WWII Fighter Pilot: Genius, A Twenty-four Hour-A-Day Thing by Lee Rorex

This is the 6th and last of the essays Lee Rorex sent me in early 2001. He and my dad flew together in the 389th Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, 9th U.S. Army Air Force, the tactical Air Force in the European Theater. I remember in a letter to me he once referred to himself as a “hired assassin.” This surprised me. Vietnam had made me decidedly cynical, but I had thought World War II was the “good war.” But my dad almost never talked about it, and Capt. Lee was still having nightmares 40 years later. I guess there really is no “good war.” —Gary Lee Todd

In all outfits there are paragons – paragons of virtue, paragons of vice. In our outfit we had a paragon of intellect. His name was Bengie.

Bengie looked ordinary enough: five-foot seven, sandy hair, blue eyes and a shy smile. He walked and talked like the rest of us, but, there all resemblance ended. Inside Bengie’s head was a brain that soaked up information like a present-day computer. He could pursue two conversations at once, and his thought processes were so swift as to leave good minds boggling.

I’m quite sure that in his training time, Bengie had soaked up the airplane, all components, navigation, including the great sidereal system upon which all is predicated, maps, charts, graphs, manufacturer’s specifications, superiors and instructors. Where Bengie went a mental vacuum must surely have followed.

By the time of my arrival overseas, he had completed forty combat missions, was serving as squadron leader and was respected as a proven combat pilot. However, in combat Bengie was competent but no master, as is often the case with genius.

But, mental genius is a twenty-four hour-a-day thing. And, flying a plane did not keep Bengie’s mind fully occupied. Oh, if he were tangled up in a nose-to-nose dogfight, or doing a bombing/strafing run, he undoubtedly gave his full attention and mental faculties to the task. He was conscientious.

But, think of it; an hour and a half out to a target, fifteen minutes work, an hour back to base. Those long hauls could get to be a bore! So, Bengie took along something to relieve the boredom, whatever current-interest best seller was available in paperback.

Word got out. His fellow pilots didn’t like it! Their leader sitting up there reading lusty historical novels, while they just managed to fly right, search for bogeys, take time to be scared and sweat. What the hell kind of war was this?

So, they laid traps. Half way out to the target someone would push the mic button and ask, “Slipshod Red Leader, Blue Leader here, where are we, anyway?”, trying to sound nonchalant. Then all the rest of us would listen intently.

“Uh, Blue Leader,” would come the reply, “on your left is Dazzleburg, on your right is Stuttsmesson, and the point on the river up ahead is Dusseldorf. We’re at map coordinates X-2, G-21. Uh, sixteen minutes to target.” Bengie would then sink back into the glutz and glitz of his porny vice book, having been more specific than any one of us who was navigating full time. The rest of us would sink back into our defeated desire for justice, not the least bit willing to admit that we envied our precise leader ever so much.

But justice, if that is the proper word for it, would prevail, and the horny-headed beast doesn’t always cast the chips evenly, discretely or even fairly. Such was to be Bengie’s downfall.

Pilot’s Log Entry: 11/21/44 Dusseldorf. Encountered E/A for first time. Jumped thirty ME-109s. 30 for top cover. Russ got one. Squadron total 10-3-4.

Bengie led the squadron today. Twelve ships, we went out into Mr. Hitler’s gigantic production fields of coal and iron and blew away another thirty or forty of his hauling trucks, many tons of his precious supplies and no telling how many of his faithful workers. From the position of the Allies fighting this war, this was a hugely successful mission. Destruction, destruction, destruction!

So, here we were on our way home, Bengie with Red Flight in the lead, Yellow Flight behind and below, Blue Flight behind and higher. This was standard operating procedure, except for the lead position of Bengie’s porn book. It was leading us back from a very successful bombing mission, all excitement behind us.

But, fatefully, not so! Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, both Yellow and Blue Flights were up to their butts in German ME-109s and FW-190s. No one saw them, they were just there! No one called them in on the radio. I guess when your psyche bluntly switches from serene to fight you forget little details like a radio call. There went Red Flight, none the wiser.

In about three minutes all was over. An estimated sixty Germans and eight Americans spewed thousands of rounds of death-dealing ammunition at each other. Scores of man-type human beings strained, and sweated, and feared death. Ten Germans tasted it because that’s how many were shot down. Three more were MAYBEs because we couldn’t confirm them as kills. Three minutes of hell.

And Red Flight pursued its happy way home, the porn book not having spotted the fracas behind. Yellow and Blue formed up, after a fashion, and came on in, too.

I don’t remember, exactly, all the reasons given for the late arrival home of Yellow and Blue, but for sure no one said anything near the truth as everyone came straggling in from the flight line. At the debriefing meeting, after Red Leader had given his account of a very successful bombing and strafing mission, Yellow and then Blue Leaders gave their accounts of one helluva dog-fight mission on which they shot down ten German planes and probably three more. No enmity, mind you, just all in a straightforward manner. But, I’ll leave it to your imagination what kind of meeting we had from there on out!

Bengie took it all in good grace. The Colonel surely chewed him out good and proper, but he was saved much ribbing and embarrassment by being furloughed home after completing fifty combat missions.

Since no one wished Bengie anything but good, and now admitted that he was simply envious, we now found that we missed him. Very few outfits are privileged to have a genius aboard. And, there was absolutely no chance, whatsoever, that we’d get another one as a replacement! No, for us, there could be only one Bengie; and we were the losers!

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


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