Unclassified Memories From an Old Declassified Pilot
Over the last several decades, during his spare time, Tosh wrote about his personal recollections of the events he experienced as a pilot contracted by various government agencies. Many of these were based on historic facts, while others reflected his “creative writing” skills as a budding novelist. These columns will present some of both genres.
I’M TOO YOUNG TO BE SHOT
The Day Tosh Plumlee Witnessed — in “Close-up” — a B-17 Making an Emergency Landing: The Same Day He Decided to Become a Pilot
In 1944, during World War Two, Donald Smith and I were perhaps the youngest persons in history, almost shot by a U.S. Army firing squad for being spies. Donald was ten years old, and I was seven, nearly eight.
The years of World War II, 1942 through 1945, were years of secrecy for America. The United States was at war on two fronts, Germany and Japan. National security was a top priority. Anyone who talked funny or looked suspicious, or acted strangely, was suspected of being a Nazi spy or a Japanese infiltrator.
Yes, it was dark days for America, a time of war. All major cities in the United States held nightly air raid drills. Sometimes there were two a night. They were unpopular events. The children shaking and crying, hid under their beds.
Patriotism’ ruled the day. When the American flag was raised, if you didn’t stop what you were doing, remove your hat, stand at attention, and put your hand over your heart, you were not considered patriotic and considered a possible spy.
Thousands of young patriotic men and boys stampeded to Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine recruiting stations to sign up for the war effort. Some men who didn’t join in the stampede were drafted into service. Others went to work in the war plants with the women. Those men and women became the backbone, building the tanks, the airplanes, the jeeps, trucks, and all the deadly war machines.
Young men and women day and night flew the fighters and bombers to overseas bases while still defending the homeland. Those who were left behind vigilantly guarded America against all threats. Manning air raid shelters, sorting out infiltrators, finding spies was their job.
“Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
As the war raged in Europe and the South Pacific in the United States, propaganda posters appeared everywhere. That man and his long beard pointing at you had a strong message posted everywhere:
“Uncle Sam Wants You! . . . ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ . . . ‘Buy War Bonds!’
Reporters on News radio said there were ‘Japanese’ and ‘German’ spies roaming around everywhere. They were running loose, sabotaging everything, poisoning the water, blowing up dams, starting forest fires. President Roosevelt’s famous line “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself” was repeated uncountable times by reporters, teachers, preachers and, of course, other politicians.
There was no doubt the war years of 1943 through 1945 had a chilling and molding influence on two young boys eight and ten living in the United States, playing on the runways at Dallas Love Field.
In 1944, Dallas Love Field was a top-secret military base. Lockheed Aircraft Company helped assemble the B-17 bomber known as the ‘Flying Fortress.’ Lockheed also assembled the P-38′ Lightening’ at the Love Field plant. The Japanese called the new fighter, the P-38, the South Pacific Killer.”
Security was tight all around the airport. M.P.’s with guns in Jeeps patrolled the area. The M.P.’s would shoot anyone who loitered around, taking pictures or acting suspiciously near the base. They would shoot first and ask their questions later.
Donald and I were playing on the runway, running up and down the runway. We played “Chicken” with B-17 bombers as they made their approach, attempting to land. We tried to see how close we could get to the big airplanes before they touched down on the runways.
Once a brand new shiny U.S. Army B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber flew low and slow over us. Donald and I stood up as the big airplane approached. We were jumping, reaching out toward the giant aircraft, trying to see how close we could get to it before it touched down on the concrete runway. It was a thrilling adventure to see the surprised faces of the pilots as we waved to them. Sometimes they waved back, and we would jump around, literally peeing our pants as we waved and pointed at the passing plane.
“He waved! Did You-See-That, Donald?… He waved back—the pilot and bombardier—they both waved back at us!”
The roar of the big bomber’s engines was deafening. We could almost touch the big planes as they passed overhead, at least that’s the way I remember it. I believe it was that day on runway number 36 in 1944, during World War Two at Dallas’ Love Field, where I decided to become a commercial pilot.
Earlier that day, Donald and I rode our bicycles from home to the airport, three miles away. We hid our bikes in the tall weeds near the security fence, crawled under the fence past the patrolling M.P.’s onto the runway. As the big four-engine bombers made their landing approaches to Love Field, we stood at the edge of the active runway playing chicken with the airplanes. Sometimes we would run far out onto the runway, lay down, ‘spread eagle,’ and see how close the big bombers would come to us as they flew over. We waved gleefully and hollered at the flight crews as they passed overhead.
Donald was first to notice a crippled B-17 making a slow-low turnaround, an attempt to return to base. The crippled bomber was attempting an emergency landing on runway 36. The bomber, with one engine out, its props in full feather, was struggling to get back to base. Another engine, next to the failed engine, was trailing thick black smoke. That engine was on fire. With only two engines left, the pilot struggled to complete the circle and get the plane back to the runway.
That was the same runway that we were playing on.
In the distance, the B-17 bomber continued making its low, slow turn, heading back to Love Field. It was flying lower and slower. The B-17 continued heading for our runway. The bomber’s number one engine’s propeller was feathered— the thick black smoke trailing from its number two engine was now much blacker and denser. I knew the engine was on fire. The B-17 was barely flying, struggling to stay in the air. I could see it was way too low.
The pilot was trying to make the runway on the other good engines. Donald and I stood up, watching the lumbering bomber. We stared in disbelief. The big bomber came closer. Frozen in place with fear, we watched it come towards us. Lower and lower it came.
Donald suddenly screamed: “Run!” “RUN! RUN! He’s going to crash on us.” We started running away from the runway.
We were so engrossed in watching the big bomber struggling to land that we did not see the M.P.’s sneaking upon us. Donald was the first to see them. He shouted, “Here comes the M.P.’s!”
We started to run toward the fence. We had to make it to our bicycles and the nearby weeds and bushes. We had to escape. The M.P.’s chased us off the runway just as the flaming B-17 landed right where we had been standing.
Out of breath, we ran as we had never run in our lives. And that’s when, in the distance, I saw another jeep with more M.P.’s, the jeeps red lights flashing, its siren blaring, rapidly heading our way. Five more M.P.’s on foot had sneaked around behind us. They were closing in on us fast. We had the make it to the hole in the fence and our bicycles. We had to outrun the M.P.’s. We knew if they caught us, we would be in deep trouble.
“Here comes more M.P.’s from over there,” I shouted.
We ran faster. We had to get to the hole in the fence and our bicycles before they caught us. Exhausted, out of breath, we finally reached the fence. However, two M.P.’s were casually standing, waiting for us standing next to our bicycles, smiling—their hands on their pistols.
They grabbed us, loaded our bikes in the back of their jeep, and took us to a big building. As we entered, the building army soldiers gathered around us. Some were shaking their heads. They looked at us suspiciously as we came marching in front of the M.P.’s’ into the building.
Our luck dodging the M.P.’s had run out. They had caught us, and now we were in custody, being held by two large muscle-bound U.S. Army MP’s, a Sargent and a Corporal. They sat us down on a wooden bench outside of an office and handcuffed us to a chair. They told us to stay put, and we did. We sat there, afraid to move. We waited, the four of us, to see the Commanding Officer, the C.O., an Army Major. The taller of the two had his hand on his pistol, an army .45. Silently we waited for the Major to decide our fate.
Soon we were escorted into a big room where the commanding officer and several other officers were seated. They told us we were spies for the Germans. The Major would decide what to do with us. The senior M.P., who put our bicycles in the back of their jeep, told us it did not look good.
“You know they shoot spies in time of war,” he said.
“Major Myer doesn’t take chances with spies. He usually shoots them—right there on the spot. That is when he catches them like we did you guys.”
He smiled, then pointed the way to the C.O.’s office.
I looked around at the room and the adjacent hallway. “Buy War Bonds, and “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters were posted on walls and hanging everywhere. I remembered the photograph of a tall, white-bearded, stern-looking old man, wearing funny red, white, and blue pants. His picture was scary. As I moved about, he seemed to be pointing directly at me—staring at me! His eyes follow my every move. The caption on the poster read, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” I could move to the left and then quickly to the right, but the bearded old man kept pointing his finger straight at me.
I looked over at one of the M.P.’s who was guarding us. He smiled, raised his finger, and pointed toward me. “Bang–Bang!” He shouted. He scared me. Donald was crying, his head bowed down into his crossed arms. I could hear him sobbing and trying to catch his breath.
* * *
In those war days, hanging around Love Field, I learned a lot about aviation, flying, and the war. When home on leave, the pilots gathered around the Highland Park Pharmacy at Knox Street and Travis in north Dallas, telling their war stories. I would slip unnoticed into their ranks. I was eagerly listening to their tales of daring deeds while flying high in the skies over Germany. These fearless men and their ‘hangar flying stories’ intrigued me. It was perhaps those tall tales that influenced me in ways I have never realized.
Most of those young men had flown over us at Dallas Love Field. They were eventually assigned to the Eighth Air Force and hurriedly shipped off to England, where they made hundreds of bombing runs into Germany. Some were shot down—lost in battle, KIA’s. They never returned home.
The Major entered the room.
“What were you boys doing on the runway?” He growled. “Don’t you know you almost caused that B-17 to crash… Thank God he made it down safely! The pilot called the tower. He was afraid he was going to hit you guys.” The Major turned away and looked at another officer, a Captain, then quickly turned back facing us.
“Do you boys know this is wartime, and you boys were trespassing on government property?” The Major pointed toward Donald and then at me. “We shoot people for less than what you guys just did.”
Donald was the first to speak. He was crying. “I’m sorry,” he said between sobs.
I awkwardly saluted the officer and then spoke. “I’m eight,” I lied. I was only seven, almost eight. I pointed to Donald. “It’s his fault. He’s older.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said the Major, returning the salute. “We have to do what we have to do.” The Captain lowered his head and made the sign of the cross. The Major shouted, “Lieutenant! Call these boy’s parents and let them know what happened to their children and why we had to shoot them.”
The Major turned and stared at me. “Because they’re spies. You know what we do with spies.” He turned away again, turning his back on us. “It will be over quickly. You boys won’t feel too much pain. Captain! Take them out back to the firing squad. ”
I started to cry. I bawled like a baby. I got down on my hands and knees and pleaded with the Captain. “Please, SIR! Please don’t shoot us! We’re not spies.”
Donald started singing the Star-Spangled Banner. “Oh, can… You see-Those stars….” Sob—Sob. “The stars and stripes…”. I would have sung with him, but I, too, didn’t know the words.
“Take them away, Sargent. They make me sick.”
In handcuffs, they took us away, out behind the building where they stood us up against a brick wall and blindfolded our eyes.
Then I heard my father’s voice. “What have you done, my boy!”
The officer told my father it would be over quickly. My father was crying. “I’m sorry to lose you, son, but it has to be done. We must win the war. Major. Do what you have to do. It’s for the good of the country.”
And then I heard the loading of rifles…, then those dreaded words,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!” That’s the last I remembered hearing. I must have passed out.
That night, after the M.P.’s had taken Donald, me, and our bicycles home in their jeep. My father was waiting on the porch. I got a real southern scolding. And then that night, I got the leather belt. It came out of the dreaded closet where it was hanging. It was waiting for me.
The first four slaps across my bare butt didn’t hurt much. The other four did. I promised my father I would never go back to Love Field or play on the runways ever again.
I never returned to the runways of Love Field until long after the war was over.
Soon after my 16th birthday in 1953, I enlisted in the Texas National Guard and subequently the regular Army. By 1957 I was servicing and flying airplanes into Cuba loaded with guns and ammo; a few years later I was attached to CIA’s Miami Station, working within the sixties’ top-secret JM/WAVE operations. I was a CIA gunrunner in their covert Cuban operations with Task Force W and their TOP SECRET, Operation 40.
One day in 1961, shortly before the ‘Bay of Pigs’, I had to fly some CIA cargo into Dallas Love Field. I landed on the very same runway that the crippled bomber had used so many years before.
While flying that landing approach into Love Field, I fondly recalled those earlier wartime memories playing on the runways.
I made the turn, the final approach for runway 36. I could see myself back in time; my friend, Donald Smith, and that crippled B-17 bomber on fire— flying low and slow, heading straight for us and our runway.
I could still see the M.P.’s, their handcuffs, and the Major. And too, I could still hear the rifles being loaded and the Sargent shouting, “Ready! Aim! Fire! Those words again echoed loudly in my brain as I flew towards runway 36 at Dallas Love Field.
The aircraft radio startled me. It came alive with chatter.
“…Zero six-seven X-ray. Air traffic control, you’re cleared to land on runway three six.”
I lined up the DC-3 aircraft for the final approach to Love Field. Then on the far horizon, the runway where Donald and I had ‘played chicken’ with that B-17 bomber came into view.
I thought I saw two young boys from Texas playing on the runway. By the grace of God, I narrowly missed them. I watched them escape. They ran away into the bushes and disappeared into my dream.