In which M2 tells of his meeting with a geniune WWII flying ace.
Today I met “Coffey” Coffman. Coffey was a 1st lieutenant in the Second World War. He was a fighter pilot who flew the P-38 Lightning, truly one of the most curious and beautiful planes flown in the war.
I met Coffey because I had cycled over to the Portal of the Folded Wings
this sunny Sunday afternoon. In an industrial corner of Burbank, near the railroad, down from the National Guard’s 144th Artillery battery HQ*, and in the glide path of Bob Hope (Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena) Airport, the Portal is a shrine to the aviation history of the area and to the pioneering aviators who flew here. I’d ridden by it a few times, but today decided to find out more.
Coffey, who was acting as docent this Sunday afternoon, explained that the Portal was once the entranceway to the Valhalla Memorial Park, a cemetery, under whose archways hearses used to pass on their way to their cold passengers’ final resting places. In the early ‘50s it was rededicated as the shrine to aviation it is today.
Coffey, who had been polishing his black Lincoln Town Car when I rode up, greeted me and let me roam through the three little display rooms packed with aviation models, photographs and memorabilia. The P-38 Lightning was prominent among the displays. Coffey also had one embroidered on his cap. I asked him about this. The P-38, he said, was designed and built by Lockheed a few hundred yards from where we were standing.
“I flew a P-38 in the war,” he said.
“Wow,” I answered. “What was that like?”
He sort of tilted his head and looked at me. I realized that there really is such a thing as a dumb question and retracted, saying, “Well I guess there’s nothing like it… But was it exciting
“I guess so,” he replied, his clear grey eyes looking off into the distance.
“Well, what did you do after the war?” I asked.
“I worked for Northrop.”
“Was it more exciting than that?”
He let a big grin spread over his face. “Well, yeah. It was a lot more exciting than that.”
Then we got into some technical aspects of the P-38, such as the odd twin fuselage. Turns out the major impetus for this was simply to put the guns – one 20m canon and four
50 cal. machine guns – in the nose. Single engine planes – such as the P-51 Mustang – fire from the wings, so that the pilot has to get just the right distance for the paths of the bullets to intersect and make a bull’s eye. But the P-38 fired straight forward. I asked how this made things different for him.
“Well,” he said. “Once I was strafing an enemy column near Saigon. I was only a few hundred feet off the deck and I saw this guy pop up and shoot at me with a rifle. So I flipped around, set my sights on him, and… nailed
There was no emotion one way or another when he said the word “nailed,” just the vehemence of a small victory. He could have been talking about a poker game, except there was even less callousness in it than that.
"If I’d been in a Mustang," he went on after a pause I probably never would have made that shot.” Beneath that simple statement simmered the implication: “And he might have shot me down and killed me.”
Coffey showed me a photograph his P-38 from a picture book on WWII aircraft nose art. The nose of his ship featured a leggy, buxom redhead, rather stiffly painted. The legend read “Miss Amber,” named, he told me, for the heroine in Kate Winsor’s classic 1944 Restoration-era romance, “Forever Amber.” This Amber’s attire, however, was anything but 17th century.
“I wanted to paint my wife up there,” Coffey laughed, “but I wasn’t that good a painter, so I copied pin-up calendar art.”
The Portal’s sculptor, Federico A. Giorgi, was among those who designed statuary for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which opened in San Francisco in 1915. He also designed sets for the likes of D.W. Griffith.
*Anyone who thinks the military over-budgeted should look at this base with its broken windows and peeling paint.