As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II comes to a close, I think of my father often. Each interview with one of the war’s surviving veterans tugs at my heart—and my conscience. For like many Baby Boomers, I was late to appreciate my gruff-spoken, close-to-the-chest, Greatest Generation father’s military service. Maybe it was the years of dealing with his alcoholic, crazy parenting. But having only the fuzziest idea of what he’d done during the war, I grew up in the belief that Joe Carroll had been no great hero at all.
Partly this was my father’s own fault. A scant collection of cryptic half sentences was the most he shared with his four children about his wartime experience: “Got sent to Natal, Brazil. Flew cargo planes. Repaired planes and took plane parts back to Africa. It was a staging ground for the invasion of Japan. Had a Brazilian girlfriend, boy was she sweet. Loved Rio, man it was “beeeooouutiful.”
Growing up, sometimes my siblings and I would even tease my father about what a “hardship” his military service must have been. “Oh, Brazil,” we’d chortle, rolling our eyes. “Must have been tough!” Facing his four accusers, his prowess as a man on the line, Joe would raise his head, wave his Pall Mall in one hand, his can of Budweiser in the other, and yell defensively, “It was dangerous! Planes crashed in the jungle!” Or, “We were preparing to invade Japan. We thought we were going to die!”
Fifteen years after my father’s early death at 71 in 1995, I began to realize how mistaken I was. I late discovered while researching my father’s life for the memoir I was writing that his wartime experience had been far more eventful—and more life-threatening—than he’d ever let on.
After tracking down Air Force historians to help me fill in the narrative that Joe had left mostly blank, I learned that my father had served in one of the war’s lesser known branches of service: the “ATC,” or the Air Transport Command.
A division of the Army Air Corps, the ATC had been formed after Pearl Harbor when the need for a speedier worldwide system of air transport to the far-flung theaters in Africa, China, India, the Philippines, and Australia, had become urgent. To help transport the thousands of tons of cargo that had begun building up at ports, commercial planes were refitted as supply carriers, reservist pilots were called to active duty, and hundreds of civilian pilots were made “service pilots.” Airline executives were commissioned for key command posts, while veteran pilots became pioneers of developing distant military air routes over land with rudimentary landing conditions.
Though not as romantic as the bomb squadrons and fighter pilots, the ATC added a new dimension to warfare, creating a global air transportation system that had never existed before. Like my father, many of the ATC’s scrappy pilots and sharp-eyed navigators downplayed the risks involved, jokingly describing their planes as little more than a trucking business or a flying boxcar.
Yet without the supply operation they ran in the workhorse C-87, the Allied forces could not have won. Artillery, ammunition, toilet paper, metal wastebaskets, engine parts, fuses, bombs, surgical instruments, Chinese money, mail, medicine, wounded soldiers, military personnel, gasoline, German prisoners, steel girders, and all the “depressing junk of war,” as ATC pilot Ernest Gann wrote in Fate is the Hunter, weighed the planes down, making it difficult at times to maintain a safe altitude.
One of the ATC’s key bases, and the largest American air-and Navy base outside U.S. territory, was the South Atlantic Wing located in Brazil at the Natal airbase of Parnamarim. The closest point in the Western hemisphere to Africa’s Gold Coast, the region offered an ideal jumping off point for the limited-range planes of that time, and quickly became the fulcrum of the most important air route between hemispheres.
With a steady stream of incoming and outgoing troops, and planes landing and taking off every three minutes, Life magazine headlined the beach paradise “the wartime crossroads of the world.” The War Department designated it “one of the four most strategic points in the world,” along with Suez, Gibraltar, and the Bosphorus. To historians, the Natal airbase was the “air funnel to the battlefields of the world” and a “trampoline to victory.”
To those ATC pilots and crews making the run—including my young father—it was known as “Fireball run,” or “the Fireball Express.” The route began at Morrison Field in Miami and extended through the Caribbean and Brazil to Natal, where it turned eastward across the Atlantic narrows to the African coast and then reached across central Africa to Khartoum, where it divided.
Undeterred by exhaustion, cramped cockpits, or dangerous flying conditions, plucky pilots and navigators fueled with youth and patriotism climbed into their planes eager to begin the 28,000-mile relay run from Miami to India and back again, often in as few as eight or ten days.
By 1944, the reputation of the ATC and its intrepid crews had spread. Reporters and photographers vied to hitch rides on flights girdling the globe on the modern-day version of the Pony Express, where the crews changed but the planes kept going. Photographs and tales of their adventurous exploits were splashed across the pages of American magazines like Life and the Saturday Evening Post.
“The Fireball is the longest, fastest, air-freight line in the world. It is a sort of emergency ambulance for tired and battle-scarred planes,” wrote the Post’s war correspondent David Wittels. “It has been operating only a few months and has been a military secret most of that time. Now it can be revealed that the Fireball is the backstage reason for much of the recent success of our Air Force in the China– Burma–India area.”
The most legendary feat of the ATC was the passage across the Himalayan Hump. In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma and cut the Chinese off from the world. It became necessary to airlift thousands of tons of fuel and food to the forces of General Chennault. Passing over the jagged mountain peaks of India and Tibet, the ice and snow and the dizzying, disorienting altitude led to a high accident rate.
As far as I know, Dad didn’t make it as far as India or the Himalayas. From what I can piece together, Joe’s leg of the Fireball run was probably up and down the coast of Brazil, across the Atlantic narrows to Africa, then back again to Brazil. But these missions did indeed, as he claimed, have their dangers. Even at the time my father flew in the summer of 1945, after the fall of Germany, enemy subs lurked offshore.
Then there were the patched-together planes of wartime guided by rudimentary systems of navigation. In recounting ATC flights he flew over Brazil, Gann describes flying with no oxygen over mountain peaks whose heights were unrecorded; large areas marked on maps unexplored; rainforest canopies so dense he feared crashing into them more than the ocean; and cumulonimbus clouds off the Gold Coast so gigantic and threatening he named them the “grandfathers” of thunderstorms. If a plane went down, it was gone.
As legendary as the Himalayan Hump and as dangerous as the Brazilian rainforests was the transatlantic hop from Brazil to Africa—especially its refueling stop. A pinpoint of red volcanic rock in the South Atlantic, Ascension Island (nicknamed "Wide-awake Island") fell midway between Natal and Accra in Africa.
Pilots certainly had to be wide awake to find Ascension, as it was afloat in what a Life magazine photographer called “the landless void of sky and water,” rimmed by empty stretches of shark-infested seas. In the event that the navigator with his octant and protractor—a role my father played—missed the island, pilots made up a ditty that went like this: “If you miss Ascension / Your wife gets a pension.”
My research yielded a vivid picture of the ATC missions my father had described. But what was he doing in Brazil at the end of the war? By then, the skies over Africa and Europe had quieted. Hitler had been vanquished. Yet in that ominous summer of ’45, few thought the war had ended. As my father had hinted, there was one last enemy, Japan.
As the Allied forces mobilized for the invasion, a top-secret redeployment plan was set in motion. Tasked to the ATC, the WHITE PROJECT involved the return of army transport and combat planes stateside. Parallel to that was the GREEN PROJECT, a program for flying troops and military personnel from the European and Mediterranean theaters to the U.S. for rest-leave before war against Japan. Somewhere in that mass mobilization was Army Air Corps Private Joseph W. Carroll.
Just as Natal had served as an air funnel for fanning troops and aircraft to the world’s battlegrounds, now it acted in reverse. According to the "Army Air Forces in World War II: Traffic Homeward Bound," the airlift home “was a tremendous demonstration of the massive airlift of manpower...the most striking of those marking the end of war. Nothing like it had happened before.”
ATC troops were responsible for clearing incoming planes by briefing the crews, checking aircraft for safety; war-worn planes had to be readied for battle. Doctors, nurses, and cooks serving hot meals 24 hours a day attended the steady stream of incoming and outgoing troops, foreign nationals, civilians, and medical evacuees. Security was tight, and counterintelligence personnel checked planes for sabotage.
But in a telling piece of aviation history, the Air Transport Command crews became fired by a nonmilitary mission of their own. It had nothing to do with war, and everything to do with American enterprise. These airmen had their sights fixed on the future—and that future was air passenger travel. Thus Air Transport Command officers, most of whom were on leave from civilian airlines, did everything in their power to convert homeward bound soldiers into passengers who, when the war was over, would be sure to fly America’s airlines.
So it was that tired privates battered by war were given forms to record their impressions of their flight home. Hot meals were served and, because these were the days before cabins were pressurized, blankets were handed out to keep the soldiers warm at high altitudes.
As my father lay dying of cancer and a lifetime of alcoholism, musing back over his life, he added an unexpected coda to the wartime story of my childhood. He’d flown secret missions from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, he rasped hoarsely to my sister and me one night, by way of the Andes Mountains. In the dark of night and with no lights so the enemy wouldn’t detect them, he and his crew had piloted their plane through steep mountain passes.
He’d flown some of the earliest flights through the Andes, he’d said; there had been no instruments and at times they’d been so turned upside down they’d hung from the ceiling. It was, my father mused, the first time he’d realized his gift for navigation. Even during such heart-stopping moments, he could always tell at what altitude the plane was flying.
By the end of the war, the Air Transport Command girdled the globe, and had become the largest airline in existence. Routes had been established to never-before-seen, unmapped regions. Runways had been gashed into jungles and etched into the icescapes of Newfoundland, bringing civilization to deep wilderness. As the ATC pilots and their crews grew intimate with the weather and topography of North America, Europe, Africa, India, and South America, they absorbed, writes Gann, “an entirely new world which previously no man knew very much about.”
After all I discovered through my research, I now marvel at all my father didn’t say. He was more the hero than he’d ever allowed or that I, the daughter who had struggled to love him through his addiction, had ever guessed possible. And besides, how much of his drinking had been due to the traumas of war he’d borne silently over the decades? Unless I’d made the effort to dig deeper into his story, I’d never have discovered that Joe Carroll, like others his age, had risen to the cause of his time and done what was asked of him—without a trace of self-importance.
As one Air Force historian remarked, “If your father didn’t distinguish himself by getting injured or killed in the line of duty, he vanished into obscurity. It’s up to relatives like you to bring someone like him to light again.”
By telling my World War II veteran father’s story, I hope with all my daughter’s heart that I’ve helped to do just that.
This article was adapted from American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books, 2015).