Times Past

Just like John McCain, this World War II pilot with Central Coast ties was a true patriot

A Lockheed P-38 Lightning plane flies over the Santa Maria Valley in 1943
A Lockheed P-38 Lightning plane flies over the Santa Maria Valley in 1943

“The patriot must not just accept, but in his or her own way protect the ideals that gave birth to our country: to stand against injustice and for the rights of all and not just one’s own interests. The patriot honors the duties, the loyalties, the inspirations and the habits of mind that bind us together as Americans.”

Liz and I might have disagreed with Sen. John McCain on many of his positions, but he has always been a hero who tried to stick to the words of his essay “A Cause Greater Than Self.”

The implications of “not just one’s own interests” may be lost in our political and social world.

We are both children of World War II, when we were instilled with a sense of cooperation for victory. At the age of 3, I went door to door with my grandmother collecting pots and pans to be melted down for their metal content. Everyone gave generously.

My friend and former student, Jim Gregory, recently e-mailed me an account of “one of the best examples” of a caring patriot and hero of whom he knew. Jim is the author of the recently published book, “Central Coast Aviators in World War II.”

In the book, he writes of Lt. Chester Eckermann, who lived in Orcutt for many years before his death in 2012.

Eckermann was with the 82nd Fighter Group based in Foggia, Italy. The group flew Lockheed P-38 Lightning planes.

Lockheed P-38 crashes on  Broadway near Mai.jpg
A Lockheed P-38 Lightning plane crashes into the Rusconi Café on Main Street in Santa Maria on January 30, 1945. Courtesy photo

The P-38, a twin-engine aircraft four 50-caliber machine guns and one 20 mm cannon clustered at the center of the aircraft fuselage, was held in awe by both German and Japanese pilots. The German pilots called it “the fork-tailed devil” and the Japanese knew it as “two planes with one pilot.”

It was the ideal bomber escort. Its very presence could ward off all but the most fearless Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Japanese Zeros.

Jim writes that “Lt. Eckermann . . . was escorting a B-17 squadron over the Alps in 1944 when they were ‘bounced’ by thirty Me 109s.

“The P-38 was a superb fighter plane. In the Pacific. In Europe, it performed poorly at high altitude and in cold weather.

“Lt. Eckermann turned toward the Germans to protect his B-17s. That’s when he discovered that the lubricant to his machine guns had frozen.

“He was helpless.

“But the Lightning still had such a fearsome reputation that young Luftwaffe pilots were instructed to break contact as soon as a P-38 turned its forward armament toward them.

“So that’s what Lt. Eckermann did.

“He repeatedly bluffed runs at the young Germans and they repeatedly peeled off and flew away.

“Eckermann got every one of his bombers home safely.”

His actions are a perfect example of patriotism and pastoral care. His duty was to protect the flock of B-17s under his care.

What a different world we would have if those in leadership positions in government, schools, churches and throughout society were faithful to those duties.

Sen. John McCain and Lt. Chester Eckermann, who later flew in the Korean War, were such heroes.

On a coincidental note, Lt. Eckermann’s retirement in the Santa Maria Valley was near the Santa Maria Public Airport. Once the Santa Maria Army Air Field, it which was used for testing and training pilots for the P-38s.

It was a difficult plane to fly. On January 30, 1945, a P-38 crashed into the Rusconi Café on Main Street in Santa Maria. It exploded into flames, killing the pilot, Mrs. Phil Rusconi and John Dolph, a cook in the restaurant.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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