One of the more occasional visitors to the Loungestopped in and brightened our day recently. Kirby was here for a while; hecracked a few jokes, talked about old airplanes a little, chatted with some ofthe regulars and then left, driving slowly away in his beat-up pickup truck. Hisage is starting to show and it aggravates him.
I’ve read and heard a number of funeral eulogies given recounting thefascinating and sometimes heroic things these men and women had done duringtheir lives. Often, at the end of them the speaker or writer said thank you tothe unhearing body of the deceased. As a result, I have come to the conclusionthat 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 tellthe student pilot about Kirby and a little of what he went through and also tosuggest that he spend some time talking to his neighbor down the block and toKirby the next time he came to the Lounge. Talk, if only for the selfish reasonthat the effort of initiating the conversation will probably be repaid manytimes over. Talk to learn how those pilots handled weather without radar, withlimited navigational aids and by learning how to forecast the weather bylooking at the sky. If you want to listen in, I’ll tell you what I told thestudent.
I had known my friend Kirby for some time before I ever thought much abouthis practice of going by one name. It’s a time-honored, although rare, customeven if some current pop stars think they invented it. It was a while before Ifound 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 hewas always just Kirby. That direct approach defined much about him. He grew upin a small town in central Texas in a family struggling to eat regularly duringthe Depression. I found out that he was a very successful athlete in highschool, at a time when it truly was required that such folks be students aswell.
That Kirby was accepted into the Army Air Force prior to the U.S. involvement inthe 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 meantthe applicant had to beat out literally thousands of others for a slot. Thingsstarted to loosen up in 1940 and 1941, but if one looks at the physical andmental requirements for aviation cadets in those days you get the feeling thatthe ones who were accepted were so impressive they didn’t need an airplane tofly, or at the very least they could walk on water given a running start.
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 techniqueshad been evolving for some years and the military was pretty much in theforefront of the process; however, the quality and effectiveness still left alot to be desired. The majority of instructors taught via the shouting andintimidation method; communication in many primary trainers was one-way, througha Gosport tube in which the instructor spoke into one end of a hose thatconnected to muffs on the student’s ears. It was not unusual for a frustratedinstructor to hold the mouthpiece over the side of the airplane to see if hecould blow some sense directly into a student’s head. A great many studentslearned in spite of, rather than because of, their instructors.
The airplanes varied widely in handling qualities. Many students started in thePiper J-3 Cub. If you ever get a chance to fly one, take it. If you are used toa Cessna, Piper or Beech trainer you will discover that a Cub is not easy tofly. It has no dihedral so there is no stability in roll. A puff of wind upsetsit. The ailerons create substantial adverse yaw, so any turn or a correction fora gust requires perfect hand and foot coordination, otherwise the ball willclank against each end of the race. The student sits in the rear seat and cannotsee through the instructor. Another WWII trainer, the Boeing Stearman, is quitenice to handle in the air. On the ground it is absolutely blind forward for thestudent in the rear cockpit. The standard engine is barely powerful enough tocoax the massive biplane to fly, so errors in directional control on landing ortakeoff cannot be solved quickly by adding power. In a crosswind there is oftensome question as to whether the pilot or airplane is in charge. One of the fewprimary trainers that was easy to fly as well as take off and land was theFairchild series, but they were built in limited quantities.
The advanced trainers, such as the SNJ or AT-6 with 600 h.p., retractable gearand a constant speed propeller also had exciting quirks. A power-off stallhandled improperly led to the airplane rolling inverted and entering gyrationsthat could take thousands of feet to sort out and correct. Students who had notwashed out entered those airplanes with something on the order of 100 to 150hours of flying time. Not all survived the experience.
These days fatal training accidents are rare events. When Kirby went throughbasic training, every class lost a number of its students to accidents. Despitethe romance of the old trainers, and I admit to enjoying the heck out of flyingthem, they were far more difficult to operate than contemporary airplanes, hadmuch less reliable engines and more primitive systems. Weather reporting andforecasting was far less accurate and airborne weather radar did not exist, sostudent cross-countries, day or night, often brought the participants greaterlearning opportunities than they expected. Some learned about death in anairplane at a very young age.
Kirby made it through, and, on December 12, 1941, received his wings. Twelvedays later he shipped out for Panama where he flew P-36s and P-40s in defense ofthe canal. If you have read Ernest K. Gann’s books you know that the pursuitpilots (the term fighter was only then coming into play, the single seatershavingalways been called pursuit planes) in the Canal Zone were among the best-trainedand most aggressive pilots our country had. Yet they were far from any combat.Ernie Gann, an airline captain then engaged in ferrying Lockheeds to SouthAmerica, saw and described the pursuit pilots as frustrated and bored, shootingat the jungle, at flotsam bobbing in the canal, and sometimes, at each other. Afew of the pilots died without any enemy near.
Panama gave Kirby the opportunity to get acquainted with high-performanceairplanes without having to worry about enemy action in the process. For sixmonths he flew some of the hottest ships in the world with some of thebest-trained pilots, obtaining a seasoning that would prove very important inwhat was to come.
It was decided soon after the U.S. entered the war that we would concentrate onGermany first while holding Japan at bay until we could turn our attention tothe war in the Pacific. Kirby’s squadron was eventually detailed to go to thePacific to help try and stop an enemy that was not only going from victory tovictory but had just executed 250,000 Chinese citizens in retaliation for theassistance given in the escape of General Doolittle’s aircrews after they hadbombed Tokyo.
In the process of heading west, Kirby spent some time in an engine overhaulfacility in Chino, California. There he saw hundreds of failed engines in forrebuilding and read the tags on many of them. The tags showed the time on eachengine prior to failure. The radial engines all seemed to have many hundreds ofhours while the Allisons rarely had made it to even 100 hours and many had fewerthan 10. The experience shook Kirby badly and deeply influenced him for the restof the war. He was forever afraid of Allison engines, never, ever trusting them.
The Bell P-400
In late June 1942, Kirby arrived in northern Australia where he was introducedto what was probably the second-worst airplane ever foisted on American pilotsduring the war, the Bell P-400. Only the Brewster Buffalo, which proved fatal tonearly 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 anormally-aspirated Allison engine and an absolute ceiling of 23,000 feet so longas the pilot did not apply much rudder or aileron. Any control deflection meantthe rapid loss of about 2,000 feet. The words Kirby uses to this day to describethe P-400 cannot be repeated in a family publication. Suffice it to say heloathed the airplane.
Almost immediately after being checked out in that miserable excuse for a flyingmachine, Kirby was assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron, the Head Hunters, in NewGuinea, 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 theP-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 asthe pilots who flew it. Intelligence had completely ignored the reports of theonly man who had been commanding a force of fighters that were successfulagainst the Japanese air arm, the brilliant, eccentric, Claire Chennault, leaderof the Flying Tigers. His own personal nuttiness probably caused the staid U.S.intelligence service to discount his repeated warnings to never, ever try andturn with a Zero. As a result, the U.S. airmen who tried to dogfight as they hadbeen taught were cut to ribbons because of a combination of poor tactics andlousy airplanes.
Kirby walked into that buzz saw. He experienced the empty seats in the tent atdinner each night. He watched his friends shot out of the sky and experiencedthe hideousness of an enemy whose warrior code meant that it was appropriate toshoot Allied pilots who were descending in their parachutes. Think about how youfelt at age 20 on that rare occasion when you lost a friend to death. Nowimagine 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 onword of a bombing raid on Port Moresby they would take off and climb in adirection away from the attacking aircraft in an effort to get to altitude. Theywould struggle up to 23,000 feet out over the ocean and only then turn back toface the enemy airplanes. The Japanese would come over at 27,000 feet and bombunopposed because the U.S. fighters could not get that high. Fortunately forKirby and his mates, because they could not threaten the bombers, the Zeros atthat time in the war were under orders not to break close escort formation withthe bombers and attack. Kirby remains convinced that had they attacked he wouldhave been just another dead P-400 pilot shortly after it started.
For an excellent perspective I highly recommend a superbly written book on theair war in the South Pacific that came out in the last several months. It iscalled Fire In the Sky. Author Eric Bergerud artfully describes the nature ofthat war. It helped me understand a little more about my friend Kirby. Bergerudbrings out that the pilots had to battle a determined enemy possessing one ofthe finest fighters in the world; they also had to fight an environment that washorribly inhospitable to man. Everyone suffered from the heat, the humidity, theinsects, terrible and inadequate food, and such pleasant diseases as malaria,dysentery and dengue fever. The ground crews had to maintain airplanes with suchmaterial as reached them at the end of a multi-thousand-mile supply line whileliving and working in malarial swamps. The pilots not only suffered with theground crew, they then had to get into inadequate airplanes and go fight abetter-equipped enemy. Bergerud publishes the numbers that show that, on bothsides, 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 confirmsthis and describes the continuous problem with weather, primarily thunderstorms,as squadrons would try to get to and from a target when lines of thunderstormsreaching well above the ceiling of the airplane blocked their way. As an addedattraction, should a pilot try to drop under the storm, the mountains in thecenter of modestly-sized New Guinea rose to over 10,000 feet. More than a fewpilots discovered the concept of cumulogranite clouds as their last learningexperience. 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 onthe P-400 lasted about fifteen hours between overhauls. (That’s 15, not 150 or1,500 hours.)
In the fall of 1942 the squadron was moved to Milne Bay, where it continued totry and stop the Japanese. Kirby says he continued to be lucky, but he stillcontinued to lose friends.
The 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 wandin February 1943 when his squadron was sent to Australia to re-equip with theLockheed P-38 Lightning. It still had the hated Allison engine, but now therewere two of them so he could keep going if one quit, despite the fact the propsrotated outward making both engines “critical.” They also hadturbosuperchargers 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 ofsurviving the war.
By the time Kirby got into the P-38 the weaknesses of the Zero were known: Alack of armor and ailerons that became very heavy above 300 mph greatlyrestricting maneuverability. Tactics had been developed for the secondgeneration of U.S. fighters, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, P-38, Republic P-47, NorthAmerican P-51 Mustang and Chance-Vought F4U Corsair in which altitude and speedwere stressed. The tactics worked. In the battle of attrition that characterizedthe South Pacific in 1942 and 1943 pilots such as Kirby began to turn the tidein the favor of the Allies.
Kirby’s checkout in the P-38, an airplane with a control wheel rather than astick, with two engines, full-feathering propellers, several machine guns,cannon, and turbosuperchargers was as involved and detailed as those received byhis mates. It lasted about an hour. Then he went into combat. On his firstmission he aborted because he did not understand one gauge and it gave him areading that he had been led to believe indicated he was about to lose anengine. That was the only mission he ever aborted in the entire time he flewcombat.
Kirby liked the P-38 as much as he despised the P-400. He still had no faith inAllison engines and developed a takeoff technique that reflected his distrust.Because of the power of the engines and the relatively small verticalstabilizers of the P-38, Vmc was 150 mph. Normally, the airplane would fly offthe 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 theair if one engine quit.
The P-38 must have been a good fit and tool for Kirby, for about a month and ahalf after checking out in it he shot down his first enemy airplane, although hewas only given credit as a probable.
At about this time Kirby’s squadron was so affected by disease that only 30% ofits pilots were able to fly. He and several others were reassigned to the 431stFighter Squadron of the 475th Fighter Group. Shortly after that they startedflying out of Dobadura where Kirby says they finally went on the offensive. Thismeant missions of hundreds of miles, sometimes over a thousand miles, roundtrip. Navigation was via compass and watch over miles and miles of nothing butmiles and miles of water. Pilots would memorize the shape of the variousislands, as an instant recognition of a shoreline through a hole in the cloudscould be a life-or-death matter. Weather was always a factor that could killyou. While there was air-sea rescue for Allied pilots, a man in a small liferaft in the ocean, with no radio of any sort, was truly alone. Bailing out intothe jungle was an iffy proposition. I have found no evidence, anywhere, that anyAllied pilot who bailed out over the interior jungles of New Guinea survived theexperience. The Japanese made only a fairly small percentage of captured Alliedpilots prisoners. Pilots in trouble attempted to ditch near the beach of anisland. The Australian coast watchers were most effective at rescuing downedpilots. The effect of repeated atrocities by the Japanese against natives of theislands meant that most natives would go to great lengths to help downed Alliedpilots. Overall, the chance of surviving after going down in the South Pacificwas far, far worse than in the European theatre.
In the fall of 1943, Kirby flew on the raids against the Japanese strongholds ofWewak and Rabaul. He still shudders when he talks of Rabaul. It was a supplycenter that the Japanese defended tenaciously, having four airfields in veryclose proximity. In his book, Eric Bergerud describes the intent of the Alliesto simply destroy the Japanese army and navy air forces. In practice it meantlow level attacks on airfields because high level bombing had proved almostcompletely ineffective. It meant that the Allied pilots had to go in low amidthe flak and fighters to try to destroy the enemy’s airplanes on the ground orin the air and stop all shipping coming in with supplies. The Japanese quicklydemonstrated that they would put up massive numbers of fighters to protect itssupply ships. That practice led to some of the fiercest aerial battles of thePacific war. Those who were there and writers who analyzed the action describeit as to heavyweight boxers standing toe to toe and simply slugging it out.Kirby, his American comrades and the Australians and New Zealand airmen fightingfrom 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 werewiping out the enemy’s best pilots who were being replaced by poorly trainedboys. They did not know that the bombing had killed many trained mechanics andruined the spare part storage areas and supply line so that fewer than half ofthe enemy’s airplanes could get into the air. They just knew that there werealways fighters opposing them and that the anti-aircraft fire was alwaysfrighteningly effective and that the Zero, although aging, could out-turn theP-38 if they allowed themselves to get slow and try to dogfight the Zero. Kirbyand his compatriots just knew that they were in a hell of a fight each and everyday.
As this battle of attrition continued in earnest, Kirby shot down three moreenemy aircraft in October 1943. This time the kills were confirmed.
Allied aircraft proved to be very successful in sinking enemy ships. Theystopped spare parts from coming into the airfields. Damaged airplanes could notbe fixed. Slowly Allied pilots such as Kirby destroyed the Japanese air forces;however, the destruction only became final in the South Pacific about a yearafter 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 isalternately amused and angered by those who speak of glory in war. He looks atthe Rambo or Chuck Norris type movies as nonsense because he was there and heknows that the real combat pilots were scared to death most of the time. Hedescribes one of the readiness tents where he and the squadron pilots spent timeon alert ready to scramble to oppose enemy raids. The pilots were so keyed upthat when the alert telephone rang everyone would go out and urinate. The phoneline was checked several times a day and every time it rang a group of pilotstook a leak.
They killed all the vegetation around that tent.
On a daily basis Kirby would get into an airplane with performance only dreamedof a mere ten years earlier. It had a control system barely adequate to handlethe power it possessed, and could not if an engine failed below 150 mph. Thesystems were not intuitive. More than a few pilots died simply because theydidn’t keep track of which tanks had fuel and which didn’t. Navigation aids werevirtually nonexistent. He got into the aircraft in stifling heat, only to climbto where the temperature was well below zero. If he didn’t shave perfectly hisoxygen mask rubbed his face raw. The food was horrible and because of theconstant fear it didn’t always stay down. When a bout of dysentery hit whileflying at altitude there was nothing a pilot could do but sit there in thestinking mess. When he entered combat he knew that if he let his speed get below350 mph with a Zero or Oscar anywhere in the vicinity he was dead meat. If hehad to bail out in combat he knew that the enemy would shoot him as he descendedin his parachute. Yet, he and most others got in that airplane every time andeach went out and did his duty knowing full well the odds and the risks.
By the way, if you get a chance, take a look at a picture of fighter pilots inthe 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’llnotice that the ones in the South Pacific look just plain emaciated. It’sbecause many of them were malnourished and suffering from various tropicaldiseases. Yet they kept going until they died, finished their tour or the flightsurgeon took them off active duty.
On November 2, 1943, Kirby again went into combat over Rabaul as the Allied airforces attacked enemy shipping and airfields. The Japanese responded in theirusual tenacious manner. The fighting was vicious. At one point Kirby went to theaid of a B-25 in the process of being shot down by five Zeros. He shot down twoof them. He survived the fight, officially an ace.
His squadron had left its base with nine airplanes. Six returned.
Back To The States
About two months later Kirby rotated home. Once there he took a C-45 (TwinBeech) and flew it down the main street of his home town low enough to look inthe windows of the stores, then landed in the field behind his school, cancelingclasses for the rest of the day. He spent the rest of the war as a tacticalinspector. He still has no idea what the heck that job title meant, but he didget 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 demonstratedin 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, tookKirby’s Army Air Force wings up in the Space Shuttle. The wings are now mountedon an appropriate plaque. Kirby gave it to his old high school, hoping it mightserve to inspire someone else to serve his or her country.
Eric Bergerud explains that the expectation for most of the war in the Pacificwas that it would last into 1948 (“Golden Gate in ’48”). Thatprediction, even on the part of the senior generals, admirals and the president,was considered accurate by virtually everyone until nearly the end of 1944 whenthe effect of the destruction of the Japanese forces in the South Pacific due tothe effects of the efforts of pilots such as Kirby became apparent. Mr. Bergerudcloses Fire In The Sky succinctly:
Thus the great sacrifices of Allied airmen in the South Pacific wererepaid many times over by future triumphs that forced Japan to capitulate muchearlier than Allied leadership dared hope at the beginning of 1944. Japaneseairmen showed great courage and amazing tenacity. Yet it is the melancholy truththat their sacrifices were made for a cruel government bent on naked aggression,one that showed remarkable disregard for the fates of its fighting men. Perhapsthere is no such thing as a good war. In rare moments in history there arenecessary wars, and the Pacific war certainly was necessary. Allied airmen whofought in the South Pacific, as well as those who supported them deserveprofound recognition from free peoples.
Just Down Your Street
That is what I told the student pilot here about Kirby, and maybe about thatneighbor who lives down the street from the student. She drives a little slowlybut those slightly rheumy eyes may have looked brightly through the windscreenof the 400-knot Corsairs she flew in flight test or the B-17s she ferried acrossthe 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 andneighbors may have those corners of memory dedicated to friends who didn’t makeit back to the field. They may have been the ones who hunkered down in thecockpit and spat back at the lightning while they wondered if they would make itthrough the thunderstorm between them and their destination. They may be theones who sat there in the cigarette smoke, drinking too many drinks trying tocalm jangled nerves before going to bed, only to be wakened at 3:00 am to go flyprimitive airplanes in unspeakable conditions. You never know who that “oldgeezer” is that is in front of you in the checkout line or helping with theneighborhood 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 inWorld War II.
See you next month.