San Antonio Express-News, Sunday, April 4, 1993, by Susan Yerkes.
To some, history is what you find in a high-school textbook. To others, it is fading memories.
But to Bob Hood, P.D. Straw, Baylor Randle, Bill Houston, Earl Collins and the other men of the Alamo Liaison Squadron, history is a living, soaring, winged thing that rides the air currents of the Texas sky.
To these men, World War II is a living presence.
Any day of the week, you’ll find liaison squadron members out at little Cannon Field, south of San Antonio, keeping a piece of American air history alive. The World War II slogan, “Keep ‘Em Flying,” has become their creed. And for most of them, that task has become a magnificent obsession.
It all began with Hardy Cannon. A B-24 gunner, he was one of the last people to be injured in World War II, when his right hand was crippled in a skirmish in the skies.
Back home in San Antonio with his wife Sarah after the war, Cannon and Bill Stratton began collecting and rebuilding his beloved “L-Birds” — a series of military airplanes used for aerial mapping and reconnaisance in World War II.
There were the Stinson L-1, the Taylorcraft “Tee-Cart” L-2, the Aeronca “Defender” L-3, the Piper Cub L-4, the Stinson L-5 “Sentinel” and the Interstate L-6 “Cadet.”
In his history of the World War II L-Birds, “A Box Seat Over Hell,” Cannon wrote: “It has been said that the ‘Grasshoppers at War,’ the liaison aircraft during the years 1941 through 1945, were instrumental in delivering more destruction and chaos to the enemy than all the bombers and fighters of the Allied and Axis air forces put together; rescued more men trapped behind enemy lines; evacuated more wounded, therefore saving more lives than any other life-saving force.”
A German prisoner is quoted as saying, “When an L-Bird flew over, all firing ceased and all that dared move were our eyeballs.”
It was this heritage that Cannon determined to preserve.
In the late ’70s, a group of enthusiastic veterans hooked up with Cannon to turn his private passion into a public service.
P.D. Straw, a World War II flier, was a vice president at Broadway National Bank. With fellow flying veteran Jim Engleman and a tight-knit group, they raised money to finance the restoration projects.
Their goal was concrete: They wanted more than authentic-looking planes. They wanted to rebuild airplanes that would fly — that could re-create the courageous challenge of World War II flight for future generations.
“Their sole purpose,” Cannon wrote of the members of his group in a series of pamphlets on the individual planes, “is to locate, purchase, restore, preserve and maintain in flying condition, military aircraft that were flown by all military services during World War II. This group seeks to perpetuate in the memory and the hearts of the American people, the spirit in which these airplanes were flown for the defense of our great nation.”
They called their idea “a flying museum.”
“We got together in a little trailer at Jones-Maltsberger,” Straw recalls. “We had the planes stored in an old wooden building like a makeshift hangar. It snowed one of the first years we were organized and mashed a couple of airplanes.”
But these were men who had seen a battered Army Air Corps fly through the worst days of a world war. Their setbacks didn’t faze them.
Twenty years later, the group’s goals have stayed on course.
The name is different — going from the original Alamo Liaison Group to the more independent sounding Alamo Liaison Squadron, which distances it further from the shadow of the Confederate Air Force.
(There had been considerable overlap in the membership of the two groups before the Confederate Air Force’s controversial move from its Valley home to Midland, instead of locating in San Antonio, as many in the membership wanted. There are still a few dual memberships, but they are no longer a point of pride.)
The Cannon Field spread is a busy, unpaved airstrip, with a well-worn windsock and a proudly painted slogan: “Where Eagles Rest.”
A dozen open hangars hold historic planes in all stages of renovation. A few belong to individuals, others are held jointly by the non-profit squadron. An L-2, L-6 and a J-3 are currently owned by the squadron, and members plan to buy an L-5 soon. They had one, but last year another plane careened into it in a “Wings Over Houston” show at Ellington AFB.
The Alamo Liaison pilot, Austin member Dr. Quentin Smith, was slightly hurt, but the other pilot was fatally injured.
Flying these planes is the joy of the members’ lives. But it is a deadly serious endeavor, too. There is no such thing as autopilot in an L-Bird.
“We kid and josh each other unmercifully,” says J.B. Phillips, the group’s outgoing public-affairs officer.
“But when it comes to flying airplanes and getting into formation, you get deadly, deadly serious.”
“Flying airplanes and getting into formation” is the real reward squadron members reap for their liberal investments of time and money.
Each year, they organize groups to fly over public festivals and ceremonies or to exhibit their planes at air shows — freely sharing their enthusiasm.
This weekend eight of the planes were scheduled for an “L-Birds Parade” as part of the opening-day activities at the South Side Chamber of Commerce’s “Wings Over San Antonio” event at Stinson Field. Included in the lineup: a newcomer — a classic J-3 “Flitfire” recently repainted with Bartell Zachry’s blessings at Zachry’s South Side production facility.
Opening ceremonies for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo; the Poteet Strawberry Festival Parade; the Texas Air State Expo; Bergesfest in Boerne; Pleasanton’s Cowboy Parade, these are a few in a long list of events that have featured the squadron.
“We think of ourselves as San Antone’s own,” Phillips drawls jovially. “We love to fly for these small towns, and it can really help make their event.”
Sarah Cannon, widow of the squadron’s late founder, Hardy Cannon, lives on the South Side. Gene Jensen and other squadron members still keep in close touch, sometimes giving her a hand by organizing drives for used clothes or Christmas gifts for her church.
There are 26 full-fledged squadron members, who pay dues of between $50 and $240 a year. Most of the squadron’s financing comes from individual contributions from members.
Earl Collins, one of the original members, was an Air Force colonel in Vietnam. He’s recruited many of the current members, including his old friend J.B. Phillips.
“Originally,” Collins says, “we were a bunch of old guys. Now we’re getting some newer ones in, too. We’re looking primarily for pilots who want to have a little piece of history to fly with us. We’re all going to wear out one of these days; so we’re recruiting younger people.
“We’d like to pass along how to build these planes back from scratch, and how to fly them to keep that history alive.”
Collins remembers back when Hardy Cannon bought the first shattered L-Bird relics from an Arizona dealer in the ’70s.
“It wasn’t until ’81 when we got the airplanes going,” he said.
“Our purpose was just to have fun and present a little history. There are a lot of people after us now to hang up the planes in some museum so they won’t ever crash.
“That would ruin the idea,” he said. “These are planes that are made to take people up and fly.”
Phillips chimes in, “Girl Scout troops, school classes, anybody who wants to know what it’s like can get in touch with us and come on out here. We’ll show them. It’s a real history lesson.”
Members come from many walks of life and their common trait is enthusiasm. KSAT-TV newsman Bob Salter recently joined the group. Ricci Ware, who has his own airstrip and a vintage J-3 at his ranch, is a longtime associate who flies with the group.
Gene Jensen owns an L-4, now in the early stages of restoration. Wayne Meadows and his son Scott are working on a bright yellow J-3. Wally Andersen and his wife Polly, once a stewardess, own their own L-2. Austin member Tom Ellison has an L-5, and Larry Flinn has an L-19. Stan Pennington has an L-8.
Henry Whitmore, a former Air Force inventor who has done groundbreaking work on anti-gravity equipment for NASA and is now adapting his designs for medical applications in a neat group of workshops just a mile or so from Cannon field, has been flying with the group for a year or so. He’s already one of the most productive members, with his own L-3 under reconstruction and a teen-age zest for flying. He loves to take his wife up for a break from their high-tech routine.
Dr. Vern Peters, an orthopedic surgeon with an office in Pleasanton, ran across the squadron by accident in February.
“We happened to drive by the airfield, and we decided to check it out,” says his wife, Shawna, a bubbly flying enthusiast.
“They welcomed us with open arms.”
She isn’t worried about her husband being up there in a vintage aircraft.
“You’re a lot safer up there than you are on the highway,” she giggles, pointing skyward.
“And oh! What a sense of freedom.”
Peters, who learned to fly when he was 18, barely remembers World War II. But he has become an eager student of the elder squadron members.
“I’m thinking of reorganizing my afternoon surgery schedule on Wednesdays so I can get out here and do a little more flying with the guys,” he grins as he and Shawna head off for a spin.
P.D. Straw’s wife, Lia, is another supportive spouse.
“When P.D. came home from prisoner-of-war camp, he took me right up,” she remembers tenderly. And they’ve flown together ever since. Sometimes she comes to join him at Cannon Field for the camaraderie and the closeness. His daughters and his granddaughters have flown with them, too.
For Tommie Thompson, it’s a personal affair.
Thompson retired from the Air Force in 1969 and went to work in the former Alamo Heights Bank.
“I quit working in ’83,” he says happily. “Now I come out here two or three days a week. Hardy Cannon was such a fine gentleman, I was so lucky to work with a man like that.
“I told my wife, ‘Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday you go your way, and I’ll go mine,’ and we do, and we get along together wonderfully. I believe we always will. This is good for me.”
Donnie Hancock and his wife have an L-6 in another hangar at the field. Baylor Randle, a former circulation director for the San Antonio Light, was polishing up the rich, shiny new wood propeller on the nose of his well-kept L-2 in another section of the hangar.
Jim Houston, the group’s certified mechanic, hot-dogs solo in his L-2 with “The Flying Ferret” enscribed boldly on the side.
Aircraft named “Betty Boop” and “Baby Doll,” along with Whitmore’s L-3, which features nose art depicting a liaison plane piloted by a flier with a bimbo on his knee and a pistol the only weapon these pilots carried aimed out the window, taxi around the field, ready to take off in formation.
I’m strapped into Hancock’s “Baby Doll” behind Tommie Thompson, and San Antonio Express-News photographer John Davenport is in another plane, which will zig-zag wildly around the other five planes in the air as John snaps photos and holds on to his stomach.
Thompson is ebullient before takeoff, but in the air he is all concentration, dipping and swinging, surfing the sunny air currents over South Bexar County pastureland carpeted with red and blue flowers.
Up here, 500 feet above the ground on a clear spring day, these men are the kings of the sky.
When we come down to a gentle, expert landing in a fragrant carpet of blossoms on the grassy landing strip, Thompson turns to me with a grin that stretches all the way across his face.
“Well,” he says, “we cheated death again.”
Time flies, photo cutline: Alamo Liaison Squadron vintage-plane enthusiasts ready one of their cherished aircraft for flight.
Photo cutline, left: Flying in formation over the South Texas countryside (above) has become a magnificent obsession for Alamo Liaison Squadron members, no least of whom is the group’s leader, Bob Hood (below).
Photo cutline, right: Alamo Liaison Squadron members get together for a group photograph one sunny day at Cannon Field. Photos by John Davenport.