After Pearl Harbor

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Ver-ti-go, (vurf te go’), n., a disordered condition in which a person feels that he or his surroundings are whirling about.

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I have to dig deep in my memory to recover the details of what happened that day in December 1942. It’s something I always wanted to forget.

Several of us were practicing aerobatics in different sectors of the sky. In my sector to the west, I could see turbulent clouds and fog rolling in over the South Bay hills toward the valley, I returned to base and circled the field to see if we were to come in. No recall flag was flying from the tower. The landing strip at that point was clear.

Following procedure, I poured on the power and regained altitude, dodging some fast-moving clouds. As I approached my sector, the clouds grew thicker. The front moved in fast. A high bank of fog swept into the valley. Suddenly, I was in the thick of it. It surrounded me. Zero visibility. No horizon line. No way to orient the angle of my position. I couldn’t even see my wing tips.

For several minutes I tried desperately to concentrate on needle, ball and air speed. Full power. I kept telling myself I had to keep from stalling out—and spinning in. I became disoriented. I was in a whirl. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t tell if I was right side up or upside down.

For one fraction of a second, I think I saw the hillside, instantaneous with the crash. My plane plowed into the side of a hill at a steep angle and cart wheeled down onto the rocky ground, inverted.

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As a cloud of dust settled on the wreckage, I found myself dangling upside down in the cockpit. I was numb. Unfeeling. Stunned to be alive. Suddenly realizing the danger of the situation, however, I jerked the release on my harness and dropped to the ground, still wearing my bulky parachute. Frantically, I crawled away from the smashed fuselage on my hands and knees. Any moment, I expected to see and to feel it explode into flames.

But the wreckage did not burn, The remaining fuel from the upper wing tank spread out onto the ground, away from the smoldering engine. The crumpled wings were in tatters. Yet the tail assembly seemed almost intact.

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