WWII Fighter Pilot: A Semi-White, Dirty-Water World by Lee Rorex

Captain Lee Rorex and my dad flew in the 389th Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, of the 9th United States Army Air Force in Europe during World War II. This is their stories. See intro to first post for more. I dedicate this work to Maj. Dean Todd (ret.) and Capt. Lee Rorex, who were ordinary guys who did a great job and are true heroes, though they would never call themselves that. — Gary Lee Todd

In 1985, an airliner flying through heavy cloud cover is a thing of extremely sophisticated technological accomplishment. There is the radar to set the path and provide for any changes en route; and then the computer, fully programmed before the flight to handle take-off, all flying en route and landing at the destination, all without the pilot’s assistance. We have actually heard of cases where an airline pilot quit simply because the job became too boring for him.

In 1944 and ’45, while flying with the Ninth Air Force in Europe, the pilot who lived this episode learned a different story about instrument flying. His P-47 Fighter/Bomber was a one-man operation. He flew alone, but worked in groups of four to sixteen planes. They never asked for that cloud flying, but occasionally they couldn’t avoid it. And so, they flew the soup.

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Location Y-29, Belgium

“By God, Gather [Gaithey in the first essay], what I ought to do is bust you down to private and send you packing! I’ve been flying combat for a year and a half, and this is the first time I’ve ever had a wingman leave me in the soup! And, by God, IT HAD BETTER BE THE LAST!” To say the very least, the Colonel was mad.

Twelve fighter/bomber pilots had just returned from a mission over Germany. The weather was bad all over and they had been forced to fly in much heavy cloud cover. Gather, with maybe twenty missions under his belt, was no neophyte and he had committed the unforgiveable sin; inside the soup, he had broken formation and left the wing of his leader, endangering his life and those of his comrades.

I could remember my instructors back in the States explaining the flying-the-soup technique. “This is done in flights of four ships. The leader is here (putting a mark on the board). On his left wing is the Number Two man, and on his right wing is the Number Three man. It makes your basic “V” shape. On the right wing of Number Three, we put another man, Number Four. Number One and Number Three are always experienced men. They are leaders. Number Two and Number Four are usually new men. They always have a leader to stick with in case of trouble.”

In this team, then, only Number One, the flight leader, actually flew by the instruments. Inside the clouds his eyes were glued to those instruments. Every continuing second, those instruments told him rate of climb, airspeed, rate of turn and compass heading. The pilot’s concentration was absolutely amazing. He could never waver, speculate or hesitate; every second he had to be right! All our lives depended on that. It was a grind and the responsibility awesome.

What of the other three team members? They simply tucked in close to the ship they could see and hung on for dear life. How close? So close that the wingtip of one plane was overlapping the wingtip of another. This could easily put a wingtip within four feet of a fuselage, another wingtip and another tail fin. And there the pilot flew. No matter his wishes, feelings, state of mind or desires! All this required consummate skill.

Talk about faith! And trust! When you slipped your wing in next to your leader’s, you put your life into his hands. And, you took his life into yours, because, if you screwed up out there you could ram him and kill him!

All of us were proficient enough for the job; the real threat came to us in the form of a physical/mental nemesis called VERTIGO.

“Gather,” said Capt. Theis, “the Colonel almost sacked you this afternoon. You know that?”

“Yeah,” was Gather’s only reply.

“Well, we’re gonna go over this again, and this time it had better take! Now, when you broke off up there today, did you have Vertigo?” The Captain’s voice was softer now.

“Yes,” Gather answered.

“Alright, you review it for me. What is Vertigo, and how does it affect you?”

“Well,” Gather began, “the affliction comes when the eye is robbed of all its signal points. When the ground is gone, the horizon doesn’t exist, there are no reference points like trees, or buildings, or any object to cue the eye as to what is straight, or what is level, right, left, up or down.” He was practically quoting the book.

“Right,” Theis added emphasis. “And when Vertigo hits, what’s the effect on the man?”

Gather responded with the same command of the subject: “He might have perfectly normal response mechanisms, but now they go haywire. In straight and level flight, he will swear he’s going up, or turning. His whole body takes up this feeling and tells him to make a correction, fast!”

“And if he does, he’s had it, right?” Theis prompts.

“Probably,” Gather replies defensively. “If he makes a correction on his own, he breaks formation. This could cause a collision and kill people. Or he might fly into the ground and kill himself.”

“Right.” Theis’ voice fairly stabs the air. “Today, you were lucky. Just damned lucky! When you broke off, you managed to get oriented to your instruments in a hurry. If you hadn’t, you would have continued to fly your Vertigo and you would have crashed for sure!”

“But I didn’t!” a defensive Gather answers.

“No, you didn’t,” Theis replies, “this time!” He was solemn. In dead earnest, he continued, “Gather, I’m laying it on the line for you, don’t let there be a next time! You’re a good pilot! The others respect you for that. But this!” Theis broke off, shaking his head. “Gather, right now your fellow pilots are asking themselves a question, ‘What if Gather flies my wing tomorrow? Will he foul up again? Will he take me with him?’ You know this as well as I do, don’t you?”

“Yeah, sure,” a despondent Gather replies, “and they’re right!”

“You bet they are! We are a team, man. Each one of us depends on the other. Now, I want you to go to your sack. Sit down there and put your mind on this incident. Think it through step by step. This time, in your mind do everything right. See yourself hanging in there; feel yourself returning to normal and beating that Vertigo; feel your normal responses returning. Now, DO THIS, DAMMIT! It works!”

Gather was no coward; nor was he any kind of exception. Vertigo produced large panic for all pilots. Of course, the ability to control panic was a character trait, for sure. But, was the inability to control this kind of panic a character flaw? Had Gather been a mud-faced Marine, this supposed flaw might never have been discovered. Perhaps, too, any pilot, new or old, might not have controlled the panic at a given moment.

I’m sure Gather did exactly as he was told. And, he knew all the reasons. YOUR LEADER IS ALWAYS RIGHT! STAY WITH YOUR LEADER! THE INSTRUMENTS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT!

And so the dictum: STAY WITH YOUR LEADER. You may not like him personally; you may not respect him for personal reasons; but, trust him you will! STAY WITH YOUR LEADER! If you don’t, wartime combat has a grisly way of pointing up your mistakes.

Pilot Log Entry: Duren (Germany) Had to turn back. Bad weather. Landed with 200 foot ceiling.

The briefing this morning was a total tongue-in-cheek affair. “Boys,” this was our Colonel, “we’ll have to fly some soup today. The clouds are low here, but Stormy (all weathermen are called Stormy) assures me it will raise as we go east.” (Yeah, raise! 1,000 feet? 100 feet? 10 feet? How much?) “Our target is in this area and —,” most of us lost him about here. All of us had gotten a look at those clouds out there. They were so low the birds were walking; you think they’re gonna raise? Fat chance! On the way out to the planes we gauge those clouds; maybe two hundred feet at the base. We’ll be in the soup by the time we form up.

No one is at my plane today but Sgt. Riorden, the Crew Chief. “Good morning, Lieutenant. You guys really gonna fly in this stuff?” Man, what a war! Even a ground man knows better! But, an old axiom holds sway: Your heart may belong to God, but your ass belongs to the U.S. Army! We fly!

Today we have three flights, Red, Yellow and Blue. We take off in that order. I’m flying in the second flight, so I’m Yellow Three. My leader is Capt. Koff, a seventy-eight mission man. Thank God! My wingman, Yellow Four, is Wright, a seven mission man. As we taxi out for takeoff, I’m playing the old combat game of worship-your-leader with Koff. He holds my life in his hands. It occurs to me to wonder what Wright is thinking of me. We don’t know each other that well. And his life is in my hands; he knows it and I know he knows it.

After takeoff, as Yellow is scrambling to get up into formation, I just happen to be looking at the right place to spot Red Flight. All four planes tucked in so close they look like they are tied together! And, in the span of my fleeting glance, all four simply disappear into the soup. As simple as that.

Now, Yellow Flight has formed up. I’m tucked in on Koff’s wing, close. When he looked at my plane I’m sure he thought I was a piece of flypaper, stuck on! Once Yellow Four is on my wing, I forget him. He’s on his own, to stay or not. Yellow Two is tucked in; that’s the team. And we disappear into the soup.

Inside, it’s a semi-white, dirty-water world. My eyes are riveted on Koff’s ship, just where the canopy joins the fuselage. Beyond his ship I can see Yellow Two, plainly; and, beyond him that dishwater sky, a sea of complete and utter nothingness. I mentally reassure myself that my leader is the best. I see a picture in my mind of these four ships going up in beautiful formation, see the angle to the earth, see the steady climb. This is my way of establishing a reference in this nothing world so the old nemesis Vertigo won’t get to me too badly when it hits. Because, hit it will! I’ve got thirty-four missions, but I never fly the soup without my old friend Vertigo horning in.

Blue Flight is the last to take off and form up. All of us hear the radio transmission: “Blue Four, come in closer. You can’t fly the soup ‘way out there!” Blue Four is Gather, being too cautious. And my heart goes out to Gather (without taking my eyes off my leader!). Back in the States all Gather wanted to do was fly; now he’s saying to himself, “Why the hell didn’t I join the Marines!”

As Blue Flight enters the soup, a thing is happening in Gather’s mind. He is rehearsing all those aphorisms: YOUR LEADER IS ALWAYS RIGHT; THE INSTRUMENTS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT; STAY WITH YOUR LEADER! Each sentence comes on a little louder. He knows he’s building to breakpoint. His old friend Vertigo will poke his head in any time now. Any time!

Without taking his eyes off his leader, Gather searches the perimeter of his vision for some blue sky that will tell him they are through this cloudy nightmare. But no, not so. As he stares at the side of his leader’s ship, suddenly it seems to roll over to the right and pull up as if going for a loop. His entire body convulses into a bundle of straining, groaning nerves, his stomach starts a nauseating slow roll and a pinching pain grabs his spinal cord. He can actually feel himself hanging upside down at the top of that loop! My God! These guys are crazy! His mind says. They’re going up much too fast! HOLD! EASY LAD! VERTIGO! STAY FAST! DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF YOUR LEADER!

It’s possible that at the same exact moment, some or all of us were suffering the same torment; but, for Gather it was a brush with the Grim Reaper. And, if Gather had to reach out and grab a hand, that was the only one available.

“Yellow Leader, Red Leader here. We’re out in the clear at 8,200 feet. Red out.” There’s no reply from Yellow Leader, nor does anyone expect it. Yellow Leader is too busy, too concentrated to reply.

To a man, every pilot in every one of those thundering planes still inside the soup, fights back a pressing desire to grab a look at his altimeter. 8,200 feet. Wonder how high we are now? How much longer? Man, can I hold on, or not? DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF YOUR LEADER!

“Blue Leader, Yellow here. We’re out at exactly 8,200 feet. Yellow out.”

Blue Four doesn’t hear this last transmission his mind is too occupied with thoughts of its own. My God! Here we go again! Pull out! We’re gonna crash! Sweat runs freely into his face mask. I’m gonna break off! I’ve got to break off!

“Red Leader, Blue here. We’re out. Over.”

“Roger, Blue. Red out.”

Out? We’re out? The laughing tears spatter down the face of Blue Four. No one could ever describe the relief!

“Slipshod Red Leader to squadron, these clouds seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. There’s not much use going any farther.”

So much for all those assurances of raising weather! And Blue Four? All this for nothing? Just practice?

“Slipshod Blue Leader, Red here. What do you see from ‘way up there? Anything different? Over.”

“Negative, Red. Clouds as far as I can see. And they get thicker up ahead there. Over.”

“Roger Blue. Well, Slipshod, we turn her around and go home. Red Leader out.”

Go home; welcome thought. Blue Four thinks so, too. But his second thought hits him like the explosion of a 500 pound general demolition bomb! “Oh, No! Not back into that soup again! NO, NO! I CAN’T DO IT!”

“Blue Four, come in a little closer. A LITTLE CLOSER!”

And there goes Red Flight back into the soup. And Yellow, and Blue.

At the end of what seems like an hour, but probably more like fifteen minutes: “Yellow Leader, Red here. We’re out at about 500 feet. Red out.”

And shortly: “Blue Leader, Yellow here. We’re out at 500 feet. Yellow out.”

And shortly: “Red Leader, Blue here. We’re out. Over.”

“Roger Blue. Red out.”

So there it is. The song has been played again. Everyone is clued in. each of us knows that everyone else is out and safe. Muscles begin to uncoil from the white-knuckle strain. Nervous eyes glance out to the side, furtively, as if committing a serious crime. DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF YOUR LEADER! But it’s O.K. That’s clear air out there, if not sunshine. You can relax now.

“Blue Three, Blue Leader here. Over.”

“Roger, Blue Leader, what’s up? Over.”

“Uh, Blue Three, aren’t you supposed to have a wingman behind you? Over.”

In split-second consternation: “Hell, yes!”

“Well, Blue Three, he’s not there now.”

We were brothers, Blue Four and me. All of us were. And, I’m not talking rhetoric brothers, either! As my body breathed, so did all breathe; and for the same purpose, to sustain life, the common life. And, as Blue Four died, so did we all die, a little.

And the folks back home? Without knowing exactly why, or when, they all died a little, too. A part of that Universal Spiritual Soul broke away from each of them today.

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Just an ordinary guy doing a job. But then, all jobs this big are done by ordinary guys. And each one, like the pilot, expending that Universal Spiritual Soul in which all of us share. Martin Buber called it THEOPHANY – the meeting between man and God.


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