‘The Pilot Who Wouldn’t Bail Out’

“You get that way in the schools of America. You learn your duty towards others, and how to make it stick.” 

Those words, written by author Paul Gallico, in the May 1944 issue of Esquire magazine, eloquently summarized the reason why Air Service pilot, Captain Bob Hartzell, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for feats that he accomplished in “The Flying Nightmare.” Gallico’s article was accompanied by a photograph of an original painting by Falls City’s native son, John Falter.  The painting was titled The Pilot Who Wouldn’t Bail Out.  

Gallico’s article and Falter’s original painting will both be on display from Nov. 11 through Dec. 31 in the Stalder Gallery of the Falls City Library and Arts Center. An art opening has been planned for Tuesday, Nov. 11, featuring world-renowned speaker Dr. Adrian Lewis, an expert on WWII.  The Stalder Gallery will open at 6 p.m., with the talk scheduled for 7.

But first, let’s talk about Hartzell’s incredible valor when he flew a C-47 twin-engined transport ship through the valleys of the shadows of death.

Previous to Hartzell’s flight, another pilot had reported that the plane Hartzell was about to fly had had problems because the engines had a nasty habit of conking out at 10,000 feet. So Hartzell and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Bob Gray, had the ground crew check out the engines at a base in Dinjan, North India, and then flew the ship through a series of test flights, and everyone was satisfied with the ship’s performance. Their first flight, to Kunming, China, had proved uneventful, so Hartzell and Gray both thought that the questioning pilot had just been a yellow belly. 

However, their flight back to India proved otherwise. It was a harrowing rollercoaster that left Hartzell and Gray thankful for another day, and kissing the ground that they walked on.

It all started when the ground crew at Kunming loaded the transport ship with wolframite, which, according to Gallico’s article, was “an extremely heavy ore used in the making of special war steels.” That stuff was heavy enough! But then, a Chinese officer asked Hartzell to transport him and two wounded comrades to India. The wounded lay on stretchers and needed more 

intensive emergency care in India than they would receive in China. 

Hartzell swallowed the lump in his throat and remembered his schooling in America, and his sacred honor to care for his fellow human beings.

“Sure, load them up,” he said.

The weight of the passengers, wolframite, and gasoline totaled about 7,000 pounds, on a ship whose capacity was about 4,000. Still, Hartzell and Gray managed to get the plane off the ground.

Try as he might, though, Hartzell couldn’t get the plane above 13,000 feet, in an area where the snowy mountaintops soared to 10,000 or 11,000. He was worried about the “clouds with rock centers,” because he never knew when a cloud might contain the jagged, snow-crusted peak of a mountain top. 

But that worry was nothing compared to what happened next.  When his plane broke through the overcast, a fleet of 27 Japanese bombers and 17 Zeros (fighter planes), suddenly appeared. 

Three of the Zeros ripped off of the formation and headed for their prey, just as a radioman at the base down below yelled into his radio, “For Chrisake, you deadheads, get out of the sky! The Japs are over us!”

According to Gallico’s article, “Hartzell and Gray hauled back on the wheel, kicked rudder, and put the big ship into the nearest thing to a slow roll that an overloaded transport is capable of, and then dove into the protecting clouds.”

Hartzell expected to die any minute. The headline in his hometown paper would read, “Local Pilot Dies in Mountaintop Crash.”

God must’ve played with the ship at that point, zig-zagging the plane through the mountains and valleys like a little boy playing with a plastic toy.  Hartzell missed every snow-crusted peak. For more than an hour then, he flew the overloaded plane between the protective walls of a river gorge. And then, he decided to do the unthinkable—to turn around and go back. Hartzell laid the plane on its side in the canyon, (aging himself about ten years in the process), and headed south again. He and Gray flew the overloaded ship as low to the ground as possible, never daring to show their wings above the river gorge. They passed by the base where the radioman had urged them to land, and the man in the tower was dead. The Japanese fleet had caught them by surprise.  

Hartzell then found a pass back east, toward India, so he took it. The problem was, he couldn’t maintain the ship at more than 8,000 feet because one of his engines had gone dead. As he entered the walls of a protective cloud, the other one conked out, too. 

In the silence, Hartzell yelled to his crew chief, “Get your chute on and get out!” It was almost sunset, so darkness was adding fuel to the fire. Hartzell, his co-pilot, and crew chief needed to bail.

Then Hartzell turned back and looked at the Chinamen on their stretchers. Both moaned in pain. Their faces were pinched.Their eyes were filled with dread. Hartzell remembered his American schooling—how no man abandoned another in need, how a captain was the last man to leave his ship. He looked back at his co-pilot, and both swallowed the lumps in their throats. Today was the day that each would meet his Maker. Hartzell wondered if his end would appear through the clouds, or if he would even see it coming.

Suddenly, an idea struck him. The hand fuel pump!  It was used for priming the engines before starting them. Maybe it would work! He started frantically pumping, and then let Gray take over.

One of the engines coughed, sputtered, turned over, then caught. 

Hartzell continued to fly the ship on instruments, through the hazy, darkening clouds. When he pulled out and saw the base below, he felt like he was going home. He put the ship down as the sun sunk below the horizon. By the time he taxied in, the sky was pitch black.

Hartzell had left the base a captain. But he returned a hero.

Captain Bob Hartzell had refused to abandon a ship that carried those in need, because, above all, he was an American.

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