My novel Silver Wings, Iron Cross sprang from a lifelong interest in World War II. I grew up hearing my grandfather’s stories from his service with the legendary Eighth Air Force. Without a doubt, he provided the primary inspiration that led me to fly in the military and eventually to write this novel. But I benefitted from other mentors along the way, as well. They include a fellow journalist I met back in the 1980s, when I was a brand-new reporter.
At the time, I worked for WDNC Radio in Durham, NC. Back then, radio stations actually covered local news, and I reported on city and state government, hurricanes, wildfires, and pretty much anything else that impacted North Carolina. WDNC was part of the Herald Sun Corporation. And in an office down the hall from the radio station, Ed Hodges typed—yes, typed—beautifully written pieces for the Durham Morning Herald. Among other assignments, Ed covered the White House, and he wrote a much-loved column titled “Folks Around Here.”
Though two generations older than me and vastly more experienced, Ed treated me as a friend and colleague, and he encouraged and coached me as a writer and journalist. Along the way, he mentioned that he’d served as a military pilot in World War II. I wanted to hear details, but under the pressure of daily deadlines, both of us had more urgent priorities.
Then, in December of 1986, we decided to go cover the same feature story: the annual meeting of the Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society. It was a gathering of pilots and aviation enthusiasts that began every December 16, near Kitty Hawk. Their stated goal: party through the night to mark the anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight on December 17, 1903. Or, as the members said with wry grins, the Wright Brothers’ first alleged flight. This was before the internet. Back then, if you made a preposterous claim, everybody knew you were kidding or you were a crackpot. The motto of these wiseasses was Birds Fly, Men Drink. In truth, they’d done plenty of flying, some quite heroically.
The company loaned Ed and me a van for the trip from Durham down to the North Carolina coast. I drove while Ed regaled me with stories of flying “over the hump”—over the Himalayas—to carry supplies from India to Chinese forces battling the Japanese. It was the largest airlift of World War II. By November of 1945, the operation had delivered more than 650,000 tons of war materiel. In C-46s and other aircraft, Ed and his colleagues pulled off a feat that would be challenging even now, with modern C-130s and C-17s. Harsh weather and jagged terrain made for perilous flying. Pilots said an “aluminum trail” marked the crash sites of lost aircraft.
If memory serves, a hotel in Nag’s Head became the base of operations for the Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society. I listened to those guys tell anecdotes from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and I thought I was among demigods. Chuck Yeager flew in on the 17th. He piloted a Piper Cheyenne 400LS turboprop to establish a speed record for that class of aircraft on a flight from Edwards Air Force Base, California, to Kitty Hawk.
At the time, I had not yet taken the controls of an aircraft. But Ed and his drinking buddies helped inspire me to fly and to serve in the military.
I don’t remember what I wrote about the all-night party. I don’t remember what Ed wrote. It’s a wonder either of us could write anything the next day.
All the way back to Durham, Ed and I talked flying. I told him I wanted to learn to fly and perhaps join the Air Force. He was delighted, but he warned me, “If you fly enough, a lot happens to you.” As a gifted writer, Ed knew the power of understatement. And with a twenty-year Air National Guard career behind me now, I can attest to the truth of his words.
During the drives to and from the coast, however, Ed, in his modesty, left out important details. He didn’t tell me he’d completed fifty missions. He didn’t tell me he’d earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star. I learned that part years later, when, with great sadness, I read his obituary.
I would love to talk flying with Ed again, and let him critique some of my copy. But, as pilots say, he has flown West to serve a higher command. I just hope that in Ed’s present duty station, they provide current intel briefings. Maybe this kind, brave, and talented man knows his influence still carries on.