91-year-old Ed Larson of Santa Cruz, CA appears on episode #417 of Hometown Heroes, detailing his experiences as a “hump pilot” during World War II. A native of Seattle, WA, Larson took an interest in airplanes at a very young age, and says he was “hooked” on aviation after his very first flight with his father in an Aeronca C-3, also known as a “flying bathtub.” Ed has his own metaphor for that primitive plane, which you’ll hear him share on Hometown Heroes.
You’ll also hear him recall, in vivid detail, how he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. “From that day on, there was a spirit and a strength that grew almost hour-by-hour throughout the whole nation,” he remembers. “All our lives were changed that day.” He remembers rumors that the Japanese would attack Seattle, and he saw first hand the expansion of Boeing’s aircraft production in the Northwest. By the time Ed graduated from Seattle’s Roosevelt HS in 1942, he had already launched his quest to become a military fighter pilot. You’ll hear Ed relate why he was turned down by the Navy before enlisting in the Army Air Corps. “Life is governed by the small decisions that you make,” he says.
After training at Sequoia Field in Visalia, CA and earning his wings in Stockton, CA, Ed was assigned as an instructor at Gardner Field in Taft, CA, teaching prospective pilots in T-6 Texans. “It was a lovely airplane to see, it was a lovely airplane to fly, lots of power” Larson explains. “I loved the airplane.” He would have been content to stay in Taft flying T-6s, but four-engine pilots were in high demand, and Ed was transferred to Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM to train in B-24 bombers. Quick training stops in Greensboro, NC and Miami, FL followed before he headed overseas, hopping from Natal, Brazil across the Atlantic to North Africa and on into the China Burma India theater of World War II. He spent the rest of the war ferrying aviation fuel to fighter outfits, first in C-109s, then in C-46s, and had to make multiple trips over “The Hump,” the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas.
“We never had any fighter opposition,” Larson explains. “Our enemy was the weather, and the fact that the terrain was so bad.”
Relying only on dead-reckoning navigation and primitive forecasts, Larson remembers almost every flight taking place in challenging weather. You’ll hear about cabin conditions in those extreme altitudes, close calls he experienced while flying, and why he’s thankful a scheme aimed at getting Ed in the cockpit of a P-40 Warhawk didn’t work out. These stories and more are included in Ed’s book, Spear-Carrier in a Backwater War. Click HERE for an article on Ed from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The book includes the story of how and why Ed was supposed to be on a plane that crashed, killing five of his friends. Instead of flying as co-pilot on the C-46 “Patch and Pray,” Ed had been assigned to a mission to Chekiang, where he witnessed Japan’s surrender to China. You’ll hear Ed’s vivid description of the scene of that surrender ceremony, as well as the shock, horror, and disbelief he experienced in learning his friends had died. For years, he carried “survivor’s guilt” that drove him into an ongoing depression.
He credits his late wife, Marilyn, for helping him through that, but adds that he still experiences bouts of guilt today. “There’s times today, 70 years after the fact, that there’s still that little grab, maybe in a dream,” you’ll hear Ed say, adding that it gives him empathy for today’s returning veterans. “I’m very glad to have some commiseration for these kids who are suffering physically and mentally at this point in time.” His granddaughter is part of our latest generation of veterans, and while serving on Navy flights in Iraq and Afghanistan, she wore Ed’s flight jacket from World War II. Ed’s lifelong love of art led to a career as an educator in Sacramento, where he spent 23 years in the San Juan School District as an art instructor and administrator. The most recent adventure you’ll hear about is his flight in a T-6 at the 2015 California International Airshow Salinas. Watch the video below for a local television story on that exciting day.
Climbing back in a T-6 was like “going home” for Ed, who says there’s still one plane he’s never flown in, and that idea is on his bucket list. “It’s a dream,” he says of flying in a P-51 Mustang. “But I’ve already had one magnificent dream fulfilled, so I don’t know if you ever have the right to ask for another one.” If you run into this talented pilot and artist, please thank him for serving our country, and if you happen to have an open seat in a P-51, know that you’ll never find a more appreciative passenger.