Tamiya P-51B – Don Gentile’s “Shangri-La”
Don Gentile – The Most Controversial Ace
When I sat down 30 years ago to write “the definitive fighter pilot screenplay” and chose as my subject the 4th Fighter Group in the Spring of 1944 during “The Great Ace Race,” with Don Gentile and Johnny Godfrey as the main characters, I really had no idea what a hornet’s nest I was kicking over.
Jimmy Goodson, their former CO in the 336th Fighter Squadron, liked and respected both of them but said they were “problems.” His wingman Bob Wehrman – who likely had the most fair-minded view of everyone in the unit, since his ego wasn’t caught up in the great ace race – liked them both, considered them good friends, and said that the whole controversy about who shot down what was really irrelevant given the fact that “everybody overclaimed” because “you’d be dead if you stuck around long enough in an air battle to see what really happened to the other guy.” Steve Pisanos – Gentile’s best friend, who was “best man at his wedding and chief mourner at his funeral” – said he was “one of the best pilots I ever met in my Air Force career.”
Nick “The Cowboy” Megura hated them both as “a pair of liars out for themselves.” Former Deputy Group Commander Jim Clark said “they weren’t team players.” Don Blakeslee so detested them that he actively worked for several years to try and convince surviving members of the group not to talk to me (fortunately no one listened).
Chuck Yeager was another non-fan. He recalled that when he was at Wright-Patterson as a test pilot in 1945, Gentile was also there. As the Maintenance Officer, he was always arguing with Gentile about Gentile parking “that big convertible he had” on the flight line, and that whenever he (Yeager) would have it towed, Gentile would “call General Spaatz and complain.” He also held Gentile’s flying ability in contempt, particularly with regard to Gentile’s fatal crash on December 6, 1950. “He ran out of gas in the fuselage tank because he was too stupid to switch tanks to ‘all,’ so the wings and the tip tanks – which were full – exploded when he went in.”
Tony Cardella and John Ferra – Gentile’s ground crew – loved him and made a big point out of the fact he was a pilot who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty working on “Shangri-La” with them and “knew her inside and out” – they also pointed out that he chose them as his crew because “we were all Italians together.” That last point would become important in unlocking the mystery of just who Don Gentile was.
Sid Godfrey – the survivor of the three Godfrey brothers – said that when he met Don Gentile during the war bond tour, “it was obvious he had his own agenda and career plans, and that he was going to use his fame and celebrity to get there.” Gentile’s youngest son, Joe – then an instructor in F-16s – recalled that “my father never let anyone say anything bad about Italians in his presence.” He recalled being told by his grandparents that Don had fallen in love with flying when he saw the movie “Wings,” after which he made up business cards that said “Don Gentile – Ace,” and told everyone that was what he was going to grow up to become. He also said that his father had joined the Eagle Squadrons to prove that “Italians weren’t cowards.” Steve Pisanos confirmed this attitude on Gentile’s part, telling me that the surest way to get in a fight with his friend was for anyone to use the terms “Wop,” “Dago,” or “Guinea” in his presence.
To me, this is the secret of Don Gentile – that he was a proud first-Generation Italian-American who didn’t take c**p from the nativists and bigots of his day (and there was a lot of c**p being dished out in the era of Sacco and Vanzetti) – and it was the root of the problem he had with Don Blakeslee from the day they first met after Blakeslee was sent to 133 Eagle Squadron after the Morlaix Disaster in September 1942 that decimated the squadron just before the official turnover of the Eagles to the USAAF.
Blakeslee’s family had founded Fairport, Ohio, in the 1780s. Gentile came from the big city – Cincinatti – and his father had come to America in 1910. It was the traditional American struggle between “real Americans” and “those new people.” There was the additional fact that Blakeslee had an idealized vision of what a combat pilot was (as evidenced by his refusal to name any of his airplanes or put his score on, or to even worry about his score), while Gentile was more than ready to take advantage of the Air Force publicity campaign in the months prior to D-Day: who’s going to be first in the ETO to equal Eddie Rickenbacker’s score? Forget that Joe Foss had done it over Guadalcanal in December 1942, or that Dick Bong had just done it over New Guinea. The ETO was “the main event.”
For me, Gentile’s story is that of the desire for celebrity colliding with a government’s need to create “heroes” for its own purposes (Gentile and Godfrey were paraded around every training base in the country to tout the value of “the wingman,” the role most of those in the crowds would play in the final year of the war). It’s a very contemporary tale.
12 additional images. Click to enlarge.