THE GENERAL'S WIFE
War tales often change to the point where truth is ignored. One fanciful account of a lady Copilot on a B-29 ferry crew was repeated so often by reliable men that many came to accept it as the truth. Since this story contains a reference to a military hero, perhaps a bit of background information is in order.
In 1944, soon after the XX Bomber Command's B-29s started combat operations in the China-Burma-India Theater, Major General Curtis E. LeMay arrived as the new Commander. "Iron Pants" was the name given to the famous leader of Eighth Air Force aircrews flying bombing missions in the European theatre. When he arrived in the CBI Theater, he was the youngest Major General in our country's military service.
When General LeMay took command, our group was encountering severe mechanical problems with its early model B-29 airplanes. This handicap, when added to our aircrew's lack of combat experience, caused us to perform poorly. This made General LeMay consider our combat record to be unsatisfactory. Whenever we scored an ineffective bombing result, our group was thoroughly chastised by General LeMay during the following mission critique. Whenever he visited our 40th Bomb Group at Chakulia, India, all personnel -- officers and airmen -- were keenly aware of his presence. Many were afraid to look him in the eye. It was as if they faced a grim, military deity that left them awestruck and tongue tied.
We soon learned that he was no ordinary senior officer. He was a strict disciplinarian who demanded perfection on every mission. We thought that he was trying to duplicate his excellent record as a combat Commander in England by pushing our new planes and aircrews to the maximum. It was not working. He did not hesitate to tell us of his frustration. After he made a few major changes in our operations, our record improved.
When B-29 losses on combat missions and flights over the Hump combined to reduce the group's aircraft inventory, the Ferry Command established a steady stream of replacement planes from the States. There must have been a shortage of B-29 Pilots in the Ferry Command, because a new plane delivered to our base was flown by a very unusual aircrew. The Pilot was an Army Air Corps Captain -- which was normal enough -- but the Copilot was a member of the WAAF -- a female Pilot. After turning over the plane's papers to our Headquarters, the Ferry crew went to the shabby place we called the Chakulia Officers Club.
News that history was being made in the O Club soon spread throughout the base. Many officers found various reasons to go to the club when all they really wanted was to see the lady who could fly a B-29. They noticed that she was 30 to 40 years old and had an excellent shape. Although the ferry crew was on the base for only a few hours, by the time they left the lady Copilot had made such a vivid impression that she became the subject of many of our future conversations. Overnight, she became a mental pin up girl for the men of the 40th Bomb Group.
The next morning at the mess hall's breakfast table, those of us who did not see the WAAF Copilot were treated to a fascinating description of the lady by a storyteller who had seen her. We knew that many fighter planes were being delivered to combat units by WAAF Pilots, but to learn that a woman could fly the world's biggest and most complicated bomber was a blow to our male ego. Then the storyteller made a statement that soon was repeated throughout the China-Burma-India Theater.
With great emphasis, he shocked his captive audience by saying, "The lady Copilot was none other than Mrs. Curtis E. LeMay, wife of our Commanding General!" Since the listeners were already captured by the description of a lady who they knew had been on the base, they readily accepted this unsubstantiated statement as a collateral fact. The story spread throughout the CBI Theater. We never heard if word of this droll foolishness reached Iron Pants or his wife.
Writer's Note: I tender a belated apology to General and Mrs. LeMay for recording this story. I assure you that I did not have anything to do with its fabrication.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *