Saturday, 26 October 2013

In Praise of Black Cats

Our black cat, Max (photo taken by Bonnie Wyatt)

Halloween will soon be upon us. I have to admit something. I’m a big suck. I like cats, especially black cats. It all started  March 2009, a Friday. Four of us…moi, my wife, my son, and my daughter all went to the Burlington Ontario Humane Society to look for a cat. We were hoping for a female tabby, like our last one. Her name was Nico and we had just put her down the Monday of that week at the ripe old age of 18. Nico was one of those cats that loved us and either tolerated or absolutely hated everybody else. This time around, we wanted a cat that was going to be people-friendly.

First off, we could not believe how clean and tidy the shelter was. You know the expression…it was so clean you could eat off the floor? We made our rounds of the available cats, not really attaching ourselves to any of them until we entered a room where there were about five or six felines in individual cages. In the far left corner was a long, black male with shiny fur that immediately came to the edge of the cage, looked up at me and poked his paw through the wire. Then he started purring. Just like that! The last thing the four of us thought of was adopting a black cat. Maybe because black cats were too mysterious, too scary looking, or they brought bad luck, or whatever… We really didn’t know why.

We were told his name was Tiggy and he had been there a month, without any takers. We were also told that they found  him  rummaging through a local parking lot dumpster looking for food.  One of the volunteers let Tiggy out for us. Right away, the cat jumped into my daughter’s lap and started rubbing his face against hers. And he went into his purr again, this time louder. We were sold on him. Actually, instead of us choosing him, I think it was more like he chose us.  We made the arrangements to adopt him and as we checked out at the front desk, another volunteer told us that according to her vet, black cats were the best-natured of the feline world. We thought, yeah sure. But, later, when we saw our own vet for the cat’s first visit, he said the same thing. He added that the male cats were the best. By then, we had changed the name of Tiggy, which we thought was kind of sucky, to the more masculine name of Max, which our daughter picked out. Max purred for the vet and even let the doctor scratch his butt. Since we’ve had Max, we have come in contact with many cat owners who have had black cats or still do, and every one said that their best-natured cats were the black male ones. One of them even went so far as to say that after her favorite cat ever, Teddy, got hit by a car, she hasn’t owned another cat since because she said she could never find a another one as good as Teddy. Teddy was an all-black one, like Max, and was much-loved in her neighborhood. 
Max, photo taken by Beth Wyatt

So, being the stats and history person that I am, I had to check out the history of black cats. OK…in North America many people do consider them bad luck. But not so in Japan, where according to local tradition, any unmarried woman with a black cat will have a host of suitors. In Great Britain, black cats are considered very lucky. In fact, in Scottish folklore, it’s believed that when a strange black cat arrives at your front door, then you will prosper. In early Egyptian times, as far back as 3000 BC, all cats were considered sacred, the rock stars of the Middle East animal kingdom. Some were mummified after death. Killing one was a criminal offense.

Then along came the deep, dark Middle Ages that changed everything. There’s a story out there that goes something like this. In Lincolnshire, 16th century England, a man and his son were travelling by buggy one night when they saw a black cat cross their path. Startled, they threw rocks at, hitting it several times before it limped its way to the house of an old woman believed to be a witch. The next day, the father and son saw the old woman and noticed she was bruised and limping. From that day forward in Lincolnshire, it was believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats at night. What bunk. As Europeans sailed the Atlantic for a new start here, this same type of thinking prevailed in early America. Shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims, people believed black cats were evil and part demon. Anyone caught with a black cat could be severely punished or killed, along with the cat. For centuries now, North America still sticks to believing  there is something unlucky or evil about black cats. I met a woman recently who owns 2 tabbies and she said that black cats give her the heebie-jeebies. I replied that if she met our Max, he’d probably love her to death.

Here’s something for you, just for interest sake. On September 9, 1969, the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets were playing a crucial game at Shea Stadium, New York with over 50,000 fans in attendance. The starting pitchers were Hall-of-Famers Mets Tom Seaver and Cubs Fergie Jenkins. Both teams were involved in a hot National League East divisional race with the Cubs holding a slim 1.5 game lead over the Mets. During the game, a black cat was released onto the field. The cat raced straight to Cubs third-baseman Ran Santo in the on-deck circle, looked at Santo for a moment, then went over to the Cubs dugout to stare down all the players. The Cubs lost the game 7-1 and after that went into a tailspin and lost the title to the Mets by 8 games. Coincidence, right?

A while back, I discovered Bombay cats and their history.  The Bombay is a hybrid, a cross between a brown Burmese and black American shorthair, established by a Kentucky breeder named Nikki Horner in 1958. Because of the dominant black gene, the outcome is a cat resembling a miniature “parlor panther” with short, silky, black fur and copper eyes. If you are looking for an independent cat, the Bombay is not for you. They crave attention.  You can’t leave them alone for long periods of time. They are gentle, very affectionate and love both adults and kids. When someone comes to your door, don’t be surprised if your Bombay cat is part of your greeting party. They are a muscular, medium-size cat and when you pick them up, they are much heavier than they appear. A Bombay has a distinct purr and a robust appetite…in other words a mooch.

After stating all this about the Bombay, I have to wonder if our Max is a Bombay-mix because he has all the above characteristics except for the copper eyes. His eyes are yellow with green rings around the pupils. Seeing that we don’t  know anything about his background, I’d like to think he has some Bombay in him. Wishful thinking?

Whether he does or not, he’s still a great black cat! BLACK CATS RULE!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The "Trader Jack' Myth (Part 2)

Red Kelly, Detroit Red Wings (courtesy

By next season, 1956-57, the spaghetti hit the fan. In February 1957, Ted Lindsay announced at a press conference in New York that he and the league’s players were starting the first NHL Players Association, a move that did not sit well with most of the owners, including the Red Wings management. To make Lindsay pay, Adams would wait until the off-season to make another one of his spiteful transactions. When the Red Wings were defeated that season in the first round of the playoffs by the Canadiens, Adams made a B-line to Glenn Hall as he was making his way to the dressing room after  the final game 3-1 loss.  Dissatisfied with the goalie’s play in the series, Adams screamed, “I’ve done a lot for you,” before Hall made it through the door.

“I’ve done a lot for you,” Hall replied calmly. Like Leo Reise and Glen Skov before him, Hall knew it was his last game in a Red Wings uniform.

The Detroit press and fans must have known that something was in the air months later, on July 10, when Adams traded away young winger Johnny Bucyk to the Boston Bruins to bring back goalie Terry Sawchuk, who never should have been traded away in the first place.  Bucyk went on to an outstanding career in Boston that lasted 21 years. For a couple seasons, he played with Bronco Horvath and Vic Stasiuk on the high-scoring Uke Line, named after the Ukrainian  heritage of all three.  Ironically, these same linemates had played together just a few years earlier in Edmonton, where they  were all  Detroit property.  Sawchuk lasted 7 more seasons as a Wing before being unprotected in the draft and subsequently picked up by the Maple Leafs and went on to hoist a Stanley Cup in 1967.

Having secured Sawchuk on the roster for the upcoming 1957-58 season, Adams then traded Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall (both First Team All-Stars) to Chicago 13 days later for Johnny Wilson, Hank Bassen, Forbes Kennedy, and Bill Preston…which was the equivalent of  giving away 2 thoroughbreds for 4 pack mules. Lindsay had just finished the best season of his career, second in scoring, only 4 points behind league-leading Gordie Howe. But Adams claimed that Lindsay was over the hill and that Howe had carried him all year. No one bought it, of course, certainly not the fans who jammed the Wings switchboard with angry phone calls for days. Everyone in hockey knew it was a move against the newly-formed union, especially when one looked at the dubious talent the Wings had received in return. It was the deal that tore the heart out of the team for years to come. Executive vice-president Marguerite Norris was in New York on business when she read about the Lindsay trade in a newspaper. She quickly called her brother, Bruce, long distance and shouted, “You can’t do that!” By the time she slammed the receiver down, Ms Norris had made up her mind that she was done with the Detroit Red Wings and quit her presidency on the spot.

Calling his own press conference shortly after the deal, Lindsay said, “ I wanted to close my hockey career in Detroit , but derogatory remarks about myself and my family showed me that the personal resentment on the part of the Detroit general manager would make it impossible for me to continue playing in Detroit.” Lindsay played three years in Chicago, where he helped to turn the team into a winner, then retired one year away from the Hawks winning the Cup in 1961. Once Adams was fired in 1962, Lindsay came out of retirement to play the 1964-65 season (his last before retiring again), leading the Red Wings to a first-place finish, their first since 1957, when Adams traded Lindsay away.

As a Blackhawk for the next 10 years after the trade, Hall was a standout. It must have been especially gratifying for him to be named First All-Star in his first year in Chicago and when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961 by defeating the Red Wings in six games with GM  Jack Adams looking on, a series  that saw Hall allow a mere 12 goals.

Back to 1957, Adams wasn’t  finished trading. That December he sent Earl Reibel, Billy Dea, Bill Dineen and Lorne Ferguson to Chicago for Nick Mickoski, Bob Bailey, Jack McIntyre and Hec Lalonde…a “numbers only” deal, where neither side gained.  Just a whole lot of nothing.

Then there was the strange case of center Guyle Fielder, the minor league superstar, whom Jack Adams had the rights to…twice. Fielder was a superb puck-handler who hated the dump-and-chase method prevalent in the NHL then and still today. Going into the 1952-53 season training camp , Adams had Fielder center a line between Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. It didn’t work out. Five years later, after an illustrious career in the Western Hockey League was unfolding for him, Fielder again was put on a line with Howe, while Johnny Wilson played left wing. And again, it didn’t work out. Adams couldn’t quite understand what so many others in the game could see.  Howe and Fielder both liked to handle the puck, and putting them together was dead wrong. Fielder, as Lindsay and other Wings believed, should have been placed between 2 young speedsters who could break out and take Fielder’s crisp passes. Adams couldn’t see it and Fielder went back to the WHL where he remained well into the early 1970’s setting up others with shotgun passes on the fly. Some of those players made the NHL, while he didn’t.

The last bad Adams deal was sending Red Kelly down the 401 to Toronto, a trade that made Toronto reporter  Trent Frayne utter, “The dumbest trade ever made by one of the all-time great traders.” Are you kidding? All-time great traders?  Sorry, Mr. Frayne, that he wasn’t. In fact, by this time, many insiders were wondering if Adams had lost it.

Red Kelly was a talented two-way, yet very offensive-minded defenseman with the Wings. Many called him the NHL’s second best at his position, next to Montreal’s Doug Harvey. For nine straight seasons, Kelly had scored 10 or more goals, topping out with a then-astounding 19 in 1952-53. But by 1958-59, some people thought he was slowing down at age 31, not realizing he was suffering through a broken foot the last month of the season, while the Wings were scrambling to make the playoffs.  A sorry sight for a once-great team. The defense in disarray, Kelly was asked by Adams and coach Sid Abel to keep playing, despite the injury. Kelly did, but it was no use. He could barely turn on his skates. The Wings finished dead last, the first time out of the playoffs in 21 years. The injury was kept silent until Kelly, himself, leaked it in passing the following season to Trent Frayne, who was working on a hockey piece for the Star Weekly. Kelly, by that time, was healthy and his play had improved dramatically. Frayne had his story and it came out the end of January 1960.

Marshall Dann, a Detroit Free Press reporter, picked up the Star Weekly story and wrote about it under the headline, “Was Red Kelly forced to play on a broken foot?”

Of course, news got back to Adams, and he was livid. He called Kelly into his office on February 4 after a home game for a meeting with him and owner Bruce Norris. There, Adams informed Kelly that he was traded to New York along with forward Billy McNeill for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack, and told to be at the Leland Hotel at 8 AM to take a bus to New York. Kelly stood his ground, and said he’d think about it.

“What do you mean, you’ll think about it? Be there!” Adams blurted out.

Kelly repeated, “I’ll think about it.”

Kelly then went to his Detroit home to talk the situation over with his wife, Andra. By morning, he decided he was going to retire. McNeill, whose wife had died recently, also wanted nothing to do with the deal and refused to report. Meanwhile, Shack had already been popping off to the press that he couldn’t wait to leave New York. (He did leave that November, when the Rangers dealt him to Toronto for Pat Hannigan and Johnny Wilson, just in time to be on 4 Stanley Cup winners).The furious Adams threatened to suspend Kelly, until NHL president Campbell stepped in to cool things down. Then the Toronto Maple Leafs made an offer to take Kelly off Adams’ hands. Adams wanted a young, untested defenseman named Marc Reaume in return. The deal was made before a stunned hockey world on 10 February. Leafs coach Punch Imlach immediately turned Kelly into a center, which many people thought he should have been all along. The following year, 1960-61, Kelly centered a line with the young, sharpshooter Frank Mahovlich. Kelly finished with 50 assists, helping the Big M collect 48 goals. By the time he retired in 1967, Kelly played on four more Stanley Cups winners as a Leaf. By adding the 4 he had seen with Detroit, he holds the record for most Stanley Cup wins for a player not a Montreal Canadien.   Now there’s some nice trivia for you.  Reaume played a whole 77 games in the NHL with 3 teams spaced over  the next 10 years, while most of his time was spent in the minors in such exciting hot spots as Hershey, Tulsa, and Rochester. Everywhere we went, I wonder how many times he was asked about the Kelly deal?

By 1962, Wings owner Bruce Norris had enough of Adams and “retired” him.  Adams  accepted the position as founding president of the Central Hockey League. After some extremely rough years, where even making the playoffs was a challenge, the Wings didn’t win another Stanley Cup until 1997, with captain Steve Izerman and the boys, 43 years after the blockbuster deal that sent Terry Sawchuk packing following the  team’s 1955 Stanley Cup win.  The Canadiens took the reins and won  5 straight Stanley Cup championships to close the 1950’s decade. These were championships that Detroit should have had instead, Ted Lindsay related years later, had Adams not decimated the team with his reign of terror.

“Adams was a good salesman,” Lindsay admitted once in an interview, “but not a good hockey man.”

When you look at the facts behind all the mentioned trades, how can anyone disagree? Now the Detroit Red Wings are one of the best run teams in the NHL, with 22 straight playoff appearances, along with 6 trips to the finals and 4 Cups. They have not drafted inside the top 20 since 1992, forcing the team to pull stars from the middle rounds. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Lidstrom, Thomas Holmstrom, and Jimmie Howard to name a few. There was no such thing as a draft in Adams’ day. However, he did have the benefit of head scout Carson Cooper, the best in the business. Carson knew his stuff, discovering Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Alex Delvecchio in particular and sending them to the big club. Lindsay and  Kelly were unique finds,  snapped right off the Toronto St. Mikes College roster, a junior team (along with the Toronto Marlies) sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Leafs left the two players off their protection list, thinking they weren’t good enough for the NHL, Carson grabbed them in a blink. Then Adams fired Carson in 1953 for no apparent reason other than perhaps jealously. Cooper loved his job, and was crushed. It could be that Adams wanted to look like the real genius from then on. But it didn’t work out for Adams. By the time he made the Kelly-Reaume deal, there were no more stars in the farm system and no more Carson Coopers to find them.

To sum it up, in one decade, Jack Adams dealt away Hall of Famers Bert Olmstead, Glenn Hall, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bucyk, Red Kelly, and Terry Sawchuk and received zilch in return, not to mention the fact he had minor league icon Guyle Fielder twice in the Wings radar scope and let him get away. Adams did get Sawchuk back, although, like a sequel to a great movie,  he was a shadow of his former self the second time around in a Detroit uniform. It’s interesting to note that excluding Fielder, the above mentioned players combined for a whopping total of 13 Stanley Cups wins after being traded away by Adams. What does that tell you about his trades?

Today, there is an NHL trophy named after Adams, the Jack Adams Award, but it’s for “coach of the year.”  Adams was a good coach. No dispute there.  It was his deals as GM—especially in his last few years—that left a lot to be desired.

To me, the “Trader Jack” tag only meant one thing…Adams made a lot of trades. But most of them were a whole lot of nothing or just plain bad.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The “ Trader Jack” Myth (Part 1)

Terry Sawchuk in his early days with the Detroit Red Wings (

Sportswriters had 2 nicknames for him, “Trader Jack” and “Jolly Jack.”  Baby Boomers and those older certainly remember him. He was Jack Adams and he holds the record for being the longest-running National Hockey League GM in the history of the game, a total of 36 years starting in 1927. And all with one team. He helped build the Detroit Red Wings into an awesome force. Then he single-handedly destroyed the organization with several bad player transactions done out spite, arrogance, and bad judgment. Some of the trades seemed to be done as a smoke screen, just for the sake of moving around a lot of players like they were part of a jigsaw puzzle.

Born in 1895, Jack Adams was a pro hockey forward of distinction with the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association; and the Toronto Arenas, the Toronto St. Pats, and the Ottawa Senators of the NHL. After retiring as a player in 1927, Adams heard through NHL president Frank Calder that the Detroit Cougars (as they were called then) needed a coach and a general manager.  Adams approached Detroit’s president Charlie Hughes, applied for both jobs and quickly got them, probably because no one else wanted them.  Adams was still there in 1930 when the team had changed its name to the Falcons. By then the team was going nowhere and approaching bankruptcy it not for wealthy grain dealer James Norris buying the club in 1932. The first thing Norris did was change the name of the club again, this time to the present-day  Detroit Red Wings. Suddenly, the team had money. Norris, at that time the largest cash grain buyer in the world, told Adams that a budget of $100,000 in player salaries was available to start the 1932-33 season.  Over the course of the next few years, up to 1947, when he retired as coach to take on the sole duty as GM, Adams had won three Stanley Cups for Norris. To date, Adams is still the winningest coach in Red Wings history with 413 wins.

As GM, Adams’  best years were a 7-year span from  1949-1955, when the Wings finished first every regular season and won 4 Stanley Cups to boot. In 1957, they finished first again, making it 8 of 9 first-place seasons. In 1956, the season they missed at top honors, the Wings finished a distant second and lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals.

Adams’ first major deal followed the 1949 Stanley Cup win. To make room for the upcoming , young Terry Sawchuk in net, Adams came up with a whopper on July 13, 1950 by swapping number one goalie Harry Lumley, Jack Stewart, Al Dewsbury, Pete Babando and Dan Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks for Metro Prystai , Gaye Stewart, Bob Goldham  and another goalie Jim Henry.  The 9-player trade, history proved, did work out a little more in Detroit’s favor, although they did have to give up an excellent all-star defenseman in Jack Stewart. Prystai, a good two-way forward, and Goldham, an excellent shot-blocking defenseman, were two decent players for several years with the Wings, tremendous contributors to 2 and 3 Stanley Cups, respectively.  

That December, once the new season started, Chicago traded 24-year-old Bert Olmstead, a 20-goal scorer the year before, to Detroit with Vic Stasiuk for Stephen Black and Lee Fogolin Sr., only to have Adams turn around and trade Olmstead to Montreal 17 days later before Olmstead  could even throw a Detroit jersey over his chest. In Montreal, he helped the Habs win 4 Stanley Cups over the next 8 years. Twice he led the league in assists and was one of the best left wingers in the game, making the second all-star team twice.  Then he went to Toronto and helped the Leafs win the Cup in 1962. He’s now in the Hall of Fame. Who did the Wings get from the Canadiens in return? Leo Gravelle, who played a big whoop  18 games in the Motor City, then was sent to the minors, never to return to the Big Time.

On August 20, 1951, Adams ripped off another major transaction by sending  six Red Wings players, Rags Raglan, Jimmy Peters, George Gee, Max McNabb, Jim McFadden, and Clare Martin to Chicago for Hugh Coflin and $75,000 cash. Coflin, an average defenseman at best, spent the rest of his career in the minors, finishing with the WHL Edmonton Flyers in 1960. The six new Hawks players went on to play a combined 697 NHL games, with Peters the most at 210 games. It’s undocumented what Adams did with the cash.

On June 8, 1951, Adams made an even-up deal by swapping high-scoring forward Gaye Stewart to the New York Rangers for  Tony Leswick, an in-your-face defensive forward who was best known for tailing such stars as Habs Rocket Richard during his career. Stewart scored another 16 goals in the NHL, then went to the minors to stay.

Skip ahead to early 1952. On a road trip aboard a train, Wings defenseman Leo Reise said to a teammate that he liked Detroit, and after playing there for 6 solid years and helping win 2 Stanley Cups,  he wanted to stop renting and buy a house. One problem, though, when he looked around the train compartment that day, he noticed  that  Jack Adams was within earshot. Adams didn’t like complacent players. Reise knew right then and there that he was gone. Sure enough, that August, he was traded to the New York Rangers for Reg Sinclair and John Morrison. Sinclair played only one year as a Wing, then retired, while Morrison never made the NHL. Meanwhile, Reise put in 2 more solid years on the Rangers defense before calling it a career.

Then Jim Norris died later that year, leaving his empire in the hands of his family, sons Bruce and Jimmy (who was already running the Blackhawks) and daughter Marguerite, who eventually won out as president of the Red Wings, a post she took on with vigor for the next 3 years. In her time, Detroit finished first every year and won the Stanley Cup twice. While her father got along quite well with Adams, Marguerite detested the short, little man. On many occasions, she wanted to fire him but just couldn’t do it for fear of a backlash from the family. For some reason, though, Adams’ trading seemed to die off under her leadership. Then in 1955, when Bruce took over the presidency, the trading took off again, more than ever.

The Wings won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1955 with 25-year-old Terry Sawchuk minding the net, finishing with an impressive season of 40 wins, 12 shutouts and 1.96 goals against average. To date, he had 57 shutouts in only 5 full regular seasons.  Some were calling him the greatest NHL goalie ever. But Adams liked what he saw in Glenn Hall the times he had been called up in the previous two seasons from the farm team in Edmonton. The butterfly-styled Hall seemed to be the future. Sawchuk was expendable. 

There were rumors about a trade with Montreal, all-star defenseman Doug Harvey for  Sawchuk, even up. But a different deal was made June 3, 1955. Instead of trading Sawchuk—at the height of his career—one-for-one  for another star or superstar in the league such as Harvey, Adams handed Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins on a silver platter along with Marcel Bonin, Lorne Davis and Vic Stasiuk for Gilles Boisvert, Real Chevrefils, Norm Corcoran, Warren Godfrey and Ed Sandford. “We didn’t get crap for Terry,” said Wings defense star Marcel Pronovost years later about the trade that saw Sawchuk get buried in the mix.  By this time, the Wings players were in complete shock. Just a week earlier, Adams had engineered a trade with Chicago where the Wings Tony Leswick (remember him?), Glen Skov, Johnny Wilson and Benny Woit headed to the Blackhawks for Dave Creighton, Gord Hollingworth and John McCormack.

Adams didn’t just tweak his Stanley Cup team the way most GMs would do, he blew it up. It must have been one disheartening summer for the Red Wings players. Going into camp for the 1955-56 season, only 9 players remained from their championship team the previous spring. Before the press, Wings star left-winger Ted Lindsay criticized the loss of Glen Skov. This act of treason irritated Adams to no end. Skov believed he was traded because he dared to get married during the hockey season, a Jack Adams no-no. Wings players weren’t supposed to concentrate on sex, only hockey. Quite the dictatorial era the players lived in when they couldn’t even get married when they wanted to.  Adams also expected his players to be dumb and uneducated, dependent only on hockey. Very few players prior to the 1967 expansion finished high school, and even fewer had their own off-ice businesses. It ticked Adams  something fierce that Lindsay and teammate Marty Pavelich had started a partnership in 1952 to supply plastic to the Detroit car industry.  For years, Lindsay had been the team leader and captain, someone the players looked up to. Adams believed Lindsay was influencing the players too much, turning them against management, thus taking away Adams’ control over the team. By this time, Lindsay was barely on talking terms with the GM.  On one occasion, he even told Adams to FO, loud enough for the smirking Wings staff outside Adam’s office to hear.

Adams began to look dimly on goalie Glenn Hall too. Although he appeared to be a tall, innocent, easy-going country boy from the Saskatchewan prairies, Hall had a mind of his own and refused to be pushed around. Adams didn’t like the fact that Hall was getting too friendly with Lindsay. The GM now had two players he couldn’t control. On one occasion, Hall was warned, through coach Jimmy Skinner –who was nothing more than a door-opener coach according to many Wings players--to stay away from Lindsay. According to Hall, he told Skinner to tell Adams to do something to himself that started with the letter F. It was another point against Hall. At contract time in the fall of 1956, after his first full season in the Wings net where he recorded a league-leading 12 shutouts, he had no alternative but to settle for a slight raise from Adams. Adams then told  the goalie not to tell anyone what he was making, something Adams told every player at contract time.

“Don’t worry, Mr Adams,” Hall replied, sadly. “I’m too ashamed to tell anybody. “
 (Part 2 next week…the 2 worst trades are yet to come)

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Global Bomber

FIFI, the only B-29 Superfortress still flying. Taken by the author at the Hamilton Air Show

The long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the most advanced bomber of World War II and a billion dollar project. Although it started out with a ton of difficulties, by war’s end it did the job over enemy territory and then some.  Without a doubt, the B-29 shortened the Pacific War by at least a year.

The American-built, 4-engined B-29 was a monster. It had tricycle landing gear, a 141-foot wingspan, a 99-foot length, separate pressurized cabins, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled .50-caliber machine-gun turrets. It had a range of 6,000 miles and could reach altitudes of 31,000-plus feet, far above any flak shells and most enemy fighters. It could also deliver a payload of 20,000 pounds of bombs. Each Wright Cyclone 18-cylinder radial engine had  16-foot diameter propellers, 2 exhaust-driven turbochargers, and 2,200 horsepower.

On the drawing boards as early as 1938, the US powers-that-be in DC then pushed along the B-29 development once the war started in Europe in 1939. Fearing that England could fall to Nazi occupation, the B-29 was being made ready to possibly bomb Germany from Newfoundland or Greenland. But, alas, Winston Churchill’s England held firm and the Americans turned their attention to the Pacific Front and the Japanese.  The first Superfortress prototype flew September 1942. With it, a new standard was set when production people had to put an extra effort into the huge technical issues before them. Everything was too new and too big. The gross weight, the engine size and strength, the remote systems, and the pressurization system were just too much, too fast. In other words, the B-29 was ahead of its time. Four factories throughout the US were building it, along with thousands of subcontractors contributing their best people. Even by the time the B-29 reached service in the Far East in May 1944, the mechanics were still working the bugs out to keep the bombers in the air, helped along by Boeing and Wright technicians on site. The engines being the biggest problem. 

Back in the early 1980s, when I researched for my first book, Two Wings and a Prayer, I met several members of the 40Th Bomb Group, brave men who flew the B-29 Superfortress.  One of them was Ivan Potts from Shelbyville, Tennessee, a pilot with the 25th Bomb Squadron.

“Because the B-29 was rushed into production,” Potts said, “Many problems became apparent during the first couple years of its existence. The Wright engines were sometimes nicknamed ‘Wrong’ engines or ‘Flamethrowers’. They’d conk out or catch fire in the air. They’d overheat constantly, cylinder heads would blow off and they also acquired far too many oil leaks. In India [the first 40th BG base] the engines even ran too hot on the ground. But by November 1944, the B-29s that came to India for combat against the Japanese were of much better quality than previous ones.”

Potts added, “The first time I saw a B-29 up close, I couldn’t believe something that big could actually get off the ground and fly. No plane that the United States Army Air Force made was more challenging or exciting to fly. We hated it on occasion, but loved it most of the time. It was completely efficient with no wasted space anywhere. The visibility was great, thanks to the Plexiglas nose. One pilot once said that flying a B-29 was like flying a 3-bedroom house from your front porch. As time progressed, we had more and more respect for the Superfortress.  Its only shortcoming was that it was needed before it was ready.”

Red Carmichael, a reliable, well-respected mechanic with the 40Th Bomb Group, also saw problems with the B-29 at first, more so than the pilots. “At the close of the war, it was a very good machine. But when we first received it in the China-Burma-India Theatre, it was a very poor aircraft. I seem to remember that everything on the B-29 was either changed or modified before the end of the war. The Wright engine rep told me, when we were in India, that they made 1,800-plus modifications to the engine alone back in the States. The engines were the prime factors in our operational losses because they were a damn poor design, and we didn’t have the proper people to maintain them.

“When we arrived in India,” Carmichael continued, “the allowable engine head temperature was 265 degrees. I NEVER saw a temperature on the early B-29s that was under 300 degrees on take-off.  As a result, we were losing engines and aircraft before they even got off the ground. It was not uncommon to replace all top cylinders on the engines 4 or 5 times to reach the 400-hour limit on the engines. We also had a tremendous problem with exhaust stacks and collector rings blowing  out and then you either had to feather the engine or risk the danger of a fire in the engine or the nacelle.”

Larkspur, California resident, Jim O’Keefe, flew as a bombardier with the 40th Bomb Group, the same 25th Bomb Squadron as Potts. “The bombardier had a great station in the B-29. You were not   isolated from the pilot as you were in the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. Even if the intercom failed you had instant communication with the pilot, and always knew what was going on up on the flight deck. I liked the firepower at our station because the bombardier also acted as nose-gunner. We had control of four .50-calibre machine guns in the upper turret and two 50s in the lower turret. So, the firepower against head-on attacks was formidable. We had problems in the beginning with general maintenance and performance. Our 40th Group was one of 4 groups which formed the 58th Wing. The 58th took the first B-29s into combat and the problems with the new, untried plane were severe.”

American ingenuity soon took over, though, and the  B-29 problems were sorted out by early 1945, mostly by trial and error. About this same time, American Marines invaded and subsequently seized the key Japanese-held Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, which were then turned into strategic air bases  for B-29 strikes on the  Japanese homeland 1,500 miles away, well within the B-29’s range.  By then, General Curtis Lemay, in charge of XX Bomber Command in the Pacific realized that high-altitude bombing wasn’t working. So he ordered all Superfortresses to be stripped of all their guns except for the tail, thus allowing for more fuel and more bombs, incendiaries in particular. The Americans quickly ignited a hell on earth on Japan with low-level bombing at scary altitudes (for the crews) of 5,000-9,000 feet. On one such Tokyo mission on 9 March 1945, a massive raid of B-29s burnt out more than 15 square miles of the city, killing over 80,000 and severely injuring another 100,000.

Ivan Potts, whose 40th Bomb Group  was sent to the island of Tinian, remembered  one specific Tokyo night mission on May 26 to show how rugged the B-29 Superfortress really was. “Our altitude was only about 10,000 and when we went over Tokyo, the searchlights were everywhere. We went in single file and we could look out over the yellow-flamed sky and could see the other B-29s stretched out on our right and left. Every now and then we would see a B-29 picked up in the cone of searchlights and after that would catch hell from the anti-aircraft below. On this night we were one of the last going through and we were caught in the middle of the firestorm. When our plane moved into the smoke clouds that were created by the incendiary bombs, we were blown from 10,000 feet to 15,000 feet in a matter of seconds! We ended up on our side and every red light on the aircraft came on! Then we went into a dive where we approached speeds of nearly 500 miles per hour. We finally leveled it out with very little altitude to spare. We just couldn’t believe the power of the firestorm. We were tossed around like a leaf in the wind.”

On a lighter note, Potts, Jim O’Keefe, and the other 40th Bomb Group fliers remembered a strange incident on Tinian. Their base at West Field on the island posed a problem at first for the B-29 airmen flying night missions. Pilots complained that when they were taking off, the height of the hill near the east end of the runway was difficult to judge in the dark. So, floodlights were installed to illuminate the hill. At the beginning of the next mission, the first plane thundered down the runway just as the lights were switched on. To the shock of the American crew aboard, about a dozen or so uncaptured Japanese soldiers (who had been hiding out since the island had been invaded months before) were sitting on the hill watching the show.

The most famous B-29 of all has to be the Enola Gay, commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 509th Composite Group, who named the aircraft after his mother. At 2:45 AM on 6 August 1945, Tibbets and his crew based at North Field on Tinian Island took off in this specially-modified B-29. Six hours later, they dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, thus ushering in the nuclear era. Up to that time the Japanese and the Germans had their own atomic program, but the Americans had obviously beat their enemies to splitting the atom. On 9 August, another B-29 from the 509th, this one known as Bockscar  and flown by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The Japanese government surrendered a few days later, thus saving millions of American and Japanese lives had an all-out invasion been ordered by US forces.

Out of the nearly 4,000 B-29s that had come off the 4 assembly lines throughout the United States, only one is still flying, and it goes by the name of Fifi. Owned by the Commemorative Air Force in Texas, she is one honey of an aircraft. You can catch it at air shows around North America. She’s well worth the admission to see this piece of history. Believe me. I saw  Fifi up close on static display at the Hamilton Air Show back in the 1990s, when cloud cover was too low for flying that day.  I even got a chance to step into the cockpit and look out through all that Plexiglas in the nose. I wanted to see for myself what that unknown pilot meant when he said that flying a B-29 was like flying a 3-bedroom house from your front porch.