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WWII vet adds his voice to history

In his new memoir, Robert 'Smokey' Vrilakas, a 93-year-old retired Air Force pilot, poignantly tackles the tragedy of war in a reflective style that the Greatest Generation typically eschews.

Although the Happy Valley resident of 38 years shares in the common belief that World War II was inevitable, he's become an outspoken peace activist in recounting the events of the first half of the 1940s.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Happy Valley resident Robert 'Smokey' Vrilakas, 93, shown in this historic photo joining the Air Force, has new book recounting the events of the first half of the 1940s.

'We've been in some wars that we should have never gotten into, and that's certainly the case in Iraq, but Hitler had to be stopped from taking over all of Europe,' he said. 'When we were drafted, we just took it as part of our civic duty, and very few of us ever questioned it.'

Six months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, Vrilakas himself was drafted at only 22, forever transforming the Northern Californian farm boy whose sole experience with aviation had been a Ford Trimotor passenger plane droning in the distance.

Of the 80 people who volunteered to fly the top warplane, P-38, only 65 made it on the elite squadron. Of those 65, about half survived to the end of the war.

Of the four people in the 'Fearsome Foursome,' only one, Dick Lee, came back with Vrilakas. The 'Fearsome Foursome' was known for fearless defense of bombers on the 94th Fighter Squadron, represented by the iconic 'Hat in the Ring' insignia.

'They outnumbered us until the beginning of 1944, when they thinned out a bit and became committed to covering the East Coast of Europe because of a possible landfall of Allied troops in France,' Vrilakas recalled. 'Most of our missions were to escort bombers and have four or five of us weaving back and forth to protect the bombers from German fighters.'

Although the fighter squadron is now the second oldest in the Air Force, it wasn't always made up of aces.

'One of the problems, if you could call it a problem, was we were up against a very experienced enemy, and we were just beginners,' Vrilakas said. 'They always had an advantage, because we were in their territory and they knew we were coming.'

Vrilakas doesn't shy away from recounting the inevitable destruction of human life that resulted.

'The loss of a pilot on any mission was a difficult matter to accept and emphatically brought home the tragic and sad consequences of war,' Vrilakas writes in his 174-page book, 'Look, Mom - I Can Fly: Memoirs of a World War II P-38 Fighter Pilot.'

He says that he nevertheless felt compelled to elaborate.

'When I start talking about people we've lost and classmates that have been shot down - that's something I don't like to bring up too much,' he said.

Series of catastrophes

'I've read about people who were apparently doing things that I knew weren't true,' Vrilakas said, referring to the tendency of many WWII writers to exaggerate their memories. Pilot memoirists have even claimed that they were speaking with members of the Luftwaft, which would be ridiculous unless they were double agents.

But Vrilakas' account rang true and has already garnered praise from critics for its objectivity and balance.

'It's been so well accepted - I couldn't believe it,' Vrilakas said.

'I kept my account very factual and didn't embellish it at all, and people really appreciate that, so I guess I struck the right note.'

Vrilakas notes that airborne war tends to appear more glamorous compared to other forms of combat, but he quotes French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who wrote, 'War is a series of catastrophes.'

Trying not to dwell on the tragedies he witnessed and felt in combat, Vrilakas and his company generally referred to close comrades' deaths as 'he augured in' or 'bought the farm.'

'That didn't mean he was forgotten,' Vrilakas said. 'It meant that we had to put the grief of the loss of a comrade on the back burner until the war was over.'