When I thought of writing about 2d Lt. James A. Philpott, I tried to locate him, but his name didn’t appear in official records. I thought he might be related to Lt. Gen. Jammie M. Philpott. After all, there can’t be that many Philpotts in the world.
But, no, on phoning the General in Georgia, I learned they weren’t related, nor had the General ever met James A. Philpott. But he had heard of him:
“Isn’t he the one who flew through a hangar in Denver?”
“That’s got to be the same one,” I replied.
So, James, wherever you are, I hope you’ll forgive me for this memoir, which may be somewhat distorted. But what legends aren’t
The Arrival of Philpott
When Philpott joined the 9th Bombardment Squadron at Hamilton Field, Calif., in the 1930s, things began to happen. He left his mark on that staid old outfit. Philpott was the only Flying Cadet in the squadron. No doubt his commission had been delayed because of some escapade.
At that time, we were flying Martin B-l0s and had just received the Norden bombsight from the Navy. The sight was a complicated device unsuited to Navy needs, and the Navy was happy to unload it on the Army Air Corps. Morever, we were delighted to get it, even though it mystified us. Anything was better than the clockwork gadget we had been using to scatter practice bombs far and wide.
The Norden was gyro-stabilized and could correct for drift and ground speed. By sighting through a telescope and manipulating four knobs, you could center the crosshairs on the target and hold them there, provided the pilot zeroed a needle on an instrument in the cockpit. (This may not enlighten you, I know, but take it on faith, as we did. The bombsight was later tied into the autopilot, which eliminated pilot error.)
Of course, airspeed had to remain constant. You just held a trigger, and the bomb would drop automatically at the right time to hit the target. No one knew exactly when the bomb would drop. So all the movies that show the bombardier mashing a button to drop his bombs are pure Hollywood.
We learned that when these many variables were manipulated just so under ideal conditions, the bombs did drop, as advertised, into a “pickle barrel.” But a highly skilled bombardier with the cooperation of an equally skilled pilot was required to achieve acceptable accuracy. And this meant practice. Lots of practice.
We spent hours on a makeshift simulator, a ten-foot-high tripod on wheels. We sat on top of this rig in a chair while manipulating the Nor-den and chasing a movable “bug” across the hangar floor. But this wasn’t enough. We needed a bombing range.
Someone remembered Mather Field near Sacramento, which had been a large cantonment in World War I and was now barren and deserted. We established a camp there and marked out a large lime bull’s-eye at one end of the old field. Our B-10s then began cratering the bull’s-eye with 100-pound practice bombs that contained a black-powder marking charge.
Among our intrepid aviator/bombardiers was Flying Cadet Philpott. He kept pestering our C.O. for permission to make a parachute jump. (Let me remind you that parachute jumping in those days was largely confined to daredevils at carnivals.)
Of course, his oddball request was denied. It had nothing to do with the bombing task at hand.
Philpott Gets His Jump
Well, in order to record our bombing accuracy at Mather, we had an officer sit on a spar just aft of the open bomb bay and mark the bomb strikes on a clipboard. One day, Philpott had this duty while I was flying. The bombardier in the nose and Sergeant Jakes in the rear gunner’s position completed the crew.
As we made what seemed to be a successful bomb run, I called Philpott over the interphone to learn where the bomb had hit. No answer. I called again. Still silence. Finally, Sergeant Jakes, who could see into the bomb bay, answered in a frightened voice.
“Sir, Mr. Philpott is gone!”
“Gone? What do you mean ‘gone’?”
“He isn’t here!”
Well, he couldn’t have stepped out for a cup of coffee. I gulped, banked sharply, and looked down. Sure enough, there floated a billowing white parachute. Flying Cadet Philpott had made his jump. And he came down still clutching the clipboard.
When he was subsequently called on the carpet, he reported, “I lost my balance while leaning over to watch the bomb drop, and I just fell out.”
Our C.O. didn’t pursue it further, but assigned Philpott the duty of range security and charged him with keeping all people, vehicles, dogs, and parachutists away from our bull’s-eye target.
Another day, when I was the bombardier, a small airplane appeared in my telescope. It landed and bounced wildly through the bomb craters, coming to rest on the white spot. I let up on the trigger just in time to avoid dropping a bomb on it. That ended our practice for the day, so we landed.
I learned that Philpott, on seeing this same plane, had jumped into a half-ton truck and careened through the craters to the airplane. It was a Navy craft piloted by a mature lieutenant commander. He had become lost and on seeing those large white circles had assumed them to be the marker designating an airfield. Some small airfields were marked with a white circle in those days.
Red-faced, the Navy officer stood beside his plane as Philpott roared up in a cloud of dust. Highly indignant, the cadet accosted the lieutenant commander: “What are you doing on our target, sailor?”
The Return of Philpott
The world hadn’t recovered from the Great Depression. Philpott was promoted to second lieutenant at $125 a month plus fifty percent flying pay. Base pay for a buck private was $21 a month, and sometimes squadron tools thought to be lost ended up in pawn shops.
I had demonstrated unusual perspicacity for a second john by etching tools with an electric pencil to stop the hemorrhage, and thus I alienated many enlisted men. Then I was ordered by Maj. Ken Walker, our C.O., to make up for a horrendous shortage of tools. But on scouring the regulations, there seemed to be no legitimate way of my doing this short of paying for them, and that prospect invited personal starvation.
An enterprising supply sergeant saved my backside. Each morning he’d come to work with a bucket full of old tools he’d found. We’d turn these in for credit, and before long the books balanced. This feat made me a supply expert.
I learned later that the sergeant knew where Base Supply had been dumping worn-out tools in San Pablo Bay, and each morning he took a swim there. Too bad all second johns aren’t blessed with such a sergeant.
With this new reputation as a technical supply genius, I was assigned to the Hawaiian Air Depot as Assistant Engineering Officer and Test Pilot. The latter duty had nothing to do with my flying ability. It simply went with the job. I had to see that overhauled aircraft would fly properly before they were turned over to the tactical squadrons. It gave me a lot of varied experience, and I came to fancy myself as a rather hot pilot.
One day, I was testing the vicious little P-26 “Peashooter” high above the Pali when I glanced over my right shoulder to find another Peashooter there on my wing. From its markings, I knew it was flown by one of those cocky fighter pilots from Wheeler Field. He obviously wanted to play games, but I had work to do.
“I’ll shake him,” I said to myself and began a series of stalls, loops, Immelmanns, chandelles, dives, and steep turns that had contrails streaming from our wingtips. If you horsed that little monster in too tightly, it would snap into a wingtip stall and God knows what happened next! I expected the following Peashooter pilot to make that mistake, but he never did. He stuck to me like a postage stamp, doing whatever I did and doing it better.
In desperation, I then did something! now shudder to think about.! landed on a deserted golf course on windward Oahu. Now a Peashooter, with its stubby wings and fixed landing gear with pants on the wheels, was not made for strange field landings. It had a nasty habit of flipping over on its back and breaking the pilot’s neck.
As I rolled to a bumpy stop, I looked over my shoulder, and there he was, grinning at me. I might have known. It was 2d Lt. James A. Philpott.
Maj. Gen. Dale 0 Smith, USAF (Ret.), is a 1934 graduate of West Point. During World War II, he commanded the 384th Bomb Group in England. His Air Force career included command of two air divisions and a long stint of high-level assignments at the Pentagon. He retired in 1964 and began a second career as a writer. He has authored a number of books on defense-related matters. His offerings for this magazine include “The Target Was Marienburg” (September ’82) and “But for the Captains” (March ’85).