“She was big, and on the ground she wasn’t pretty.” I remember those words decades after I first read Robert S Johnson’s Thunderbolt! They were a pilot’s reaction on first seeing the monster fighter plane that was to make him America’s first top ace in World War II. In fact I remembered them so well that when I recently bought an old print from Amazon and couldn’t find them near the cover, I looked again and bought an original 1958 print, where I found them on the inside cover. Details like this sometimes show the tenor of a book, and this description aptly sets a tone for reading Johnson’s narrative.
A big machine, and not too pretty, the P-47 Thunderbolt was emblematic of an age when America was not afraid to fight and win. The plane was an engineering feat of big metal and big guns that did as much as any of the prettier and better-known planes – Hurricanes, Spitfires, Mustangs – to turn the skies over Germany into Allied airspace. The Thunderbolt – AKA “‘The Jug” for its ungainly appearance – was not built for beauty, and it wasn’t as light and maneuverable as the Spitfire or Mustang, but it was as solid as a tank, it could dive like a rock and out-roll anything else in the sky, and when it finally got a big enough propeller to make full use of its 2000-hp engine it could outclimb them as well.
I first read “Thunderbolt” when I was eight or ten, and it was a book I could relate to.* Johnson grew up in Lawton, OK, a smallish town among hills and plains, in an era when boys grew up to be red-blooded Americans. He spent his boyhood hunting and fishing, camping out with friends, walking without fear and working when he needed to. When he was 8 his father took him to an air show, and he fell in love with the Army’s barnstorming aircraft, the Three Musketeers. His future was set that day – he would fly. Wikipedia fairly recounts his childhood, from the book, and I need not repeat that here. But there are features of his life that are important to me – a life lived in relative freedom, where boys grow into men not by learning to be callous or selfish or devious, nor by studying Picasso or Marx or Sartre or playing video games, but by putting hands on the physical world around them and learning its rules and its leanings. Once he decided to learn to fly, he had to pay for it, so at age 11 he started working in a furniture factory owned by family friends. He worked indeterminate numbers of hours for $4 a week and he was glad of it, because it allowed him to earn the money to fly. There were no minimum wage laws or proscriptions against young folks working, to interfere. By age 12 he made his first solo flight.
Everything he did and everything he became, Robert Johnson earned; it wasn’t given to him, and it didn’t come from some spreadsheet written by someone in green eyeshades. I don’t think Robert had any thought as he hunted rabbits and other critters in the hills that this was training for air combat or when he was in the boxing ring, that this too was a piece of that plan. But as he noted in “Thunderbolt”, from these and from football and scouting he learned the skills of a hunter (lead the target, for instance), he learned to conquer fear, he learned teamwork and he learned to fight and win. Some of Goering’s best became prey for Johnson the hunter in the sky over Germany in 1943 and 44, and he gave credit to all those early experiences for giving him the instincts and the toughness to fight them. In the end he had to give credit to God too, for the difference between living and dying was often still not in one’s own hands. Whether one invokes God – a natural but not obsessive matter for him – or just dumb luck, there are things the wise man knows are beyond his control.
Johnson never despised book learning. Though his first flight lessons at age 12 came from local barnstormers and wouldn’t have had much paperwork, Johnson had gone through junior college and spent a hundred hours in the air learning his skills before he joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. He spent another two hundred hours in AAC flight training before he even heard of the P-47, and it was all those hours in smaller planes, learning all the things that can happen, how the airplane feels when things are right or wrong, and how to get it right instinctively, that got him ready for the Jug. And still before he took his first flight in a P-47 he had to pore over thousands of pages of technical manuals, to understand how and why each part of the machine operated. There was a cockpit full of dials and switches monitoring engine conditions, trim and fuel and navigation. All those little details like getting oil up to temperature and knowing when to open or close various cooling vents, are things you had to learn from the book. But the first time he pulled off the starting line it still surprised him as he discovered just what the torque from that big engine and that big prop would do to the plane, when first that locked tail wheel came off the ground; the book just couldn’t quite convey the feeling.
Other things the book could not prepare him for: (1) the first time he flew, after getting the feel for big engine torque, he got a stunning smack on the skull as the canopy flew back, striking him with its handle. He jerked back the throttle and aborted, returned to the starting line, closed the canopy and latched it again, asked permission and started again. AGAIN the canopy handle smacked him, but this time he kept going, and made an exploratory flight in the monster. This was shakeout time for the new plane as well as the pilots, so a few things like this latch were being discovered by guys like Johnson. (2) he and several other pilots discovered “compressibility” – the name they gave to the aerodynamic effect that occurred when you reached the sound barrier. The Thunderbolt and the P-38 Lightning were the first planes to reach that speed, diving, and when you did it your controls locked up – it felt like the stick was embedded in concrete. The P-38 got some minor control system modifications that didn’t really do any good, but the boys in the P-47s just learned what to do. You could only reach the sound barrier in a dive, and only at high altitude, where the air is very cold (and the speed of sound is lower than here on the surface, in proportion to the square root of absolute temperature) and the density is low. As they continued down the temperature and the speed of sound came up, the density increased, the airplane slowed down, and somewhere under 20,000 feet you regained control. Of course by this time, at 8 or 9 miles per minute, you had less than 15 seconds to pull out, and both times Johnson did it he found himself waking up from blackout, in a zoom climb. (The g forces also wrinkled metal, presumably at the wing roots.)
Robert gives us a taste of life on the ground as well as in the air. The 56th fighter group traveled across the Atlantic aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, in winter, loaded to the gills with airmen and soldiers and other support personnel; a fast trip by sea, but still a heaving mess for the folks below decks and cold for those above. When a crewman fell overboard from the bridge there was no turning back to save him. They arrived in Scotland, transferred to a northern British base and waited some weeks before they could join their planes. On leave in London on several occasions, he describes spending two hours in that famous London fog in wartime blackout, looking for a hotel that should have been fifteen minutes walk from the railway station. (And stumbling across the same drunk two times on one such foray, an hour apart.) There was also the incident in the barracks, before the planes arrived: One of the wise guys had got in the habit of scaring the heck out of everyone by shooting his .45 into the ceiling every night when he snuck in. The group got together and planned to greet him with their own barrage, but they couldn’t wait until he got there to start shooting, and they had no ammo left by the time he arrived. Management, as they say, was not pleased when they looked at the ceiling after the pilots moved out…
As for his career as ace pilot, it was not how you would plan a perfect career. Robert never qualified as a fighter pilot before he saw combat. He had never fired an aircraft’s guns before he reached England, and he didn’t quite pass gunnery school in the available trainer while the group was waiting for the Thunderbolts. The first time he fired all the guns in the P-47 was in combat, and he just about jumped out of his skin. The P-47 had eight 50-cal Browning machine guns – that’s 8 guns shooting .50-inch (1/2-inch) bullets at about 2700 ft per second – and each of those guns was shooting about 15 rounds per second, for a total of 7200 rounds per minute. The racket had to be shocking, as did the shudder from the momentum transfer to all those bullets. The first time he shot down an enemy plane he got chewed out for breaking formation, and the next time he went up he got shot nearly to pieces because he didn’t break formation when he saw the Germans coming and he couldn’t get anyone to hear his warning. (The radios weren’t entirely reliable at the time.)
That episode showed the incredible toughness of the P-47. Robert found himself in a diving spin, on fire and with hydraulic fluid in his face. His flying instincts took over and he pulled out of the dive, and at that moment the fire went out. He tried to bail out but couldn’t get the canopy open. He then found that the engine, sounding terrible at full power, smoothed out when he pulled the throttle back. He started to fly south, thinking to crash land in the far south of France and run to Spain as other pilots had done. But he realized that he could just as well ditch in the channel, and he would be picked up right away by air-sea-rescue, so he headed north. As he approached the coast, slowly losing altitude and figuring to ditch, he picked up company: a German fighter pilot decided to earn an easy kill, so after flying alongside for a look, he pulled in behind him and hammered away with his guns. He pulled alongside again, shook his head and swung behind to do it some more. Eventually he ran out of bullets and headed for home. (We think he reported a kill, as there is a report in Luftwaffe files that matches the time and place.) All that hammering couldn’t take his P-47 down, and after the German left Johnson discovered that the plane could still climb after all. Johnson afterward figured it had to be God’s will (or fate if you insist) that a German fighter, with only his 7MM guns firing (his 20mm cannon presumably depleted) would escort him across the coast, where at his speed and altitude he would certainly have been shot down were he alone! And just as fortuitously, he had been clutching his mike button throughout the encounter, so Air Sea Rescue was listening in, and when he let go the mike button they asked him to climb higher because they were losing his signal. Once he realized he could climb he kept on going and landed at home base, with hundreds of bullet holes, a number of cannon holes (20mm exploding shells), holes in the propeller and missing some rudder. And by the way a few of those cannon shots had hit the armor plate a few inches behind his head, testing one more feature of the plane.
Another time he came home with a coil of rudder cable pulled up in the cockpit, after enemy fire had cut it somewhere. That time he had to use rudder trim instead of main rudder control to fly, as he never did get all the slack out of that rudder cable. It gave less control, but enough for an experienced pilot to fly and land with. Another pilot came home with a chunk of telephone pole embedded in a wing on one occasion, and there are numerous other examples in the book, of just how tough it was.
* Where I grew up three decades later I didn’t hunt or do much fishing (though there were some who did), but we DID live free. At age eight or ten I could hike or ride my bicycle 3 or 5 miles out on country roads, squeezing down into the ditch as cars passed by, to visit a friend or just to explore. I could ride about a mile, through a busy truck stop and down a gravel lane to where there was a grass air strip, and I could ride among the planes tied down in the grass, or up to the hangars and talk with pilots or mechanics who were servicing the planes. And I could at age 16 work in a local gas station for 50 cents an hour pumping gas and occasionally changing a belt or a starter or giving a tune-up, learning about the world with my own two hands. This is very much the world Johnson describes, where he could work for $4 a week in a furniture factory in depression-era Lawton, to pay for the flying lessons he had to have once the bug had bitten him.
THIS is the America that was and shall be.