Autobiography by CHARLES H. OLDER. Courtesy: Bob Andrade, Palm Springs Air Museum
Two unrelated events during my undergraduate days at UCLA in the late thirties changed my course, headed toward law school, to Pensacola, Marine Corps Aviation, the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers), the U.S. Army Air Forces, the U.S. Air Force -- and then law school.
The first event was a $5.00 investment in a 30-minute ride in an Emsco open cockpit, mid-wing monoplane, and the second was the arrival on campus of a Lt.(JG) Naval Aviator in full uniform with gold wings, bent on recruiting cadets for naval aviation. The ride in the Emsco sold me on flying; the Lt.(JG) sold me on flying in the service. The uniform and gold wings, together with all the talk of hammerhead stalls, snap rolls, chandelles, carrier landings, dive bombing and tight formations proved irresistible. Upon graduation I reported to Long Beach, California for elimination flight training. In due course I soloed, passed the course, and received orders to report to Pensacola as a Marine Cadet.
One ominous note intruded on my trip from Los Angeles to Pensacola. As I came into New Orleans the news on the car radio announced Germany's invasion of Poland. The date was September 1, 1939. I could not have foreseen then that within two years I would be on my way to Burma and China with the American Volunteer Group.
Pensacola was everything I expected and more. My cadet class (129-C) was one of the first to receive the short course consisting of Squadrons Two, Three and Five. This eliminated for our class seaplane and P-boat training in Squadrons One and Four. I wanted to fly fighters, so that was fine with me. The opportunity to fly Boeing F4B-4's in fighter training in Squadron Five was one of the highlights of Pensacola. I still believe that the F4B-4's and P-12's were more fun to fly than anything ever built. Certainly, anything I ever flew -- F3F-2's, F4F's, P-40 's, P-38's and P-51's notwithstanding.
Another highlight, not directly connected with flight training at Pensacola, was attending an air show at a small airport in Alabama with some other cadets and watching Harold Johnson, a veteran barnstormer and aerobatic pilot, perform aerobatics in a Ford Tri-motor at low altitude and within the perimeter of the airport. That still impresses me as one of the greatest aviation performances I've ever seen.
I received my wings and reserve commission as a Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, on April 1, 1940, and orders to report to the First Marine Aircraft Group, Quantico, Virginia. Upon arrival at Quantico I was assigned to Fighting Squadron One under the command of Major T. J. Walker. The Group Commander was Col. Field Harris. VMF-1 was equipped with Grumman F3F-2's. The F3F wasn't quite as much fun to fly as the F4B-4, but it came close.
The summer of 1940 was spent in intensive training at Quantico. We commenced bouncer drills preparatory to carrier qualification and did a considerable amount of formation flying elements, flights and the entire squadron. We practiced formation take-offs, join-ups, squadron wing-overs and a variety of other maneuvers. Squadron wing-overs were pure poetry. Eighteen planes in tight formation. Up and down, back and forth. Eighteen planes hanging in the sky in a vertical turn at the top. At first you could hear the newer pilots in the squadron working their throttles too hard, trying to stay in formation at low speeds at the top of the turns. But after a few weeks of practice it was all smoothed out and the eighteen flew as one. It was beautiful.
All summer long we read reports of the Battle of Britain. In September, 1940, Congress declared a National Emergency.
The First Marine Aircraft Group, following carrier qualification of the Wasp off Norfolk, was ordered to Guantanamo, Cuba. For the next seven months we lived in tents on a hill overlooking McCalla Field, except for brief stays in St. Thomas, San Juan, and aboard Wasp and Ranger on maneuvers. The maneuvers were simulated landings by Marine ground forces on Culebra and Vieques Islands east of Puerto Rico. The air croup alternately supported the landings and defended the islands. The rumor was that we were preparing for a real landing on Martinique to prevent any possibility of the Germans establishing a foothold on the island following the fall of France.
It was during our stay in Guantanamo that we First heard rumors of American pilots flying for the Dutch in Java and even some rumors of Americans in China. We had, of course, read and heard a good deal of the Eagle Squadron of the R.A.F. and of Americans joining the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight in England. But all of this seemed far, far away from Guantanamo.
We returned to Quantico in the Spring of 1941 and started taking delivery of new F4F's at Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island. The F4F was an improvement over the obsolete F3F's in both performance and firepower, but I never liked its ground handling characteristics.
About this time a retired Navy Commander recruiting for the American Volunteer Group came to Quantico. Personal intervention from President Roosevelt was necessary to pry the pilots and ground crews from the military services. In April, 1941, an unpublicized Executive Order was signed by President Roosevelt authorizing reserve officers and enlisted men to resign from the Army, Navy and marine air services in order to join the American Volunteer Group in China.
Ken Jernstedt, Tom Haywood, and I, all Second Lieutenants in VMF-1, decided to join the AVG The procedure was first to go to New York and sign a one-year contract with Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, a front for the formation of the AVG, and then to submit our resignations through the squadron. We were told that our resignations would not be accepted until they reached Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, where, by virtue of the Executive Order from the White House providing for the creation of the AVG, they would be accepted. It happened exactly that way, and in late July, 1941, we were separated from the Marine Corps and instructed to proceed to Los Angeles where we would meet with others and receive instructions for our departure to the Orient. On August 26, 1941, we sailed from Los Angeles on the Dutch passenger cargo ship, "Zaandam." Our group consisted of six pilots and about thirty ground crew. Of the pilots three were from the Marine Corps, two from the Navy, and one from the Army Air Corps. Two other ships had preceded us from San Francisco carrying most of the pilots and crews of the AVG Our destination was Rangoon, Burma, via Hawaii, the Philippines, Borneo, Java and Singapore. We were civilians traveling with passports that listed us as having a variety of civilian occupations. To our families we were going to China to help train Chinese pilots in their war against Japan. To each other we were fighter pilots and crews sent to join a fighter group to be headed by Col. Claire L. Chennault, a retired Air Corps officer, for the purpose of protecting the Burma Road and Chinese cities from the unrestricted and indiscriminate bombing and strafing of the Japanese.
We reached Rangoon on October 9, 1941. The following day we boarded a train for Toungoo, about 175 miles northeast of Rangoon. We were still in the monsoon season and it rained the entire trip. Looking out the train window, all I could see was rain and flooded rice paddies. I was beginning to think I should have gone into seaplanes or P-Boats. When we arrived in Toungoo, the entire group that preceded us was at the station. Somewhere they found a six-piece native band that was playing, "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
Toungoo was the site of a small R.A.F. base that the British had turned over to the AVG for training. This was our home until just after Pearl Harbor. At Toungoo every AVG pilot received daily lectures from Chennault starting at 6:00 AM., and specialized flight training in the tactics required to defeat the Japanese with our P-40's. Chennault taught us everything he knew about the Japanese -- knowledge recorded in his notebooks from the previous four years of combat in China. Japanese flight and staff manuals captured and translated into English by the Chinese, along with lectures from Chinese fighter pilots experienced in combat with the Japanese Air Force in China, served as the foundation for developing the AVG tactics soon to be tested in combat. Before the AVG ever saw combat we knew the specifications and characteristics of every Japanese aircraft we were likely to meet, as well as the tactics the Japanese Air Force had used in China during the previous four years.
On December 12, 1941, my squadron, the Third, moved to Rangoon to join the R.A.F. in the defense of Rangoon, the southern terminus of the Burma Road. The First and Second Squadrons flew from Toungoo to Kunming on December 18. The first AVG combat came on December 20 in Western China south of Kunming, where the First and Second Squadrons shot down nine of ten Japanese bombers with a loss of one AVG fighter. The combat scene then shifted to Rangoon where the first of the large scale air battles occurred on December 23.
Concerning the AVG combat statistics, Chennault said (in "Way of a Fighter"), "Although the AVG was blooded over China, it was the air battles over Rangoon that stamped the hallmark on its fame as the Flying Tigers. The cold statistics for the 10 weeks the AVG served at Rangoon show its strength varied between twenty and five serviceable P-40's. This tiny force met a total of a thousand-odd Japanese aircraft over southern Burma and Thailand. In 31 encounters they destroyed 217 enemy planes and probably destroyed 43 more. Our losses in combat were four pilots killed in the air, one killed while strafing, and one taken prisoner. Sixteen P-40's were destroyed. During the same period, the R.A.F., fighting side by side with the AVG, destroyed 74 enemy planes, probably destroyed 33 more, with a loss of 27 Buffaloes and Hurricanes.
Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, added his eloquence to these statistics, cabling the Governor of Burma, "The victories of these Americans over the rice paddies of Burma are comparable in character if not in scope with those won by the R.A.F. over the hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain."
Japanese ground forces invading Burma slowly drove the AVG northward and eventually into China. The Tigers carried out their final missions supporting Chinese ground forces on both eastern and western fronts as well as taking on the Japanese Air Force wherever it could be found.
The AVG was finally disbanded on July 4, 1942. The group celebrated its final day in the air by shooting down five enemy fighters over Hengyang and escorting U.S. Army Air Force B-25's to bomb the Japanese air base at Canton. In summing up the history of the AVG Chennault said, "The group that the military experts predicted would not last three weeks in combat had fought for seven months over Burma, China, Thailand and French Indo-China, destroying 299 Japanese planes with another 153 probably destroyed. All of this with a loss of 12 P-40's in combat and 61 on the ground."
After the AVG was disbanded I returned to the United States, got married, and after a few months of flying B-24's at Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego and Tucson, was commissioned in the US Army Air Corps as a Captain. I was given command of a P-38 operational training squadron in California where recently commissioned pilots were given 120 hours of fighter tactics, gunnery and related training before being sent overseas in combat.
In the Spring of 1944 I requested re-assignment to the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force in China. In due course my orders came through and I arrived back in China in June, 1944. I was first assigned as Group Operations Officer and later Deputy Group Commander. The 23rd Fighter Group Commanders during my second tour were David L. (Tex) Hill and Edward F. Rector, both of whom had been Naval Cadets at Pensacola and later members of the AVG
The 23rd Fighter Group was one of the highest scoring fighter groups of the war and during its existence in China from 1942 until the close of the war in 1945 it destroyed over 1000 Japanese aircraft. The most memorable mission for me during my second combat tour was one in which I led the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron on the first strike on Shanghai in January, 1945. Joining up with aircraft from the 74th Squadron, 16 P-51 Mustangs simultaneously attacked three airfields at Shanghai and destroyed 72 Japanese aircraft on the ground and 5 in the air without the loss of any of our aircraft.
After the war I remained in the Air Force Reserve and flew Douglas B-26's as a "weekend warrior." I entered law school in 1949. At the end of my first year I was recalled to active duty for the Korean War with the 452nd Bomb Wing flying B-26's.
I was assigned to Wing Operations. After training for sixty days in California, the aircraft were flown to Japan. We were first based at Itazuke Air Base on Kyushu, and later at Miho on Honshu.
I eventually returned to finish law school and began the practice of law. I became a partner in a law firm in Los Angeles, specializing in aviation and civil trial work. In 1968 then Governor Ronald Reagan appointed me as a Judge of the Superior Court in Los Angeles. In 1970 I was assigned as the trial judge in People v. Charles Manson, the criminal trial involving multiple murders by the so-called "Manson Family." Subsequently, and as an outgrowth of the Manson trial, I handled the case of the newsman, William Farr, who was jailed 41 days for contempt for failing to disclose the identity of the lawyers in the Manson trial from whom he had obtained and published certain highly prejudicial and inadmissible evidence in violation of a court order.
In 1982 I had the great opportunity to revisit both Guantanamo and China. The visit to Guantanamo was part of a Department of Defense Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that started in Washington, D.C. After briefings at the Pentagon the 54 members of the Conference boarded a Navy DC-9 at Andrews Air Force Base and flew directly to Guantanamo. The carrier America pulled into the mouth of the bay and we all went aboard and back out to sea for the night. We observed night air opera-tions until the small hours, and more the following morning.
Guantanamo had changed in 42 years, but not nearly as much as I had expected. Carrier operations, however, are vastly different from my experiences on Wasp and Ranger in 1940 and 1941. Modern carrier operations have to be seen to be believed. The thunderous traps and cat-shots, made possible by the combination of high technology and diverse skills of superbly trained carrier personnel, are impressive beyond words.
Our trip to China in October, 1982, was a joint AVG and C.N.A.C. tour. China National Aviation Corporation was the Chinese-owned and American-operated airline that flew The Hump from India to China before, during and after World War II. A number of AVG pilots joined C.N.A.C. after the AVG was disbanded. We visited war-time bases at Kweilin, Kunming and Chungking in addition to visiting Canton, Shanghai and Beijing. After completing the China tour we boarded a Thai Airlines DC-8 at Canton for a special charter flight back across China and over the southern part of The Hump to Calcutta. On both the Guantanamo and China trips, I had plenty of time to recall and re-live my flying experiences that began in 1939 --all because of a $5.00 ride in an Emsco and an articulate and colorful Lt.(J.G.) with gold wings who talked about hammerhead stalls and snap rolls.