Orphaned early, there were still happy hours swimming in the Monongahela River and playing baseball with improvised equipment, as part of the diverse small-town gang growing up in Waterbox, Pa. Maturing was tough, as farming and coal mining were the only jobs to be had, but a deep love of airplanes led him to walk 32 miles and join the Army Air Corps in 1939. After training and working on various models of Fighter
Aircraft, he was chosen for a special mission ferrying P-40’s on the carrier Wasp to Iceland. Shipped overseas after Pearl Harbor with the 8th Fighter Group – first Americans to land in Port Moresby, New Guinea – they narrowly missed being captured when the Japanese invasion fleet was defeated by U.S. Navy on May 7, 1942. Transferred to Australia, after three combat tours, he joined the newly forming all P-38 Lightning Group. Served as Master sergeant, trouble shooter and Line Chief in 432nd squadron. 475th FG. through all campaigns from New Guinea to Philippines. Took part in secret mission of flying P-38s from Hawaii back to the combat zone, improving the planes delivery time. After nearly six years (three years overseas) he was discharged in June ’45.
Happily married forty-four years and still enjoying five fabulous children and their families. Works part-time at Johnnie’s Garage in Morongo Valley with son, Jon, a graduate of Phoenix Institute of Technology. Looking back as Grand Marshals of Fiesta ’98(with Wife, Babs), Kobaly especially remembers happy days’ as Chamber President, putting out the local smoke signal, co-chairing the Bicentennial, putting on Fiestas, acting in local plays, presently co-teaching Modern Uses/Desert Plants.
Kobaly plans to attend more 475th reunions of “The most famous P-38 Lightning Fighter Group in the Southwest Pacific Theater in WW II and hopes to be remembered for his “Love Letter to a P-38” and his delivery of the famous John Adams speech.
In October ’97 during the 475th Fighter Group reunion at the Mission Inn, Riverside, CA. Kobaly delivered the same candlelit speech made by John Adams at the 2nd Continental Congress on July 1, 1776, a speech so impassioned it convinced the 56 delegates to adopt the Declaration of independence, giving us the birth of our nation after an atmosphere of utter gloom and defeat. Kobaly’s favorite memory was the comment, “When the hair began to stand up on my neck, I knew what a great speech that really was!”
My wife finally knows all about you…..
For almost forty years, she has seen fragments of you in my eyes and tried to ignore them. She has felt your vibrations in my voice and kept shuttling them out. But now, she has finally pieced all of the little scraps together.
I was suspicious when she took my hand, turned out the light, and we laid down – fully clothed – upon the bed.
“Tell me about ‘her’,” she said softly. “I’ve always known that there was another woman …She sleeps with you at night, and lives there in your dreams. Her voice whispers in your ears, her body lingers in your eyes. Sometimes her memory overfills your heart. She flows with the warmth of your blood. She’s part of your every cell. She’s even there in your soul… I can’t go on until I know her.”
“I never shared her before,” my voice trembled. “Who ever heard of being in love that way….”
…innocently, I ALWAYS loved that type of female, I told my wife. I blew my nose and wiped at my eyes. My third grade teacher was the first: beautiful, strong, sleek, far-reaching, dependable, inspirational. When she hugged me I thought I was floating up there in heaven.
Just knowing that another special “she” was out there waiting for me some- where – I patted my wife’s hand – kept me going when I was growing up.
Life was hard on a 14 year old boy who had to work twenty hours a day on his brother-in-law’s farm. It was hard to get up before daylight, hard to work without stopping until you staggered into bed after midnight- especially when all of the other kids were playing baseball or swimming in the river.
Every day it was just the more of the same: milk the cows twice, wash the crocks twice, strain and cool and bottle the milk twice, mop the floor, feed and kill and pluck chickens, slop the pigs, feed the horses, plow and plant, weed out the wild garlic, shovel manure, pitch the hay up into the loft and then down again to use it.
And then at night, the milk had to be delivered through dark scary woods -all alone!
“Why don’t you play with us anymore?” asked my friends.
How could I tell them that everything changes when your father and mother have both suddenly died. How could I explain that we only had three things going for us: a dab of welfare money, some handout food at the school, and me – the oldest male at home – to help five orphans to eat and stay together, as we had promised Mother.
That didn’t leave much time for playing.
Life’s only beauty was in the sky. Once in awhile – over the fields, above the chicken coops, beyond the pigsty – an airplane soared by. An always, it was insignificant little Johnnie Kobaly who was piloting that plane. To others, airplanes were only silver-bellied gas hawks that stole my mind from work. To me, they were the shiny wings of freedom that someday I would fly away upon.
There were no books at home, no library in that little coal miner’s town. The only place to visit a kid’s heroes was in the local newspapers. And the only time to visit them was on Sunday. But then they all came to life again: Lucky Lindy, Jack Knight, Wiley Post, Rosco Turner, Howard Hughes, Wrong-way Corregan, Rickenbacker, Doolittle, Langley, Curtis, Sikorsky, the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart. And the barnstormers, the racers and the record makers: those who flew highest, longest, farthest, and FIRST!
As I worked on the farm during the summer, I only had time to LISTEN to airplanes. As I went to school during the winter, I had the long nights to make TOUCHABLE models of my flying stars who twinkled far away where I could never hold them.
After graduating from high school, I decided that just earning room and board on the farm, and bringing produce home for my brothers and sisters added up to much less than so much sweat was really worth. My older sister had married, and the twosome moved into our little four-room house to be the new parents. It seemed easier now, the expected thing, and more profitable to join the other coal miners – to trade twenty hours of hard variety work for eight hours of shoveling and a paycheck.
Every night, we miners filed out of one darkness and into another, drenched with sweat, coated with mud, unable to straighten up, and carrying a gut full of unspeakable fear. As long as I was a coal miner, except for Sundays, I would never have the chance to hear or see an airplane again. And on Sundays, my exhausted body usually slept the whole day through.
I soon found that I had traded a child’s vague fear of the dark woods for the concrete fear of a mine cave-in. My older brother and I worked alone. He knew those little telltale warning sounds too well, so the only thing that I had to do all day was shovel endlessly, stay fearfully poised inside, and always be ready for those terrifying words, “RUN LIKE HELL!!”
A coal miners’ strike finally saved me!
To be a pilot, I thought, you only had to be a good kid and stay on the honor roll. But when I walked sixteen miles to the recruiting station, I found there was something else: you had to have a college education! “Okay” I told the officer. “If you won’t let me be a pilot, then I’ll be the very best mechanic that the Air Force has ever, ever had!”
And what a change the Air Force was! No drudgery, plenty of great food, wonderful friends, everybody helping with everything, time to think and books to read. But best of all was the chance to touch, work on, and gaze at my flying stars that would now be plucked from the very sky and put right down in front of me: AIRPLANES!
At first, I was only an “Airedale”, pushing planes into and out of hangars, servicing, wiping off flight oil, dusting and shining.
“Don’t work so hard!”, the hangar chief scolded.
“This isn’t work! It’s an act of love!”, I cried, as I progressed to pulling wheels, checking brakes, packing bearings, watching instruments and starting up those “stars” that kept coming down to me from out of the clouds, needing my eager help.
But all of those first planes proved to be lumbering boxcars when it finally came to WW II. The whole outfit was always on edge. Our airplanes were slow and hard to maneuver. Pilots were afraid to fly. The props were oil controlled and couldn’t take the jungle heat. They leaked and splattered on the windshields, and pilots wouldn’t see to fly or fight. Also, when the guns had fired one round, the cannons always jammed.
It was long after Pearl Harbor that I saw my first P-38. When you landed on the runway – like a beautiful bird, it was love at first sight!. You stood there like an elegant lady, yet I could feel your eagerness, your lightning speed, your dependability. At the first touch of your sleek, olive-skinned body, there was an unbelievable sensation and soon your very presence was an all -consuming, delirious thrill. I hardly dared to sleep at night, for fear that I was dreaming. How could a little orphan, a blackened coal miner, a humble farmer be so lucky as to be a part of your awesome world? I worked on all twenty of you, just as though you were only one.
Your skin really belonged to the painters and your thrilling cockpit to the pilot. That spot behind your pilot’s seat was home to the radioman. Your nose section was the property of the armament crew. There, beneath your cover was the only area that belonged to mechanics alone.
But soon I knew every inch of you. With my buddy Cy Tumer, we studied and restudied your manual. We traced all of your systems visually. We pretended every possible problem, symptom and solution. We seldom took our leaves; we preferred to stay at home With YOU! At first, we were two people talking out your solutions. In combat, we became two friends solving all of your troubles.
We soon found out that you were the fastest fighter of WW II. You had the longest range, and the ability to take almost any punishment. For a large plane, you were easy to handle and maneuver. You had an uncanny ability to bring your pilot home safely where other planes kept failing.
But, while you were carrying pilots into the magic blue, to do the important work, the glorious work, I was still down on the lowly ground. I had traded the fear of dark woods, and a miners cave-in for the fear of bombing, strafing and foxholes. Whenever we heard those tell tale engine sounds, nobody had to tell me that it was time to “Run like hell!!” But I couldn’t run without help; dozens of beautiful bodies were blown up on the runway.
… “Honey, I just figured it out,” my wife said as she sat up in the dark. It’s not so much the guys themselves that you want to be with at reunions, you want to be with a WHOLE GROUP of men who were in love with the SAME haunting, irresistible female! Just being together always seems to stir up that old feeling, to rekindle that same ecstasy”.
I gulped as I nodded my head to confirm her suspicion. “We called her our Beautiful Lady,” I tearfully confessed. …
You were everywhere at once, Beautiful Lady, — FOR everybody at once. You were on the runways, taking off and landing. You waited patiently for repairs – with your guts strewn all around. You were up there in the sky fighting for us all. You were limping home with your body full of holes and your engines smoking and gasping.
And when you didn’t come home at all, you died for each and every one of us, and took along an irreplaceable piece of every man’s heart. Yet, you were always there again, reborn, ready willing, eager to begin all over! Again and again, I would touch you with reverence and tend your weary shattered parts with love. Carefully, I would feed and water you. I woke you up and bedded you down. I stroked your beautiful, strong, eager, dependable body. Again and again, I tuned you finely for less appreciative lovers.
—But your limbs never quivered beneath ME, and I, MYSELF never soared inside of your body. Together, we two never fought in the clouds for America. Johnnie Kobaly was never one with your heavenly soul … that was only your pilot’s privilege…
I know that many forces contributed to our victory in the Southwest Pacific, but none were more effective in my head that your presence – our “Angel” of planes – the P-38.
I’m sure that it was my unfulfilled love of YOU that kept me chaste throughout the war…
I just wanted you to know, Beautiful Lady, that now it’s okay that there are three of us in the bed at night. My wife appreciates what you did, what you were, and what you meant to all of us over there in the jungles – especially what you meant to me.
To my wife, you’re not a dark and threatening ghost anymore. You’re merely the very best part of her husband’s shining spirit.
Now that you have finally met, she loves you too…..
Forever, your admirer,
Johnnie Kobaly, U.S. Army Air Corps