The Pilot's Lounge #21:
The Man or Woman Just Down Your Street

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

It's been 55 years since World War II ended, and the men and women who served their country then changed everything. They flew what we now think of as primitive machines in unthinkable conditions. Many of them have deeply hidden memories of what they did and what they saw during those years; other memories are not so hidden but can be just as vivid and painful. These men and women live just down your street.

The Pilots LoungeOne of the more occasional visitors to the Lounge stopped in and brightened our day recently. Kirby was here for a while; he cracked a few jokes, talked about old airplanes a little, chatted with some of the regulars and then left, driving slowly away in his beat-up pickup truck. His age is starting to show and it aggravates him.

I've read and heard a number of funeral eulogies given recounting the fascinating and sometimes heroic things these men and women had done during their lives. Often, at the end of them the speaker or writer said thank you to the unhearing body of the deceased. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that it would be more appropriate to thank them while they are still alive.

One of the students here at the Lounge asked who Kirby was. I decided to tell the student pilot about Kirby and a little of what he went through and also to suggest that he spend some time talking to his neighbor down the block and to Kirby the next time he came to the Lounge. Talk, if only for the selfish reason that the effort of initiating the conversation will probably be repaid many times over. Talk to learn how those pilots handled weather without radar, with limited navigational aids and by learning how to forecast the weather by looking at the sky. If you want to listen in, I'll tell you what I told the student.

Kirby

I had known my friend Kirby for some time before I ever thought much about his practice of going by one name. It's a time-honored, although rare, custom even if some current pop stars think they invented it. It was a while before I found out that Kirby had two other names he didn't much like: Marion Franklin. At most, he would only sign the initials of them on official documents. To me he was always just Kirby. That direct approach defined much about him. He grew up in a small town in central Texas in a family struggling to eat regularly during the Depression. I found out that he was a very successful athlete in high school, at a time when it truly was required that such folks be students as well.

That Kirby was accepted into the Army Air Force prior to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War says a lot about just how sharp he was. During the '30s, the military budget was so tight that to be accepted for flight training meant the applicant had to beat out literally thousands of others for a slot. Things started to loosen up in 1940 and 1941, but if one looks at the physical and mental requirements for aviation cadets in those days you get the feeling that the ones who were accepted were so impressive they didn't need an airplane to fly, or at the very least they could walk on water given a running start.

Training

Once accepted there was no guarantee that the fledgling would get his wings. Some 30% to 50% washed out at some point in training. Flight training techniques had been evolving for some years and the military was pretty much in the forefront of the process; however, the quality and effectiveness still left a lot to be desired. The majority of instructors taught via the shouting and intimidation method; communication in many primary trainers was one-way, through a Gosport tube in which the instructor spoke into one end of a hose that connected to muffs on the student's ears. It was not unusual for a frustrated instructor to hold the mouthpiece over the side of the airplane to see if he could blow some sense directly into a student's head. A great many students learned in spite of, rather than because of, their instructors.

Boeing Stearman in Navy colors The airplanes varied widely in handling qualities. Many students started in the Piper J-3 Cub. If you ever get a chance to fly one, take it. If you are used to a Cessna, Piper or Beech trainer you will discover that a Cub is not easy to fly. It has no dihedral so there is no stability in roll. A puff of wind upsets it. The ailerons create substantial adverse yaw, so any turn or a correction for a gust requires perfect hand and foot coordination, otherwise the ball will clank against each end of the race. The student sits in the rear seat and cannot see through the instructor. Another WWII trainer, the Boeing Stearman, is quite nice to handle in the air. On the ground it is absolutely blind forward for the student in the rear cockpit. The standard engine is barely powerful enough to coax the massive biplane to fly, so errors in directional control on landing or takeoff cannot be solved quickly by adding power. In a crosswind there is often some question as to whether the pilot or airplane is in charge. One of the few primary trainers that was easy to fly as well as take off and land was the Fairchild series, but they were built in limited quantities.

The advanced trainers, such as the SNJ or AT-6 with 600 h.p., retractable gear and a constant speed propeller also had exciting quirks. A power-off stall handled improperly led to the airplane rolling inverted and entering gyrations that could take thousands of feet to sort out and correct. Students who had not washed out entered those airplanes with something on the order of 100 to 150 hours of flying time. Not all survived the experience.

These days fatal training accidents are rare events. When Kirby went through basic training, every class lost a number of its students to accidents. Despite the romance of the old trainers, and I admit to enjoying the heck out of flying them, they were far more difficult to operate than contemporary airplanes, had much less reliable engines and more primitive systems. Weather reporting and forecasting was far less accurate and airborne weather radar did not exist, so student cross-countries, day or night, often brought the participants greater learning opportunities than they expected. Some learned about death in an airplane at a very young age.

Panama

Fate is the Hunter Kirby made it through, and, on December 12, 1941, received his wings. Twelve days later he shipped out for Panama where he flew P-36s and P-40s in defense of the canal. If you have read Ernest K. Gann's books you know that the pursuit pilots (the term fighter was only then coming into play, the single seaters having always been called pursuit planes) in the Canal Zone were among the best-trained and most aggressive pilots our country had. Yet they were far from any combat. Ernie Gann, an airline captain then engaged in ferrying Lockheeds to South America, saw and described the pursuit pilots as frustrated and bored, shooting at the jungle, at flotsam bobbing in the canal, and sometimes, at each other. A few of the pilots died without any enemy near.

Panama gave Kirby the opportunity to get acquainted with high-performance airplanes without having to worry about enemy action in the process. For six months he flew some of the hottest ships in the world with some of the best-trained pilots, obtaining a seasoning that would prove very important in what was to come.

It was decided soon after the U.S. entered the war that we would concentrate on Germany first while holding Japan at bay until we could turn our attention to the war in the Pacific. Kirby's squadron was eventually detailed to go to the Pacific to help try and stop an enemy that was not only going from victory to victory but had just executed 250,000 Chinese citizens in retaliation for the assistance given in the escape of General Doolittle's aircrews after they had bombed Tokyo.

In the process of heading west, Kirby spent some time in an engine overhaul facility in Chino, California. There he saw hundreds of failed engines in for rebuilding and read the tags on many of them. The tags showed the time on each engine prior to failure. The radial engines all seemed to have many hundreds of hours while the Allisons rarely had made it to even 100 hours and many had fewer than 10. The experience shook Kirby badly and deeply influenced him for the rest of the war. He was forever afraid of Allison engines, never, ever trusting them.

The Bell P-400

A P-39  not P-400  In Soviet colors In late June 1942, Kirby arrived in northern Australia where he was introduced to what was probably the second-worst airplane ever foisted on American pilots during the war, the Bell P-400. Only the Brewster Buffalo, which proved fatal to nearly every pilot who ever tried to take on a Japanese Zero in it, was worse. The P-400 was the export version of the P-39 Airacobra. It had a normally-aspirated Allison engine and an absolute ceiling of 23,000 feet so long as the pilot did not apply much rudder or aileron. Any control deflection meant the rapid loss of about 2,000 feet. The words Kirby uses to this day to describe the P-400 cannot be repeated in a family publication. Suffice it to say he loathed the airplane.

Curtiss P-40 Almost immediately after being checked out in that miserable excuse for a flying machine, Kirby was assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron, the Head Hunters, in New Guinea, where he flew off both 12 Mile and 14 Mile Strips near Port Moresby. There, with his squadron mates, he fully came to understand just how awful the P-400 was. It did not even come near to performing with the Japanese Zero. U.S. intelligence had seriously underestimated the quality of the Zero, as well as the pilots who flew it. Intelligence had completely ignored the reports of the only man who had been commanding a force of fighters that were successful against the Japanese air arm, the brilliant, eccentric, Claire Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers. His own personal nuttiness probably caused the staid U.S. intelligence service to discount his repeated warnings to never, ever try and turn with a Zero. As a result, the U.S. airmen who tried to dogfight as they had been taught were cut to ribbons because of a combination of poor tactics and lousy airplanes.

Kirby walked into that buzz saw. He experienced the empty seats in the tent at dinner each night. He watched his friends shot out of the sky and experienced the hideousness of an enemy whose warrior code meant that it was appropriate to shoot Allied pilots who were descending in their parachutes. Think about how you felt at age 20 on that rare occasion when you lost a friend to death. Now imagine that is taking place on nearly a daily basis and that you could be next.

War In The South Pacific

The P-400 proved to be so bad that when Kirby's squadron would be scrambled on word of a bombing raid on Port Moresby they would take off and climb in a direction away from the attacking aircraft in an effort to get to altitude. They would struggle up to 23,000 feet out over the ocean and only then turn back to face the enemy airplanes. The Japanese would come over at 27,000 feet and bomb unopposed because the U.S. fighters could not get that high. Fortunately for Kirby and his mates, because they could not threaten the bombers, the Zeros at that time in the war were under orders not to break close escort formation with the bombers and attack. Kirby remains convinced that had they attacked he would have been just another dead P-400 pilot shortly after it started.

For an excellent perspective I highly recommend a superbly written book on the air war in the South Pacific that came out in the last several months. It is called Fire In the Sky. Author Eric Bergerud artfully describes the nature of that war. It helped me understand a little more about my friend Kirby. Bergerud brings out that the pilots had to battle a determined enemy possessing one of the finest fighters in the world; they also had to fight an environment that was horribly inhospitable to man. Everyone suffered from the heat, the humidity, the insects, terrible and inadequate food, and such pleasant diseases as malaria, dysentery and dengue fever. The ground crews had to maintain airplanes with such material as reached them at the end of a multi-thousand-mile supply line while living and working in malarial swamps. The pilots not only suffered with the ground crew, they then had to get into inadequate airplanes and go fight a better-equipped enemy. Bergerud publishes the numbers that show that, on both sides, well over half the losses of airplanes and pilots was due to weather, disease and accidents. Fewer than half of the losses were to enemy action. Kirby confirms this and describes the continuous problem with weather, primarily thunderstorms, as squadrons would try to get to and from a target when lines of thunderstorms reaching well above the ceiling of the airplane blocked their way. As an added attraction, should a pilot try to drop under the storm, the mountains in the center of modestly-sized New Guinea rose to over 10,000 feet. More than a few pilots discovered the concept of cumulogranite clouds as their last learning experience. To add to the stress on the pilots and workload on the ground crews (that Kirby says often worked all night to keep airplanes ready) the engines on the P-400 lasted about fifteen hours between overhauls. (That's 15, not 150 or 1,500 hours.)

In the fall of 1942 the squadron was moved to Milne Bay, where it continued to try and stop the Japanese. Kirby says he continued to be lucky, but he still continued to lose friends.

The Lockheed P-38

Lockheed P-38 Being in the theatre that played second fiddle to Europe to all supplies, including food, Kirby felt that someone, somewhere must have waved a magic wand in February 1943 when his squadron was sent to Australia to re-equip with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It still had the hated Allison engine, but now there were two of them so he could keep going if one quit, despite the fact the props rotated outward making both engines "critical." They also had turbosuperchargers so they could get up above the enemy. Plus, they were fast. After the obscenity of the P-400 he felt he now had a fighting chance of surviving the war.

By the time Kirby got into the P-38 the weaknesses of the Zero were known: A lack of armor and ailerons that became very heavy above 300 mph greatly restricting maneuverability. Tactics had been developed for the second generation of U.S. fighters, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, P-38, Republic P-47, North American P-51 Mustang and Chance-Vought F4U Corsair in which altitude and speed were stressed. The tactics worked. In the battle of attrition that characterized the South Pacific in 1942 and 1943 pilots such as Kirby began to turn the tide in the favor of the Allies.

Kirby's checkout in the P-38, an airplane with a control wheel rather than a stick, with two engines, full-feathering propellers, several machine guns, cannon, and turbosuperchargers was as involved and detailed as those received by his mates. It lasted about an hour. Then he went into combat. On his first mission he aborted because he did not understand one gauge and it gave him a reading that he had been led to believe indicated he was about to lose an engine. That was the only mission he ever aborted in the entire time he flew combat.

North American P-51 Kirby liked the P-38 as much as he despised the P-400. He still had no faith in Allison engines and developed a takeoff technique that reflected his distrust. Because of the power of the engines and the relatively small vertical stabilizers of the P-38, Vmc was 150 mph. Normally, the airplane would fly off the ground at around 100 mph. Kirby kept his on the ground until he had 150 mph, and only then would he lift off. That way he could control the airplane in the air if one engine quit.

The P-38 must have been a good fit and tool for Kirby, for about a month and a half after checking out in it he shot down his first enemy airplane, although he was only given credit as a probable.

At about this time Kirby's squadron was so affected by disease that only 30% of its pilots were able to fly. He and several others were reassigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron of the 475th Fighter Group. Shortly after that they started flying out of Dobadura where Kirby says they finally went on the offensive. This meant missions of hundreds of miles, sometimes over a thousand miles, round trip. Navigation was via compass and watch over miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles of water. Pilots would memorize the shape of the various islands, as an instant recognition of a shoreline through a hole in the clouds could be a life-or-death matter. Weather was always a factor that could kill you. While there was air-sea rescue for Allied pilots, a man in a small life raft in the ocean, with no radio of any sort, was truly alone. Bailing out into the jungle was an iffy proposition. I have found no evidence, anywhere, that any Allied pilot who bailed out over the interior jungles of New Guinea survived the experience. The Japanese made only a fairly small percentage of captured Allied pilots prisoners. Pilots in trouble attempted to ditch near the beach of an island. The Australian coast watchers were most effective at rescuing downed pilots. The effect of repeated atrocities by the Japanese against natives of the islands meant that most natives would go to great lengths to help downed Allied pilots. Overall, the chance of surviving after going down in the South Pacific was far, far worse than in the European theatre.

Japanese ZeroIn the fall of 1943, Kirby flew on the raids against the Japanese strongholds of Wewak and Rabaul. He still shudders when he talks of Rabaul. It was a supply center that the Japanese defended tenaciously, having four airfields in very close proximity. In his book, Eric Bergerud describes the intent of the Allies to simply destroy the Japanese army and navy air forces. In practice it meant low level attacks on airfields because high level bombing had proved almost completely ineffective. It meant that the Allied pilots had to go in low amid the flak and fighters to try to destroy the enemy's airplanes on the ground or in the air and stop all shipping coming in with supplies. The Japanese quickly demonstrated that they would put up massive numbers of fighters to protect its supply ships. That practice led to some of the fiercest aerial battles of the Pacific war. Those who were there and writers who analyzed the action describe it as to heavyweight boxers standing toe to toe and simply slugging it out. Kirby, his American comrades and the Australians and New Zealand airmen fighting from day to day had no foreknowledge of the eventual success of the campaign. They had no way of knowing the enemy's morale was collapsing or that they were wiping out the enemy's best pilots who were being replaced by poorly trained boys. They did not know that the bombing had killed many trained mechanics and ruined the spare part storage areas and supply line so that fewer than half of the enemy's airplanes could get into the air. They just knew that there were always fighters opposing them and that the anti-aircraft fire was always frighteningly effective and that the Zero, although aging, could out-turn the P-38 if they allowed themselves to get slow and try to dogfight the Zero. Kirby and his compatriots just knew that they were in a hell of a fight each and every day.

As this battle of attrition continued in earnest, Kirby shot down three more enemy aircraft in October 1943. This time the kills were confirmed.

Grumman F6F Hellcat Allied aircraft proved to be very successful in sinking enemy ships. They stopped spare parts from coming into the airfields. Damaged airplanes could not be fixed. Slowly Allied pilots such as Kirby destroyed the Japanese air forces; however, the destruction only became final in the South Pacific about a year after he left, so he faced a determined foe over one of its most prized bases, Rabaul.

Kirby is the first to admit how terribly frightened every pilot was. He is alternately amused and angered by those who speak of glory in war. He looks at the Rambo or Chuck Norris type movies as nonsense because he was there and he knows that the real combat pilots were scared to death most of the time. He describes one of the readiness tents where he and the squadron pilots spent time on alert ready to scramble to oppose enemy raids. The pilots were so keyed up that when the alert telephone rang everyone would go out and urinate. The phone line was checked several times a day and every time it rang a group of pilots took a leak.

They killed all the vegetation around that tent.

On a daily basis Kirby would get into an airplane with performance only dreamed of a mere ten years earlier. It had a control system barely adequate to handle the power it possessed, and could not if an engine failed below 150 mph. The systems were not intuitive. More than a few pilots died simply because they didn't keep track of which tanks had fuel and which didn't. Navigation aids were virtually nonexistent. He got into the aircraft in stifling heat, only to climb to where the temperature was well below zero. If he didn't shave perfectly his oxygen mask rubbed his face raw. The food was horrible and because of the constant fear it didn't always stay down. When a bout of dysentery hit while flying at altitude there was nothing a pilot could do but sit there in the stinking mess. When he entered combat he knew that if he let his speed get below 350 mph with a Zero or Oscar anywhere in the vicinity he was dead meat. If he had to bail out in combat he knew that the enemy would shoot him as he descended in his parachute. Yet, he and most others got in that airplane every time and each went out and did his duty knowing full well the odds and the risks.


M.F. Kirby poses beside a painting commemorating the battle in which he downed two Japanese Zeros, thereby becoming an ace.

By the way, if you get a chance, take a look at a picture of fighter pilots in the European theatre and then compare it to fighter pilots in the South Pacific. None of those young men could ever be classified as overweight, but you'll notice that the ones in the South Pacific look just plain emaciated. It's because many of them were malnourished and suffering from various tropical diseases. Yet they kept going until they died, finished their tour or the flight surgeon took them off active duty.

On November 2, 1943, Kirby again went into combat over Rabaul as the Allied air forces attacked enemy shipping and airfields. The Japanese responded in their usual tenacious manner. The fighting was vicious. At one point Kirby went to the aid of a B-25 in the process of being shot down by five Zeros. He shot down two of them. He survived the fight, officially an ace.

His squadron had left its base with nine airplanes. Six returned.

Back To The States

Twin Beech/C-45 About two months later Kirby rotated home. Once there he took a C-45 (Twin Beech) and flew it down the main street of his home town low enough to look in the windows of the stores, then landed in the field behind his school, canceling classes for the rest of the day. He spent the rest of the war as a tactical inspector. He still has no idea what the heck that job title meant, but he did get to fly with pilots getting ready to go overseas.

In the time he flew combat Kirby never took a bullet in any airplane he flew.

Before the war Kirby hunted regularly. That he was a good shot was demonstrated in P-38s. As with the majority of other aces, he has not hunted since the war.

Several years ago a mutual friend and visitor to the Lounge, Jay Apt, took Kirby's Army Air Force wings up in the Space Shuttle. The wings are now mounted on an appropriate plaque. Kirby gave it to his old high school, hoping it might serve to inspire someone else to serve his or her country.

Eric Bergerud explains that the expectation for most of the war in the Pacific was that it would last into 1948 ("Golden Gate in '48"). That prediction, even on the part of the senior generals, admirals and the president, was considered accurate by virtually everyone until nearly the end of 1944 when the effect of the destruction of the Japanese forces in the South Pacific due to the effects of the efforts of pilots such as Kirby became apparent. Mr. Bergerud closes Fire In The Sky succinctly:

Thus the great sacrifices of Allied airmen in the South Pacific were repaid many times over by future triumphs that forced Japan to capitulate much earlier than Allied leadership dared hope at the beginning of 1944. Japanese airmen showed great courage and amazing tenacity. Yet it is the melancholy truth that their sacrifices were made for a cruel government bent on naked aggression, one that showed remarkable disregard for the fates of its fighting men. Perhaps there is no such thing as a good war. In rare moments in history there are necessary wars, and the Pacific war certainly was necessary. Allied airmen who fought in the South Pacific, as well as those who supported them deserve profound recognition from free peoples.

Just Down Your Street

Chance-Vougt F4U Corsair That is what I told the student pilot here about Kirby, and maybe about that neighbor who lives down the street from the student. She drives a little slowly but those slightly rheumy eyes may have looked brightly through the windscreen of the 400-knot Corsairs she flew in flight test or the B-17s she ferried across the country. He may have lost that hearing because of the time he spent behind, or between, roaring Allisons, Wrights, Pratts or Merlins. Your older friends and neighbors may have those corners of memory dedicated to friends who didn't make it back to the field. They may have been the ones who hunkered down in the cockpit and spat back at the lightning while they wondered if they would make it through the thunderstorm between them and their destination. They may be the ones who sat there in the cigarette smoke, drinking too many drinks trying to calm jangled nerves before going to bed, only to be wakened at 3:00 am to go fly primitive airplanes in unspeakable conditions. You never know who that "old geezer" is that is in front of you in the checkout line or helping with the neighborhood watch program. There may be quite a story waiting to be told.

Kirby, I thank you and every man and woman who answered our country's call in World War II.

See you next month.