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The Last Mission

By Jim B. Smith

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© 1995 Jim B. Smith - all rights reserved


Fairmont And Then Las Vegas

I separated from the Air Corps 16 January 1946, and entered college in the fall of 1946. After a year at the University of Texas, I moved to Los Angeles where I enrolled in a music and drama school, and in 1950, I earned my professional Screen Actor's Card at R.K.O. studios in a John Wayne/Janet Leigh movie,"Jet Pilot." The questions I had concerning the last mission were put on hold for a time, but a strange event happened in 1959 that re-started my curiosity of the whole affair.

I had driven from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and then proceeded across the state line into Nebraska. I planned to visit my step-mother and Dad in Iowa. It was February and I soon discovered that this was not the best time to be wheeling a car down a Nebraska highway. A snow storm was picking up from the Northwest, and the old #6 two lane highway was beginning to get a little icy. It was late afternoon and I had planned to stop overnight with friends, the Joe Patricks', in Omaha. Joe and I had attended the same junior high school and then we were classmates and buddies at North High school in Des Moines, Iowa from 1939 to 1942.

Joe Patrick

Patrick had become a well known sportscaster in Nebraska, and I knew that he would be calling a Creighton, University of Nebraska game from the field house in Lincoln. I found the station, and in spite of the storm, old Joe was coming in loud and clear. R-5, S-5 as we used to say in the Army Air Corps (on a scale of five, that means readability five and signal strength five).

Joe Patrick has always been a fun loving guy who likes to stretch out and tackle all the life he can get his hands on. He's a formidable type, standing well over 6 feet one and tipping the Toledos at 220 plus. He served a Navy pilot in World War II, after which he came back to Des Moines and enrolled in a radio broadcasting course at Drake University. Joe says he was looking for a snap course that wouldn't interfere with his playing football. (I've never know a more gentle person than Joe Patrick, but football inspired him to new dimensions; he used to gorge himself on running backs.)

Patrick had survived a couple of crashes during his military flying career, but undaunted, he still yearned to drill some holes into the wild blue. He found a surplus BT-13 Army basic trainer that had a reasonable price tag (just over a thousand dollars), and he couldn't resist. The Des Moines airport had some tie down space available that worked with J's finances and so he parked the BT there to await his prime pleasure.

In the meantime I had been separated out of the Air Corps 16 January, 1946, and enrolled at the University of Texas for a serious bout with law or medicine. As soon as summer vacation rolled around, I hitchhiked to Des Moines and hooked up with my flying friend, Joe. We spent a month terrorizing farm houses and lake shore residents with low level, high prop-pitch (makes a terrific noise) passes, and after getting that out of our systems, we decided to fly to California. Joe had some relatives in the Glendale area and my mother, who was divorced from my dad, was living in Hollywood.

The airplane had a weak battery, also an inoperative intercom, and it was not licensed for night flying. (the BT was equipped with night lights but they were not operational.) We found a shop to slow-charge the battery, and my Dad, who had been an electrician at one time, patched up the intercom system.

Joe, The BT-13 and I Head For California

I slipped into my old B-29 summer flight suit (the same one that I wore on the last B-29 mission of World War II), and took the rear cockpit position. Joe and I lifted off the Des Moines airport runway and headed for California via Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Prescott Arizona. I had attempted to rent a parachute both in Des Moines and Oklahoma City but no luck. I didn't like flying in an Army trainer cross country without a chute, but I wasn't about to scuttle the opportunity to fly to California. Joe, sporting some hot, movie star type sun glasses and a baseball hat, kept giving me hand signals from the front cockpit that in case of emergency he was over the side, and it was up to me to save the BT. The W.W. II Uncle Sam slogan, "Take her up alone Mister" flashed through my mind, but after sizing up the uninviting terrain below, I wasn't excited about the prospects of this Mister taking her down alone. Especially when my log book showed only a handful of very light aircraft hours.

We arrived in Prescott late afternoon and since we weren't flying a night bird, we decided that it would make good sense to rest over night. Joe and I were running low of gas money so we planned to sack out in the airplane rather than to donate our dwindling dollar reserves to a motel. Joe and I advised the airport manager of our intentions, but he suggested that we could make it to our destination, Glendale, California, before nightfall. "You can fly until 8:30, easy", the guy said. That was enough encouragement for us, so we cranked up our bird and full throttled to altitude. We navigated by dead reckoning (using visual references) until 7:00 p.m. at which time the sun fell down behind the mountains: we then attempted to navigate by the old "A" and "N" quadrant radio navigational system. The decrepit radio couldn't handle the demands over this mountainous, magnetic area, and in less than an hour we were both totally disoriented. I glanced at my watch, and it showed 7:30 p.m. We were flying blind.

Joe was taking a lot of time and fuel circling left and right trying to establish a course from the radio range facilities, but it was useless. Now we were in a bad situation: lost, no lights, running low of fuel, and heading into some extremely rugged mountains areas. A recipe for disaster guaranteed. I could feel my body intermittently shiver and shake to the tune of fear, frustration, and the bone chilling cold of night altitude. And through it all I was trying to recall emergency procedures on the radio. Someone was trying to answer, but the response was so broken up that neither Joe or I could decipher the caller's transmission. J. P. and I both pulled out a book of paper matches we'd pocketed from an Oklahoma City "pick and grin" palace the night before, and tried to illuminate our light dead instruments. We had decided to follow a westerly heading at our established altitude of 8,500 feet, figuring that we might have enough fuel to take us to the coast where, hopefully, one of us could spot an airport or a highway on which to land. The two of us were in the middle of a dilemma: if we climbed any higher to avoid possible mountains ranges, we'd be sacrificing precious fuel, but if we stayed at 8,500 feet the possibility loomed that our BT could hit a peak. If we were within a few miles of our navigational course the mountains wouldn't be a problem, so we gambled. The reality of the situation came in loud and clear however, and we knew our plight could be deadly.

Joe tried the "A" "N" system in one last desperate attempt and we chased faint signals north and then south, but the radio didn't happen; we were more disoriented than ever. We held our south bound heading for a few minutes figuring that we'd compensate for the distance we had chased radio signals north. J. P. tried to lighten up things again by reminding me once more that he was the only one who had a parachute, and he might be forced to abandon ship and leave the "driving" to me. I didn't respond to the pun this time; Joe took a beat to contemplate my uncharacteristic no response, and then asked me if I were scared? I gave him a fast and honest, "Roger", and he answered in a low voice, "I'm scared too." His response made me think of my first B-29 mission over Japan when I asked the engineer Hank Gorder the same question. Hearing fearless Joe confess that he was scared, emphasized to me just how bad things really were.

Three Lights

As I was thinking over my misspent youth, and figuring that I might be introduced to my Maker at any moment, my eyes locked onto three distant lights at four o'clock horizon high. I screamed at Joe over the intercom: he banked hard right and aimed at the lights. In a little over ten minutes we were close enough to make out a very small town. J.P. put the BT into a right spiral dive.

"There has to be a highway down there", he yelled over the intercom, "and we're going to land on it." I gave Joe a big resounding "Roger" on that one.

Miracles were still happening though because as we approached the lights, we made out a landing strip just north of the small town. Warm desert air whistled by the canopy as we descended, giving us comforting assurance that we were once again returning to earth. The strip was lit up nicely and Joe kissed the bird in.

"This is the best landing I've ever made". "Yeah," I went for the old cliche', "Didn't crack an egg."

"I don't mean that", said Joe, "I mean just to get this thing down in one piece has to stack up as my best landing. I never realized how much I loved terra firma, and I was beginning to wonder how we would re-enter it."

I had never heard Joe admit to any close calls in flying before, and so to me, his statement was a whole book on the near disaster we had just survived.

As we taxied up to the operations area, two girls came running out to meet us, and for a moment we pondered whether we had crashed landed in heaven. Instead of the traditional pearly gates, however, there was just a regular house that was apparently being used for airport operations. Actually, as we learned from the girls the place had been leased by the Civil Aeronautics Administration for emergencies and for broadcasting weather reports. We had landed at the Silver Lake Airport, Baker California, 90 plus miles south west of Las Vegas. The two girls said that they had tried to call us but there had been no response. One of them, whom we soon discovered was a regular Powder Puff Derby participant, showed us on the map where they had triangulated us with radio.

"We fixed you several times and you guys were just minutes away from the San Bernadino Mountain range. Gorgonio Mountain which stands 11,485 feet high could have been a problem and if you missed that one you could have nailed Mt. San Antonio in the San Gabriel mountain range which is 10,090 feet. Some refer to this particular geographical area as the 'The Graveyard for small airplanes'."

The other girl added the chiller line, "We figured you two would be statistics in about twelve minutes."

Joe and I fixed one another with grim looks-- "Well, we lucked out again Smith. It's a good thing you spotted the lights."

"And it's a good thing you can fly a BT by braille", I countered. "One of these days we've gotta have a little talk with the Prescott guy about what time it gets dark."

Joe just grinned, "Maybe we ought to send him a Farmer's Almanac, and circle the section on sundowns."

The girls cooked up bacon and eggs, popped a couple of beers for us, and then tucked us into bunk beds. We had no trouble sleeping. We rose with the morning light, swallowed some orange juice and toast, thanked the girls for the "Waldorf" treatment, and then gave them a buzz job that we usually reserved for Iowa farm houses. Joe waggled our wings good bye as we aimed the BT towards California. Our route took us direct to Palmdale and then into Glendale. Everything was in the green all the way.

Joe and I needed some fun money while we frolicked in L.A., and so Joe thought he should peddle the BT. He ran an ad in the paper offering up the basic trainer for sixteen hundred bucks. An interested party offered fourteen fifty, but Joe turned it down, and finally ended up flying the old BT back to Des Moines by himself. (Joe held on to the BT too long, and finally unloaded it for something like three hundred fifty dollars.)

Joe's P-51 Catches Fire

Patrick later began flying P-51's in the Des Moines National Guard and during a night exercise the Mustang he was flying caught on fire. Joe hung in there until his chute started to scorch, and then hit the silk. One of his loafers flew off when his chute opened, and his shoe-less foot took some punishment on impact. He landed in a cornfield and survived with just scrapes and a slightly sprained ankle. J.P. found a farm house, and scared the wits out of an old lady who opened her door for him. He was bleeding a bit from the scratches, and to the horrified lady he must have resembled a character straight out of a horror movie. Joe quickly explained his situation and then used the phone to get transportation back to the Des Moines airport base.

The P-51 accident took over the headlines and feature story of the Des Moines Register next morning. Drake students were doubly amazed at seeing Joe in class the following day, and even more astounded when they saw him playing football that Saturday. (It they had really known Joe, they wouldn't have been surprised at all.) Joe has always said that the P-51 episode was really a piece-of-cake compared to our BT-13 adventure. We both realize that if it hadn't been for luck and grace, we wouldn't be here today. Every time I drive to Las Vegas I stop at that Baker/Silver Lake airport and remind myself how fortunate I am to be still breathing in and out.

Nebraska and The Blizzard

Now here it was 12 years later and I was pushing my luck again--this time down Nebraska's old highway #6. The weather had turned suddenly, and my new Chevy and I were being progressively swallowed up by a raging old fashioned Nebraska blizzard.

The sound of Joe's voice on the radio was a good measure of comfort to me since we had always been a lucky combination. The blizzard was increasing in intensity and my Chevrolet was beginning to lose traction on the black ice that I couldn't see.

I did a side slip, and muttered, "C'mon baby, easy, straight and level, straight and level."

I was too busy trying to handle the ice on the road to study my position on the map, but I figured there should be a small town coming up soon. I could reassess my situation at that point. Joe called a fast break play just as I made out an eighteen wheeler approaching from the opposite direction. As the huge truck blew by, the Venturi effect sucked me into another icy skid. I cranked the wheel in the direction of the slide, but this time I ended up on the right hand shoulder precariously close to a large drainage ditch. That did it. I made up my mind that I would hang up this nonsense at the next town and hopefully drive on to Omaha the following day.

I didn't see any town signs, but there appeared to be a gas station coming up on my right. I pulled in next to the pumps and the attendant timed it to meet me at the driver's side. I grabbed my top coat and opened the door.

"Fill er up please", I said as I pulled my coat on, "I have to make a quick long distance call, I'll be back in a minute."

I trotted to a near-by phone booth which I had spotted as I drove in. I finally reached the field house in Lincoln after a couple of tries and some help from the local operator. I was handed over to Joe's spotter until the first commercial break.

Joe got on the phone with a, "Hey, what's happening Smith?".

I jumped in with a quick summary of events and then added, "I'll have to try and make it to Omaha tomorrow.

"Where the heck are you", Joe asked? (I hadn't mentioned the town because I didn't know the name of the place.)

I popped the hinged door a crack and called out to the attendant, "What's the name of this town?"

"Fairmont", he yelled, and I felt a shudder go through my body.

"It's Fairmont Joe, I can't believe it".

Joe remembered,: "Isn't that where you trained in B-29's?"

"Affirmative," I said. "This is eerie."

Practical Joe is not the type to be caught up with eerie things: "C'mon Smith, you must have planned it that way--okay, I'll see you tomorrow, drive carefully."

I followed the attendant through blowing snow back to the station office and handed him a credit card.

He grinned and asked, "You sure looked startled when I said Fairmont--have you been here before?"

I told him that I had been stationed in B-29's at the Fairmont Army Air Field, at Geneva, and I hadn't been back this way since 1945. "I was just trying to get out of the blizzard, and I didn't have a clue to what town I was in."

The guy shook his head, "Strange--there must be a reason--always is."

The fellow removed his cap, shook the snow off, brushed a shock of thick brown hair back with his hand and then put the cap back on, adjusting it with a quick double pull on the bill, "About all that's left of that old base site is one hangar and part of a runway. The county uses it to store equipment, and a light airplane or two. Were you a pilot," he asked?"

"I started out that way," I said, "In fact I began flying at the Creighton University Training Detachment in Omaha. I got bounced when they closed classification on me in Santa Ana, California. They decided all of a sudden that they had too many pilots. I ended up a radio operator. It wasn't a good day."

"Oh," the fellow said with some disappointment, "did you make it overseas?"

"Yeah that I did, I flew ten missions over Japan; as a matter of fact, I flew the last mission of the Pacific War."

The fellow lit up, "You must have been one of them fellas that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan."

"Not quite", I said, "our bombing mission wasn't flown until five days after the second atomic bomb exploded on Nagasaki."

The attendant shook his head incredulously, "But I thought the atom bombs ended the war."

I shook my head, "Nope-- but you're not alone, I think the whole world believes the atomic bombs ended it, but there was more to the end of the war than the history books tell you. Next time I get back this way I'll let you in on what really happened."

The fellow opened his eyes in anticipation, and he waggled his finger as a friendly reminder, "I'm going to hold you to your word now."

I smiled and nodded okay, and asked him to point me towards a motel. The fellow indicated that there was one a block and a half west on the same side of the road. I checked into one of the last vacancies.

It was tough falling asleep, and the Gideon Bible didn't seem to help. I kept thinking of the incredible coincidence of my ending up in this place--or was it a coincidence? The gas station attendant had reminded me again that everyone still believed that the atomic bombs ended the war--period. Maybe this freaky event was telling me that I was the one to set the record straight. One thing for sure, I had to drive out and see the old base site.

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