Name an American fighter plane from World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and there’s a good chance Bob Austin has flown it. His shelves are full of model airplanes he’s piloted: a P-51 Mustang and P-40 Warhawk, a Fairchild PT-19 and Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. Too many to list.
He started as a kid in Kansas City, flying model airplanes made from Japanese balsa wood, assembled from kits he bought at the store. He entered contests and, later, built little scale-model engines for them.
Of course he enlisted in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, rather than waiting for the infantry to draft him. And when he got the chance, he opted to train on single-engine planes — the fighters.
“That’s where the glory was,” he said. “Fighter pilots normally wouldn’t have too much to do with bomber pilots. It was beneath our dignity or something.”
Austin was athletic, and that served him well. Cadets quickly learned the culture of the Air Corps: There are two possible answers to any question — “Yes sir” and “No sir.” Upperclassmen could make your life easy or hard, depending upon what they thought of you. Since Austin played football, his life was easier. He got to eat his meals without having to ask for permission to take each bite.
After months of training on different types of planes, leapfrogging from base to base, Austin was promoted to second lieutenant. Normally, that would mean more training on more planes. Most of his class was shipped to the East Coast. But 100 fighter pilots were told to board a ship in the middle of the night and set sail, with no idea where they were headed.
The initiation for crossing the equator was a dip in the Fish Bowl, a 3- to 4-foot-deep water tank on the deck. The pilots were wearing their Mae Wests (slang for life jackets) complete with a pouch of yellow dye. In the event a pilot jumped from a plane over the ocean, the dye would color the water around him with the pull of a string, making him easier to spot.
When the Crossing the Line ceremony had finished, the Fish Bowl was yellow. When they dumped the bowl, a yellow stream followed the ship in the ocean. It had to change its course so nearby submarines couldn’t track it by that dye, Austin said.
The ship, the pilots eventually discovered, was on its way to Capetown, South Africa. There, the men could take a little time to stretch their legs on solid ground. About 100 GIs got on a train north and, when it came time to set sail, were nowhere to be found. The ship left anyway.
“You’re not going to wait for 100 when you’ve got 5,000 GIs on board,” Austin said.
The ship went to Bombay, India. The pilots boarded a narrow-track train for Karachi. Every time the train stopped, hundreds of Indians tried to get in the cars with them. They had to keep men at the boxcar doors to physically keep them out.
Eventually, the pilots went to Sian, China, where they would be based until the end of the war.
Long before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had been at war with China. They’d killed a lot of Chinese people and had taken all of the seaports and most of the bigger towns. They effectively cut off China, requiring food and supplies to be flown in over the Himalayas — nicknamed the Hump.
Earlier in 1941, the United States had decided to support China. It created the American Volunteer Group, air units sent to help the Nationalist government. The 1st AVG later became known as the Flying Tigers. They signed papers resigning from the U.S. Armed Forces so that if they were ever captured, the U.S. could argue they weren’t acting on its behalf.
When the United States entered World War II, the AVGs were disbanded, and only a handful stayed in China as enlisted men. One was Tex Hill, a Flying Tiger and a double Ace with 12 ¼ victories as an AVG. Austin delivered a P-51 from India to China and met Hill there.
Years later, he remembered that Hill came to Lovell, the hometown of the first AVG killed in action.
At Sian, Americans trained Chinese airmen and flew “missions of interdictions” — strafing railroads, boxcars and other logistical targets to slow the Japanese advance. If the pilots heard of a Japanese airplane, they’d go in. One of Austin’s friends became an Ace (credited with shooting down five enemy planes) in one day.
“A lot of time we’d catch some airplanes on the ground, but I was never lucky enough to catch one in the air,” Austin said.
Pilots who went down after a fight hoped to land in the fields, 10 miles away from railroads and towns. The Nationalist Chinese in the country would walk them back to base, hiding them from the Japanese. Some pilots were gone for months.
Austin only crash landed once. One of his landing gears had been shot off, but he managed to fly it back to Sian. He landed it on one gear.
“That’s OK as long as you have air speed. When you run out of that, the wing is going to touch the ground and you’re going to do a big ground loop. And that’s what I did,” he said.
The 311th stayed there through the war. The unit often ran out of gas because everything had to be flown in until the completion of the Ledo Road from Burma. The Hump was a dangerous route for pilots, and many planes, and their cargoes, were lost.
Sometimes their packages made it, and Austin remembers one: Someone had sent him a balsa glider, like the ones he made as a kid.
By the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, Austin had been in China nearly two years. He wanted to be home for Christmas. The Americans waited, but orders to leave never came. October turned into November.
Austin was a captain then, second in command of the squadron. He’d gotten the job because his predecessor had been shot down. Eventually, Chinese Nationalists walked him back to base, and Austin gave him his job back.
He arrived in New York City a couple of days before Christmas 1945, just enough time to make it home to Kansas City.