“It is good that war is so terrible, or we should become too fond of it.” – General Robert E. Lee –
As a boy, I wanted to do one of two things; become a naval aviator or an attorney. Because I am color blind, I could not be approved by the military as a pilot. So, I chose to fight in the courtroom.
My desire to be a pilot came from two men whom I respected. I wanted to be just like them. They were my grandfathers; Jack Wills Worley and James Aaron Swindle I.
They were both pilots during WWII.
Papa Jack was born in McMinnville, Tennessee to two loving Christian parents. He derived his work ethic from his parents, and grandparents, who were coal miners in the 1800’s.
He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and went to Ramsay High School where his athletic talent blossomed. He would become the Alabama State Champion in tennis.
Soon thereafter, he was accepted to Vanderbilt University. While at Vandy, he put his athleticism to work on the football field. In 1937, he became the starting quarterback for the Vanderbilt Commodores as they prepared to play the Crimson Tide in Birmingham the next week.
As his college and football career were winding down, storm clouds of war were forming over Europe and the South Pacific. On September 1, 1939, German Panzer Divisions began to roll to the east while Reichmarshall Hermann Goering’s mighty Luftwaffe blackened the skies as they began to invade Poland. Goering had warned Hitler that this was a bad idea. It was. WW II and all of the suffering and destruction had just begun.
Papa Jack enlisted into the Army/Air Corp and became a pilot. He was stationed in North Africa and fought the Germans and Italians in the Anzio attacks. He flew across the Mediterranean to deliver British troops much needed airplane propellers. He flew these extremely dangerous missions at a height of no more than 35 feet in order to stay underneath the highly advanced German radar system. He dropped paratroopers into Italy and Germany. He also brought back German prisoners to holding camps.
At one point during the war, he had to make an emergency landing in Spanish controlled Morocco. He, and his men, were taken as POW’s for many months. I only know this from being told by his friends. Like most POW’s, he never mentioned this experience.
After his release, he flew some of our most talented war commanders. General Patton would be the first. He once told me that Patton lived up to his reputation as a hardened determined general. I am sure that he was a pleasure to fly into war zones.
On numerous occasions, he flew General Eisenhower and considered him a friend. Little did the 26-year-old pilot know that he was flying the future president of the United States. On the flight to the Malta Conference, both President Roosevelt and future President Eisenhower were his two passengers.
Papa James was a tough and patriotic man who you would not select to tangle with. As a young man, he was already flying crop duster planes in South Georgia. Like Papa Jack, he could not accept the naked aggression of Adolph Hitler and his henchmen. He enlisted in the Army/Air Corp.
His flight experience, bravery, and skills as a pilot would have him stationed in Great Britain leading other warriors in the skies when Germany made the huge mistake of declaring war on the United States.
He would end up leading over 100 sorties into occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and finally into the Reich itself. His orders were to bring any unused bombs back to England when bombing military targets in occupied countries. Bombing missions into Germany and Austria were different. Americans pilots bombing during the day, while British planes were bombing during the night, were ordered not bring a single bomb back from the Reich. They dropped every bomb before crossing the Rhine River on the way back from a mission.
God intervened in Papa James’ life when he had lost a number of escort aircraft on a mission. A German Messerschmitt dive bomber was so close to him that he could see the Luftwaffe pilot’s face. The German pilot had Papa James in his crosshairs. For some reason, the Messerschmitt machine gun turrets failed to fire.
During this air battle, like others, many American airmen will not return to the Cliffs of Dover in England.
By the end of the war, Papa James’ Martin Marauder B-26 named the Sarah E. after his mother flew more successful combat missions than all B-26’s during the European Theatre of Operations.
As a boy, I was overly curious. Perhaps, I still am. But, when I would cross-examine my grandfathers, they, to my frustration, would not share many of their accomplishments with me. I would not know the whole story until after they passed away.
These two men defined the character of the Greatest Generation.
(Special thanks to my father, Buck Swindle, Uncle Robin Worley, and my cousin, Dick Plunkett for providing some of these historical facts.)