On the Wing and On the Ground
Ernie Pyle's aviation and war dispatches.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 16, 2011
The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
(Page 3 of 5)
The other night my phone rang, and a hurried voice said, “What do you know about Howard?”
I started to make a funny answer to the effect that “I know a lot about him,” but something in the voice stopped me. I said, “What do you mean?”
“The papers say he’s been missing for 17 hours out west. I can’t get any information. Can’t you help me?”
There hasn’t been any information. As this is written, he has been missing for two weeks. Hundreds of men, on snowshoes and skies, on horses, in airplanes, have hunted the western mountains over, but there is no trace. The missing man is Howard Stark, known in many countries as the greatest blind flier of them all.
Missing—that is aviation at its worst.
Sudden news of death is like a knockout blow, which hurts and bewilders and gradually diminishes. But missing—that is the torture screw, with each hour that passes giving the screw another turn. You can’t resign to grief; you must hang alone by the tips of your hope, dangling, imagining, lying to yourself, waiting.
The night after Howard Stark disappeared, another woman called me up.
“Is there any news?” she asked. “I couldn’t sleep last night. All night I was thinking of Mrs. Stark, and living over my trouble again.”
Her “trouble” was on the night mail. Three years ago her husband crashed and died, half an hour after kissing her goodby at the airport.
Two telegrams have come to Mrs. Stark from Ohio. They were plain printed words on yellow slips, but they said things that only the women of aviation who sit at home would ever understand. Both of them ended with something about “praying for you.” They meant it too, deeply, for they are members of that corporation of loneliness.
I have been there, many times, when word of a crash came in. There is nothing romantic about aviation then.
To hear pilots cussing, with tears in their eyes. To see women wild with grief, or dazed and dry-eyed and staring.
One girl I knew was hysterical and pounded her head against the wall. Her grief never really left her. She was gone in less than a year. The doctors would say something else, but I know she died because she didn’t want to live.
Another night, I sat in the operations office with a woman whose husband had just been burned to death. She sat instead of going home, because at that point sitting or going home or anything else was equally unimportant to her. She did not cry.
To this day I am proud of myself for having the courage and common sense to ask her if she didn’t want a drink of whiskey. She wasn’t a woman who drank, but at that moment a drink of whiskey was exactly what she did want. And we got it for her.
Most always, the women who are left go back to where their lives entered aviation. They take their children and their loneliness back to the home town, and you don’t hear from them again until another woman of the clan knocks for admission to their desolate corporation, and they vote her in, and pray for her.
Italy, December 1943 to April 1944
Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance
Every time I went to an airdrome it seemed as if I always slept on the cot of the last pilot who had been shot down. It was quite natural, since there were usually just enough cots to go around, and I slept on whichever one was empty. I didn’t mind it, because I’m not superstitious. But it did impress me after it happened several times in a row.
I found that almost every combat unit had (1) one pilot so nerveless that he thought his narrow escapes were funny, and meant it; (2) a majority who truly loved to fly and at times found a certain real exhilaration in combat, but who on the whole existed only for the day when they could do their flying more peacefully; and (3) one pilot who absolutely hated airplanes and kept going, if at all, only through sheer will power. I knew of two pilots who developed such neuroses against airplanes that they had to be sent to a rest spot where they wouldn’t see a plane for six months.
But I suppose pilots as a class are the gayest people in the Army. When they came back from a mission they were usually full of high spirits. And when they sat around together of an evening, nine-tenths of their conversation was exuberant and full of howling jokes. There was no grimness in their conduct to match that of the infantrymen in the line.