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Boot Gordon: More on the life of WWII fighter pilots

by Boot Gordon
Silverthorne
The P-38 Lightning, one of the planes Boot Gordon flew in WWII.
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I’ve gotten a lot of “press” of late but maybe some of your readers want to know more about WWII Army fighter pilots. First, we were unique. Kids volunteered to join the United States Army Air Force so they could be glamorous and fly. (The qualifications were high.) But the USAAF needed mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, gunners on all the bombers so the wash-out rate was high. And the USAAF needed navigators, bombardiers, pilots for the bombers and transports, and co-pilots for all those planes. Therefore those who survived the training and became fighter pilots were a rare breed and a bit crazy or clanky.

Second, we were the free style acrobatic skiers and boardersof WWII. No margin of error. Which was dangerous, exciting and ego enhancing. Yet when they asked for volunteers to go regular when the war ended, only two guys in my fighter group (3 squadrons) did (one was a drunk who had a buddy pee in the bottle for him.) We felt lucky to have survived the training and combat.

Third, few were wounded and returned from a mission. So you came home in one piece. OK, one buddy, a man’s man who was a smoke jumper out of Missoula before the war, was shot down on his first mission over Germany. When his flight attacked a train, the side on one box car fell off and a couple 88’s got him. His plane doing maybe 300 crashed into the ground and exploded. So his squadron wrote him off. Yet when the war ended, he returned home from a prison camp with a crooked leg. (The Army rebroke it and set him right.)

Four, life wasn’t tough. We got a shot of alcohol after each mission and plenty of cheap horrible hangover producing Filipino gin in the Philippines. We flew combat and had no extra duties. For recreation we played volleyball, softball against the non-coms, grabbed a jeep to visit town or the rivers where the beautiful Mindinao women washed clothes half nude. There were no women to date so evenings we played craps, drank, and sang ribald drinking songs. If we made it home from the seven hour missions (weather was the real killer because the cumulus clouds would build up every afternoon and we only had rudimentary flight instruments), we had a meal served in our mess kits (no fresh veggies, milk, eggs, or meat), slept on army cots with mosquito netting, in tents pitched on the ground.

Five, we hated regulations, the Army and General MacArthur. After 15 training months of threats, negativity, and never a word of encouragement or love could you blame us? Yet we were proud of our squadron, all the men in it (no saluting), and our P-38’s with which we could do amazing feats like almost hovering at 0 mph, hit the speed of sound two years before Chuck Yeager, and low level acrobatics with only inches to spare.

Off base, we’d salute only senior pilots and disdained paddle feet (non flying officers) except for the infantry. So we were teenagers who never grew up. And some of us still haven’t.

Six. We flew our combat missions until we had 50, volunteered for more, augered in (no one was killed, they just augered in), or got clanky. (One buddy who flew P-51’s in Italy said he was scared on his first 50 missions. Then he volunteered for 50 more to be a Flight Leader and a captaincy. “These weren’t bad,” he said. Then he volunteered to be Squadron Operations Officer and a majority. “Those 50 missions were fun,” he said. But when he volunteered for 50 more, the Flight Surgeon and C.O. of the Squadron personally escorted him to a plane going stateside. He had gone “clanky.”)

All our missions were troop support for our infantry or the Aussies, bombing of enemy bases in New Guinea, the Celebes, Borneo, the Philippines, or Formosa (Taiwan). Luckily I never had to bomb or strafe civilians.

Those interested in the U.S. Army WWII fighters: P-38 Lightning, P-39 Aircobra, P-40 Tomahawk, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, P-63 Kingcobra can chip in and buy me a beer. I flew all but the P-40 but have hairy stories about them all.

Stuart “Boot” Gordon

67th and 70th Fighter Squadrons, 13th Air Force, So. Pacific WWII

Silverthorne, CO


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