Found this artifact of WWII, produced by William Wyler and introduced by James Stewart, like my dad and me a Mercersburg boy. It’s called “Thunderbolt,” about the P-47 fighter plane and the record of the 12th Air Force in the Italian Campaign.
So many coincidences. Stewart roomed with a cousin of ours at Mercersburg. He was a bomber pilot. My dad was a P-47 pilot in the 12th Air Force. I happened to be living in Dayton, Ohio, when a monument to the 12th was dedicated at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Got to see the moving ceremony. My dad and I both laid eyes on a P-47 in the Wright-Patt museum at the same moment, me for the first time ever and he for the first time since the war. Subsequently — and with still more coincidence — my consulting career took me to Evansville, Indian, where P-47s were built in a serpentine plant now used incongruously for the manufacture of air conditioners.
So many disconnects. I recently published a book about my granddad’s WWI experiences.
Could not do this for the much more recent experience of my dad. He didn’t write an account. So many many things I just don’t know. He flew in Africa, Sicily, and Italy. No specifics beyond 88 combat missions. He got a Purple Heart in Naples Harbor. It always embarrassed him because he got it for being reckless and stupid, putting others at risk. All I have of his experience is scraps, anecdotes and vignettes of life as a fighter pilot. No book is possible for him. Only what I was lucky enough to get when he’d had one more than his usually strictly regulated quota of two martinis.
Memories of flak so thick you knew you were dead and all that was left was flying the mission till they got you. Watching helplessly as Germans shot your friends in their parachutes. Crashing a stolen Spitfire on a beer run. Escaping a volcanic eruption in Sicily flying down a flight of steps on a Harley you didn’t know how to ride. Twenty first birthday back in early flight training in the states when they turned off the runway lights because they forgot you were up there. Flying multiple missions on a single day at Montecassino and amazed that Germans were still shooting at you from the ruins after twelve hours of bombing. Vain enough to wear a dress uniform on missions because you’d heard that the Germans employed beautiful women to interrogate captured Allied pilots. Flying so low on strafing runs that you see the terror of truck drivers you were killing with .50 caliber machine guns. Toasting a friend who didn’t return with the squadron by flinging his glass into the fireplace and then dividing up his belongings. Being shocked at the obscene language of W.A.S.Ps. Passing out on a dive bomb run and coming to moments from impact with an automatic stick move that flipped the plane into a series of six or seven snap rolls 500 feet off the ground: then the squadron commander’s dry voice: “If you’re through showing off, Lieutenant Laird, please rejoin the formation.” Witnessing a pilot you thought was a good man shooting down his squadron commander because the opportunity arose and he took it. And more. As I said, scraps and anecdotes. He never talked to me about the screaming nightmares of fire in the cockpit. No book in this sometime spillage.
Why I’m posting this stilted movie about the first Thunderbolts.
And then one day, in 2008, long after his death, I really did get to see, and hear, a P-47 fly.
Not all I have of my dad by any means, but all I have of his war mostly.