“Billy’s Filly” is what he called her. She was the sleekest, most beautiful, best fighter plane there was in World War II, according to Col. William Fowkes of Punta Gorda, Fla., U.S. Air Force retired.
His P-38 Lightning high-altitude, twin-engine, interceptor fighter with the curvy female prominently displaying her charms on the nose of his plane for all the world to see “… was the finest fighter ever built during the war,” he maintains. Fowkes, 78, flew 37 combat missions in this P-38L in the Pacific near the close of the war.
Fowkes was asked about the history of the maiden on the nose of his fighter. His high-school sweetheart, Helen, whom he married a lifetime ago, contends, “It isn’t me. I was never a brunette in my life.”
“Actually, the nose art was the creation of the artist who drew the girl,” Fowkes said. “He painted what was in his mind, and I thanked him for it.”
Fowkes was a member of the 13th Air Force, 18th Fighter Group of the 12th Fighter Squadron. “The Dirty Dozen” is what they called themselves.
“I was no hero. I never saw an enemy plane in the air. My first combat flight was January 1945,” eight months before the end of the war, he said. “We did a lot of close ground support for Army troops.
“Near the end of the war, I became squadron leader. Our target on one mission was a bridge. Four of us had two 1,000-pound bombs attached to the wings of our P-38s. We dropped our load on the bridge. As far as I know, it’s still standing. It was the first time we had ever dropped bombs in combat. We never received any bomb training,” he said.
Fowkes’ closest brush with eternity may have come while flying out of the field at Zamblanza on Mindanao in the Philippine Islands.
“I was taking off and had just gotten in the air with a napalm bomb under each wing when the right engine started sputtering and then the left engine sputtered,” he said. “There wasn’t anything I could do but fly the airplane. By the time I got it in the air, the engine trouble cleared up.
“I dropped my two napalm bombs in the water, came back around and landed. We found out water had gotten into the 55-gallon drums of gas they were using to fill our P-38s.”
What made this fighter such a deadly adversary is that besides its four 50-caliber nose-mounted machine guns, it was also equipped with a 20 mm or a 37 mm cannon. More importantly, these five guns fired straight ahead instead of at angles like the wing-mounted machine guns in many other American fighter planes. The importance of that fact is that the P-38’s guns were equally deadly at any distance while the wing-mounted guns in other fighters were most deadly in one spot — where the bullets from both wings converged at the point of the triangle.
There were other points that made the P-38 a standout among fighter planes. Because it had two engines, a crippled P-38 could be flown back to base on a single engine. Its counter-rotating propellers eliminated engine torque, which meant a pilot didn’t have to compensate for torque when the plane’s speed was changed, Fowkes said.
“Because you were in a cockpit between the two engines right in the center, you became part of the airplane,” he recalled with obvious joy, decades after he had taken to the air as a 20-year-old Pennsylvania lieutenant in a P-38L he named “Billy’s Filly.”
Before Fowkes arrived in the South Pacific, Charles Lindbergh, who became the first person to fly the Atlantic almost two decades earlier in a Ryan monoplane, paid his outfit a visit. The “Lone Eagle” showed his squadron how to nurse additional air time out of a plane’s tank of gas by leaning out the fuel mix and cutting back on the throttle.
“On one flight I logged 10 hours and 15 minutes in my P-38 on a flight to Borneo using Lindbergh’s suggestions,” Fowkes said. “Normally, the best you could do was seven or eight hours on a tank of gas.”
He was still in the Philippines when the war ended.
“Our squadron was training for the invasion of Japan. If Paul Tibbets hadn’t dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, as I told my granddaughter, ‘The odds are I wouldn’t be here today, and neither would you,'” Fowkes said.
Like millions of other WWII servicemen, he opted to go to college after getting out of the service. While attending Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania two years later, he was recalled into the Air Force. He would spend the next quarter-century working for Uncle Sam and retire a bird colonel.
Early on, Fowkes became involved in this country’s satellite program. In the mid-1950s he was helping oversee the Western Development Division based in Inglewood, Calif. His job was to make sure the rockets being produced by private contractors in the United States met government specifications.
A decade later, Fowkes took part in a highly classified CIA program out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. It involved aerial surveillance of enemy targets by U.S. satellites. Dropped aerial cameras were plucked from the sky by C-130 transports, which captured them 15,000 feet above the ground as they parachuted back to earth.
He wrapped up his military career serving as an air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia.
“My primary job was to collect overt intelligence,” Fowkes said. “I’m not telling you anything that’s illegal.”
There was much more to this post for he and his wife than being an international sleuth. The couple was also on display as representatives of the United States in Malaysia. As such they had to be at the top of their game when they were in the public eye.
“Both my wife and I had to go to school for a year a learn the language well enough to get by,” he said. “Then we had to mind our manners.
“We had to give two or three formal, sit-down dinners for 30 or more people once a month. Of course, we had to invite our ambassador to each of these parties,” Fowkes said. “On any given day we might attend four events — possibly a graduation party at noon, a luncheon at someone’s embassy, a cocktail party at the Russian Ambassador’s residence from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a dinner party at a third embassy. After a while, you got tired of parties.”
He retired from the Air Force in 1971. He and Helen came to Punta Gorda 25 years ago from Pennsylvania.
What Fowkes never tired of during his military career was flying airplanes.
“Being a fighter pilot is something very difficult to describe. You’re up there by yourself and you seem to have left all your worries on the ground,” he said. “Everything on the ground is minuscule. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I miss it very much.”
This story first appeared in the Englewood Sun, Englewood, Fla. on Sunday, April 27, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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