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Marine pilots' stories collected in new book

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Retired fighter pilots
Former Marine Corps fighter pilots Andrew Danielson, left, and Lyle Bradley wrote and got other Marine pilots to write accounts of combat, rescue missions and other experiences of members of the Minnesota Marine Air Reserve.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Lyle Bradley remembers there was no electric starter on his first World War II fighter plane.  

Lyle Bradley
Bradley was a Marine Corps fighter pilot during World War II. He retired from the Corps as a lieutenant colonel in 1967. He spent 35 years as a science educator in Anoka, Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of DeForest Press

"The first Corsairs I got into, we started them with shotgun shells," he says.

Bradley's Corsair carried bombs, rockets, six machines guns and 10 shotgun shells.  Bradley and the Corsair pilots fired the shells in the chambers of the 18 piston engine.  Most of the time exploding them got the 2000 horsepower engine to turn over and start, he says.

"Then later on the newer models came out with electric start on them and that was wonderful," he says.

82 year old Lyle Bradley was a World War II fighter pilot in the Pacific.  He grew up in Iowa, an avid birdwatcher and yearning to learn to fly. Bradley used binoculars for his birdwatching.  Unlike many other pilots, Bradley says, he carried binoculars with him on his World War II missions.

Corsair
The World War II Corsair fighter plane was known to the Japanese as "Whistling Death." The Corsair was famous for its bent gull wings and its high kill ratios.
Photo courtesy of American Aircrafts of World War II

The habit paid off on at least once.

Bradley and his group were assigned to ferret out and destroy on the ground aircraft flown by Japanese suicide pilots who used their planes as bombs and crashed them into allied ships.

"We'd circle a field for two to three hours.  And then we'd go down and hit the field.  It gave you enough time so I could use the binoculars and pick out different things around the field, and sometimes they would stash airplanes a mile away from the airfield and so that would give us an opportunity to spot that...."

"One time we probably destroyed 40 airplanes because I spotted that one exposed wing that indicated there were airplanes there and we were surprised when we started blowing them up how many there were there," he says.

75-year old Andrew Danielson joined the Marines in the years leading up to the Korean War.

Andrew Danielson
Danielson, a native of St. Paul, retired from the Marine Corps in 1992 as a lieutenant colonel after 24 years of regular and reserve service.
Photo courtesy of DeForest Press

Both Danielson and Bradley flew fighter planes launched from aircraft carriers.  Catapults shot them off the carriers.

Landing meant he had to make sure the hook on the back end of his fighter plane grabbed a cable strung across the carrier deck, Danielson says.

"It was not what you call a smooth landing.  It was sort of what's been described as a controlled crash and a very quick stop because your hook would catch one of the wires and it was a very rapid stop," he says.

Like many military fighter pilots, Bradley and Danielson were young, in their early 20's.  By their own description they'd been trained to believe they were the best.

Skyray
The F4D Skyray was the first Navy aircraft capable of supersonic speed in level flight. This photo from 1959 shows a Skyray flying over San Diego.
Photo courtesy of McDonnell Douglas

Both Danielson and Bradley lost friends, fellow pilots, who didn't survive carrier landings.  They'd run out of fuel and ditch in the ocean or overshoot the deck and their plane would sink before rescuers could reach them. He put the deaths of his friends in a compartment in his mind, while the rest of his brain concentrated on surviving, Bradley says.

"You learned from other peoples' mistakes.  And I can remember one of the guys that put an airplane in (the water) right next to the carrier, and his canopy jammed, and we saw the whole thing right in front of us," Bradley says. "That leaves an impression. 'Don't do the same thing.'  We learned from other people's mistakes."  

When pressed the two combat pilots struggle to find words to describe how they coped with the death of friends, losses that in peacetime many would find emotionally crippling.

"It's sad when it happens, but it's a lot different than when you are out there than for example in the civilian world when someone gets killed in an automobile accident.  You look at it a lot different," Danielson says.

"I don't know why that is, but it is.  When I was flying, and this would be the same as Lyle.  Just your accident rate for peacetime flying in those days when we were first started flying the jets was around 25 to 30 percent of the pilots wouldn't survive.  And those casualty rates are pretty high," Danielson adds. "Those are Navy figures.  So you're losing people and you're not losing them occasionally, it might not be one of the guys in the squadron, it might be one of the guys in the squadron next door, but you knew who he was."

Both Danielson and Bradley came close to being casualties.  Bradley chuckles as he listens to Danielson's off hand description of one life threatening episode.  

It was a training mission.  Danielson's jet engine flamed out.  Jets, he says, are not good as gliders.  

"They come down pretty fast.  But at Cherry Point, North Carolina which is where I was we had a very long runway."

Danielson says jets can sometimes be restarted in the air.  But when they can't, he says, you need a long runway to aid a landing.  During the flame out, Danielson says, he was intent on landing.

"You're just working pretty hard.  You practice flame out approaches, you simulate them so you know you come over the field at a certain altitude and make a big 360 (degree turn) and hit certain checkpoints as you make this circle...and you have to have a point of no return...nowadays they (pilots) can eject at a very low altitude, in fact they can eject on the ground and survive."  

"We didn't have those seats and chutes, so if you got down below a certain altitude and ejected your chute probably wasn't going to open before it hit the ground." 

The 23 Marine combat pilots who recount war and peacetime experiences in the new book, Marine Wings, are all members of the Minnesota Marine Air Reserve.  They've written accounts about combat, rescue missions, near collisions with buildings and much more.

There's a glossary of military aviation terms and pictures of the pilots.