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Into the Air
The night before the barnstormers came to Jan Zumbach's hometown, he was so excited he couldn't sleep. No flying machine had set down in little Brodnica before, and thirteen-year-old Jan, in the spring of 1928, had never laid eyes on one of those aviators he had heard and read so much about. When the sun finally rose the next morning, Jan and his family proceeded to the large meadow outside of town. It was National Defense Week in ever threatened, ever patriotic Poland, and nearly all the men, women, and children in Brodnica were on hand for the celebration. Flags were flying, tents had been erected for local officials and honored guests, a military band was working its way through its repertoire of polkas, marches, waltzes, and mazurkas, with a little opera thrown in for variety's sake. On the edge of the meadow, behind a cordon of uniformed soldiers, sat two gleaming Polish-built Potez 25 biplanes. Just looking at them made Jan all the more eager for the band to desist and the show to begin.
At long last, the bandleader laid down his baton. The crowd hushed. Jan and the other youngsters pressed forward as far as they could. The pilots, four of them, adjusted their leather helmets, pulled down their goggles, and climbed into their twin, open-cockpit two-seaters. With cool and practiced waves to the spellbound audience, they started off in a white blast of exhaust and a tractorlike roar. The propwash whipped off men's hats and fluttered women's skirts. Wingtip-to-wingtip, the two planes bounced over the meadow, then lifted and soared, taking Jan's heart with them as they climbed. Seconds later, still in close formation, they swooped low over the crowd.
Jan was one of the few who did not hurl himself facedown on the grass. Transfixed, he watched as the planes climbed again, looped-the-loop, then plunged into twin, heart-stopping nosedives. When they were what seemed only a few feet from the hard earth, they pulled up and were gone, vanished over the eastern horizon. In their place were silence and a gentle late-spring breeze. Then, while the crowd still gaped and began to wonder if the show was over, the Potez 25s exploded out of the west in a gut-wrenching, tree-level grand finale that had the men cheering at the top of their lungs and the women nervously fanning themselves.
And it was there and then, in that meadow, at that instant, that young Jan Zumbach, hovering somewhere between laughter and tears, "swore by all the saints that I must, I would, be a pilot."
At just about this same time, in a town called Ostrów Wielkopolski, 100 or so miles southwest of Brodnica, thirteen-year-old Miroslaw Ferig was haunting the local aeroklub, watching planes take off and land, waiting impatiently for the day when he would be in the cockpit. Mika Ferig had always enjoyed testing gravity's limits. From an early age, he liked to teeter-arms outstretched like a tightrope walker's-on the narrow iron railing around the fourth-floor balcony of his family's apartment. Sometimes, he would swing by one arm from the same railing, terrifying his mother as she worked in her little garden, thirty or forty feet below. Mika, the mischievous ringleader of a group of neighborhood boys, was always the one to come up with daredevil games somewhere above ground level-scaling the red-tile roofs of other buildings in the apartment complex, or leaping to the ground from the garden sheds in back. "He was absolutely fearless," said Edward Idzior, Mika's closest childhood chum.
Budding aviators like Jan Zumbach and Mika Feric (and more than a few girls) were everywhere in Poland in those days. Indeed, by the late 1920s, the mere idea of flying, of a perfect escape from the mundane realities of life, was captivating young minds and souls all over the globe. Charles Lindbergh's nonstop, transatlantic solo flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927 epitomized the romanticism and excitement of aviation. But other countries had lesser Lindberghs. Two years before the Lone Eagle landed at Orly, for instance, a young Polish military pilot named Boleslaw Orlimski flew solo (with several stops) from Warsaw to Tokyo-a distance of about 4,000 miles. Orlimski's feat didn't come close to matching Lindbergh's, but he and others like him were local heroes all the same.
The fascination of young people with airplanes and flying was to have significant implications for the Polish military, for Polish society in general, and, in World War II, for the world. Historically, Poland's most dashing figures had come from the cavalry. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Poland was a great power, mounted warriors were the key to its military might. Foreign armies, from the Turks to the Teutonic Knights, envied and feared the Polish cavalry. Of particular renown were the Husaria, who rode caparisoned steeds into battle and wore plumed helmets, jewel-encrusted breastplates, and large arcs of eagle feathers that seemed to rise, winglike, out of their backs. (The feather-covered steel frames were actually attached to their saddles.) In their day, the Husaria were the equivalent of Hitler's Panzer units: heavily armed, highly mobile, intended to crush enemy defenses in lightning charges. In one famous seventeenth-century battle, a Polish force of 3,500, including some 2,500 Husaria, crushed a Swedish army of 11,000.
To generations of young people, Poland was the Husaria. But to those who came of age after World War I-when the country was finally freed from more than a century of subjugation by the Germans, Austrians, and Russians-the cavalry had become a relic. The sons and daughters of a reborn nation were looking for new, more modern heroes. They found them in the air.
That the romance of flying attracted women as well as men made aviation all the more appealing to the men. In 1928, Witold Urbanowicz was a promising young military cadet from a modestly well-off family who was headed, as was expected of him, into the cavalry. One day, he and several classmates were at a restaurant near the Warsaw aerodrome. Sitting on the restaurant terrace, they watched as a Polish Air Force plane performed complicated, low-altitude maneuvers overhead. Witold and his companions could not help noticing that the pilot and his aerobatics had the full and admiring attention of a group of attractive young women at a nearby table. One of the women cast a jaundiced eye Urbanowicz's way. "You can't do such things on a horse!" she observed. It wasn't long before Urbanowicz decided to forget the cavalry and throw in his lot with the air force.
Unlike the cavalry, regarded by wealthy landowners and their sons as their private domain, aviation, in the more egalitarian Polish society of the 1920s, was open to just about anyone. Government-sponsored aeroklubs had been established all over the country, offering gliders, airplanes, and free lessons to those who wanted to fly. Among the teenagers who took advantage of the opportunity was Jadwiga Pilsudska, the pretty teenage daughter of Poland's chief of state, Marshal Józef Pilsudski. A cavalryman, Pilsudski did not approve of his daughter's soaring ambition, and he was not the only parent who felt that way. The mothers of Zumbach, Ferig, and countless other would-be pilots were similarly appalled.
When Zumbach first announced his aerial plans, his mother, the widow of a wealthy landowner, exploded. Aviators were drunkards and madmen! Jan's duty was to help his brothers manage their late father's large estate. "Yet, try as she might, my mother lost her battle to make me forget about flying," Zumbach reported. "She never stood a chance." At nineteen, he forged her signature on papers authorizing him to enlist in the military. After a few months of training in the infantry, he was accepted into the Polish Air Force academy at Dfblin. Mika Ferig's mother, a teacher whose Croatian husband had abandoned the family, was similarly horrified at her son's fascination with flying, and, as with Mrs. Zumbach, the first she heard of her son's application to Dfblin was after he had been accepted.
Deblin sits on a flat, grassy plain about 70 miles south of Warsaw, rimmed in the far distance by the low Bobrowniki Hills. The academy's headquarters is an eighteenth-century manor house that Tsar Nicholas I seized in 1825 after exiling the nobleman-owner to Siberia for plotting a Polish rebellion against Russia. Five years later, the tsar gave the white-columned house to a Russian general who had suppressed yet another uprising against the Russian occupiers. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, the new government turned the house and its magnificent lawns and gardens over to the air force.
With so many young Poles interested in aviation, Deblin had a wealth of applicants in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1936, the year Zumbach and Ferig entered the school, more than 6,000 young men were competing for only 90 places. The new cadets came from every level of society. Landowners' sons joined the sons of peasants, teachers, miners, and artists. As soon as they arrived, these young men who represented Poland's future found themselves immersed in Poland's past. They dined in the 200-year-old manor house, with its parquet floors and crystal chandeliers, and received instruction in the art of being a gentleman as well as in the art of flying. They were taught that an officer, gentleman, and pilot always brings flowers when calling on a lady and always kisses the lady's hand-just so-on arrival and departure. An officer, gentleman, and pilot did not gamble, drink to excess, boast, or issue IOUs. At glittering formal balls in the academy's ballroom, the cadets practiced what they learned. They waltzed and danced the mazurka with fashionable young ladies. They kissed the women's hands and spoke of gentlemanly things. "Remember," the Cadet's Code declared, "that you are a worthy successor of the Husaria and of the pioneers of Polish aviation. Remember to be chivalrous always and everywhere."
Deblin graduates appear to have taken most of their social training to heart-even if some did cut corners on the code's more puritanical aspects. Although discipline at the academy was famously strict, many cadets managed to become as well known for their off-duty escapades and for thumbing their noses at military authority as for their flying skills. To show off for girlfriends, cadet pilots were known to fly under bridges and between church spires, and if, while airborne, they happened to spot any stuffy, self-important cavalry officers riding through the countryside, they might buzz them to spook their mounts.
Prominent among the hell-raisers at Dfblin in the late 1930s were Zumbach, Feric, and Witold Lokuciewski, a former cavalry officer with the dark, boyish good looks of a movie star and the raffish attitude of a born gambler. Lokuciewski, who came from an old landed family in eastern Poland, had been one of those cavalrymen whose horses were deliberately panicked by low-flying planes from Deblin. But instead of cursing the pilots, as others did, Lokuciewski (who wasn't particularly fond of horses to begin with) dreamed of shedding his equine, earthbound existence and taking to the sky. When he got the chance to go to Deblin, he grabbed it.
Known as "the Three Musketeers" during World War II, Zumbach, Feric, and Lokuciewski were in almost constant trouble during their days as cadets. Class standing was based in part on a cadet's personal conduct and his willingness to follow orders. In the class of 1938, Lokuciewski finished next to last, Ferig eighth from last, and Zumbach thirty-eighth from last. According to a Polish Air Force historian, while "the Three Musketeers" were at Deblin their main interests were "wine, women, song-and only then study."
But, oh, how they could fly! They not only survived their Deblin training-which was as grueling and difficult as any flight training on earth-they excelled at it. After rigorous classroom courses in aerodynamics, navigation, physics, and mechanics, they learned to operate a variety of aircraft. But the primitive, open-cockpit trainers they flew tended to be old and were prone to malfunction-all of which, in a kind of aeronautical Darwinism, made better pilots of those who managed to survive. Of necessity, staying alert, using one's eyes, and improvisation were important parts of a Polish pilot's training. "We were trained to scan the sky, to look everywhere, not just in front of us," said one Polish flier. "At one time, I could turn my head almost a hundred and eighty degrees-really! a hundred and eighty!-watching for the enemy." American and British pilots who later flew with the Poles testified that they seemed to see the sky-the whole sky-better than anyone else.
Polish pilots also learned to be daring. In one exercise, Jan Zumbach was ordered to fly in a close, wing-to-wing formation with another aircraft, then to turn back and head directly at a third plane-nose-to-nose, at full speed. He was not to veer off until it was just short of too late. Following orders, Zumbach barreled toward the other plane. He waited . . . and waited . . . until he thought he could see the other pilot's eyes. Only then did he swerve-another tenth of a second, he believed, and they would have collided. After he landed, proud of his coolness under pressure, he was confronted by his commanding officer, who snapped: "Zumbach, you turned too damn soon!"
After Deblin, the cadets were sent to air force squadrons throughout the country for more intense instruction. Zumbach and Feric were told to report to the Kosciuszko Squadron in Warsaw, a choice assignment. In the romantic, daredevil world of the Polish Air Force, the Kosciuszko Squadron was unique. It had been formed in 1919 by a group of American pilots, come to Poland to volunteer in a nasty little war that the newly independent Poles were having with newly created Soviet Russia. Among the Yank volunteers were a former Harvard law student, a star football player from Lehigh, and a graduate of Yale.
The man who brought them all to Poland was a twenty-eight-year-old war hero with a thick Southern drawl named Merian C. Cooper.
From the Hardcover edition.