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194 navigator Peter Briscoe and Fatty Pearson. (Imperial War Museum)

Who Was Fatty Pearson?

A World War II British foot soldier’s best friend in the air, and the man who rescued Ernest Hemingway.

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On the plains of India, the heat could top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Without shade, the metal could get hot enough to cause severe burns, and it wasn’t always possible to work on the airplanes at night. Pearson had giant scaffolds with thatched coverings erected to shade the work. “Is it any wonder the ground crews held him in high regard and gave such loyalty,” former 194 navigator Peter Briscoe wrote me. (Briscoe is Canadian, as were many of Pearson’s men.)

Empathy with the lower ranks was not an RAF tradition. At other squadrons, non-commissioned pilots felt like second class citizens. But at the Friendly Firm, sergeant pilots such as D.W. Groocock were warmly welcomed by Pearson and assured that those who did their jobs would soon be officers. “In a few days time,” Groocock wrote me, “I found that Fatty’s personality and attitude permeated the whole squadron.”

That was vital. The ability to drop supplies for an entire battalion within a 100-yard circle in a wilderness clearing 200 miles behind enemy lines was a feat that took the full effort of all ranks. Pearson’s consideration for all his men—ground crew, loadmasters, and pilots—instilled in them “a desire never to let him down,” Groocock said.

Pearson’s care also extended to U.S. crews, whose lives would depend, for example, on his flares lighting up covert strips during the monsoon storms. Pearson and the Chindits got a powerful comrade in arms: U.S. Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel Philip Cochran, whose First Air Commando Unit took Pearson’s concept of full-service support and ran with it. The unit pioneered its own unconventional tactics for jungle drops, some of which involved, for the first time in combat, helicopters (194 Squadron didn’t get helicopters until the early 1950s).

Cochran was short and trim, but otherwise shared several traits with Pearson, including a sense of humor, and the two got along well. Their leadership resulted in medals for each from both countries; Pearson’s included the American and British Distinguished Flying Crosses. And, like Pearson, Cochran was the inspiration for a fictional character: Flip Corkin in the popular comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.”

In 1944, during a break from combat, Pearson was posted as chief flying instructor at a base in rural England. On November 29, before his scheduled reposting to lead a bomber squadron, he flew down to the Biggin Hill air base, outside London, to lunch with his brother Herbert, now Air Commodore Pearson, and old chums from the Far East.

It’s possible alcohol was consumed by a pilot who, after all, had been known to uncork sherry in flight, all the better to enjoy the view of the Himalayas. At any rate, when Pearson left the officers’ mess hall, he wasn’t attentive, and, before the Dakota’s engines even started, he made an elementary mistake. According to the RAF accident report: “Prior to T.O. [takeoff] assistance from ground crew was declined. Pilot failed to remove elevator lock.” This device stabilized the starboard elevator while the airplane was parked, so when Pearson took off, a key control was frozen. He managed to circle twice, then tried a wheels-up landing, engines still running. A wing clipped the ground, and the prop sliced through the cockpit, killing Pearson instantly. His navigator was slightly injured.

Fatty Pearson was deeply mourned within the RAF. His name was inscribed in the chapel at Biggin Hill, along with those who had died flying out of the field earlier in the war. He is buried in a nearby cemetery shaded by giant yews.

Then they were over the first hills and the wildebeeste were trailing up them, and then they were over mountains with sudden depths of green-rising forest and the solid bamboo slopes, and then the heavy forest again, sculptured into peaks and hollows until they crossed, and hills sloped down and then another plain, hot now, and purple brown, bumpy with heat and Compie looking back to see how he was riding.

Tim Belknap's journalism career has included long tenures at the Detroit Free Press and Business Week. He is the son of a World War II veteran who, in the jungles of Burma, was one of the grateful recipients of a supply drop by Royal Air Force Squadron 31.

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