Using side-firing weapons on aircraft can be traced back to 1927, when a concept was demonstrated by fixing a .30 caliber machine gun to the side of a biplane and flying a simple manoeuvre known as a pylon turn. Named after the air racing term, it involved positioning an aircraft in a gentle bank and orbiting it around a fixed point as the gun fired continuously. Yet, when Army brass watched the demonstration, which showed promise, they dismissed it as strange and useless, ordering the idea shelved as they moved on to more familiar things. Another effort was made to garner interest in 1939, as just as war clouds loomed, but it too fell by the wayside. Ultimately, it would take an American commander in Queensland, Australia to force the Air Corps to realise the potential of the idea.

A-20 Havoc light Bomber

In 1943, with the U.S. deep in World War II, Army Air Corps Major Paul “Pappy” Gunn unknowingly laid the seeds of what would become the gunship, when he added four .50 caliber machine guns to the nose of his squadron’s A-20 Havoc light bombers. Using them as strafers, he soon realised that, though additional firepower helped, it remained barely adequate to achieve what he really needed them to do: sink Japanese shipping. Therefore, he sought out a more suitable airframe in B-25D Mitchell medium bombers, and mounted four .50s in the nose, two on either side of the fuselage and three behind the front nose wheel bay. As this arrangement was never part of the original design, all modifications had to be made in the field. Nevertheless, the improvements worked, and Gunn’s A-20s and B-25s soon flew into action in a big way.

B-25D Mitchell Medium Bomber

From March 2-4, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea raged as aircraft of the U.S. and Australia intercepted a Japanese convoy of eight transports carrying men and material to reinforce Lae, New Guinea.

Gunn’s A-20s and B-25s swept in at low level, hammering the hulls and decks of the transport ships and their naval escorts with bombs and tens of thousands of rounds. The attacks were relentless, and at the end of the battle all eight of the transports slipped beneath the waves, smouldering and peppered from bow to stern with bullet holes. The modifications worked, and the gunships success echoed back to designers who, months later, produced G and H models of the Mitchell sporting armaments up to 75mm.

A-26 Invader

Just as quick as it arrived though, the Mitchell ended its run as the premier gunship of the era with the arrival of a new kid on the block, one even more purpose built for task. The A-26 Invader. This light-attack, two-man aircraft, which debuted in 1944, unfortunately played second fiddle to the more famous Mitchell’s exploits until after the war’s end, when the ensuing years caused it to make a name for itself as the definitive gunship until the mid 1960s.

The Invader’s reputation started when Korea exploded into war in 1950. Armed with up to 14 .50 caliber guns (8 in the nose, 6 in the wings) along with its bombs and rockets, the Invader began tearing up enemy vehicles trains and positions, often at night. Crews developed new tactics like the Hunter-Killer, where the Hunter roved the countryside looking for headlights or any other sign of enemy activity. If spotted, Communist drivers would shut off their lights, unaware the departing aircraft had radioed to the Killer, which often caught them falling for the ploy and turning them back on. The result was often dozens of explosions and swirling torches licking at the sky. So good were the Invaders that no matter what tactics they used, many an enemy machine fell to them. By the end of the war, they were credited with 38,500 trucks, 406 locomotives and 3,700 railway cars dispatched, in addition to seven enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground.

Not much longer after, that they were carving out the jungle in a place where it would see its most lengthy service: Vietnam.

Supplied by the U.S. and now sporting French tri-colours, the A-26 was used heavily in the First Indochina War, and was involved, along with many other aircraft, in the futile effort to prevent the garrison at Dien Bien Phu from being overrun. And while the French left southeast Asia in disgrace, that in no way affected the A-26, which returned with the U.S. to Thailand in 1960 to assist the Laotian government fighting the Pathet Lao communists, then back to the new nation of South Vietnam in 1962 to begin its encore and final performance.

Meanwhile, at the same time back in the U.S., with the growing prospects of engaging in so-called ‘limited wars‘ like Vietnam, the Air Force created a panel to study ways of defending strategic hamlets and forts throughout the country using new techniques. Good as it was, the A-26 simply didn’t have the ability to provide the sustained suppressive fire needed to break off massed attacks that might last for hours. For this, the old concept of side firing guns on a loitering aircraft was again pulled from the shelf, and this time made into reality.

The program, designated as Project Tail Chaser, used a modified Convair C-131 twin-engine transport, with cameras placed in windows where guns would be. In several tests, the aircraft banked, flew the pylon turn and proved the concept feasible. But, before the next step of adding weapons could begin, a military project’s greatest enemy, lack of funds, reared its head and caused years of delays.

AC-47 SPOOKY GUNSHIP

Finally, live-fire tests were conducted in the summer of 1964 using older C-47 twin-engine transports from Eglin Air Force Base, and the program picked up steam again. Under the command of Captain Ron Terry, Project Gunship 1 was created, and a low-hour C-47 airframe was pulled offline in Vietnam and refurbished with a new and deadly cargo: three six-barrelled .30 caliber miniguns.

Each minigun was capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute. They were mounted in pods on the plane’s left side, two firing through portholes and one firing out the cargo door. In addition, 24,000 rounds were carried to feed the guns, which were aimed by the pilot looking through a sight fixed to his left. The trigger was a button on the control wheel that, when pressed, sent a swath of fire the size of a football field that could be held and adjusted as long as the pilot stayed in his turn.

The result, as its new crews found, was absolute carnage in tests, often leaving targets torn asunder in tiny pieces on the wind. Most of those on the ground who saw it at work were often rendered speechless. Confidence was high among all that this could be a game changer.

Two six-man crews and the plane, designated AC-47, were assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron, when action came on the night of December 23. A radio call crackled from the Tran Yenh Special Forces outpost for immediate fire support. Arriving just thirty seven minutes later, the crew could hear the urgency and desperation on the radio. The outpost was under a major Vietcong attack and was in danger of being overrun. Below the C-47, massive flares swayed, dropped by another C-47 acting as a flare ship. As the plane began dropping its own flares, the pilot radioed the outpost, asking if they wanted him to fire. Hearing only the motors of another C-47 overhead the radio operator replied “Ah… Yes.”

The AC-47 started its bank and a stream of fire leaped from the sky to the ground, surprising the defenders and annihilating the attackers, who never saw how the judgment rained down to tear a path through their ranks and the jungle itself. With such a high rate of fire and every fifth round a tracer, it seemed a massive red tornado started to swirl outside the camp’s perimeter, sweeping all before it into dust.

The AC-47 continued its slow trek in a great circle, as more tracers by the hundreds ricocheted skyward after hitting the ground, making it appear as if Hell itself was pushing its way to the surface and the earth was giving way. Nothing of flesh survived its onslaught. And when the firing stopped a few minutes later, a haze smelling of gunpowder settled over the night. The outpost was safe. Not even the plaintive cry of a wounded guerrilla was heard. 4,500 hundred rounds had been expended.

The saved men offered profuse thanks before a call came from another outpost known as Trung Hung, twenty miles away. A few minutes later, and new witnesses watched in amazement as the sky sent another red tongue to the earth to feed off the blood of more unsuspecting attackers.

Once the AC-47 returned to base, it wasn’t long before the destruction it had wrought that night began making rounds. In the days that followed, more requests came, and the bird cranked up and winged off to do its duty, never failing to break up an attack, no matter if it took hours.

It came to be during one of these night missions to protect a hamlet on the Mekong Delta in early 1965, another witness to its power, a Stars and Stripes reporter watched in awe and wrote how the stream of tracers reminded him of a dragon’s breath. After reading the story, the commanding officer of the wing said, “Well I’ll be damned, Puff the Magic Dragon,” referencing a children’s song made popular by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary.

That was all it took, forever more, the solitary AC-47 and those that joined it later, carried the call sign ‘Puff.’ Even the Vietcong got in on the action, believing that the monster was real, and that shooting at it would only make it angry. It did.

On February 8, 1965, Puff located hundreds of Vietcong on a hillside firing at it and let loose, staying on station for four hours and firing over 20,000 rounds to leave the place bereft of trees and stalk. Maybe it was necessary to cover the body parts of the 300 plus enemy that had been gathering for an offensive.

Three years later, it was during in the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968 that the AC-47s, now expanded and operating countrywide using the call sign ‘Spooky’, gave its greatest and lengthiest service. Also it might be said, it proved to be the slow demise for the 47s used by the U.S. in the gunship role.

Khe Sanh was a remote Marine hilltop outpost in the northwest part of Vietnam. Situated near the Laotian border, the North Vietnamese had brought it under siege with the start of the Tet offensive on January 31st, 1968. President Johnson became so worried and obsessed with its fate that he demanded hourly updates on it as the mightiest warplanes in the U.S. inventory, including the B-52, unloaded thousands of tons of ordnance and literally changed the topography day-to-day around the site.

When dusk came, the NVA emerged from their deep tunnels and moved closer to the perimeter, only to have an AC-47 massacre them each time. This act was replayed countless times during the siege, and planes relieved each other making sure there was always a gunship orbiting the base. They stayed night after night for months on end until the siege was broken.

With this in mind, though the B52 may have been the airborne star of the event, an equal case could be made for the AC-47, who kept the enemy reeling when they were considered ‘danger close,’ and kept them from storming the base using one of their favourite weapons, Night.

After 1968, the AC-47s slowly began to be supplanted and replaced by both the Lockheed AC-130 Spectre (Project Gunship 2) and AC-119 Stinger (Project Gunship 3). Once numbers of these aircraft were in theatre, the AC-47s ranks grew smaller still until just a handful were serving into the 1970s, when they were withdrawn in favour of the Spectre. Variants of the AC-47 still serve today as gunships in South America, though without the miniguns that gave it its characteristic moniker.

From the American Revolution to the Korean War, thousands of U.S. soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have been taken prisoner or gone missing. But it took the Vietnam War—and a sense of abandonment felt by wives and family members of Americans held captive—to bring forth what has evolved into United State's POW/MIA symbol.

The POW/MIA flag is inextricably tied to the National League of POW/MIA Families, which was born in June 1969 as the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia. Its mission was to spread awareness of the mistreatment of prisoners of war at the hands of their captors. It was the brainchild of Karen Butler, wife of Navy pilot Phillip Butler, who had been shot down over North Vietnam in April 1965, and Sybil Stockdale, whose husband, Navy Commander James Bond Stockdale, was the highest-ranking POW in North Vietnam. Stockdale had been held prisoner since September 1965, when his A-4 Skyhawk went down over North Vietnam.

In 1971, League member Mary Hoff came up with the idea of creating a flag as the group’s symbol. Her husband, Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, had been missing in action since January 7, 1970. Mary Hoff called the country’s oldest and largest flag-maker, Annin Flagmakers of Verona, N.J. “Mary Hoff called out of the blue. I had no idea what the League of Families was when she called,” Norm Rivkees, then Annin’s vice president of sales, said. “She then explained everything and I went to our president, Randy Beard. There was no hesitation. He just said: ‘Absolutely. We would be honoured to create a flag.’”

Rivkees turned over the job of designing the flag to Annin’s small advertising agency, Hayden Advertising, where the task was assigned to graphic artist Newton F. Heisley. Heisley, who died in 2009, had served in World War II as a C-46 twin-engine transport pilot with the 433rd Troop Carrier Group. After coming home from the war with a Bronze Star, he received a degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and worked as a graphic artist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette before going to work for Hayden. After getting the POW/MIA flag assignment, Heisley sat down at his drawing table and sketched three different designs. The one he chose had an image of a gaunt man in profile, with a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire in the background—the design that we recognise today. When Annin began producing the flag, Heisley was still tweaking its design. He planned to add colour to the black-and-white image, but those ideas were dropped.

Heisley modelled the flag’s silhouette on his 24-year-old son, who was on leave from the Marines and looking gaunt while getting over hepatitis. Heisley also penned the words that are stitched on the banner, “You are not forgotten.” As Heisley told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997, the flag “was intended for a small group. No one realised it was going to get national attention.”

It took nearly a decade, but the POW/MIA flag began getting attention in a big way in the early 1980s. In 1982 it became the only flag, other than the Stars and Stripes, to fly over the White House, after it was first displayed there on POW/MIA Recognition Day. In 1989 the flag was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. It also has the distinction, historians and flag experts believe, of being the only non-national flag that any federal government anywhere in the world has mandated to be flown regularly. That began with a 1990 law to recognise the POW/MIA flag and designate the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

If any good came out of American involvement in the Vietnam War, it was that both hawks and doves now agree that the troops of that war were treated poorly when they returned home. The early 1970s saw many protests against the war on college campuses and in the nation’s largest cities. Many antiwar activists lacked the maturity to distinguish between the government that “made” war and those sent to fight it. A student organisation that understood the difference was Voices in Vital America (VIVA), a Los Angeles–based group formed in the 1960s to counteract campus antiwar protests. In 1970 VIVA member Carol Bates Brown, who was in the California chapter, started an initiative to promote awareness of prisoners of war by making and selling metal POW bracelets engraved with the name, rank, service branch and date of loss. VIVA distributed nearly 5 million bracelets, selling them for $2.50 to $3 apiece and raising enough money to purchase untold millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks, newspaper ads and the like to draw attention to the missing service personnel.

One one such bracelet was inscribed “SFC Billy R. Laney, USA, 6-3-67, LAOS.” Billy Ray Laney was born on Aug. 21, 1939, in Blanch, Alabama. He married in 1958 and had three children. Laney joined the Navy in October 1956 and served until Aug. 2, 1960. The next day, he joined the Army. By February 1967 his principal duty was operations and intelligence specialist. Laney was a Special Forces member of an organisation set up by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and called the Studies and Observation Group. MACV-SOG, or simply SOG, was a covert operations group that incorporated units from all branches of the military, including Navy SEALs, Air Force special operations squadrons, Marine Corps reconnaissance units and Army Special Forces troops, the famed Green Berets. Laney was in the Command and Central Detachment, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces.

In June 1967 Laney was part of a Strategic Air Command/SOG operation that targeted the North Vietnamese Army in an area code-named “Oscar-8,” a rugged, jungle-covered mountainous region in eastern Laos about 12 miles southeast of Khe Sanh. That area was the source of more than 1,500 National Security Agency radio intercepts in one 24-hour period. The rise in radio transmissions intended for Hanoi high command led SOG to believe NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap was paying a visit to Oscar. Oscar-8 was the absolute headquarters of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It contained the largest supply warehouse for NVA outside Hanoi and was a critical transportation area. The objective of the Oscar-8 operation was to kill Giap and all other enemy forces along the way using the Strategic Air Command and SOG.

First, B-52s would drop 900 high-explosive bombs onto the target area. Within 15 minutes of the last bombing, Marine CH-46 helicopters would drop off an 80-man SOG commando unit, called a Hatchet Force, consisting of Americans and Nung tribesmen, to assess the situation and gather intelligence. “The actual defensive position and helicopter-landing zone consisted of a very large bomb crater,” according to a July 3 memo from the Marine Aircraft Group, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “It would only accommodate a single aircraft, so the CH-46s had to go in one at a time.”

Laney landed on June 2 with SOG forces on the first transport copter, piloted by Major Richard E. Romine. But a mistake in timing authorised the insertion before a command helicopter could sweep the target zone for an initial assessment. Consequently, the commando unit found itself surrounded and under attack. “The B-52 bombing had done significant damage, but it clearly had not destroyed the NVA defences,” said an observer, who was at the target area in a fixed-wing aircraft when the Hatchet Force troops and chopper crews loaded at Khe Sanh.

That night Laney and the SOG force hunkered down and waited for a possible pickup. After a tactical airstrike at dawn on June 3, three CH-46s came to get the unit. Romine, the flight leader, flew the first Marine copter in. “Upon being reassured that the surrounding enemy was neutralised by airstrikes, I decided to make the entry into the landing zone after briefing my flight to take sufficient interval so that I could assess the situation prior to their approach into the zone,” he said in a July 3 report from the Marine Aircraft Group to the Marine Corps commandant.

The major managed to pick up eight Nungs but had trouble when he tried to lift out of the bomb crater landing zone. “Almost immediately the number two engine quit,” he reported. “I managed to make a controlled crash approximately 150 feet from my objective, sometime after being hit and before I crashed,” Romine added, “I broadcast a mayday and informed the flight to break off and not attempt the extraction at that time.”

The other rescue helicopters did not hear the transmission, however, “for reasons unknown to myself,” Romine reported. The No. 2 helicopter successfully retrieved a group of soldiers, mostly from a Nung platoon, but encountered automatic-weapons fire and was hit several times. The No. 3 helicopter, piloted by Captain Stephen P. Hanson, also attempted a troop pickup.

Hanson’s CH-46 loaded 15 passengers, including Laney and SOG sergeants Ronald J. Dexter and Charles F. Wilklow. As the chopper took off, however, Hanson unknowingly turned into the heaviest concentration of NVA forces. “We began to receive fire as soon as we lifted off,” Wilklow said, “and it became more intense.” The aircraft veered out of control, broke in half and landed about 4½ feet above the ground, suspended by jungle foliage.

The door gunner, Lance Cpl. Frank E. Cius, was able to get off a few hundred rounds from his machine gun before the impact, which knocked him on his back. Dexter, Wilklow and a couple of Nungs were in good enough shape to engage the North Vietnamese. Laney was wounded in the back before they got on the chopper, according to Wilklow. After the crash, “I noticed SFC Laney under a seat,” he said. “He had a badly broken ankle in addition to his previous wound. When I started to examine him, he said, ‘Please don’t touch me.’ I don’t recall seeing or hearing any more from him after that.”

Out of ammunition and shot in the leg, Wilklow crawled away from the wreckage, looking for Dexter, and passed out. Unknown to him, Dexter, Cius and nine of the Nungs had formed a perimeter about 200 meters from the downed aircraft. Enemy fire continued after the crash with heavy streams of bullets coming in the helicopter windows.

From the next morning, June 4th, until late in the afternoon, gunships and fixed-wing aircraft pummelled Oscar-8 in preparation for additional troop pickups and resupply attempts, which continued late into the day. Dexter, Cius and the Nungs had been forced away from the area, and reconnaissance overflights the next day failed to reveal any survivors at Oscar-8, so further extraction efforts were called off.

Billy Ray Laney was officially reported as missing in action on June 3. Other reports indicate that Dexter, Cius and the Nungs were captured on June 5th. Wilklow, who had crawled away from the landing zone with an injured leg, was also captured and wound up in an NVA base camp but escaped on the fourth day. The next day, against all odds, Wilklow was spotted by Waugh, on an airborne observation mission, and rescued.

“The raid on Oscar-8 had been a disaster,” wrote Robert Gillespie in his book Black Ops Vietnam: An Operational History of MACVSOG. “Seven aircraft had been shot down. Twenty-three Americans—SOG team members, USAF pilots and Marine helicopter crewmen—were lost, along with about 50 of the Nung raiders.”

By all accounts, including those from NVA personnel, Sergeant Dexter died in captivity on July 29, 1967. Marine Corporal Cius was released on March 5, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. He now lives in New York and is very active in veterans issues. Sergeant Wilklow’s son told me that his father died in July 1992 after a long fight with cancer.

On March 20, 1978, following a review of Laney’s missing person’s status, the Army made a determination to change his status from missing in action, June 3, 1967, to dead, as of March 20. Sergeant Laney’s remains were recovered later from the Laos crash site and positively identified through DNA testing in 1999, as were those of Captain Hanson, who also died on the ground in Laos. On Oct. 5, 2000, Laney’s remains were returned to Alabama, and there was a grand ceremony in Huntsville, where his widow and children and an assembly of country music stars, politicians, veterans and many others paid homage to him.

A memo was sent from MACV to the 5th Special Forces Group commanding officer, dated June 28, 1967—just 25 days after Oscar-8—informing him that the MIA Board had made a determination that Laney’s status be changed from MIA to KIA as a result of hostile action. This, for reasons unknown, was never done. In the interim, Laney’s wife and parents were provided with practically no information. His wife even received a Postal Authorisation Card in 1972 permitting her to send a Christmas package to her husband.

Even though the Oscar-8 operation has been labeled a failure by some, had this Special Forces operation succeeded in its objective to kill General Giap, it can be argued that North Vietnam’s military would have been totally disrupted. The war might have ended sooner, saving more than 38,000 American lives lost in the Vietnam conflict in the following six years.

On August 2nd, 1943, CBS War Correspondent Eric Sevareid and a small group of American diplomats and Chinese army officers climbed aboard a Curtiss C-46 Commando transport plane at a U.S. Army Air Forces base in Chabua, India. Sevareid wanted to report firsthand on an ongoing mission to get gasoline and other supplies to China in support of Chiang Kai-shek, whose forces were fighting the Japanese. The USAAF’s brand-new Air Transport Command had been struggling to run the most audacious and dangerous airlift operation ever attempted—flying “the Hump,” over the foothills of the Himalayas—and Sevareid wanted to report on the operation.

China had gone to war with Japan in 1937, but by the time the United States entered the Pacific War, Japan had sealed off China from any source of supply. Its ports had been conquered, and the last rail connection with the Soviet Union, a distant and pitiful lifeline, had been closed in 1941 by a Soviet-Japanese neutrality treaty. The infamous Burma Road lasted a while longer, but when the Japanese captured the port of Rangoon, the Burma Road was left with no supplies to carry.

Flying over Burma (today, Myanmar) - a 261,000-square-mile swath of mostly mountainous terrain the size of Texas—was the only way.

As the C-46 climbed high above the Patkoi Range, the aircraft that pilots had dubbed “the flying coffin” suddenly lost its left engine, and it soon became clear that the plane was going to crash. “I stood in the open door of that miserable Commando and declared, ‘Well, if nobody else is going to jump, I’ll jump,’” John Paton Davies, one of the American diplomats, later wrote. “Somebody had to break the ice.”

Sevareid followed Davies, but only after grabbing a bottle of Carew’s gin. He and 19 other men landed in the jungle—the C-46’s copilot did not survive—near a village that was home to a notorious tribe of headhunters, the Nagas, who, amazingly, hosted and fed them until help arrived 22 days later. Most likely because of the VIPs aboard the flight, intensive search-and-rescue efforts were mounted, including parachuting a flight surgeon to the marooned party. That was the beginning of serious search and rescue along the Hump routes. Before “the Sevareid flight,” crews and occasional passengers were pretty much on their own in the Burmese jungles and mountains.

On their 80-mile trek back to civilisation, a native guide explained the Hump to Sevareid in a way that perfectly encapsulated its astonishing expanse: “India there,” he said, pointing in one direction, and then, pointing in the other, “China there.”

The Second Sino-Japanese War occupied the attention of 1,250,000 Japanese troops stationed in Southeast Asia and China itself. It was a huge commitment by the Japanese, but they faced a Chinese force of more than three million. That Chinese army did little—the war had essentially become a stalemate—but was nonetheless a threat, and that meant those million and a quarter Japanese soldiers couldn’t be sent to Guadalcanal or anywhere else in the South Pacific. President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that Chiang Kai-shek, the supreme commander of most of China’s army—Mao Zedong led the rest—was his guy, and Chiang needed American support.

Roosevelt imagined a superpower role for China after the war, and he wanted to be on good terms with the generalissimo. Chiang kept demanding more supplies, and Roosevelt kept sending them, at least until he became increasingly disenchanted with the Chinese Nationalist dictator.

But was that really the reason for flying some 500 to 560 miles over the Hump? To supply the Chinese and keep them in the war, thus pinning down all those Japanese troops? That has been the popular explanation for decades, but it is far from the whole story.

The Hump was a myth in many ways. Even the description “over the Himalayas” stretches the truth, for none of the several Hump routes overflew mountains that were technically part of the Himalayas. Yes, some of them crossed the Patkai and Santung Ranges, which forced a minimum cruising altitude of 15,000 feet, especially when flying by instruments in poor visibility, and that left no margin in the event of an engine failure in a twin-engine C-46 Commando or Douglas C-47 Skytrain or even a four-engine Consolidated C-87/C-109 Liberator Express. The Himalayas, though, were part of what percolated the extreme weather and jetstream-strength winds that were the routes’ severest challenges.

The flood of memoirs, war stories, and reminiscences from members of the Hump Pilots Association (some 5,000 at its peak) was unequaled among such postwar alumni groups, and its annual conventions seemed to increase the significance of the feats they reported. “Every time we meet,” one former Hump pilot recalled, “the Himalaya Mountains get higher, the weather gets worse, and there are more Japanese fighters in the sky than there were in the whole fleet.”

The men who flew the Hump were near the bottom of the Army Air Force food chain; indeed, ATC, the abbreviation for Air Transport Command, was often said to mean “Allergic to Combat” or “Army of Terrified Copilots.” Those terrified copilots got little respect during the war but made sure the world heard about their exploits afterward. Inevitably, some of what they broadcast was myth and much was exaggeration. That said, they operated overloaded airplanes, some of them mechanically flawed and poorly maintained with no source of spares, and did it in the world’s worst instrument-flying weather.

Westerly winds sometimes reached 150 miles an hour (typically inflated by pilots in later years to 200 and even 250), and 115 miles an hour was not unusual. A trip in a C-47 from China back to India could see ground speeds of 30 miles an hour, according to some Hump reminiscences, and pilots cruising at 16,000 feet might find their aircraft carried uncontrollably to 28,000 feet, then suddenly back down to 6,000. The weather was at its worst from February to April, with fierce thunderstorms and heavy icing. May to September was monsoon season with even worse thunderstorms. October and November meant good weather, which brought out Japanese fighter planes, and December and January brought heavy winds, turbulence, and icing.

It didn’t help that Hump route charts were outdated and inaccurate, with many exaggerated height callouts. Some Hump pilots went to their graves believing they had seen a mysterious mountain taller than Everest—a peak of 32,000 feet looming far above them when they suddenly broke out of clouds into the clear. Sometimes the media were responsible for the exaggeration, for journalists everywhere knew that if they needed colourful copy, all they had to do was sign on for a Hump run.

IN THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE HUMP, before Pearl Harbor, the route was flown not by the U.S. military but by an airline: CNAC, the China National Aviation Corporation, a cooperative endeavour between the Chinese government and Pan American Airways. Its pilots—mostly expatriate Americans and Brits flying Douglas DC-3s, some of them U.S.-provided—were the best mountain pilots in the Far East, and their skill and experience showed when the Army Air Force Ferry Command (ATC’s predecessor) began to fly the route in 1942. CNAC aircraft often carried more than double the tonnage that their Army Air Forces partners felt safe hauling aboard identical aircraft. The experienced CNAC pilots initially made flying the Hump look easy, but nobody yet realised that future operations would be flown by ill-trained newbies with no mountain- or weather-flying hours.

The Ferry Command’s early pilots were also skilful, though they lacked relevant experience flying over such terrain or in such weather. The first 100 were airline pilots who held AAF Reserve commissions. But when Hump tonnage began to build and a substantial fleet of cargo planes had arrived in India, the demand for pilots grew rapidly. AAF flight schools churned out as many as they could, but the best of them chose to fly fighters and fast medium bombers; for a new aviator in his early 20s, glory lay in combat, not in flying freight.

Despite the occasional presence of Japanese fighters, the Hump was officially declared a noncombat operation, with lower pay scales and more demanding rotation-home criteria. The Hump transports were easy but only occasional prey, since Japanese fighters would have to spend time, effort, and gas to find one airplane at a time. In October 1943, the Japanese stationed a swarm of Nakajima Ki-43 Oscars at Myitkyina (pronounced “Mitchinaw”) in northern Burma, tasked to interdict the Hump routes. This worked briefly—four Hump transports were downed—until Lieutenant General Claire Chennault, commander of the famous Flying Tigers, proposed launching a small group of up-gunned B-24s along one route. The Oscars found the Liberators and casually attacked, thinking they were unarmed C-87s, and eight of the Ki-43s were shot down.

Air Transport Command got the least capable flight students from the training classes; many arrived in India with minimal instrument–flying skills, some without multi-engine training. When possible, they were paired for training with airline pilots, many of whom were stunned by their lack of competence. By the end of 1942, 35 percent of the Hump operation’s new pilots showed up in India with just 27 weeks of flight training. During spring 1943, nearly a third of the AAF pilots force-fed to the China-Burma-India Theatre were only single-engine rated.

Even experienced crews got into trouble over the Hump. General Henry “Hap” Arnold was flying the Hump with a hand-picked crew aboard his personal Boeing B-17 in February 1943 when they turned a two-and-a-half-hour trip into a six-hour epic. Befuddled by lack of oxygen, the crew made enough navigation errors to put themselves over Japanese-held territory.

One small category of service pilots, however, were happy to log hours flying modified civilian airliners. After the war they would be at the head of the line leading to the door marked “Airline Captain,” even then a glamorous and well-paid job.

From its inception in early 1942 through the spring of 1943—the U.S.-run operation was what some likened to a civilian flying club run by its pilots. They decided when they would fly, what route they’d take, and how much cargo they’d carry. They were their own schedulers, dispatchers, and weather forecasters, and, not surprisingly, flights were often canceled because of bad weather or the threat of Japanese interception. That lasted until the arrival of Brigadier General Thomas Hardin, a former TWA vice president who took over the Hump command in August 1943. “From now on, there is no weather over the Hump,” he immediately decreed, telling the flying club pilots to suck it up or join the infantry.

Hardin flew the Hump, sometimes solo and regardless of the weather, in a worn-out North American B-25 medium bomber that he had somehow appropriated, and he arrived unannounced at the various ATC bases in India and China with his hair on fire, sacking and reassigning officers whenever he found laxity and incompetence. Hardin came to be feared and respected by the most aggressive of his pilots and hated by the malingerers. He asked more of his aircraft, maintainers, and crews than anyone had imagined was possible, and he was responsible for demanding and getting record tonnage delivered to China—first 10,000 tons a month, then almost 24,000.

Hardin was also responsible for a terrible Hump safety record; he admitted that setting new tonnage-delivered records was more important than bothersome safety procedures. During just one seven-month stretch during his tenure, there were 135 major accidents and 168 crew fatalities, half of them night-flying crashes. Hardin had initiated after-dark flying over the Hump, saying “airplanes don’t need to sleep.” At one point, every thousand tons flown into China cost three American lives. Hardin lasted just 13 months and was replaced by another brigadier general, William Tunner. Tunner would become famous as the orchestrator of the 1949 Berlin Airlift.

Under Hardin, Hump pilots were allowed to rotate home after logging 650 hours. A typical flight took about three hours in good weather, and some crews flew three missions a day in order to build hours as fast as they could, flying some 2,000 demanding hours a year—twice the amount that the Federal Aviation Administration today allows airline pilots to log annually. And, not surprisingly, tired crews crashed. Tunner changed the deal to 750 hours and a minimum of 10 months in theatre. Morale suffered some, since living in fetid accommodations at bases in India for almost a year was a cruel sentence, but safety improved.

Initially there was the indomitable Douglas C-47/C-53, the two military versions of the DC-3. Pilots called it “the rocking chair of the air” because it was so easy to operate, but the early-1930s design had limitations. It was difficult to load with bulky cargo, struggled to reach operational Hump altitudes, and carried a relatively small load.

Along came the Curtiss C-46 Commando, a whale of an airplane that carried 70 percent more cargo than a C-47 and boasted two of the finest and most powerful piston aircraft engines ever produced: 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R2800 radials. The C-46 could munch mountains for breakfast, but it was deeply flawed. Still under development as a pressurised airliner, the military Commando was hastily sent to India when it should remained in testing. At one point, a group of early C-46s was returned with a list of more than 700 major and minor glitches that needed correcting before further production.

The C-46’s biggest fault was tiny leaks in wing fuel tanks and lines. Such leaks weren’t unusual among complex multi–engine airplanes, but in the Commando, they were fatal. Curtiss had failed to vent the juncture between wing and fuselage, so the gasoline pooled there instead of quickly evaporating. Random fuel-pump sparks caused 20 percent of all Hump C-46s to explode in flight. (Wing roots weren’t vented until after the war.)

In an attempt to turn a bomber into a cargo plane for the Hump routes, Consolidated Aircraft put a flat floor in its B-24, removed the guns and bomb racks, and called the result the C-87 Liberator Express. But the B-24 had been designed to carry a stable load in a small area on the airplane’s center of gravity: bombs in fixed, vertical bomb racks. When Hump crews flew C-87s randomly loaded with a variety of cargoes, few ever found a sweet spot where the airplane felt comfortable, stable, and in trim.

The army also tried to turn the B-24 into a Hump tanker, dubbed the C-109, with big flexible bags full of gasoline in the hold. It was difficult to land at the 6,000-foot-high airfields in China and soon acquired the name Cee-One-Oh-Boom. One C-109 blew a tire on landing, exploded, and wiped out three other Liberator Expresses. In his book Flying the Hump, ex-China-Burma-India pilot Otha C. Spencer wrote, “All the pilots on the base wished [it] had wrecked the whole fleet.”

It was the arrival of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster in February 1944 that turned the Hump operation into the largest, most efficient airline in the world. The Skymaster was the militarised version of the DC-4, the first large, four-engine American airliner, and it had the cargo volume of a railroad boxcar. The C-54 didn’t have the high-altitude performance to fly the “High Hump” routes, but in May 1944 British and American forces captured the Japanese fighter strip at Myitkyina, thus eliminating any opportunity for the Japanese to interdict the less extreme “Low Hump” routes. The C-54 did quite nicely at 12,000 feet and carried far more cargo per trip than even the porky Curtiss Commando. It was also safer than its four-engine predecessor, the Liberator Express, and its tanker version, whose accident rate was 500 percent higher than the C-54’s.

By early 1943, U.S. brass hats, including AAF chief Hap Arnold, were beginning to doubt the value of the Hump operation. Arnold felt the airlift could certainly be ramped up to accomplish what it had set out to do, but he saw little point in spending lives, material, and effort simply to sustain the will of the Chinese. Many felt that Chiang was husbanding his acquired supplies for use against Mao, not the Japanese.

That was a turning point for the Hump operation. Under the cover of aiding China, the ATC program quickly changed course to become the major source of supplies for the Twentieth Air Force, which was planning to bomb Japan with its B-29s from Chinese airbases. China had now become a launch pad, no longer of interest as a postwar partner. But ultimately, the Twentieth flew just nine Boeing B-29 missions from China against the Home Islands before it moved to huge airfields in the Marianas. The postwar Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that those few missions “did little to hasten the Japanese surrender or justify the lavish expenditures poured out on their behalf through a fantastically uneconomic and barely workable supply system.” For every four gallons of avgas delivered to the Twentieth, Hump transports burned three and a half.

Still, during 1944 the Hump flights grew exponentially in terms of tonnage, organisation, and operational sophistication. They became quite simply the world’s biggest international airline—750 aircraft and more than 4,400 pilots. Between August 1944 and October 1945, the Hump delivered almost 500,000 tons of material from India to China. Chiang got less than 20,000 tons of it—three pounds of every 100 that crossed the Hump. The Twentieth Air Force got gasoline and ordnance; Chiang all too often got wine, decorative shrubbery for his house, Ping-Pong tables, office supplies, condoms, and such.

Roosevelt died in April 1945, and his successor, Harry Truman, shared little of his warmth toward Chiang; nor did Truman believe that Nationalist China would play an important postwar role. China quickly became a decidedly minor player in Allied strategy. The Hump operation showed that a substantial amount of cargo could be airlifted anywhere, under the worst flying conditions, as long as those in charge were willing to pay the price in men, aircraft, and money. What it didn’t prove was that such an undertaking was useful. As a logistics operation, the Hump flights were a failure. The cost in aircraft and crews was enormous. Loss estimates vary between 468 and 600-plus airplanes (the AAF did not record every crash), but the best one seems to be 590 aircraft lost with 1,314 crewmen. General George C. Marshall felt the Hump had negative value: “The over-the-Hump airline has been bleeding us white in transport airplanes….The effort over the mountains of Burma bids fair to cost us an extra winter in the main theatre of war.”

In the end, the Hump had much to do with establishing the United States as the world’s airline leader. The War Department bought over 1,000 C-54s, 3,000 C-46s, and 10,000 C-47s—and many of them were sold as surplus to become American airliners after hostilities ended. The United States began the postwar period with the airplanes, the pilots, and the air-transport management skills to build a worldwide airline system, all developed at least in part by flying the Hump.

The United States Coast Guard is the United States oldest and premier maritime agency. The history of the Service is very complicated because it is the amalgamation of five Federal agencies. These agencies, the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation, and the Lifesaving Service, were originally independent, but had overlapping authorities and were shuffled around the government. They sometimes received new names, and they were all finally united under the umbrella of the Coast Guard. The multiple missions and responsibilities of the modern Service are directly tied to this diverse heritage and the magnificent achievements of all of these agencies.

The Coast Guard, through its forefathers, is the oldest continuous seagoing service and has fought in almost every war since the Constitution became the law of the land in 1789. Following the War of Independence (1776-83), the Continental Navy was disbanded and from 1790 until 1794, when Congress authorised the construction of six frigates (of which only three were launched by 1797), the revenue cutters were the only national maritime service. The Acts establishing the Navy also empowered the President to use the revenue cutters to supplement the fleet when needed. Laws later clarified the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Navy.The Coast Guard has traditionally performed two roles in wartime. The first has been to augment the Navy with men and cutters. The second has been to undertake special missions, for which peacetime experiences have prepared the Service with unique skills.

Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the Coast Guard carried out neutrality patrols as set out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 5 September 1939. The Coast Guard's fleet of cutters and craft first began sailing into harm's way on the Atlantic after the establishment of the Neutrality Patrol in 1939 and then into real danger escorting convoys in 1941, all prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Direct action with the German Navy soon followed. The USS Alexander Hamilton, CG fell victim to a U-boat's torpedo in January, 1942, becoming the first US warship lost in combat in the Atlantic after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cutters countered and quickly drew blood, sinking three U-boats off the East Coast in 1942. Coast Guardsmen on board the cutter Icarus, which sank U-352, gained the distinction of being the first U.S. servicemen to take German prisoners of war.

The cutters themselves, most of which had been constructed between the wars, were designed to have additional armament added in case of national emergency. The Navy added this additional armament beginning in 1940, including more and heavier guns, depth charge tracks, "Y" and "K" guns, additional anti-aircraft weaponry, and sonar equipment. After the start of the war, cutters were some of the first Allied vessels fitted with newly developed electronic gear, such as high-frequency radio direction finders, known as HF/DF or "huff-duff," and surface and air search radars.

On April 9, 1941, Greenland was incorporated into a hemispheric defence system. The Coast Guard was the primary military service responsible for these cold-weather operations, which continued throughout the war. On September 12 the cutter Northland took into "protective custody" the Norwegian trawler Buskoe and captured three German radiomen ashore. This was the United States' first naval capture of World War II. Although most of the 327s were initially assigned to duty in Greenland, but their exposed propellers were easily damaged by ice. Consequently they were assigned as convoy escorts on the North Atlantic. Later, they escorted convoys across the mid-Atlantic, past Gibraltar, and through the Mediterranean to North Africa. After their distinguished service in the Battle of the Atlantic, the surviving 327s were converted to amphibious force flagships and served during some of the most intense battles of the Pacific Theatre.

If any battle marked the turning point of World War II in the Pacific, most experts agree that the six-month land, sea and air battle for Guadalcanal was the one. American naval strategists drew a line in the sand at Guadalcanal because enemy aircraft flying from that island could cut-off Allied supply lines to Australia.

During the Guadalcanal offensive, the U.S. Coast Guard served an important role through its specialties in maritime transport, amphibious landing and small boat operations. On ‘the Canal,’ the Coast Guard worked seamlessly with its USN and USMC counterparts and, for the first time in its history, commanded and manned a U.S. Naval Operating Base, or NOB. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dwight Hodge Dexter commanded NOB “Cactus,” the code name for Guadalcanal’s naval base. At its peak, NOB Cactus included about thirty LCPs, also known as Higgins Boats, and a dozen bow-ramped tank lighters. About 50 officers and enlisted men manned the operation, which included an odd collection of coconut plantation buildings, homemade shacks and tents; and log-reinforced dugout shelters for surviving air raids, naval bombardment and artillery shelling.

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1942, exactly eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first American amphibious operation of World War II was about to begin. The cloud cover of the previous days and circuitous voyage from Wellington, New Zealand, had hidden the invasion fleet’s movements from enemy aircraft and submarines, so Japanese forces on Guadalcanal received no forewarning of an impending attack. The fleet entered Sealark Channel near the landing beaches and front line warships began shore bombardment of enemy positions on the island. The waves of Marines coming ashore greatly outnumbered the combined strength of Japanese military forces and civilian construction personnel responsible for building the enemy’s new airfield. The Japanese beat a hasty retreat from their shore positions into the jungles of Guadalcanal. Within a day of the landings, the Americans had captured the partially completed airstrip and established a defensive perimeter around the airbase.

Dexter was a natural leader who was devoted to his crew. When the enlisted men on board troop transport Hunter Liggett heard that he would command Guadalcanal’s small boat operations, several volunteered to serve with him. On Aug. 8, 1942, Dexter came ashore with the first 24 Coast Guardsmen to serve at NOB Cactus. He set up his headquarters in the former manager’s house for the Lever Brothers coconut plantation, which was located within the Marine’s defensive perimeter at Kukum, east of Lunga Point. The white frame structure was in good condition considering the naval bombardment that had softened up the beaches the day before. Near Dexter’s headquarters, his men built a small tool shed for servicing their landing craft and machinery. They also built a signal tower out of coconut logs and a makeshift shelter located underneath it built of packing crates with a tent roof. This shelter housed Coast Guard heroes, including signalman Douglas Munro, later recipient of the Service’s only Congressional Medal of Honor, and Ray Evans, later recipient of the Navy Cross. The rest of Dexter’s men had similar shelters or tents, but all lived close to the log-reinforced bomb shelters.

NOB Cactus held a variety of titles. In the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the First Marine Division, Reinforced, the added word “Reinforced” refers to the Coast Guard unit. NOB Cactus also formed part of Transport Division 7 and it had the moniker of “Local Defense Force and Anti-Submarine Patrol, Guadalcanal-Gavutu.” These names indicate the variety of missions carried out by Dexter’s unit. NOB Cactus served primarily to run supplies and troops from transport ships to the beaches of Guadalcanal, but Dexter’s men and landing craft performed far more missions than merely supplying the troops. They provided an important radio and communications link between land forces and offshore vessels. They navigated the waters of Guadalcanal and islands as far distant as 60 miles to land Marines and retrieve them when necessary. They inserted reconnaissance teams led by British Colonial Forces officers behind enemy lines. In the aftermath of aerial dogfights above and naval battles on the surface of nearby Iron Bottom Sound, NOB watercraft took to open water to retrieve wounded Americans and Japanese prisoners. For a time, NOB personnel fitted their landing craft with depth charges and conducted nightly anti-submarine patrols. Coast Guard personnel also pitched-in to defend American positions by serving artillery pieces and providing infantry support. The men even trawled off the beaches, catching fresh fish to supplement the meagre menu of Marines at the local mess hall.

The men of NOB Cactus used the dugout bomb shelters frequently due to aerial bombing, naval shelling and artillery bombardment that took place on a regular basis. Under cover of darkness, Japanese naval units from their base at Rabaul, New Britain, regularly attacked Guadalcanal and its defending Allied warships. The men on the Canal also suffered through daily air attacks, which tore up the airfield and prevented transports from lingering off the beaches for any length of time. In fact, Dexter maintained a captured Japanese three-barrelled machine gun, referred to by a British observer as a “Chicago piano,” to defend against air attacks. During the initial stages of the campaign, enemy artillery and sniper fire also hounded the men at NOB Cactus. The Japanese had salvaged a deck gun from one of their grounded ships and mounted it in the jungle highlands commanding the airfield. Nicknamed “Pistol Pete” by the Americans, the Japanese used this gun to lob several rounds per day at American positions until an American air attack finally silenced the gun. After dark, the Japanese also sent aircraft over Guadalcanal to bomb the Marines and prevent them from enjoying more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Due to the constant shelling and bombing, the NOB Cactus crew aptly named their nearby lagoon, “Sleepless Lagoon.”

Dexter’s men and landing craft kept critically needed supplies flowing to the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photo.

Dexter’s men and landing craft kept critically needed supplies flowing to the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. During his command of NOB Cactus, Dexter made sure his men had plenty of food and supplies and trained them in air raid drills, digging foxholes and the use of slit trenches for cover. One of the men later wrote about Dexter, “I felt I could stand the bombings, shellings and artillery so long as he was there. He gave us the feeling of safety that only good officers can give to their men.”

In the condolence letter to Coast Guard Medal of Honor recipient Douglas Munro’s parents, Dexter referred to Munro as “one of my boys.”

Like many who served in the early part of the Guadalcanal campaign, Dexter contracted malaria. In November 1942, when the disease finally got the best of him, Dexter rotated back to the United States. He had earned the respect and admiration of those who served under him at NOB Cactus. Some of his men broke down and cried when he finally announced he was redeploying for home. The Navy awarded Dexter the Silver Star Medal for his command of NOB Cactus.

His medal citation aptly concludes, “By his courage in the face of great hardship and danger, he set an example which was an inspiration to all who served with him.”

When Dexter departed Guadalcanal, the battle had entered its fourth month, but by then the Americans had become experienced jungle fighters and secured their position on the island. The defeat of Japanese forces on the Canal appeared assured by late 1942 as elements of the U.S. Army relieved the malaria-ridden First Marine Division. In early 1943, commander of U.S. forces on Guadalcanal, US Army General Alexander Patch declared the island secured of all Japanese military forces.

Guadalcanal was a killing field that consumed thousands of men, hundreds of aircraft and dozens of front line warships. Even though the U.S. Navy had triumphed earlier in 1942 at the pivotal naval battle at Midway, the struggle for Guadalcanal proved the first true test of all branches of the American military against determined enemy forces within Japanese-held territory. After Guadalcanal, the Allies would remain on the offensive for the rest of the war and the Japanese would fight a lengthy retreat all the way back to their home islands.

Dexter returned to the States having lived through a lifetime’s worth of vivid and often horrific experiences. For the remainder of the war, he rose through the officer ranks at bases within the United States. His post-war assignments included a tour in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had lived as a child. He also served as commander of the high-endurance cutter Dexter, which is unrelated to his family. In September 1959, he retired from the Service as a rear admiral, after a 35-year career. Dexter was a member of the long blue line and served in the Coast Guard with distinction both in combat and in peacetime.


On November 21, 1970, at the U.S. Air Force base at Udorn, Thailand, helicopters carrying a force of 56 U.S Army Special Forces personnel led by Col. Arthur 'Bull' Simons took off into the blackness of the night sky. Those aboard had been training secretly for months and were ready to execute Operation Kingpin, the final phase of a daring plan–the rescue of American prisoners of war from the North Vietnamese prison camp at Son Tay. They were supported by 29 USAF aircraft and 92 flight crew on the direct raid and a total of 105 aircraft including supporting roles.

The US Intelligence committee had determined that the Son Tay camp was being enlarged to handle additional prisoners and confirmed that 55 American POWs were imprisoned there. Reconnaissance photographs also revealed the letters SAR (search and rescue), spelled out by what appeared to be the prisoners’ laundry, and an arrow with the number 8 next to it, indicating the distance the POWs had to travel to the fields where they worked.

Preparation for the mission was conducted in four phases and culminated in 170 rehearsals. The challenge was to ensure that Air Force search and rescue crews could operate with Army Special Forces. Brig Gen Leroy J. Manor (USAF) was selected as the overall mission commander, while Col Arthur Simons (USA) would lead the ground forces.

Simon ended up with a little more than 100 volunteers and they went to Eglin Air Force Base, FL. and they built a Son Tay prison, a makeshift camp that could be disassembled daily when the Russian Satellites flew overhead. They practiced this mission 171 times. They had to overcome a bunch of technical things: they had to refresh everybody in land-navigation, basic soldier skills, marksmanship, and hand-to-hand training.

Phase one included personnel selection and movement to training areas. Phase two stressed individual component training during which the Air Force practiced rendezvous, formation, and night mission profiles. During phase three, aerial and ground rescue operations were practiced. Both the Army and Air Force participants rehearsed day and night. Training was conducted first step-by-step and progressed to real-time pacing. The final phase was joint training and mission rehearsal during which procedures were fine-tuned and interoperability of forces assured. The final full rehearsal was conducted 6 November 1970 with the order to execute given on 21 November 1970.

During the planning phase, three alternative plans (green, red, and blue) were developed and practiced during phase three. Plan green was the contingency for loss of the ground force commander's helicopter. Plan red was called if the second support helicopter did not reach Son Tay. Plan blue was the contingency if the compound assault helicopter failed to make its objective. From different locations in Thailand, the forces converged at different points in North Vietnam. The overall plan was for the HC-130 to fly and orbit halfway to the objective while the force was in the area. The MC-130s would rendezvous with A-1Es and helicopters and lead them to the objective. Several problems arose due to the speed limitations of both the fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft, but the intensive training allowed these problems to be overcome. During movement to the objective area, the Navy conducted diversionary attacks on Haiphong Harbour.

During the conduct of the mission, Colonel Simons's helicopter landed at the wrong compound. The remaining force recognised the problem and executed plan green and proceeded to the objective. The raid was not successful in bringing home any American prisoners because they had been moved when the Son Tay River flooded. This forced the prisoners to be moved to a new camp 13 KMs away. Because of the proximity, when the Air Force aircraft were flying over, the American prisoners recognised the sound and thought that America was invading North Vietnam.

A North Vietnamese photo taken inside Son Tay prison after the raid shows the wreckage of the HH-3E helicopter that carried the Blue Boy Assault Team.

The raid succeeded at its technical objective of seizing control of the camp and 26 minutes after the first helicopter crash landed, all US Special Forces were recovered and flying home. One US soldier was wounded in the leg and one broke his ankle in the intentional crash landing. An unknown number of North Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the raid. It is believed that North Vietnamese General Tran BA Thanh was responsible for the failed Son Tay prison raid. He served as a ARVN officer on the South Vietnamese Prime Minister's staff during the war, providing invaluable intelligence to Hanoi.

Despite this, the mission was successful from the joint perspective. Unity of command, strong leadership, mass, and training were the deciding factors in removing the cultural barriers between the services, allowing them to function with speed and flexibility. Many people in the US, particularly congress, criticised it for being another failure. But it wasn't a failure, it saved hundreds of lives. It caused the consolidation of all POWs in Hanoi, permitting them to organise, communicate, and care for one another. Prior to the raid, the prisoners were scattered throughout North Vietnam in these little prisons, kept in isolation, deprived of food, and tortured. Almost immediately following the raid, they were collected into two main prison camps, they were allowed to commingle because hundreds of people in two places can't be separated. They were given food and the torture basically stopped, and the rate of prisoners dying, which was sometimes as often as several a week, stopped. The estimate is that hundreds of lives were saved.

To commemorate the raid, the US Special Operations Command presents the Bull Simons Award. The annual award, named in honour of Col. Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, is given to those embodying the spirit, values and skills of the legendary special forces operator.

Development of Search and Rescue and the creation of a dedicated elite unit that could make the difference between life and death , or freedom and captivity evolved through WWII, Korea and the French Indochina war. It was boosted by the reality of the first losses in Laos and Vietnam during the early stages of the war., when a modified intelligence gathering SC-47 was shot down near Xiang Khouangville (Laos) on 23 March 1961, followed in February 1962 by the loss of a C-123B Ranch Hand airplane in South Vietnam.

Until then, the Air Rescue Service (ARS) had been organised as peacetime rescue units with no proper combat trained crews or aircraft adapted to the highly dangerous missions. In the early years of the US involvement in South East Asia, the World was divided into five rescue regions, each relying on a rescue centre. In December 1961, three officers and two NCOs from PARC (Pacific Area Rescue Centre) were sent to establish a Search and Rescue Centre at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. With the rapid acceleration of the USAF involvement, they were officially established as rescue coordinators. Initially they depended mostly on the Army, Marines and the Vietnamese to fulfil their missions. Rivalry between the services and the fact that the USAF was no match for the Army with the MACV chain of command delayed the development of an Air Force Search and Rescue (SAR) structure in South East Asia. The semi covert aspect of the missions also slowed the introduction of SAR units.

By 1966 a full training programme and military hardware was in place. In February that year, the maroon 'Pararescue' beret was authorised by the Air Force Chief of Staff, General John P McConnell. It was the first time a beret had been approved in the Air Force. It was officially noted that :

'Pararescue personnel are highly trained specialists who perform extremely hazardous duties demanding the very highest degree of mental and physical discipline and thus deserve to wear the distinctive attire consisting of maroon beret, bloused trousers with combat boots and special badge, both on and off base.'

One such Parajumper was Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger. Born in 1944 in Piqua, Ohio, Pitsenbarger was an ambitious only child. He wanted to quit high school to join the U.S. Army Special Forces' "Green Berets," but his parents convinced him to stay in school. After graduating in 1962, Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force. After Air Force basic training, he volunteered for Pararescue work and embarked on a rigorous training program, which included U.S. Army parachute school, survival school, a rescue and survival medical course, and the U.S. Navy's scuba diving school. More Air Force rescue training and jungle survival school followed. His final training was in air crash rescue and firefighting, with assignment to the HH-43 Huskie helicopter.

Arriving in Vietnam in August 1965, Pitsenbarger completed more than 250 missions, including one in which he hung from an HH-43's cable to rescue a wounded South Vietnamese soldier from a burning minefield. This action earned him the Airman's Medal and the Republic of Vietnam's Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm. Pitsenbarger was only 21 years old when he was killed in action. But in his short life and valorous Air Force career, he was an example of dedication, compassion and tenacity for all those with whom he served.

On April 11, 1966, in thick jungle near Saigon, an infantry company on 134 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division (the "Big Red One") was surrounded by a Viet Cong battalion of approximately 500 troops. In a fierce firefight, the North Vietnamese surrounded and pinned down the Americans. As the battle went on, the number of U.S. casualties grew steadily. This would be Pitsenbargers final mission and his actions embodied the pararescueman's motto: "That Others May Live."

Detachment 6 of the USAF's 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron received an urgent call to evacuate the wounded. Army helicopters could not land in the battle zone because there were no clearings in the tall, dense "triple canopy" forest. The tallest trees rose 150 feet, and a second layer stood at about 100 feet, with a third layer below. Only U.S. Air Force HH-43 Huskie helicopters with cables and winches could hoist the injured from the jungle. Airman Pitsenbarger was the rescue and survival specialist aboard "Pedro 73," one of the two Huskies on the mission. The Huskies were to take turns hoisting litters with critically wounded patients through the forest canopy and delivering them to a nearby airfield. Pedro 73's crew, while under fire and hovering in a hole in the forest below the tallest trees and barely large enough for the Huskie, saw that the ground troops desperately needed help loading wounded into the litter. Pitsenbarger volunteered to be lowered to the ground to help. He descended a hundred feet into the firefight with a medical bag, a supply of splints, a rifle and a pistol.

On the ground, Pitsenbarger organised and speeded the evacuation, enabling the Huskies to rescue nine soldiers on several trips. Normally, pararescuemen return to the helicopter, but Pitsenbarger chose to stay and help the beleaguered troops. As the fight continued, Pedro 73 was badly damaged by ground fire and forced to withdraw. Rather than escape with the last Huskie, Pitsenbarger chose to stay on the ground and aid the wounded. Soon the firefight grew too intense for the helicopters to return. Near dusk, as the VC launched another assault, Pitsenbarger fought back with an M-16. Then, he was hit several times as he made his way toward another wounded man. Pitsenbarger was shot four times, once between the eyes, and died on the spot. The next day one of Pitsenbarger’s best friends, Henry J. O’Beirne of Huntsville, Ala., a former Air Force pararescueman who had served with him and been his bunkmate, recovered his body. ‘He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,’ said O’Beirne.

‘He was the bravest man I’ve ever seen, and I saw it all,’ said Martin L. Kroah, Jr., who served two tours in Vietnam, one as a Special Forces officer. Kroah, of Houston, said he remembered Pitsenbarger being lowered through the trees at a time when small-arms fire was' so intense that it was deafening, and all a person could do was get as close to the ground as possible and pray.’ Before long Kroah had been wounded five times and was flat on the ground. ‘On three different occasions I glimpsed movement, and it was Pits dragging somebody behind a tree trunk or a fallen tree, trying to give them first aid,’ he recalled. ‘It just seemed like he was everywhere. Everybody else was ducking, and he was crouched and crawling and dragging people by the collar and pack straps out of danger….I’m not certain of the number of dead and wounded exactly, but I’m certain that the death count would have been much higher had it not been for the heroic efforts of Airman Pitsenbarger.’ Kroah added that the battle was so fierce that his own Army medic was frozen with fear and unable to move and that one of his fire-team leaders, a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War, curled into a fetal position and wept.

‘For Airman Pitsenbarger to expose himself on three separate occasions to this enemy fire was certainly above and beyond the call of duty of any man,’ said Kroah. ‘It took tremendous courage to expose himself to the possibility of almost certain death in order to save the life of someone he didn’t even know….He had a total disregard for his own safety and tremendous courage.’

For the next couple of hours Pitsenbarger crawled through the thick jungle looking for wounded soldiers. He would drag them to the middle of the company’s small perimeter, putting them behind trees and logs for shelter. At one point, said Charles Epperson, of Paris, Mo., Pitsenbarger saw two wounded soldiers outside the perimeter. ‘He said, ‘We’ve got to go get those people,’ and I said, ‘No way. I’m staying behind my tree.’ It was just unbelievable fire coming at us from all sides. But he took off to get those guys, and I could see him trying to get both of them and having a hard time, so I ran out there and helped him drag them inside our lines. He was an inspiration to me,’ said Epperson.

Fred Navarro, who was seriously wounded, said Pitsenbarger saved his life by covering him with the bodies of two dead GIs, shielding him from more bullets. ‘We were getting pounded so bad that I could only lie on the ground for cover. Pitsenbarger continued cutting pant legs, shirts, pulling off boots and generally taking care of the wounded. At the same time, he amazingly proceeded to return enemy fire whenever he could,’ said Navarro, of San Antonio, Texas.

F. David Peters, of Alliance, Ohio, had been in Vietnam only two weeks at the time of the incident. He recalled that he was terrified when he was told to help Pitsenbarger during the firefight. ‘I don’t remember how many wounded were taken out when we started taking small-arms fire,’ said Peters. ‘I remember him saying something to the [helicopter] pilot like, get out of here, I’ll get the next one out. His personal choice to get on the ground to help the wounded is undoubtedly one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen,’ said Peters.

Johnny W. Libs, a seasoned jungle fighter who was leading Company C that day, said he’d never seen a soldier who deserved the Medal of Honor more than Pitsenbarger. He recalled telling one of his machine-gunners, Phillip J. Hall, of Palmyra, Wis., that Pitsenbarger was out of his mind to leave his chopper for ‘this inferno on the ground. We knew we were in the fight of our lives and my knees were shaking, and I just couldn’t understand why anybody would put himself in this grave danger if he didn’t have to.’ Libs, of Evansville, Ind., also said that Pitsenbarger seemed to have no regard for his own safety. ‘We talk about him with reverence. I [had] never met him, but he’s just about the bravest man I have ever known. We were brave, too. We did our job. That’s what we were there for. He didn’t have to be there. He could have gotten out of there. There’s no doubt he saved lives that day.’

Hall said that Pitsenbarger’s descent into the firefight ‘was the most unselfish and courageous act I ever witnessed. I think of him often now,’ he added. ‘That thing never leaves my mind totally. He did actually give up his life for guys on the ground that he didn’t even know. And he didn’t have to be there. I know he made the conscious decision to stay there.’ Salem said that Pitsenbarger had volunteered to go to the ground because the soldiers were having trouble putting a wounded man into the wire basket to be lifted out. The helicopter pilot recalled telling Pitsenbarger that he could leave the chopper only if he agreed that, when given a signal, he would return to the aircraft. ‘As we were [getting in position], I said, ‘Pits, it’s hotter than hell down there; do you still want to go down?’ He said, ‘Yes sir, I know I can really help out.’ He made a hell of a difference. We ended up getting nine more out after he got on the ground. He is the bravest person I’ve ever known,’ Salem said.

For coordinating the successful rescues, caring for the wounded and sacrificing his life while aggressively defending his comrades, William H. Pitsenbarger received the Air Force Cross on June 30, 1966. After review, the original award was upgraded, and on Dec. 8, 2000, the Medal of Honor was presented to his family in a ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Museum. Airman Pitsenbarger is the 59th Medal of Honor recipient.



"Of all the branches of men in the Forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariner.
Great deeds are done in the air and on the land; nevertheless, nothing surpasses your exploits." - Winston Churchill.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of many in the Admiralty at the time when he said in 1901, "Submarines are underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews." In response, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116 in 1914 while in command of HMS E-9. Decades later in 1982, returning from the Falklands conflict HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for the SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano.

During World War Two it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. British submarines fought a deadly battle with their German counterparts during World War Two. The British submarines succeeded in sinking 12 German U-boats, for the loss of 4 of their own to U-boats. British submarine development between the wars owed much to the versatile E-boats built at the start of the Great War. The most notable types were the H and L classes that continued in service until well into the Second World War. The L Boats in particular were well liked by their crews and many successful submarine commanders were trained in them.

It took a certain type of personality to become a Submariner, something still true today. They were considered a different breed to the usual Royal Navy sailor. The 'Perisher' (as the Submarine Command Course is better known) is a 24-week course all officers must take prior to serving as an Executive Officer on board a Royal Navy Submarine. It has been run twice a year since 1917, usually starting on 2 July and 14 November each year. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest command courses in the world, with a historical failure rate of 25%. If at any point during the training a candidate is withdrawn from training he will be nominated for boat transfer and kept occupied until the transfer. His bag is packed for him and he is notified of the failure when the boat arrives. On departure he is presented with a bottle of whiskey. A failure on Perisher means that the unsuccessful candidate is not permitted to return to sea as a member of the Submarine Service (although they are still allowed to wear the dolphin badge). He is, however, permitted to remain in the Royal Navy, moving into the surface fleet. In more recent years, the United States Navy has sent some of its own submariner officers to undergo the 'Perisher', in order to foster and maintain closer links with the Royal Navy.

At some point during World War Two the Submarine Service became known as the 'Silent Service' mostly due to the fact that their missions were covert and went unreported, they were often deployed in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean and accompanying coastlines, sometimes not having enough depth to sneak away after an attack. Not all of their actions were combat based, often their missions would be to drop agents off and pick others up, rescue downed airmen from the clutches of the Axis or carry out intelligence surveys.

In 1939 the Allies primary maritime tasks were based on the assumption Britain and France will go to war against the European Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The Royal Navy will be responsible for the North Sea and most of the Atlantic, with the French contributing some forces. In the Mediterranean, defence will be shared between both these Navies. At the outbreak of War Britain had 58 submarines available, 47 of which could have been considered as up to date. As the war progressed, the Royal Navy and its few Allied-manned submarines neither had the target opportunities of the German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean nor the US submarines in the Pacific, and certainly in the early years suffered heavy losses for comparatively few gains at least in Axis warships. But if account is taken of such vital activities as the heavy merchant ship sinking in the Mediterranean, certainly in the battle for North Africa, the many dangerous cloak-and-dagger operations so vital to Churchill's command to "set Europe alight", helping to cut Germany supply routes from Norway and Japanese ones to Burma, then the even more silent part of the "Silent Service" played a major role in clearing the seas of enemy ships. 73 British submarines were lost in the war, reflecting the difficulties of their operating areas and targets: the well protected German shipping around Northern Europe, the clear and shallow Mediterranean, Malacca Straits and Indian Ocean. A total of over 2000 men lost their lives in service to the country.


The lineage of the term Hell's Angels can be traced back many years, while the famous Californian motorcycle club can undoubtedly find its origination in combat veterans who went on to find camaraderie riding motorcycles together post WWII, the phrase actually originates in this context from a 1930 aviation war movie directed and produced by Howard Hughes. The Hollywood blockbuster starred Ben Lyon, James Hall and Jean Harlow, and centred on the combat pilots of World War I. Despite its initial poor performance at the box office, it eventually earned its production costs twice over. Controversy during the Hell's Angels production contributed to the film's notoriety, including the accidental deaths of several pilots, an inflated budget, a lawsuit against a competitor, and repeated postponements of the release date. Originally shot as a silent film, Hughes retooled the film over a lengthy period. Most of the film is in black and white, but there is one colour sequence—the only colour footage of Harlow's career. Hell's Angels is now hailed as one of the first sound blockbuster action films.

Hell's Angels received its premiere in Hollywood on May 24, 1930. All the stars and makers of the film attended, as well as Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin with his girlfriend Georgia Hale. A program with leather cover was designed for the premiere by famed aviation illustrator Clayton Knight. Reviews were universal in acclaim for the flying scenes but the mundane plot and maudlin characterisations were also noted. The Hell's Angels screening revealed many traits of pre-code Hollywood. In addition to some fairly frank sexuality, there was a surprising amount of adult language (for the time) during the final dogfight sequence, e.g. "son of a bitch", "goddamn it", and "for Christ's sake", along with the words "ass", "hell", and a few uses of "God" in other scenes.

Harlow, Lyon and Hall received mixed reviews for their acting, Hughes was praised for his hard work on the filming and aircraft sequences. Mourdant Hall, reviewer for The New York Times, was especially critical about Harlow's performance, saying, "his film is absorbing and exciting. But while she is the centre of attraction, the picture is a most mediocre piece of work."

Probably the most well known usage of the phrase Hell's Angels in a factual military context can be seen in the USAAF 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), the group was activated on 3 February 1942 at Pendleton Field, Oregon and finally assembled later that year at Molesworth, England, flying its first combat mission on 17th November 1942 with a planned strike at the St. Nazaire submarine pens. Over the months and years that followed, lessons were learned, equipment was improved, and the tale of Hell's Angels "Might in Flight" evolved. First targets were usually airfields and marshalling yards in France and the Low Countries. Several targets in Paris were struck in 1943 and, although it was defended by about 250 flak guns, only one plane was lost in six attacks. The 303rd formations often encountered the 'Abbeville Kids', the yellow-nosed FW 190s flying out of the airfield just north of Abbeville, France. Their attacks were in retaliation to the 303rd's bombing of Abbeville on 10 July 1943. They didn't take kindly to our bombing and took great joy in finding a 303rd BG formation.

Soon, many German targets were hit and, to mention a few, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen were attacked 12 times with only five losses. The transport and industrial centre of Frankfurt was bombed nine times in 1943 and 1944, in which only three aircraft were lost. The 15 August 1944 attack on the Wiesbaden airfield cost the group nine bombers. Cologne rail lines and industry were the targets on 10 missions, including the famous glide bomb attack. The largest marshalling yard in Germany, located at Hamm, was hit six times and its flak defences accounted for two aircraft down. In the later stages of the war, the 303rd bombers struck industrial sites, transportation hubs, and oil refineries at Munich, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Gelsenkirchen, Merseburg, Leipzig, Essen, Schweinfurt. Bremen, Stuttgart, Kiel and Brunswick with increase in efficiency and decreasing losses.

As part of the joint USAAF-RAF objective to eradicate the "buzz bomb" threat, 303rd crews attacked 12 sites between 28 February and 30 August 1944 at altitudes of 12,000 and 14,000 feet. On 11 January 1944, leading the First Division, the 303rd hit Oschersleben, Germany, after most of the 8th Air Force and its fighter escort had aborted due to weather. The devastating strike was the beginning of the end for the German Air Force, but cost 10 aircraft (42 altogether in the First Division). For this valuable contribution to the war effort, the men of the Hell's Angels Group, both air and ground echelons, wear the badge of a Distinguished Unit Citation.

On 6 March 1944, the Group participated in one of the first strikes on Berlin. Later, they carried their bombs as far east as Poland, where one of the most compact bombing patterns of the war destroyed an industrial site. The 303rd was, of course, part of the aerial support on D-Day, 6 June 1944. On that date, the crews flew three separate missions between dawn and dusk in a ground support role rather than a strategic bombing force. Bombing almost around the clock occurred in June when 29 missions and 1000 sorties were flown. In tribute to one of the most famous Flying Fortresses of World War II, 'Hell's Angels' #41-24577, the 303rd Bombardment Group took its name. In the inventory since the Group's beginning, this aircraft was the first heavy bomber in the 8th Air Force to complete 25 missions.

While the 303rd's usage of 'Hell's Angels' is the most well known, the first noted use of the phrase was actually with the 3rd Pursuit Squadron of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). The AVG, more famously known 'The Flying Tigers' were a secret United States military operational entity, authorised and approved by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on 23 December 1940. As part of this covert operation, which had been requested by Claire Lee Chennault (a former USAAC pilot instructor and veteran of the 94th 'Hat in the Ring' squadron during WWI) on behalf of Chaing Kai-Shek and the Chinese government, who had been at war with the Empire of Japan since 1937. The AVG received 100 P-40 fighter aircraft, diverted from a shipment to England. The personnel were recruited from active branches of the War Department: the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Pilots, maintenance, communications, clerical and medical personnel were secretly recruited from active duty units. All documentation, equipment and personnel transfers were processed through and by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), as approved by the US Government. Nothing could then be traced to the United States government, which was not yet in conflict with the Empire of Japan. Chaing Kai-Shek appointed Chennault Commander of the AVG.

The AVG was divided into four elements: a headquarters squadron and three fighter squadrons. Each squadron selected their respective name, which was the custom of the time for military aviation units. The First Pursuit Squadron (1PS) became the Adam & Eve's. The Second Pursuit Squadron (2PS) became the Panda Bears. Chuck Older, Ken Jernstedt, Tom Haywood and Ed Overend, all former USMC pilots, selected the name 'Hell's Angels' for the Third Pursuit Squadron (3PS). Each squadron designed their own squadron insignia. The 'Hell's Angels' opted for a red silhouette of a curvy woman with halo and wings outlined in white. Each Hell´s Angels pilot had his own 'Lady' painted on his individual aircraft and this same insignia is still used today by active United States Army, Marine Corps and Air Force squadrons. During the seven month combat operations of the AVG this unit acquired a record of 297 Japanese aircraft destroyed, as confirmed by British and Chinese Intelligence. Other sources have placed the total Japanese aircraft destruction, caused by the AVG, at well over 600 to 900, including aircraft destroyed on the ground during strafing operations. The AVG was disbanded on 4 July 1942, at which time few accepted returning into the US Army Air Force, most optioned to return to the US where they returned to active service or other war efforts. Chennault continued to command the 14th Air Force in the China Burma India Theatre (CBI). The 14th Air Force all referred to themselves as 'Flying Tigers', even though the real 'Flying Tigers' had been deactivated on 4 July 1942.

According to the lore of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club it was Arvid Olsen, the former Squadron Leader of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron that gave the idea of the name to the actual founders of the HAMC, in Fontana, California in the late 1940's. Although Olsen was never an actual member of the HAMC, he was known to associate with the founding members. The selection of HAMC colours, red on white, could be viewed a result of the association of Olsen with the HAMC founders, like the insignia of the 3PS "Hell's Angels". It is also worth noting that the Deathshead insignia of the HAMC, can also be traced to two USAAF insignia designs, the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron.

It's undoubtably true that the majority of motorcycle and car clubs of the late 1940's were started by WW2 veterans, illustrated by the military clothing worn in many of the periods photographs. Motorcycle and car clubs exploded during this time, especially in California. Various reasons can be attributed to being the catalyst for this - many veterans returned with new mechanical skills and applied this training to making their vehicles go faster and perform better, others missed the camaraderie they found in in the brotherhood of combat and some found it difficult integrating back into society, whatever the reasons, these clubs created a lifestyle and culture that still resonates today.


“The basic specifications for United States aircraft now flying in combat areas were laid down five years or more ago, an indication of the slow process of aeronautical design in peacetime. Germany had a definite plan for employment of its aircraft then under test. So did Japan. So, for different reasons, did the designers in England. A striking proof of their conviction is the Spitfire – a splendid fighter, admirable in all respects for the defence of France and, as it later proved, of England itself.”
US Office of War Information, 1942

When the Eighth Air Force began arriving in England in 1942, it was initially planned that what fighter units would be assigned to it would utilise the Lockheed P-38 Lightning for high-altitude, long-range fighter escort, while the Bell P-39 Airacobra would provide escort for the medium bombers that were coming.

The first P-39 unit to arrive in England was the 31st Fighter Group – the first unit to have taken the Airacobra operational the previous year – though they arrived before their aircraft. In the interim, they were equipped with the Spitfire Mk. V. By the time the similarly-equipped 52nd Fighter Group arrived, the RAF had been able to convince the Americans of the unsuitability of the P-39 for aerial combat in western Europe. As a result, both groups were equipped with Spitfire Mk. Vs.


During the summer of 1942, the 307th and 308th Fighter Squadrons of the 31st Fighter Group went to Biggin Hill and Kenley respectively for temporary attachment to RAF fighter wings where they could receive an introduction to combat. The 309th FS went to Westhampnett, and by August 5, all three units were operational. Their baptism of fire came on August 19, when they flew air support for the Dieppe Raid, losing eight Spitfires and seven damaged, with one pilot killed and another made prisoner; two Fw-190s were claimed destroyed, with three probables and two damaged. With this, the 31st was considered blooded, and was reunited as a group at Westhampnett, while the 2nd and 4th Fighter Squadrons of the 52nd Fighter Group took their places at Biggin Hill and Kenley.

Before either group could have more effect, they were transferred to the XII Air Force that September, as the North African invasion loomed; by late September, both units had left England to enter combat in the Mediterranean. During the opening day of Operation Torch, Major Harrison Thyng, CO of the 308th FS, shot down two Vichy D.520s to open the unit’s score in the Mediterranean Theatre. In December and January, the 52nd Fighter Group entered combat in defence of the port of Bone. On January 13, 1943, 1st Lt. Norman Bolle shot down 114-victory Lieutenant Wilhelm Crinius of II/JG-2. On February 4th, their luck was reversed when 12 Spitfires of the 4th FS escorting ground-strafing P-39s were hit by Kurt Buhligen and Erich Rudorffer of II/JG2, taking down 3 of the Spitfires for no losses. Throughout this period the Americans found themselves frequently outclassed by the flying of JG2 and JG77, sent to counter the North African invasion.

By March 21, the Americans had adopted the more aggressive tactics of the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force, and 36 Spitfires of the 31st FG ran across 17 Ju-87D-3s of III/St.G.3, escorted by Bf-109s and Fw-190s of JG77 and JG2. While the 307th FS held off the fighters, the 309th shot down 4 Stukas and claimed another 4 as probables, for one loss; the following day the 52nd FG claimed 5 Bf-109s, 2 Fw-190s and 2 Ju-88s for one loss – a crash-landing due to flak damage. The two Spitfire units had come into their own.

During April 1943, Captains Norman MacDonald and Arthur Vinson of the 52nd FG became the first USAAF Spitfire aces, though Vinson was lost immediately after shooting down his 7th victim. By the time of the Axis surrender in Africa on May 13, the 52nd FG claimed 86 victories and had added a third ace – Lt. Sylvan Field – while the 31st FG claimed 61, and two aces, Lt Col. Thyng and Major Frank Hill. Hill would become the top US Spitfire ace of the war with 7 victories. In August 1943, the 308th FS of the 31st FG – the group’s most successful squadron – became the first USAAF unit to operate the Spitfire Mk. VIII, the group having had some Mk. IXs in limited operation since the previous April, with enough in each squadron to provide a high cover flight for the Spitfires Mk. Vb. The new Spitfires first saw combat over Palermo, Sicily, on August 8, 1943, when 20 Bf-109s were encountered, of which 3 were shot down. On August 11, the 308th claimed two Fw-190s and a Macchi C.205. There would be additional combat over Italy in late September during the Salerno invasion, and then things quieted down.


By December 1943 the American groups were flying bomber escort in Southern Italy. In January, 1944, 1st Lt. Leland P. Molland, a recent arrival, made the first two of his eventual five scores in the Spitfire Mk. VIII, in combat with Fw-190s intercepting American B-25s escorted by the Spitfires.

The Anzio invasion on January 22, 1944, brought the Luftwaffe out in force once again, and the 31st FG scored against 18 Fw-190 fighter bombers over the beachhead. That evening, Spitfires of the 2nd FS, which had moved to Corsica with the rest of the 52nd FG, intercepted 50-60 He-111 torpedo bombers of KG26 bound from Marseilles to attack the invasion fleet off Anzio, and forced most of the German bombers to drop their torpedoes, while shooting down seven Heinkels and damaging three Ju-88s. The next day, the 4th FS intercepted six Do-217s equipped with Fritz-X bombs and shot down two, scattering the others.

Through the rest of January, both units engaged in numerous combats over the beachhead and as far inland as Rome. On February 6, 308th FS CO Maj. Virgil Fields was shot down and killed. Lt. Molland, who became an ace with his fifth kill in the fight in which Fields was lost, moved up to command the squadron.

By March 21st, the 308th had raised its total score to 62, with 1st Lt. Richard F. Hurd becoming the second highest-scoring US Spitfire ace with 6 victories. On March 11, 1944, the 31st FG had received their first P-51B Mustang. On March 24, the unit was taken off operations to handle full conversion to the Mustang, despite the feelings of many of the pilots that they were being asked to take an inferior airplane to their Spitfire Mk. VIIIs and IXs. On March 26, 1944, the 31st flew their last Spitfire mission, with four Spitfires Mk. VIII of the 308th FS finding 20 Fw-190G fighter bombers, of which they claimed one destroyed and three probables for the group’s last victories in the Spitfire.

The following month, the 52nd Fighter Group followed the 31st into the Mustang and on to the new 15th Air Force, with the last US Spitfire victories being 3 Bf-109Gs shot down of 6 that attacked the Spitfire IXs of the 5th FS of the 52nd FG during a bomber escort to Orvieto, Italy.

Uncle Sam’s Spitfires had written a little-known chapter in US fighter history. Though the USAAF used over 600 Spitfires during the war, the aircraft was never given a US designation, and little publicity was given to the exploits of the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups – nothing like what they would get in the summer of 1944 during the wild air battles over Ploesti when they flew Mustangs. This is most likely a good example of the US military’s overall dislike of having to admit to using “NIH” (Not Invented Here) equipment.

During their time in Spitfires, the 31st FG claimed 194.5 confirmed, 39 probables and 124 damaged; the 52nd claimed 152.33 confirmed, 22 probables and 71 damaged. Thirteen pilots became aces on the Spitfire. Leland Molland went on to score another 6 victories in the summer of 1944 in the P-51 to bring his score to 11. Harrison Thyng added 5 more victories to his 5.5 as CO of the 4th FIW in Korea, while Royal N. Baker, who scored 3.5 in Spitfires added another 13 in Korea.

Article originally published on The Spitfire Site.

On this day 72 years ago the D-Day operations had been ongoing for 24 hours. When remembering the Allied actions of Operation Overlord, much of the focus is of course directed toward the initial invasion and beach assault itself on 6th June, however many days of heavy combat were to follow with ongoing strategic actions and firefights all over Normandy, some of which would become deciding factors of the war.

On Utah Beach most of the actions on D plus 1 were aimed at the destruction of scattered enemy groups which still held positions within the perimeter of the beachhead. There was no front line at the end of D Day, the airborne operations had pocketed sizeable enemy forces which had to be eliminated before communications and supply lines could be secured. This was the task accomplished on 7 June. By the end of that day the VII Corps beachhead had taken more definite shape.

The dawn of D plus 1 confronted the US Army 82d Airborne Division with the unsolved problems of the day before. The La Fiere bridge and Ste. Mere-Eglise remained the critical areas in the western sector. Until 0900 the division continued to be out of touch with higher headquarters. D Day had left all of the division units hard-pressed, and General Ridgway's primary concern was in the arrival of expected tank and infantry reinforcements. At the close of the day he had reported his position, his losses in men and materiel, and his need for artillery, antitank guns, ammunition, and medical supplies. He had stated that he was prepared to continue his mission when reinforcements came. But the communication was one-way and General Ridgway did not even know whether his messages got through.

More fruitful was a D-Day contact by patrol with the 4th Division. Late in the evening Lt. Col. W. F. Winton, assistant G-3, took a patrol northeast in the direction of Beuzeville-au-Plain. He contacted elements of the 12th Infantry and went on south to the division command post at Audouville-la-Hubert. At midnight he talked to General Barton, from whom he obtained for the first time information on the 4th Division. At 0800 the next morning he returned to his own command post with assurance of relief by the 8th Infantry and Colonel Raff's force, the advance elements of the seaborne Howell Force which had tried to break through to the 82d Division the night before.

Between the 82d Airborne Division's main body at Ste. Mere-Eglise and the 8th Infantry at Les Forges the enemy still had a large force, holding the ridge between Fauville and Turqueville and blocking the highway south of Ste. Mere-Eglise. Another enemy force was threatening the 82d Division from the north. The elimination of these enemy forces became the main preoccupation of both the 8th Infantry and the 505th Parachute Infantry on D plus 1.

The 8th Infantry attacked the Turqueville salient on the morning of 7 June, with the objective of establishing contact with the 82d Airborne Division at Ste. Mere-Eglise. The 1st Battalion's attack on Turqueville itself was the first to get under way late in the morning, and succeeded in eliminating the eastern tip of the enemy salient. Turqueville was held by a battalion of Georgians (79th), which initially put up a stiff fight but was finally talked into surrender. During the morning the 4th Division G-l, Lt. Col. Gorlan A. Bryant, Sgt. John Svonchek, and a driver had left the division command post intending to visit the 22d Infantry. They had made a wrong turn at Audouville and had driven west, into the enemy position near Ecoqueneauville, where they were taken prisoner. They were moved to a house south of Turqueville and held there along with twenty-three American parachutists. When it was learned that the enemy unit was Georgian, Sergeant Svonchek, who spoke Russian, persuaded some of them to surrender, and about seventy-five gave up. Then the German captain gave the cease fire order and surrendered at about the same time that the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, was closing in on Turqueville. Upon entering the town the battalion rounded up 174 prisoners.

Meanwhile, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 8th Infantry had attacked northward from their positions in the Les Forges area to link up with the 82d Airborne Division at Ste. Mere-Eglise. The 3rd Battalion advanced astride the highway while the 2nd Battalion attacked toward Ecoqueneauville. As the two battalions reached a creek bed in front of the enemy lines, they received heavy machine-gun and artillery fire from enemy positions along the ridge Fauville-Ecoqueneauville. The 3rd Battalion was held up and had one of the severest fights of these first few days, but as the 2nd Battalion took Ecoqueneauville both battalions continued their advance toward Ste. Mere-Eglise. South of the town, enemy interdiction of the road caused the 2nd Battalion to circle to the east and make an approach to the town from the northeast. But almost immediately after it had established contact with the 505th Parachute Infantry within the town, it was engaged by the enemy north of Ste. Mere-Eglise. The main German position was to the west of the highway. Colonel MacNeely (2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry) and Colonel Vandervoort (2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry) planned a coordinated attack. The 2nd Battalion of the 505th moved up astride the road and attacked, supported by tanks, while the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, crossed the road behind the 505th Parachute Infantry and attacked on its left. By the end of the day the two battalions had killed or captured 300 Germans and cleared the enemy from his positions to the west of the highway.

Earlier in the afternoon an enemy armoured thrust from the north had been beaten back on the very edge of Ste. Mere-Eglise by an American tank force. This force had been dispatched by order of the Corps commander himself, who learned of the 82d Division's request for assistance upon his arrival at the Corps command post late in the morning after he had come ashore. At the 4th Division's command post, across the road, General Collins met one of General Ridgway's staff officers, who outlined General Ridgway's situation and repeated the 82d Division commander's desire for tanks to meet a threatened armoured attack. General Barton still had tanks of the 746th Tank Battalion in reserve at Reuville, and General Collins ordered these to be sent to General Ridgway under the officer's guidance.

On reaching Ste. Mere-Eglise the tank column turned north. After moving a few hundred yards it received heavy artillery and mortar fire from an enemy armoured column, consisting of five tanks and a few other vehicles, about 300 or 400 yards away. Lt. Houston Payne, in the leading American tank, shot at the first enemy tank, setting it afire, and then knocked out an antitank gun on the side of the road. As both American and enemy tanks were in column only the lead tanks had targets. Lieutenant Payne destroyed one more enemy tank before his ammunition was exhausted and then moved back to permit the second tank to come forward.

Seeking a way of attacking the flank of the enemy column, Lt. Col. C. G. Hupfer, the 746th Tank Battalion commander, had in the meantime reconnoitred to the east and north and found, to the right of the highway, a trail which led straight north about a mile and joined a secondary road which entered Neuville-au-Plain. Some of the American tanks drove north on this trail and entered Neuville-au-Plain. At a cost of 2 of their own they destroyed 2 enemy tanks, took 60 prisoners, freed 19 American parachutists, and forced the German armoured column to retreat northward. They stayed in Neuville-au-Plain until 2100 when they withdrew for lack of infantry support.

It is not clear whether the German armour which had supported the infantry attack along the highway had come from Neuville-au-Plain, but the two actions do not appear to have been coordinated. Whatever the enemy's intentions, Lieutenant Payne's engagement with the German armour and Colonel MacNeely's and Colonel Vandervoort's later attack west of the highway removed the enemy threat to the town and allowed the 82d Division units in Ste. Mere-Eglise to give more attention to developments along the Merderet.

Even before the German threat north of Ste. Mere-Eglise had been eliminated, the anxiety at the command post of the 82d Airborne Division had been relieved, and General Ridgway reported to Corps that the "situation is under control." Contact had been established with elements of the 8th Infantry south of Ste. Mere-Eglise and the 325th Glider Infantry had arrived and was ready for commitment against the enemy to the west. Shortly thereafter General Collins made his first personal contact with General Ridgway in the latter's command post west of Ste. Mere-Eglise.

The 325th Glider Infantry had arrived in two serials, one at 0700 and one at 0900. Although the landings were somewhat scattered, most of them were made in the Les Forges area. One serial received ground fire from enemy positions to the north and there was a total of 160 landing casualties. But the regiment was given some protection by the attacks of the 8th Infantry and it made a rapid assembly near the Les Forges crossroads.

The 325th Glider Infantry had the mission of proceeding to Chef-du-Pont as division reserve. But when Col. Harry L. Lewis (commanding officer) contacted division headquarters by radio at about 1000, he was instructed to use at least part of his force to eliminate the enemy force in the Carquebut area, where the Germans were threatening the security of the Chef-du-Pont bridge and causeway. The 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, had been unable to divert forces to counter this threat. At the same time Colonel Raff received orders to bring his seaborne force up to Chef-du-Pont and then to the 82d Airborne Division command post. While Colonel Raff carried out his orders, arriving at the division command post at noon, Colonel Lewis took his 3rd Battalion to the Carquebut area and sent the other two to Chef-du-Pont. He found Carquebut evacuated by the enemy and proceeded to rejoin the other two battalions. The 1st Battalion was then sent, under General Gavin's order, to La Fiere, and the 2nd Battalion to Ste. Mere-Eglise, where it was to be attached to the 505th Parachute Infantry for operation in the north on the 8th Infantry's left.

Meanwhile, the action at La Fiere bridge had been a continued stalemate. Enemy counterattacks were repulsed and the American position was slightly strengthened by reorganisation. But no progress had been made in establishing a bridgehead on the west bank. In the evening the 1st Battalion of the 505th, which during the day had fought of the enemy with heavy losses at La Fiere, was released to Regiment for the next day's operation. The 82d Airborne Division forces west of the Merderet remained isolated. In general, the situation of the 82d at the end of D plus 1 had been solidified, particularly around Ste. Mere-Eglise, although its D-Day mission was still unaccomplished.

In 1940, while Fighter Command took on the Luftwaffe over Britain and the Channel, the airmen of Bomber Command were flying missions over Fortress Europe. Hitler's plan for invading the UK, Operation Sealion, would require a landing force setting off from mainland Europe so the then relatively small RAF Bomber Command was given the task to do as much damage as possible to the naval forces that Hitler had gathered for the cross channel attack. At this point Bomber Command was only equipped with twin engined medium bombers that would very soon be regarded as obsolete. Yet, with fear of an invasion of Britain at its height, the task was regarded as at least as important as defending the skies above Britain – and the crews were sent out, night after night over Europe.

Most of these targets were very well defended and there was no shortage of bravery amongst the aircrew that had to face them. John Hannah joined the Royal Air Force aged 17 in 1939, and after training as a wireless operator was later promoted sergeant in 1940. He was attached to 83 Squadron (Hampden bombers) as a wireless operator and gunner.

With the Battle of Britain Spitfires continuing to maintain their vigil in the skies over Britain, the Fighter Command was stretched to the limit with their defensive tactics. On the night of 15 September 1940, 83 Squadron left their base shortly before 22.30 hrs with a force of 15 Hampden bombers. They were destined for a bombing raid on a concentration of German barges at the port of Antwerp, which were reported to be part of an armada of sea going vessels collected in preparation for the threatened invasion of Britain.

As the bombers approached their objective, they were caught in the piercing beams of light from the searchlights below, followed by intense anti-aircraft fire. Shortly after Hannah's plane had released its bombs it was hit with shrapnel and bullets. Almost at once the rear of the fuselage exploded into a blazing furnace of fire and searing heat, which quickly spread to the wireless operator's and gunner's cockpits. The rear gunner had no option but to bale out when the floor of his cockpit melted beneath his feet.

Undaunted, Hannah began to fight the fire. Surrounded with the flames he retrieved the plane's two hand fire extinguishers and rapidly dispersed the contents. When they were exhausted he beat at the flames with his flying log- book and as a last resort with his hands. Although his heavy flying suit restricted his movements, he continued to battle against the heat, but now there was an added danger as ammunition began to detonate within their cases. He quickly disposed of them by throwing them out through the hole in the fuselage.

Having successfully extinguished the flames Hannah painfully made his way to the pilot's seat to report that the fire was now under control. The pilot, Officer C.A. Conner, was shocked to see the extent of Hannah's burns to his face and hands. When it was realised that the other crew members had baled out, Hannah then assisted the pilot to navigate the plane back to base, where he was immediately transferred to a Service Hospital for emergency treatment. Hannah was informed of his award while still a patient in Rauceby hospital, Lincolnshire.

At Buckingham Palace on the 10 October 1940, Sergeant, John Hannah, attended an investiture for his award of the Victoria Cross. At the age of eighteen Hannah was the youngest recipient of this prestigious award for aerial operations. Pilot Officer C.A. Conner received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sergeant D.A.E. Hayhurst, navigator and bomb- aimer, received the Distinguished Flying Medal for the part they played in the raid.

One of the lesser known photojournalists in Vietnam was actually the son of Hollywood royalty. Sean Flynn was the only child of the marriage of Errol Flynn and Lili Damita. After studying briefly at Duke University, Flynn abandoned a lukewarm film career to join a band of intrepid journalists documenting the civil wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. At first, Flynn drew international attention merely by virtue of being the even-more-handsome son of his movie-star father entering a combat zone. He and his colleagues' brazen lifestyle and daring work in the field became the stuff of legend and inspired a cast of colourful characters in war films and literature. More significant, their photos, shot within the frenzied theatre of combat, became pivotal in exposing Americans at home to the brutality and ambiguous profit of their military's involvement in the region.

In March 1966, Flynn was wounded in the knee while in the field. In mid-1966, he left Vietnam long enough to star in his last movie. He returned to Vietnam and made a parachute jump with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne in December 1966. In 1967, he went to Israel to cover the Arab Isreali War. He returned to Vietnam in 1968, after the Tet Offensive, with plans to make a documentary about the war. He went to Cambodia in early 1970, when news broke of North Vietnamese advances into that country.

The 1970-75 conflict in Cambodia, a spillover of America's war against the North Vietnamese, pitched the US-backed government headed by Lon Nol against Khmer Rouge insurgents supported by the government in Hanoi. The war was eventually won by the Maoist-influenced Khmer Rouge forces, which then put in place a murderous four-year regime that caused the death of up to 2 million people.

On April 6, 1970, Flynn and a group of journalists left the city of Phnom Pehn to attend a government sponsored press conference in Saigon. Flynn and fellow photojournalist Dana Stone (who was on assignment for CBS news) chose to travel on motorcycles instead of the limousines that the majority of the other journalists were traveling in (the limousines had been previously used by tourists before the journalists took them over). Reporter Steve Bell, who was one of the last Westerners to see the two alive, later said that after the press conference, Flynn and Stone had gotten word that there was a checkpoint on Highway 1 manned by members of the Viet Cong. Eager to get a photograph of the Viet Cong, Flynn and Stone decided to set out on Highway 1 alone. Before they left, Bell snapped the last photo ever taken of Flynn and Stone. They were never seen or heard from again and their remains have never been found.

"Afterwards we all headed back to Phnom Penh, but they said they wanted to go forward. They had heard there was a checkpoint that was manned by the Viet Cong. It was thought that you could see the Viet Cong there," said Mr Bell, who took a photograph of the two men as they set off on what would be a final journey. "We headed back to Phnom Penh and no one ever saw them again... I think they were among the first to go missing. It had not reached the point where we knew quite how dangerous it was."


Although it is known that Flynn and Stone were captured at a checkpoint on Highway 1, their true fate is unclear. It has been suggested that they died in the hands of "hostile" forces. Citing various government sources, the current consensus is that Flynn and Stone were held captive for over a year before they were killed by Kymer Rouge in June 1971.

Flynn's mother spent an enormous amount of money searching for her son, with no success. In 1984 she had him declared legally dead. In March 2010, a British team searching for Flynn's body thought they had found it, when they uncovered the remains of a Western hostage allegedly executed by the Khmer Rouge.Tests results on the human remains found at the grave site in eastern Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, were released on June 30, 2010, and they were found not to be the remains of Sean Flynn. Lt. Col. Wayne Perry of the Joint POW / MIA Accounting Command said there was no match between DNA from the recovered remains and DNA samples they had on file from the Flynn family.

The story of Sean Flynn was immortalised by The Clash in the song "Sean Flynn" from the album Combat Rock. He also has a prominent role in Michael Herr's book about his experiences as a war correspondent, Dispatches.

Combat photographers and correspondents played a vital role during this time, changing public opinion and creating a groundswell of anti war sentiment. But their contribution was not without cost: at least 37 journalists were killed or went missing in Cambodia during the 1970-1975 war between the U.S.-backed military government and the North Vietnamese

The last US Navy propeller attack aircraft to disappear from the decks of the flat tops was the Douglas AD Skyraider. This aeroplane had a unique capability: even when it carried its full internal fuel of 2,280 pounds, a 2,200 lb torpedo, two 2,000 lb bombs, 12.5 inch rockets, two 20 mm guns and 240 pounds of ammunition, the Skyraider was still under its maximum gross weight of 25,000 pounds.

Entered in service just in time to take part in the Korean War, the Skyraiders in the improved A-1H version were quite slow; nevertheless in spite of performance not even comparable to those of the other assets in the Air Wing’s strike group, the propeller-driven attack aircraft managed to shoot down two MiG-17s during the early part of the Vietnam War.

In fact, some of the most unusual kills of the conflict did not come from the F-4s, F-105s, or F-8s but from the Korean War era piston-engine Skyraiders, thanks to the four M3 20 mm fixed forward-firing cannons capable of firing 800 rounds per minute, that fitted the A-1Hs.

The first of these victorious engagements took place on Jun. 20, 1965, when a flight of Skyraiders from the Strike Squadron 25 (VA-25) Fist of the Fleet, took off from the USS Midway (CVA-41) supporting the rescue of a downed USAF pilot in the northwest corner of North Vietnam were attacked by a flight of MiG-17s. The two enemy jets launched missiles and fired with their cannons against the two A-1Hs, but both Skyraiders’ pilots, Lt. Charles W. Hartman III, flying A-1H BuNo 137523, radio callsign “Canasta 573,” and Lt. Clinton B. Johnson, flying A-1H BuNo 139768, callsign “Canasta 577,” evaded them and manoeuvred to shoot down one of the MiGs with their 20 mm cannons.

Lt. Johnson described this engagement in Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. book 'MiG Killers' as follows: “I fired a short burst at the MiG and missed, but got the MiG pilot’s attention. He turned into us, making a head-on pass. Charlie and I fired simultaneously as he passed so close that Charlie thought I had hit his vertical stabiliser with the tip of my tail hook. Both of us fired all four guns. Charlie’s rounds appeared to go down the intake and into the wing root, and mine along the top of the fuselage and through the canopy. He never returned our fire, rolled, inverted, and hit a small hill, exploding and burning in a farm field.” The subsequent MiG kill of this engagement was shared by both Hartmann III and Johnson.

The second victory of the propeller-driven Skyraider against a North Vietnamese MiG-17 jet fighter, took place on Oct. 9, 1966 and involved four A-1Hs launched from the deck of the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in the Gulf of Tonkin flying as “Papoose flight.”

The flight was from the Strike Squadron 176 (VA-176) Thunderbolts and it was led by Lt. Cdr. Leo Cook, with Lt. Wiley as wingman, while the second section was led by Lt. Peter Russell with Lt. William T. Patton as wingman. It was during the RESCAP (the REScue Combat Air Patrol, a mission flown to protect the downed pilots from ground threats) flight, that the “Spads” (as the Skyraiders were dubbed by their pilots) were attacked by four MiG-17s. This engagement ended with one Fresco confirmed as being shot down, a second as probably shot down and a third heavily damaged.

According to McCarthy, the MiG-17 kill was awarded to “Papoose 409,” the A-1H BuNo 137543, flown by Lt. Patton who, after having gained a position of advantage on one of the MiGs, opened fire with his four guns, hitting the tail section of the enemy jet. Patton followed the MiG which descended through the cloud deck and when Papoose 409 emerged from the clouds he spotted the enemy pilot’s parachute.

The U.S. Navy Skyraiders last combat tour took place from July 1967 to 1968 onboard USS Coral Sea (CV-43), but this versatile propeller aircraft continued to fly with the U.S. Air Force and with the Vietnamese Air Force until the end of the conflict thanks to its unparalleled capabilities in close air support.

The star was a drunken hippy. One of the writers was an acid-fried biker. And the director was a paranoid control freak. But the really bad news was that all three of them were Dennis Hopper.

Hopper's subversive road movie burst onto the cinema screens of a confused America in 1969, the title was in itself a double entendre, the term Easy Rider was slang for a hooker's old man - 'not a pimp, but the dude who lives with her, because he's got the easy ride'. But it was also a telling and powerful reference to what was happening to America in the late Sixties, in the words of Hopper - 'Liberty had became a whore and the whole country took an easy ride.'

However, it isn't the sex, music or huge drug intake - both on and off-screen - that links Easy Rider inextricably to the late Sixties. What really marks the film out as a product of that fractured, uncertain age was that it got made at all. And, in particular, that it got made by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

Certainly, when the pair announced their intention of making the ultimate biker movie, few sane people would have wagered on them finding the finance - let alone producing a film that not only became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1969 but also completely changed the way major studios treated their burgeoning baby-boomer generation. If the film's proposed subject matter - two doped-up philosophising hippies (Hopper and Fonda) use the proceeds from a drug deal to ride across America in search of 'freedom' - wasn't enough to put off potential investors then Hopper and Fonda's Hollywood reputations undoubtedly were.

Hopper was a Dean generation character actor who had been blacklisted following a bust-up with director Henry Hathaway. Kicked out of mainstream pictures, he was reduced to working with underground filmmakers like Roger Corman. It was while shooting Corman's The Trip that Hopper got to know Peter Fonda. The son of Hollywood legend Henry, Peter had thrown away a promising career in respectable cinema to appear in zero-budget exploitation movies like The Wild Angels.

Starring roles in The Trip did little to improve either man's standing. Far more helpful was their decision to hook up with satirical author and screenwriter Terry Southern. Southern's involvement provided them with a title, Easy Rider, and a backer in the shape of Bert Schneider. The latter was a fledgling film producer who had just hit the big time courtesy of his kit-form boy band The Monkees and was happy not only to provide money but to let Hopper and Fonda become director and producer respectively.

As it turned out, any problems the production may have had over finance were as nothing compared with the trauma of the Easy Rider shoot. During most productions, on-set drug-taking and a leading man breaking his ribs would constitute major concerns. In the case of Easy Rider, these seemed minor inconveniences when weighed against the bizarre antics of Hopper himself. A heavy drinker, famed for his to-the-edge performances and confrontational manner, the director's instability and paranoia resulted in clashes with everyone from Fonda downwards. When he wasn't picking fights, Hopper would fill his time forcing Fonda to relive memories of his mother's suicide and dragging actress Karen Black through the streets of New Orleans in search of inspiration.

Hopper justified his behaviour on the grounds that he wanted to make a special film. And he did. The massive commercial success of Easy Rider ensured that for a couple of years major studios were happy to throw money at any wild-eyed auteur capable of capturing some of that youth buck - a period that Hopper himself brought to the close with 1971's The Last Movie.

Peter Fonda later recalled, 'Easy Rider really was a trip. Back when I was making studio pictures like Tammy And The Doctor, I got a lot of fan mail - thousands of letters a week asking for my autography and my picture. When I did Easy Rider, I got letters from people saying, "What do I do?", "How do I speak to my father?", "How do I keep myself from committing suicide?", "How do I live?" Nobody was asking me for my picture and my autograph any more.'

Most importantly, the film represented a crossroads in the film industry, one where the old Hollywood system had become stagnant while young filmmakers were revitalising the medium with fresh, creative ideas that were having a real impact on the culture and their generation. The movie was responsible for launching Jack Nicholson's career at a time when he was about to give up acting for producing. And it certainly enabled Fonda and Hopper to pursue their own separate visions on film while maintaining creative control.

Unfortunately, the tensions that arose between Fonda and Hopper during the film's making erupted into an ongoing dispute over the "authorship" of the movie with Hopper claiming solo credit for the story idea and script in a lawsuit. Hopper, in turn, was later sued by Rip Torn for spreading lies about a physical confrontation the two had in a public restaurant, which may have been the reason Torn was replaced by Jack Nicholson in the film. To it's fans though, none of this matters much, the movie stands alone for its iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and others, the innovative, freewheeling cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Nicholson's scene-stealing performance and the its fresh take on two young nonconformists looking for the real America.

Military footwear can be traced back over thousands of years, even as far back as the Roman Empire, and just like humans, the combat boot has evolved through generations of change and adaptation. Arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment or gear anyone in a combat situation may possess, the combat boot has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

Several important military traditions were given birth to during the historic break from England in 1770's. The U.S. was still young, and its military was tiny compared to England’s oppressive command. Smaller militias lent aid to the cause from all across the original colonies, most of which had their own distinct colours and apparel, alluding to the different military divisions we know today. The typical dress worn would be - a hunting shirt, breeches, leggings, wool jacket, hat, and whatever footwear was available. Since raw materials were expensive, and taxes high, many soldiers, and even civilians, were forced to improvise with their footwear. In the colder colonies, where shoes were necessary to fight against frostbite and hypothermia, ground troops used whatever materials they had on hand. Scraps of cloth or raw animal hide were popular choices, but on occasion blankets tied to the feet would prove better than going barefoot into battle.

Cavalry, ranking officers, and those that could afford them typically wore Hessian boots. Hessian boots originated in Germany, and were knee high with a short heel, tailored for riding on horseback. The boots typically had tassels on the front, and were later cut lower in the back to help with manoeuvrability white still offering protection for the knee. The boots were styled for a close fit and worn with knee high breeches. Due to the tightness of this boot, a boot hook was often necessary to properly put the boots on, which proved a lengthy process.

Standardised boots were hard to come by during the 19th century, and much of the military still wore whatever shoes they were able to afford. Infantry units wore calf high riding boots in a style similar to the Hessian Boot. Trooper boots that went up past the thigh offered the most protection, but were expensive and impractical for ground units on long marches. The beginning of government issued boots came about in the War of 1812. The War Department ordered as many pairs of ankle high boots that were available to the at the time, and outfitted the soldiers that would need them the most. The boots were typically sewn on straight lasts, a type of shoe mold that made each shoe completely symmetrical. Until they were properly broken in the boots proved uncomfortable, often leaving blisters. Sometimes called Brogan boots, they were usually made of calfskin or patent leather.

One of the first revolutions in military footwear came about in 1837 when a 'pegging' machine was invented, this made for the faster production of cheap boots and booties. The pegs, usually small pieces of wood or metal, were used to hold the shape of the boot, but deteriorated much faster than the hand-sewn method. By the time the American Civil War came, the government reverted back to the original design of hand sewn boots. The price for pegged boots decreased to just over $1.25, while hand sewn Cavalry boots were often purchased at three times that price. The idea of soles became more popular during this time, and most were hand sewn. The Hessian boot was replaced by a Wellington style M1851 Artillery Driver’s boot, which were outfitted to cavalry and artillery drivers. The heel was slightly shorter than the Hessian boot, and the toe was more squared. In an effort to improve durability, brass tacks were inserted in the sole.

Union soldiers had access to better quality materials, while their Confederate counterparts suffered with boots of sub-par quality. The soldiers fighting for the North were first issued hand-sewn boots, and pegged boots only as a last resort. Most boots worn by the Confederate Army were pegged, nailed, or riveted, and fashioned in a style similar to that of the British Military at the time. Some of the greedier manufacturers used poor materials in an effort to take advantage of the civil turmoil. Rumours of cardboard being used circulated, and some even sharpened the pegs or brass tacks in the soles to make them wear out more quickly.

With the evolution of explosives and artillery like grenades and machine guns, trench-style warfare became more common during the early and mid-1900’s. Given the wet, cold, and unsanitary nature of the trenches, military gear and equipment, boots in particular, had to hold up against extreme conditions.

The modern combat boot we know today began to take shape in WWI. Most boots made in the early 1900’s had a distinct left and right, as opposed to previous versions with each shoe being virtually interchangeable. In the early years of WWI, the Russet Marching shoe was the most widely accepted boot worn in the military. It was highly polishable and made of machine-sewn calfskin. The inner lining was made from feathers. While this boot proved far more advanced than previous issue boots, it did not hold up well on French terrain. A later version, modelled with specifications from France and Belgium, was made from vegetable retanned cow hide, and featured both a full and half-sole. Rows of hobnails and iron plates were affixed to the heel of every boot. The heel and sole were attached with screws, nails, and stitching, and despite their superior construction, still did not hold up against the rough conditions.

In 1917 the Trench Boot was born, offering vast improvements from the Russet Marching Shoe. While it offered better protection against the wet conditions, it was not waterproof, which lead to various diseases like trench foot. The look and styling was similar to the marching shoe, but the insole was composed of new materials like; canvas, cork, and cement. Due to the rigid nature of the soles, the boots were highly uncomfortable until broken in and the natural movement of the foot caused excessive damage. The Trench Boot offered little in the way of insulation, and many soldiers complained of cold feet. It became common practice to wear multiple pairs of socks, and order boots a few sizes above what one would normally wear. Several different variations were produced in an attempt to fix the early issues of waterproofing.

A year later, the 1918 Trench Boot, or “Perishing Boot” was released, offering improvements over earlier versions. Better quality materials, such as heavier leather and stronger canvas were used in an attempt to improve the longevity of use. The boot’s soles were attached in a similar fashion with screws and nails, but held three soles in total, as opposed to the previous issue’s one and a half. The metals used in hobnailing conducted the cold, and the thicker sole helped eliminate that problem. Iron toe cleats were added to the toe of each boot, offering extra protection, but making the boots bulkier.


During the initial stages of WWII, the standard issue US military boot was the M-42 'Service Shoe', an all leather toe cap boot with a two piece stitched sole, this style was eventually replaced by the rough-out boot, probably the most recognisable boot of the war. After the Normandy invasion the American military started updating their equipment, one of the items they replaced was the canvas gaiters and rough out ankle boot. They did this by basically making the rough out boot higher by adding a double buckle leather gaiter onto the top of the boot. The M-43 buckle boots where in general issue by the winter of 1944/45 and where worn by all branches of service including the Paratroopers, Armoured and Infantry in the Battle of the Bulge. They were titled 'Boots, Combat Service', and nicknamed “Double Buckle Boots.” While previous military boots like the Trench Boots only had laces, these boots went back to the older buckle style. These boots were made from synthesised rubber and other recycled materials, and had a leather fold-over cuff with two buckles. With only a single sole, they proved uncomfortable, but much easier to move around in than the Trench Boot. In times of shortage, some units, particularly Rangers, were issued Paratrooper Jump boots, which were quite distinct from all other boots at the time. The Paratrooper boots were highly sought after by regular troops who often purloined or "acquired" via alternative means.


Previous issue boots with minimal variation were used during the Korean War, but were not fit for purpose in Vietnam. Vastly different climates and temperatures rapidly deteriorated the soles and integrity of the Combat Service Boot, which was eventually replaced by the Jungle Boot.

The general idea behind Jungle Boots first came about in Panama and the latter part of WWII for Soldiers serving in the Pacific. While these boots consisted mainly of rubber and nylon, they did not hold up well. The government issued boot was typically the traditional all leather combat boot, or the Jungle Boot. The U.S. Department of War tasked the company Wellco with solving the troops various issues with moisture, insects, and sand. Wellco created and sold a prototype which held up better than their previous counterparts. The boot was composed of a black leather sole and canvas upper with an attached tongue, which helped to keep out insects and debris. It built upon earlier generations by using rubber and a canvas with a cotton blend, but added in the durability of leather. Water drains were added to help keep the feet dry and prevent bacteria from growing.

After in-combat testing and feedback, the Jungle Boot was adapted to better suit the soldiers’ needs. The canvas blend was replaced with a nylon canvas that dried faster. Steel plates were affixed to the soles of the boot, to protect the feet against punji stakes used to pierce the foot. Additional nylon webbing reinforced the boots’ uppers, increasing the durability. While these boots did not last as long as all leather combat boots, they did offer a vast improvement over the earlier versions. Soldiers were known to carry multiple sets of boots, and often wore their jungle boots only when absolutely necessary. These high tech jungle boots signalled the dawn of a new era, over the next 20 years combat boots would evolve into the lightweight protective boots worn today.

While impossible to predict the future, it’s a safe bet that combat boots will continue to grow and evolve alongside those that wear them. From the Roman Empire to the sands of present day Iraq, it’s easy to forget that something we see regularly can have such a rich history. With huge leaps in all aspects of technology, who’s to say which direction the design and features of future boots will take.


World War Two conjured up many extraordinary characters. But even among the most exalted company William Ash - the model for the Vergil Hilts character played by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape - stands out. Ash was an American who, while his country was still reluctant to enter the war, crossed into Canada to train as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was posted to Britain and flew Spitfires with RAF 411 Squadron.

In March 1942 he was shot down over northern France but escaped from the wreckage of his plane and was given shelter by a number of courageous French women and men. He was captured in Paris by the Gestapo and condemned to death. His life was saved by the Luftwaffe who argued that as an airman, Ash was their prisoner. He spent the rest of the war in various Prisoner of War camps. But instead of being grateful for his salvation he became an obsessive "escapologist" - seeking to break free by whatever means came his way.

Ash always modestly denied the claim he was based on McQueen's character. For one thing he didn't ride a motorbike, he said. For another, he did not take part in the breakout from the Stalag Luft III camp, on which the movie is based. The reason he did not participate in that particular breakout was that he was locked up in the "cooler" - as the camp jail was called - as punishment for a previous escape attempt. In actuality, Ash was every bit as charismatic as the fictional Hilts with whom he shared many characteristics. Apart from being American, he was good looking, dashing and more than a bit of a rebel. He was also delightfully self-deprecating. He described some of his exploits in his writings, though he often underplayed his sufferings and achievements.

He had a tough upbringing in Depression-hit Texas where his father struggled to bring up a family on what he made from his job as a travelling salesman. Young Bill worked his way through university but could find no job at the end of it and spent months riding the rails as a hobo, seeking whatever work he could get. His experiences shaped his political views. He was too young to join the idealistic Americans fighting Franco's nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. But when World War Two broke out, he was determined to do his bit to combat fascism.

William Ash

It rankled with him that he did not do more fighting. He only managed to shoot down one German aircraft for certain before he was downed himself. He decided to use his incarceration to wage war on the enemy by other means. Most of his fellow inmates had little interest in escaping. Having survived the trauma of being shot down, the majority decided they had used up their store of luck and tried to pass the time behind the wire as best they could, often studying and acquiring new skills, while they waited for the war to end.

Bill Ash belonged to a hard core devoted to overcoming every obstacle the Germans put in their way to returning home and carrying on the fight. They often found it hard to analyse precisely their motivations. Some felt it was their duty. For others, focusing on a project was a way of combating the stultifying boredom. In Bill's case it boiled down, he said, to "an unwillingness to crawl in the face of oppression".

He lost count of his escape attempts, or the number of times he was condemned to a spell in the 'cooler', which meant solitary confinement and a bread and water diet. Some of the escape bids were opportunistic efforts like the time he wangled his way on to a work detail tasked with unloading a train then made a run for it when the guards' backs were turned.nOthers were complex, long-term schemes that required a huge amount of organisation, ingenuity and endurance. A little-known but extraordinarily ambitious project was the Latrine Tunnel Escape which took place in Oflag XXIB, a camp near the Polish town of Szubin.

Bill had a hand in devising the plan, which was not for the faint-hearted. It involved digging a tunnel more than 100 yards long from a starting point beneath a large lavatory block. Every day for three months teams of diggers would lower themselves through a trap door set into a toilet seat trying to avoid falling into the lake of raw sewage beneath. An entrance set into wall of the latrine pit led into a chamber where the tunnel began. Day after day they would scrape away at the sandy soil working by the light of margarine lamps. They lived in fear of cave-ins and asphyxiation and panic attacks brought on by claustrophobia. Tunnelling was in some ways the easy part. To stand any chance of making it out of Nazi-controlled territory they needed civilian-style clothing, money, and documents. Here they were helped by other prisoners who brought a wide variety of skills either acquired in peacetime or learned in the camp.


Eventually, one night early in March 1943, 35 men dressed in outfits fashioned from Air Force uniform and blankets and armed with convincingly forged identity cards crawled through the narrow tunnel and under the perimeter fence to freedom. One managed to get as far as the Swiss border before being recaptured. Two made it to the Baltic and were on their way in a rowing boat to neutral Sweden when they disappeared, presumed drowned. All the rest were recaptured within a few days. It was a bitter disappointment, but almost all carried on trying to escape. Bill finally succeeded a few days before the war ended, breaking out of a camp near Bremen just as the British Army arrived.

His experiences as a prisoner had a profound effect on his political outlook. After the war he stayed on in Britain and seemed set to follow some of his camp comrades - like Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Tony Barber and TV presenter and historian Robert Kee - into a successful conventional career. He went to Oxford University and joined the BBC, which gave him a top administrative job in India. His increasingly radical views made it hard for him to conform, however. He rejected the Communist Party of Great Britain as being too compromised and helped found a breakaway group. He also lost his full-time job with the BBC, though he continued to do some work for the drama department.

Ash was a happy and gregarious man who never lost a touch of his boyhood innocence. His career as an escapologist showed him that in wartime people were capable of extraordinary selflessness. Why was it, he wondered, that this spirit could not be carried on into peacetime?


World War II changed the world and laid the foundation for the American car-crazy phenomenon that exploded in the 1950s - Hot Rodding. Once the hostilities in Europe and Asia had ceased, those lucky enough to make it back wanted to enjoy living the way they couldn't while serving Uncle Sam. Finally home, ex-GIs couldn't get enough of cool cars, all-American burgers and fries, and the girl next door who had grown up since they left. Building a hot rod or custom car was a method of self-expression, and for many, the cars provided the means for the social life they desired.

Many GIs also found it hard to let go of the adrenaline rush of enemy action. Something inside them yearned for a little bit of that thrill, but without the potential wartime consequences. Getting behind the wheel of a cool hot rod or custom car fulfilled those conscious and unconscious desires. And with many coming back from the war with some money saved and a job waiting, they had the means to acquire what they wanted.

The timeline for hot rods and custom cars starts before World War II. Teens itching to tinker with cars and go fast were racing cheap Ford Model T's on Southern California's dry lakes and street racing in Los Angeles even in the 1920s. The Harper, Muroc, and El Mirage dry lakes -- all 50 or so miles north of Los Angeles -- saw racing activity from the '20s up to World War II. Racing at El Mirage continues today.

Speed junkies could jump in their hopped-up, chopped-down Model Ts and be at one of the dry lakes in less than three hours. Or, if the need was urgent, they could find a deserted back road or open field. At the lakes, the cars were timed with handheld stopwatches and placed in a class determined by the resultant time. The vast majority of the cars being run were four-cylinder Ford Model Ts or their successor, the four-cylinder Model A. The cars were cheap, plentiful, lightweight, and easy to work on. They responded to simple "hop ups" like higher compression, ignition and timing adjustments, additional carburettors and more radical cam grinds.

The drill was fairly simple: Buy the nicest roadster you could find (because roadsters were the lightest); strip off everything not needed to go fast, like the fenders, headlights, hood, and top; find some cheap used tires to replace your bald ones or to mount over your existing tires for a little extra tread; and go racing. Paul Chappel's Speed Shop on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles and Bell Auto Supply in neighbouring Bell were the first stores in the country devoted exclusively to supplying speed parts for those who wanted to run with the fast pack. Performance parts included high-compression heads, exotic overhead-cam conversions, and radical cams (also called "sticks").

The Ford flathead V-8 was born in 1932 and with it a new opportunity to go fast. Though slow to be accepted by hot rodders, more 65- and 85- horsepower flathead V-8s found their way into junkyards as the '30s progressed and thus began the transformation from four-bangers to flatheads. Also released in 1932 were the lightweight '32 Ford or "Deuce" frame and roadster body. The combination was unbeatable in terms of performance potential and looks. To this day, a flathead-powered Deuce roadster is the quintessential hot rod. That engine and frame combination would also provide an excellent foundation for many types of bodies, or sometimes hardly any body at all.

As interest in racing grew, kids began to try out their "gow jobs" more often on public streets. What was mostly good, clean fun could get ugly -- and it often did. "Speed contests," as the police called them, were occurring with greater frequency and more dire consequences. Casualties were described in detail in local newspapers, branding the hot rodder as a social menace requiring increasing control or, better yet, elimination. More hot rodders were finding the dry lakes a safer, less public alternative to racing on the streets. But this "detour" was having its own problems. Multiple casualties were reportedly occurring during the middle of the night on the dark racing courses of the dry lakes. Hot rodders ran unmonitored, without thinking that a like-minded racer could be coming from the other direction. The result was sometimes catastrophic.

Help was on the way, though. In 1937, the Southern California Timing Association was formed. The SCTA formalised classes, developed more sophisticated timing systems, and made racing safer and more organised. Then, in 1941, a monthly publication called Throttle Magazine was created to track racing results, feature some of the better cars, and report on new safety and speed issues. The scene was starting to gel, but after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. became involved in World War II, hot rodding would have to wait.

As the 1940s began, the hot rod and custom car fad continued to trickle down to car enthusiasts throughout the Los Angeles area. Now it involved older used cars that were transformed into "mystery cars" through sometimes minor, sometimes major body modifications. But it remained a relatively small and localised fad before many of the participants in this trend were called into service in WWII. Two things happened to spread the gospel of hot rods and custom cars during World War II. First, many servicemen were filtered through California on their journey to the Pacific. There, they witnessed firsthand America's car-culture capital, with its unique customs and stripped down hot rods ripping through the streets. It must have left quite an impression on many.

Second, many GIs from Southern California spread information and pictures of hot cars to any soldier with time to spare. The racing and cruising activities must have seemed cool and exciting to any young soldier. Simple exposure must have been enough to spark the interest of young soldiers. So once the seed was planted, it had to be nurtured, and for that we can thank Robert "Pete" Petersen and Hot Rod magazine, which came on to the scene in 1948. After the war, the economy boomed. Young veterans had a bulletproof attitude after facing the horrors of combat, and they now found themselves with excesses of time and money, along with mechanical skills learned in the service. The postwar energy helped hot rodding grow more than it ever had in Southern California, and Hot Rod spread the word nationwide.

Hot Rod picked up where Throttle left off, the latter never returning after its one-year run in 1941. The fledgling magazine touched on all aspects of the car-enthusiast arena, covering hot rods, custom cars, drag racing, and even circle-track racing. Hot Rod also informed readers about the latest speed equipment, and taught them how to perform engine and body modifications. Hot Rod was in a good position to promote safety, and to help organise early drag racing and car shows, all of which helped promote and organise hot rodding itself. Speed-parts manufacturers and custom and performance shops had a place to advertise. It was a win-win situation for all involved.

As the end of the 1940s approached, hot rods and custom cars were poised to become not just a trend but a lifestyle. Postwar adolescents were discovering the freedom and social significance of driving a unique automobile on the streets of Downtown, USA. Picture this - It's a summertime Saturday night in the 1950s, and the Southern California suburbs are hopping with hot rods. In the San Fernando Valley just north of L.A., ex-GIs are bent over their crude roadsters doing last-minute checks before heading out at midnight to one of the dry lake beds east of Los Angeles.

Their goal is to be first in line for the heads-up racing that starts at dawn. Soon they'll aim their headlights for the excitement of speed and the camaraderie that goes with running the straight, dusty courses. But first, a few of them conduct impromptu light-to-light races down San Fernando Road to check out the clutch and size up the competition. Over in the bedroom communities of Lakewood, Lynwood, and Compton a few miles west of L.A., cruisers in their late teens and early 20s are "drive-in hopping." It's a ritual that takes off from The Clock drive-in in Bellflower, then heads down Pacific Coast Highway to The Clock on Sepulveda in Culver City, over to Tiny Naylor's in Hollywood, onto the freeway to Toluca Lake and Bob's Big Boy, over to Bob's in Pasadena, a straight shot west to Nixon's on Whittier Boulevard, and finally back to The Clock in Bellflower.

Occasionally, street racing accidents end up on the front page of the Orange County Register in grisly detail. There is safer, organised racing in Orange County, too. It's the abandoned airstrip, which is considered the first organised drag racing venue in the country -- Santa Ana Dragstrip.

It's the golden age of the hot rod and custom car, and Southern California is the place to be. Decades from now, these scenes will be relived and recreated thousands of times. Hot rods and customs from this period will be revered, copied, and restored to preserve for all time this magical era in automotive history.

The 1930's fatigue uniform of the US Army consisted of blue denim pants, shirt and 'Daisy Mae' - a floppy brimmed hat nicknamed after a character in the popular hillbilly cartoon strip 'L'il Abner'. In 1938 this was changed to medium weight sage green cotton cloth woven in a herringbone twill (HBT) pattern. The blue denim remained the fatigue issue until 1941 however. The green of the original HBTs was found to fade quickly in use to an unsuitably light shade. In the Pacific this problem was sometimes remedied by vat-dyeing them en masse to a darker, even blackish colour. In 1943 the HBT manufacture colour was changed to the darker green OD7 shade.

Most GI's felt that the HBTs were hot and rather slow to dry, but generally pretty good. In North Africa and Europe HBT's were commonly worn as combat clothing alone and over brown woollen uniform for extra protection , camouflage and warmth. One 32nd Division Pacific veteran summed up the question of uniforms with the pithy and convincing comment, 'I don't believe there is any clothing or equipment adequate for jungle fighting'.

The HBT shirts all featured flapped breast pockets and exposed blackened steel '13 star' (or sometimes plain plastic) buttons. The M1942, the first of four patterns, had a two button waistband with buttoning cuffs and rear 'take up' straps; the pleated breast pockets had clip cornered flaps. The more common M1943 HBT shirt had larger breast pockets but lost the buttoning cuffs and two button waistband; it was made in a darker green than the first pattern,. The first version of the M1943 shirt had unpleated pockets, while the next had a pinched sort of pleat. The rarely seen last pattern HBT shirt (M1945) was made with smaller pockets with clipped bottom corners and squared flaps. At the end of the war a new thinner cotton poplin fabric was just beginning to be issued.

Rank was rarely displayed on fatigues, though NCO stripes were sometimes inked onto HBT sleeves. According to Capt Edmund G Love, a 27th Division historian, this formation at one time had a coded unit and rank symbols stencilled on the rear of the HBT combat uniform in black - a system copied from the US Marines. The division was identified by an outline parallelogram, enclosing unit symbols - eg a T, a 'bar sinister' and a Irish harp shape for the 105th, 106th and 165th Infantry Regiments respectively. Left of this, numbers indicated some ranks (8 for sergeant, 15 for captain) and right of it company letters were stencilled. Given the actual conditions of combat and the frequency with which HBTs had to be replaced, it is doubtful this complex system was maintained for long. Even in the six Marine divisions, which in 1943-45 seem to have had a throughly worked out system of back stencils, it is comparatively rare to see them in combat photographs.

An HBT one piece jumpsuit work uniform had been designed in 1938 based on the B1 Air Corps Mechanics coveralls. In 1941, the M1938 was produced in HBT and featured a full buttoning front, an integral belt and a bi swing gusseted back; it had two breast pockets and rear and sideseam pockets. It was intended to be worn loose over other clothing, and the sideseam pockets opened to allow the wearer to reach inside. It was commonly worn by tank crewmen and mechanics but sometimes by other front line troops. It could be cumbersome to take off and proved incomfortably hot. A 1943 version was simplified and made in the darker OD colour.

Both HBTs and issue wool shirts commonly featured an extra length of material inside the buttoned closure, intended to be folded across to protect the skin against chemical agents; this 'gas flap' was sometimes cut out by the user. Trouser flys were also made with an extra interior flap of material for the same reason. In the Normandy landings of 1944 chemically impregnated HBTs and woollens were worn by landing troops as a precaution against chemical warfare.

The first pattern HBT trousers had a sideseam and two rear pockets of a very civilian style. The second pattern (M1943) had thigh cargo pockets and sideseam pockets but no rear pockets. The last pattern of the M1943 trousers had pleated thigh cargo pockets.


HBT fabric was also used for the first widespread use of camouflage by American military forces in 1942. Prior to this point, the US Army Corps of Engineers had been applying themselves to developing camouflage for military applications as early as 1940. Nevertheless, the process of its introduction into the US supply system was rushed, brought about by an urgent request General D. MacArthur in July of 1942 for production of 150,000 jungle camouflage uniforms for use in the Pacific Theatre. The pattern chosen was actually designed by civilian Norvell Gillespie (horticulturist and garden editor of Sunset, Better House and Gardens, and the San Francisco Chronicle). The green dapple or spot design, reversing to a tan/brown variation, began distribution to US military forces beginning in August of that year. Nicknamed 'frogskin' by many GIs, the pattern consists of a five colour green dominant 'jungle' camouflage pattern printed on one side, with a three colour brown dominant “beach” pattern printed on the opposite side. Produced in a variety of uniform styles as well as some articles of field equipment, the pattern was most widely utilised and made famous by the US Marine Corps in the Pacific Theatre.

'Frogskin' fatigues were also issued to a limited number of Army units in the European Theatre of Operations, most notably the 2nd Armored Division. The Germans already had a highly evolved set of different camouflage uniforms which resulted in some confusion and friendly fire incidents in the ETO. The frogskin camouflage garments were withdrawn from use in the ETO because of these incidents. Consequently, the production of frogskin uniforms and field gear was limited.

The first style of frogskin combat camouflage uniform was issued as a one-piece jungle jumpsuit. It had built in suspenders to help keep the suit up under load. It is rare to find these specimens with the suspenders intact as many were cut off in the field as they were felt to be a nuisance and very warm. The one-piece jungle jumpsuit fell rapidly out of favour by Marines as it was way too hot to wear in the Pacific and made evacuating bodily functions a major operation, leaving the Marine quite vulnerable.

Note that step number one in authenticating frogskin camouflage is the presence of Herringbone Twill in the Army pattern, not in the USMC pattern. The USMC pattern of Herringbone Twill is HBT in a true chevron pattern. The material repeats rows of chevrons. This type of HBT was used on the green USMC utilities from WWII. The Army pattern of which all frogskin uniforms were made has a non-slanting row interfering alternately with the chevrons.

R & D went back to the drawing board following the failure of the one piece suit and then issued the P42 combat shirt and pants. The design was simple. The shirt and pants featured frogskin Herringbone Twill. The shirt had a front bottom right top opening pocket with brown button closure. The right chest featured a patch pocket with USMC Eagle Globe Anchor stamp and no button closure. It had midline snap closures and was reversible frogskin with a green pattern opposite a beach brown pattern. The pants were also reversible and had domed snap pockets or metal buttons. The pocket configuration was front right slash and rear left patch. Once broken in, the camo uniform wore like a comfortable pair of pajamas.

Because P42s were used in all the legendary campaigns such as Tarawa, Bougainville, Peleliu and New Guinea among others, they are the most sought after of the basic frogskin uniforms. The P42s are associated with all the early victorious battles that were publicised in the newsreels.

Late in the war, P44 combat shirts and pants were issued. They were quite different than the P42s. P44 shirts had large buttoned vertical slash pockets just to the side of the midline button closures. The trousers had large three or four button side snap flaps. One pocket connected to the other pocket in the seat of the trouser, creating a pouch in which garments like a poncho could be carried. Drawstrings on the ankle cuffs were found in the 1st pattern P44s. Because these P44s arrived late in the war, it is much more common to find mint unissued specimens than the P42s. Frogskin camouflage is representative of some of the most celebrated battles in US history. Consequently, artifacts are heavily sought after and command high prices.

At sunset on February 23, 1942, Commander Kozo Nishino of the Imperial Japanese Navy and his I-17 submarine lurked 1,000 yards off the California coast. It was less than three months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Los Angeles residents were tense to say the least, soon after dark, the I-17 surfaced and began firing armour piercing shells at the Bankline Oil Company refinery in Ellwood, a small oilfield community 12 miles north of Santa Barbara. Commander Nishino targeted oil storage tanks, piers and other facilities he had toured before the start of World War II. Several of the shells struck while others passed over Wheeler’s Inn, whose owner reported the attack.

“We heard a whistling noise and a thump as a projectile hit near the house,” recalled another witness. “I thought something was going wrong with the refiners.”

The shelling continued for 20 minutes before I-17 escaped into the darkness. It was the first Axis attack on the continental United States of the war. “Shell California! Enemy U-boat sends many shots into oilfields near Santa Barbara, entire area is blacked out,” declared the February 24 front page of the Chicago Tribune.

Although there were no injuries and minimal damage (a wrecked derrick and pump house), the barrage led to a public panic that soon intensified. Witnesses claimed seeing offshore enemy “signal lights.” Many newspapers began referring to the attack as the “Bombardment of Ellwood.”


sub attacks oilfield


Commander Nishino sailed on to new combat assignments in the Aleutians – unaware of the strange result of his attack on Ellwood’s oil refinery. Despite missing their targets, dropping into the sea, on the beach, and into nearby cliffs, the Japanese artillery shells brought dramatic result not least an “Avenge Ellwood” fund-raising campaign was created in early 1943 for a war bond drive whipping up local fervour and also bringing about Japanese- American internment in California.


The attack not only fuelled West Coast invasion fears, but also soon led to the largest mass UFO sightings in U.S. history. In the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, the sleep of two million Americans, in the vicinity of Los Angeles, California, was interrupted by the sound of air raid sirens and anti aircraft fire. Groggy residents awakened by the high pitched warnings and the almost ceaseless firings of artillery were rewarded with a light show that made the night into day.

Thousands of U.S. Army anti-aircraft searchlights flooded the skies searching for attacking aircraft. They rapidly crisscrossed the black void desperately hoping their beams would pierce the black veil and disclose the enemy planes. Only days after the surprise Japanese attack, Los Angeles was not prepared for another sneak attack as the events of the morning would reveal.

Air raid wardens stopped cars and insisted lights be extinguished and home window shades drawn. Neighbourhoods and streets were now darkened, denying the enemy easily lit targets. Overhead, silently, a glowing object was moving slowing as air craft batteries focused by spotlights began took aim.

Katie, a young woman that had volunteered to be an air raid warden received a phone call from her district supervisor. The supervisor notified her of the alert and then asked if she had seen an object in the sky that was very close to her home. Without hesitation she went to the window and looked into the sky. "It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life!" she said. "It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all." "It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close. It was big!"

Katie added that the anti-aircraft searchlights had completely surrounded the object. "They sent fighter planes up and I watched them in groups approach it and then turn away. There were shooting at it but it didn't seem to matter." Katie states that U.S. fighter planes did attack the object. "It was like the Fourth of July but much louder. They were firing like crazy but they couldn't touch it." "I'll never forget what a magnificent sight it was. Just marvellous. And what a gorgeous colour!", said Katie.

With lights off, residents were now able to witness what was to be known as the "Battle of Los Angeles". It was a scene often depicted in future Hollywood science fiction movies. The "War of the Worlds" seems eerily familiar as U.S. military personnel bombard the space invaders with hundreds of artillery shells, bathed in brilliant light from an array of searchlights. The 37th Coast Artillery Brigade's antiaircraft batteries began firing at 3:08 a.m. and ceased at 4:14 a.m. In total nearly 2000 12.8 pound artillery shells were fired into the night sky at an undisclosed and seemingly indestructible object. The all clear siren was heard at 7:21 a.m. and the citizenry exhaled a collective sigh of relief. They had survived! The question as yet unanswered, who or what had attacked?

Newspaper reports were scarce. Government and military officials often gave conflicting statements to the press. Local resident witnesses were not interviewed or the information they gave not deemed credible by the news agencies. The only mention of the event in the Los Angeles Times was a brief article of page one which started with the headline: "Chilly Throng Watches Shells Bursting in Sky". The article written by Marvin Miles went on to describe "explosions stabbing the darkness like tiny bursting stars" and "searchlight beams poking long crisscross fingers across the night sky" and so on. The article did not mention an unknown object or enemy planes.

Initial reports cited witnesses seeing formations of warplanes overhead resulting in dogfights between enemy and U.S. fighter planes. Still others reported seeing flares falling from the sky. A naval intelligence warning indicated an attack was expected within the next 10 hours. Various radar stations picked up an unidentified object 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Immediately following the blackout the information centre was inundated with phone calls from patriotic citizens reporting enemy planes in the sky.

A Coast Artillery colonel spotted 25 planes at 12,000 feet over Los Angeles and others saw a balloon carrying red flares hovering over Santa Monica. The military stated that no U.S. aircraft were in the air. Stories of dogfights were erroneous. Officials explained that because of its limited number of aerial assets, the planes had remained grounded, until identified enemy planes could be located and verified.

The Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced at a February 25 press conference that there was no evidence of enemy planes and that the raid was simply a "false alarm". The Fourth Air Force believed that there had been no enemy planes over Los Angeles. Finally the Army issued the War Department report which indicated that between one and five unidentified objects had flown over L.A. These objects were believed to be Japanese. However, at the conclusion of World War II, the Japanese claimed that they did not send aircraft and did not attack Los Angeles or Southern California in February 1942!

Non-military witnesses, some using binoculars, describe a large orange object that moved slowly over the coast between Santa Monica and Long Beach. The object traveled the twenty miles in approximately 30 minutes and then disappeared. An employee of the Los Angeles Herald Express said that he was certain many of the artillery shells had hit their target - but had had no effect. The photograph below seemingly shows the unknown object, caught in the web of searchlights.


The incident has ended up with conspiracy theories attached. Was it a flying saucer attack? Was it a weather balloon? Was it a false flag operation designed to inspire support for the war effort? According to a 1980s investigation, it was just itchy trigger fingers and ‘war nerves’. The incident went on to inspire Steven Spielberg’s first war film, 1941 and demonstrates the power of mass hysteria and media manipulation.



“Jabara, you’re shooting at me!” screamed Lieutenant Dick Frailey in a desperate attempt to get Major James Jabara, the third ranking American ace of the Korean War, to break off his attack. But his frantic radio transmission came too late. Jabara had opened up with his .50-caliber machine guns from a range of 3,000 feet and then followed up his initial trigger squeeze with eight more bursts. His bullets smashed into the left wing, engine and canopy of Frailey’s North American F-86 Sabre. Several rounds passed between Frailey’s arm and chest, ripping through his instrument panel.

Frailey’s engine started to smoke, and his jet rolled over into a dive. He managed to temporarily recover control of the fatally damaged plane and point it toward the Yellow Sea, where he thought he might have a better chance of being rescued.

With 64 missions over Korea under his belt, Frailey was an ex­perienced combat veteran. Ironically, he was flying Jabara’s usual aircraft on this mission and often flew as his wingman.

Frailey had purchased an expensive camera on a recent trip to Japan, intent on becoming the first American pilot to take a still photograph (other than gun camera footage) of a MiG-15 in flight. “I don’t want to eject,” Frailey announced to his flight mates. “I’ve got my new camera with me.” Jabara replied, “Screw the camera, I’ll buy you a new one.”

Frailey had difficulty getting out of his seat in the course of bailing out, but he managed to deploy his parachute just before his feet hit the water. His chute promptly landed on top of him, and he escaped from the web of tangled shroud lines only to discover that one of Jabara’s bullets had punctured his one-man life raft. To make matters worse, he had ejected within range of Communist shore artillery. Fortu­nately for Frailey, a U.S. Air Force Grumman SA-16 amphibian pilot braved the ensuing barrage and plucked him from the water.

The Air Force tried to keep the incident secret because it reflected poorly on Jabara, a celebrated war hero. Moreover, Air Force officials didn’t want the public to know about one of the factors that had contributed to this case of mistaken identity: American pilots frequently violated the rules of engagement prohibiting flight into Chinese airspace. Frailey’s flight leader had taken his four Sabres north of the Yalu River on a MiG sweep. Jabara saw the flight’s contrails tracking from the north across the border to the south and assumed they were a formation of MiGs. His pursuit curve put him on Frailey’s tail.

Jabara was known for his aggressiveness. During one World War II mission on May 28, 1944, his flight of four North American P-51D Mustangs was escorting Allied bombers to targets deep in the heart of Germany when 50 Messerschmitt Me-109s swarmed the bomber formation. Undaunted by the overwhelming odds, Jabara plunged into the furball with reckless abandon. A Luftwaffe pilot shot off Jabara’s canopy during the ensuing melee, yet the Mustang pilot re­mained unfazed. He continued his attack and managed to claim a probable victory despite the fact that he was flying a “convertible” at that point.

“Jabara was the ultimate warrior when it came to going to the sound of the guns without orders,” recalled Lt. Gen. Earl Brown, a Sabre pilot who flew 125 combat missions with the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Korea. “He would go wherever the guns were sounding, looking for some; if you’re with him in a bar fight, he’s just looking for a guy to punch—but if you’re not careful, he might, in his excitement, punch you.”

Many of the top aces in Korea, including Jabara, seemingly suffered from an affliction known as “MiG Madness.” They obsessed over their MiG tallies and worked themselves into a frenzy whenever they saw another aircraft airborne. In the heat of the moment, they sometimes saw what they wanted to see. Hal Fischer, the 25th ranking Korean War ace, wrote about another friendly fire incident in which he observed his wing commander, a man with a “visual problem and a great desire for shooting down MiGs,” fire on two Sabres heading south across the Yalu despite repeated calls over the radio explaining that they were friendly aircraft.

No official Air Force record chronicles the number of friendly fire incidents, but plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to suggest it occurred more than one would expect. On a few occasions, pilots who returned from a mission claiming a kill had their celebrations cut short when their gun camera footage clearly showed an F-86’s identification markings. A senior officer in the 4th Wing, for example, was transferred after a review of his gun camera film from a mission on June 22, 1951, conclusively showed that he had shot down Lieutenant Howard Miller, a pilot in the wing’s 336th Squadron.

In addition to fostering friendly fire incidents, MiG Madness sometimes caused pilots to take unnecessary chances in combat, and consequently resulted in the death of many talented aviators. MiG Madness claimed the life of Major George Davis, then the leading American ace of the war (12 victories), on February 10, 1952. “George’s main goal in life was to shoot down MiGs,” reminisced squadron mate Charlie Mitson. Just prior to Davis’ death, Mitson remembered him “dwelling on his score a lot.” The ace’s quest to build his victory total undoubtedly clouded his judgment during that last fateful mission.

Davis was leading 18 F-86s with orders to screen out any MiGs that attempted to intercept U.N. fighter-bombers attacking targets at Kunu-ri. Perhaps out of boredom, Davis broke away from the formation and took a four-ship flight up to the Yalu looking for action. His decision to embark on a MiG-hunting lark is pretty remarkable, especially since he was the mission commander for the Sabre screen. Moreover, MiGs frequently flew in large formations (often in trains of 60 to 80 aircraft), so Davis should have expected to be outnumbered if his flight encountered any enemy jets.

Sometime later Davis spotted 10 MiGs heading southeast at high speed. Unfortunately for the mission commander, his element leader (No. 3 in the formation) had run out of oxygen and returned to base with his wingman (No. 4). Davis decided to bounce the MiGs even though he and his wingman were outnumbered 5-to-1. He waded into the enemy formation, blasting away. The MiGs scattered, but one hesitated just long enough for Davis to rack up his 13th kill.

A slashing attack at that juncture would have guaranteed an escape option, but Davis was not satisfied with just one victory. He elected to immediately pursue another MiG, which meant he would have to sacrifice his energy advantage. Davis expertly maneuvered his jet behind the fleeing enemy plane and squeezed the trigger. Thick black smoke immediately poured from the MiG’s engine, and the jet entered a steep dive. The Communist pilot never recovered from the hit, and Davis claimed his 14th and final victory.

But Davis had bled away his speed while maneuvering to achieve his two kills in rapid succession, and as a result he was a sitting duck. At 32,000 feet a slow-moving F-86’s turning performance is marginal. Even so, the Sabre ace was attempting to turn to engage a third MiG when a fourth drilled his cockpit with cannon fire. Davis’ jet spun out of control. His wingman repeatedly yelled for him to bail out, but there was no answer, and the F-86 smashed into a Korean mountain.

The Air Force posthumously promoted Davis to lieutenant colonel and awarded him the Medal of Honor for his “indomitable fighting spirit, heroic aggressiveness, and superb courage in engaging the enemy against formidable odds.” His citation observed: “Rather than maintain his superior speed and evade the enemy fire being concentrated on him, he elected to reduce his speed and sought out still a third MiG-15. During this latest attack his aircraft sustained a direct hit, went out of control, then crashed into a mountain 30 miles south of the Yalu River.”

Davis’ refusal to break off his attack even after scoring a kill may have been motivated by a desire to achieve greater public notoriety. The American press treated the first aces of the jet age as knights of the air. They became household names, rivaling in popularity even sports stars of the day. The media piled praise on Sabre pilots in part because they were achieving tangible victories over the Communists during a period when the ground war stagnated.

The Communists chose to challenge American air power principally in “MiG Alley,” the northwestern quarter of North Korea bounded on the west by the Korea Bay and on the east by a line running roughly between the Sui-ho Reservoir and the town of Huichon. MiGs could launch from the Antung complex of airfields in Chinese Manchuria and be ready to fight within a few minutes, whereas Sabre pilots needed to fly a considerable distance just to make it to MiG Alley, let alone fight there. Basically, MiG Alley was at the edge of the F-86’s endurance. Sabre pilots often had less than 20 minutes’ on-station time before they had to return to base.

In an effort to stretch their time on station, many pilots would fly past “bingo” (the minimum fuel required for a safe return to base). To get home, they had to shut down the Sabre’s engine and glide part of the way. The F-86 could glide 69 miles from an altitude of 30,000 feet. The idea was to hopefully arrive over home base with enough fuel to restart the engine and land. But the Sabre’s engine did not always cooperate. The practice was so widespread that one squadron commander noted his unit made a dozen dead-stick landings each week in 1951-52. Squadron, group and wing leaders generally did not punish pilots for flying past bingo fuel. Instead they tended to celebrate it as a sign of an aggressive fighter pilot who pushed the flight envelope.

Captain Robinson “Robbie” Risner, a Korean War ace with eight victories, was one of those celebrated aggressive pilots. On October 22, 1952, he chased four MiGs across the Yalu while escorting a flight of fighter-bombers. Risner finally caught the tail-end Charlie deep inside Man­churia and fired a burst that shattered the MiG’s canopy. The enemy pilot, trying to escape, performed a split-S and managed to pull out of the maneuver 10 feet from the ground. The MiG was so low at that point that Risner saw its jet engine exhaust kick up dust from a dry riverbed. “He was not in very good shape,” recalled Risner, “but he was a great pilot—and he was fighting like a cornered rat!” The MiG pilot pulled his throttle to idle and put out his speed brake in an effort to get the Sabre to overshoot. Risner rolled over the top of the MiG and came down on the other side next to his wingtip. “We were both at idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting,” Risner recalled. “He looked over at me, raised his hand, and shook his fist. I thought, ‘This is like a movie. This can’t be happening!’ He had on a leather helmet, and I could see the stitching in it.” The MiG valiantly evaded his pursuer all the way back to Ta-tung-kou airfield, 35 miles into China. Risner and his wingman, Lieutenant Joe Logan, doggedly pursued him even as the enemy jet flew at 300 knots between two of the airfield’s hangars. Risner eventually got in an opportune shot and peppered the enemy with bullets until he blasted off part of the MiG’s wing. The MiG crashed alongside the runway.

During the high-speed pass between the hangars, Chinese anti-aircraft artillery punctured Lieutenant Logan’s fuel tank. Jet fuel was pouring out of his Sabre, and Risner told him to shut down his engine to save gas and then attempted to push Logan’s aircraft to safety using the nose of his F-86. He had to back off after two attempts, though, because venting fuel and hydraulic fluid from Logan’s crippled jet covered his canopy. Logan bailed out near Cho-do and drowned after becoming entangled in his parachute risers. On his way home, Risner’s F-86 ran out of gas, but he managed to glide back to base and make a successful dead-stick landing.

Many senior Air Force leaders not only condoned but encouraged pilots like Risner to break the rule that prohibited pursuit of MiGs into China. In fact, the top pilots routinely crossed the border. They did so both in hot pursuit and as part of preplanned missions that flagrantly broke the rules. Two-thirds of the 39 American jet aces crossed the Yalu, including the three leading aces. Eight of 11 pilots who scored 10 or more kills admitted after the war that they had crossed into Manchuria. General John Roberts remarked, “There were a lot of airplanes shot down in Korea by guys who…[did] not necessarily play by the rules.”

Sabre pilots were encouraged by the lax attitude of senior leaders, whom they expected would wink at border violations. For the most part their assumption was correct. After watching a radar display that showed two F-86 pilots twice circling a Chinese airfield 100 miles beyond the border, General Frank Everest, commander of the Fifth Air Force from June 1951 to May 1952, pretended to angrily storm into the postflight debrief and threaten the two pilots with court-martial. He then stomped out of the room and slammed the door. Moments later, he poked his head back in the room and said, “And furthermore, if you are going to violate the Manchurian border, for Dog’s sake turn off the damn IFF [identification friend or foe].” Likewise, General Glenn Barcus, the Fifth Air Force commander after Everest, told pilots during one premission brief to “Screw the Yalu!”

Many commanders not only permitted and encouraged border violations but also engaged in the practice themselves. Lieutenant Michael DeArmond, a young F-86 pilot, recalled one commander telling the squadron before a mission that any pilot caught north of the border would face court-martial. On that same mission, the commander led a flight of four Sabres deep into Manchuria and shot down a MiG. Wanting to keep the rules of engagement violation a secret, the officer quizzed DeArmond on the location of the shootdown. DeArmond answered, “Somewhere around the mouth of the Yalu.” The colonel responded, “Son, you have a bright future in the Air Force.”

Colonel Francis Gabreski, the top American ace in the European theater during World War II, chased a MiG over the main runway at Antung. After shooting down the Soviet pilot, Gabreski interrupted his flak-dodging maneuver to execute a victory roll over the Chinese airfield. Gabreski admitted to Colonel David Jones, a Fifth Air Force staff officer and later Air Force chief of staff, that his unit frequently crossed into China. When Colonel Jones expressed his dismay, Gabreski suggested that the colonel or his general was free to fly up to the Yalu and write down tail numbers. Furthermore, he declared that if the Fifth Air Force wanted “to kick ass” for the border violations, they should start with his own. Colonel Harrison Thyng, commander of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing, or­dered a pilot to buzz Antung at an altitude of 10 to 15 feet at Mach .9. He reasoned that the sonic boom would infuriate the MiG pilots and entice them to rise to the bait.

Sabre pilots shied away from strafing MiGs on the ground, perhaps because two unlucky F-80 Shooting Star pilots were court-martialed after they became lost and shot up a Soviet airfield in October 1950. Even so, MiGs did not have to get too far off the ground before American airmen would shoot at them. Georgy Lobov, the first Soviet MiG commander of the war, complained, “Americans were constantly crossing the border.” Lobov’s unit, the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps, lost 26 aircraft over their own airfields during the first six months of 1952. American planes would often circle at high altitude over the mouth of the Yalu and swoop down on Communist pilots after seeing dust swirling on their airfields, an indication that MiGs were taking off. The Soviets were so frustrated by the aerial blockade that they simply kept their jets on the ground when Sabres were re­ported overhead.

Sabre gun camera footage sometimes showed MiG-15s with their landing gear extended, with other enemy planes plainly visible in the background, parked on the tarmac of Chinese airfields. Understandably, this type of incriminating evidence tended to get “lost” or destroyed.

Air Force officials mostly turned a blind eye to flights into Manchuria. But they did haphazardly and inconsistently enforce the restriction. Captain Joe McConnell, the highest-scoring American ace of the conflict, was grounded for two weeks for repeatedly crossing the border. The 51st Wing commander, Colonel John Mitchell, intervened and forced McConnell’s superior to allow him to fly again. Usually Air Force leaders cracked down only after an embarrassing incident occurred that they could not ignore.

On January 23, 1953, cannon fire from a MiG broke the right arm of Lt. Col. Edwin Heller, commander of the 16th Fighter Squadron, during a sortie over Manchuria. Bullets also severed his Sabre’s control stick and disabled its ejection system. Heller’s F-86 went into an uncontrollable dive from 40,000 feet. He struggled to disconnect his seatbelt, stood up in his seat and started trying to claw his way through an eight-inch hole in the canopy—at which point the 650-mph wind stream sucked him right through the opening. Among other injuries he suffered during the bailout, Heller’s left leg was fractured when it struck the horizontal stabilizer. Peasants captured the downed pilot, who endured 28 months in Chinese captivity.

Heller’s shootdown over Chinese territory resulted in diplomatic protests that jeopardised ongoing peace talks. At about the same time, Swiss observers traveling through Manchuria to Panmunjon for the peace talks witnessed a dogfight well north of the Yalu. Their complaints finally forced senior Air Force officials to take action.

Captain Dolph Overton, an ace with possibly the hottest streak in Air Force history, became the scapegoat. Overton shot down five MiGs in just four days (January 21-24, 1953). During a visit to an Air Force radar site on Cho-do, he had learned where MiGs orbited while waiting to land, how long they stayed airborne and how they made their approach to landing. Overton positioned his jet above the MiGs’ landing pattern, flying a racetrack pattern with minimal manoeuvring to lessen the possibility that the sun’s glint off his Sabre’s wings would give away his position. Then he waited to pounce on his prey. He turned off his IFF, hoping to fool enemy radar operators into thinking his aircraft was just another MiG getting ready to land.

Overton also tried to keep his jet between the sun and the MiGs in order to arrive at their 6 o’clock position undetected. All of his kills were achieved at close range without the use of the radar-ranging feature of the Sabre’s gunsight. “They never seemed to see us or recognize us until too late,” he boasted.

The day after his fifth kill, Overton was called into Colonel Mitchell’s office. He responded truthfully when asked, “Were you over the river yesterday?” Under pressure from higher headquarters, Mitchell grounded the ace. He also gave Overton a terrible efficiency report for his “inability to follow orders,” took away his captain’s bars and sent him home without decorations and without official recognition of his five victories. The Air Force eventually did bless Overton’s claims, but it took almost a year (normally victory claims were processed, reviewed and confirmed within a month).

Mitchell’s actions were an extreme example of hypocrisy. The wing commander had not only condoned flights across the border, he had personally participated in them. Overton’s treatment was particularly unfair because on the day in question he was flying as the No. 4 aircraft in a four-ship flight—in other words, he was just a wingman. Overton remarked, “I know that shit flows downhill, but it seemed to me that this was a long way down.” Within a year he resigned his commission and left the service. The squadron was grounded for a short period, but no other pilot was individually punished—possibly because the ground crews threatened to mutiny after learning of Overton’s fate.

Not all top pilots violated the rules of engagement in search of MiGs. In the foreword to MiG Alley to Mu Chia Pass: Memoirs of a Korean War Ace, which chronicles the air exploits of nine-victory ace Cecil Foster, Overton wrote: “Sometimes the MiGs just did not leave China. You cannot shoot a plane down if it does not fly when you are flying or does not fly into your combat zone. During those inactive times, some pilots ventured across the Yalu River into China hoping to engage in enemy activity. Cecil Foster never crossed the Yalu illegally.” Just the fact that Overton celebrates Foster’s disciplined adherence to the rules as a way to testify to his character suggests that the practice of crossing into Manchuria was widespread and routine. “[Our pilots] were coming back with blackened gun ports after every mission,” recalled one officer. “That meant they were shooting at MiGs every time they were up there. That couldn’t happen unless they were on the wrong side of the border.”

The punitive actions taken against Overton failed to deter other F-86 pilots from continuing to break the rules of engagement. On April 7, 1953, Hal Fischer, a double ace, spotted four MiGs crossing the border into Korea. The enemy jets turned around and escaped back into China, but Fischer gave chase anyway. He cleared his wingman to return home without him after the latter reported that he was low on fuel. Flying alone, Fischer continued to press the attack even after three more MiGs appeared. Official Soviet records describe what happened next: “At 1640 upon approach to Danu airfield, Senior Lieutenant Berelidze’s pair attacked one F-86 which was pursuing Senior Lieutenant Ugryumov at an altitude of 1,000-1,500 meters. Senior Lieutenant Berelidze shot down one F-86 from a distance of 400 meters at a 14 quartering angle. The pilot: Captain Harold Edward Fischer, service number A02204126, Flight Commander, 39th Air Squadron, 51st Wing, was taken prisoner.” The Chinese held Fischer in solitary confinement until June 1955. He had more than two years to reflect on his bout of MiG Madness.

Undoubtedly, the aggressiveness of the leading American Korean War aces in pursuit of MiGs propelled them to the top of the pecking order and helped secure air superiority for U.N. forces. For that, they should be honoured. But tales of friendly fire, rule-breaking and recklessness blemish the stellar combat records of these legendary airmen.

For some time now William Hamper has been a regular Eastman and Buzz Rickson's customer. His working pseudonym for the past 38 years has been Billy Childish - one of the few remaining bastions of British originality and talent today. A cult figure in America, Europe and Japan, he is by far the most prolific painter, poet, and song-writer of his generation. In a twenty year period he has published over 40 collections of critically acclaimed poetry, recorded over 100 full-length independent LP’s and produced over 2000 paintings.

Born in 1959 in Chatham, Kent, he left Secondary education at 16 an undiagnosed dyslexic. Refused an interview at the local art school he entered the Naval Dockyard at Chatham as an apprentice stonemason. During the following six months he produced some six hundred drawings. On the basis of this work he was accepted into St Martin’s School of Art to study painting. However, his acceptance was short-lived and before completing the course he was expelled for his outspokenness and unorthodox working methods. With no qualifications and no job prospects Childish then spent some 12 years developing his own highly personal writing style and producing his art independently.

Since then he has had solo and group exhibitions internationally including New York, London, Seoul and Berlin. He was included in British Art Show 5, which toured throughout four cities - Edinburgh, Southampton, Cardiff, and Birmingham. In 2010, he was the subject of major concurrent survey exhibitions at the ICA in London and White Columns in New York, and in 2011 he became Artist in Residence at the Chatham Historic Dockyard where he currently works.




As fan's of Billy's work across all genres it was a pleasure to speak to him recently regarding his work and patronage of eastman products.


To define you as eclectic in your influences and projects would be a huge understatement, in your view does creativity have to be approached in a wide variety of media?

No, I just happen to get bored if I do anything every day. As a kid I wanted to be painter as I didn’t fancy a ‘real’ job. Music came along in 77 and I was happy to be included. But we were never with an agency or big label – our tours were 2 weeks tops in the back of a transit round Germany etc. Writing, again, I just write when I feel like it, but within that I am very disciplined and can apply myself with quite an intense focus - but then I need a break and to do something else. This suits me but isn't a 'have to' for everyone else.

Would you define one particular facet of your work as more important to you than the others?

Yes, painting is nearest my basic nature.

You've been an Eastman and Buzz Rickson's customer for some time now, what initially attracted you to the brands?

I found out about Eastman from a friend who recommended I take a look. As a boy I used to buy old military jackets and hats and wore some of that stuff as a punk in 77. As a teenager through to the 90’s I bought most my cloths in Oxfam, as I hated regular fashion. I then began to notice people who made stuff with the same attention to detail as the old gear I liked. I found out about the Buzz Rickson from Eastman Leather. Really you vote with your money & patronage, and I vote for people who care about what they do, be it art, cooking, or any type of making. If your going to engage in materialism make it good materialism, not careless stuff often made by underpaid children in the 3rd world without piss breaks. Of course there can be compromise, but I really try to engage in life with love and prefer people who do the same.


You have a strong sense of style that is clearly motivated by the context of the clothing you wear as much as the aesthetic, can you explain why this is important?

In a strange way it's not that important to me. I often don’t remember what I've put on in the morning - or look like - unless I'm confronted with myself in a shop window. All of my eclectic choices are based on liking the colours in the weave and weft, or a button. I've always been like this; when I was seven I used to wear an old fedora that I brought for 3d from a local jumble sale. I liked it because it was of the old world and coloured green.
I was one of the few punks to wear shorts (8th army) and sometimes an old homburg hat. To understand where I'm coming from I'd have to say I have a childlike relationship with stuff. There is no mandate other than some stuff fires my imagination and things that are real and cared about allow my imagination fuller reign.

Your style could almost be described as a reaction to the burgeoning subcultures during your formative years in the 1970's - glam, punk and so on. Is this a conscious move to relocate yourself in a different era?

I've covered this a bit, but for sure I liked all the old soldiers who worked in the dockyard when I was 16. I was an apprentice stone mason in the yard 1976 and it was normal to wear an old WWII beret and work duffel coats from back then. (my overalls were WW11 RAF,). I certainly felt more affinity with the old boys than my contemporaries.

You made a fantastic Super 8 film based on the British retreat from Mons in WWI, can you tell us more about the motivation behind this?

I was a RE cadet when I was 12 and have always liked a bit of serge. I've been a member of a living history group, The Great War Society for many years, and in 2004 we did an 80 mile march in full kit to mark the 90th anniversary of the retreat from Mons – also raising money for the British Legion (as a punk one of our venues in 1977 was the British Legion Hall in Chatham). For the march I decided to borrow my mates old super 8 camera he bought at the Rochester flea market and bought 10 reels of out-of-date Russian super 8 stock on the cheap. I was run ragged as I was also on road duty on my old bike, but I got some shots in and luckily it all came good. I recorded the soundtrack on an old cassette recorder and dubbed that on and we had a little story.


You seem to approach all of your creative projects in a specifically old fashioned manner, the phrase, 'if a jobs worth doing, its worth doing well' springs to mind, is this something you adhere to?

That’s nearly true. But I'm no stickler – I never had a lesson in anything and really found my own way copying mates (and the masters). I'm fast and a bit of a bodger – but I bodge with love and now have somehow learned to do some of this stuff with ease and grace. What I admire in others is their care and ability to measure (I couldn’t really manage to be a stone mason as I've got no maths. I'm dyslexic, left school at 16 was not allowed in the school choir as they said I was tone deaf, and I was thrown out of art school. So I'm a bit of a contradiction.

Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?

I'm just finishing a new LP – we still record on analogue and have always made our releases on vinyl. I have a solo show of paintings opening in New York this September. I've made a hand coloured etching edition to tie in with this and as a fund raiser for the Whitchapel Gallery in London. There's a new bronze edition about to come out through L-13 (skull and femur) + some affordable prints of paintings. I've also been writing a novel about 77 /78 punk rock – 7 drafts and 4 years in now - and have numerous other side projects I'm messing with as well.



Billy's latest exhibition entitled 'Flowers, nudes and Birch trees' is currently showing at Lehmann Maupin in New York from
September 10 - October 31 2015

His latest collection of poetry titled '
In the Teeth of Deamons' was published this year by Tangerine Press, Tooting



In the years during and preceding the Second World War the U. S. Navy developed and issued a multitude of different styles of cold weather gear and clothing. Winter jackets, commonly referred to as “Deck Jackets,” became the most cherished clothing articles of sailors during WWII and among collectors today. Most of the deck jackets used in WWII evolved from a dark blue, waterproof, zip-front design that was very similar in appearance to the U. S. Army’s Winter Combat Jacket (Tanker Jacket). In 1943, the second version of this Deck Jacket design was introduced, featuring a new-style front closure that was both an improvement over the zipper closure and a distinguishing characteristic of this jacket style that would later be considered a design classic.

This new Deck Jacket took into account the lessons learned from several years of warfare at sea. By the time America was actually at war and fighting in 1942, it was concluded that Navy personal who found themselves on shore or beach landing operations needed to be instantly and obviously recognized as U. S. Navy personnel when viewed mixed-in with various Army troops. Likewise, the USN had such different working uniforms from the U. S. Army that it was also feared GI’s unfamiliar with the Navy clothing might mistake USN personnel on the beach as enemy troops, many of whom were themselves also blue-clad navy forces manning the coastal defences that U. S. forces were assaulting. This potentially deadly dilemma was rectified in late 1942, whereby the newer-production zip-front Deck Jackets leaving the factories had the upper back area boldly stenciled with the identification text “U. S. NAVY” in block letters using an opaque, semi-reflective, silver-coloured silk screening ink.


The revised Deck Jacket of 1943 was exclusively produced with the silver stencilling across the back, unlike the earlier jackets it replaced. It retained the waterproof, celluloid plastic interlining (sandwiched between the outer shell and Melton wool inner lining) of the earlier jacket style, but the most recognisable improvement incorporated in the 1943 Deck Jacket was the new style frontal closing method. The earlier jackets closed via a metal zipper. During very cold weather conditions, any collected water spray on the zipper would immediately freeze, making the zippers very difficult, if not impossible to operate. Likewise, deck personnel wore heavy gloves in cold weather, the wearing of which often made operating the zipper slide unduly hard, and if the zippers were ice-caked with frozen spray, more often than not they would simply fail completely. The solution to this problem was found in the typical fireman’s coats of the era. Naturally, firemen wore heavy gloves and were often coated in water from head to toe, and in winter, this water froze to their coats, yet they could fasten or unfasten their coats without great difficulty. The fireman’s coats, however, fastened not with zippers but with a metal hook-style clasp fastener that pivoted on a hinge pin and folded around and through a metal bracket. It was this same fastener design that the U. S. Navy incorporated into the 1943 Deck Jackets.


There are a few variation in the production of this "hook" type as well, the vast majority of original issued jackets includes the "D" patch pockets and single hook at the bottom of the jacket, however similar "hook" types without the "D" pockets exist and some have double hook enclosure at the bottom. This is no surprise as the patterns are usually modified to suit the situation and varies from one manufacturer to another.

This new Deck Jacket became synonymous with WWII U. S. Navy operations around the world and has since become a prized collectors item.



The 80th was the first USAAF fighter group to be stationed in Burma since the Japanese ran out the famous Flying Tigers in 1942. The 80th fighter group was unmistakably a vital element in the victory in Burma. During its two years in combat, this group, which called itself the "Burma Banshees", kept the supply lines open to China. These planes and pilots fought a forgotten campaign over the ‘Hump’ of the Himalayas and into Burma from late 1943 through the end of the war, engaging Japanese Army aircraft over isolated jungles and unmapped green hell in support of General Stilwell’s Chinese Troops and General Merrill’s Marauders.

The 80th had a motto, "Angels on our Wings," because its primary mission was to escort and conduct combat air patrols for transports but the group's nickname, the "Burma Banshees," sent a message to its Japanese enemies - when they heard the wailing sound of a Banshee's machine, death and destruction were coming their way. Their distinctive ghost skull was nice contrast to the more traditional shark jaws often seen on Warhawks in U.S. and British service.


The 80th Pursuit Group was born in the wake of Pearl Harbor shortly after America's entry into World War II. It was commissioned on January 13, 1942 along with dozens of other fighting units under a special order of Congress. Less than a month later, on February 9, 1942, the 80th was activated at Selfridge Field, Michigan, with the 88th, 89th, and 90th Pursuit Squadrons. The first several months of the 80th's history were quite uneventful. Its ranks, almost totally enlisted, performed administrative and organisational functions while waiting for planes and pilots. During this period, on May 12, 1942, the Department of the Army changed the designation of the group and its squadrons from "pursuit" to "fighter." In July of 1942, the pilots arrived and began training, first in the P-47 Thunderbolt and later in the Curtis P-40. By 1943 they were ready for combat.

On May 10, the 80th shipped out of New York harbor headed for Karachi, India. From there the journey continued over land. From September, 1943, until March, 1944, the 80th established its base of operations in the Assam Valley just outside of northern Burma. Since its main purpose was the defence of supply routes to China, the majority of missions flown were patrols in support of the cargo airlift between Assam and Kunming, China. The 80th also provided offensive strikes in the Huwang Valley of northern Burma to protect allied engineers building the Ledo Road, a land supply route through the Burmese Jungle. The official mission of the 80th Fighter Group was soon extended to include offensive strikes in northern Burma to prevent the establishment of enemy bases from which Allied airlift planes might be attacked. Therefore, in the months that followed, the group launched several attacks on Myitkyina Airdrome in an effort to reduce Japanese attacks on the Hump cargo planes. Myitkyina, the only all-weather strip in northern Burma, was the principal Japanese base for the defence of Burma from the north. Japanese opposition was not the only enemy. In the dense jungles temperatures sometimes soared to 140 degrees and the humidity hovered near 100 percent. Crews worked in swarms of beetles, flies, and gnats. At night, sleeping required the use of mosquito netting. Supplies came by ship from half way around the world and were nearly impossible to obtain. Finally, disease and fungi claimed more troops than opposing enemy fire.

By the time the 80th Fighter Group left Myitkyina it had compiled an impressive combat record. The Banshees launched 18,873 planes on 4,719 missions, destroyed more than 200 bridges and destroyed 80 enemy planes in the air or on the ground. It received the Distinguished Unit Citation for a most remarkable defence of a critical Indian oil refinery. This fighter group kept the supply lines open and helped Allied bombers and ground troops defeat a Japanese onslaught that at one point in this war seemed unstoppable. By the spring of 1945, targets were becoming scarce as the war was drawing to a close. Shortly after the end of the war in September, the 80th returned to the United States and was deactivated on November 3, 1945.



West Coast artist Bruce Minney was born October 2, 1928 making him an impressionable teenager during the years of WWII. In 1946 he was accepted to the prestigious California School of Arts and Crafts. However, after graduation work as a firefighter left him unfulfilled artistically so in 1955 he packed up his family and moved to the mecca of advertising, paperback and pulp publishing – New York City.

In the days of Mad Men, men's adventure magazines thrived. With titles like Stag, Male, For Men Only, and Man's Illustrated their crazy covers and even crazier stories were distinctly American. Minney spent 20 years working as an illustrator for men's adventure magazines painting beautiful scantily clad women, gorillas, lions, tigers, bears, elephants, alligators, headhunters, Nazis, airplanes, aircraft carriers, tanks, guns, and many explosions. His style evoked boys own adventure and spoke to men on a base level. As the 1960s wore on and US involvement in Vietnam increased and magazines like Penthouse became more explicit, circulations for the men’s adventure magazines dropped and jobs were harder to come by. One of the last men’s adventure magazine illustration Bruce did was for National Lampoon in November 1970. The illustration is a brutal, acerbic parody in the men’s adventure style set in Vietnam.

He worked another 20 years painting covers for all kinds of paperbacks, over 400 in total, including western (The Lone Ranger), historical romance, action, military (Hornblower), biography, and Gothic horror. He truly was the man who painted everything.

His populist hyperrealist style, while similar to that of Mort Knustler and others, has been embraced and preserved, and is now highly collectable. The winner of numerous awards and the shaper of men and boys for a generation or better, he died on August 5, 2013.



On May 12th 1940, five obsolete Fairey Battle light bombers of No.12 Squadron RAF took off from their base near Amifontaine in France. Under the command of Flying Officer Donald Garland, the five Battles attacked a strategically vital bridge over the Albert Canal in Belgium. Braving their way through intense anti-aircraft fire and decimated by German fighters immediately after releasing their bombs, the horrifically outperformed British aircraft were still able to deliver their bombs on target. Only one Battle returned to base. Of the crew of the lead aircraft, both Flying Officer Garland as pilot and Sergeant Thomas Gray as his observer were awarded their nation’s highest decoration for bravery – the Victoria Cross. But with them throughout, sharing the danger as he kept up a constant stream of fire from his single Vickers K machine gun, was 20 year old air gunner Leading Aircraftsman Lawrence Reynolds. He died with his crew. As he was deemed not to be in a position of leadership or influence, he was the only one of the three not to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The vital role played by the air gunner has often been tragically left in the shadow of that of the pilot. Gunners required far less training and were therefore cheaper and easier to replace, and were not given powers of captaincy within the crew of an aircraft. Whilst there were many roles within multi-crew aircraft which also necessitated manning a machine gun, such as navigator, observer, radio operator or bombardier, it is the purpose of this article to examine only the air gunner: the brave individual whose sole job was to keep enemy fighters at bay.

It is easier to appreciate the gunner’s role within his crew by examining the crew itself: taking a typical USAAF bomber such as the B17, ten men were required to operate the aircraft. This consisted of two pilots, a navigator and a bombardier, all of whom were commissioned officers. A flight engineer and a radio operator flew alongside four dedicated gunners; these last six crew members were all non-commissioned. Aside from the two pilots, every crew member had at least one machine gun position immediately to hand in the event of attack by enemy aircraft.

For those conscripted into the armed forces in the Second World War, flying seemed like an attractive alternative to the infantry to many. With this in mind, applicants for officer aircrew roles within the USAAF were required to have completed a minimum of two years’ college education, although this was reduced to an entrance examination once casualties began to mount. Gunners were not expected to have as much of an academic background and therefore tended – although it certainly was not a rule – to come from less affluent backgrounds.

After basic training, those selected to become gunners would attend one of the USAAF gunnery schools. This consisted of six weeks of studying the operation and maintenance of both gun and turret, ballistics, enemy vehicle recognition and most importantly, live firing. Gunners trained to fire at land, sea and air targets as, although their primary role was no doubt the defense of their aircraft, there were also obvious offensive capabilities against land and sea targets inherent in their new role. For the USAAF, this same gunnery course formed part of the training for navigators, bombardiers, radio operators and flight engineers. At peak output, the USAAF was training 600 gunners every five weeks.

Comparisons can be drawn to the system employed in Germany for training gunners within the Luftwaffe. In the early days of the Second World War, new recruits were first assigned to a Flieger-Ersatzabteilung, or Aircrew Replacement Battalion, where after uniform issue and medical exams, the traditional core military skills of drill, physical training and weapons handling were also accompanied by basic navigation and radio operation. At the end of six months of training, recruits were streamed with those considered suitable being selected for pilot training. The remainder received a further two months training at an Aircrew Development Regiment, being instructed in further navigation and radio operation as well as technical training and gunnery. Later in the war, the streaming process was undertaken far earlier and potential gunners found themselves at the Aircrew Development Regiment almost immediately.

Those who were then selected to specialize as gunners, often accompanied by a number of individuals who had failed to make the grade during pilot training, were now sent to the Luftwaffe’s five month course on air gunnery. This involved familiarity with weapons ranging from handguns up to air-to-air machine gunnery in aircraft. The latter was initially with gun cameras but then progressed onto towed targets with real ammunition. Airborne training was often conducted concurrently with other branches, with students and instructors of several specializations all crammed into a single training aircraft. Upon completion of training, gunners were sent to their front line squadrons.

Across many roles of every air force gunners suffered horrific casualties, notable in the statistics of RAF Bomber Command in Western Europe, through Soviet light bomber gunners on the Eastern Front to the gunners of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier borne torpedo and dive bombers. Not afforded the rank or pay of their commissioned comrades, gunners took all of the same risks. All crews were fiercely and rightly proud of their vital air gunners.

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