The Liberty Gazette
March 28, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Picture him, a slender, wide-eyed lieutenant, and mischievous grin flashing youthful pearly whites. It’s Saturday night on the island of Oahu and like any 23-year old he has dreams and aspirations. No different than any other person at any other time, this here-and-now is just that, and tomorrow is the next day on the calendar.
Maybe tonight he cruises Hotel Street and dines on Chow Mein at Wo Fat Chinese-American restaurant. Or perhaps our handsome lad is taking a special gal to the Varsity Theatre to see "The Great Lie", starring Bette Davis. If he has two quarters to rub together he could buy a ticket and Jitterbug the night away at the South Seas Club. If he has a bit more he might enjoy a sizzling steak with his buddies at Kemoo Farm - drinks and dancing included. Or perhaps he stays in the barracks there at Wheeler Field, although I have a harder time imagining a young fighter pilot sitting still, playing Bridge. I do have this idea though that on that balmy December night, Phil Rasmussen, the Phil Rasmussen I imagine from photos of the time, it seems more likely is out on the town, as was customary for soldiers on Saturday nights in the Aloha State.
Why do I think these things of someone I've never met, whose descendants I don't even know? It's all speculation, I admit, but when a man that age, a pilot with more testosterone in his body than fuel in his airplane is still asleep at a quarter to eight the next morning, the storyteller in me crafts the circumstances, and right or wrong I him picture sleeping more than an hour past sunrise because he was out late the night before. Also, I was 23 once.
But not at 23 nor at any age as of yet have I awakened to the ferocity of bombs, the threatening roar of a fleet of enemy airplanes dead-set on killing me and my countrymen.
These are the things to which Phil Rasmussen wakes. Reacting to the sight through his barracks window by strapping on his .45 caliber pistol over his purple silk pj's he runs outside to find an airplane the Japanese strafing might have missed. It’s a long shot, but he finds one - a P-36 Hawk.
Taxiing over for a load of ammo for the .30 and .50 caliber mounted guns, in a brief lull in the attack Phil and three others take off to defend America, just them alone, while heavy damage cripples the rest of the air field.
Picture now Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen’s son, seated in the cockpit in nothing but his jammies – and his .45. He hones in on a Zero. The mounted .30 jams. The .50 is all he's got. Be a fly on his shoulder as he executes with determination and strikes with skill and luck, sending the Zero down.
Still under attack by more Zeros see him now losing control of his damaged P-36 diving toward the cloud layer between him and the mountains. But exhale now and watch this pilot, this fighter, regain control and head back to Wheeler Field. Hold your breath again as he approaches to land, no brakes, no rudder control, no tail wheel, and for all that's been lost on the airplane, the one thing it's gained is about 500 bullet holes. You can't count them all but the number's a good estimate you agree as you watch the lieutenant dismount his Hawk a little older now, and you know that "The Pajama Pilot" is a badge of honor, a story of courage.