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75th Anniversary

This year marks the 100th anniversary of women in aviation. Turn the clock back a quarter century to the U.S. Navy Air’s 75th Anniversary celebration: there were several around the country.

The big shebang was at Titusville, Florida, across the river from Cape Canaveral. A good friend was in the Navy’s public relations department and—both of us being antique aircraft nuts—he invited me down. Through his connections with Grumman Aircraft he got me a press photographer’s credentials enabling me to go to off-limits places such as the cramped cockpit of a Luftwaffe Stuka. If you never heard of it, go to Google.

The big inducement for me to fly there on my own dime was the chance to join my press colleagues in a flight on a B-25 WW II medium bomber, my favorite airplane of the conflict. Aside from esthetic considerations, this was the first plane of its size to launch from an aircraft carrier and the first to bomb Tokyo at the war’s beginning in the Pacific. There were many planes on that raid. Not one of them could make it back to the ship for lack of fuel. The military made plans to crash landing the planes in China with the crews surviving as best the could. More on that later.

I got a flight to Disneyland (then called “Orlando”), rented a car and connected with my pal at his hotel. The next morning we drove to the airfield where there were an astonishing number of WW II aircraft, almost all privately owned or owned by a club such as The Valiant Air Command, headquartered in Titusville. There were several B-25’s—‘Mitchells’they were called—in splendid repose on their tricycle landing gear. I was in love again.

After the opening ceremonies there were demonstration flights, some demo dog fights and no end of things to see. That evening I was invited to join the Bigwigs of Grumman, other manufacturers, more Navy brass than the Pentagon, and my buddy. He was attired in his officer’s white uniform, with his captains stripes and ribbons and other such fooforah. He forewarned me in the hotel that this was a formal affair.

Now I was and am an old country boy and thought that a sport jacket I had brought was formal enough. And, I was wearing tennies. Not good enough said my friend. So off we went to the K-Mart for a tie, shirt and cheap plastic shiny shoes.

I will digress a moment to explain my friend’s white uniform. It was originally owned by a Snohomish County judge. I was moonlighting cleaning garages and one of these was that of the judge, an ex-navy officer. He was on the portly side, as was my navy buddy who had outgrown his service uniform. Thus did the Judge’s whites attend a formal navy-sponsored dinner.

So there we are at dinner, my squeaky K-Mart shoes quiet under the table. I was flanked by my friend on one side and some other navy guy on the other. The appetizers came and were consumed, and a salad followed. When the salad was gone I managed to humiliate my buddy (on active duty, mind you) and startle the guy on the other side when, as sherbet was served, I asked in a normal voice, “Why are they serving ice cream before the meat?” My friend glared at me, and with his lips clenched and face red hissed, “It’s to cleanse your pallet before the wine is served.”

He did not pursue my gaffe when we departed after dinner, but I think he got even in a different way. The flight of the B-25 was scheduled the next day. I kept busy shooting pictures, fondling propeller hubs like a lover’s breast. Then the Tomcats came. Two of them, F-14 supersonic fighters, screamed over the field, kicked on the afterburners and reached for the sky, did a few rolls and ultimately landed. I joined the crowd around the pilots when they got out of the plane, and the first thing one said, as I recall, was “OK. Where’s the golf course?”

A short time later my friend came to me with the Grumman guy, who said something like “Mar told me you write for golf magazines.” I acknowledged this and he asked if I would do him a big favor. Of course I would, he was my principal host. “Both the pilots are golfers and I promised them a round of golf at the new Lee Trevino course. I need someone to drive them over there and join them. It’s all on me.” I mentioned something about the B-25 ride coming up and my buddy said, “Gee. I guess you’ll have to miss that.”

Wink wink, nudge nudge.

As it turned out it was not so bad. The flight was only 20 minutes. But I had 18 holes of golf on a new top course with two great guys, so I gained more than I lost, although I was disappointed. I never brought it up with my friend and cheerily told him how lucky I was to get the golf in and help those two pilots.

Earlier here I mentioned there was more to the Tokyo raid story. Organizers of the celebration I was at attempted to get the raid’s leaders to come. Jimmy Doolittle, who could have been elected president after he engineered that historic flight, was invited. He agreed to attend but only if, as I recall the story, a private plane was sent for him and all his expenses paid. He was in his 80s or 90s at that time. He did not come. The celebration had better luck with about eight of the survivors of the raid. They were sitting in an honored place in a large tent along the runway. Here, their luck almost ran out. A hotshot was doing fancy touch- and- goes in a Waco biplane when it ground-looped in front of their tent. The wooden propeller broke and a piece flew over their heads and through the back of the tent. That was the story I got anyway: it happened when I was golfing.

The 75th anniversary was one I will never forget. The sounds of diving, and revving, and taking off; the smell of the fuel as these beautiful (and some homely) machines did their thing. It was Nirvana for me. I treasured my commemorative mug and still treasure my buddy Mar for the opportunity.

A month later I got a package from the Department of the Navy. In it were a certificate of appreciation and a large medal from the naval air commandant. Or somebody like him.


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