Illinois-born Georgia resident Wilbur Hattendorf learned mechanical skills at an early age. Born in 1916, as a teenager he chauffeured a disabled WWI veteran to earn enough money to purchase his first car, a 1923 Model-T coupe.
He later attended the University of Illinois but dropped out his senior year to take a job at Sears.
"The Depression was still on," he said. "Good jobs were top priority, but I did splurge a bit."
The "splurge" meant a brand new 1939 Ford convertible, black with red leather upholstery, for $935.
"My brother, Rich, attended the University of the South at Mont Eagle. I drove down to get him one time and on the way back we saw an Army convoy. On a whim, we decided to join the Air Corp. Restless, I guess."
They passed the written and physical tests in June of 1941 and Hattendorf took flying lessons while awaiting orders. Sent to flying school in Texas, Hattendorf and his brother learned the art of aviation from the best: barn-storming era Texas crop dusters.
"Talk about hotshots," he said. "Those guys were good."
Pearl Harbor changed their curriculum.
"They gave us rifles and target practice," he said. "We thought the Japs might invade California."
Lubbock, Vernon, and Randolph Fields proved productive training grounds for the young cadets as they first mastered obsolete aircraft, then the legendary AT-6 Texan. Next stop: the 55th Fighter Squadron in Everett, Wash.
After three days of seemingly irrelevant ground school taught by a lieutenant colonel, the cadets were told, "Come on boys, let's take a walk." Hattendorf recalled, "We walked across the tarmac toward a cluster of bumps that turned out to be horseshoe-shaped revetments. We stopped in the first revetment and couldn't believe our eyes."
The lieutenant colonel said, "That's your plane, boys."
Awed yet energized, the cadets were gazing upon the newest and hottest American fighter of the day, the twin-engine 360 mph Lockheed P-38 Lightning, armed with four 50-caliber machine guns and one 20mm nose cannon. The Japanese called the twin tail boom aircraft "the forked-tailed devil." The P-38s were most famous for ambushing and shooting down Japan's Naval commander-in-chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in April 1943.
"We had to sit blindfolded in the cockpit until we learned all the instruments by touch," Hattendorf said. "We knew everything on the P-38, even the tires."
Of the P-38, Hattendorf recalled, "The Lightning had counter-rotating props that made for smooth handling, gentle to the touch, and fast as, well, lightning."
Assigned to a small airfield near Olympia, the pilots soon learned the airfield required expert takeoffs and landings. Smiling, Hattendorf said, "The runway sort of crossed Highway 101, so Army engineers installed a stop light at the intersection so the cars and planes didn't have a bad day." His parents drove from Illinois to visit their two sons, now both army aviators; they also brought along Wilbur's girlfriend.
"You guessed it. We got married while she was out there," he said.
With 2nd lieutenant bars on his shoulders, Hattendorf and his group sailed on the Queen Mary for England. After three weeks at an RAF field near Londonderry, Hattendorf's squadron flew to a base in the south of England to be briefed by British Intelligence. Next stop: Oran, North Africa; in groups of eight to 10, P-38s clustered around a bomber that would navigate for them. They took off in darkness, flew 600 miles out to sea to avoid enemy fighters and/or spies, and prayed their double-bellied fuel tanks contained enough juice to reach the airstrip in Oran.
Hattendorf's group ran into strong headwinds and ran out of luck.
"We were told not to land on Gibraltar due to the short runway and a 'no-man's land' between Gibraltar and Spain, plus Italian and German observation posts in Portugal and Spain. Well, dry land is always better than shark-infested ocean. We started coming in. The Limeys tried to signal us off with red flares; we came in anyway. We drove the Limeys nuts."
Two of the P-38s ran out of gas and were forced down in "no-mans land." Hattendorf landed safely, with about 20 feet to spare before going off a cliff.
With Rich as his wingman, the Hattendorf brothers flew and fought and dodged anti-aircraft fire for 50 missions over North Africa, escorting medium bombers, hitting shore guns on Sicily, dive bombing, skip bombing (skipping a bomb into a ship or target by "skipping" the bomb on water from a low altitude), and engaging in kill-or-be-killed dogfights.
"A lot of the guys made Ace (five kills) by intercepting flights of tri-motors out of Italy," Hattendorf recalled. "They were slow and vulnerable, but the rest of us would have to pour on the coal to engage their German escorts, usually the respected Messerschmitt Bf 109s. As flight leader it was my responsibility to protect my men."
During his tour of combat, Hattendorf was credited with three confirmed kills: two fighters and one twin-engine aircraft. He took chunks out of several more but the kills were not confirmed.
Early on in the war, German Gen. Irwin Rommel bushwhacked raw American troops at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. Of the engagement, Hattendorf said, "The Germans hid their fighters in olive groves. From there they'd scramble their planes and intercept our B-26s. We tangled with dozens of them one day. They got on my brother's tail and shot up his plane like you wouldn't believe. The boom on his tail was hanging by a thread; they blew out his canopy and hydraulics, 80 percent of his instruments, and sent shell fragments into his head. Rich blacked out, but regained consciousness about 500 feet from the ground, pulled up, and babied his P-38 home."
Rich's head and back had been peppered with shrapnel. He spent more than four weeks in a field hospital recovering from surgery. It was the first time the Hattendorf brothers had been separated since joining the Army Air Corps.
After flying escort for the B-25 carrying Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge on a fact-finding tour of Palermo, Wilbur Hattendorf's P-38 fighter days were over. His brother, Rich, recovered from his wounds and returned to combat, scoring his first 109 confirmed kill and finished the war over Italy with 50 missions under his belt.
Wilbur and Rich were reunited in Santa Rosa, Calif.; lived next door to each other, and sold insurance for the same company. Wilbur later worked for Georgia Marble and supervised the replacement marble on the east front of our nation's Capitol, including all the columns. He eventually retired after a long and successful career as a director for the Economic Development Administration for the state of Georgia.
"My wife and I enjoyed retirement until her passing," he said. "We traveled the world; Ireland, England, Spain, the Canary Islands ... I think we earned it."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org