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The Day of Infamy


December 10, 2020

The seventy-ninth anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War II via the attack on Pearl Harbor just went by, and, coincidentally, military hero Chuck Yeager died at age 97 on that day.

Pearl Harbor was the watershed event of a generation hardened by poverty and want, and "The Greatest Generation" took on the responsibility of defeating three totalitarianistic regimes.

Japanese carrier-borne aircraft began the attack just before eight o'clock on Sunday, December 7, catching the Pacific Fleet at anchor, and at a time when Naval personnel were in a relaxed time on a weekend.

Waves of Japanese airplanes attacked, nearly unopposed. Except for the destroyer USS Aylwin, and it has an interesting story.

The ship was tied between two other destroyers, and had steam in one boiler as it was preparing to relieve the USS Shaw on patrol outside of the mouth of Pearl Harbor.

As the attack started, the Aylwin's commanding officer was not aboard. The most senior officer on the bridge at the time was Ensign Stanley B. Caplan.

According to Day of Infamy, by Walter Lord, Caplan, who had never commanded any ship prior to that moment, ordered the lines cast off.

The destroyer was parked like a car parallel parked along a street. In front was another ship, likewise at the stern.

Caplan, on pure instinct, ordered rudder full starboard, port engine ahead, starboard engine astern.

The bow of the USS Aylwin seemed to pivot to starboard and as it cleared the ship tied ahead of it, Caplan again issued orders.

"Rudder amidships. Port Engine ahead."

With that, the Aylwin proceeded out into the harbor, taking the fight to the Japanese.

The crew of the Aylwin directed continuous and deadly fire at the marauding Imperial Navy aircraft and they claimed to have shot down three of the enemy.

General Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, folded his wings forever last Monday.

Prior to the war, he enlisted in the Army, and responded to a "flying sergeants" memo on a bulletin board. He fought airsickness at first, but developed his skills as a stick and rudder pilot, helped no doubt by his incredible 20-10 vision.

On one combat flight over Europe, one of his squadron mates reported a gaggle of German airplanes about 50 miles distant. "Yeah, I've been keepin' an eye on them for about 15 minutes," came Yeager's West Virginian drawl.

On two different missions during his deployment, Yeager shot down four enemy fighters.

The ace's number came up and his airplane was disabled, and Yeager hit the silk. He evaded capture by pursuing Nazi patrols and escaped by walking over the Pyrenees into Spain, and then was repatriated to England.

As an evadee, he was prohibited from continuing as a fighter pilot, but he appealed to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, and was returned to his unit.

After the war, his evadee status allowed him to choose his post-war duty. He chose Wright-Patterson Army Air Force Base in Dayton, O. He could fly anything on the ramp and did.

These test pilots were always picking a "dogfight." One fine day he engaged another airplane and both pilots banked, looped and spun, with neither able to "wax" the other's tail. Upon landing, Yeager and Robert A. "Bob" Hoover met and became lifelong friends.

Hoover flew chase on Yeager's sound-breaking flight on October 14, 1947. On another test flight, Hoover was loitering around 60,000 feet while Yeager took the experimental fighter NF-104A to the edge of space on rocket power. Where the atmosphere was almost nonexistant, Yeager fired nose-mounted thrusters to push the nose down so the airplane could fall back into more substantial air, restart its engine and return to the base. Instead, the thrusters had no effect, and the airplane went into a deadly flat spin. Yeager's faceplate instantly fogged up. All he could see was flashes of light as the airplane spun between the sky and the earth.

Hoover picked him up during the descent and flew right beside the spinning airplane, pointed straight down at full throttle.

He came down 51,000 feet in 51 seconds. He had managed to clear his faceplate, but was unable to stop the spin with control inputs.

Around 21,000 feet, Hoover said "Time to get out, Pard." Upon bailing out, the smoldering rocket pack on the seat swung around and hit his helmet, starting a blowtorch-like fire inside his helmet. He suffered terrible burns, but recovered and continued to do his duty for his country.

A subsequent investigation blamed the gyroscopic effect of the engine for setting too high a pitch attitude, exonerating Yeager from blame for the crash.

While recovering, Yeager asked Jack Ridley, the program's most talented engineer, to calculate his odds. Of course, Ridley pulled out his slide rule and made a few calculations, noting that Yeager had "died" many years ago.

He flew combat patrols in Vietnam, peppering Air Force pilots with admonishments when they would break off their attack as ground fire become too intense. Yeager reminded them of their duty.

A genuine hero of what Tom Brokaw correctly dubbed "The Greatest Generation" won't soon be forgotten, nor should he.

Hopefully, Yeager's patriotic spirit will live on in young, duty-conscious American men and women who take it upon themselves to serve their country.


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