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   Charles Harman
       Charles L Harman

Just like dad

by Pat Christian

     This wasn't the usual writing assignment--it was my dream comes true.
     Here I was, a passenger in a P-5l Mustang, engine roaring, propeller whirring, flying even upside down over green farm fields that rolled into the reservoir shore.
      I couldn't help thinking about dad, who flew this fighter during World War II. He was part of the reason I sought out this story in the first place.
     This exhilaration—it’s the way it must have been for him when he was at that age I never knew him at. He was just out of high school.
     Dad was my first hero. I overheard his war stories.
I had turned the pages of his scrapbooks so many times, looking at photographs of his P-5l and P-38 and German war souvenirs he had brought home.
     In one photograph dad wore a leather flight jacket with a white silk scarf tucked in the neck. He also wore a leather flying helmet with his goggles raised for the photo up above his forehead. He looked a little bit like the actor Paul Newman to me.
     Some of the other photos were more disconcerting. One showed the aftermath of a P-5l crash. It had crashed on landing into a tent just off the runway. The photograph showed it sitting mostly intact with its nose dug into the ground and its tail sticking up toward the sky.
     The pilot survived dad told me. But a soldier inside the tent had been killed by the whirling  propeller.
     Less dramatic but poignant was a photograph of dad posing with his buddies, Lt. Bradford, Lt. Pose and Lt. Post.  When mom compiled the scrapbook, she had placed a gold star over Lt. Bradford's image with the notation, “Killed in action.”
     After graduating from South High School in Salt Lake City, my dad, Charlie Harman, joined up just like so many others who entered World War II. He learned to fly in windy open-cockpit, two-seaters at the Flying Training Detachment in Hemet, Calif., and learned how to fly the forked-tail P-38 Lightnings at Williams Field, Ariz.
    He had dated Anna Birrell, my mother, when she had been a student at West High School in Salt Lake City. But she had gone on to married someone else and moved away to San Francisco where she marked caulk lines on plates of steel to guide welders who were building warships.
     I was born in San Francisco, and we lived in an apartment at 4240 19th Street with our pet monkey.
     After she and my birth father divorced, Charlie and Anna reunited while he was learning to fly in California. He would fly to San Francisco and buzz our house in his training plane. One time he flew under the Oakland Bay Bridge.
     The war was heating up in Europe, and just before dad was to ship out overseas, he and Anna married. I was three and attended the ceremony at a chapel in Oakland.
     Mom says it was embarrassing when I yelled out loudly.
    “What are you doing, Mommy?” I yelled.
   They honeymooned in Santa Anna while an aunt took care of me.
    In Europe dad first flew P-38s. He was squadron leader and was awarded five Air Medals and a Silver Star.
     One scrapbook photograph shows Dad standing with two buddies at the front of his P-38 that was named Rhumboogie. An arrow drawn on the picture points to a large bullet hole in the plane's gondola.
     Dad told me his squadron was attacking a German convoy and a stubborn German soldier manning a machine gun in the bed of a convoy truck didn’t run for cover like most of the others in the convoy had.
     “He kept firing and just wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t run off the side of the road like the others had,” my dad said.
     His bravery paid off with a hit scored on dad’s plane. When a cockpit oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, dad quickly shut off both engines to avoid a permanent mechanical catastrophe.
    For seconds he silently glided at treetop level really too low to bail out. Down the highway he went getting even lower in the seconds until he figured out that only the oil line to one engine had been damaged by the gunfire. He was able to restart the good engine and limp back to his airbase on it.
     Dad told me he wasn't sure if he killed the soldier or not, but said he was firing his P-38’s machine guns all the way down the convoy line and flew low enough to see the soldier’s eyes and see that he had at least wounded him.
     When the new P-51s started arriving in Europe, dad traded in his P-38 for one of these amazing planes that climbed 2,000 feet a minute to a ceiling of 42,500 feet.
     The P-51 cruised a 362 mph and had maximum speed of 442 mph, but what really helped to win the air war is that it had legs.
     Allied bomber crews were getting chewed up alive over Germany because the P-38 and other escort fighters flying in formation with them helping to ward off German fighters didn’t have the fuel range. So they could only protect bomber crews for part of the bomber’s journey. When nearly half their fuel was gone they had to turn back and the bombers were without friendly air cover, and German fighters attacked our bombers viciously when they were unprotected.
     But the P-51s were different. They could go the distance. With a range of 2,080 miles, you could take off in a P-51 from Salt Lake City and be in San Francisco in less than two hours.      Then you could turn around at the Golden Gate Bridge and fly back to Salt Lake City without refueling. But you weren’t done. Then you could still turn around again without refueling and land in San Francisco.
     As a boy I used to sit at the kitchen table gluing plastic P-51s together, imagining what it might be like to fly them as dad had done.
     Once finished, I would run around the house with them—my hands being the wind under their wings.
     But now here I all grown up, And I was flying in a real P-51.
     Taking off from the airport in rural Heber Valley in Utah with Russ McDonald at the controls of his P-51, we buzzed low over Jason Olson, the photographer for the assignment, so he could get a close photograph of us flying.
     Pulling up, McDonald took me upside down through an aileron role and then did a gut-wrenching barrel roll.
     This had been my dream, and now I was living it.
     We only flew for 15 minutes, but in that short time, I felt what it must have been like for dad up there over Europe as young war pilot.
     It was exciting. It was romantic. It was a little frightening even without someone shooting at you. I’d been shot at enough covering the war in Vietnam . If only dad had still been alive to see his son flying in a P-51.
     Somehow I thought he was watching me, maybe from that cloud just over there. I felt nearer to him than I had in a long while.

(A version of this story was published in The Daily Herald . )

© 2002 Pat Christian
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