Clouds of smoke trailed across the smokey South Pacific sky. Lt. Col. Oscar C. Fitzhenry's B-24 Liberator weaved through showers of gunfire shaking the Zeroes (Japanese aircrafts) off his tail all while defying the aeronautical odds of plummeting in a fiery crash into the deep blue abyss behind enemy lines of a foreign land.
The air grew thin as Fitzhenry commanded the Scootin' Thunder (5th Bomb Group of the 72nd Bomb Squadron and the 13th U.S. Army Air Corps of World War II) through wavering conditions. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he piloted his 10-man crew out of harms way, praying they would come away unscathed as bullets grazed the sides of the steel bomber.
Fitzhenry survived 64 treacherous combat missions with 402 flying hours in the span of his 20-years.
At 96 years old his eyes still cannot un-see the traumatic events of Guadalcanal in 1943-44. Although he never once shed a drop of blood throughout all his airtime, these unforgettable events have permanently scarred him for life.
"We are the only known crew in the Pacific with this many missions with not one single person dropping a drop of blood," Fitzhenry remarked. "We were shot up sometimes but I don't remember an airplane we couldn't handle."
In his younger days Fitzhenry was a sharecropper on his father's farm in a Texas tumbleweed town called Big Bushy Creek (near Yoakum). He was the product of a poor and undereducated upbringing, but a very hard working and gritty generation that taught him the lay of the land at a young age.
During the start of The Great Depression, Fitzhenry's family relocated to San Antonio. He attended Alamo Heights High School, where most boys his age went to pursue a career as a pilot. At the ripe age of 16, Fitzhenry joined the Texas Army National Guard and took his first steps toward getting his pilot's license. With no college education at the time, he humbly worked at a Piggly Wiggly bagging groceries for a modest $2 a day.
He would save and scrape up his money to pay for rides in a bi-plane at Stinson Field close to his home. For him this sealed his life's purpose - his objective was to become an aviation cadet.
"It was my natural desire to become a pilot," Fitzhenry exclaimed.
Fitzhenry's father Oliver fought as a mule-skinner with an American artillery in France during World War I. Some said it was in his blood and he was destined for war.
"It's amazing how a sharecropper fit in as the senior aircraft commander with a couple of college graduates and another who had a master's degree in chemical engineering," Fitzhenry joked.
Prior to flight school, Fitzhenry was working for 50 cents an hour cleaning up a slaughterhouse called Swift & Company, while squeezing in night classes at a local community college. He was able to earn his pilot's license at the same time through a program that the college offered at no expense. This gave him an advantage and put him a step ahead of the curve.
"When I signed the papers I knew I was moving into a considerate new life," Fitzhenry said.
Five years later, Fitzhenry would go on to graduate from Air Force flight training at Lubbock Air Base. At graduation, his mother Daisy, stepped forward and pinned the pilot's silver wings onto his blouse - a boy had become a man.
Shortly after, one of America's darkest days that will forever live on in infamy took place. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese airstrike on the U.S. Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Fitzhenry and the entire nation knew the U.S. was teetering on the brink of war.
One week later on Dec. 13 - Fitzhenry got the call. He was sworn into the Aviation Cadet Corps Class 42H.
When he turned the legal age of 21, in Sept. 1942 at Lubbock Air Base, Fitzhenry received an order that would change his life forever. It decreed, "By order of the President of the United States of America (Franklin D. Roosevelt), you are hereby commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps."
Within a month's time he was assigned to Smyrna, Tenn. to a B-24 aircraft because of a desperate need for pilots to command the four-engine bombers. Five months later he was one of the first hundred pilots to complete advanced training. Fitzhenry was promoted to first lieutenant deservedly but also on a technicality. By regulation at the time no four-engine aircraft commander could be less than a first lieutenant. A few of the previous upperclassmen who ended up taking orders from him weren't so happy.
During a period of inactivity, prior to flying into harms way, Fitzhenry and the usual suspects of the Scootin Thunder (particularly Bob Houser; co-pilot, and Bill Harris; bombardier) were no strangers in getting themselves into mischief. He recollected times when they would take their plane and fly it to places they shouldn't be and doing things they shouldn't be doing. The old saying 'boys will be boys' applies here.
"I got restricted to the base for a week because the operations officer had to send two people to the airbase to retrieve this wayward pilot who landed at the wrong airbase on a night flight," Fitzhenry continued. "If you didn't keep yourself straight in the squadron you would have to wear this boot with a spricket stuck in the heel. I ended up wearing both boots and that's how I got the nickname 'boots,'" Fitzhenry chuckled.
The fun and games were over. There was no more advanced flight training or simulations. It was time to get serious - this next flight would mean life or death.
In May 1943, Fitzhenry and the Scootin Thunder were deployed to Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal in the tropics of the South Pacific. The bloody campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal was nearing a resolution prior to Fitzhenry and company swooping down to engage from a bird's eye view. This operation was known as "Jungle Air Force" and would encounter the Japanese strongholds on Kahili, Rabaul and Truk.
Fitzhenry was notorious for toting along his 16mm camera everywhere he went, even in the heat of battle, he still managed to to snap pictures of the enemy up close.
Fitzhenry's squadron of B-24s, along with allied planes from Australia and New Zealand, flew in close formation to allow maximum coverage while firing their .50 caliber machine guns in synchronization - firing rounds of ammunition in perfect rhythm and harmony amidst turbulent times filled with chaos and turmoil.
"For the first time we saw night fighters shooting at us. We'd see these Roman Candle-like tracers come out from a dark spot in the night like a string of beads coming toward us, but we were never hit," Fitzhenry recalled in his first trip to Kahili.
Traveling toward a target we would all sing a hymn called "Whispering Hope" and then returning back we would sing "Amazing Grace," Fitzhenry remembered.
"We called each of our enlisted officers by their first name. That's the type of crew that works close together," he said.
Fitzhenry recollected witnessing several occasions where friends who were flying beside him were not as fortunate to come out alive and unharmed.
"In our hearts we know that there are mothers, brothers, aunts and people back home that are going to get a notice that their relative has been killed or is missing in action and there's heartache," Fitzhenry said sorrowfully.
"I personally have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I still visualize and reminisce on the aircrafts that went down," Fitzhenry said.
To this day if he drives past a crash site that's burning it automatically triggers a pile of B-24 parts scattered on a runway.
"Everyday for 70 years I think of the events that took place. But those of us who have survived have died and re-died in the recall of the comrades that didn't make it," Fitzhenry said softly.
When asked why he thinks he and his crew were the lucky ones he simply said, "We have no idea except it had to be a miracle. For some reason the lord had something else for us to do."
Fitzhenry was awarded 10 Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses on behalf of his extraordinary achievement displayed in the combat missions of the South Western Pacific Theater during 1943-44.