On the Wing and On the Ground
Ernie Pyle’s aviation and war dispatches.
When Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, he captured the world’s attention—and the interest of a slender, red-haired reporter at the Washington Daily News named Ernie Pyle.
Pyle penned his first aviation column in 1928, pitching it to a public eager to learn more about these daring and adventurous aviators. Aviation was still out of the reach of the vast majority of Americans; a one-way ticket across the country was more than half the price of a new car.
Readers connected with Pyle’s easy, conversational reporting. Although his early columns were straightforward accounts of the day’s flying weather and happenings at local airfields, Pyle soon began telling the stories of the pilots he met. Readers clamored for more, and the style that would come to characterize his World War II correspondence was born.
The following examples of Pyle's aviation writing were published between 1929 and 1944.
“Hard Luck” Bates
Washington Daily News, December 27, 1929
They call him “Hard Luck” Bates. Some fliers won’t let him ride with them, and a few of the more superstitious won’t even let him touch their planes. He just naturally brings bad luck to flying men, they say.
His name is Robert Bates, and he used to be a book-keeper or something at Hoover Field. Laid off now during the dull winter season, he sort of “tramps” around the country by airplane, picking up rides here and there, as long as the pilots don’t know his history.
Bates is not a pilot, but an inveterate air passenger. And in less than two years of flying he has been thru five crackups. And never been scratched.
He took his first airplane ride at Fredericksburg in May, 1928. The motor cowling blew off, hit the prop and broke it. A forced landing was the next thing in order, and the ship turned over and was washed out.
Last summer Bates was flying with Lieut. Bernard Thompson in a Fleet. Near Charleston, W. Va., a cylinder head gasket blew out, and they went down in the tree-covered mountains, and escaped unhurt.
Then he went down to Nokesville, Va., one day with Roger Scott, Hoover Field operations manager. Landing at Nokesville they ground-looped and tore off a wheel.
Last fall he was flying over Virginia with Hank Pritchard in a Travel Air. Pritchard became lost and they decided to land in a school yard. They did, but hit a ditch, the plane went over and was wrecked. One wheel came up thru the cockpit.
Hoover Field got a telegram from the sheriff there. It said: “Sending Bates back by train. Plane washed out.” That meant, they thought, that he was dead. Poor old Bates.
A little while later Bates walked into the hangar, covered with mud and grease and carrying a bent propeller over his shoulder. They thought it was a ghost, but it wasn’t. It was Bates.
But that didn’t sour Bates on Pritchard, or Pritchard on Bates. They flew together again at Atlanta the other day. When they landed the ship went up on its nose with a big smash. Nobody hurt.
You can see now why some pilots won’t carry Bates. Scott, of Hoover Field, isn’t afraid of him and carries him around here and there. But Jack Parker, formerly of Hoover and now flying in Baltimore, won’t even let him sit in his plane on the ground. If Bates so much as touches the ship, Parker wipes it off before going up.
There are other superstitions about Bates. He was a friend of Tom Gurley, Pitcairn mail pilot. He stood in front of the hangar one day and waved to Gurley as he took off for New York. Gurley was killed before he got there. Some of the fliers forbid Bates to wave goodbye to them.
Today Bates flew to Richmond in a Robin of the Standard Oil Co. Robert Oertel doesn’t know about Bates’ history, and the flight will be over before he can read this.
Pilot Rescues Drowning Dog
Washington Daily News, June 5, 1930
The other day a friend of ours, “Sunset” Cox, sent me from Shanghai, a copy of the magazine Asiatic Fleet. In it was an article written by Cox, about a naval flier named Ballentine, who three and a half years before had landed in rough and dangerous seas off the southern Philippines to rescue a drowning dog.
“Sunset’s” excuse for reviving the story was that the seaplane tender Jason, from which Lieut. Ballentine flew, happened to be in Shanghai the other day, and that dog was still aboard, as mascot.
The story goes like this. Every year for four or five months a little fleet of American seaplane tenders stationed in the Far East, goes down to the Sulu Sea for aerial training maneuvers. The Sulu Sea is out of the typhoon belt and has more sunny days a year than Hollywood.
The Jason, one lazy morning, was lying off Zamboanga. Lieut. J.J. Ballentine was “lazying” around a thousand feet or so up in the sky. Then suddenly someone shouted that “Bally” must be in trouble, he was going down.
That wouldn’t have caused much excitement except for what was beneath him. He was headed for the water of the Basilan Straits, bad water, the “graveyard of anchors,” with a six-knot current swirling through it and full of sharks.
The sailors on the Jason watched him land. They saw him and his mechanic crawl down on the pontoon, then crawl back again. In a few seconds he was off the water and roaring back toward the Jason, only a hundred feet above the sea. The sailors couldn’t imagine what was up.
Ballentine landed and taxied up to the gangway and ran aboard with a bedraggled dog in his arms.
When Ballentine and his mechanic had first seen the object in the water, they thought it was a man swimming. But as they got lower, they could see it was a dog. He had undoubtedly been in the water for hours and was swimming his last strokes when they pulled him out. He was seven miles from the nearest land. He wore a collar with the letter “H” engraved on it. He was part Airedale and part just “dog.”
The mystery was how the dog got out there. No ships were known to have gone thru the Straits during the night.
So the Jason sent out a radio message to one of its sister tenders, 150 miles away. Soon a message returned. It was from the German cruiser Hamburg. It said:
“Hamburg passed thru Basilan Straits dawn this morning. Ship’s dog ‘Hans’ overboard unnoticed. Please thank Lieut. Ballentine and mechanic. We request that Jason adopt Hans as Hamburg bound Europeward.”
The Jason did adopt Hans. He is the ship’s mascot now and “Sunset” saw him again just a few weeks ago in Shanghai.
The magazine with that story came to me in the mail one morning. That same afternoon I was down at the Anacostia Naval Air Station. There was a flier in the station whom I had never seen before, and Lieut. J.J. Clark, the executive officer, introduced him to me as “Lieut. Ballentine.”
“Are you the man that rescued the dog off Zamboanga?” I asked, pretty much amazed. He smiled and said that he was. Lieut. Ballentine is now in charge of the air detail at the Naval Ordinance Proving Grounds at Dahlgren, Va., just below Quantico.
Ballentine recounted to me the story of the dog-rescuing. But the best part of it is this—that they never did learn where the dog came from and that “Sunset” just made that up about the German cruiser in order to make it a better story! Lieut. Ballentine thinks that was pretty clever of him.
January 25, 1936
Death writes the by-laws of this close corporation, the grief-linked coterie of wives of the men who fly.
They are a strange corporation of loneliness and close kinship—the women of aviation who sit at home and hear that their husbands are dead.
Death comes to other women’s husbands too. But nothing in this world is so closely clasped together as the people of aviation, and it is the long and very real shadow of death that clasps them.
When one woman’s husband dies violently, the wives of the living shudder a little for themselves, but not much; and the wives of the already dead come quickly with their sympathy and their memories.
I have tried to analyze the psychology toward death among aviators. I have even tried to analyze my own, for it became in time the same as theirs. Vaguely I feel it is something like this—the pilot knows something might happen, but oh well, he’s escaped so far, so probably he will this time too.
But the wives have a greater faith; a conviction of their husbands’ superiority. I have never known an aviation wife who didn’t consider her husband the greatest pilot in the world. It’s too bad when other pilots are killed, she thinks, but that won’t happen to my man; he can handle any emergency.
Those who have picked up the receiver and heard the awful news, know better than that. For among them have been women whose husbands actually were the greatest pilots in the world.
The other night my phone rang, and a hurried voice said, “What do you know about Howard?”
I started to make a funny answer to the effect that “I know a lot about him,” but something in the voice stopped me. I said, “What do you mean?”
“The papers say he’s been missing for 17 hours out west. I can’t get any information. Can’t you help me?”
There hasn’t been any information. As this is written, he has been missing for two weeks. Hundreds of men, on snowshoes and skies, on horses, in airplanes, have hunted the western mountains over, but there is no trace. The missing man is Howard Stark, known in many countries as the greatest blind flier of them all.
Missing—that is aviation at its worst.
Sudden news of death is like a knockout blow, which hurts and bewilders and gradually diminishes. But missing—that is the torture screw, with each hour that passes giving the screw another turn. You can’t resign to grief; you must hang alone by the tips of your hope, dangling, imagining, lying to yourself, waiting.
The night after Howard Stark disappeared, another woman called me up.
“Is there any news?” she asked. “I couldn’t sleep last night. All night I was thinking of Mrs. Stark, and living over my trouble again.”
Her “trouble” was on the night mail. Three years ago her husband crashed and died, half an hour after kissing her goodby at the airport.
Two telegrams have come to Mrs. Stark from Ohio. They were plain printed words on yellow slips, but they said things that only the women of aviation who sit at home would ever understand. Both of them ended with something about “praying for you.” They meant it too, deeply, for they are members of that corporation of loneliness.
I have been there, many times, when word of a crash came in. There is nothing romantic about aviation then.
To hear pilots cussing, with tears in their eyes. To see women wild with grief, or dazed and dry-eyed and staring.
One girl I knew was hysterical and pounded her head against the wall. Her grief never really left her. She was gone in less than a year. The doctors would say something else, but I know she died because she didn’t want to live.
Another night, I sat in the operations office with a woman whose husband had just been burned to death. She sat instead of going home, because at that point sitting or going home or anything else was equally unimportant to her. She did not cry.
To this day I am proud of myself for having the courage and common sense to ask her if she didn’t want a drink of whiskey. She wasn’t a woman who drank, but at that moment a drink of whiskey was exactly what she did want. And we got it for her.
Most always, the women who are left go back to where their lives entered aviation. They take their children and their loneliness back to the home town, and you don’t hear from them again until another woman of the clan knocks for admission to their desolate corporation, and they vote her in, and pray for her.
Italy, December 1943 to April 1944
Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance
Every time I went to an airdrome it seemed as if I always slept on the cot of the last pilot who had been shot down. It was quite natural, since there were usually just enough cots to go around, and I slept on whichever one was empty. I didn’t mind it, because I’m not superstitious. But it did impress me after it happened several times in a row.
I found that almost every combat unit had (1) one pilot so nerveless that he thought his narrow escapes were funny, and meant it; (2) a majority who truly loved to fly and at times found a certain real exhilaration in combat, but who on the whole existed only for the day when they could do their flying more peacefully; and (3) one pilot who absolutely hated airplanes and kept going, if at all, only through sheer will power. I knew of two pilots who developed such neuroses against airplanes that they had to be sent to a rest spot where they wouldn’t see a plane for six months.
But I suppose pilots as a class are the gayest people in the Army. When they came back from a mission they were usually full of high spirits. And when they sat around together of an evening, nine-tenths of their conversation was exuberant and full of howling jokes. There was no grimness in their conduct to match that of the infantrymen in the line.
For example, one night during supper we heard some terrific shouting in the adjoining room, as though a politician were making a Fourth of July speech. Finally we moved to the door to see what it was all about, and there sat a roomful of pilots before their finished supper plates, giving rapt attention to another pilot who was on his feet delivering a burlesque harangue on the merits of snake-oil hair tonic.
This pilot was Lieutenant Robert J. Horrigan, of 1443 South Cheyenne Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He had an infectious grin and a perpetual sense of mimicry. It turned out that his father, a banker in Tulsa, was for many years on the stage as a magician, and his uncle was a famous juggler. The two even toured Europe with their act. Bob Horrigan wanted to go on the stage himself after the war, but he supposed he wouldn’t. His current ambition was to land an airplane at the Tulsa airport, with his family and friends all out to meet him. He said he wouldn’t even object to a small brass band.
The nicest thing about Horrigan’s impromptu acting was that he got as tickled as his audience did. His final act was a hundred per cent sound imitation of the unconventional scene of a Messerschmitt shooting down a Spitfire. The audience of pilots yelled their delight as though they hadn’t a care in the world.
January 10, 1944
The Death of Captain Waskow
In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.
Captain Waskow was a company commander in the Thirty-sixth Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my father, he came next,” a sergeant told me.
“He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”
“I’ve never known him to do anything unfair,” another said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.
The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help.
I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions.
They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road. We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting.
“This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly.
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it!”
That’s all he said, and then he walked away.
Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.
Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was bearded and grimy. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive, “I’m sorry, old man.”
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said, “I sure am sorry, sir.”
Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line end to end in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.