Mike and Chris have made it to Benton, and have finally had the chance to update us on their last few days on the east coast. Here’s some pictures and Frenchie’s report!
We arrived home Tuesday night, April 5, after beating out snow in Pennsylvania. ”Lady Satan’ is currently in the safe hands of all the Benton Airport crew staying warm in Monte Hittle’s hangar. Thank you Monte. They didn’t want the old girl to feel lonely; they wanted to make sure we knew they would “sacrifice” and exercise ’Lady Satan’s’ legs if needed. They certainly are givers aren’t they…..! Because of the excitement and lack of cell and internet service, I have not reported in for a few days. I apologize. I have pondered for hours how to really explain what what opportunity was given to us. I really do wish that everyone had the chance to do what we just did. I don’t think I can truly write it down to where all the feelings and experiences are shared but I will do my best.
A little background. A couple years ago, Mike Polley, Bob Cable and Chris Bergen purchased OY-1 02766, knowing she had a WWII history on Iwo Jima but not much had been verified. One morning over coffee at Maniac Mikes (Cable Airport), Mike Polley showed me the combat diary for VMO-4 that came with the airplane. We started to see the same names over and over again. Names like Lt.’s Thomas Rozga, K.E Kelley, Pfc Asher Banning and Pfc Robert Guss. As we read on, we wondered if we could find these guys still alive.
We didnt have a grand plan or anything, we just wanted to hear their story. When you read the diary and realize what these fine men did, you realize we can’t really repay what they did for us. Knowing that, bringing them their airplane was all we could come up with. It just had to be done and that was that. None of us questioned bringing them their airplane. It is a tremendous honor to be allowed to do this. I suspect that anyone that has been following this blog would do the same thing and not take a second thought either.
First we found Tom Rozga, Robert Guss, Asher Banning and Grover Pickell and Virgil Herring. We visited Grover Pickell last year near his home in San Marcos area. As I met with them, they gave me names of other crew members. Robert Guss sent me a picture of the VMO-4 logo with the signatures of all the members. That is how we found Robert “Bob” Vincent. Robert Guss told me that Bob lived in Benton, PA. More names came up and I found families of guys who had passed (Kelley, Hutchins, Bergeron, Sutkus, Drabot, Hull, Tomes, Eckler). Currently, I’ve only found 5 living members. The sons of Lt. John Sutkus found their dad’s logbook. He had logged 6 hours of combat missions on Iwo Jima flying OY-1 #02766. Amazing. We hope that when the word spreads, more members will be found. I would like to feel that this trip closed the journey but until I can find all the VMO-4 members, living or dead, we will keep searching (I’m sure my wife will love that).
Carrying on. On Sunday, Mike and I saw a break in the storm that was just west of us and we left Advance, NC for Pennsylvania. We would push all the way north then attempt Virginia and Maryland if the weather held later. We started early from Twin Lakes Airport and were escorted north by Larry Melton and Bill Englert in Larry’s L-5G. What a beautiful start to a day that will stay with me forever. Thanks for flying our wing gents! They broke off after about 50 miles and we made our first stop at Falwell Airport in Virginia. Some of the locals at Advance had warned me not to go in there at night if not familiar. That had gone in one ear out the other until the time I turned base leg to land and I saw the uphill 5-degree slope on the side of a mountain. “So that’s why he warned me not to go there at night”. The old girl handled it fine and was stopped in about 200 feet. After the owner of the field came out and fueled us, Mike flew the next leg into Maryland. Headwinds all the way, of course.
On Saturday, I had called the airport manager of Joe Zerbey Airport, Bill Willard. I explained for about 30 seconds what we were doing and he was very appreciative and said the weather looked good there. He told us that anything we needed he would get for us. Robert Guss and his brother-in-law agreed to drive from Pottstown, Pa to Lavelle, Pa where Asher and Marlene Banning were meeting us. Asher doesn’t drive anymore and Marlene agreed to drive him there. Thank you Marlene.
When we arrived, Bill had about 30 people on the ramp waiting for us, including the reporters and locals. Upon parking, Mike and I were met by two of the most genuine men around, Asher Banning and Robert Guss. Both were very excited to see their plane from 66 years ago. The two of them had not seen each other since 1981 at the VMO-4 reunion. After talking with them by phone for two years, it was amazing to finally meet them this far away from home. Both of them told us about their experiences and I hope they can stay in touch with each other after we leave. Robert Guss told us that Bob Vincent held the squadron speed record for time it took to run from the hut to his foxhole (couple hundred feet) in 7 seconds. They both spoke very highly of the other men in their squadron and Bob Vincent. Apparently in 1981 when the guys got togehter for the reunion, Bob Vincent told all the members of the squadron “you guys don’t pay for a thing. It’s all on me”. Two years later Bob Vincent passed away. I’m sorry we did not meet Bob. I hope he knows.
Asher said that he joined the Marines a month after high school graduation and went to Perris Island, SC. for boot camp as did Robert Guss. He was 118 pounds- just at the weight limit. Robert Guss was also about 125 pounds and just squeaked by. Both of them were fabric repairmen on VMO-4 aircraft and patched bullet holes after returning flights. However many bullet holes you see when the plane lands… you double it. What goes in one side….goes right through the other. They stayed busy. Both of them were injured on Saipan after a Japanese air raid according to the combat diary, but when asked if they got the Purple Heart, they refused it. During that raid, Mtsgt. William King, Cpl Frank “Fili” Fedele and Cpl. Cyril D. Kass were killed.
After spending a hour or so with them at the airport, the Bannings treated us to lunch in Cressona Pa. the heart of “Coalcracker” Country. It was much appreciated. I offered both of them a flight in the plane but apparently they got enough of it back in 1945. About that time, Mike Evans and Monte Hittle flew over to meet us from Benton and escort us back by air. The weather and darkness were approaching, so we had to cut the meeting short. I could have spent weeks with both of them. If you met them, you would just want to give them a big hug too. That’s just the type of guys they are. I hope we meet again.
On to Benton. Boy were we surprised. A more fitting end to the journey could not have been imagined. When we followed Monte and Mike on the upwind, we were able to see about 100+ people lined up along the runway. I couldn’t help but give one more pass before landing. It’s the law anyway. FAR 91.02766 reads: When flying a cool airplane from WWII and completing a 30 hour flight, the pilot in command must complete a photo flyby. Don’t want to break any laws. I was honored when Mike let me make the final flight into Benton. Thanks Mike.
After making the best landing I could on the grass strip (no pressure), we parked and were greeted by what seemed to be the whole town.There we met Bob Vincent’s son Doug and Bob’s granddaughter Shannon Hartkorn (Esther Vincent was still in Florida as was Rodney Vincent). Everyone was excited to see it and Mike and I were able to toast the squadron with ice cold Yuengling Beer, given to us by Bill Willard at Joe Zerbey Airport. (Yuengling is Americas oldest brewery and based in Pennsylvania). The feeling upon arrival was overwhelming. We were so honored to have the town come out. What a fitting tribute to these men. The media took notes(check out Bentonnews.net, Pottstown Republican and The Press Enterprise PA.).
After spending the next hour talking to visitors, we put ’Lady Satan’ in the hangar and were treated to dinner by our new Benton Family. We went to the Sub Shop on the river for a killer “Cheeseburger Sub” (with peppers of course). We then were adopted by the Farwell Family who lives in the hills above town and run a crop dusting business. The Farwell’s have taken an area that is hard for traditional fixed wing dusters and made it possible by using Bell 47 Helicopter. The whole family is involved. I don’t think I have come across a family so devoted to Faith, Family and Flying. The hospitality they showed us was something I cant do justice by writing about it in just one paragraph. Needless to say Mike and I got along fine with them. They run their operation out of their home and the hangar is filled with project airplanes and helicopters because they cant see aircraft parts just get thrown away (Sound familiar? See Megan, I’m not the only one).
We got fed 3-4 times a day while we watched for weather to fly out. We stayed at Joe and Becky Farwell’s house for 2 nights and felt very welcomed. Joe Farwell is a former Army Helicopter pilot and served 2 tours in Iraq (thanks, Joe). Rick Farwell took Mike and I on a simulated spray run in the helicopter and we both decided we are in the wrong business. What a blast. On our last night we were treated to a great homecooked meal at Joanne and Dick Karshner’s who live next to the Farwells. I will start the diet tomorrow….. and this time I mean it. The Farwells and Monte Hittle shuttled us around for 2 days waiting for good weather. We can’t thank you guys enough for all you have done for us. I measured the distance to Cable Airport and it’s only 1,988 miles away. See you next week?
Let’s recap. This quest covered about 3,000 miles, 31 hours of flying, a case of oil, 350 gallons of fuel, 23 glasses of sweet tea and lots of fried okra and 2 cop cars. We gained 100′s of new friends, saw America the way it should be seen, from 500-1000 feet and hopefully showed the heroes of VMO-4 that the real America loves them and treasures every day of freedom they gave to us. Every place we stopped and were taken care of was good for the soul. I still believe I can not write in a way that really explains what this trip was. But please ask us when you see us and we will try and tell you. Enjoy the pictures. Thanks Jerri for putting this blog together I would not have even thought of it without you. Pass the word to all the Marines you know and maybe we can find the rest of VMO-4
Thank you Marines!
Chris and Mike