TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Back then, we didn’t have drones—you had to shoot your enemy down your damn self.”
A thrice-successful ace of World War II, Clarence “Bud” Anderson hasn’t reached his 98th year by mincing words.
An ace, a term used to describe a fighter pilot who’s been credited with shooting down five enemy aircraft, isn’t a title earned by hesitance, Anderson said, nor by an over-reliance on technology. To him, the pilots of yore were defined by their gumption.
“Dogfights were an everyday occurrence back in World War II,” he said. “We didn’t have radar, so what kills you got were got by out-maneuvering and out-pacing the enemy. Bottom line, we broke the back of the (German air force) by being better pilots than them.”
During a visit Nov. 10, 2020, to Travis Air Force Base, California, Anderson, along with fellow World War II pilot, Dean “Diz” Laird, was able to experience first-hand what the most modern iteration of his former profession looks like courtesy of the 56th Fighter Wing out of Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California.
Both installations sent fighter jets to Travis as a means of letting their pilots interact with the aviation legends.
“This is an honor, truly,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas Suppa, 56th Operations Support Squadron commander and F-35 Lightning II pilot. “To hear about these guys as a kid and to now be able to talk to them as peers is an indescribable feeling.”
For Anderson and Laird, the respect was mutual.
“These (aircraft) are certainly no (P-51) Mustangs,” Anderson laughed. “The capabilities of the gear these men are running are way beyond anything we flew. Give them another 30 or 40 years, though, and they’ll be in the same boat as us. The curve just goes like this,” he said, as his hand made a motion of ramping sharply into the sky.
The aircraft brought by Luke AFB and NAWS China Lake, three F-35s and one F-18F Super Hornet, respectively, offer a bevy of upgrades from the then-technological marvel that was the P-51 Mustang. Namely, a top speed difference of nearly 1,000 mph, stealth capabilities and radar.
While it’s fun to think of the same magnitude of upgrades to this generation’s technology, those advancements only ever get implemented from one place—the military members themselves, said Col. Corey Simmons, 60th Air Mobility Wing commander.
“Travis is at the forefront of innovation,” said Simmons. “If there’s one thing represented by these two giants visiting our base today, it’s that tomorrow’s Air Force is going to be made by us, and we have to trust the tools we have as well as our own creativity and resourcefulness to ensure the Air Force stays innovating and stays winning.”
Laird, a Navy ace who distinguished himself by being the only U.S. fighter pilot to have confirmed kills both in the European Theater and Pacific Theater during World War II, also took stock in the direction the military is going in terms of its technological advancements.
“The nature of a fighter pilot is to always be seeking an edge over your enemy,” he said. “I think that translates to the military as a whole in its leveraging of its resources to execute change in places where we need it. (Jimmy) Doolittle changed an “escort our bombers” policy to a “pursue and destroy” policy, and ended up changing the tide for our pilots. It’s that spirit of change and adaptability that you see when you look at the differences between a P-51 and F-35.”
Anderson, though, cautioned that it isn’t only technology that wins wars, but service members, and reiterated that although he joined what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps out of a desire to fly, it was the branch’s espirit de corps that kept him on for his 30-year-long career.
“When I joined, Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by the Japanese,” he said. “Back then, you had recruitment offices overflowing with guys wanting to fight for their country. I suspect we’re called the ‘greatest generation’ because it’s catchy and it sells books. In reality, we made mistakes, we failed forward and we got the job done—not because our generation is ‘great,’ but because that was our job, just as it’s the job of military members today.”
While Anderson says his flying days are behind him, he made a point to say he and the 99-year-old Laird had recently been qualified to fly missions, albeit on a simulator only.
“Just wishful thinking,” he said with a shrug.