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THUNDERBOLT!An Extraordinary Story of a World War II Ace
By Robert S. Johnson
THE HONORIBUS PRESSCopyright © 1958 Robert S. Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere were three of them. Each with double wings and a whirling propeller flashing in the bright Oklahoma sun. I first saw them as they rolled on their backs, arcing over to inverted flight to begin a plunge for the earth. The ground seemed terrifyingly close to the descending trio. For a moment the sun gleaming off their whirling propellers made three simultaneous flashes of light in the sky. The beautiful winged machines increased rapidly in size, slicing downward from the blue as a single entity.
I did not know it then, and I would not appreciate for years to come the rare spectacle of precision piloting which I observed. I could only stare, utterly fascinated, as the three little pursuits seemed to rush headlong to oblivion, about to dash themselves into the ground.
Then I heard their cry. A shrill and weird sound; the painful whine of the engines, whirling propellers faster and faster as they flung the little planes through the air.
The three pursuits were almost into the ground, when the planes were wrenched from their dives. Three hands, operating as one, gripping control sticks in three different cockpits, flawlessly timed, hauling back. The trio snapped up into the sky. I followed every motion, struck dumb, staring, as the pursuits zoomed up and over, twisted and turned intricately as if a single hand were maneuvering them, then floated mysteriously in an invisible balance of their wings and of gravity.
In later years, I have been able to look back and recognize this scene as the moment: the very first time I had ever seen an airplane. The fascination of these three snappy pursuits, orange wings bright in the sun, alive, incredibly agile, held for the eight-year-old boy I then was the barest promise that would one day be fulfilled in a way not even the dreams of youth could imagine.
That was on a morning in the summer of 1928, in the town of Lawton, Oklahoma. My dad shouted for the kids to pile into the car. That meant myself and my two older sisters, Dorothy and Margaret. And Pat, of course, my little white Spitz.
A ride with Dad was always a special event. The Johnson family owned a 1926 Essex, which likely was the most reliable auto in the town of Lawton. Since he had been twelve years old, Dad had been an automobile mechanic, and worked at a garage in Lawton. The wonderful thing about our Essex was that Dad had fitted the muffler with a cutout. I could reach down to grasp a hidden wire and bypass the muffler. At once a horrible roaring noise was produced. Sometimes Dad took a dim view of my actions. I would wait until we were in the center of Lawton and everything was peaceful and quiet. Then I'd jerk up on the wire and the Essex would boom lustily.
On this particular morning we left the house and, four miles later, turned onto the old military road, Fort Sill Boulevard. Time, aided by the passing of many military convoys, and the assorted tanks, trucks and wagons, had cracked and split the concrete. The Essex bumped its way merrily down the Boulevard, and, as we drove, Dad mentioned something about an air show at the Army's Post Field. I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never heard of an "air show," and since I'd never seen an airplane, I didn't even care.
Frankly, I wished I didn't have to be in the car. I was supposed to go fishing that afternoon, and what could be more fun than fishing? It wasn't too bad, though. I knew we would visit Mr. Rogers at the big Rogers Dairy, and that helped to make up for losing out on the fishing. Mr. Rogers had a large dairy herd, mules, and other animals in large numbers. Best of all, he had riding horses, and Dad said that likely I would be able to get a ride. That made everything okay.
We were almost to the dairy; the Essex was grinding its way up the long sloping hill which lay just before Mr. Rogers's place. I stood up to get a better view. I could see the barns and the silo, and I tried to see if any of the riding horses were out. The dairy was on the left side of Fort Sill Boulevard, and Post Field to the right.
I'd seen the airfield many times before, but it was only a big empty space with high and thick buffalo grass covering the field. There were plenty of those in Oklahoma, and Post Field was nothing special. But something was going on; hundreds of people milled around the field. And so many cars! They were parked, it seemed, by the hundreds. Wagons and horses were also on the field, making the whole place look like a county-fair ground. Clouds of dust boiled up and ...
There-in the sky! Three tiny airplanes.... I stared as they plunged earthward. The rest of the Johnson family stared right with me. Dad jammed on the brakes and the Essex banged to a stop. The pursuits rushed closer and closer to the ground, until the scream of their engines drowned out even my sisters' excited shrieks.
And then they swooped out of their dives, leaped again for the sky in their twisting maneuvers.
Dad started up the Essex and continued on to the dairy. My eyes never left the field. There were so many planes on the ground! I saw giant bombers with great fabric wings and big wooden propellers. I didn't know what they were, just tremendous airplanes, but Dad told me they were bombers, and explained what they were supposed to do. Later that day he took me to the field and showed me the big machine guns, and the bombs fastened to the fuselage and the wings.
Dad stopped the car just inside the gate, where Mr. Rogers was waiting for us. Any other time I would have dashed inside to where the horses were tied or fenced, but not today. I was jumping up and down on the seat, frantic to see what was happening at the field.
Dad grinned. He swung me up on his shoulders so that I could straddle his neck. The view was perfect. The three little pursuits were back again. Dad told me they were very fast and maneuverable, and that the Air Service used them for air fighting. Then I didn't even listen any more, just watched.
They were so low most of the time! They didn't always stay in their tight formation. Sometimes they would swoop upwards, and the three planes would seem to explode outward in different directions, the pilots looping up and around, to come together again in a breath-taking dive.
Dad told me they were Army pilots known as the Three Musketeers, and that they were some of the best fliers in the world. I certainly believed that! He explained some of the maneuvers to me, and I still remember the descriptions-spoken as the pursuits went through their paces-as they slow-rolled and barrel-rolled. They split-S'd, looped, chandelled. They whirled through Immelmanns, did vertical reverses, skidded wildly, flew inverted across the field. Every now and then they would dive for the ground, upside down. At the last moment the pilots would roll out neatly and burst across the field, their wheels almost skimming the buffalo grass.
The hours fled; we watched the last plane in the air land. The pilot taxied over to the long line of pursuits and bombers, and the big propeller came to a halt.
I watched, still on Dad's shoulders, until the people began climbing into their cars to drive away. The dust began to rise in thick clouds, and soon most of the field was obscured. I protested as Dad turned around and walked to the farmhouse; I wanted to see more. That was all; Dad gave me a playful whack on the behind and sent me to fetch a can of milk. I don't think I even looked at the farm animals. Who wanted to ride a horse now! All the way home I was quiet, thinking only of the airplanes. That night Mom complained because I hardly touched my food.
I was dreaming. Every eight-year-old boy knows what he's going to be when he grows up. Me-I had wanted the life of the cowboy. I'd ride beautiful horses and live in the open. Or, maybe, I'd even be a fireman! Then, sometimes, there was nothing more wonderful than to be a locomotive engineer.
But now-who wanted to do any of these things! I was going to fly. I just knew that I would! I wanted to be, I was going to be, art Army pilot, the best Army pilot in the world. I would fly a snappy pursuit like one of those three little biplanes I'd seen. I'd fly just like the Three Musketeers.
Chapter TwoIt was a beautiful sunny day. No time to pay strict attention to English lessons. Besides, I was daydreaming about airplanes, a disease to which I bad recently succumbed. I found far more interest in the sight of two Army blimps floating lazily over Fort Sill than I did in the technicalities of splitting infinitives. The two blimps swung gently in the breeze at five hundred feet, held captive by their cables anchored close together near the balloon hangar on the Fort.
A vivid streak of flame burst suddenly into existence. Not a sound reached me, just that startling, silent flash of fire, then deep red flame mushrooming into the sky.
I stared, unbelieving. Several tiny figures tumbled through the air, twitching and jerking, as if in a frenzy. The flames engulfed both the blimps, the cables sagged, and in moments only a pall of dirty black smoke was left, drifting idly out of sight.
The next day the reality of what I had seen struck home. The hydrogen gas within one of the observation blimps had, without warning, exploded. Searing flame burst into the sky above, curled downward, licked into the personnel basket. Three men at least, perhaps four, caressed by that terrible flick of fire, had leaped in agony into space, and died.
Fort Sill was a Field Artillery School, one of the largest in the country. Often hundreds of troops would be out on the firing range, blasting with their artillery, over which hovered the big observation balloons and the blimps from which observers directed fire. At Post Field-the object of my attention since the unexpected appearance of the Three Musketeers-were based the observation planes and the pursuits which worked as advance units for the artillery.
Fort Sill lies in a valley, bordered by the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, which rise to the northwest. To the east stretch the seemingly endless rolling and flat plains, balanced by granite mountains jutting into the sky.
One of these peaks, Signal Mountain, rose to its full height within the Army's artillery range. From Signal Mountain we enjoyed a marvelous view of Fort Sill and the country where I was spending, I would come to realize, perhaps the finest years of my life. Far below us Fort Sill lay sprawled in the valley, sprinkled heavily with trees. At the right time of day the sun transformed Medicine Creek into flashing reflections, where the stream wound its way through the fort.
We could see the old Indian stockade, and the rock jail nearby. The earth and air all about me were rich in history. The basement of that very same jail had once held prisoner no less fearsome a figure than the Apache warrior, Geronimo, and it was within those walls that he had finally perished. Often, I visited this last encampment of the Indian, and wondered about his time.
The valley was abundant with oaks, maples, cottonwoods. At the eastern end of Fort Sill squatted the stockade, a massive and unlovely structure with walls of white rock, three feet thick. Here, being weathered slowly by the years, were the plaques on which I could read of Lieutenants Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman ... commemorating the days when they had passed through in the mid-1840's, in the midst of the Indian Wars.
With several friends I would climb Signal Mountain, or imitate a mountain goat in scaling the steep bluffs which lay between the Signal Mountain peak and the fort where troops fired blazing shells from their big guns. Most of the time the artillery fired the big guns at night, and sometimes they used tracers. Even when they didn't, the shells were so hot we could see the incandescent steel arcing its path through the air.
Each exploding shell was another brilliant white flash. A soundless detonation in the dark. Sometimes a battery of guns would fire, the red phantoms would streak in a jumbled group up and over and down, and then the sound, ragged blasts and trumps, would reach us. More silent releases of light, and again a mass of exploding sound snatching at our ears as we watched from the bluffs.
If we looked upward with care, and concentrated, we could see the ragged blue exhausts of the observation planes, circling like droning ghosts in the night sky. This was the best part of the night firings. The Oklahoma night under a full moon was a landscape painted in faint blue and unearthly light. If there were high clouds, then the valley and the mountains beyond would become shrouded in blackness. Nothing was so startling during these times as an observation plane grumbling its way overhead, and then exploding the darkness with a release of flares.
Ever since watching the Three Musketeers perform in the aerial display by the Army's Air Service, I had special reason for visiting the Rogers Dairy or Fort Sill so that I might watch the planes at Post Field. Before long I came to know by heart the details of every one of the different types of planes at the field.
I identified each of the observation planes and the bombers, and came to recognize the various trainers which visited the grass field. My favorites were still the fighters, especially the wicked-looking little Boeing P-12 biplanes and the sleek, low-wing Boeing P-26, which, we were told, was the deadliest thing in the air. Whenever one of these airplanes passed overhead, I would look up and, at a single glance, identify the type as it sped by.
There were, however, many other things in life besides watching blazing artillery at night or airplanes at Post Field! Between Fort Sill and the mountain stretched a vast reservation where the U. S. Army let their many horses run free, animals from the cavalry and artillery, as well as beautiful polo ponies. The field was about six miles from the Johnson home, in the residential section of Lawton. My friends and I would go in a group to the field; by stretching our legs and trotting we could make it in just over an hour. Before us on the vast plain roamed several hundred horses.
We wanted to ride. At first the animals didn't share our enthusiasm, and shied from us. This meant we had to catch them, which was easier said than done. We tried everything, including the foolish attempt to catch the horses by running after them. Exhaustion soon proved the futility of this venture.
Experience taught us never to alarm the horses, but to move in quietly and slowly while they surveyed our approach. In time we developed a sure touch. We'd pat an animal gently on his neck and talk soothingly. Then one of us held the horse by his head while another fellow climbed onto his back. When alone, I'd put an arm over the horse's neck and swing up.
Excerpted from THUNDERBOLT! by Robert S. Johnson Copyright © 1958 by Robert S. Johnson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.