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Of Pop Guns and Peashooters

Photo courtesy of Stan Piet

A Greenhorn at Pearl Harbor
Earning My Wings
Back in the mid-1930s, when I was a teenager in California, I used to spend a lot of time fishing off the municipal pier at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I was standing on the pier one day when a flight of 16 to 20 Boeing P-26s came roaring by fast and low in tight formation. I will never forget the look of the pilots, with their heads sticking out of the cockpit and their white silk scarves billowing behind them, all looking like Eddie Rickenbacker. I remember seeing them painted in shiny, University of California blue and gold colors and thinking out loud, “I’ve got to fly one of those!” About that same time, the flamboyant-looking formation flew right into the center of a flock of seagulls. As it rained dismembered seagulls and the P-26s passed by, I was awestruck and impressed in a very strange manner. Little did I know that, in due time, I would be flying one of these Peashooters in simulated combat almost seven years later.

After earning my wings in mid-November 1941, I was sent to Hawaii, where I joined the 47th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, as a green second lieutenant.

The biggest and fastest airplane that I had ever flown in my short 200-hour pilot career was the AT-6, but all that was about to change when I moved up to a frontline fighter. It was called the Curtiss Model 75/P-36 Hawk. Good god, here was an airplane with retractable gear, a cockpit that opened and closed, and—best of all—machine guns that fired through the nose! A real fighter plane in the eyes of a naive second lieutenant!

The P-36 was a quantum leap from the training planes I had flown, but it was still underpowered compared to the P-40, the other fighter in our squadron. But on December 6, I was told to perform three touch-and-gos in a P-36A.
Our 47th Pursuit Squadron was posted at Haleiwa Field, which was a 3,500-foot-long grass strip. We had been on alert, and when it was finally decided that there was no threat that day, I was allowed to take a P-36 up as I promised to bring it back in one piece. If something happened to me, I could be replaced as there was a pool of pilots to choose from, but the fighters were a bit scarce and were treated as such. I was on “cloud 19” as I roared down the grass strip into the air. After three touch-and-gos, I taxied back to the hangar and put the Hawk to bed. At last, I was “real” fighter pilot.

To read the full article from the December 2016 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
By Lt. Col. Besby Frank Holmes, USAAF, Retired, As told to and written by James P. Busha

Updated: October 23, 2017 — 4:22 PM
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