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Local aeronautical historian tells of his love for the P-38

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Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003 10:00 pm

Ever since at the age of 10, he heard the roar of the engines and looked up into the sky and saw nothing, Cecil Kramer has been in love with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

"It was so fast, by the time you heard it, it was gone," Kramer said.

After spotting the World War II-era fighter and watching it maneuver as it looped, rolled, went backwards and then went straight up on its tail, he knew that it was the best plane in the world.

It was then that he began tracking the plane - its history and its battle record.

At the time, he lived only about a mile from the Stockton airfield and knew each type of airplane by sight and sound.

Now, Kramer, 67, is a historian and expert on P-38s. And a large part of his garage is filled with memorabilia - perhaps the largest P-38 related collection in the world - including models, photos, articles and books. Historians, pilots and a wide variety of other individuals contact him for information. The Library of Congress even interviewed him twice this year for its Veterans' History Project.

The untold story of the P-38

Kramer is in the process of writing a book, and he says he's trying to bring out the untold story about the plane and the men who flew it. His book, which he plans to complete in two to three years, will include stories about the pilots he has interviewed over the decades and stories about the plane itself.

He also plans to display collection in the Lodi Public Library on Aug. 14 - the 58th anniversary of V-J Day - the date Japan announced unconditional surrender to the Allies, thus ending World War II.

Stepping into Kramer's garage is like going into a library. He has shelves and drawers of binders full of articles and photos, and he knows the information in each of them.

He has several books, one of which is signed by pilots who praised the P-38.

Kramer's model airplanes are not random; he has met the pilots of the real planes that correspond to the models.

His collection of items grew as he snipped articles from newspapers and magazines. When he worked for the state of California, other people heard about his interest and even those who did not know him began to send him various articles and photos.

When Kramer graduated from high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force, but couldn't become a pilot due to medical reasons.

However, over the years he has served in the Office of the Inspector General, was with the Stockton Record's advertising department and then worked for the state of California. He was on the Chemical Emergency Response Team.

At the state Department of Transportation, he was known as "Mr. P-38," and for his birthday, his supervisor got permission to change the traffic radio call letters to 12P38. Kramer retired after 30 years, and the call letters retired with him.

As a member of the National P-38 Association, he has been to three national reunions. He is also a member of the F-5/P-38 Fork-Tailed Devils Association and attends meetings each month. Fork-Tailed Devil was the nicknamed given to the P-38.

He met Leroy Weber, a fellow P-38 historian, in Rio Vista when both were working in the area. Weber had been a P-38 inspector with Lockheed and the two of them began going to reunions and other P-38 events together, and they still meet on a regular basis.

When Kramer went to the first national P-38 reunion in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he had the opportunity to sit in pilot Lefty Gardner's plane, which was called "White Lightning."

"I'll never forget the first time I got in the plane," Kramer said.

He later had a chance to ride in a P-38.

As Kramer began to get to know the pilots and become friends with them, he realized his interest in the P-38 was no longer a hobby but an important part of his life.

His wife of 39 years, Margery, is supportive of her husband and his love for P-38s.

"I encourage him because he needs that," she said.

The plane, what it could do

The P-38 was a twin-tailed pursuit ship produced by Lockheed of Burbank. Lockheed's Kelly Johnson designed the P-38 and later designed planes with the best characteristics of the P-38. Each plane was handcrafted - not built on an assembly line - and the finished cost of a late-model plane was $115,000. It had a 52-foot wingspan and was 37 feet long.

The first time the plane flew was in January 1939. It took only a matter of hours to cross the country, but it lost power and crash landed; luckily, the pilot was not hurt.

Eight to 10 planes are still in flying condition. Others are kept in museums.

"It was truly a good flying machine," Kramer said.

The list of what the P-38 could do is quite extensive. It was used as an interceptor, an ambulance, a cargo plane and a pathfinder. It escorted other planes and could shoot down bombers, submarines, trains and tanks. It could carry two torpedoes, 5,000 pounds of bombs or supplies, 450 machine guns, rockets, 20 mm cannons, tow three gliders and more.

"The plane was used for everything and anything you could think of," Kramer said, adding that the plane could even be used as a beer cooler.

With a full load, the plane could weigh 22,000 pounds and still fly faster than other planes.

The plane was like a rocket, and nothing could climb with it, as it was able to climb 4,000 feet a minute. It could fly above 50,000 feet, but no pilot attempted this feat because humans could not go that high without extra equipment.

The plane could land at 70 mph and take off on a 600-foot strip, if need be.

Kramer mentioned a story about one of the first P-38 pilots, Richard Bong, who took a ride in San Francisco: He had looped around the Golden Gate Bridge and flew between buildings on Market Street. He flew so low he even hit a clothesline.

Because the plane was still a secret, he told his family what he could: "Ooo-eee!" The pilot had broken every rule there was, but he was quickly called to fly the plane when World War II began and became known as the "Ace of Aces" by shooting down 40 Japanese planes.

Awarded the Medal of Honor, Bong was pulled out of combat for his safety and sent back to the United States where he married his sweetheart, but died just six months later test flying one of the first jet engine planes for Lockheed. Ironically, America's greatest fighter pilot died on Aug. 6, 1945 - the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

World War II - the great test

Before the planes were fully tested, war broke out, and the 68 existing planes were put to work.

The Germans feared the P-38 and often flew off and sometimes parachuted from their planes before the P-38s opened fire. These fork-tailed devils, as the Germans called them, could fly faster, higher and farther than any other plane at that time.

The P-38s also could drop bombs from higher altitudes, and the Germans wouldn't even know where the bombs came from.

"It was the most feared and respected aircraft of World War II," Kramer said. "No plane before or after has been as versatile as the P-38."

The P-38 was the first to shoot down a German jet in the war. However, the P-38 pilots made most of their kills in the Pacific. The plane had a kill ratio of 17 to 1, which is considered an outstanding record, Kramer said.

The planes could take a lot of damage, and even when riddled with bullet holes - when most planes would be deemed inoperable - the P-38s could still fly. Wherever these planes were deployed, they could easily take control of the skies and did so in places such as Burma and North Africa.

World leaders asked to be escorted by P-38s. These planes protected leaders who met in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1943 and San Francisco in 1944.

Troy Smith, a pilot who now lives in Lodi, led a crew assigned to protect Gen. of the Army Douglas MacArthur on the way to Japan to accepts that nation's surrender in 1945.

"The P-38 was the deciding factor in the war," Kramer said, adding that if the Germans had these planes, the war would have ended differently.

Kramer will talk about P-38s to anyone who's interested. He keeps in contact with several pilots and historians, and feels a real sadness when one of them dies.

He is concerned because with each passing year more World War II stories are being lost. Kramer keeps correspondence from the pilots and their families, as each letter and e-mail is another piece of history.

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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