Mindy Newell: The Greatest Generation
1943. Somewhere over Burma. The Dragonfly Squadron, inheritors of the famed Flying Tigers, is returning to base after flying a coverage mission for Merrill’s Marauders. First Lieutenant Meyer “Mike” C. Newell is flying wingman to his best bud, First Lieutenant Benjamin “Blackie” Blackstone. They met in training, and have been flying together ever since. The P-51D’s are pretty banged up, but the planes are the workhorses of the CBI and the pilots are confident that they will make it back to base, even though Johnson’s aircraft is leaking hydraulic fluid.
It is the rainy season in Burma and the landing strip, cleared out of the jungle overgrowth by Army engineers and sun-baked and rock-hard during the dry months, is a quagmire of mud that sucks at the wheels of P-51s as they touch down. The pilots must come down fast and hard with their throttles all the way open to clear the runway.
Three succeed, but Johnson’s plane, with its loss of hydraulic fluid, doesn’t have the power. Even with the throttle all the open the plane comes in slow and dodgy, and the mud captures the P-51 halfway down the runway. Johnson quickly gets out of the plane, and with the aid of the ground crew, is working to move the plane off the landing strip.
Blackie is already making his approach when the flare is sent up warning the other pilots off. Unable to veer off, he is forced to come in, still flying hard. As the wheels hit the ground, Blackie pulls back on the throttle and hits the brakes, but the inertia drives the P-51 forward and up onto Johnson’s plane. Blackie can’t shut off his engines, and the propellers are chopping their way through the other plane’s fuselage. That bird is still leaking hydraulic fluid. Blackie tries to open his canopy, but it is stuck. He is trapped.
Up above, Mike Newell, preparing his landing, sees the flare and pulls off, circling over the airfield. There is radio silence; no one knows what is happening below, though they know it is bad.
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, First Earl of Burma and Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) is visiting the base. He and his aide-de-campe (they have been together for many, many years) are watching the disaster on the landing strip unfold.
Fire is dancing from the Johnson’s plane, and billowing black smoke is making the work of the ground crew even more difficult as their eyes tear and their lungs fill with the noxious stuff. Blackie is still alive; he can be seen struggling to open his canopy.
Suddenly the aide-de-campe runs to Blackie’s plane, jumps up on the wing, and works to free Blackie…
The fire is inching closer. It is an inferno consuming both P-51’s…
The air is heavy with the smell of fuel.
Bits of burnt fuselage dance in the air like dust motes.
There is nothing left.
The runway is clear.
A second flare is sent up. Mike Newell resumes his approach.
He lands cleanly.
The remaining pilots bring in their planes, one by one, without incident.
They report for debriefing.
Late that night, Mike Newell is sitting on the wing of his plane, a bottle of Scotch in his hand. He swills it frequently, staring at the now silent and empty runway. It is raining again.
A shape approaches him in the darkness, and a clipped British voice says, “May I join you, Leftenant?”
Mountbatten swings himself up onto the wing as Mike moves over.
“This buggered war.” says Mountbatten.
“Yeah,” says Mike Newell.
“May I have some of that?”
Mike hands him the bottle. Mountbatten takes a swallow.
The two men sit in silence, sharing the Scotch.
• • • • •
Lord Mountbatten was the Last Viceroy and First Governor-General of India, overseeing the transition of that country into an independent republic. The IRA, who planted a bomb aboard his yacht when Mountbatten was vacationing in Ireland, killed him. First
Lieutenant Meyer C. Newell, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and many other medals and honors for his service in the Army Air Corps, survived the war, came home, and married Loretta Yontef. They had two children, Mindy and Glenn. He stayed in the Army Air Corps – which became the U.S. Air Force – until the middle of the 1950s. His unit was called up during the Korean War, but never saw active service. The new Israeli Air Force sought him out, offering him a high commission if he would join them. Worried about losing his United States citizenship, he refused. In 1985 he received the Medal of Honor from China for brave and decorous duty for the Chinese Republic during World War II. The Dragonfly Squadron received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service to the United States of America several years ago. Last year, a student at the Air Force Academy wrote his graduate paper on the CBI theatre, the Dragonfly Squadron, and First Lieutenant Meyer Carl Newell, P-51 fighter jock.
Sgt. Rock was cancelled and the story of Blackie, the aide-de-campe, Lord Mountbatten, and my father never saw print. Until today.
My father, who will be 90 in January, is dying. We brought him home from the hospital. He is receiving hospice care. Every now and then he will talk to us.
Yesterday I said to him, “Dad, it’s Mindy.”
“I know,” he said.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too.”
I bent over and gave him a kiss. He moved his head, weakly gesturing for me to come closer.
He gently kissed me on my cheek.