"How quickly sons grow and how patiently wars wait for them. Now my son is on the menu and my country seems eager to feed the beasts of war once again." This quote appeared in Clark De Leon’s column in the January 13, 1991, Philadelphia Inquirer. Congress had just voted to support President Bush in Operation Desert Storm and the bombing of Baghdad would begin the next day.
While still a teenager, Great-Grandfather Dominick Wunsch came to America and the Civil War waited for him. He turned nineteen in 1861 and went off to war. Granddad Sharp also went to war and returned safely: France, 1918. I was too young for World War II, but the Cold War, and the Korean War – a part of it, waited for me just as their wars had waited for them.
I was twelve when the Japanese bombed Pearl harbor. My memories of Hiroshima are more vivid. I remember August 6, 1945 well. I was by then fifteen and in just thirteen days would turn sixteen. Like many other patriotic teen-aged American males I had followed the progress of the Second World War with great personal interest ever since the Nazi Blitzkrieg through Poland six years earlier and fully expected that in two more years I too would be going off to war, but something happened that intervened.
I recall hearing the news. A secret weapon, an atom bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima. From the very beginning there was great curiosity; people were talking about it everywhere. There was so much we didn't understand. At the beginning only a few understood. I was too young to. As it turned out, it would take many years for most of us to fully understand the impact of Hiroshima – some still don’t understand.
J. Robert Oppenheimer understood immediately. While viewing the first nuclear explosion at Alamagordo New Mexico on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer recalled the sacred Hindu epic from the Bhagavad Gita:
“If the radiance of a thousand suns
were to burst forth at once from the sky,
that would be like the splendor of the mighty one . . .
I am become Death,
the shatterer of worlds.”
Three days after Hiroshima a second bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. Within just a few more days the Second World War would end abruptly, almost as abruptly as it had begun for the United States four years earlier at Pearl Harbor.
All of this occurred in little over a week. I was not yet sixteen. The general mood of the country as I remember it was one of celebration and a gigantic feeling of relief. An unthinkable invasion of the Japanese mainland had somehow been avoided. The war was over and our men and women would be coming home! I don’t recall whether I realized at the time that these historical events might have saved my life, for if the war had not ended so abruptly I could have become a participant in such an invasion. Thus in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during those few horrible moments on two days in August of 1945, the forces of history shaped my life, as surely as the onset of WW II had shaped the lives of so many of my slightly older peers.
Americans born after World War II missed experiencing the immense feeling of relief shared world-wide. Some of these younger people, and also some older ones, judge our country harshly for having used the atom bomb at all, but history shows that the use of any means available is a predictable consequence of having gone to war in the first place – especially a war of such magnitude. The heat of battle taps into primeval wells of emotion directed to preserve the self. Who is going to die, you or I? No question there!
I see no benefit in projecting current morality and attitudes backwards in time. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but remains in my mind a giant among men even if he was unable to transcend this aspect of 18th century American morality which we have long since come to see was heinous. Who among us can say with certainty how he or she would act if born at any previous time, accountable to the morality of that time? I can only guess what my decision would have been about how and where to use the bomb if I had been president at the time.
Today I too can look backwards and see that it might have been possible to end the war differently and spare Hiroshima and the world such a graphic demonstration of what humanity and its science hath wrought. As horrible as the consequences were, I did not at the time, nor do I now, condemn the decision to use the bomb.
The Second World War ended as I finished my sophomore year and Bob Miles, my neighbor, and captain of my Germantown High School gymnastics team, was immediately drafted and sent to Naples to serve in our army of occupation. Bob Young, an Olney High gymnast, had graduated the previous June and already fought his way across southern Germany from January until V-E Day on May 8th 1945.
By the end of the war our recent ally, Russia, was already being metamorphosized into the new enemy, and a global conflict of ideologies and will, soon to be named the “Cold War,” began to gain momentum. Initially it was difficult for me to view Russia as an enemy. This would require a major shift in mind-set for me, for I could still remember the Red Army’s Don Cossack Chorus who, portrayed as heroes, sang at my junior high school just two years earlier.
Planning for college
During the summer of 1944 I worked for Mr. McElderry, painting and weather-proofing greenhouses. Still fourteen, I was already shaving and looked sixteen, but this kindly Irishman never questioned my age.
I hated that job. I went to work every morning while my friends stayed home building model war planes, playing baseball down the corner and war games in the woods. At lunch one day Mr. McElderry asked me what I planned to do after high school. When I told him I was going to college, he looked at me quizzically and asked me how I knew. No one had ever asked me that before and I had no ready answer so I simply shrugged my shoulders; I just knew I wanted to do that, even though I wasn’t yet sure how I would ever get the money. Certainly Mom and Dad couldn’t help me; they were raising six kids on a modest income. I suppose that summer job was part of my plan.
My gymnastic skills were improving and I was growing confident that I could compete at the college level, but for a Philadelphia boy, college gymnastics most often meant Temple University or Penn State. My grades were good, but I knew that I had poor study habits and dreaded the thought of attending college that close to home. I was sure I’d flunk out. Living in a small three-bedroom one-bathroom row home with Mom, Dad, and five brothers and sisters, the only quiet place to read and study was down the basement in the coal-bin, and I’d have had to read by flashlight.
In January of my senior year I was forced to make a most difficult decision. I was by then an excellent swinging-rings gymnast and my coach Dr. Joe Brancato at the Germantown YMCA invited me to compete for the Y team against Temple University’s varsity. I had hoped that Temple coach Max Younger would offer me an athletic scholarship if I performed well that day.
However, the Navy scheduled a nation-wide scholarship examination for their V-5 aviation program on the same day. Their scholarship would pay for two years of college followed by flight training at Pensacola and a commission. I opted for the V-5 exam and have never regretted this choice, for in April I received good news from the Navy: “It gives me great pleasure to advise you that your score on the recent nation-wide examination was sufficiently high to etc. etc. etc.”
That April I won the Philadelphia High School championship on the swinging rings.
When I enrolled at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1947, college classrooms nationwide were still crowded with returning veterans. I felt young and inexperienced among these older men who had already waged war. This feeling was particularly intense in my English composition classes where I found nothing more interesting to write about than last summer’s vacation at the seashore while these guys described how it felt to face death daily. My confidence as a writer – never very high – plummeted.
I did well in gymnastics at Illinois, and in my sophomore year won the [then] Big Nine Championship on the flying rings and placed fourth at the NCAA Championships on rings and tenth in the all-around.
Cold War beginnings
History didn’t stand still waiting for me during my two years at Illinois. Congress passed the Armed Forces Unification act of 1947 and the Air Force became a separate branch of service.
In December 1947 Time magazine reported that “United Nations General Assembly, after much anxious hesitation, "settled" the 30-year-old Palestine dispute. They voted, 33 to 13, to partition Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish. After the vote was announced, the six Arab delegations (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) arose and strode out of the Assembly chamber. Pakistan's delegation soon followed. The U.N. Charter, said an Arab delegate, is dead. ‘Not of a natural death--it was murdered.’ added Syria's Faris el Khoury.”
The Marshall plan was enacted the same year, intended to help Europe rebuild its economy and serve as a bulwark against any further advance of communism. I recall wondering in the back of my mind whether this altruism was conditional. How much would we ultimately want their economies to improve? Certainly we wanted Europe to dig out from its present devastation, but how would we react if their economies would one day catch up with ours? We were presently alone at the top of the heap, King of the Hill as it were. In our national psyche, would there be room at the top to share that position one day? How would our nation, or any other nation, respond to serious economic competition where there previously had been none? Answers to these and other questions would have to wait for a true world economy that would come half a century later.
In June of 1948 Russian forces blockaded Berlin and the Allies responded with “Operation Vittles,” the Berlin airlift. Air Force meteorologists were called upon to work around the clock helping our pilots as they hauled record amounts of food, clothing, medicine, and coal to besieged Berlin. Six years later I would hear many stories about the stresses and satisfaction of forecasting for this immensely successful and unprecedented undertaking five years later when I too became an Air Force meteorologist.
According to former Air Weather Service historian John F. Fuller, the Russians didn’t take the Berlin airlift serious enough. “They were convinced that Europe’s notorious winter weather – icing, low clouds (called low ceilings by pilots) and fog – would eventually bring our efforts to a halt.” Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg wisely sent Major General Bill Tunner to Germany to run the show. From his years of flying in the China-Burma-India theater during WW II, General Tunner gained a great respect for the weather plus a strong confidence that poor weather could be overcome with determination and a focused effort. He was right. Fuller writes that some people concluded that the unparalleled success of the airlift implied that “weather had been inconsequential.” This was far from so. Success was achieved in spite of the weather, thanks to the Herculean efforts of air crews, assisted by their colleagues in arms: Air Force meteorologists.
When the airlift ended, General Tunner wrote Lieutenant Colonel Nick Chavasse, Commander of the Eighteenth Weather Squadron in Wiesbaden, a sincere thank you that said in part:
“You [weather] people showed great attention to detail and devotion to duty in preparing continuous weather forecasts so that every pilot on the Airlift was always adequately briefed on the weather. In addition, these forecasts were as good as possible, being limited only by the current status of progress of the science of weather [and an extreme shortage of experienced personnel]. More, certainly, could not have been expected.”
General Tunner’s patience and understanding was unusual, perhaps even rare. Some senior Air Force officers who would follow Tunner had neither the patience nor the appreciation of the limitation of weather forecasting this gracious message displayed.
Paranoia over any view labeled Communist peaked during the political campaign of 1948. Henry Wallace, Vice President under Roosevelt, had been President Truman’s Secretary of Commerce until Truman fired him publicly in September 1946 after Wallace spoke out in favor of greater cooperation with Russia. Wallace came to Champaign, Illinois during his 1948 bid for the presidency and spoke at the YMCA. That evening as I walked past the building, the sidewalks were crowded with angry demonstrators who viewed Wallace as a communist, or at least a “fellow traveler” (a phrase seldom used today, meaning a communist sympathizer).
From 1947 through 1949, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s forces continued to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s helpless army. For 22 years the dominant figure in China, Chiang Kai-shek stepped down in January 1949. Time magazine reported that “This retirement symbolized one of the great shifts in the 20th Century's turbulent history: some 460 million Chinese, a quarter of the human race, were passing under the domination of Communism.”
At home we had never talked politics and I still held no clear views on such subjects. My older and more sophisticated housemates, most of them WW II veterans, teased me about this. I would listen to their political discussions for hours hardly saying a word. Every now and then someone would ask me, “What do you think Jack?” I’d just shrug my shoulders and they’d laugh at me.
Housemates Dick Sharp and C. C. Givenrod had flown bombers over Europe, and John Marcinkoska flew Navy Corsairs in the Pacific while ex-Marine John Makris lost part of one leg at Tarawa in the Marshall Islands during our November 1943 beach assault there.
During my two years living with these guys, I don’t remember hearing even one war story from these guys. The only topics of conversation I recall, besides political discussions were about Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, and Alfred C. Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.
Granddad knew his grandson
In his 30s and already a skilled machinist, Granddad Harry P. Sharp joined the Army in early 1918 and was assigned to the Air Corps and sent to France where one of his more interesting responsibilities was to synchronize the machine guns mounted on the noses of Spad and Sopwith Camel fighters so they wouldn’t shoot their propellers off.
My contract with the Navy required me to report for flight training at Pensacola, Florida at the end of my sophomore year in 1949. Before I left for Pensacola, Granddad made an astute observation about me. I don’t know the names of any WW I aces Granddad served with, but he told me that I seemed to be different from the pilots he remembered. He was right; I didn’t have their fighter-pilot killer instinct.
As a young teenager during WW II I had gloried in watching movies of aerial combat, but although the mechanics of flying came easy to me I didn’t enjoy flying as much as I had anticipated. It lacked the complex mental problem-solving challenges that I would later find in meteorology, and gymnastics must have already sated my need for physical gyrations. I found aerobatics to be boring and after practicing my loops, rolls, stalls and spins during solo flights would kill the remaining ten minutes out over Pensacola Bay looking for the shadowy forms of large fish in the water below.
After soloing, an instructor would fly with us on just every third flight. I was very fortunate to have an instructor along on one particular occasion. We had landed on the left runway at Corey Field and slowed down enough to turn off halfway down the runway and taxi across the right runway, saving a few minutes of taxiing. As I started to turn, my instructor yelled “I’ve got it!” and immediately slammed down hard on the left brake. We swerved back onto our own runway and before I could ask him why he did this, a Navy Corsair came chugging past us down the right runway that was also active. If I had taxied out in front of him, we would have been chewed to pieces by the plane’s huge paddle-blade propeller. I got the real bawling out I deserved.
In the barracks that evening I recalled that I had done the same thing during my driver’s test three years earlier. Failing a drivers test for pulling out into a line of traffic was one thing, but getting killed for doing the same thing in an airplane seemed a little severe to me. I began to recognize that I often did not pay enough attention to small details to be entrusted with one of the Navy’s expensive airplanes.
Bill Nevius and Gene Brady were my best friends at Pensacola. In early December Gene lent me enough money to pay off the balance due on a diamond ring so that Almira and I could become engaged over the Christmas break. Almira and I had met just after my graduation from high school as she was finishing her sophomore year in high school. We fell in love and had kept our love alive by writing letters over the previous two and a half years.
The Navy was being down-sized, and while I was home for the holidays, Congress had reduced the authorized number of commissioned officers proportionately. A number of flight instructors at Pensacola were reduced to non-commissioned officer rank and the prospects for a Naval career looked dim.
In April 1950, after paying Gene Brady back the money I had borrowed, I eliminated myself from the Navy Flight Training Program and returned home to Philadelphia a civilian. I believe I did the Navy a favor, and anyway, I would soon return my government’s investment in me.
Bill Nevius completed the program and flew bombing raids during the Korean War in a Navy AD Skyraider fighter-bomber against a dam on the Yalu River between North Korea and China. This incident upset Winston Churchill. Gene Brady, who had entered flight training from the Marine Corps enlisted ranks, later commanded a helicopter squadron in Vietnam that called itself “The Brady Bunch.” Many years after I left Pensacola all three of us were retired: Bill a Navy Captain, Gene a Marine Colonel, and I, an Air Force Colonel.
Meanwhile, in Congress, Senator Joe R. McCarthy began fanning the flames of anti-Communist into a national hysteria. In early 1950, using innuendo and waving phony lists of names in front of him, Senator Joseph McCarthy began leveling unsubstantiated charges of treason against members of Truman’s administration. On February 9th, he claimed to have a list of 57 “known” communists currently working in the State Department; on February 20th he raised that number to 205. Levering writes that the fear-soaked atmosphere spawned in large part by Senator McCarthy “placed Truman in a no-win situation: no matter how strongly he opposed Stalin, Mao, Ho, and the other ‘communist devils,’ he could never do enough to satisfy his critics.” Effective communication between liberals, moderates, and conservatives ended as, collectively, their brains’ ability to think objectively started to self-destruct in an atmosphere permeated by fear. Fear is the mind slayer.
Korea: the Cold War turns hot
Two months after I left Pensacola, history again intervened abruptly: the Korean War began in June. I would turn twenty-one in August and was certain to be drafted. It was frightening to see another war follow WW II so quickly, especially after our recent reduction in forces. Those who had stayed in the reserves since 1945 were recalled to active duty. If my country was going to go to war as often as it had already done during my short life, it seemed prudent for me to again try for a commission – but first things first.
My fiancée Almira was, without a doubt, the major reason I left the Navy. I had always known that my marriage would be important to me, and while at Pensacola began to recognize that sea duty was inconsistent with the home life I imagined. In August of 1950 we set our wedding date, for I was not going to again leave Philadelphia a single man, and why let a draft notice determine our wedding date.
We married in October and soon after decided I should return to college for my last two years, so I wrote to Dr. Hartley Price, now the gymnastics coach at Florida State University (FSU), telling him of my intentions. Doc had been my coach at Illinois when I first enrolled there but left the following summer to accept a full professorship at FSU. I trusted that Dr. Price would quickly bring FSU’s new gymnastic program to national prominence and I wanted to become a part of it. Doc convinced me to enroll for the spring semester.
While still at Pensacola I had traveled to Tallahassee for the 1950 Florida AAU gymnastic championships and won the title on the rings for the Navy. Until the fall of 1947, FSU had been the Florida State College for Women and still had many more female students than male, in fact during that visit a coed whistled at me out her dormitory window. However, with no regrets I would return to this bachelor’s paradise a married man.
FSU and Air Force ROTC
FSU waived my tuition and provided me a part-time job. With help from Doc Price, Almira was hired as secretary to the football coach Don Veller. Doc also introduced me to Lieutenant Colonel Bernice S. Barr, Commander of the Air Force ROTC unit, and I was accepted into the Senior Air Force ROTC program. My draft deferment was now assured until graduation (and the ninety cents a day ROTC pay would definitely help our slim budget).
Jack Miles, my best friend and former high school teammate, came from Philadelphia to Tallahassee with me. Jack and I had met as young teenagers, and both of us followed Jack’s older brother Bob into gymnastics. Competition between Jack and me was friendly but serious; it inspired both of us to try harder, especially on the rings, our favorite event.
On one hot, humid summer afternoon in 1946 Jack and I were practicing together at the Germantown YMCA. As was often the case, we were the only ones in the gym. During one of our frequent respites from the heat and humidity we lay sprawled out on the mats under the rings. Jack looked back at me over his shoulder and said "You know Jack, some day you and I are gonna take first and second place on rings at the nationals. I'll take first and you'll take second." He then gave me one of his little laughs: “Heh Heh Heh” – that laugh that would get under my skin and goad me to prove him wrong. Without a pause I answered, "You’re crazy, I’ll take first and you'll take second!"
We laughed but were also deadly serious. A prophetic image of our potential in gymnastics had already formed. Five years later, during our first semester at FSU, Jack Miles won the gold medal on rings at the National AAU Championships in Detroit and I took the bronze. Many years later Jack related to me something that happened between us just before he performed his optional routine. We had already completed the compulsory routine and I was in third place and Jack was in fifth. After completing my optional routine I was temporarily tied for second place.
Jack was the last person to compete so he knew the scores he needed to come from behind and capture first place: 9.8, 9.8, 9.7. After pacing back and forth nervously for a while, Jack tells me that he came over to me and said that he was beginning to have doubts and asked me "Do you think I can do it Jack." I don't remembered this, but Jack says that without hesitating, I answered "Of course!"
Jack scored 9.8, 9.8, and 9.7 and has always believed that my words made the difference. We can borrow confidence.
Jack and I were transfer students and had to wait a full year before we were eligible to compete in NCAA competition. The next year it was my turn and in 1952 won the gold on rings at the NCAA Championships in Boulder, Colorado.
Jack was always a better gymnast than I, not that I would ever have admitted that to him at the time, but it was obvious. After messing up his routine and missing his chance to repeat, he came over to me and said “It’s up to you now, Jack.” Jack Miles and I gained our confidence together and we triumphed together – we both came in first.
During that same spring, some Air Force officers were in my differential equations class. They were at FSU under the Air Force Institute of Technology’s (AFIT) basic meteorology program. I found out from them that I already had the required background in math and physics to qualify for the same program when I graduated.
Although Doc Price wanted me to stay in school until June of 1953 to use my last year of eligibility, I had too many other responsibilities. Our son Douglass was already one year old, and I wanted to get on with my life. My nine years of gymnastics had been a wonderful experience, but I already had my gold medal. Unlike Jack Miles who would become a member of the 1956 Olympic Team and in 1993 be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of fame, I knew I wasn’t a serious Olympic prospect, I wasn’t good enough on the rest of the apparatus, so I graduated in January 1953 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Air Force. I entered active military service on April 3rd and recently elected President Dwight David Eisenhower, one of my boyhood heroes, was now my Commander-in-Chief.
My attitude toward war as I entered military service had been shaped by the forces of history previously described. We fought WW II to defend freedom, and, while still war-weary were fighting in Korea for the same basic reason. The Communist threat of world domination was real, and containment by war seemed at the time to be the only way to stem it. The invasion by North Korea validated our worst fears about Stalin’s intentions for a global Cominform. The key word for me was defense; I would participate in the defense of my country, a patriotic feeling – one I had grown up with. Some Americans born after these early experiences of mine may have trouble understanding my feelings at this time.
AFIT sent me to Pennsylvania State University in June for one year to earn a second BS, this time in meteorology where the highlight for me that year was the birth of our second child Joan, born at Thanksgiving. When the nurse came out and gave me the news I asked her if her mother knew it was a girl. She nodded yes, and I smiled, imagining how happy Almira must be.
The next day I took a box of cigars to class. After taking one, a classmate asked whether it was a boy or a girl. When I told him it was a girl he sort of smirked and retorted, “Better luck next time.” I was stunned by his remark, but said nothing. I didn’t even bother to tell him that we already had a boy. A few years later I heard that this same person lost a young daughter in an automobile accident. When I heard how devastated he was by this, I regretted ever having felt any resentment over his off-handed macho remark. Eight years later I saw him at Scott AFB and offered my condolences, never mentioning that remark that I’m sure he would now feel bad about.
A second highlight that year was listening to Professor Hans Panofsky whose lectures in dynamic meteorology were no less than brilliant. He had an unusual ability to explain complex concepts in understandable terms. Watching and listening to Dr. Panofsky lecture was like watching a symphony orchestra leader conduct. He used three blackboards simultaneously, running back and forth from one to the other tying together the elements of a long mathematical derivation into a harmonic whole. I’m still surprised that we didn’t stand up and yell Bravo! when he finished.
Department Chairman Hans Neuberger left Penn State in January for a year’s sabbatical in Turkey and Hans Panofsky became the chairman. Almira quipped that the department changed “Hans.”
During the spring of 1954 I took enough time off from my studies to occasionally listen to Senator McCarthy’s undoing as he conducted his thirty-six day hearings on communism in the Army: the American public’s first opportunity to see this demon in action. The ugly scene would be McCarthy’s last opportunity to violate our country’s democratic principles.
By June I was eager to finally leave academia and get to work. As a child, both my parents were very supportive of me. Mom was more verbal about it than Dad, but I could tell that he was always very proud of me. Once I was out in the real world, Mom’s earlier words of encouragement would ring in my ears: “Jackie, you can be anything you want to be. I don’t care what you become, just be a good one.”
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