The old war planes, those were the days

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At a recent directors meeting of the Auburn/Opelika Velvet Bean Growers Association, the subject of World War II airplanes came up. I was plumb ashamed at the ignorance displayed about things that everybody should know. So, I will now give a very, very brief capsule of just basic information.

First, bombers. In the 1930s, it was decided that we needed a heavy bomber. So Boeing came up with the B-17, the Flying Fortress. If you saw the movie, Air Force, you saw a very early  B-17. By the time the war was over, it didn’t look like  the same plane. By the “G” model, the most popular model, many changes had been made. It bristled with defensive machine guns. Power turrets in the nose and top and ball turret underneath with two .50 caliber machine guns in each, plus two tail guns, one on each side of the ship, one at the top window half way back, and one on each side of the nose.  That’s a heap of fire power. You wonder how any enemy plane got close, especially with many planes in close formation. (You also wonder how many times they shot each other.)

But the military wanted more. So Consolidated came up with the B-24. On paper, it was better than the B-17. It could carry more bombs further and faster than the old Flying fortress, but the Fort had its supporters. The argument will always rage between supporters of each plane. The Flying Fortress was noted for its ability to take punishment, but the old flying box car, as B-17 people called the B-24, could take a lot, too. More B-24s were built during the War than any other American plane. One B-17 advantage: it was comfortable at a very high altitude, while the B-24 was more at home at a lower altitude … right where anti-aircraft fire was the heaviest.

In medium bombers, the B-25 and the B-26 were the main planes. The B-25 was said to be a honey of a plane, very adaptable–some models had the nose packed with .50 caliber machine guns and a cannon. They could cut a small ship in two.  It was the plane used by General Doolittle on his Tokyo raid from the aircraft carrier–where a B-25 is not supposed to be able to take off from. But they did.

The B-26 built an early reputation as a killer. It had relatively short wings and was named the Flying Prostitute, because it had no visible means of support. But when they lengthened the wings, and when pilots got to know it, they loved it. It was fast and tough. There later was some confusion: the Air Force, during the Korean War, started calling the A-26, a fine light bomber, the B-26. But that’s a different plane, made by Douglas. The B-26 was made by Martin.

In fighters, the Army Air Corps’ main two planes at the start of the war were the P-39 and the P-40. The P-39 should have been a great plane. It looked sleek and dangerous. It had a couple of unusual features: the engine was behind the pilot, and there was a cannon in the nose. But, it couldn’t cut it against enemy planes. We sent a lot of them to the Russians. They found a way to use it: as ground support! They loved it.

The P-40 has a colorful history. It was the plane used by the legendary Flying Tigers, the AVG (American Volunteer Group). They got them because the Brits wouldn’t take them as a gift. The Tigers were in the war less than seven months, Dec. 20, 1941, to July 4, 1942, when they were absorbed by the Army. Yet, they, working under the worst conditions anyone can imagine, compiled a 296 to nine kill ratio against the Japanese. They did it by following the instructions of their leader, Gen. Claire Chenault.

The P-40 was tough, it could out-dive nearly anything. So, how do we use this almost obsolete plane? As Chenault taught, never, never dogfight with a Japanese plane. Get some altitude, make one pass, and haul out of there like a scalded dog, using that momentum to get high again and maybe make another pass. But no dogfighting.

The plane’s radiator also made a good place to paint a shark’s mouth.

The Navy’s two fighters at the beginning of the war were the Grumman Wildcat and the Brewster Buffalo. They soon found that the Buffalo was almost useless in combat. It was later named one of the worst planes of the war.

The feisty little Wildcat, though, was very good for its time. It and the P-40 kept us in the battle until we realized what a formidable enemy we were facing  and did something else about it.

Soon, there would be Hellcats and Corsairs for the Navy, and P-38s and P-47s and P-51s filling the air.

Now, remember, fellow members of the Auburn/Opelika Velvet Bean Growers Association,  B-24s did NOT fly off an aircraft carrier, although a man I trust told me that he saw a B-24, returning from a bombing  run, do a complete  loop. He said it strained the wings so much that it never flew again. I don’t know …

Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note.

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