WWII VET CONNECTS WITH LOST SQUADRON
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
A few strokes of a pen have provided Vern Farrow of La Grande with a timeless link to aviation history.
Farrow, a pilot for the United States 8th Air Force during World War II, recently traveled to Middlesboro, Ky. There he signed a shell of an empty .50-caliber machine gun cartridge from a P-38 Lightning airplane.
The P-38 has a story unlike any other plane in aviation history. The plane was part of the famed Lost Squadron.
The Lost Squadron consisted of eight U.S. planes that were flying to Europe during World War II on July 15, 1942. The planes were forced to crash land on Greenland because they were low on fuel. Six of the planes were P-38 Lightning Fighters and two were B-17E bombers.
All members of the squadron survived the landing uninjured. Crew members were rescued from inner Greenland nine days later.
The squadrons planes were left behind. For the next 40 years the planes were forgotten. But the final chapter for one of the planes was yet to be written.
In 1981, two Atlanta businessmen formed the Greenland Expedition Society to find and retrieve the Lost Squadron. After seven unsuccessful trips between 1981 and 1988 they found the squadron with the help of sub-surface radar.
The planes were 280 feet below the surface because of snow accumulation. In addition, the ice and snow had moved the planes one mile from their original location.
In May 1992 a crew of 16 men retrieved one of the planes, a P-38 Lightning. It was brought back up with the aid of a steam probe. The probe melted several shafts after the plane was found.
The plane was taken to Middlesboro, Ky., and restoration work was started by Roy Shoffner, one of the people who helped retrieve the plane. Today Shoffner, who has named the plane Glacier Girl, is close to getting the plane airborne.
It has been taxi-tested (on a runway), Farrow said.
The project has captured the imagination of Farrow because he flew a P-38 Lightning on 32 missions in Europe during World War II.
I loved that great airplane as did every pilot I ever knew who flew it, Farrow said.
Farrow enjoyed flying the P-38 because the cockpit was comfortable, the aircraft was stable and not affected by turbulence, and it was quiet for pilots.
Those flying a P-38 heard little noise because the turbo exhaust unit was behind the cockpit. In other planes the turbo exhaust system was in front of the cockpit.
Farrow had not seen a P-38 in person for several years before he saw the one being restored in Middlesboro.
I had forgotten how big it was. The cockpit is nine feet off the ground, he said. It has a 54-foot wingspan, which is the length of an ordinary house.
All of the Glacier Girls aluminum parts have been replaced, but the center section landing gear, engine and propellers is original and intact.
The planes lightest component, the air in its tires, is also original.
When Glacier Girl was recovered her tires were still inflated. The tires have been replaced but they have been filled with air from the original tires.
They saved the 1942 air, Farrow said.
Some 3,500 people come to Middlesboro each month to see how the Glacier Girl restoration is progressing. Former P-38 pilots are asked to sign one of the planes .50-caliber machine gun cartridges. So far about 100 P-38 pilots have signed. The cartridges will be in the plane when Shoffner attempts to fly it next year.
Shoffner hopes to fly the P-38 to Europe, but some people fear it will not fly successfully.
Fear is not something Farrow dealt with while flying P-38s during World War II.
When you are young you have an immortality complex, Farrow said. You think that if anything is going to happen it will happen to someone else.
Farrow flew P-38s on missions over Germany, France, Austria, The Netherlands and Belgium.
Farrow, who grew up in Seattle, later began an education career. He came to La Grande in 1976 to take a position with Eastern Oregon Universitys education department. Farrow served as the director of Easterns old Ackerman Lab School for three years. He retired as a professor in 1988.
Farrow and his wife, Ruth, visited Middlesboro as part of a trip they took to celebrate their 54th anniversary.
The chance to sign one of the P-38 bullet shells in Middlesboro provided Farrow with a lasting feeling of satisfaction.
It was a perfect conclusion to my wartime memories, Farrow said. It brought things to closure.