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WWII Pilots Alight for Art of the Dogfight

The opening of a local art gallery didn’t seem, at first, to be the stuff of which columns are made. The invitation came with a bunch of junk mail, and I almost threw it away. But a name caught my attention. One of the “honored guests” was to be Col. Bud Mahurin, a leading ace in World War II and the highest-ranking American pilot to be shot down behind enemy lines in the Korean War.

I went to high school with Bud Mahurin. He was a year ahead of me at South Side High of Ft. Wayne, Ind. I didn’t know him well, but we were acquainted and had a lot of friends in common. I hadn’t seen him for almost 40 years. So I went to the opening. And I had a hell of a time.

For three blissful hours I was carried back into the romance of the last holy war in the company of German and American fighter pilots who fought each other one-on-one in the sky in the type of combat we will never see again.

Because I was a Navy pilot in the same war, I’m a member of this very select fraternity--even though the edge was taken off by the fact that I was transferred from dive bombers to transports before going overseas. This probably saved my life, but Navy ace Richard Best, who was also an honored guest, called it “bad luck,” which paralleled my own feelings at the time.

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All these aging hotdog pilots were gathered for the premiere of the Virginia Bader Fine Arts West Coast Gallery in Costa Mesa. The Bader Gallery displays only art relating to World War II aviation, which seems a rather narrow focus but has been enormously successful for Bader, a blond, amiable Englishwoman whose cousin was the fabled British ace, Douglas Bader, who became an RAF wing commander with two wooden legs.

Bader ran an art gallery in London until she decided to make a living from her consuming avocation, World War II aviation art. She went from air show to air show selling this art and setting up symposiums for the aces of that war. Interest was so strong that she opened a successful gallery in Alexandria, Va., 10 years ago and has now opened a West Coast branch in Costa Mesa--and moved her home here.

She says, “People have more nostalgia for World War II air combat than any other era,” and judging by the crowd attending the opening, she may well be right. The pilots who came from considerable distances to support their friend--Gen. Guenther Rall flew over from Germany--were a tremendous magnet for the visitors, signing autographs and telling war stories indefatigably.

I looked up Bud Mahurin, first--a remarkably well-preserved 70--to swap reminiscences of Indiana and mutual friends. I was startled to find that he lives in Newport Beach and directs an organization called the National Security Industrial Assn., which he tried unsuccessfully to explain to me in the din of the growing crowd. We parted with plans to get together for lunch.

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By this time, another guest had sat down near me, an 83-year-old German named Hanns Scharff, who was known to American pilots as The Interrogator--and once wrote a book by that title. His job in World War II was to interrogate all captured American pilots, and he did it with such astonishing success that the U.S. Air Force brought him over here after the war to find out why their pilots had been so easy to break down. That was in 1948, and he’s lived here ever since.

Scharff looks like he was sent over from Central Casting to play a Sydney Greenstreet-like character in German, a heavy-set man with thick lips, hooded eyes and an air of amiable menace. “The Americans opened up to me,” he explained, “because they were conditioned by their own Intelligence to believe we would do bad things to them. They were scared, and when we were nice to them, they talked freely.”

Scharff said that after his book was published, a number of American pilots he had interrogated looked him up. One was also a guest at the opening, a slight, animated man with a ready laugh named Hub Zemke. He’s an almond farmer now in Northern California, but he is still the quintessential American kid, who wins some and loses some and doesn’t take any of this very seriously. He greeted Scharff like an old friend. Zemke was shot down on Oct. 31, 1944, parachuted safely, and soon after was given the Scharff treatment.

“I was getting bread shoved through a hole in the cell wall,” he recalled, “when all of a sudden I was ushered into this guy’s"--gesturing at Scharff--"plush office. He was sipping tea and blowing smoke in my face and talking softly, and he asked me if I’d like some tea and a cigarette. Hell, we were pushovers for this guy. We thought we were over there playing baseball! Show us a little friendliness, and we’ll talk about anything!”

This good-natured feeling permeated the gathering, a sense of gladiators who do their damnedest to knock off their adversaries, then raise a cup to them when it is over.

Perhaps the most dashing was Guenther Rall, Germany’s third leading ace in World War II with 275 kills, who retired a few years ago as the head of the West German Air Force. Rall is a man of modest size, full of zest and good humor, with a ruddy face, sparkling eyes, and a ready smile. His only visible mark from all those years of air combat is a missing left thumb that was shot off in the last year of the war.

And, quite remarkably, the man Rall says shot it off is Hub Zemke. After telling the story of being shot down--he tumbled almost 30,000 feet before he could get his parachute open--at a Gathering of Eagles a few years ago, Rall was approached by a World War II historian who said he had put together the events of that day and the man who shot him down was at the same meeting. That’s when Zemke and Rall met for the first time. Zemke says he isn’t sure that’s right, that he remembers the encounter but thinks that it was one of his wingmen who brought Rall down.

Mahurin is the only one of the “honored guests” who still flies. He has a Piper Cherokee at John Wayne Airport and logs “maybe 40 hours a month.” The others have various infirmities that ground them, and Guenther Rall has another reason, explaining--apparently not frivolously--that “it is much too dangerous to fly in Germany any more because there are so many planes in the sky.”

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Visitors to the opening turned from admiring the work of Southern California artists Craig Kodera, Mike Machat and Stan Stokes--pilots all--to listen slack-jawed to these stories.

Maybe this is the sort of thing that perpetrates war, this sense of game, deadly though it is, played by honorable gladiators who never personalized the combat and were ready to salute a worthy adversary. (“It’s going to be a sad day for me,” said Bader, “when these men aren’t around any more.”) The romance flourished most visibly in air combat, and it is probably well that it can never happen again.

Rall caught this when he said: “The days of dogfights in the air are gone forever. Now they just lock on each other miles away. Never again will we see the person we’re fighting. “

Thus ends noblesse oblige in war. There was something wonderfully clean about air combat. Somebody won and somebody lost; the decision was clear. Wars ended that way, too. Unconditional surrender. Somebody won and somebody lost. But like air combat, clear decisions in war are also a thing of the past. Now, nobody wins--and everybody loses.

It occurred to me as I was driving home that cataclysmic decisions about war are now being made by a man who went through precisely the same training I did in World War II and who once made life-or-death decisions predicated on the clear, clean rules of air combat. I wonder if he still reasons that way in this new and very different world.

I left with a hope that whatever need we may have to engage in air combat can be satisfied in the future in Virginia Bader’s galleries. And with--I must admit--a sense of gratitude and elation that one day I had been a small part of it.


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