The Rio Grande Valley in Texas is a vast carpet of cotton fields and rope-thin palms, and the only apparent reason for calling it a valley is that the Himalayas are somewhere on one side of it and the Pyrenees on another. Although the valley does have certain geographical borders—the Gulf of Mexico lies to the east and the sawdust-tinted Rio Grande crawls along to the south—the land abruptly surrenders in all directions to the infinity of a Texas horizon. The town of Mercedes is a tiny green swatch in the lower tip of this valley. It is seven miles as the dust flies from Nuevo Progreso, Mexico and a desperate phone call from almost anyplace else. But despite its isolation, Mercedes is gaining a peculiar distinction: strange ghosts are curling out of the skies above it.
The visitations occur during daylight hours, usually on clear, sunny days. A farmer off in the plowed fields squints up and sees an abstract creature swoop down from the clouds, barrel across a rooftop and, with a ghastly snarl, corkscrew quickly back into the exotic prism of time from which it seemingly has escaped. The first is usually followed by another. And another. For a while the citizens of Mercedes viewed these strange goings-on with alarm if not terror, but by now almost everyone has learned to identify the spooky silhouettes as World War II fighter airplanes being flown for the innocent delight of it by a curious group of men. Mercedes has become the home base for an amusing and historically interesting air force.
At a skimpy little airport generally inhabited only by crop-spraying planes, nine of the most famous fighter aircraft of World War II have come back to life. They comprise what is known as the Confederate Air Force. There are a North American P-51 Mustang, the sleek killer that flew more than 200,000 combat sorties and destroyed nearly 10,000 enemy planes; a gull-winged F4U Corsair, heroic companion of the marines at Guadalcanal, Pappy Boyington's plane and the aircraft that was still good enough seven years later over Korea to take a MIG-15 jet; a Grumman Wildcat, the stub-nosed relic whose cockpits were occupied by such aces as Butch O'Hare and Joe Foss; a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the Flying Tiger of Claire Chennault; a twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the fighter in which Major Richard Bong performed miracles; a full-bellied F6F Hellcat, the workhorse of famed Task Force 58; a P-47 Thunderbolt of the kind that roared over the beaches on D-day; a P-63E Kingcobra; and, finally, a sizzling F8F Grumman Bearcat, last of the prop-driven American fighters.
Although stripped of their armor-plating, their machine guns, their excess fuel tanks and even their radios, these glistening old ghosts still form an imposing squadron.
The pilots of the self-styled Confederate Air Force are sportsmen above everything, as the slogan, "Semper Mint Julep," on the backs of their gray, shoulder-patched shirts urgently suggests. They are playfully subservient to an imaginary leader, Colonel Jethro E. Culpeper, who awards such citations as the Silver Magnolia Blossom for heroism—landing in a cluster of shrubs on a dead engine. They wear Stetsons. They have their own silver wings. Like their mythical commander, they are all fully commissioned colonels. They lean heavily on the Confederate whimsy as an excuse for social rallies. The Rebel air militia has become one of the most elite clubs in the valley, with more than 100 dues-paying members, nearly half of them capable of piloting the fighters.
But aside from the jokes and a love of flying, the mission of this more than slightly sardonic bunch of pilots is to preserve in flyable condition their antique gun platforms, and to remind Americans (or show them, perhaps) what fought in the skies during World War II. The colonels, like many old pilots, are gripped by the ever-lingering nostalgia of their war. They are quite dedicated to the serious undertaking of maintaining their flying museum. "These planes are like statues," says one colonel. He is Lloyd P. Nolen, deputy commander of the group, who stands only one salute back of Jethro Culpeper himself. "It's great sport to fly 'em, but they mean a lot to our history, too."
Until the founding of the Confederate Air Force, no one seemed to care about preserving the fighters for anything more significant than aluminum ingots. It was only when Nolen, a former Air Force instructor who now operates the Mercedes Flying Service, and a few of his air-minded friends decided to buy a P-51 "for kicks" that they discovered World War II planes were almost as hard to find as Mercedes itself. "We just happened to hear that a Mustang was available through government surplus in San Antonio," Nolen says. "So a few of us, including Billy Drawe, a cotton farmer, and Roscoe Norman, who works for me, went together and bought it for $2,500."
The P-51 was the Liz Taylor of fighter planes to old Air Force men, and Nolen, a deep-voiced, deliberate man in thin-rimmed glasses, had a special reason for wanting one so badly. "It used to kill me during the war to have my students come back and tell me about the hot planes they were flying," he says. "There I was, stuck for four years in an AT-6 trainer." The Mustang was as much fun as Nolen had hoped it would be, but there were some former Navy pilots in the valley who kept telling fast tales about the Bearcat. One year later, directly from the Navy, Nolen was able to purchase a Bearcat for only $805, quite a bargain considering that it cost $111,000 new. What followed was an attempt among the flyers, who were now having dogfights on Sundays the way most men play golf or fish, to see which was the better aircraft. "It was a performance toss-up," says Nolen. "But what really came out of it all was the idea to start the Confederate Air Force. We soon incorporated as a nonprofit organization and decided to get one each of all of the wartime fighters."
Recruiting more Confederate colonels was about as much of a chore for Nolen as recruiting southern drawls. In the valley there are 56 crop-spraying firms, among which Nolen's is the largest (10 planes, nine pilots) and the most profitable. World War II pilots are prominent among the crop sprayers, but the Confederate Air Force got enlistees from other fields, too. There are farmers, teachers, doctors, car dealers and lawyers among the Rebels. Nolen was pleased to discover that all were as dedicated to the collection task as he was. For example, Clyde Elliott, a retired Navy commander who has a small spraying service in Harlingen (the nearest "city," 13 miles away) says, "Right away, these planes made me homesick. They played a major part in a great war, and I think the memory of them ought to be preserved for Americans." Elliott flew Corsairs and Wildcats during the war. He made more than 350 takeoffs and landings aboard carriers. "It gives us a particularly good feeling at air shows when old pilots crowd around them, pat them on the nose and tell their kids, 'Lookie here, son. This was your dad's plane.' "
The Confederate Air Force works on a basis of partnerships. Two, three or four men get together and buy a plane, then lease it to the group. Several of the colonels own an interest in more than one fighter. Lloyd Nolen has a piece of seven different planes—which adds up to an expensive hobby. Actually, it is on Nolen's property, once called the Central Valley Airport, that the fighters are stored. Nolen purchased the field and its buildings for his Mercedes Dusting Service. He renamed it Rebel Field. Altogether the Confederate Air Force has $102,000 invested in its planes, including the reconditioning costs.