that severely restricted visibility, especially to the south. When we took off that day, visibility was good, but as we got closer to Taejon, I couldn’t see the ground. So I called and asked the radar operator to give me a heading. He pointed in the opposite direction that I thought I needed. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, though, thinking that I might have already passed Taejon due to the smog. So I turned around.
But this time, my poor passenger was freezing his nuts off. I could hear him pounding his feet on the floor to make sure the blood was circulating and he wouldn’t get frostbite. I tried to keep communication with Taejon’s radio operator but the signal was fading. By that time I realized the guy had given me the wrong heading. It was getting late and night was closing in on us so I dropped through the haze to tree-top level so I could find the nearest landing strip. We were immediately surrounded by South Korean soldiers.
Fortunately, one of them could speak a little English. He explained that we had landed right in a pocket of invading North Koreans and that the enemy was nearby. They brought us to headquarters, fed us and put us up for the night. The lodgings were highly unusual. The houses there were built on stilts, with about three feet of clearance from the ground—just enough to build fires underneath. You don’t sleep on a bed, you sleep on the floor, which absorbs the heat from the fires. It was a very effective way of keeping warm at night.
In the morning, I checked my map and of course, I had been right over Taejon when I called for a vector, but the inept operator steered me wrong. We climbed back into the L-5 and took off. This time I stayed close to the ground and I had no trouble finding Taejon.
That was only one of many flights I took in Korea, but was one of the only ones when I got lost. I got to know the country as if I’d been born there. As a fighter pilot, I saw a lot of Europe from high altitudes, but only got close to the ground when bombing and strafing. But in liaison flying while in Korea, I was flying everywhere and anywhere, sometimes landing and taking off from tiny strips of dirt that would have been impossible to use as runways for fighters.
Still, there were challenges. Flying a little F-5 into a fighter base used by bigger planes, like the F-86 fighters that were stationed at Suwon, could be very dangerous, as I soon found out. One day I was making a landing there and WHAM my plane was flipped over upside down in the middle of the runway, as if it were a toy. I had absolutely no control over what happened. The tower operator thought I was nuts, he thought I hadn’t been able to land properly and made a masterpiece of a mistake.
But at that time, little was known about vortices. That went down as pilot error in my record. But I found at later that it was a vortex, which formed behind the jets as they took off—horizontal whirlwinds that trail from the wing tips, much like the wake of a speedboat in the water. Those air currents sometimes keep spinning on the runway as long as five minutes after a plane leaves, and anything in its path—especially my light L-5—will be carried out of control, as if in a tornado. Vortices of passing airliners have been confirmed as the cause of jets going out of control on runways. If a vortex can blow away a jet, then of course it could flip my L-5! When the cause of the crash was further investigated and attributed to a vortex, I was cleared of any fault.
Each flight was credited as a combat mission, as we were often taking enemy fire, so we earned an Air Medal for every ten flights. I already had so many Air Medals from Europe that I didn’t feel I needed any more, so I declined them. I was not there for the glory. My only goal was completing my year of duty in Korea as an L-5 pilot then getting back to my first love: flying fighters.
Meanwhile, I took the L-5 for sightseeing trips down the Hahn River. It was winter and the river was frozen mostly solid. I could see men sitting by holes, ice fishing, hoping to catch whatever was still swimming in the frigid waters. I would see them on my way down the river and my way back up. They certainly were patient. They sat there for hours.
As winter turned to spring, I sometimes saw great flocks of huge white birds flying V formation. I had fun with them: I would join the party! I would see them looking at me and I would imagine a question mark over their heads as they wondered what kind of odd bird I might be. But they never skipped a beat and continued flying back home.
Then we got the L-17 Navion to fly, the same model I had flown for Jon Hall at Clover Field in Santa Monica. We also got some L-20s. Both these models were much nicer to fly than the L-5, a vast improvement for us and the Army VIPs we were ferrying around the peninsula. The L-20 was something like the UC-64 Norseman that I had flown—and crashed—in Europe. It had room for seven passengers, but we did not use it to replace the L-5, only as an extra option. We still needed the tiny light L-5 to get into and out of tight spots at the front lines.
We were usually flying too low to be hit by antiaircraft weapons, but we were certainly in range of fire from machine guns and small arms. Oh, there were many times I wished I had my good old P-47 Thunderbolt to show both our guys and the enemy what real airplane fire power looked like. Big difference between the Colt 45 cowboy gun I carried in my holster and the eight 50-caliber machine guns I used to carry under my wings.
It was a whole different situation, fighting in Korea. And flying around combat zones in a small plane. A whole new set of challenges. Spotting the airstrips at some Army posts was difficult when they were covered with snow—there were no ploughs to clear runways. Plus, the airstrips were usually in valleys, so we took fire from nearby mountains. In Europe, I was used to getting shot at from below. In Korea, I had to get used to spotting enemy artillery coming from above. That problem didn’t last long, because the Army soon attacked and took the higher ground.
For those of you who don’t know, that was a tough war. The G.I.’s fighting in Korea faced fierce attacks from the North Koreans and later the Chinese. Not only did they have brutal enemies but our guys had to withstand unbearable cold. I thought Europe in the winter was cold, but it was nothing like Korea! I was there for a year. It was tough. Very hard combat conditions amid unbearable weather.
Our tents were as comfortable as they could be, as far as tents go in freezing weather. We stacked about ten pilots in a tent. Soon, supplies arrived to build Quonset huts with oil-burning stoves for heat. I was ordered to manage the construction. That was a new experience, too. I had a crew of men who were already experts at building them: I divided them into groups. One group would set the foundation, another group would mount the structure, another group would install the doors and windows. We ran it like an assembly line and the ten huts were up in rapid order, ahead of schedule.
As a result, I was assigned to manage the motor pool. That was a plum job. I had authority to assign Jeeps and trucks for all the projects and transportation needs at the base. So I moved into my girlfriend’s house in Yungdunpo, across the river from Seoul, and designated it my motor pool headquarters. There was plenty of room to park Jeeps and weapon carriers in its large courtyard. Plus, my girlfriend had her house defended, so she was happy! The Quonset huts were more comfortable than the tents, but my girlfriend’s house was even more comfortable than the huts! I spent so much time there that the other pilots started calling me the mayor of Yungdunpo.
Unlike the heady days of the Battle of the Bulge, we got regular leave. To get away from combat, we took trips to Japan. I really liked visiting Tokyo and Yokohama. A lot of the pilots spent their time there shopping—especially for Nikon cameras, which were all the rage then. It was about that time I got into photography. Not with a Nikon, though. I had a 4×5 Speed Graphic that I had bought from an Army captain who had come to our base. He had no place to stay, so I set him up in one of our huts. He was very grateful for the accommodations, so he offered to sell me his camera after he noticed I was interested in it. I jumped at the chance to own a Speed Graphic. I had seen them in use by the press at the West Coast premiere of Gone With the Wind! Everyone knew them from pictures in magazines and movies as the cameras used by professional photographers. I didn’t know it, but that was the birth of my future post-military career.
Armed with my new Speed Graphic and supplies from the Army’s photography department, I taught myself how to shoot, develop and print film. I was soon taking pictures around Korea and whenever I went to Japan.
One day I was at the zoo in Yokohama and I wanted to get closer to the Bengal tigers there. I climbed over a small guard rail to get right up to their cage. They were about 50 yards back and at first seemed unconcerned. That’s because they weren’t paying attention. But when I put my lens up to the bars of the cage, one of the tigers spotted me and—WHOA! I’m a fighter pilot and I had never seen anything move that fast! He was almost on me before I had a chance to back away from the bars! These were not the lazy tigers you see in an American zoo. They were huge, fierce, wild and ready to tear me apart. It was a good lesson. From then on, I took my pictures of wildlife from safer distances, never climbing over any more fences.
Just as I did in Europe, I wanted to fully experience every sight and sound in Korea that I could. While in combat, I flew into places most Americans have never heard of, let alone visited. Besides Seoul, the places I got to know well were Taegu, Puson, Inchon, Masan, Suwon and dots on maps that had grass landing strips. I probably traveled to more places in Korea than many natives ever did! Some of the places I got to know were in harm’s way at the time. For example, when flying into Kangnung and Kaesong, I had to be very careful to avoid ground fire because they were so close to the front lines.
Time passed quickly; I was so busy as transportation manager and pilot that I hardly noticed the arrival of the warm weather, which meant monsoon season and its torrential rains. During the winter, I had noticed a man with a horse-drawn cart scooping up the poop from our outhouses. I had not given it much thought at the time, but now with the warm weather, the smell from that area was ungodly. I quickly learned to make sure I was never downwind, and at this time I learned why the man was collecting it: He was a farmer and used human waste to fertilize his crops. That was a good argument against eating Korean food, and caused disease to be widespread. I do not know which one I hated more: the bitter cold of winter or the humidity of the monsoons. But it was all part of fighting that war.
One week in August it rained for several days straight and all we could do was stay in our tents and play cards. I got very lucky at one poker game and won some money from the other pilots. I felt really bad about taking it from them and tried to give it back but they would not accept.
“We could not have lost it to a better guy!” one of them said.
That was so nice and it showed me how gallant my comrades were.
But it didn’t stop the rain. Because K-16 was on that island in the river we were vulnerable to flooding. As the rain continued and the river rose, it was threatening to wipe out the whole base. Because all the roads were closed, we had to fly out everything we could in an emergency evacuation operation. We loaded up the planes and got all the materiel we could carry to Suwon. When the rain stopped and the river level dropped, we took it all back again.
And then, surprise! A USO company arrived to entertain the troops! And to my astonishment who would be leading them except my pal Jon Hall, who had hired me to pilot for him and his friends in Santa Monica just a few years before! It was so wonderful to find an old friend there in the middle of Korea! The show was great and served its most noble purpose: It took our minds of the war.
Flying liaison was never as glamorous or as exciting as flying fighters, but it was an important job and I was proud that I was doing it. A year goes by fast when you keep busy, and that’s what I did. So December came around and I had finished my tour of duty in South Korea after one year in the 10th Liaison Squadron. I packed up my gear and moved on. On the day to San Francisco, I crossed the international dateline, giving me an extra day. So when I landed it was still December 31, while back where I had come from it was already January 1. I suppose I should’ve felt younger for that day—I didn’t. In fact, that year in Korea was exhausting.
I would have rather flown fighters than the L-5, but I’m glad I got to fly the small planes instead of cruising around the United States non-stop on that enormous B-36 with its nuclear payload. In any case, in the military, you do what you’re told.
The L-5 was not a fighter, but it was well-suited to air-drop messages in Korea
AFTER A SHORT STAY in San Francisco, I got orders to report to George Air Force Base near Victorville, in the high desert of Southern California. I was assigned to the 434th Fighter Squadron, so at last, after more than two years back in the service, I was finally going to do what I had set out to do—fly the planes that I was best qualified to fly, the ones I loved: fighters.
George Air Force Base: Ah, what a change from Korea! It was a real country club with beautiful quarters for the pilots—even a swimming pool next to the club house. The ready room had an enormous picture window that looked out onto the parking ramp, providing a mouth-watering view of all the P-51 Mustangs parked there. I had been hoping to see some P-47 Thunderbolts, but no such luck. I had to be satisfied with the Mustangs, and I was—because they were the next best thing.
And we had some good old reliable AT-6s to practice our instrument flying. Getting back into the cockpit of a fighter after such a long time felt so good and after just a few practice flights, it was as though I’d never stopped piloting them. The Mustang was much smaller than the Thunderbolt, but what a fighter! It didn’t have the same power as the P-47, but what it lacked in strength it made up for in agility and efficiency.
The P-47 burned 90 gallons per hour in cruise flying; the P-51 only burned 60. The Thunderbolt was a massive chunk of metal that rammed its way through the air; the P-51 was a sleek-lined ship that knifed through the sky. The Jug’s massive power was evident from the ground up, the turbo started whining at 30,000 feet; the Mustang’s supercharger kicked in at 16,000 feet with a sudden surge. Manifold pressure jumped and you had to throttle back so as not to overtax the engine.
As Victorville was only an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, I spent my weekends home—so it was almost like a regular job, but I got to fly fighters! And as I’ve already said, military service is permanent education. I also got ground schooling to keep up with the latest technology in aviation.
Also, my certification from Lowery came in handy, too; I finally got duty as an armament officer. I had to make sure the guns on the P-51 were in good working order and also that there was enough ammunition available if needed. The Mustang didn’t have the firepower of the P-47; only six 50-caliber machine guns instead of eight, but that was adequate. In fact, more than enough to practice our gunnery.
Those days at George were a blast. We had the whole Mojave Desert as our aviation playground. We buzzed jackrabbits, coyotes and roadrunners. Back on the ground, the elevation was 3,000 feet, so temperatures were nice even on hot days. Not at all like the lower deserts of Death Valley where mercury rose to 120 in the shade.
So I had two months of flying the desert skies in the P-51, which was great fun. But more fun was soon to come. The Air Force began upgrading from propeller planes and George was getting T-33s and F-80s. We were about to move into the jet age.
Here’s how I learned to fly a jet:
I was in the backseat of the T-33. The first thing I noticed upon takeoff was the complete absence of torque, which is produced by the spinning of the propeller. Then, when I started flying the F-80, I saw that you did not have to use rudder control to keep the plane moving straight down the runway. Because there was no torque to fight against, it was the easiest plane I’d ever flown. It was as easy to roll left as to roll right, compared with a propeller plane that pulls to the left.
Also, I saw that jets handled differently when landing. You had to actuate the airbrakes to slow the jet. These were panels that stuck out from the fuselage into the airstream. If you chopped the power, as you did on the P-47 and P-51, you would come in too fast and overshoot. I was a quick study on the F-80 Shooting Star.
I easily learned to use less power and make long, slow approaches, even though I still came in faster than I did with a propeller-driving plane. It also helped to have a long runway.
But the F-80 Shooting Star was only the introduction to jet flying. Soon, brand new F-86 Saber Jets were delivered to the base. This was the plane made famous in Korea as the killer of the Soviet MIG-15—and the aircraft that sent the vortices from its wingtips that flipped my L-5 in Suwon the year before.
So once again, we were back in ground school learning all there was to know about the F-86. We spent a lot of time in the cockpit getting used to the controls, switches and gauges. I had to get used the absence of a tachometer, manifold pressure gauge and oil level indicator on the instrument panel. Also the new ones: Tail pipe temperature and fuel measured in pound instead of gallons. And no propeller pitch, but the joystick still had the gun trigger and bomb release button. And the airbrake control. The Saber was so clean that without airbrakes you could not have slowed to landing speed in a practical amount of time.
Once we had learned what we needed to know, we were ready to fly the F-86. It had room for only one person, the pilot. Once you were in the cockpit, you were alone in the Saber; there was no one to babysit you.
On my first flight, I noticed it was very similar to the F-80. The only significant difference was that the Saber was much faster, and hence a little more sensitive on the controls.
The next few weeks, I learned that plane backwards and forwards and then backwards again. I became so proficient at flying the F-86 that I was soon promoted to instructor pilot, another plus in my military record.
We were the only fighter squadron flying the F-86 on American soil, so we were on constant alert due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were never allowed to be more than an hour away from the base in case a shooting war between the two superpowers broke out. When not flying locally, the squadron would be sent to other airbases throughout the United States, as if we were in combat. That was to practice setting up operations in new places, just as we had to do in Europe so many times.
We were kept very busy, but I also had some of the most fun I’ve ever had during that time: When not on maneuvers, we were scheduled to put on airshows around the country. We were not as spectacular as the Thunderbirds of today, but we performed flybys in formation and simulated strafing runs.
One airshow we put on was in Washington D.C. for some VIPs. It’s funny to think about, but they didn’t know who we were and we didn’t know how they were and we didn’t care. We were having fun. I was doing the thing I loved most—flying—and getting paid. The VIPs didn’t know that I would’ve paid them to let me fly. But I never refused my monthly salary, which for those days was substantial.
Meanwhile, back at George, I kept up what I had started in Korea: photography. I set up a darkroom with all the equipment and chemicals and began taking photos of the pilots by their planes. My Speed Graphic took terrific pictures and I was so grateful to the Army captain who sold it to me when I hosted him in Korea. The desert air was crisp and clear so the photos came out very sharp. Sometimes I would photograph our pilots while they were flying their P-51s or F-86s from the back seat of an AT-6 flying in formation with them. Those photos became great mementos of their Air Force careers.
Even though we were not in combat, sometimes a plume of black smoke would rise from the desert. You knew then that another pilot had bought the farm. It was usually an F-86 that had plowed into the ground. Who knew why? It could have been mechanical failure. It could have been pilot error. I found the F-86 rather easy to fly. How you could crash one is something I never knew. But one of the first lessons of my flying career was never to judge another pilot unless you knew the full circumstances. Remember, I was blamed for crashing once when it was a jet’s vortices that caught my plane and flipped it. Even some of the best pilots who had flown F-86s in Korean combat later died in crashes when they were flying them in the United States. You just never knew when your number was up.
On a happier note, life at George Air Force Base was great. Country club accommodations, and we could fly whenever and wherever we wanted. Get this: We even had our own personal F-86 planes. Our name was printed near the cockpit. With wide open spaces and perfect flying weather almost every day, I was having quite a good time. Nevertheless, the reality was that the Cold War was changing the balance of power in the world every day. We were constantly on alert in case of attack.
Except when we could take leave. There were many resorts in the pine-covered mountains near the base, and some of pilots rented cabins and lived in them instead of their BOQs. One pilot preferred more isolated living: He leased a house in Apple Valley, which was then the proverbial middle of nowhere. His nearest neighbor was a mile away! So we set up some pretty wild parties there. I never drank but it was fun watching my buddies get tanked and cut loose.
We did not always have specific exercises to fly. Sometimes I could jump into the cockpit of my F-86 and cruise the desert, buzzing jackrabbits. Getting close to the ground allowed me to get the feel of the airplane’s speed. I also went to the coast for the view. I flew along the beach, below the cliffs of Malibu. The people in the homes would wave at me as I zoomed by them. That was fun, but it would not be allowed today.
And now for the story of my victory lap. I hope you find it amusing.
It was August 1953 and I had become an expert at flying the Saber. It had a range of about 45 minutes of flight time with its interior fuel tanks. If you needed to fly longer than that, which we usually did, you had to mount external fuel tanks. Once you did that, though, it reduced the top speed of the plane to 650 miles per hour, below the speed of sound.
One evening I walked out to the flight line at about 7 p.m., which was later than usual, but it was summer so the sun was still going to be out for a while and I felt like taking a twilight whirl. I was surprised to see my plane without its external fuel tanks. They must have been removed for maintenance. That meant I could fly faster, of course.
So I checked my fuel and had my crew chief get the plane started, then taxied to the runway. Then I took off for what would the flight of a lifetime.
I had a girlfriend who lived near the Coliseum in downtown Los Angeles. I headed for her place to buzz her neighborhood so I could call her later and tell her I had said hello.
As I meant my way to the heart of the city, I climbed to about 50,000 feet. The sun was low on the horizon by then, but I could see the Coliseum—about 10 miles below me. I gave the engine full power and did the Split S combat maneuver. The plane turns upside down, nose through horizon, and then straight down toward Mother Earth.
My machmeter quickly hit Mach 1.4—I knew I was well past the speed of sound, and I kept the dive going until 20,000 feet. Then I pulled out, going faster than I’d ever flown in my life. But at 20,000 feet I was still just a dot in the sky from the ground. As I was traveling so fast, it only took me a few minutes to get back to George. But when I did, I was like a kid who had just ridden a rollercoaster—I had to do it again. So I had the crew chief refuel the plane. Then I took off again. But the darkness was gathering, and I could barely see the stadium. The lights of the city were starting to come on, though, so when I dived it was even more exhilarating! WHOOOSH! I pulled up again at about 20,000 feet and headed back to base.
Once I’d landed, I went to the officers club and called my girlfriend and asked if she’d heard anything unusual.
“A big explosion happened all across Los Angeles!” she said. “It was terrifying!”
She had been genuinely frightened! I calmed her down, though, by explaining it was just me, her boyfriend, breaking the sound barrier. But what I hadn’t taken into full account was this:
When a plane breaks the sound barrier, it’s usually flying horizontally so when the boom goes off, the reverberation flies across the sky. But I broke the sound barrier facing down, pushing the pressure straight onto the city! The boom hit the ground like the loudest thunder anyone had ever heard. The shock wave that resulted was so strong that …
I read about it in the newspaper the next day. I left a path of broken windows across the San Fernando Valley when I headed back to George Air Force Base. I also interrupted the Bob Hope Show, which was broadcasting at the time on the radio from NBC studios in Burbank. The authorities were trying to find out who was flying at that time. The test pilots from North American Aviation were questioned; they said they didn’t have any planes in the air. I suppose no one suspected the Air Force; if an investigation had been requested they would have found out who it was.
It would be nice to think that I blew out the windows of that cop who gave me the death glance when I had just gotten my wings. And the National Guard officer who said I wasn’t qualified to fly. But who cares? I’ve left them all behind.
That was my last hurrah in the military. Soon after, an order came down to reduce the strength of the Air Force. I had a choice: Stay in the service and become a career officer or be released from active duty. I weight my options briefly. In the end, I did not feel that the service needed me anymore. There were no wars being fought at the time. And I had no way of anticipating that we would soon become mired in Vietnam. So I opted for release.
There does seem something mystical about the month of August for me. I joined in the month of August. I went overseas in August. I returned from Europe in August. I was released in August. And later I married a beautiful girl from Mexico who was born in August.
And there does seem to be an argument that I had a guardian angel. My boyhood fantasies of becoming a pilot only seemed like a child’s pipedream to me. Even when I joined the Army Air Corps, I opted to become a gunner, because I thought becoming a pilot would be too good to be true. In retrospect, a gunnery assignment was not ideal: B-17 Flying Fortress gunners had a particularly high mortality rate, a fact of which I was blissfully unaware when I was training.
When I had the chance to be a pilot, I took the classes and passed the exams, so I did not return to gunnery duty, thus likely saving my own life. My graduation was delayed due to illness, so I did not join my class in becoming the first pilots into the was for the D-Day invasion, when they had less training and experience. Instead of going straight into combat when I graduated, I got duty teaching cadets, which gave me greater skills that I used well, probably well enough to survive danger a few times during combat.
And because of the timing of my arrival in Europe, I participated in the Hell Hawks’ amazing European campaign, so I got to experience the best of World War II combat. And because of that same timing, I met Ginger in England and Jeanette in Belgium, so I knew the best of World War II romance as well.
My return to service, with a detour flying in that mammoth B-36, allowed me to get to know Korea in ways that few other people do. My destiny was to fly the F-86 Saber Jet, a plane most pilots can only dream about. But now it was time to say goodbye to the Air Force, and that timing as well was perfect: Those circumstances led me to meet my wife! But first I checked out of the Air Force offices. I managed to keep my jet helmet as a souvenir. I said goodbye to my buddies at George; they inscribed 434th Squadron on a lighter and gave it to me as a going-away present. I packed it up with the rest of my things and headed over the mountains back to Los Angeles.
With the F-86
ALAS, BEING AN EX-FIGHTER PILOT doesn’t translate to many job opportunities. Employers are not demanding many people who can attack enemy planes or strafe munitions depots. I could have returned to the post office, that job was mine for the asking, but that prospect had zero appeal. Destiny had put me in contact with that captain I had lodged in Korea who sold me his Speed Graphic. So I decided to go into the wedding photographry business.
I had also bought some property on Seventy-Seventh Street before the Harbor Freeway was built. It was a large house with two apartments over the garage. Everything was rented out, so I was living with my mother and step-father at another house on Twentieth and Hoover streets. There was a cellar, so that’s where I set up a darkroom to process my wedding pictures.
Then I saw a studio for sale in downtown Los Angeles at Fourth Street and Broadway. The name of the business was Wolf Studios and the owner was Frank Wolf. I hadn’t even been looking! He had placed an ad in the paper and I happened to be doing the crossword puzzle when it caught my eye. There it was: “Photography studio for sale in downtown Los Angeles.” Just what I’d been hoping for, without even knowing I was hoping for it!
I contacted Frank and we negotiated a deal: Four thousand dollars, to be paid in monthly installments of $250 per month. I was a real businessman! As with so many other things in my life, it was just meant to be!
Frank Wolf had a large clientele, and they were mostly German and the studio was well-known among that community. These Germans were not like the ones I had fought in Europe—no Deutschland Uber Alles for them. They were very nice, humble and also very devout Catholics from a Protestant country. When I took over the studio, they were happy to give me their business, and their large orders of wedding prints helped me pay my rent.
I wasn’t doing only wedding pictures, of course. Now that I had a studio I could do portraits. So I had a large number of walk-in customers as the area had a lot of pedestrian traffic. Frank Wolf had pulled a fast one on me, though. I soon found out why he sold the business cheap: There was only another year and a half on the lease and then the building was going to be torn down. So I scrambled to find another location. I found a nice store nearby on Third Street and moved there.
And you cannot tell me it was just a coincidence that I found that store, because that is where I would meet my future wife when she passed by one day and decided to have her picture taken there. It was destiny that she would become my lifelong partner and the mother of my sons and daughters.
I named the new location Edwardo’s Studio. The additional “O” caused my wedding business to skyrocket in the Latino community. Sometimes I would shoot five to seven marriages in a weekend. I even had to hire more photographers to handle some of the work, I was booked so solid! So I sent my hired hands to shoot the church services and banquets, while I stayed in the studio and did the formals.
Then one day the most beautiful girl I have ever seen walked into the studio. Forget about all the others. She was in a class of her own. I had known some beauties in England, France, Belgium, Germany, Korea and Japan, but nothing like this beauty from Mexico.
It was June 6, 1954. Her father was still in Mexico and she wanted to send him pictures of herself.
I went overboard. I took extra pictures. I made enlargements. I put them on display in the window. When she came back to see her proofs, I asked her out on a date, but she could not accept because her mother held the reins very tightly. She was not allowed to date.
A few weeks later, she passed the studio but did not stop. My retoucher, a kindly Armenian fellow, let me know she had just walked by. I ran out of the studio and caught up with her and tagged along on her way to the bus stop.
I had to spend more time with her and I quickly figured out how to do it. Before she hopped on the bus I told her to meet me at the Old Plaza Church for twelve o’clock Mass on Sunday so she did not have to consider it a date. No date, just Mass. I did not know if it would work, but hey—maybe my faith would work its magic. It did.
I got to the church early. I walked around the courtyard, waiting and hoping. There she was! And she brought her mother, a beautiful woman herself. I could see where Maria inherited her looks. We all attended Mass together. That’s how I began my courtship of Maria, which would last a year.
She was different from all the other girls I had ever known. Her mother kept the old customs from Mexico; we were never allowed to be alone together. Whenever we went out, our dates were chaperoned by her mom or one of her brothers, but I did not mind. I would not have done anything inappropriate even if they were not there. I was serious about her.
It was June 1956 and Maria and I had dated for a year. She possessed deeper sentiments than any other woman I had ever met. She loved the innocence of animals and was always kind to the poor. She would always give to street beggars, even buying them hamburgers and drinks at the local diner.
But then came a tough time for me. My mother got very sick and had to be taken to the hospital. I was glad she had met Maria before it was time for her to go at the age of 52. I had lost my dad a few years before, in 1946, when I had returned from the war in Europe. He was only 46—alcohol had shortened his life.
Maria and I discussed whether to postpone our wedding out of respect for the memory of my mother but we decided that she would have wanted us to go ahead with our nuptials. So we set the wedding date for October 21 at the Old Plaza Church, where we first went to Mass together.
Right after the reception, we drove my new 1956 Buick to our honeymoon, stopping in Mexico City on the way to Acapulco. I did not drink the water but got sick anyway. I went to the local doctor and he gave me some pills and I was back on my feet right away. It was the ice in my soft drinks, so I learned to drink them warm. On our return trip, we took the West Coast route, stopping at Mazatlan, where we went swimming in the warm water. Fish were jumping all around us. What a beautiful place!
Back in Los Angeles, we were settling into married life. About a year later, I started looking for an airplane to buy. I really hungered to get back into the air. An old buddy and ex-Air Force pilot named Jim Robinson tipped me off about a Navion for sale. The same type of plane I few for Jon Hall at Santa Monica Airport and for the U.S. military effort in Korea. So I rushed down to Fletcher Aviation at the old Rosemead Airport and bought it for $5,000.
I could not wait to take Maria up for her first flight! She really did not understand a thing about it, which was adorable. As I made my final turn for landing she turned to me and said, very calmly:
“Are we going to crash now?”
As if that’s what happened when you fly a plane and come in for a landing. That’s what it looked like to her, anyway.
Now that we had the plane, and she knew that it was not going to crash at the end of each flight, we used it a lot, especially to the Mexican port city, Guaymas, where I flew Jon Hall and his friends. It was much safer and cheaper to fly there than drive.
Maria was soon pregnant with our first child, Edward Junior, born almost a year to the day after we were married, in October 1957, the same week the Soviets launched Sputnik, opening the space age. A year and a half later came Gabriel and then Victor. My two daughters, Elizabeth and Diana came later. They all got their good looks from Maria.
The photo business was doing well. We had been living in one of the apartments behind the house on 77th and Flower streets, but life was changing. My grandmother moved from New Mexico to Los Angeles after my grandfather died to be closer to us and lived at the house. Grandma was a beautiful lady with striking gray eyes that matched her gray hair. She often came to the apartment to visit Maria and they became close friends. She told Maria the stories of life in Albuquerque and our history there, and soon Maria knew more about my family than I did! Grandma moved in with one of my uncles, and my sister and her husband moved out so I could remodel the front property into a four-unit apartment complex.
I found a contractor who would build the project for me in exchange for the Navion as partial payment. He credited $7,500 for the plane so I only owed him $18,000 for the construction. After the new apartments were built, I moved the family into the first unit and rented out the other three. So now I had six apartments, with five bringing in rent. That more than covered the monthly payments.
But as my family was growing, I thought it would be a good idea to look for our own house. In 1961, real estate in Southern California was still affordable! I found a nice home Tujunga with a swimming pool, five acres of avocado trees and an orange orchard for $33,000. But Maria thought it was too far off the road, about 500 feet. So we chose a nice place for the same price in Arcadia, northeast of Los Angeles. Maria liked it because it had a large lot with the swimming pool set back from the house so we could fence it off to keep our small children safe.
Eddie was five, Gabriel was three, Victor was one, Elizabeth was brand new and Diana had not been born yet. I have no idea why we settled in Arcadia, but the guiding hand that had always led me to where I needed to be probably had something to do with it. The schools had a great reputation so I knew living there would be good for the kids.
There was an airport not too far away, so naturally I wanted to buy another plane. Once again I contacted my old buddy Jim Robinson, and he found me another Navion. It wasn’t long before the whole family was flying with me! My boys would grow up with airplanes and by the time they became teens, I was teaching them to be pilots. Gabriel got his pilot’s license and started up his own flight school at El Monte Airport.
Eddie has become an accomplished painter, specializing in landscapes and nature pictures. After Gabriel sold the flight school, he built a storage facility and became quite the entrepreneur. He keeps up flying, too, and owns six planes, including a Navion and a 1940 Stearman, the same plane that I learned to fly when I entered the Air Corps. Victor is an award-winning lighting director for concerts and TV shows, including the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Grammy Awards and others. He has two wonderful kids, Chris and Tiffany, my first grandchildren. My daughters Diana and Elizabeth are staying by our side as Maria and I head toward our twilight years. We are now great-grandparents and although I may have slowed down a little over the years, there is one thing that has never changed: my love for flying!
The years passed. Suddenly a surprise: In 1988, I got a surprise call from a guy I had not seen or heard from in more than 40 years: Paul Van Cleef, one of my old buddies from the 387th Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group. We had flown many combat missions together. Because I had been in the hospital when the Hell Hawks were sent home from Germany, I never got to say my proper goodbyes to everyone. I had lost track of all the guys who had shared so many death-defying experiences with me. But they were planning a reunion and Paul had found me so I could attend! Gabriel and I decided to fly to Reno so I could renew old acquaintances. My brother-in-law, John Martinez, also came along. We had a wonderful time. Meeting with old friends and learning about their lives and the fate of others was a deep and meaningful experience. It was so great seeing the men I had made history with while we were fighting the Germans. But it was also sad to note that many didn’t make it to be with us. John Motzenbecker was gone. Another close buddy, John Farley, was too. So for me they’ll always be like the rest of us: Hot young fighter pilots!
Some members of the next generation followed in their fathers’ footsteps: Van Cleef’s son is a general in the Air Force. So is the son of a pilot named Andy Smoak. I didn’t now Smoak that well, and he has passed on; I do hope he lived long enough to see his son became a general.
They say life goes on and it does for those of us fortunate to still be here. What we did in Europe lives on in world history as well as our memories, and is especially cherished by those of us who experienced it, sharing a comradeship that only a war can bring. I related the war as I knew it. I’m sure every one of these men could tell his own story, because we all had our challenges, close calls, and special moments. Those of us who survived the war carried on the memory of the Hell Hawks and salute those who did not come back. This all makes me realize how lucky I am, at 93 as I write this, to be still active. I recently passed my physical and I maintain my flying status. So yes, I’m still flying!
So life does go one and we live it as God has ordained.
Still going strong!
Dedicated to Maria, who always stood by me.
THIS BOOK was written by Edward J. Lopez and edited by Steve Silkin.
The editor added some historical context, based on independent research. Some context specific to the 365th Fighter Group was drawn from Hell Hawks: The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht, by Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones.
The photographs are from the author’s personal collection, or from aviation company archives.
The Life of a Hell Hawk was published with the support of:
Patrons: Greg Barina, Bob Gothar, Philip Mudd
Platinum Sponsors: Tony Giles, Marty Goldstein, Daniel Loeb
Sponsors: Bob Bayus, Julie Bernstein, Lani Currey-Ropiequet, Florence Gam, Mike Gam, Seann McCollum, Kristen Peterson-Petersen, W. Kay Washko
Other Conquistador Publications:
Magnifying Glass and Other Stories by Seann McCollum
Chill and Other Stories by Charles George Taylor
Edward Lopez grew up in Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s; a Latino scamp sneaking into movies, fishing, riding bikes, like all the other kids. He spent a year with family in New Mexico, learning the cowboy life on a ranch. Then World War II came along and soon he was a fighter pilot, taking part in dogfights and bombings that would help Gen. Patton's Third Army advance into Germany and fight the Battle of the Bulge. He also flew messenger planes under fire in Korea. As he looks back on his life, he understands some of the profound implications of how he survived and thrived. This is his story.