A gorgeous but lethal P-51 Mustang fighter plane knifing its way through puffy white clouds seemed to fly off the wall at De Carter Brown’s Port Charlotte, Fla. studio.
It’s a painting of war and love for a stepfather she revered. The 60-year-old graphic artist painted the watercolors of his P-51, “Pittsburgh Smoker II,” with four-and-a-half swastikas emblazoned in red on its side, as a birthday present.
Second Lt. Albert A. Zimmerman would have been a World War II fighter ace with five enemy plane kills to his credit if he hadn’t been shot down twice himself. He spent the final months of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. In De’s heart, he’s her ace, her hero.
Zimmerman took primary flight training at Carlstrom Field with the 53d Flying Training Detachment in Arcadia learning to fly Stearman a PT-19 trainer as a U.S. Army Air Corps cadet. It was 1943, he was a 19-year-old aviator and Arcadia was a little cow town with nickel beers.
Before dying of cancer in 1990 at 69, he wrote his memoirs in nine short typewritten chapters because De and her twin sister, Diane Truman, asked him to. This is part of what he wrote:
“On arrival at Steeple Morden Royal Air Force Base (in the spring of 1944) I found our unit, the 355th Fighter Group, had just finished the transition from P-47 (Thunderbolts) to P-51s. The transition time was two hours and 30 minutes–30 minutes to memorize the cockpit and two hours to take a Mustang up to about 30,000 feet and wring it out,” Zimmerman noted in the second chapter of his memoirs.
“I was very fortunate to be assigned to Capt. Warren Mendenhall’s flight. Mendy had more fighter hours than anyone in the squadron. He had been in China and with the Eagle Squadron in Britain,” he wrote. “When Mendy strapped his butt in the cockpit he became part of the machine. He used to tell me, ‘Pretend you’re caressing a beautiful woman and caress the controls. If you do that, the machine will do whatever you want it to do.'”
After several months in “Jolly Old England,” the young second lieutenant noticed, “A very attractive RAF warrant officer sitting at the bar in the officers club. She always sat alone, always drank bourbon and always looked like she just lost her best friend. I began to sit with her and just talk.”
One thing led to another and pretty soon the couple was spending as much time together as they could.
“I guess I could shorten this by saying I fell in love with Cindy. We both liked big band music, bourbon whiskey, American food, psychic phenomena, long extended foreplay until the blood boils and quiet evenings in front of the fireplace,” he wrote.
On their third date, Cindy managed to get a five-day reservation at a summer resort acquired by the RAF for the duration along the west coast of England. Their accommodations were out of this world. While sitting in their own lodge one evening, watching the flames dance in the fireplace, he proposed.
“Finally she got up from her chair came arose the room, put her arms around me and said very firmly, ‘I do love you very much, but I can’t and I won’t marry you. If you ever mention marriage again, you will never see me again.”
He was crushed. He knew she wasn’t married, so he tried to find out what the problem was. What he learned: Cindy had been engaged to a RAF fighter pilot shot down in the “Battle of Britain” during the first six months of the war. She left him a month before he was killed because their families were against their marriage. She felt responsible for his death. Cindy didn’t what to marry another fighter pilot and have it happen to her again.
“My D-Day (Disaster Day) came in July,” Zimmerman wrote. “We had a milk run over Belgium and Holland, saw no Luftwaffe and had no losses. We were in the club boozing it up and telling each other what great fighter pilots we were when we heard a buzz bomb. Buzz bombs have no guidance systems. They just fly until the engine runs out of fuel and then they fall to earth and a 2,000-pound bomb explodes.
“We all knew buzz bombs never hit anything but cows and sheep. We heard the explosion northeast of our base. I think we even drank a toast to the buzz bomb,” he wrote.
Zimmerman learned a short time later the flying bomb struck Royston, a nearby village where Cindy’s RAF unit was stationed. He decided to drive over and check out the damage.
“It was a 1,000 to 1 chance, but the unguided bomb made a direct hit on the RAF facility. It was rubble with some small fires still burning. I ran into the rubble pile not knowing what I was looking for. But then I found it. I found the front panel of Cindy’s uniform blouse with her name tag still attached soaked with her life’s blood,” he wrote.
“I attended the mass funeral where they buried whatever they could find in plastic bags with the remains of uniforms on top. Her father, a brigadier general, stood there as straight and proper as a brigadier should, leaning on his cane.
“His face looked like it had been carved out of stone. Cindy’s mother and I didn’t handle it quite so well. After the ceremony the brigadier turned to me and said two words: ‘Kill Germans!'”
Zimmerman took the old soldier’s suggestion to heart. The war became his personal crusade. He would punish the Germans for what they did to Cindy, his love.
He blasted everything in his sights with reckless abandon in his P-51. Mendy, his squadron commander, told him to cool it, but he didn’t listen very well.
Zimmerman spotted a German train loaded with military supplies running through a valley on one mission. He dove on it in his Mustang at 425 knots with his six, 50-caliber machine-guns blazing away when the train exploded.
“The Valley looked like the 4th of July on Boston Common,” he wrote. “When I pulled up from the run, my Mustang was not responding to the controls. I staggered up to 5,000 feet where my wingman advised: half my rudder was gone, the right aileron was hanging from one hinge, the right wing tip was gone and the radiator was steaming ethylene glycol”
He couldn’t make it back to England with his fighter in that condition. He headed for an emergency landing strip behind Allied lines in France where he set his ‘Pittsburgh Smoker’ down. He wasn’t scratched, but as the RAF sergeant who met him when he landed said, “Lieutenant, your airplane looks like a … basket case.’
“I visited the brigadier as often as I could. We would sit in his den sipping brandy and I would tell him how I destroyed trains, barges, trucks or anything that moved. He would pound his cane on the floor and say, ‘Good show, Good show.'”
Zimmerman got a shiny new replacement P-51 he dubbed “Pittsburgh Smoker II.” It developed engine trouble while flying cover for a flight of B-17 bombers over Magdeburg, Germany at 31,000 feet. He bailed out. Despite the best efforts of the Dutch Underground, he was caught and spent he last six months of the war in Stalag Luft 1, a POW camp located along the Baltic Sea near the Polish border, with 10,000 other detainees.
Looking at her creation, the picture of her stepfather’s beautiful but deadly Mustang, De said, “I painted this watercolor of Al’s airplane for him a year or so before he died. It was one of his favorite possessions.”
This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, April 13, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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