Like millions of others in that time of upheaval, my Dad was a patriot. Though he was the father of four and had a successful career as a Madison Avenue “Mad Man,” he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force at age 39, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Already an experienced pilot, he was commissioned as a captain and, after initial training, was sent to North Africa in November, 1942 to take part in Operation Torch, the invasion that put U.S. troops in French Morocco to fight with our British allies against the German forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the infamous “Desert Fox.”
The U.S. forces were under the overall command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in command of the U.S. Seventh Army was Major General George S. Patton, known to his troops as “Old Blood and Guts.” Combined with the efforts of the British forces under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (known affectionately as “Monty”), the Allies drove Rommel’s Afrika Korps to defeat in Tunisia in May of 1943. Control of North Africa gave the Allied forces a base for the invasion of Italy by way of Sicily and Sardinia. Again in the Italian campaign, Eisenhower was the Commander in Chief of the U.S. forces, with Gen. Walter Bedell Smith as his Chief of Staff and “Old Blood and Guts” in command of the U.S. Seventh.
During these two campaigns, my Dad had been promoted first to Major and then to Lt. Colonel, and he had the privilege of sitting in on the staff meetings run by Eisenhower. “Monty” represented the British forces in those meetings. What Dad found fascinating from his perspective as a back-row aide was that Ike constantly deferred to Patton. He’d make a statement about a prospective tactical or strategic move and say, “Right, George?”. Patton would give a brusque OK or step in with his own thoughts, which might differ from Ike’s. Patton’s view almost always carried the day. At other times, Eisenhower would just say something like, “George, spell out what we’re thinking of here,” and just let Patton run the show. And it was clear to everyone that Patton was, indeed, running the show. That pretty much remained the case until Patton’s untimely death on December 21, 1945, the result of a Jeep accident 13 days earlier. Ike wasn’t near the top of his class at West Point, but he was smart enough to know when to listen to others, a trait that later helped him during his stint as president of the United States.
During the invasions of Sicily and Sardinia, Dad piloted one of the planes that ferried paratroops to their dropoff points, and he was also in charge of a fleet of aircraft involved in the landings on mainland Italy. There were fighter planes accompanying the flights, and a problem quickly arose: To give them maximum fuel loads for their round-trip flights, the fighters were stripped of the armor protecting their fuel tanks. As a result, their tanks would explode easily under enemy fire, and we were losing a lot of planes and lives. Dad was furious when shown what was going on, but his complaints were reaching deaf ears from his superiors, who argued that the planes couldn’t bear the weight of the extra armor.
Well, Dad decided to take the matter to higher levels. He sent off a letter to the War Department under Secretary Henry L. Stimson in Washington, spelling out the problem and demanding that something be done about it.
Something was done: Dad was transferred to Alaska. Going over the heads of his superiors was not countenanced, even though his argument might have been sound. He was given command of a U.S. Army Air Force wing at Elmendorf Field, which was used as a logistics center and a staging area for flights to the Aleutian Islands, where we were fighting a contingent of Japanese troops who had obtained a foothold there. Sharing the field with our forces at that time was a small Russian air force unit, and it was Dad’s job to maintain friendly relations with the Russians, who were technically our guests.
The Russkies were a jovial, hard-drinking lot much of the time, but they shared the stern demeanor and acquisitive behavior of their leader, Josef Stalin. I remember Dad telling me years later that “their approach was to take something of yours and then give it back … for a price.” On one occasion, the Russians started using a part of the airbase that was needed for our own operations. Dad sent word that they were to discontinue using our property, but the violation continued. Being the diplomat that he was, Dad invited the commander of the Russian unit to come over to his office, and when he showed up, Dad told him, “Have your men and planes out of our area by midnight tomorrow or we’ll bomb them to smithereens.” They were gone the next day. Said Dad, “The Russians will only respect you if you act from a position of strength and you show you mean business.”
You know, that seems to be the case today. Things haven’t changed much in 74 years.