Dick Rossi

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Months before Pearl Harbor, Dick Rossi gave up his commission as a U.S. naval aviator to fly P-40s over Asia. He joined the First Pursuit (Adam and Eve) Squadron of Chennault's American Volunteer Group which became known to history as the Flying Tigers. When the Tigers stopped flying in 1942, Dick flew more than 700 missions "over the hump" from India to China in C-46s and -47s . After the war he helped fellow AVG Ace Bob Prescott establish the Flying Tiger Line, which flew "anything, anytime, anywhere" until FedEx bought the line in the late '80s. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Dick about his 25,000+ hours and 60 years of flying.

Dick RossiJohn Richard Rossi was born April 19, 1915, in Placerville, Calif. He grew up in San Francisco and split his college years between the University of California at Berkeley and the merchant marine. He entered the Navy for flight training in the fall of 1939. Upon receiving his wings and commission in 1940, he was assigned as Flight Instructor at Pensacola, Fla. Dick resigned his Navy commission in 1941 to join the American Volunteer Group (AVG) under the command of Colonel Claire Chennault. He was undergoing a training program in P-40 aircraft at Toungoo, Burma, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Dick was a member of the AVG's First Pursuit Squadron (nicknamed Adam and Eve in honor of the first pursuit). He also flew with the Second and Third Squadrons, serving under all the AVG squadron commanders. The AVG flew actual combat for seven months, logging 299 combat victories with another probable 600 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Losses were four pilots lost in aerial combat, seven shot down and killed by anti-aircraft fire during strafing runs, and eight killed in operational and training accidents unrelated to enemy action. Four were MIA and three of those were found to be POWs. Three died from Japanese bombing raids. One was shot down and seen alive, but no word as to his fate. The American Fighter Aces Association confirms 20 AVG pilots as Aces with another six pilots achieving Ace status during the next few years.

When the AVG, better known as the "Flying Tigers," was disbanded in 1942, Rossi joined the China National Aviation Corporation, flying supplies from India to China. By the time the war was over he had flown more than 735 trips across the "Hump." After the war, Rossi helped his fellow AVG Ace Bob Prescott begin the Flying Tiger Line, where he flew as a Captain for 25 years, logging a lifetime of over 25,000 hours flying. He has served as president of the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers Association for 50 years and is a member of the American Fighter Aces Association. The Chinese government awarded Rossi the White Cloud Banner (Yun Mo) V Grade, China Air Force Wings (Five Stars), and the China War Memorial (Kang Chan Chi-nien Chang) Decoration. He has also received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, a World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with four bronze stars for the India-Burma, Central Burma, China Defensive, and China Offensive campaigns, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button. In 1969 he was given a Commendation from the USAF for sustained aerial support of combat operations in South Vietnam. The AVG was inducted into the Confederate Air Force Hall of Fame in 1998, in Midland, Tex. Dick is credited with 6.25 kills.

Where did you learn to fly?

In the mid-'30s I was in the Merchant Marine for about five years before I joined the Navy. I was working my way through Cal Berkeley and one of the guys who was on the crew with us was a bug on aviation. He lived in the East Coast and had run away from home when he was 13. The ship was in Honolulu on a layover and he talked us into going down to the airport there and taking a ride around the island. All the rest of us guys would spend our money conservatively on wine and women, and he's wasting his on flying, and, anyway, we went down and he had kind of highway monoplane — I think it was a Fairchild but I don't remember for sure — and we took a ride all around the island to see it from the air. When we got back the instructor said, 'How was the ride?' I said, 'It wasn't much different than riding the bus. You just sit there and go around,' so then he says, 'Well, would you like to try something a little more interesting?' and I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Okay, for five bucks, we take you up,' and they had a Great Lakes trainer or something there, two-seated, you know, an open-air cockpit, so we went up and went through all the aerobatics and all that stuff and I said, 'Now, that's what I thought flying should be,' and when we come down I really liked it. Those were the only two times I'd been on an airplane.

I worked on a ship called the President Garfield, which is the same ship Chenault went out to China on. When we got out of Manila there were two Navy officers came aboard and one of them was a captain and one of them was a commander, which, at that time, was pretty high rank in the Navy. It was before the war, before they branched out. I was serving drinks at the bar amongst the other duties I had so I saw a lot of these guys. I had told them about wanting to get into flying and wishing I could get in the Navy and when they left the ship they each gave me a letter of recommendation. I saw a notice on the bulletin board at Cal that if you joined the Navy you could get into Pensacola, take a year's instruction, spend three years in the fleet and at the end you'd get 1500 bucks. That looked like pretty good money at the time and so I put in my application and I put their two letters with it.

I went over to the Navy and took the physical and I was underweight. I was drinking water and eating bananas and when the doc gave me the exam, he said, 'Well, I don't find anything wrong with you except you being underweight,' and they get something they call NCD — Not Considered Disqualified. Every exam I took in the Navy I had to go get an NCD because I never got any more weight, but, I got the call, I went over and I passed. After we got through there my specialty was supposed to be single-engine seaplanes, and I never flew anything in the Navy that wasn't a biplane except the SNJs because that's what we took our instrument flying in. When I got my instrument check ride I wasn't very good and the guy that gave me the check ride says, 'Well, I'll pass you if you promise me never to fly instruments.' That was funny because later on I ended up flying for CNAC over the hump which was instruments most of the time.

Which biplanes were you flying?

I instructed primary for a year in the N3-Ns during '40 and into '41. That year was really pretty good training because flying two periods in the morning for three hours, two hours off, then another three hours, five days a week, you learn more than any other cadet did. We had a greater rate of getting our cadets through because we had just been through it and I think knowing how tough it was maybe made us more tolerant with the cadets.

Any students stick out in your mind?

Dick Rossi

I had a student named Herman Rossi, and I had him as a student and I never saw him again. I ran into him later in Arizona but he's passed away since, but he became an Ace. He's in the Ace book along with the rest of us, so every time I look up my name I see Herman Rossi first.

How did you get from Pensacola to Burma?

A retired Commander named Irvine posted a note on the base that said, 'Meet at the San Carlos Hotel.' They gave us a room number and we got down there, there were about 40 people there. At that time old Joe Foss was my roommate, and I tried to get him to go too, but Joe says, 'I decided that the Marine Corps would last longer than the AVG, so I took the Marine Corps.'

We all met at the San Carlos, and we were only supposed to be released for one year and when the end of the year was up we were supposed to go right back to where we left at our same seniority. We wouldn't have lost anything and we figured if we got into actual combat out there it would have been a hell of a nice boost for our resume. Now everybody now I talk to says, yeah, we saw Pearl Harbor coming, but I don't think anybody really saw it coming or they would have done something about it, except Churchill; he saw it coming, but he wouldn't tell us.

One of the guys in the room was Lieutenant JG back from duty on the fleet, and he asks, 'Well, when these inexperienced guys sign up, what are they going to get in the way of pay and rank when they get out there, compared to somebody like me, who knows it all, so to speak?' and this guy recruiting says, 'Have you ever been fired at with live ammunition?' and the JG says, 'No, of course not,' and he says, 'Well then you've had no experience,' and the guy got insulted and walked out. Out of that group 36 of us signed up.

What did they tell you you'd be doing?

We were supposed to protect the Burma Road from China in and they said we'd only be flying against bombers which would be bombing this road. At that time we thought, 'They're not going to be silly enough to attack something that belongs to the British Empire.' We didn't know what we were going to be flying. We'd never even heard of a P-40. The P-40 was the first airplane I was ever in that had forward firing guns. In the seaplanes we had a guy in the back with a .30 caliber.

The first time I ever fired those guns on the P-40, it was a stationary target against a bank. Every fifth bullet was a tracer, so it was kind of like taking a hose and you just raised it 'til you hit something. The target isn't moving. The second time I pulled the trigger I was in combat over Burma on the other side of the gulf from Rangoon. We were asked to escort three British Blenheims. Well, as we got out over the gulf I was flying wing on a British Buffalo and we got into a fog that was real terrible. The guys that were flying with the other group climbed up to 4,000 feet and got above us, and they didn't see us down below. It's the two of us and we got one Blenheim in sight. About that time I saw these Japanese I97s, with the great big red ball, diving down on us and everybody scattered. They're just diving back into the fog because it was foggier than hell down low.

One of the 197s would make a head-on pass at me and I could see him but there was no way I could get a lead on him, and he'd go under me and then pull up back. Well, he thought he'd get behind me, but our planes were so much faster than theirs, I'd be way out, I'd go out a mile or two and then I'd turn around we'd do the same thing. I said there's only one way I'm going to hit this guy. I'm going to start firing when he's way out of range and he can't get underneath me without going thru my spray of fire. Six guns firing out there.

The next thing you know, when I pulled up they were waiting and when I saw tracers flying by my airplane, I got the hell out of there. I leveled off at about 300 feet, flew for a couple of miles and then started to climb for altitude. I was low on fuel and almost out of ammunition and knew I could not get back to Rangoon safely. Knowing the RAF had a field north at Moulmein, I headed in that direction. I had two bullet holes through my propeller but no other damage. The next day they were changing the prop on my shot-up #18 and I had a day off.

The kicker is a week later I'm driving my Jeep out to the field about ten miles from town, and I saw a British ground man — a second leftenant I think — hitchhiking to the field. I gave him a ride out there and we started talking and he said he just came back from Tavoy. I said, 'Oh, I was over there.' I said, 'We were in a tangle with some 197s.' I said, 'I tried to get one and I thought I might have got the last guy but, by then, I was jumped on so I got the hell out of there.' He said, 'Yeah, that guy crashed into the hangar, burned the hangar.' Nobody had gone over to observe it, and I didn't have enough sense to take him over to the RAF.

Dick Rossi's P-40 Dick Rossi's P-40

Which would have made you an ace even sooner?

I didn't get the credit, but the biggest thing about combat was when you got back, you were glad you made it. Flying combat can get pretty exhausting. You don't know whether you're upside down or right side up half the time 'cause you're chasing somebody. While you're busy you don't the difference but I've come back from missions and got out of the cockpit and had my knees buckle under me. I always had kind of a sinus problem anyway, and one day I dived down about 10,000 feet to get away from a guy and then when I pulled out everything just went black. I couldn't see anything. But then it clears right away just as soon as you take the G load off, you're clear again. One good thing we had on them was diving speed, even though we didn't know it at the time. If we'd known at the time, we wouldn't have to dive so much because airplanes can only go so fast without popping rivets, or at a certain speed their controls wouldn't move. We didn't find all that out until they captured some planes and did some tests.

I met a Japanese pilot after the war. When the Japanese got to pilots they didn't necessarily get a promotion. If the guy was a private, he stayed a private, he was still a pilot but he was a private, and they never got promotions. He said after they captured Hancow and they had time off they had to go out and cut the grass on the field and sometimes they were cutting grass all day. Well, with the B-25s we got these anti-personnel bombs that explode right above the ground, and just shear everything with shrapnel. He said whenever those would come over, they'd be in the trench hollering, 'Hooray, hooray,' 'cause then they didn't have to cut the grass.

How did you train in the single-seat P-40?

The first time I sat there for a few hours, just trying to see where all switches were. You want to be able to do everything with your eyes closed, make sure you can feel for anything you want to, know where your gun switches are. Then I went up to around 10,000 feet and did everything I could with it, upside down, right side up, inverted spins. Inverted spins became kind of a problem. Once a guy got into an inverted spin when I was still in Pensacola and was killed, so the Navy sent down a whole bunch of guys from Washington. Everybody had to go through inverted spins and then you had to take all your cadets through them because it was just essentially the opposite of a normal spin, and you did just the opposite of what you do on a normal spin. Instead of trying to get the thing to go down, you do just the opposite, and then that puts you into a regular spin, which you know how to get out of.

We were told that the way the World War I pilots discovered how to get out of a spin — the regular one — was the guy was spinning in and he figured he's going to get killed, so he said, 'I'll make it fast,' and pushed over and then he'd come out of the spin. We would practice one spin turn, two spin turns, three spin turns.

How often did you have to belly it in?

Most of the landings were made with the gear down but they didn't always stay down. Sometimes they'd start down and end up with one folded.

One time the old man [Chennault] got this idea that we ought to disperse five airplanes, because we didn't want to take a chance on the Japs catching them on our field at night. We took off and a thunderstorm passed through and the wind switched 180 degrees. There was a little field only 10 minutes away — an L-shaped deal — and it kind of went into a big ravine off one end. The first guy to land was John Dean. He was in my class from Pensacola. He'd been in the Navy and he always landed, firmly, you know, like a Navy guy. So he lands and taxis over to the reventment. Heck, nobody else thought anything of it and they were all following him. I started to follow him and I couldn't stop, so when I got to the end I turned on the L. About halfway through the turn one gear popped off, and the P-40 gear wasn't very strong for side loads, so I ended up there on my stomach. Then I look out the side and I saw Bill Bartling. He'd gone over the end and hit there and just his tail stuck out. All of us except Dean cracked up, just trying to save these airplanes from getting hurt. That really got the old man upset.

Dick Rossi Kunming, 1942

It takes you awhile to really feel at home in any new airplane, so if you haven't got a few hours in it, it always is a little bit strange, but by the time we got out there the guys ahead of us had busted up so many that the old man was really pretty ticked off. Guys were landing too long and not being able to stop, so the old man put a chalk line across the runway — 200 feet down — and said, 'Anybody that lands beyond that got fined 100 bucks. Tex Hill went to land and went into the drink. Old Pappy Boyington had put too much boost on and he overshot and had to go around, and he went way past the boost on it and come around and landed okay but was fined. The next guy that flew the airplane after the boost, it quit on him, so he had to put it down somewhere.

We could fix damn near any wreck if it didn't break up; the ground crews were really good. I had this one and we had a lot of trouble with the ignition on it since they were fusing and then you lost all your spark. I was flying this plane and all of a sudden the thing just quit. All along the runways we had stacks of dirt that were maybe four feet square and about a foot and a half high, so they can make quick fills of the bomb craters as they happen while we're out flying. I cut it a little too short and my damn right wheel caught that pile of dirt full, and, of course ended up on the nose. Well, the Japs were too close. We never had time to rescue the ship — get it on the truck to have it sent up to be fixed — so they just went out and took everything off of it that was any good. Took all the guns out, took all the instruments out, any parts that were usable, rudders, whatever, that they could make anything out of.

Were the planes in good shape when you took off for a mission?

Most of the time, except the radios. You might be able to hear and not transmit or vice versa. I took off one day we got a late start and I was going up flying on the wing of a guy named Ed Leibolt and we got up to 10,000 feet and he motioned me in close and I, you know, come tucked into his, behind his wing there. He just pointed to me and said, 'You go up,' and pointed to himself that he's going down, so I figured he forgot to put his oxygen on. We didn't have demand oxygen, we had steady flow, so the oxygen in the baggage compartment was always left open. Whenever you got an alert the first thing you were supposed to do was go open the oxygen valve and then get on board. We never ever saw him again. It was a day before we left Rangoon for the last time, and I went out with Charlie Bond and we searched and searched for a couple hours and never did see any sign of him.

Did the Flying Tigers coordinate your missions with the RAF?

The British had the RDF, Radio Detection Finder, and that was our source of warning. If we were at Rangoon and we saw them take off, we just got in and took off, too. We didn't know what was going on but we knew if they were taking off there was some reason, and we used to run joint missions with them. Anytime we wanted to do anything on our own we didn't have to ask them.

We got along real well with the Brits. They had one commander, Carey, who had been to the Battle of Brittany, already had 21 victories, so he was our hero. Everybody looked up to him, and he was a real nice guy. As a matter of fact, a couple years ago I found out his address and I wrote him a letter to London, and he showed me, he sent me back a postcard with a picture of kind of a, there was a chapel, a church there, and he said whenever they got a mission and the weather was so bad they couldn't find their field, it was almost always sunny near this church. Once they got near that church, he'd know exactly how to get to their field.

What kind of guy was Chennault?

He was a very quiet, you know, soft-spoken southern gentleman. He was well into his 50s. He used to say that old deal, the door to my office is always open and any time you had problems, the old man would try to fix it for you. We had a guy went out there as a pilot and since I got there late, I didn't know it until ten years later that he went out as a pilot. When two guys got killed training, he told the old man he didn't want to fly, but he didn't want to go home. He'd like a ground job, and the old man gave him a ground job as operations clerk. Kirk Smith, the Marine that was in charge of the ship I was on, got into one combat and they said he ran away and then he told the old man he didn't want to fly and he gave him a job as adjutant or some sort of office work. Whatever you did the old man would find some excuse for it.

Dick Rossi Capt. Rossi, 1969

One thing about it that made some of the U.S. brass a little teed off was everybody got out of the service, everybody's civilian, nobody salutes anybody, except the old man. When the old man came around we'd stand up to talk to him, where it was feasible, and we always called him the old man but not in any derogatory way. It was kind of an endearing term, really, and I never heard him raise his voice one time.

How about Boyington?

He was a good guy. No better, no worse than the rest of us.

Tell us about flying the hump for CNAC.

It was about 500-and-some-odd miles, and sometimes with the wind you get across there you got there pretty fast. Then going back, you sort of stayed low, depending on the weather, you could be out of the jet stream and get back pretty good. But at that time we were getting paid by the hour so a lot of guys didn't bother to go down below. We mostly flew from Din Jan to Quan Ming. We had occasional flights to other places. I flew a few trips in C-46s up to Hou Mi and Hirumpshi, which were up near the Russian border, and I'd be taking Russian diplomats or high-ranking people up that far and they would have somebody come down and pick them up.

How did the Flying Tiger Line get started?

FTL is the only airline that began during the war. [FTL President Bob] Prescott had sixteen Budd Conestogas that were stainless steel. Budd's the company that make train parts. We had some surplus C-46s and -47s, and some DC-4s. Then we got sixteen Connies; 1049-G Super Constellations. We looked at the 1649s but didn't get them.

We got some Canadair CL-44s — with the swing tail. They had a slow response and were hard to land. But we could haul just about anything. We hauled F-104s for the German Air Force by taking the wings off and sliding them in.

Which was your favorite?

The 1049 Super Connie. It was a great-handling airplane. You could reverse two engines — which was the emergency descent procedure — and get down real fast. I also liked the stretch DC-8. All the controls had a cable backup, in case you lost pressure.

Did you fly any smaller planes in general aviation?

I had a Vultee Vibrator that I liked to fly.

Are you still flying?

Only in the back.

I know from your schedule that you're still a moving target, travelling from one airshow to another. How often do you get to see the other AVG pilots?

There's more interest now in WWII and we seem to be more visible as the years go by. The AVG stays busy with all the requests to appear at functions, like air shows, and to be interviewed for people writing about us...like you!

Our AVG members are a tight-knit family. We get together at least once or twice a year and we stay in constant contact. We were recently inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame at Dayton, Ohio, and also at the Confederate Air Force Hall of Fame at Midland Texas. The AVG members are all over 80 years old now and the 51 of us remaining are enjoying the honors that have come our way.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.