With Veterans Day here and the Marine Corps Birthday having just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to share an excerpt of an interview and conversation I had with a Marine aviator. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Elliot Billings a 96 year old former Marine aviator and dive-bomber pilot. His remarks certainly help give some flair to the early days of military aviation!
When were you in the Marines?
In 1934. I was looking at a luncheon menu from Washington DC in 1935; a four course meal was $.85…I got to be a 1st LT in the Marine Corp–$254/month!
Did you ever hear of a BG-1? No? Well, I was on the front end of that group where they discovered dive bombing. It hadn’t been professionalized you might say. Nobody knew a hell of a lot about it. But the idea was these BG Great Lakes were built specifically for dive bombing by the Great Lakes Aviation Company, no longer in existence.
So when I reported into Quantico. None of the older, more experienced pilots, you know the people who were 35 years old, they didn’t think much of these airplanes. They were too damn hot.
They were fast and maybe cranky to fly. They didn’t understand the airplanes and there hadn’t been enough of them to go to the factory to talk with the people who told them about it. But we were all new, fresh out of Pensacola, and we didn’t care—we could fly anything. And this BG had more struts, it was the toughest airplane I ever flew in my life because this thing was going to be going 300 mph. That was speed.
I went by Quantico a couple years ago with my one of grandchildren; I just couldn’t believe it! I asked, “Do you know where Brown Field is?” The guard at the gate said, “Is that an airfield?” I said “Yes, that is where the aviation department resided.” Of course now they have an airport that covers 10 miles of the edge of the Potomac River. But that field had a dirt runway 3000 feet long. It was kind of a marginal performance to get these planes in there if you made a carrier landing, you know hard to get in and hard to get out. We didn’t know that.
So one of our guys one day when he knew the whole damn brass was out there—MAJ Geiger, Mokahe (sp?), and various others, all at the airfield all watching to see what these young folks do. So old Dick Scott a good friend, but instead of coming in for a carrier approach…he just came in like he was a fighter—he didn’t roll 200 feet! That was a good airplane but people didn’t understand in dive bombing, you can start anywhere…but if you get right over your target…the one thing that’s got to happen is you’re going to have to be on your back because the top of the wing is longer than the bottom…the first thing you know in order to keep it under control is that you’re upside down!
But those were great days.
Have you seen the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico?
Who was the first guy you saw as you went in?
Hank Elrod, we called him R-rod. He was the last one to fly an airplane out of Wake Island in World War II. And he knew he was going to get killed, but it didn’t make any difference to him. They gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor. When I walked into that museum the first time, I’ve been there twice…I saluted him when I came in because I knew him very well, flight school and so forth…Here he is surrounded by dozens of Japanese airplanes and only one airplane left and he took it out and shot down three of them before getting shot down himself. That’s a pretty good museum they have.
More to come!
Correction: Mr. Billings is 96 years old not 90 as previously stated.
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