Indiana University
Journalism Ernie Pyle
In this column Pyle writes knowingly about a pilot he spent several years with before the war as an aviation correspondent. In this column Pyle emphasizes that the servicepeople in the war are ordinary folks, not career military folks. Those same service people especially enjoyed this type of column because it showed that ordinary people could also be heroes.

Fighter Pilot

IU Archives
Pyle with pilots at an airbase in England.

A FORWARD AIRDROME IN FRENCH NORTH AFRICA, February 10, 1943 – Lt. Jack Ilfrey is the leading American ace in North Africa at the moment. However, that’s not my reason for writing about him.

In the first place, the theory over here is not to become an individual fighter and shoot down a lot of planes, so being an ace doesn’t mean so much. In the second place, somebody else might be ahead of Ilfrey by this evening, with fate pulling the strings the way she does.

So I’m writing about him largely because he is a fine person and more or less typical of all boys who fly our deadly fighters.

Jack Ilfrey is from Houston. His father is cashier of the First National Bank.

Jack is only twenty-two. He has two younger sisters. He went to Texas A & M for two years, and then to the University of Houston, working at the same time for the Hughes Tool Company. He will soon have been in the Army two years.

It is hard to conceive of his ever having killed anybody. For he looks even younger than his twenty-two years. His face is good-humored. His darkish hair is childishly uncontrollable and pops up into a little curlicue at the front of his head. He talks fast, but his voice is soft and he has a very slight hesitation in his speech that somehow seems to make him a gentle and harmless person.

There is not the least trace of the smart aleck or wise guy about him. He is wholly thoughtful and sincere. Yet he mows ‘em down.

*

Here in Africa Ilfrey has been through the mill. He got two Focke-Wulf 190’s one day, two Messerschmitt 109’s another day. His fifth victory was over a twin-motored Messerschmitt 110, which carries three men. And he has another kill that has not yet been confirmed.

He hasn’t had all smooth sailing by any means. In fact he’s very lucky to be here at all. He got caught in a trap one day and came home with two hundred sixty-eight bullet holes in his plane. His armor plate stopped at least a dozen that would have killed him.

Jack’s closest shave, however, wasn’t from being shot at. It happened one day when he saw a German fighter duck into a cloud. Jack figured the German would emerge at the far end of the cloud, so he scooted along below to where he thought the German would pop out, and pop out he did – right smack into him, almost.

They both kicked rudder violently, and they missed practically by inches. Neither man fired a shot, they were so busy getting out of each other’s way. Jack says he was weak for an hour afterward.

*

There is nothing "heroic" about Lt. Ilfrey. He isn’t afraid to run when that is the only thing to do.

He was telling about getting caught all alone one day at a low altitude. Two Germans got on his tail.

"I just had two chances," he says. "Either stay and fight, and almost surely get shot down, or pour on everything I had and try to get away. I ran a chance of burning up my engines and having to land in enemy territory, but I got away. Luckily the engines stood up."

Ilfrey, like all the others here, has little in the way of entertainment and personal pleasure. I walked into his room late one afternoon, after he had come back from a mission, and found him sitting there at a table, all alone, killing flies with a folded newspaper.

And yet they say being an ace is romantic.

Ernie Pyle
Source: Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, pp. 77-78. Pictures courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
back to Wartime Columns