Next | ToC | Prev
We're here with Fletcher Prouty. The date is May 5, 1989. We are going to explore some key aspects of American history starting with World War II and going up to the present day. To begin, and establish a frame of reference for what we will be discussing, why don't you give an overview of your 23 years of active military service in the United States Air Force; where that started and how you got into it.
Prouty: I came on duty before the beginning of WWII. I went to the University of Massachusetts and they had an ROTC program. And in those days -- the mid thirties -- very few of us knew anything about the military, least of all about ROTC. What I observed was that, out on campus there were some horses. And being a city boy, I didn't know anything about a horse. And I asked them whose horses they were, and they belonged to the army.
So, we had a compulsory freshman year ROTC, which was body work; but the second year, they taught us to ride horses, because this was a cavalry unit. And for me, that was new -- leading the horse was something -- riding him was really something else. And for the junior and senior year, you had to be selected to go into the course, because that led to being commissioned as an officer in the reserves for the U.S. Army. And I was selected, one of 22 men for the advanced course. That meant we practically had our own horse; three days a week we rode horses and we were getting cavalry training and cavalry education in our classes.
The summer between junior and senior year, we actually took 40 horses and rode over 600 miles on horseback as an army march -- as a unit -- we really experienced what it's like to live with those horses for 600 miles. At the end of our senior year, when it came time to graduate, we received, rolled up in our diplomas, our orders to active duty. We weren't drafted, we weren't asked whether we wanted to go our not -- we were just given orders, and off we went. I went to Pine Camp up in Watertown, New York, with the Fourth Armored Division.
Prouty: That was in 1941, on July 10th. In other words, World War II was going in Europe; we were not involved directly, and the Army was beginning to build new divisions -- one of them was this Fourth Armored Division in northern New York. The Army had decided to do away with horses and we had no horse cavalry to be ordered to.
Well, something interesting: little things that happen sometimes lead to important things down the line. The very first man that I reported to as an officer -- when I came on duty that day -- was Creighton W. Abrams, who became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and was our Commander in Vietnam years later. Abrams was from my own home town, Springfield, Massachusetts. He was a graduate of West Point, famous for his football-playing; a very skilled officer with a terrific career during WWII, where he was the Brigade Commander for General Patton's lead brigade of the Third Army that crashed across Europe, defeated the Germans and shook hands with the Russians. A terrific man: Creighton Abrams. So, he was the very first man I reported to in July of 1941, and had much to do with guiding my early career.
Shortly after that, I got orders from Pine Camp, New York, to go to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to a Communication Officers course. And while I was there, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. So then we were in the war.
About a month and a half after that I came back to the Fourth Armored Division. And in some of the mail I picked up when I returned there was an offer from the U.S. Army Air Corps to fly in the Army. I already had a flying license. I had been through flight training in a civilian course while I was in college. And, since I had a license, the Air Force had taken the list of people with licenses -- had written to me and said that if you want to transfer to the Air Force you can stay in grade and go right along. So I talked to Captain Abrams, and he said, "Sure, it's all U.S. Army, we're doing this all together, we're for this Air Force business, why don't you go ahead?"
Prouty: That was in about May of 1942. I got my wings on November 10th of 1942, and immediately was ordered into the Air Transport Command and to an assignment at the University of Vermont in Burlington, which was very interesting. They taught us a lot about instrument flying and arctic flying, because, at that time, there was the intent on the part of the U.S. Army that we were going into the north and help the Soviets, and of course we'd be exposed to flying arctic weather and all that sort of thing in the Transport Command, as our Armored Division would be operating as a Ski Division. And actually, the Fourth Armored Division had been issued skis and other northern gear so they could operate with the Russians in their territory. Well now, this is a sudden change of U.S. Army plans, to have divisions operating on Soviet territory -- and to have us flying on Soviet territory.
I've often wondered why my orders went that way. Because, when I went into the Fourth Armored Division, all of a sudden I had to learn to ski and everything else (as well as drive tanks, or operate tanks) -- and then, when I went into the Air Force, I ended up with a comparable set of orders to Burlington, Vermont. From Burlington I was transferred to northern Maine -- to Presque Isle, Maine.
When we arrived the temperature was about 30 below zero -- and, as things happen in the military sometimes, it was an abrupt shift. Where there were 50-some young officers just out of flying school in this group in the Air Transport Command at Presque Isle, Maine, and I happened to be the only one who was a First Lieutenant (because of my prior duty with the Armored Force). So, a telephone call one day came, and they asked for me -- it was from Washington -- and they said: "We want you to tell all 50 officers (and they read the list for me!) that you are being transferred from Presque Isle, Maine, immediately, to Palm Beach, Florida, en route to Africa for overseas service.And that was when?
Prouty: That was in February of 1943. So we turned in all our arctic gear, our fur-lined jackets and our heavy boots and everything, and drove to Palm Beach, Florida, and within a month or so almost all 50 of us were in Africa. I was assigned to what in those days was called the Gold Coast -- British West Africa (now it's called Ghana). I flew out of a base at the city of Accra -- a new air base that actually had been created by Pan American for an airline they'd planned to operate there before the war, called Pan-Africa. Fortunately for us, many of our instructors over there were these Pan American pilots who had assumed their reserve commission ranks of captain and major, and they trained this group of new lieutenants that had just arrived.
We began flying from Ghana across Africa to India, we flew to Cairo; we flew to North Africa. At that time, it was not too long after the American invasion of North Africa, so that we could fly to Casablanca, to Oran, and to Algiers, but we could not fly to Tunis because the Germans held Tunis -- and they held the desert all the way across to Egypt, so we couldn't fly in that part of North Africa. But as Transport Command pilots, we were flying both troops and supplies into this battle area. A lot of times we just landed on bare ground, unloaded the plane, and then went back to get another load. It involved flying the Sahara Desert, sometimes as often as five days out of seven. We'd just fly across the desert -- we knew the desert as well as we'd know our home country.
Interestingly there, we were immersed in flying. We did an awful lot of flying, a lot of good experience with these Pan American pilots and pilots from other airlines. One day, a Lieutenant Colonel -- who, to those of us who were Lieutenants, was a pretty elevated rank in those days -- and an older man who had been a Vice President of Pan American -- asked me to fly with him on a flight. I didn't realized it at the time, but it represented a personal checkout. He needed somebody to do some other flying and he wanted some experience with me. So we flew a few times together across Africa. Then he said, "Lieutenant, we are going to use you now for a VIP pilot."
Prouty: His name was George Kraigher -- a very, very interesting man. He was born in Yugoslavia, and he had a great interest in the Balkans through the war and did a lot of undercover work with units in the Balkans. But, basically, was a strong pilot, a good maintenance man, and a very knowledgeable airline-type operator. I learned an awful lot from George Kraigher.
What this meant for my career was that, a few days later, I was notified that I was going to pick up a general in Casablanca and fly him wherever he wanted to go, and as long as he needed a pilot and crew. Well, this turned out to be Major General Omar Bradley. Without question, one of the finest military men -- one of the finest men -- I have ever met in my life. I knew General Bradley for many years, even when he was with the Bulova Watch Company after his retirement.
We flew him into the battle-zone areas of North Africa -- in Constantine and areas near -- I think it was called Telergma and Beaune. These are places just east of Algiers, over where our army was fighting and getting its first taste of battle against the Germans. And General Bradley loved to fly -- I mean, actually pilot the plane. He wasn't a pilot, but he liked to sit in the seat and fly the plane. So as soon as we'd get off the ground, I'd send my co-pilot back and invite the general up front. He'd sit there and fly the plane and really enjoyed it.
But what I enjoyed was, he'd look down out of the plane -- not very high (an old DC-3, a very comfortable plane), and he'd tell me all the action that had taken place below. He'd say, "Now, see those three tanks over there? Those are German tanks. We knocked them out last week. Now look over here . . . " It was a terrific briefing of exactly how General Bradley was operating this campaign in North Africa. After that, I flew with him for a couple of weeks and he was called back to England for some meetings.
When General Bradley had gone back to England, I continued to fly many VIP's. One day I had Captain Butcher, General Eisenhower's Naval Advisor, and some others on board and we were flying back to Algiers. The weather was very bad. As I approached Algiers, the Maison Blanche airport, I had to stay at high altitude because of the proximity of the High-Atlas Mountains. I was cleared by the tower radio to make a let-down on the north leg of the Algiers radio range. This would take me out over the Mediterranean and away from the mountains. I let-down quickly on the north leg and kept letting down until I was below 1000 feet. At about 800 feet I could see the whitecaps on the waves in the big wind that was blowing.
All of a sudden, in those whitecaps I saw the conning tower of a German U-Boat, four men on the deck (the main hull of the boat was submerged), and prepared anti-aircraft guns. Just as I saw them, they saw me. They ran for the guns. I racked the old "Gooney Bird" (C-47) over as tight as I could and headed for the waves and for a southerly return to Maison Blanche. I expected to hear bullets rip into the plane at any moment. I yelled at the radioman to get on "emergency" and call "Sub-Patrol." I knew there was a Sub-Patrol (RAF) outfit nearby at Blida Airport. He did, and he got them. He reported a German submarine loitering on the North Leg of the Algiers range.
Month's later, when I was Chief Pilot at Cairo's John B. Payne Air Base my boss, General R.J. Smith received a batch of papers from the RAF. They were addressed, through devious channels, to "Capt Prouty" . . . address unknown. They had been to Washington and then back out to Cairo. A miracle in itself considering war time conditions of mail delivery.
The RAF was sending a hearty "Congratulations for the Sub Alert." They had found the submarine, dropped depth charges, and destroyed the U-Boat. My boss kidded me, "You may be the only Air Transport Command pilot with a confirmed Submarine sinking."
As I began to fly many different VIPs, each time a separate trip, I was transitioned into a Lockheed Lodestar (we called it a C-57), a very nice little airplane from a pilot's point of view. It would take six to eight passengers; it had been mahogany-lined; there was a desk and a typewriter in it; there was a bed in it, and it was a real nice plane for a general or some other official and his party. It practically was my own airplane. I just flew it all the time -- had a very good co-pilot, radioman and a flight engineer.
In October I was told to get some new tires on the plane because I'd be going on a long trip. We went to Casablanca, picked up a General and his party that were (on the orders) listed as a U.S. Geological Survey team. We had the plane ready for them when they arrived, and I met Brigadier General C.R. Smith. C.R. Smith was the founder and president of American Airlines. He was a brigadier general on reserve duty with the Air Transport Command -- an absolutely magnificent person. So we took off from Casablanca.
He had three men with him who were the Geological Survey team experts and he told me we were going to Teheran. I had been there so it was a trip that I was quite familiar with. By that time the Germans had surrendered at Cape Bon in Tunisia, and Africa was now open: we could fly all the way across North Africa to Cairo and from Cairo on to Teheran.
I don't know if many people realize it, but at the surrender of the Germans in Cape Bon, more German troops surrendered to the British and American armies there than at any other time during World War II. It was an enormous victory when they wrapped up this campaign in North Africa against Rommel and his armies. The old Desert Fox had been the enemy and the opponent of General Montgomery and General Alexander and General Bradley for years.
I should take a minute out to tell you an experience there that I think was rather interesting. At the time of the surrender, I had been flying General Bradley and I was told to get my plane ready for another flight early in the morning. I sat there in the cockpit of the plane and looked out across this big open area of -- north of Bizerte in North Africa, and thousands and thousands of German soldiers lined up and marched out to surrender. As they did, they were singing; they sang the Australian marching song Waltzing Matilda. The Australians and the British always marched to that song; but at the time of the surrender, the Germans sang that song. You never heard anything so thrilling as tens of thousands of German troops yelling this Waltzing Matilda to their adversaries, to whom they were surrendering -- the British and the Australians and the Americans who were lined up on the other side of the field. Then the British and the Australians and the Americans came out to accept the surrender of the Germans, and what did they sing? Lili Marlene, the German song.
There's something about this hostility of two great armies: it's like the hostility of two great football teams. They're adversaries, but they understand each other. I wouldn't say they had become friends, but you can see just in the way the songs were done and the whole surrender ceremony -- which, for the Germans, was a very sad event -- and how it was handled. It was really something. I don't think warfare has reached that level since then.
Immediately as the surrender was over -- which amounted to their stacking their arms and turning everything over -- then finally the German generals up front, led by a lieutenant general whose name was Von Arnim -- six or seven generals -- surrendered to General Montgomery and to General Bradley, and that phase of the war was over.
Within minutes, some vehicles came toward my plane, through the dust of the field, and an American officer said, "You are going to take these passengers to Casablanca." And he put these German generals on my airplane. I didn't have a gun. I had no weapons on board the plane. I presumed they weren't armed, but there were seven of them and I got thinking, "You know, I'll sit up there in this plane, flying along, and they'll come up front and say, `Hey! Fly this across the Mediterranean and take us back to Germany.' -- now, how am I going to . . . ?" So, I told the generals I didn't have much gas and I had to land at Algiers to get some gas and then we'd go on to Casablanca -- because they wanted to know where I was going to take them. I found out that the Germans, most of them, spoke English. One of them was a graduate of The City College of New York and another was from another American college. I sat in the back (while my co-pilot flew the plane) talking with them most of the way from Tunis to Casablanca, which in those days took about seven hours in an old DC3. That was very interesting.
For instance, one of the German generals, in talking with me, found out that I had been with armored force. He said, "Oh, then you can tell us about American artillery." He said, "How does the American automatic artillery work?" He said, "We have been fighting the British for years, and then when we came to the Americans, all of a sudden we were hit with automatic artillery. How does that work?"
I knew that Fort Sill had developed a method of using artillery which would appear to bring down all the guns at once, by firing a single gun off at an angle, and then by using trigonometry, studying the degree of the angle, and by using aerial photographs, the elevation of the land, and they were able then to move all the guns on the target instantly, and the Germans thought it was automatic artillery. So I told him, "I don't have the slightest idea." I wasn't going to tell him.
I took these Germans into Casablanca. I never knew during the war where they went -- but I understand they were kept as so-called "prisoners" at the Greenbriar Hotel -- down in West Virginia, and that was the end of the war for them.
That was an interesting little incident because, frankly, for an hour or so I was a little concerned about how to handle these German generals. They were gentlemen, and I'll tell you one thing: I don't think they wanted to go across the Mediterranean. For them the war was over. That was the end of it; they'd had their war.But as I was telling you earlier, I was ordered to fly a U.S. Geological Survey team across Africa. We could fly that route then because the Germans had surrendered. We flew into Cairo and on from Cairo to Teheran. Teheran in those days was very interesting because of the enormous number of refugees who had slipped across the border of Iran. They were predominantly Russian Jewish people who were fleeing the German armies that were coming into Russia. So, Teheran was a very, very busy place.
After a of couple days there, General Smith said we were going down to Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf. As we landed at Bahrain, he came over to me and he said, "Here's some money. I want you to go into town and buy some paint and some civilian clothes." And he said, "I want you to paint your airplane. Paint -- obscure -- the U.S. Air Force markings on it and obscure the numbers on it -- all the identification, the visible identification. And I don't want you in uniform tomorrow, I want you to be in civilian clothes, you and your crew." And I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "Just don't have your insignia on, and see if you can get another kind of a shirt or something other than your khaki clothes."
So we did. We went into town and we bought colored shirts and we bought a red necktie and all that sort of thing, so we were civilians. And the sergeant painted over the plane. Then when the general came out he said, "This morning, we're going to fly across the rest of the Persian Gulf -- only 15 or 20 miles -- into Saudi Arabia." Well, we all knew that we had to avoid Saudi Arabia: it was neutral, and we were not allowed to fly over it. For all the flying we had done in the Middle East, we had avoided Saudi Arabia.
But the general said he had special permission for this flight and that, when I got over the sands of Saudi Arabia, right across the beach, that I should spot a vehicle there and that vehicle would break open a barrel of oil and drive across the desert on an area that was smooth, and I would land in the direction of the line of that oil, which sounded reasonable. I circled the place a few times after I saw them running this line of oil across the sand, and it looked firm and smooth enough, so I landed on it. It was beautiful -- good as any airport I ever landed on.
Well, it turned out that General Smith had been sent there to meet the representatives of the California Standard Oil Company, who were holding their U.S. franchise on the oil fields of Arabia, Saudi Arabia. This was a really very important contact with the Saudi Arabians and with the oil industry.
Prouty: Yes -- October of 1943. And we got out of the plane; and they very kindly took the whole crew, as well as the general's party, and drove us over to an area where there were some oil pipes, that I would say were 10-inch pipes, sticking out of the ground maybe a foot, with caps on them. They'd unlock a cap, spin it off, and oil would just bubble out of the ground by itself -- no pump, no nothing. All they said was, "General, come and get it; you can have all you want. There's oil here for years." Now remember, this was 1943. And they've been pumping that oil ever since.
Prouty: No, the general was Smith. He was the president of American Airlines -- he was a Texan; his party were the Geological Survey people, he was just head of the party. So, he represented the U.S. Government for them and they were representatives of California Standard Oil Company, later known as Aramco. They were the founders of Aramco.
They told us that, although they were living comfortably in the sands of Arabia -- we couldn't see any buildings, there were no trees, there were no roads, there was nothing in that part of Arabia in those days -- they said, "If you don't mind, for lunch we'll get in this little boat we have and go out and see if we can catch a fish or two and we'll eat the fish." Well, that seemed pretty good. So we got in the boat. Not long after that we caught enough fish, we went onshore. They had a Filipino cook who cooked the fish, and I forgot what else we had, but we had our lunch there. We took off that afternoon, went back to Bahrain and spent the night there again.
Prouty: Well, it was purely a formality, so that the Saudi Arabians -- if our plane had been detected by anyone in Bahrain or anywhere else -- could say that only a civilian plane had visited them, and that it had to do with the oil party that held the franchise in their country, and that would be OK. What we had done is remove our insignia -- the general removed his insignia -- and it's purely a formality, it's part of the way you do clandestine exercises anywhere: you set up your agreements and you follow them.
That visit to Saudi Arabia was much more important than we realized at the time, because the Cairo Conference between the British, Americans, and Chinese -- Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek -- took place only a month later. One of the decisions of that period was to erect -- immediately, without delay, right during the war -- a 50,000-barrel-a-day refinery right there on that place called Ras Tanura on the coast of Arabia. So, you will see that we were planning on the use of Arabian oil even during WWII, if we needed it. Oil was one of the biggest things we needed in those days: fuel.
That small but important visit, played a key role in the development of the Saudi Arabian oil assets even during WWII, which we didn't realize at the time -- at least, I didn't. But I'm sure General Smith knew why he had been sent there.
I took General Smith from there to Karachi, which at that time was in India (it hadn't been divided yet to create Pakistan) and left him there. I then flew back to Casablanca and Colonel Kraigher, who had started me doing the VIP flying, said we were going to fly to Cairo and operate out of Cairo for a while. He didn't say why. But that afternoon I met some American pilots who were civilian employees -- civilian pilots -- with American Airlines, who had come over from Washington. They told me that they were going to fly President Roosevelt's party from their landing port in North Africa to Cairo at the end of November. And they wanted to know the safest air route from North Africa to Cairo, and so on. So that was when I began to realize that something was beginning to happen, scheduled in Cairo, which later became the Cairo Conference at the end of November.
So Colonel Kraigher and I went to Cairo. And we established an operating base there, because during the Cairo Conference (Cairo being in the reach of German bombers) we had to be very careful to separate the staffs, and protect them from being all in one place. Much of the British staff stayed up in Palestine (which is called Israel now). The American staff was separated around. And they needed aircraft to fly them back and forth and all that, and they assigned that job to me. So I stayed during the Cairo Conference and did a lot of flying in and out of that area while they were meeting.
One morning, I went out to the plane early and was told I was taking a Chinese group to Teheran. The Chinese had been at the Cairo Conference so I knew they were in the area but I was surprised to find that they were going to Teheran. I think about six or eight men came aboard the plane and I flew them to Habbaniya in Iraq for refueling, and from Habbaniya up to Teheran. When I landed in Teheran I landed right behind a very distinctive plane that Churchill flew in, called a "York." When we left the airport, which was a few miles out of town, our party with the Chinese was just behind Churchill's party of British going into Teheran.
During the Teheran Conference the Russians were in control of the security of the City of Teheran. As we approached the city, the center of the city, the entire area was enclosed with about a 12 foot to 15 foot high wall of purple cloth -- heavy purple cloth. It was really striking. It encircled the entire city. And the object of it was: anybody inside the purple cloth was cleared for the conference; anyone outside was not cleared; and nobody was allowed through the cloth -- a pretty good way of setting up security quickly. And all around that purple cloth there were Russian soldiers carrying automatic weapons.
As our two small caravans of cars approached the gate through this cloth wall, Churchill's party was stopped for quite a long time. And of course that meant we were stopped. The Chinese were talking with us, and asked if we knew anything about what the delay was and all -- and we didn't know. It turned out that Churchill was traveling in his wartime -- what would you call it?
Prouty: Jumpsuit. Single-piece suit with a zipper up the front, and had nothing in his pockets -no ID, no nothing. He was smoking his typical cigar, but it wasn't good enough for the Russians. No matter who he said he was, if he didn't have his ID, they weren't going to let him through that gate. Even the British were all laughing; they didn't know what to do; they couldn't get through. Finally the Russians got some other official up to the gate who certified that this was Winston Churchill and let him through. But it seemed kind of strange! At the peak of the war, for the Russians to keep Churchill out of Teheran! That only lasted about 15-20 minutes. Then we got up to the gate, and all our Chinese guests had their adequate ID -- we had no trouble -- we got through that big purple cloth without any trouble.
The conference lasted for a few days, and it was an extremely significant conference with respect to Asia and the Indochina War. I don't think people have considered that in the context of modern history, and what the decisions of Teheran had to do with later activities in Southeast Asia. Because, one reason that the Chinese had gone to Teheran was to prevail upon Stalin to ask Mao Tse-Tung to withhold attacks against Chiang Kai-shek so that Chiang Kai-shek could use all of his forces against the Japanese and help us get air bases that we needed for the B-29's in China so we could attack Japan directly from air bases in China. It was a very important decision that they were being asked to get Stalin to make. And Mao Tse-Tung did withhold his attack on Chiang Kai-shek.
Now the Teheran Conference, as far as the public and historians are concerned, was primarily a conference between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin; and it's all a matter of record and doesn't bear repeating here. But there was an additional factor that historians have not dealt with, and that was that the Chinese attended the Teheran conference also. This is very important, because decisions made at Teheran regarding China, impacted very definitely years later upon the Korean and Indochina Wars and conditions in Southeast Asia. As we go on, we'll pursue that.
But the problem was, we were allied with the Soviets during WWII. And we were not allied -- or Chiang Kai-shek was certainly not allied -- with the Chinese Communists. Which presented a rather fragmented situation when the British and Americans tried to persuade Chiang Kai-shek to attack the Japanese and drive them into the Pacific. He had a problem at his military rear: because every time he would move any troops easterly toward the Japanese Army, Mao Tse-Tung would move his Communist armies against them from the rear. And Chiang Kai-shek was fighting in two directions: one direction against our common enemy, the Japanese, and the other direction against -- what could we say? -- our Soviet friends, our Soviet allies, and their allies, the Communist Chinese. A bit complex.
What Roosevelt had worked out was: he felt that if he could get the Chinese to talk with Stalin and have Stalin prevail upon Mao Tse-Tung at least to withhold attack during the war against Japan, then he would free a considerable force of Chiang Kai-shek's so that he could use that force against the Japanese -- and gain bases in China that we would use then for the new B-29 bombers that were just coming into play to bomb against the homeland of Japan.
Roosevelt was a very thorough person. Just to give you a little idea of how he handled all this: When I got on board that plane of mine -- that C-57, that morning in Cairo -- I found that there were two or three very large cartons in the plane, that someone had put there. And, since we were just flying passengers, we were going to throw those cartons out. We figured they'd put them on the wrong plane. But a major -- a protocol officer who had come from Washington -- told me we had to keep them on the plane. Well that was OK with us.
Shortly after we had taken off, I went back to see how my Chinese passengers were doing. They had broken open the cartons. Inside were boxes of cornflakes. Just simple boxes of corn flakes, no sugar and cream, no bowls and spoons, just cornflakes. Roosevelt knew that the Chinese loved cornflakes and that they would eat the cornflakes like we eat popcorn. And every one of the Chinamen back in my plane had an open box of cornflakes and was eating cornflakes as we flew along.
Now, how did Roosevelt know that? How had it happened that he had thought of this whole event so meticulously that he even ordered the cornflakes to be on board? That's one of those events that makes a diplomatic meeting a success. And the success at Teheran at that time enabled Chiang Kai-shek to move his troops and for us to then put much more pressure on the Japanese and to win the war.
It did a lot of things because, in making the agreement with Stalin that we would invade Europe at Normandy, Stalin played his cards close. He talked to Mao Tse-Tung; there's plenty of evidence about that. And exactly one week after we invaded Normandy -- on the beaches at Normandy -- Mao Tse-Tung publicly allied himself with Chiang as Chiang moved against the Japanese. In other words, they timed it so that we land on the beach and then they'll announce the agreement with Mao Tse-Tung. Pretty clever operation.
Now in that period of time Chiang Kai-shek (who certainly was not any favorite of the Communist Chinese or any other communists) also had as a guest in his country Ho Chi Minh, who was -- in his eyes -- a Vietnamese nationalist whose greatest aim in life was to get the French colonialism period ended in Vietnam. Chiang was in favor of that, as were the American generals -- General Stilwell and all who were with Chiang -- General Chennault. So that the American generals, our OSS, and Chiang Kai-shek supported Ho Chi Minh when, even before the end of the war, they sent Ho Chi Minh down into Indochina and started his action against renegade Japanese there -- and greatly influenced his activities in Vietnam, coalesced his people there in armed troops (that we armed) -- all as a result of what started in Teheran.
A rather interesting situation -- of course we'll talk about that later. But I wanted to emphasize that, because some people have tried to prevail upon the fact that there were no Chinese during the Teheran Conference. I was the pilot of the plane that flew them there, and I know now there are books printed (even by the government printing office) that state that Chiang Kai-shek was in Teheran with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.This VIP pilot business that I got into -- I had no idea that I'd be in that kind of work -- was rather interesting work. I flew many other people like that. I flew the Turkish ambassador, who had been at the Bretton Woods Conference here in New Hampshire during the war, back to Turkey. A very interesting man. He talked to me about what had been going on at Bretton Woods as we flew north. I had him sit up in the co-pilot's seat. I don't think he'd ever done much flying. We were flying in an area where there were little puffy white clouds up in the sky, and I didn't try to avoid them, I'd just fly through them. Well, I noticed the first time I approached a cloud -- at C-57 speed, about 160 miles an hour -- he tried to hide under the seat! Because he thought there was going to be a crash! Then after that, he wanted me to go hunt clouds; he wanted to fly through a lot of them. You find interesting little events happen during these details.
As we approached Turkey, he made a statement that was rather interesting. He said, "Fly over by those mountains" (some beautiful mountains at the south of Turkey, near Adana). We went over there and he said, "See that lake?" And I looked down and he said, "That's not a lake; that's oil." He said, "Turkey has an enormous amount of oil. But we have made it national policy that we will not export oil. Oil is Turkey's; it's for us, and we will consume our own oil."
That was in 1944. I have not heard of any commercial development of Turkish oil since then. I think what he said was a true fact and that it still is their policy. But we looked down and saw plenty -- of course, there was Turkish oil before WWII; they were in the world oil market then.
This flying into Turkey led to other incidents which were rather interesting. I was called up there another day. I had a passport -- Turkey was neutral also -- but I didn't have to paint my plane to go into Turkey, because they were very meticulous. If they let my airplane in, they would let a German airplane in. So I got called to fly up to Ankara, Turkey, one day. As I approached the airport in Ankara, I saw another airplane. As I circled to land, I saw the other fellow circle to land. I parked my plane on the ramp and he parked his -- I was right beside a German airplane. They picked us up in the same bus. Here are my American crew and the German crew, and we went into the same hotel in town. That's how neutral the Turks were: they kept us on an even keel.
My visit there was rather interesting, because the next morning they got me up early, got the plane ready, and they rushed out to the field with four or five British soldiers. I had been asked to bring a nurse up there, by the way. I didn't know why that was, but then I realized it when we saw those soldiers.
These were the British commandos who had blown up the guns at Navaronne, one of the great undercover incidents of WWII. These British commandos, acting as native fishermen, had started somewhere around Latakia in the Mediterranean, sailed up into the Bosporus (to the Greek side of the Bosporus) to where these huge guns were based at Navaronne -- they overlooked the Bosporus to stop any movement or shipping through there up to the Black Sea (or out of the Black Sea). And these five British commandos had blown up those guns.
On their way in, unfortunately, one of the men had stepped on a land mine on the beach. The other fellows told me that he begged them to leave him behind, because he tried to do the best he could, but he was badly wounded (one leg was shattered). But they wouldn't. They dragged him up to the guns; after the guns they escaped. They put him in a boat and went across to Turkey, and they escaped with him. When we got to him, his leg was very bad. Gangrene had set in and the nurse worked with him all the way back. We took him to a big British army hospital that was in Palestine. But this was kind of an interesting incident, to think of the damage that those five men had done in their own operation.
Another visit to Turkey was equally significant, because we were asked to go to a small air base near the Syrian city of Aleppo. From there we went up north to an open field -- there was no air base. And we were asked to decide whether or not we could operate aircraft out of that field, because it was near the railroad track. There's a railroad track that comes down from Turkey on its way across -- easterly and, for a few miles, drops a few miles below the Turkish Syrian border; so the track is actually running in Syria at that time (or the train is running in Syria).
I agreed that we could use that as an air base, and I asked, how many planes they wanted and what we were supposed to do. They said, "We're going to have a train come down here in a few days with about 750 men who are American former prisoners of war." As the German Army was retreating out of the Balkans and the Russian Army was coming in, there was a little hiatus there in which our OSS officials were able to liberate many of the American prisoners who had been shot down over the Balkans during the war.
I figured out that for 750 men I would need about 30 airplanes. I could get 30 airplanes up there. We agreed to be there. So we got our orders about three days later to be there. We took off from Cairo. I had ordered every plane coming into Cairo for awhile to be unloaded until I had 30 extra planes. We flew up there, picked up these men and, as soon as we filled each plane, we flew them out. I had taken my commander's airplane --
Prouty: My commander was Colonel R.J. Smith. R.J. Smith had been a vice president of Braniff Airlines and was serving in his reserve commission as a colonel (later general) as the commanding officer of the Cairo John B. Payne Air Base. His plane had comfortable seats and we had some cots in there. We picked up the men who had been injured.
Injuries to the prisoners mostly were the result of a very brutal action by the native Balkans. To keep the prisoners from running away, they'd cut a leg off. And here we had these one-legged airmen who had no injuries other than the fact that they'd cut their leg off at the knee, and we had to put them in the plane; we carried them in onto the seats of the plane. Amazingly, I had a full plane for probably 30-35 men. We had one man who had both legs cut off -- just an unfortunate type of thing. They were in fairly good health, but it's a pretty brutal way to keep people prisoners, and certainly not in accordance with the Geneva Agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Prouty: Yes. Our bombing attacks on the oil fields in Ploesti in Romania and all, were of course devastating attacks. But we had to limit the supply of oil to the Germans. That was the reason for it -- even though we were not specifically at war with some of the people there, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, and so on.
The interesting thing about that was, once we got into the air, I realized that some of my passengers were not these American pilots. They were men from the Balkans. In fact, we were talking, and then later on I learned they were people who had been selected by the OSS in the Balkans for special evacuation before the Soviet armies arrived. Because they were Nazi intelligence officers, and (for some reason) our own OSS wanted to get them out of there. This puzzled us a little bit, but we weren't in the political business so we didn't ask too many questions. But I've done a lot of thinking since then, especially since the publication of this book Blowback and others, that shows we exfiltrated thousands of ex-Nazis out of Germany for various reasons after WWII.
Prouty: One or two things I have never written about, or really never spoken about before today, is that these men very freely gave me an ID. I wanted to know by what right they were on the plane. And I could tell from the IDs, one or two of which I have kept and still have -- I have their names and things like that. Then I learned from later associations in my career that this group (some of them) did contain men who had been selected by Frank Wisner of the OSS, who was the chief in Budapest -- I should say in Bucharest -- and they had come out and were selected for various reasons. At that time I had no way of knowing -- they were just my passengers.
But it's an interesting little incident because, as we all know, even before the end of WWII, Allen Dulles, who was in Geneva, was dealing with the Nazi General Gehlen and others for an early surrender of the generals as they revolted against Hitler at the end of the war. So this was a lead by maybe -- this was September of '44 -- this was a lead of eight or nine months before the end of the war in which we were already negotiating with Germans for the surrender of the war and for their own escape from the Soviets who were coming in. Very interesting prelude to things that were coming.
A third episode with this flying into Turkey is also rather interesting. It's hard to contemplate how, during a world war, when millions of forces are against each other, there can be activities through the lines. However our Army Counter-Intelligence Corps learned that the Germans were smuggling enormous amounts of gold from Germany, through the Balkans, into Turkey. And oddly enough (I mean, oddly to me, just a Joe pilot flying around) -- through American Air Transport facilities, to Argentina.
Immediately, Army CIC realized that the only going concern that they could have been operating with would be the Air Transport Command (because no one else flew -- the commercial airlines weren't in business). So they began to watch the Air Transport Command very closely. And they realized that one or two members (at least one or two) made trips that didn't seem to have anything to do with their normal business. And that these trips included the proximity to Turkey.
They called me in one day, because I had a Turkish passport. I was the only pilot who had a regular Turkish passport. My crew was selected for each flight -- they didn't need a passport because I had one -- at least for wartime, that sufficed. But I could go to Turkey without raising eyebrows, without having somebody observe it.
So they wanted me to go to Adana, Turkey -- go to certain restaurants and look to see if I saw any people that weren't Turks, or Germans, or whatever -- Americans -- just keep an eye on what was going on while I was having dinner, and that sort of thing. A very simple requirement, but it meant somebody had to go there to observe what was going on.
About a month later, this same Colonel Kraigher, whom I'd worked with so much, called me one day and said, "I want you to meet me at Shepheards Hotel." So I went down there in the afternoon and we sat on the veranda of the marvelous old Shepheards Hotel. (Unfortunately, it was destroyed in some riots later on, but it was just a grand old hotel -- and during WWII it was quite the social meeting place for the coming and going of the military traveling through Cairo.)
I met him there, and he said, "I want you to stay here with me and we'll just sit out on the veranda and watch what goes on." He said, "I expect that a taxicab (or maybe two) will pull up and certain people will get out of the cab; and if, by any chance, you see someone you saw in Turkey, just nod your head." He said, "On the veranda there are a number of CIC people and they'll do the rest. All you have to do is just nod your head."
We sat there and sipped our drinks for awhile and watched the crowds. Sure enough, up came a taxi and out of the cab popped an American in uniform. He was a man I had seen in Adana. I nodded my head, and immediately about ten CIC men got up, surrounded him, and off he went. I didn't see him again -- at least for awhile. He was tried for working with the Germans. It broke the whole gold-smuggling ring by trying him and finding out who the other people were, and it really was quite something. The CIC did a magnificent job; that ended it.
But what interested me was that the man they captured was a very famous Hollywood movie actor named Bruce Cabot -- a very close friend of Errol Flynn's. You know about the many allegations that Errol Flynn was closely connected with Nazis, and so on. I assume Cabot must have been, because he was in the gold-smuggling ring. Cabot's regular base for us -- he was the Air Transport Command Operations Officer in Tunis. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and he was running our end of the gold-smuggling ring. He'd see that the gold got to Brazil labeled as "spare parts" or things like that. And then from Brazil it would get down to Argentina by other devices. It was an interesting little interlude in the wartime.
VIP-flying opened doors to people and to incidents that, as just an ordinary transport pilot, I never would have even conceived of. I didn't realize it, but apparently some of this is kept on a record. Because, when they want someone to do things somewhat similar to that later, rather than train a person, they'd use one that's already had the training. And it limits the knowledge of these things down to a few people. Things like this occurred again.
I had been in Africa then for 19 months. I'd been up in the Soviet Union. We had interesting shuttle-bombing flights into the Soviet Union from England at the same time. Before I came back, we went up there. At one of the conferences it was agreed that we could do shuttle bombing. Bombers would take off from England, go deep over Germany, and then rather than return back across the length of Germany, they would just continue a few more miles into Russia and land there. Then they would fly around the battle areas into Italy, and from Italy back to England. They figured there would be much less loss of bombers if they could run shuttle bombing.
They did that without figuring that the Soviets were not as operationally efficient against aerial attack as we thought they were. The Germans followed our bombers and saw that they had gone into an airfield near Poltava. They sent bombers over that same night and destroyed almost every single B-17. I think there were 77 destroyed out of 80 bombers -- a terrific loss of planes. We didn't have much loss of life; the crewmen had been moved to some other place.
We got an emergency call in Cairo again to come up immediately to evacuate over 700 B-17 crewmen. So it was the old deal again: get 30 or 40 planes together and off we go! From Cairo we took about 40 airplanes to Teheran, and then from Teheran, up over the Caspian Sea, across the Ukraine to Rostov. From Rostov we used the railroad track for navigation up to Poltava and landed there. We flew supplies up, but then we flew these American crewmen back out. We set up operations there until we got them all out. From my base in Cairo, where I was Chief Pilot, I left quite a few air crews up there, because we opened up regular transport runs into the Soviet Union from that time on.
Our relationship with the Soviets was very, very close: we were treated hospitably. One thing we noticed was that there were no -- you might say -- "combat-age Russians" in the whole area. There were young folks there. The air base where we stayed was nothing but a field. There was no construction on it at all. This base was guarded by 13 and 14 year-old girls armed with automatic weapons. You never saw any 20 year-olds, 30 or 40 year-old people, men or women. They were all in the battlefront. From that base we could hear the guns over toward Kiev where the heavy fighting was going on.
I saw much of the war -- Italy and Europe and Japan; but I never saw devastation equal to what I saw in the Soviet Union. The city of Rostov was just rubble. It had been laid waste for so long that the seedlings of trees were growing up in the cellars and in the streets and the city was going back to being a forest. It was just unbelievable to see things like that. I saw Hiroshima. Now, Hiroshima was horrible, of course. But you could see that it was a temporary act and it had happened only a couple weeks before we saw it. Rostov had laid bare for years while the Battle of Stalingrad was going on.
The Soviet experience was very interesting. We had Russian maps. But, as you may have read, the Russians didn't make accurate maps of their country -- on purpose. At least, that was what they used to do. We knew our maps weren't good. But our Air Force operations office in Cairo had one set of maps that was pretty good. They were the maps that had been used by the crew that flew Wendell Willkie when he made a round-the-world trip in about 1940. And they had made copies of those maps for Teheran.
I was briefed on the flight from Willkie's maps, but they wouldn't let me take them. But they did give me the crude copies. And they said, "Now, as you fly, mark in as many things as you can, to try to get a little more accurate mapping definition." And we needed it badly, because we had no alternative air bases up there. If we had bad weather or something, we had to go to the bases we were sent to -- there were no electronic aids to land by, and that sort of thing.
Then they gave me a camera. On this kind of flight I didn't know whether I should be taking a camera because, although the Soviets were our allies, they might not appreciate that. But anyway, I took the camera, and took an awful lot of pictures for our headquarters use. And it shows that, even though in July of 1944 we were strongly allied with the Soviets, there was always this idea that we needed to know a little bit more, and that what they were telling us wasn't exactly accurate. It's interesting to see what things like that meant from the peak of the war period to modern times. It was a forecast of things to come when you see little bits of it like that, such as being asked by our officials to take a camera on that trip. I don't think any of our other crews took cameras.After 19 months of that rather interesting work in Africa and the Middle East, I was transferred back to the States and checked out in a four-engine aircraft for oceanic flying. In January of '45 I began flying the Pacific, and doing the same work -- heavy, four-engine transport work. In those days we would fly by way of Hawaii and Kwajalein or Tarawa to New Guinea; from New Guinea to Biak Island over to Leyte (Leyte had just been invaded in the Philippines) and a place called Tacloban.
Here we were close to combat. We'd landed at some air bases that were themselves under bomber attack almost every day. Or, at Tacloban, the airfield was simply a part of the beach. We hadn't been able to get inland at all, and the fighting was going on in the hills just over the beach. We could hear the fighting there, so we stayed on the ground only long enough to pick up a plane-load of wounded men.
The day I arrived at Tacloban for the first time, we were just approaching the beach when we got a call to circle for a while. An aircraft carrier had been sunk, or at least damaged, and its aircraft -- all that they could get in the air -- were flying to Tacloban to land there. They came in like a swarm of bees! The base wasn't equipped -- it wasn't the kind of a base that could handle a lot of airplanes. Some of them had trouble on the runway. They had flat tires or something -- and they took a bulldozer and pushed those planes into the ocean. Then they called on me and said, "OK, this strip is cleared. Come in and land."
I'd seen quite a bit of warfare, but had never seen this kind where, when you're right up into the combat situation, anything goes. You just do what you have to do. Here were these perfectly good fighter planes (except maybe for a flat tire) and they simply pushed them into the ocean and then cleared the base and called you in.
Most of our flying out of the Philippines was with wounded men. They had not been able to build hospitals, and we had to get them back to Hawaii to the big hospital. We did a lot of flying in those days just for that purpose.
Later we got into Manila. One aspect about Manila that hasn't been emphasized enough in history is that city was horribly destroyed by the approach of MacArthur's armies and the bombing -- the artillery and the bombing. There was terrible destruction in Manila. It was not an easy battle to recapture Manila. Some people think that once we got into the Philippines, we re-took the Philippines easily; that's not so.
After that, I was on a flight to Okinawa. The battle was still going on in Okinawa when we arrived there. It was near to ending -- they were wrapping up the battle. We had heard that the atom bomb had been used about a week before and had heard that the Japanese Emperor had ordered the Japanese to surrender. Of course, that's what we were all waiting for. This was mid-August. The Japanese had quit. Our operations officers on Okinawa held us until they were able to open an air base in Japan, adequate for four-engine aircraft, the Douglas C-54.
There was a typhoon -- a terrible typhoon came up the coast and hit Okinawa very hard. In fact, I think it is still believed by meteorologists that the highest winds ever recorded were recorded on Okinawa that day. I know we sat in our airplanes (155 four-engine transport planes) all night long with the engines running, as though we were flying, so we could stay pointed into the wind but stay on the ground. And with all kinds of trash flying through the air and everything -- some of the planes were hit pretty hard -- but I kept four engines running all night long, actually flying into the wind and staying on the ground.
In the morning, surprisingly, all our planes had been turned 180 degrees around. As the storm progressed, we had to follow the winds, and the storm blew us around. We had been facing I think to the south at night and in the morning we were facing the north. It was an enormous storm -- unbelievable. But the plane wasn't damaged, and the next day we flew up to Tokyo over the top of that same storm.
Prouty: That was on September 1st, 1945. It was a memorable date because we approached in the aftermath of the storm. We didn't see anything of Japan as we approached, but miraculously -- well, not miraculously, I had a good navigator, I had a very good navigator -- I saw through the top of the clouds the tip of Mount Fujiyama. If you know one peak to use as a positive fix, and have a reliable map, you can make a let-down in the clouds. So we let-down into Tokyo Bay, which is a large body of water and we knew it would be safe to let-down. What we saw there was a line of U.S. Navy ships and the battleship Missouri at the apex of the Navy group. We circled over the fleet -- near the fleet -- we wouldn't circle over them.