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World War II fighter pilot: 'Last man standing'

I've often been apprehensive before interviews with anyone over the age of 90.

For one thing, I can tend toward mumbling, and I do better with people whose hearing is sharp.

With 92-year-old Ernest Treff, whom I had the great honor to meet this week, at his home in Mumford Cove in Groton, I spoke up, and we chatted just fine. Everything about Treff is sharp — his hearing, his memory, his keen and practical intelligence, even his wry wit.

When I asked how, as a fighter pilot in World War II, he maintained the required radio silence with other U.S. squadron planes in enemy confrontations over Germany, he shot back: "When you are in a dogfight, you use the radio."

One thing that makes Treff not such a good interviewee is his gentlemanly modesty.

This is, after all, someone who, without telling his parents, signed up at the age of 19 for Air Force flight school, so he could go off and fight for his country.

He ended up qualifying, because of his high training scores in airplane target shooting off Montauk, N.Y., for a slot in the 56th Fighter Group out of Boxted, England, known as Zemke's Wolf Pack for its renowned commander, Col. Hubert Zemke.

Zemke's Wolf Pack ended up with the highest killing ratio of any U.S. squadron in the war, shooting down far more enemy planes than it lost. The group was credited with destroying 665 enemy aircraft

Treff told me he chose to sign up for the Air Force in part because he had always wanted to fly, since, as a small boy growing up in Queens, N.Y., he would watch with fascination the planes take off and land from what is now LaGuardia Airport.

But he also wanted to go right to the heart of the war, and he knew he would get there as a fighter pilot.

None of the facts of his illustrious war service came easily in our interview. He does not seem inclined to boast.

Indeed, for all the decades he has lived here — he went on to study engineering after the war and later took a job with the Cottrell printing press manufacturing company in Pawcatuck — he has escaped any mention in The Day's extensive coverage of local veterans.

He did attend squadron reunions over the years, but the last one was about 10 years ago. Most of his squadron mates are gone.

"I think I'm the last man standing, but I'm not sure," he said.

Treff said he doesn't ever think much about the war.

The only war-related complaint he offered up was a recent problem with his balance, which his doctors attribute to the frostbite he experienced in his feet in the unheated well of the cockpit of his Thunderbolt, several thousand feet in the air, all those years ago.

When I asked if he was ever scared before going out on a mission, he shrugged. When I asked if he was relieved when it was over, he noted that they always had a bottle of scotch waiting for him at the officers club.   

He is a spry 92 today, swimming almost every day in his own pool.

He still drives. Until about six years ago, he still flew his own plane, but he says he gave it up when the price of airplane fuel made flying on commercial airlines more economical. He sails his own beetle cat.

He is a skilled photographer, and the walls of his home have many of his own framed photographs, including one of a wartime squadron mate, flying his Thunderbolt, his head popping out of the open cockpit.

Treff said he had to steer his own Thunderbolt with his knees when he took the picture.

He is a widowed father of five. Three of his children have pilot's licenses.

Treff was born in Brazil to a father of German heritage and a mother of Prussian heritage. The family moved to New York when he was very young, when his father took a job here.

I wondered if he had any qualms about shooting at Germans, given his heritage. German was his first language.

He did not hesitate in answering.

"If you grow up with a threat of Germans and Italians invading, if they were going to start a war, then you were going to go fight them," he said. "They had no trouble getting soldiers for World War II."

Treff walked me through a lesson in fighter plane technique.

The planes in his group were often sent to accompany and protect bombers over Germany. He flew as a wing man, meaning his job was to protect the lead attack planes in his group.

The Germans, who had radar, generally sent up attack planes when the U.S. aircraft turned up on screens, but the enemy pilots did not know exactly what they would find until they were airborne and could take visual sightings.

So if the attack plane he was protecting was targeted by an enemy fighter, Treff's job was to interfere.

Some things to remember about a dogfight: You attack a plane from the rear, because it's too hard to aim from the side, given the speed of the target. The guns are fix mounted, so you steer the plane to aim. You have to be flying straight when you shoot, otherwise the bullets go out at an angle. You have a rear view mirror, but that's not enough to know you're not in enemy sights.

"You are constantly looking around," Treff said.

I wondered if he knew why he seemed so well suited to it, how he qualified for the elite fighter group in the first place.

He said he believes his many years as a gymnast as a child, which his parents encouraged, probably helped.

"You need to have an awareness of your body in space, without thinking about it," he said. "That translates into wearing the airplane.

"You are not to think about what you are doing — just do it."

Treff had a lot of quirky reminisces about his war years, including the time he cut off the bottom of the tie of Gen. James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle, whom he met in the officers club bar. Treff said he was enforcing an old tradition that a pilot is not supposed to be seen in a tie after 10 p.m.

Doolittle was angry at first, Treff recalled this week, but relaxed after he offered him a drink from his bottle of scotch, which the general ended up finishing.

Treff said that when he first reported for duty in England he asked a commanding officer about flying the Thunderbolts.

This is what Treff remembers being told: "When you get the wheels off the ground, and start flying, if it feels like an airplane, fly it like an airplane ... If it feels like a fighter, God bless you, and have a good time."

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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