During World War II, Robert L. Scott’s name was synonymous with the U.S. Army Air Forces. Born in 1908 in Waynesboro, Georgia, and reared in nearby Macon, Scott developed a fascination for flying at the age of four when he saw his first airplane. He became famous in World War II for his daring exploits in China with Brigadier General Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, and was dubbed ‘a one-man air force.’
Credited with shooting down 22 enemy aircraft, Scott was awarded three Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals. His fame was enhanced by his first of 12 books, God Is My Co-Pilot, which inspired a hit movie that still runs from time to time on television.
Today, at a very vigorous 87, Brig. Gen. Scott is national director of the board of the Museum of Aviation, in Warner Robins, Georgia. Founded in 1984, the museum displays 85 aircraft spanning the entire history of flight. Almost every day Scott can be found working in his office, which is full of memorabilia from his long and distinguished career, including a large tiger-skin rug with ferocious fangs on the floor in front of his desk. A tall, slender man, Scott answers questions about his World War II experiences with the zeal of a young boy recounting some adventure he just had.
WWII: During World War II your flying exploits were well-known nationwide. How did your interest in planes begin?
Scott: Mama said that when I was 4 she took me to Central City Park in Macon, Georgia, to see a demonstration of a plane flying. The flier’s name was Eugene B. Ely. He crashed and burned that day. I dragged my mother by the hand to see the dead pilot in the cockpit, and she said that from that day all I ever wanted to do was fly.
WWII: What other early adventures did you have?
Scott: I was in Scouting, and I wanted to get the aviation merit badge. The requirements included building a model plane that could fly 75 feet. Hell, I wanted to do more than that, so I made a glider large enough to hold a man. We tried to tow it with a Ford automobile, but the police ran me off the road, so I decided to try to fly it from some high point. There was a very large two-story house on Napier Avenue, in Macon, owned by Mrs. Bessie Napier. I asked her if my friends and I could fly my plane from the top of her house. She naturally thought that we were referring to some small, hand-held plane. We had to hoist it up on the roof with a pulley attached to a 4-by-4 we put on the roof. I jumped off the roof strapped in the plane and managed to fly about 40 feet before the main spar broke at the point where there was a knot in the pine 2-by-4 I had used. I fell down more than 60 feet into a Cherokee rose bush. I was picking thorns out of myself for days!
WWII: When did you get your first plane?
Scott: I bought it at the age of 13. They were auctioning off a number of World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 Jennys, over near Americus, Georgia, and I bought one of them. As soon as the auctioning opened, I blurted out ’75 dollars,’ because that was all the money that I had, but I was outbid by several hundred dollars by a man in the back who continued to outbid me on other planes. Finally, he came up to me and said: ‘Look, kid. Buy your one plane for $75 and get on out of here. I’m buying for an airline.’ That’s how I came to own my first plane.
WWII: How did you learn to fly it?
Scott: I was taught by a local streetcar conductor — I’ve forgotten his name — who taught me in Central City Park, where the flier had been killed when I was 4.
WWII: You graduated from West Point, but it seems that you attended a little later in life than most cadets. Why was that?
Scott: I had not taken enough of the proper courses in high school to gain admission, so after several tries I went back to high school to take the necessary subjects, math mainly.
WWII: How did you get along with the other cadets?
Scott: I was popular with the upperclassmen because I could already fly and many wanted to learn. They would come to my room for flying lessons. We would put two straight-back chairs together, one in front of the other, pretending they were the seats in the cockpit of a plane. That was my classroom.
WWII: After graduation from West Point, you were admitted to the Army Air Corps. Where did you go for training?
Scott: I went to Randolph Field, Texas. My teacher was Robert H. Terrell, who taught us to take off and land into the wind. Truman H. Landon was another of my teachers. He later became a four-star general. He told me that I was too rough on the controls. You were expected to solo after only four hours of flying with an instructor. They only wanted men who had confidence in themselves. When they asked you so early if you thought you were ready to solo and you showed any hesitation, they washed you out. It was the screening process.
WWII: I expect you were an eager student.
Scott: Yes. I tried to anticipate what Lieutenant Landon would say even before he said it. Once I thought he said, ‘Dive.’ We were at a low altitude for diving, but I tried to please. As we went into the dive, he took the controls and brought us over the trees into a cotton field. He said to me, ‘Scott, what in blazes were you trying to do? I said, ‘Glide.” Another time, he got out of the front seat with his parachute after a few rough landings, and I knew he thought I was good enough to do my first solo. Yet as he got out of the plane, he commented that he wasn’t going to let me kill him while I practiced. He told me that when returning I was to land as close to him as possible. I tried to do what he wanted. I could have landed right on top of him. Yet he threw his parachute down and ran. After I passed, I looked back and I thought I saw him waving. Waving your hand meant to come around again. I later learned that he was shaking his fist at me. I came around on him again and landed near the hangar about a mile from where I left him. He had to walk back. I later realized what I had done, but my ship had been taken by another student, so I couldn’t go get him. When he finally walked up, he said as he passed me, ‘It’s kinda hot out there.’ The next day after a lesson he took me down at the exact spot where I had left him the day before. He told me to get out of the plane and he would show me what he wanted me to do. He blew dust all over me taking off, and three times buzzed me, making me run like hell. Then he landed near me and taxied to the hangars, leaving me with the long, hot walk back with my parachute. The next day I soloed again, but this time I didn’t forget to go back and pick him up.
WWII: After training, where did you go?
Scott: To Panama for three years. I volunteered for all the flying time I could. I just couldn’t get enough. I would fly out over Panama Bay and take target practice on the sharks.
WWII: Where were you when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941?
Scott: I was a flight instructor at Cal-Aero-Academy in Ontario, California. We had 110 students, and President Roosevelt had ordered 50,000 pilots. We had only 200 airplanes. I flew that afternoon to Moffit Field, only to be told that I was too old to be a fighter pilot — at 34! Well, I wrote everybody, generals, congressmen, everybody, asking to be permitted to get into the war. No one answered my letters.
WWII: How did you get to fly?
Scott: Well, word got around that I was trying to get into the war, and one day I got a call from what today would be military intelligence. I was told to report to March Field. I drove 90 mph; it was the closest I came to death in the whole war!
WWII: [Note: Scott was tapped for a special mission as a member of Task Force Aquila, which was to bomb Japan. Asked if he had ever flown a B-17, he replied in the affirmative, although at the time he had never even been in one. He was chosen for the special mission; however, after flying to Burma via South America and Africa, the men of the task force learned that Bataan and Corregidor had fallen and that the plan had been disrupted. He was then assigned to flying ‘the Hump’ over the Himalayas to supply the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek at Chungking.] What was flying the Hump like? Surely the Japanese tried to disrupt your supply flights.
|Assigned to the Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command in the spring of 1942, Scott befriended Brig. Gen. Claire L. Chennault of the China Air Task Force. Here, Lt. Col. Herbert Morgan, Chennault, Scott and Colonel William E. Basye confer before a CATF raid.|
Scott: Of course they did. We flew Douglas C-47s without escorts until I started escorting them with a plane loaned to us by Colonel Claire Chennault. When we flew unescorted and saw a Japanese plane, we simply flew into the clouds. Sometimes those clouds had what we called ‘hard centers.’ We were told that if we flew at 16,000 feet we would be okay, even though we couldn’t see. One time I came out of a cloud bank at 16,500 feet and stared right into one of the Himalayan mountains. I had to climb to more than 17,000 feet to get over it.
WWII: But this was not what you wanted to do in the war.
Scott: That’s right, but we had no formal American fighting units in the area at that time. The only unit was the American Volunteer Group organized by Chennault. It had been operating in China about two months. The AVG, as it was called, was the famous Flying Tigers. To the Chinese, AVG stood for ‘America Very Good.’ They never had more than 55 planes, but they ultimately shot down almost 300 Japanese aircraft. I wanted so much to get with that group so that I could fight. I met Chennault while flying him supplies. They weren’t sending him what he needed — bombs, ammunition, proper clothing — but whatever odds and ends they had in supply. I managed to get him a load of gasoline, and while I was in supply I saw hundreds of cases of Camel cigarettes. I knew that he smoked Camels, so I stole a number of cases. I could have gotten into real trouble. When we landed at his base at Loiwing in Burma, I had the cigarettes positioned so that they could be easily seen when the cargo door was opened. He came onto the field when my plane landed, and although he saw the cigarettes, he shouted ‘Get that plane off the field!’ He had received warning of an imminent Japanese attack. There was an old P-40 on the field, and I thought that the Japanese would probably attack that first. I told him that I would move the P-40. Then he saw my colonel’s eagles on my collar and said, ‘You’re too high a rank to be flying a fighter.’ I replied, ‘I didn’t think that you cared what rank someone was, just so they would fight.’ I went and jumped into the P-40, and it cranked immediately. I decided to take it up and show Chennault what I could do against the Japanese. It was a stupid thing to do. The plane ran very rough, but I got her up. Then I decided to try the guns, but there was no ammunition. Fortunately, the alert was false. After I landed, Chennault came up to me and said, ‘You’d better come with me.’ He took me into his basha [mud hut] and gave me a drink of Haig and Haig. Then he said to me: ‘How in the hell did you get that plane started? We’ve been trying for months to get it going.’ About a week later he loaned me a plane, but only if I agreed to use it. I was so afraid that he would take it back that I took it up five times a day.
WWII: What was Chennault like?
Scott: He was great! A wonderful leader! He himself did everything that he expected of his men. He did not have much tact, though. At the beginning of the war when he asked General ‘Hap’ Arnold for 500 planes, Arnold said, ‘I don’t have 500 planes.’ Chennault then curtly replied, ‘Then, General, you don’t have an air force.’ He had collided with General Clayton Bissell earlier in life, and there was constant friction between the two men. All of Chennault’s men also disliked Bissell. They taught the Chinese gasoline truck driver to greet anyone disembarking from a plane with the words ‘piss on Bissell.’ These were the only English words he spoke, and he did not know what they meant, but the word got to General Bissell and he knew its origin.
WWII: Did you personally ever run afoul of Bissell?
Scott: Yes. When I was being sent back to the United States, I was expected to tell Bissell goodbye. It was military etiquette to do this when you left a post. One of his officers came to me and asked, ‘When are you coming to tell the general goodbye?’ I told him that I didn’t intend to come at all. He went back and told Bissell. He returned later to say that I would appear at General Bissell’s office at a certain time to perform the formalities. When I went to Bissell’s office, he was counting his pay voucher. I saluted, but he didn’t return it. In the military, a junior officer must maintain a salute until his superior officer returns it. He kept on working for a time, ignoring me. Then he asked why I was telling jokes on him, referring to the words the Chinese driver was repeating. He thought that I had started it. I told him that I had not, that it had been started by Chennault’s men, but since I had laughed at it, I was as guilty as they were. Then I made a reference to his flying citations in World War I and said that I had always wanted him to lead my squadron in a mission. He looked up and pleasantly asked why. And I replied, ‘So that I could shoot you down!’ Years later, General Chennault was visiting my wife and me in Florida, and when my wife went to fix lunch, he asked me if I had really said that to Bissell. I replied that I had, and he then told me that he had warned Bissell not to go up with me because ‘that son of a bitch will shoot you down!’
WWII: How did you get to be a member of the Flying Tigers?
Scott: I was flying the plane Chennault had loaned us, and that was a start. I had talked to him many times after the first encounter, making it plain that I wanted to join the Flying Tigers. One day I flew to his headquarters at Kunming, and he came out on the runway in a jeep to meet my plane. When I stopped, he motioned to me to get into the jeep with him, and he took me over to a mud hut. I was scared that he was going to take back the plane he had loaned me, but when we entered the hut I could see that I had been taken there for a different purpose. In the hut was a long table, behind which a number of men were sitting. In the middle I recognized Chiang Kai-shek. He was flanked on either side by officers ranking in descending order the farther they got from Chiang. Chiang didn’t speak a word of English and spoke to me through an interpreter. I was clearly there for Chiang’s approval. Chiang spoke for about 15 minutes with various men there. Finally the interpreter, a Major Shu, asked if I would be willing to go full time with Chennault to command the 23rd Fighter Group to be activated on July 4, 1942. I replied in the affirmative, and there followed a long conversation in Chinese. Then the interpreter asked me, ‘Generalissimo say, how long it take you to join Flying Tigers?’ One thing I have always noticed about interpreters is that they cut short a translation. He had summed up Chiang’s long speech in a few words. Anyway, I became commander of the 23rd Fighter Group of the China Air Task Force under Chennault.
WWII: What was your most memorable event with Chennault?
Scott: The greatest thrill was the first time I ever flew with the Flying Tigers before I joined them. You see, they didn’t think much of us regular fliers. I had come in and gone to sleep under the mosquito netting, when a bunch of the Flying Tigers burst into my room. Not knowing what was happening, I grabbed the revolver I kept under my pillow and pointed it at them. They had come to ask if I would go on a mission with them, never thinking that I would. I readily agreed. They were really testing me out. At one point while we were up, someone in the group pointed out a Japanese train below and told me to attack it. I went diving down, strafing the train. I had just assumed that some of them were with me, but as I looked around I realized that I had no wing cover. They had sent me in alone to see what I was made of. From that point on I was in, and they became my best friends. As it turned out, I had taught many of them to fly in California.
WWII: The Japanese had you fellows greatly outnumbered, and they could replace the planes that you shot down. Did they know what a predicament you were in?
Scott: No. We used all sorts of tricks. Every time I flew a mission, I had the nose of my plane painted a different color so that the Japanese would think these were different planes. I got credit for that idea back in America, but really the idea was not mine. It was Chennault’s. When flying over a city, we would split up, two or three going to the right, several over the center, some to the left. The noise created the impression that there were more planes than we really had.
WWII: Do you think it fooled the Japanese?
Scott: Certainly it did. We heard over Radio Tokyo, the only English-language radio station we could get in China, the Japanese belittling our efforts. They were making the point that we were weak because we had only 500 planes. At that time we had only 35!
WWII: When you went after an enemy plane in the air, what did you shoot for as the best way to bring it down? The pilot?
Scott: I tried to kill the plane, not people. We heard that the Japanese shot our parachuting pilots, but I never saw that. We never shot a pilot who had bailed out. Sometimes you would fly near them and they would salute you. As for the planes, it varied. For a fighter, you fired where the wing joined the fuselage. For the bombers, you went for the engines. You didn’t want to get too close because the wounded plane would spew engine oil all over your plane. Chennault saw oil on my plane once and said: ‘Scotty, you’re a good shot. You don’t have to get in that close. Shoot from 600 yards.’ The Japanese Zero was the most manageable aircraft and an excellent plane. It weighed about 4,000 pounds, whereas the P-40 weighed more than 9,000. To kill a fighter, you had to come in behind him.
WWII: In 1943 you were ordered back to the States. Why?
Scott: I had gotten a lot of publicity, especially from an article written for Life magazine by Teddy [Theodore] White, who had called me ‘a one-man air force.’ They didn’t tell me why I was being recalled. I thought that I was being sent to Europe; but on getting back, they sent me around the country to talk to workers in the war industries factories. There was a lot of absenteeism, and they wanted a flier to jack them up. You see, at that point China was the only place we were winning on any front. The Flying Tigers were the only victors. I also spoke in churches. The Army wanted to use my recognition.
WWII: Was it part of your job to write God is My Co-Pilot?
Scott: Not originally. After speaking to the congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, I was taken the next day to Charles Scribner, the famous publisher. He asked if I would have time to write a book. I said yes, and then he learned that in a few days I was supposed to be in Arizona, and he wanted to know how I could write a book so quickly. I said that if he gave me a dictaphone with disks, I would do it. The next day he sent me the machinery and I started dictating in my hotel room at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. I didn’t know it, but Scribner was pacing up and down in the hall outside my room. After 10 hours, he knocked on the door and asked for what I had written. I gave him 17 disks and was finished two days later. Later I met Ernest Hemingway, and he said, ‘I stand at the mantlepiece with a piece of paper and a pencil and only write two pages a day, but you turn out a bestseller in three days!’
WWII: How did you arrive at the title?
Scott: I was never seriously wounded, but once I had caught some plexiglass fragments in the back of my neck. Dr. Fred Manget, a medical missionary, and his Cantonese intern were removing them from my neck, and the intern kept talking to me to take my mind off the pain. Commenting on how many things I had to do up there at one time — fire the machine guns, change fuel tanks, drop the bombs and so forth — he asked me who had been up there with me, and I said, ‘I was up there alone.’ Looking at the potential seriousness of the wound, Dr. Manget said: ‘You’re not up there alone — not with all the things you’ve been through. You’ve got the greatest co-pilot in the world even if there is only one of you in the fighter ship — no, you’re not alone.’ He was right. I had already been in a hundred experiences where I could have gotten killed, but here I was. My brother went up once and received a bad wound. I was never seriously wounded. Scribner didn’t want me to use the title. He said that people would think it was the book of a religious nut. He later told me [after the book had become a bestseller] that he had been wrong and that I had known more than he did.
WWII: Later on, they made that book into a movie. How close did the filmmakers stick to the truth?
Scott: Warner Brothers did it. I was a technical director. The movie was not very close to the book, though. They had me being shot down in the movie. I was never shot down. The only real true point was when they had me shooting at the Japanese generals in the penthouse of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. We bombed the Hong Kong docks, and I strafed the hotel. Years later I visited the hotel and could see the damage done by my firing at the roof. When a bullet hits concrete, it takes out chunks. They had left the holes there as a memorial to the war.
WWII: Did you ever bomb Japan?
Scott: Yes, I bombed some power stations.
WWII: Whatever became of your famous fighter, Old Exterminator?
Scott: When I left for the States, it was given to other fliers. Later, it was partially cannibalized, but the body continued to fly. It was thought that it was indestructible, but it was shot down. The Japanese took it and displayed it in Tokyo. They thought that they had gotten me! After the war, someone bought the P-40 as an ornament for his business and for 40 years it was out in the open in front of his business. Dick Hansen of Batavia, Illinois, discovered it. He had always loved flying and he bought and restored it.
WWII: Of all the planes you’ve flown, what has been your favorite? You’ve flown all of our planes and you’ve even flown a MiG and a Zero.
Scott: The P-40, because that was the only one I ever got to shoot at the enemy with. But to a flier, the last plane he flew is always his favorite, so since the last plane I flew was a McDonnell-Douglas F-15 the other day, that’s my favorite.
WWII: An F-15! Recently?
Scott: Yes, the Air Force lets me take up an F-15 every year on my birthday. [It should be noted that to fly the F-15, General Scott must at age 87 pass the standard Air Force physical.]
WWII: You fought against the Japanese. Do you still hold any animosity toward them today?
Scott: No. I fought against machines, not men. Once I was playing golf with a famous Japanese flier in a promotion. We played all day, and he never said a word. I thought that he couldn’t speak English. That night we were on a television show together, and the commentator asked me if I had any hatred for my enemy, pointing to the silent flier beside me. I replied: ‘He wasn’t my enemy. His country had some politicians that went wrong just like our country has had some that have gone wrong. I fought against his government. That was the enemy. He was not my enemy.’ At that point he turned to me and embraced me. He had understood everything I had been saying. I fought planes, not men.
WWII: Is it true that you’ve walked the entire Great Wall of China?
Scott: Yes, I did. In 1980. I had an article in Reader’s Digest about it.
WWII: How did that come about?
Scott: I had read about the Great Wall as a child and had always wanted to see it. In 1944 I was back in China, and we were bombing power plants. There weren’t any Japanese planes in the air at that time, so we were shooting at trains. I was flying with 1,000-pound bombs attached to my P-51. We were escorting B-29s sent to bomb steel mills in Korea. On the return I flew over Peking and over the Great Wall. I was fascinated with it and followed it all the way to the Yangtze River. My plane made a shadow over the wall and I said out loud, ‘O God, let me one day walk were my shadow walks.’ For years, I wrote the Chinese government trying to get permission, but got nowhere. Finally in 1980 I joined a tour group with the idea of abandoning the group and walking the wall whether they wanted me to or not. I ended up going to the American Embassy and doing it legitimately. I walked the entire thing.
WWII: That must have been some walk.
Scott: Yes. It’s 1,900 miles long.
WWII: Where did you sleep?
Scott: On the wall each night. The wall passes through only one city, so I had to sleep on the wall. I spent 93 nights on the wall and only one in a hotel.
WWII: Where did you get anything to eat?
Scott: Well, for one thing, I carried 1,200 oatmeal cookies in my 65-pound pack. The recipe calls for a cup of either raisins or nuts. I put in a cup of both. They are very nutritious.
WWII: What about water? Was finding it a problem?
Scott: At the end of each day I would look for the smoke of a house near the wall. I was afraid to drink the water because when I was there during the war, we couldn’t. Mao had, however, cleaned things up. But I didn’t trust it. I would go toward the smoke and there would be a peasant hut. They would always have melons, and I would point to two and hold out four kinds of money. The Chinese would always refuse the money but give me the melons. They always said the same words in Chinese, which I did not understand. After hearing them so many times, I memorized the sounds, and later when I got back I asked an interpreter what they had been saying. The words meant, ‘No money. You are a guest of my country.’
Update: Robert Scott died at the age of 97 on February 27, 2006.