The first snow of the winter blanketed the German landscape below his P-51 Mustang, and as the young World War II pilot flew alongside others in formation, he noticed an important detail.
“There were two silver aircraft and two painted with the green camouflage flying alongside me,” said retired Col. Clarence Anderson of that winter day in 1944 when he made a realization about his own green aircraft.
“Which do you think stood out?” So when he landed safely back in England, he mentioned it to his crew chief, Otto Heino, who was his dedicated crew chief throughout the war.
“I said the plane was fine, but I suggested that the next time the airplane was put in for heavy maintenance, it should be de-painted.” He pointed out the silver color could possibly save his life, but insisted there was no rush, a point he emphasized because, frankly, he just thought “the silver color was a little cooler.”
Anderson went along on his way, signing up to fly missions the following morning. When he woke up the next morning, he got his mission briefing and went out to his aircraft — his silver aircraft.
Alongside it stood his crew chief Heino along with two other maintainers, standing at attention, their hands red and raw at their sides. Instead of waiting until the aircraft was turned in for major repairs, which would have taken days, they had stayed up the night before rubbing away the green paint with rags soaked in gasoline, stripping away the color along with their skin.
“At first, I felt bad,” Anderson said, who was one of the five featured World War II speakers during a panel session at the 2012 Air Force Association Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition here Sept. 18.
He hadn’t expected his maintainers to work so quickly, especially when he had suggested they wait. “I worried; did they think I gave them a direct order? But then I realized those guys wanted to do it. That’s how they contributed to the mission. They didn’t mind their hands were raw. They just did it.”
Anderson’s anecdote was just one of many shared on the panel as the former fighter pilots spoke about the issues they faced as part of the Army Air Corps during that era, serving overseas in Europe, China, and the Pacific, and as test pilots in the United States.
Other speakers included retired colonels James Brooks, Kenneth Chilstrom, Kirk Kirkpatrick and Charles McGee.
Many of them spoke of being introduced to new aircraft while in theater and having to learn how to turn on switches and fly maneuvers literally on the fly within days of arrival.
All of them referenced the other young men who served alongside them. “Those maintainers … without those guys, we couldn’t fly,” Brooks said. “They were all high school graduates, just like we were, and they were the first guys you saw in the morning and the first guys you saw when you returned (from a mission). So we kind of loved them.”
As they shared anecdotes, it became obvious that some things have remained the same over the years. Specifically the familiar game of “hurry up and wait.”
“It was an operation in patience,” Kirkpatrick said, having spent time in China, where he often waited for long periods of time before receiving equipment and fuel at his location. “It was so frustrating because you didn’t know if you were going to get what you needed. You didn’t know one day to the next if you were going to fly or not.”
Anderson shared the sentiment, insisting some of the praise directed at his generation doesn’t paint the most accurate picture. “The term ‘greatest generation” sells books,” he said, “but we had to fight — we had no choice.”
Anderson asserted that though World War appeared to be brilliantly planned and executed, mistakes, as in any mission, still occurred.
“Where do you think they came up with SNAFU?” he said to laughter, referring to an off-colored military slang acronym used when a situation just isn’t working out.
Others shared their personal history and how they became become pilots.
McGee spoke of how he became one of the first Tuskegee Airmen, initially signing up to be an aircraft mechanic before becoming a pilot. Each affirmed they had no regrets in serving their country.
“It is the most wonderful experience to serve your country,” Chilstrom said. “We didn’t mind; our generation just did it.”
Though they were flying the latest, most innovative technology of the time, it is the people they remember most, Kirkpatrick said. “The relationships I made [in the service] meant more to me than any other in my life,” he added.