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Watoga Trail Report

Eddie “Flyboy” Fishburn returns to the scene of a top-secret operation at Watoga Airfield that took place during World War II. K. Spinger photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Watoga Airfield
Part 2

Mary Lawson remembers that beautiful day in May of 1981 as if it were yesterday. Mary, a biology teacher from Virginia, was leading a small group of students on a hike in Watoga State Park. The group was about a mile into the Honeymoon Trail and Mary had just stepped several yards off the trail to point out a Jack-in-the-Pulpit to her students when she saw something so bizarre that she fell backward, her daypack crushing the plant.

She nervously rummaged through her pack, retrieved her camera and took a picture of what she described as the wreckage of a scaled down version of an open cockpit fighter plane. Even more bizarre, she saw what looked like the mummified remains of a duck in the cockpit.

Mary said that once they were back at her car, she immediately drove to the park office to report her startling find. She told her story to the park officer on duty and recalled that he wrote down what she told him on a clipboard, but he seemed somewhat skeptical about her story.

He seemed even more so after he asked her students if they had observed the same thing.  They replied that they stayed on the trail and had not seen anything, other than Mary falling onto the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and crushing it.

This incident happened before the age of digital photography so she couldn’t offer up the picture that she had taken earlier. She left the park regretting what she had seen, and that she had told anyone about it before developing the film.

Thinking that there must be someone who would have an interest in her find, she gave a copy of the developed photograph to her brother-in-law who worked for one of the “three-letter” federal agencies in Washington D.C. Mary’s doorbell rang two days later, and when she opened her front door there were two men in suits asking if they could speak with her for a few minutes.

Although nervous and apprehensive, Mary led them to her living room where she was asked to recount her story about her recent discovery in Watoga State Park. They were particularly interested in the location of the find, and Mary, being a skilled hiker and outdoorswoman, gave them explicit directions. 

What she did not tell them was that she had murdered a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. After all, she had no idea what sort of authority these strange men had and wished for no further trouble.

Upon leaving, the men requested in a somewhat intimidating way, that she should never mention her discovery or their visit. The following year she did return to the park alone and went to the very spot where she saw the fighter plane and duck, and there was not the slightest evidence that it had ever been there.

Black and White photograph of the crashed fighter plane and duck pilot taken by Mary Lawson in 1981 near the Honeymoon Trail

34 Years Later

Serendipity can be a beautiful thing, and that is what I would call my chance encounter with a gentleman named Eddie “Flyboy” Fishburn, who happened to be staying at one of Watoga’s cabins with his wife, Joni. I was getting off of the Lake Trail and loading the trail tools in my car when Eddie approached me and asked if I knew the location of the old airfield.

I was finished with trail work for the day, so I offered to show him how to get there and told him to follow me. After arriving, I asked Eddie why he was interested in the old airstrip. He motioned for me to follow him, and we walked down the length of the runway; as we walked, he told me a story that I will never forget.

Eddie and Joni had driven from Louisiana, where he had been a crop duster for the last 50 years of his life, but, he said, he had been around aviation all 87 years of his life, including a short career as a stunt pilot. 

He told me that his father, Reginald “Ace” Fishburn (It was customary for pilots of an earlier generation to have silly nicknames related to aviation) was involved as a consultant in a top secret operation at the Watoga Airfield in 1945, and that his family moved to the area for the duration of the operation.

Reggie Fishburn had piloted the famed Sopwith Camel in World War I and survived a dogfight with Baron von Richthofen when a bullet intended for his heart was stopped by a whiskey flask in the top left pocket of his leather flight jacket. He always drank top-shelf whiskey after that incident and enjoyed telling folks that drinking whiskey saved his life.

The operation, later called “Cheese ‘n Quackers,” was recently declassified and Eddie wanted to show Joni where it all happened. He told us that the operation took place in the early spring of 1945 when Japanese Kamikaze pilots were attacking Allied carriers, battleships and cruisers, wreaking havoc on the Allied military.  

According to Eddie, a top-secret meeting took place in the recently completed Pentagon to discuss methods to counter the suicide attacks from Japanese planes. A high ranking member of the committee jokingly suggested that they use chimpanzees as dive bomber pilots, but before he could recant his failed attempt at jocularity, the group quickly voted to authorize the project.

Eddie was a teenager then, but he remembers a troop carrier showing up at the airfield one morning in early March 1945 and six crates of chimpanzees were off-loaded and moved to a Quonset hut at the present location of campsites 36 -38.  Over the next month the chimps, also bearing nicknames like Bomb Bay Bill, Wingman Wayne, and Dive Bomber Dave were trained to fly 1/4 scale  P 40s.

Reggie told Eddie that the chimps were pretty good pilots, but when they got in range of the Japanese destroyers and carriers, instead of dropping their explosive loads, they would show off doing aerobatics around the vessels, finally throwing their excrement at the Japanese sailors on deck. Reggie added that sometimes the sailors would be laughing so hard they would fall overboard, so the chimps did manage to inflict a few casualties.

In a final attempt to curb our losses to the relentless Kamikaze attacks, it was decided to use ducks as pilots, specifically drake mallards which are known for their aggressiveness. Seriously, they are. Before they ever had to fly a real suicide mission, the Japanese ran out of volunteer Kamikaze pilots when it was clear they were losing the war at sea.

As to why Mary Lawson found the remains of a suicide duck pilot and his midget P 40 in Watoga State Park, the answer is simple. Every time they were sent out on an easterly or westerly flight plan they crashed into the mountainside. The plane that Mary found was on a west-facing slope, and everybody knows that ducks are genetically programmed for flying north and south only.

No chimpanzees, ducks, or park officers were harmed in the making of this Watoga Trail Report, although the concept of truth was mortally wounded.

Happy Hiking,
Ken Springer

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