Maj. Gen. Alison’s visit to the 33d FW connects generations of American military members

  • Published
  • By Capt. Steven Cox
  • 33d Fighter Wing Safety Office
Most fighter pilots have an innate appreciation for history. When 96-year-old World War II veteran retired Maj. Gen. John "Johnny" Alison came to the 33d Fighter Wing to share some flying stories, all the young fighter pilots surrounded him like children around a magician.

Alison told us about being shot down twice, and how to go offensive on a Zero in a P-40 via an outside loop. He also told us how a Chinese pilot saved his life by shooting down the Zero that was about to kill him. But the humility that is so common of men of this caliber kept him from boasting about his six plus kills.

General Alison joked about his age by pointing out the fact that he knew Orville Wright. But when I shook Alison's hand, I couldn't help but realize the significance of this connection of 137 years of aviation history from the Wright Flyer to the P-40 Warhawk to the mighty F-15 Eagle.

But the connection went further. In 1942, the general flew P-40s in the Flying Tigers with Lt. Gen. Clair Chennault under the command of General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, my great-grandfather. I got the opportunity to ask General Alison about my great-grandfather, half expecting a punch in the face due to the friction between Chennault and Stilwell that was caused by their differing strategic views of the application of airpower in the China Burma India Theater.

Who knows if Alison was telling me a white lie, but he told me how nice General Stilwell was, despite the nickname "Vinegar Joe." General Chennault's view asserted that the Fourteenth Air Force could bring down Japan with the use of airpower alone, which some claim allowed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to hoard allies' aid and arms to fight the communists.

Stilwell insisted the key to victory was the coupling of airpower with well-trained Chinese troops in solid, take-and-hold ground operations. They both agreed, however, that airpower was pivotal to the Allies' success in China. Doing some research, I found that General Alison was pivotal to the effective application of allied airpower.

"In one month alone, our fighters destroyed one fifth of the Japanese air force in Burma, once destroying 100 planes on the ground in two days. Phil [Cochran]'s Air Commandos and Wingate's Chindits had strangled Japanese supply lines, contributing materially to the fall of northern Burma to Stilwell's army shortly afterward," General Alison wrote in an article about the 1st Air Commando Group.

In the 58th Fighter Squadron Heritage Room, Alison told us about the night the Chinese moon was full enough to take off and await ingressing Japanese bombers. When they showed up, he rolled in failing to control his closure and winding up in the middle of the bomber formation. He attacked the fuselage of one bomber while the top turret gunner shot the flashing source of the blazing tracers. After being hit, he finished off another bomber. His P-40 was struck through the crank-case, streaming oil all over his canopy. His arm was grazed and bullets also hit his seat, radio and fuselage, but his mighty Warhawk kept flying long enough for him to crash into a river and allowed the soon-to-be ace to fly and fight again.

After giving us Eagle pilots an unforgettable thrill, General Alison went to dinner with about 25 of us for more stories. There, he told us about his flight in a PBY seaplane from Northern Scotland up to the North Pole at 100 feet to avoid German radar and fighters then down to Moscow, where he watched the Germans advance on the city's edge. He also told us about the finicky Russians turning up their noses at brand new B-25 Mitchell bombers he delivered from Basra, Iraq, to a Russian air base. He finally told us what it was like to fly a glider full of infantrymen into enemy territory at night and land by moon light between stumps and pot holes.

I can only imagine all the stories that he didn't tell us, but it was clear even through his humility that General Johnny Alison is an amazingly sharp man with the stories of experiences that prove his significant contribution to airpower and freedom.