Letter From November 2006 Aviation History

There was beauty in the homely B-25’s functionality.

The North American B-25 you see on the cover of this issue of Aviation History may be a beautiful job of restoration, but the airplane itself was never intended to be a cover girl. It was intended to be an aerial Mack truck, carrying and dumping bombloads over and over, and later served as an aerial tank strafing and shooting — with even a 75-mm cannon in the nose — low-level ground and water-based targets. A pilot named Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn crafted this boat-buster that ravaged Japanese seaborne supply and military ships while his family was interned in a Japanese POW camp in Manila.

This slab-sided, ungainly looking aerial SUV was built between 1940 and 1945 — to the tune of nearly 11,000 examples that served on every major front during World War II for U.S. and other Allied powers. Designed in 1938, the private-venture plane was nicknamed after the fiery Brig. Gen. “Billy” Mitchell, who went through a famous court-martial for his far-sighted views of the value of air power and his pugnacious attacks on those who disagreed with him.

The B-25’s “15 minutes of fame,” which lasts to this day, was its involvement in the famous surprise bombing attack on the previously considered impregnable Japanese capital of Tokyo on April 18, 1942, a little more than four months after the devastating and U.S. morale-destroying attack on Pearl Harbor. Famous race pilot and test pilot (aeronautical engineer, yet) Jimmy Doolittle took a bunch of land-based B-25Bs along on an aircraft carrier to let the enemy — and his own country — know that the “Day of Infamy” would be avenged.

Which it was.

Although the dropping of two atomic bombs by B-29s would write finis to the war, the B-25 was in the midst of softening up the enemy’s efforts both in the European and Pacific theaters of war.

Where are the B-25s now? Many, of course, went to the junk heap to be turned into aluminum pots and pans, canoes, etc., but others are being dug up from crash locations to be lovingly put back together either as displays or even flying examples, such as the one on this month’s cover.

Whether these last few iconic aircraft should be flown at the risk of being destroyed is a continuing controversy between those who love to hear the big radial engines belching out noise and those who want them preserved serenely and silently in museums for all to see forever.

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