Charles L Harman
Just like dad
by Pat Christian
This wasn't the usual
writing assignment--it was my dream comes true.
Here I was, a passenger in a P-5l Mustang, engine
roaring, propeller whirring, flying even upside down over green farm fields
that rolled into the reservoir shore.
I couldn't help thinking about dad, who flew
this fighter during World War II. He was part of the reason I sought out
this story in the first place.
This exhilaration—it’s the way it must have been for
him when he was at that age I never knew him at. He was just out of high
Dad was my first hero. I overheard his war stories.
I had turned the pages of his scrapbooks so many times, looking at photographs
of his P-5l and P-38 and German war souvenirs he had brought home.
In one photograph dad wore a leather flight jacket
with a white silk scarf tucked in the neck. He also wore a leather flying
helmet with his goggles raised for the photo up above his forehead. He looked
a little bit like the actor Paul Newman to me.
Some of the other photos were more disconcerting.
One showed the aftermath of a P-5l crash. It had crashed on landing into
a tent just off the runway. The photograph showed it sitting mostly intact
with its nose dug into the ground and its tail sticking up toward the sky.
The pilot survived dad told me. But a soldier inside
the tent had been killed by the whirling propeller.
Less dramatic but poignant was a photograph of dad
posing with his buddies, Lt. Bradford, Lt. Pose and Lt. Post. When
mom compiled the scrapbook, she had placed a gold star over Lt. Bradford's
image with the notation, “Killed in action.”
After graduating from South High School in Salt Lake
City, my dad, Charlie Harman, joined up just like so many others who entered
World War II. He learned to fly in windy open-cockpit, two-seaters at the
Flying Training Detachment in Hemet, Calif., and learned how to fly the forked-tail
P-38 Lightnings at Williams Field, Ariz.
He had dated Anna Birrell, my mother, when she had been
a student at West High School in Salt Lake City. But she had gone on to
married someone else and moved away to San Francisco where she marked caulk
lines on plates of steel to guide welders who were building warships.
I was born in San Francisco, and we lived in an apartment
at 4240 19th Street with our pet monkey.
After she and my birth father divorced, Charlie and
Anna reunited while he was learning to fly in California. He would fly to
San Francisco and buzz our house in his training plane. One time he flew
under the Oakland Bay Bridge.
The war was heating up in Europe, and just before
dad was to ship out overseas, he and Anna married. I was three and attended
the ceremony at a chapel in Oakland.
Mom says it was embarrassing when I yelled out loudly.
“What are you doing, Mommy?” I yelled.
They honeymooned in Santa Anna while an aunt took care of
In Europe dad first flew P-38s. He was squadron leader
and was awarded five Air Medals and a Silver Star.
One scrapbook photograph shows Dad standing with two
buddies at the front of his P-38 that was named Rhumboogie. An arrow drawn
on the picture points to a large bullet hole in the plane's gondola.
Dad told me his squadron was attacking a German convoy
and a stubborn German soldier manning a machine gun in the bed of a convoy
truck didn’t run for cover like most of the others in the convoy had.
“He kept firing and just wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t
run off the side of the road like the others had,” my dad said.
His bravery paid off with a hit scored on dad’s
plane. When a cockpit oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, dad quickly shut
off both engines to avoid a permanent mechanical catastrophe.
For seconds he silently glided at treetop level really
too low to bail out. Down the highway he went getting even lower in the seconds
until he figured out that only the oil line to one engine had been damaged
by the gunfire. He was able to restart the good engine and limp back to
his airbase on it.
Dad told me he wasn't sure if he killed the soldier
or not, but said he was firing his P-38’s machine guns all the way down
the convoy line and flew low enough to see the soldier’s eyes and see that
he had at least wounded him.
When the new P-51s started arriving in Europe, dad
traded in his P-38 for one of these amazing planes that climbed 2,000 feet
a minute to a ceiling of 42,500 feet.
The P-51 cruised a 362 mph and had maximum speed of
442 mph, but what really helped to win the air war is that it had legs.
Allied bomber crews were getting chewed up alive over
Germany because the P-38 and other escort fighters flying in formation with
them helping to ward off German fighters didn’t have the fuel range. So they
could only protect bomber crews for part of the bomber’s journey. When nearly
half their fuel was gone they had to turn back and the bombers were without
friendly air cover, and German fighters attacked our bombers viciously when
they were unprotected.
But the P-51s were different. They could go the distance.
With a range of 2,080 miles, you could take off in a P-51 from Salt Lake
City and be in San Francisco in less than two hours. Then
you could turn around at the Golden Gate Bridge and fly back to Salt Lake
City without refueling. But you weren’t done. Then you could still turn around
again without refueling and land in San Francisco.
As a boy I used to sit at the kitchen table gluing
plastic P-51s together, imagining what it might be like to fly them as dad
Once finished, I would run around the house with them—my
hands being the wind under their wings.
But now here I all grown up, And I was flying in a
Taking off from the airport in rural Heber Valley
in Utah with Russ McDonald at the controls of his P-51, we buzzed low over
Jason Olson, the photographer for the assignment, so he could get a close
photograph of us flying.
Pulling up, McDonald took me upside down through an
aileron role and then did a gut-wrenching barrel roll.
This had been my dream, and now I was living it.
We only flew for 15 minutes, but in that short time,
I felt what it must have been like for dad up there over Europe as young
It was exciting. It was romantic. It was a little
frightening even without someone shooting at you. I’d been shot at enough
war in Vietnam
. If only dad had still been alive to see his son flying in a P-51.
Somehow I thought he was watching me, maybe from that
cloud just over there. I felt nearer to him than I had in a long while.