EDWARD LOPEZ LOOKS BACK ON HIS CHILDHOOD IN L.A., LIFE AS A TEEN COWBOY IN NEW MEXICO, AND A FIGHTER PILOT IN WORLD WAR II—AND PAYS TRIBUTE TO THOSE WHO DIDN’T SURVIVE THE FIGHTING, ESPECIALLY COUSIN JOHN.
By Edward J. Lopez
I WAS A “HELL HAWK.” THAT WAS THE NAME given to us pilots in the 365th Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps. Among the many missions I flew against the Wehrmacht’s last bloody stand in the waning days of World War II were two that proved decisive in the victory of the Allies over Hitler.
It’s odd to think about: I was a boy in the early days of downtown Los Angeles in the ’20s and ’30s. My brother and I would pretend we were pilots, but I never really thought I would one day become one. As a teen, I spent time as a cowboy, learning to ride horses on the New Mexico range where my family had our roots. Then, I helped the Allies finish off Germany.
There’s a through-line to this story, though and it’s this: Instinct.
One of my earliest memories as a boy in Los Angeles was the night our two-story wooden Victorian mansion went up in terrifying blaze of flames shooting skyward. It was 1928 and I was five years old. After we all ran out, I realized my little sister was still inside! Without a moment’s hesitation, I ran back in, grabbed her and rushed us both out to safety. Everybody said I was a hero. There was nothing heroic about it. It was instinct.
On the ranch in Socorro, New Mexico, a group of us cowboys were out riding one day when my horse Tiger and I were separated from the rest of the bunch and I wasn’t sure how to get back home. I guided Tiger into a rushing river, and Tiger trusted me and I trusted him. We made it to the other side and then back to the ranch. When the others found us waiting for them, they said they were relieved: they had been looking for us because they didn’t think we’d made it across. Instinct. (Tiger’s, too, this time.)
At flight school, I was far from the brightest star in my promotion. I wasn’t book smart and my classroom responses were sometimes just north of embarrassing. But once I got in that plane – CLICK. I just had a feel for it. There were smart guys in my group, way more adept at theory, math and reasoning than I was. But some of them washed out right away. They just didn’t click with the plane. Instinct, again.
Up in the air, at war, all those instincts kicked in just the way you’d want. I had some experiences that stand as my personal towering achievements and that’s because they were moments of history; I’m so grateful that I got to live them and then live on.
On Oct. 21, 1944, all my training paid off. The Hell Hawks were dogfighting with the Luftwaffe – a deadly ballet of planes firing at each other at 500 mph in the skies over Solingen, Germany. We destroyed or damaged 30 German planes, including one I hit myself, and losing only one of ours.
And on Nov. 28 of the same year, we were flying a reconnaissance mission when we spotted a row of Panzer tanks on the banks of a river, and a tent encampment on the other side. We strafed the tanks and were surprised they didn’t move, until we saw the German troops running from the tents across a bridge to get to their heavy artillery! We strafed the bridge until it fell apart underneath them, but took fire while we finished off the rest of the tanks and their troops. A bullet shattered my canopy and grazed my head, blood poured down my face into my eyes, but I kept flying. We destroyed the entire Panzer division. If we hadn’t spotted them by chance, who knows how much damage they could’ve inflicted on General Patton’s troops as they made their way into Germany.
I’d like everyone reading this to salute all those who didn’t make it back, and the ones who did but with injuries that later killed them.
Crazy enough, it was after the war was over that I crashed a transport plane carrying a handful of men to Frankfurt. The weather turned and suddenly I was flying into treetops; I pulled up my nose so we hit the mountain on the plane’s belly and slid up instead of smashing straight into it. As I reached back into the burning cockpit to get my chute and jacket, I realized that, just like my sister in the burning L.A. Victorian of my childhood, there was a man who didn’t make it out, so I went in with the other men and got him. Only later did I realize that both my ankles were broken and I shouldn’t have been able to stand up, let alone help pull a man from the wreckage of a crash. Instinct.
I made it through that war, then flew under fire in Korea, and made it home from there, too. I had a good life my lovely wife Maria, four kids and two grandchildren. Today, I’m 91 and I’m still flying! For this Memorial Day, I’d like everyone reading this to salute all those who didn’t make it back, and the ones who did but with injuries that later killed them. I’m especially thinking of my cowboy cousin from our Socorro days, John, who came home from the war after having been shot in the gut and never really recovered. This is dedicated to him. Goodbye, John: You gave your all for us.
Edward Lopez lives in Arcadia with Maria. His memoir, “The Life of a Hell Hawk,” will be published on the Fourth of July. To order the book or for more information, contact email@example.com.