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Air War Stories 5

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Sept-Nov. 1965; Dell Comics; editor not identified in indicia (though the GCD says the series editor is Don Ameson). The cover blurb is, "CAPTURED! An American Flyer Makes a Daring Escape...BEHIND ENEMY LINES!" (What would he be escaping from if he were behind his own lines? KP?) In a cover scene apparently from World War I, a flyer is attempting to leap from a moving German staff car to the undercarriage of an Allied bi-plane, but he's having trouble getting loose of the car. "I can't hold it down!" the pilot cries. "You've got to! My foot is caught!"

Review by Bill Henley

This issue, which I picked up at a recent comics show, is an obscure Silver Age title indeed-- I see that the GCD has no listing, other than a "skeleton data" place-holder, for this particular issue of AIR WAR STORIES. Once Dell Comics had been the powerhouse of the industry thanks to its alliance with Western Publishing-- holder of licensing agreements to a multitude of popular cartoon and media characters-- and its reputation for "safe" comics for the kiddies. But this Dell Comic comes from the period after Western split off to form its own Gold Key line of comics. Dell limped along for a decade with a smaller line of comics, and it experimented with harder-edged stories and genres, such as war, which the old Dell largely eschewed.

There are no creator credits in this comic, but the lead story "Nazi Jet Ace" is identifiably drawn by veteran artist Sam Glanzman, and his initials "S.J.G." can also be seen on the splash page, which depicts an American fighter plane being blasted apart by gunfire from an oncoming German craft. A squadron leader warns, "Break away, Monkey Two! That's the new Messerschmitt fighter!" It's unusual for a WWII comics story to be told from the viewpoint of a Nazi enemy, but this one is; the narrator is "Flying Office Heinrich Hoessler, Nazi Luftwaffe." And also unlike most comic-book war stories, the focus of the tale is not so much on man-to-man combat as bureaucratic wrangling and decisions of the Nazi high command led by Adolf Hitler. Hoessler tells how he learned as early as 1940 of the potential of a new, unique plane model-- the ME-262 Messerschmitt, the first military jet plane. But a decision to put the new plane into mass production is vetoed by Hitler; "This new toy of yours is superfluous! The Luftwaffe will sweep the enemies of the Third Reich from the air with the machines (airplanes) we already possess!" Later, Hitler allows more production of the jet, but insists that it be converted from a fighter plane into a bomber, despite its lack of range for extended bombing missions.

Meanwhile, as the war moves on and America joins in, airman Hoessler flies the Focke-Wulf 190, "Germany's finest warplane", against the U.S. Air Force. The Focke-Wulf is good, but American planes are good too, and as he bails out of a plane raked by American fighter fire, Hoesser ruefully muses, "Germany will lose this war if the fools do not provide us with superior weapons!" While recovering from his landing, Hoessler hears tales of how Hitler has also underestimated the potential of the new V-2 rocket weapon-- and the worries of a young German woman; "If we are defeated, I wonder what it will be like to live in a conquered country! I have heard so many stories of the mistakes our leaders are making..." (Better not let the Gestapo hear you, lady, or you may not last long enough to find out what a conquered country is like...) And meanwhile, Hitler stubbornly insists that the Messerschmitt jet should be used as a bomber rather than a fighter; "A FIGHTER is for DEFENSIVE purposes! How can we win the war if we think NEGATIVELY? The Third Reich is going on the OFFENSIVE again!" And so, pilots and ground engineers continue to grumble that a jet plane which could be immensely valuable as a fighter is being misused in a bombing role.

And so, under orders, Hoessler takes to the air in a ME-262 re-designated as a "Sturmvogel" bomber. And the plane does succeed in bombing and destroying American tanks, zipping past before grounds gunners can get it in their sights. But the plane still lacks the range to be an effective bomber-- and not till 1945, with the war nearly lost, do the Nazi leaders finally agree to use the jets as fighters against bombers. "If we'd begun using the jets as fighters three years ago, the Americans wouldn't be over Berlin now!" In their role as fighters the jets are highly effective, shooting down even the "fast, maneuverable De Havilland Mosquitos" (British bombers). Quickly shooting down four Allied planes, Hoessler is within one of becoming the first Nazi jet ace (five "kills" make an ace). But "the victories come too late...." as the bombers arrive in too great numbers for the jets to stop and as bombs fall on the jet airfields and the supplies of tires and petrol (gasoline) for the jets is cut off. Nearly out of gas an ammunitiion, Hoessler nonetheless decides to make one last run; "I've got enough, Grauss! I will strike one last blow for the Germany that might have been....if Hitler, Goering and the Reich-Luftministerium (air force ministry) had not been so stupid!" Hoessler takes on a "formidable" P-51 Mustang U.S. fighter, successfully, and "BECAME THE FIRST NAZI JET ACE!" Then Hoessler decides to use his last ammo on an American B-17 fighter, but he comes in "too straight and level"-- and "the waist-gunner in the Fort ripped by beautiful aircraft to bits!" Falling toward the ground in his parachute, Hoessler "felt a great weariness...for I had no further stomach left for war, for further losses, for killing...." Landing on the ground, he is captured by an American G.I. who warns, "No funny stuff, Fritz!" "I assure you I am not in the mood for laughing, Yank! For me the war is over and I am very glad!"

If Marvel's SGT. FURY was billed as "The War Mag for People Who Hate War Mags", perhaps this war comic should have been billed as "The War Mag for REAL War Buffs" interested in the historical details of weaponry and strategy. I don't know if Hoessler in this story was a real person or based on a real individual, but to my knowledge as somewhat of a WWII history buff, the story is basically accurate about the Messerschmitt turbojet fighter being delayed, then misused as a fighter-bomber, and arrived on the scene as a fighter too late to affect the outcome of the war. (Though one of my reference books states the jet wasn't operational until 1942, contrary to the implication in the story that it could have been used as early as 1940)

Next in the issue is "Miracle in a Mustang," a four-pager. I can't identify the artist for sure, though it *might* be Glanzman (some panels look like his work, others not so much). It's a vignette of an unnamed U.S. fighter pilot flying missions in March 1945 from a base on the island of Iwo Jima, following the bloody and diffcult capture of that island from the Japanese. The pilot thinks Iwo Jima is a worthless rock-- until he has to make a forced landing there. "First time I appreciated that island was today! It sure looked pretty out there ahead of us...with nothing around except thousands of miles of water!" Once again, the emphasis is not on individual heroics but on strategy, in this case, how the costly capture of Iwo Jima aided the success of the air war.

"Berlin Nightmare", the third story, gets a bit more into the feelings and human reactions of its protagonist, U.S. bomber pilot Major Dave Rollins. We meet him as he's struggling to bring his B-24 plane and crew home from his 50th mission over Germany. That's a crucial number because completing 50 missions entitles an airman to be rotated home and out of danger. First, however, Rollins and his crew-- all of them green, with Rollins the only real veteran aboard-- have to make it home. Only he has the knowledge and skill needed to nurse the plane through extensive damage and perform feats such as a near-vertical dive to avoid enemy fighters. At last Rollins and "Happy Hobo" reach home. "I made it! Fifty missiions... AND I'M STILL ALIVE!" He wwrites his sweetheart and makes plans to marry her when he reaches New York on his trip home. But the end of his tour doesn't bring a peaceful sleep that night. "Dan, Smitty, Fragioli, Scutliff...almost all the guys I flew with are dead now!" And when he falls asleep, he relives his worst missions in his dreams; "LOOK OUT! CONNELLY, GET THAT JERRY! TWO MORE ON THE PORT SIDE! WE'RE ON FIRE! WE'RE ALL GOING TO BURN! WE'RE GOING TO DIE! EEEEIII!

And Rollins isn't the only one feeling unrest, as the remainder of his aircrew worry about what will happen without his steady hand at the controls of their plane. One of the crew warns, "I'll tell you what happens! Major Rollins goes home and the rest of us get clobbered on our next mission! FINISHED! KAPUT! ....I'm gonna personally come back and haunt him (Rollins) after I get it over Berlin!" Overhearing this diatribe, Rollins protests that he was flying missions in the really bad old days without long-range fighter escort; "We'd lose 20% and 30% casualties in every raid in those days!...You guys don't have it as rough! You don't have a care in the world!" The crew apologizes and wishes Rollins well in his return to the States. But even he doesn't believe his own reassurances, especially after he learns that he will be replaced by a green pilot right out of Training Command. When his crew presents him with a going-away gift, he relents and agrees not to go away; "I--I'll stay on for a few more missions-- ten, maybe...until we find an experienced plane commander to take over!" And so the "Happy Hobo" once again flies over Berlin with Rollins in command, and once again survives flak and the "flaming guns" of the German Focke-Wulf 190's. "He got us through! I knew he would. We'll be okay as long as he sticks with us!" But will Rollins himself be okay? Perhaps not, as he lies in his bunk at night; "How long could this man continue living in that Berlin a bad dream that never ended, even when he was back at base in England, safely on the ground?"

Finally we have the cover-featured story of First World War air combat, "Nut in a Nieuport!" The story begins with American pilot "Cowboy Mike Corbett" making an Immelmann turn to rake an enemy plane, "one of Baron Von Richthofen's aces," with machinegun fire. YEEEEAAAHOOO! This beats ridin' a buckin' bronc any day!" Not a bloodthirsty sort, Cowboy Corbett is pleased to see his rival land his burning plane and walk, or rather run, from the wreckage; "I licked him good but that doesn't mean it has to be fatal!" We learn that the "Cowboy" transferred into the new U.S. Army air corps from an engineer company and learned to fly in just two weeks. A French officer seeing Corbett fly is impressed; "Ah, the brave American eagles!", but a U.S. officer has a different view; "I've seen this PARTICULAR eagle before, General! He's a BLANKETY-BLANK NUT!" -- as the two officers drop to the ground to avoid the "nut," buzzing the ground flying upside down. Upon landing, Corbett is nearly arrested until the French general learns that he shot down "Wangner, Richthofen's second highest ace". (Would the French be as impressed if they knew Corbett deliberately let Wangner to survive to presumably fly another plane against the Allies?) "If you weren't such a good pilot, Mike, I'd let him stand you up aganst a wall and shoot you!", Corbetts' commander warns. "When are you going to quit acting like this war is like a long, long NEW YEAR'S EVE PARTY?" After the Cowboy buzzes another French officer's limousine, forcing it into a ditch, Major Allen lays down the law; Corbett can't fly any more without Allen accompanying him. On dawn patrol the next day, a German tank fires at Corbett's plane and he responds by hurling his emergency gasoline ration, in a jug, at the tank, inventing the "Molotov cocktail" one war early and causing the tank to erupt in flames.

On their next mission, Allen's engine stops and he makes a forced landing behind German lines. Searching from the air for his commander, Cowboy spots Allen riding in a German staff car in the company of German soldiers who have captured him and are hauling him off to prisoner of war camp. Seeing Corbett's plane, Allen thinks, "Cowboy Mike! There's a chance...if he's going to try what I'm almost sure he'll try!" Corbett fires a wild burst of machinegun fire at the German car, deliberately missing, but the distraction gives Allen a chance to slug the driver. "Mike Corbett had a sure instinct! He throttled back, almost stalling!...getting above the careening Mercedes-Benz!" Allen seizes the undercarriage of the Nieuport and is carried off into the air. But now how to get him back down safely? He can't climb up into the plane, nor can he be dropped safely onto the ground. But "Mike Corbett had an easy answer! He put him right back where he'd gotten a speeding car on a straight road...but this one was an English automobile on the Allied side of the lines!" "Cowboy Mike of that special breed of heroes who always appeared in the time of his nation's need..."

A little too special to be believed, perhaps...the other stories in this comic *could* have happened (though I'm not sure how many pilots ever volunteered to stay on after completing their allotted missions, as in the previous story) but I very much doubt that Cowboy Mike and his amazing feats are based on reality. This story was the only one in the comic featuring the kind of wildly exaggerated heroics typical of war comics.

I may look for some more of these 60's Dell war comics. This one has an interesting approach, as I've noted, with more grasp of reality and the "big picture" than most, but on the other hand somewhat lacking in human drama and excitement. Still not a match, though, for the EC war comics of Harvey Kurtzman, which combined a sense of historical and technical accuracy *with* human drama.