Local WWII vet, 100, recalls dogfights

Lisa Perry

As his body sank further and further into the depths of the salty Solomon Sea Lt. Carl Planck Jr. knew that if he didn't drop the boot in his hand, he would very likely drown that second of November, 1943.
    The young fighter pilot had crash-landed his Lockheed  P38 Lightning on the water far, far behind enemy lines near Talili Point, New Britain, north of New Guinea, after a head-on collision with a Japanese Zero. Though his crippled plane may have been able to limp the 300 miles back to base over shark-infested waters, Planck said he knew his gas tank had been compromised.
    "I had to ditch," Planck reminisced with The News-Gazette this week.
    The impact crashed Planck’s head into the canopy, the clear, egg-shaped dome topping the plane that protects the pilot. Blood poured from a gash as he struggled to escape the cockpit.
    "I saw the nose go under. I couldn't stand up. I got all excited, then realized I still had my safety belt on. I almost broke my neck. I still had my throat mic on," the former pilot recalled with a good-natured chuckle that 75 years of retrospect can impart.
     He dove in as the murky waters swallowed his winged link to civilization.
    "Oh boy, I'm alone now," Planck recalled thinking at that moment. His "Mae West," an automatically-inflating vest, failed. Since floating was out of the question; he'd have to swim for the shore of the island that he saw in the distance.
    Saltwater soon saturated Planck's General Infantry-issued boots and his feet grew heavier and heavier. Tugging off the left one, he sank many feet below the surface. He fleetingly toyed with the idea of trying to tie the boot around his neck to keep it, but he certainly couldn't swim upward holding it. The need for oxygen was too great; precious seconds ticked by.
    The boot would have to go. He dropped it, and it was none too soon.
    "I was gasping for air," he said, as he broke through the surface. He threw all his remaining strength into getting to shore.
    The surviving right boot now sits bronzed on an honored shelf in Planck's Lexington living room with his other wartime memorabilia. The decorated veteran recently moved to Rockbridge County to be closer to relatives, and now, his family plans a centennial birthday celebration. Planck turns 100 next week.  (JULY 12)
    Reaching the beach wasn't the end of his story, though. Planck recalls his World War II days as clearly as if they had happened yesterday, including the dogfight immediately preceding his terrifying tumble into the drink.
    He had just "blown up" one Japanese fighter when "his wingman turned in on me," Planck recalled.
    "I said, ‘Blow up, you scoundrel!'" Planck remembered. Approaching the Zero at a gap-close rate of 700 miles per hour, Planck realized too late that there had been a miscalculation.
    "Oh my God. I'm too close! I'm pulling that stick back," Planck said, and demonstrated with his arms how he attempted to redirect the plane.
    After the ditch and once he had swum to the island, he befriended natives who fed him and hid him from Japanese forces that frequented the island until his rescue more than three months later.
    The submarine USS GATO rescued Planck and a handful of other soldiers who had been stranded on the island after different fights near the same location. An account of the harrowing nighttime pickup appears in the book Save Our Souls: Rescues Made by Subs During World War II by Douglas Campbell. Once aboard the sub, the rescued men were given the "Six B" treatment: Bath, Bandages, Bread, Butter, Boullion and Bed, according to Campbell.
    A 1946 book written by Quentin Reynolds, 70,000 to 1: An American Airman's Grim Fight to Survive Against Fantastic Odds, recounts the experiences of the soldiers stranded on that island, focusing on Lt. Gordon Manuel, who also rode to safety on the USS GATO with Planck.
    The Nov. 2, 1943 dogfight wasn't Planck's first, nor his last. He said he wasn't sure how many dogfights he'd been in, or how many enemy planes he had downed.
    "You don't take time to count," said Planck, a member of the 5th Air Force, 49th Fighter Group, 9th Fighter Squadron. He was a friend and squadron mate of Richard Ira “Dick” Bong, America’s highest scoring ace. Planck flew combat missions over Buna, Lae and Rabaul against Japanese pilots flying the Zeroes and Oscars in some of the Pacific theater’s most famous missions. Postwar, the Clemson-educated mechanical engineer worked for Air Force, and later for NASA on the Gemini and Apollo programs.
    After one mission, Planck recalled that snafus led to his and another pilot landing on opposite ends of the same airfield runway, facing each other. As the two planes slowed and approached each other, Planck pulled off to the side to avoid a collision. He barely missed a control tower.
     "There were men jumping off the control tower, dust flying. Brakes dragging...but it was okay. The Lord was watching out for me."
    That wasn't the only time the Lord watched out for Planck.
    "We were chasing Zeroes near Lae. He flipped over on his back. I flipped over on my back. He made the bottom half of the loop. I followed him. I had him nearly in my sites," Planck said. "He completed the loop, but I was too low."
    "I couldn't pull up. I saw the spot on the ground I was going to hit. I closed my eyes, and crossed my arms across my chest," he said, taking his hands completely off the controls.
    "I said, 'God, you fly it. I can't." Seconds ticked by without the expected impact.
    "I opened my eyes." Somehow, Planck said he was now flying above water, away from the combat. Three quarters of a century later, Planck still exhibits wonder in the telling of it.
    His plane had sustained damage, so he opted to fly back to base.
    "I called for somebody to protect my tail."
    "'I got ya, Carl,'" came a radioed response. "He called me by name," Planck said. "I saw that plane."
    Planck tried to thank the pilot who had acted as his wingman that day once he was back on land. Of the handful of pilots on the mission, none of them had radioed Carl or provided assistance.
    "The Lord looked out for me 24-7," Planck said.


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