This is the third installment of a trilogy. See author’s note at end of story.
SALT LAKE CITY — There is little to suggest that in another life, long ago and far away, Bob Sharp was a World War II fighter pilot.
He is soft-spoken, white-haired and physically diminished by age. He lives a quiet life in Arleta, California, where he dotes on his wife of 71 years, plays piano in his Mormon ward and surrounds himself with his large extended family. The walls of his home office hint at that other life. They are covered with photos of the men who flew with him in the war and shared an experience that, in many ways, defined their lives.
Sharp flew the P-47 Thunderbolt in the skies over Europe in the last months of the war, and then kept flying for another decade, right up until he saw great balls of fire, mayhem and death flying toward him. He landed the plane and never flew again.
He is 94 years old. He was still driving a car until he just recently handed in his driver’s license. The man who once executed tree-top dives and rolled his plane through the sky with precision can no longer even drive a car to the store. His eyes — which made him so skilled at aerial gunnery that the military tried to keep him from the war to train pilots at home — are fading, hampered by the triple crown of vision troubles: glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration. The knees are going, too, which is why he had to give up his daily 5-mile walks. Otherwise, his name describes his mind, still sharp and agile.
“My body is failing me,” he says. “That’s the way it goes when you get to be 94.”
When Veterans Day rolls around each year, the news stories appear like clockwork about a dwindling natural resource. At the outset of the year it was estimated there were about 558,000 American WWII veterans who remain alive out of the original 16 million Americans who served. Sharp is among the 3 percent who endure. They’re going fast. Some 372 WWII vets die each day.
For years Sharp stayed in touch with many of his fellow pilots from the war, but not anymore. “The only one I flew with who’s still alive that I am aware of is Bill Wright,” he says. “He lives in Texas. There might be a couple more. The rest of them, I guess they’re all dead. They’re all gone.”
Sharp survived 78 combat missions in Europe and emerged unscathed, although there were close calls. On one bombing run, he dived so low to the ground that as he pulled up he scraped the tops of the trees.
“I pulled back on the stick as hard as I could,” he says. “You do dumb things in combat, because what does it matter? You figure you’re going to die every day.”
As part of the 368th Fighter Group and the 397th Fighter Squadron, he provided aerial support for ground forces. The P-47s carried 1,000- and 500-pound bombs, as well as .50-caliber machine guns.
“The Army would call in a target and we would strafe the woods or shoot up a tank or cars on the road or whatever was moving, people included,” he says. “It was a nasty situation. We’d do what was necessary. Sometimes it was difficult to determine who was who. The (U.S.) Army put flaming orange panels on their vehicles so we’d be able to identify them.”
At one time he kept a list of all the pilots who passed through his squadron, and one by one many of them disappeared in battle. One researcher counted 31 pilots from the 397th who were killed from 1943 to 1945. Fighter pilots faced numerous deadly hazards — fire in the cockpit, enemy fire from the ground and air, crash landings, trees and telegraph poles. They made strafing runs at 400 mph and less than 200 feet off the ground, which left no option for bailing out, and little margin for error, which is why some planes simply plowed into the ground.
“So many were killed,” Sharp says. “I didn’t think I’d make it through the war, but every time I got in the cockpit, I’d think, 'This is not the day I’m going to die.'”
Sharp was raised in Salt Lake City in a household of women. His father abandoned the family, forcing his wife and two sons to move into her widowed mother’s house, which was also home to two aunts who never married. His mother had to go to work to support her sons.
Sharp joined the drum and bugle corps at Longfellow Grade School and later the ROTC at West High. He liked it so much that he studied an infantry manual. In the West yearbook, he is listed as a second lieutenant of the second platoon and a member of the officer's saber team.
He took a vocational class to learn to repair aircraft sheet metal, and when he graduated from high school he took a job doing just that at what was then called Hill Field in Ogden while also attending classes at the University of Utah. With the war underway, he knew he was likely to be drafted, so he joined the Air Corps.
“I always liked to drive fast and enjoyed pushing my 1935 Ford Coupe to its limits,” he says. “Flying a fighter plane seemed like the ultimate in speed and more fun than marching, camping out and getting shot at on the front lines.”
Sharp and Jerry Kelly, another Salt Lake native, met for the first time while they were training at Luke Field in Arizona. Their friendship was cemented when they shared a seat on a long train ride to their next training assignment at Harding Field in Louisiana. “Sharp and I are practically a carbon copy of each other,” Kelly wrote home to his mother. “We think the same about everything and like the same things.” They met Don Evans, who grew up in Lehi, at Harding Field. They were all from Utah and all Mormons whose idea of a good time was a root beer float. They were inseparable and quickly earned their nickname: The Three Musketeers.
Sharp earned a reputation as an aerial sharpshooter, and when training camp concluded, he was assigned to remain in the U.S. to train other pilots. That would have kept him out of combat, but Sharp wasn’t having it. He told his superiors that he wanted to remain with his buddies and enter combat instead. “Probably a dumb thing for me to do,” he says.
The Three Musketeers were kept intact. They took the Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic to England and were assigned to the same squadron and the same tent. After weeks of waiting for airplanes, they moved to France and joined the fight in the fall of 1944.
They made their first combat mission on Sept. 17, dropping bombs in a corridor that pilots nicknamed “Happy Valley” because of its high concentration of anti-aircraft guns. Afterward, Evans told fellow pilots “the flak was intense and accurate and exploding really close to us. I was pretty scared and just glad to get back home.” Sharp made his first entry into what became his unofficial mission report log: “West of Koblenz, we ran into too much weather to fly, so we did a 180. As soon as we started turning around, all hell broke loose. We were at 5,000 feet and the flak saw that we stayed there. I finally made a dive toward a train and dropped my bombs. I missed the train by 40 or 50 yards, but I think I scared someone. You just can’t imagine the terror you feel the first time you fly over enemy territory and experience intense flak. I was one scared chicken."
Even 72 years later, Sharp can still vividly recall what it was like to fly the P-47 into combat: “We’d take ack, ack (anti-aircraft fire from the ground) and when we heard the explosions we gyrated and changed our path so they couldn’t line us up. We were there mostly for ground support, but occasionally we had dogfights. As you went down on the ground dive-bombing the enemy, you might hear the (radio) call “60 bogeys at 10 o’clock high.” You’d climb up so you weren’t a sitting duck. You’d be going up and the enemy would be going down and then the dogfight started. There was a lot of loud radio chatter. It was chaos. If someone got on your tail, you’d do a steep turn to evade. If you got on a German you’d shoot him. There was one plane I’m positive I put out of business, but the camera on my plane didn’t work (to verify the hit). You can’t stay on their tail long. Your wingman’s gone cause someone’s on him. Eventually, if they’re on you, you roll over and take it down. The P-47 was a heavy plane with a lot of power, and it was controllable in a steep dive. You hope you outrun 'em going downhill, and if they can’t catch you, you head for home.”
He spent his free time at the base hanging out with Kelly and Evans, but that was about to change. On Oct. 20, Sharp and Kelly were among 12 pilots tasked to bomb targets in Germany. As they taxied next to each other on the runway to prepare for takeoff, their eyes met and Kelly waved goodbye to Sharp. It was the last time they would see each other.
They were flying in three groups of four, with Kelly in the first group and Sharp in the last. Somewhere near Aachen, Germany, Kelly’s plane was hit by enemy fire on what was only his 10th sortie of the war. He radioed that he had “smoke in the cockpit.” His comrades lost sight of Kelly’s plane. Later, they returned to the area and made a futile search.
“That was the last I heard of him,” says Sharp. “When there’s smoke in the cockpit, you can’t see if you’re right-side up or upside down; you’re unable to see anything outside or even the instrument panel. Although there was no sight of him bailing out, we didn’t know for sure that he hadn’t, so that gave us a reason to hope. I went back to base and that’s when you realize who isn’t there.”
Kelly’s body would not be discovered until 1946; he had been buried on the German-Belgium border. Three years later his body was brought home to Salt Lake City. Kelly, who had just turned 20 when he perished, was such a beloved figure that three men would name children after him, including Sharp (he named his youngest son Kelly).
Years later, Evans would write, “Seldom did a mission go by but what one or two of our men failed to return out of 16 planes. Of course, there was always sadness on these occasions, but in Jerry's case, there was a time of mourning and respect for him the likes of which had never occurred in our squadron before.”
In a phone interview, Sharp said, “My whole life I wondered why him, not me? I wondered, am I being saved for something, what? … Jerry Kelly was my best friend at that time, and maybe forever. I still see him every day on my wall. There’s a picture of him. I’m looking at him now. I think of him quite often. He was a great kid and great guy. He was a very righteous kid, very pure.”
Two months later, another member of The Three Musketeers was lost. Evans was shot down on Christmas Eve over the Battle of the Bulge. One of the pilots had seen him bail out, but he was so low to the ground that it seemed unlikely he would survive.
Months later they would learn that Evans spent a cold Christmas Eve slumped against a tree, hiding in the forest from German soldiers. He was captured the next day and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp, where he endured starvation, illness and brutal treatment from his captors. He would come home, raise a family and run a successful business, but the rest of his life he dealt with the symptoms of what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, although he managed to hide it from most people. Evans died on Christmas Eve 1999.
“Don had a rough time because of his POW experience,” says Sharp. “I don’t know how I would’ve handled it. I probably would’ve sat in a corner and cried.”
Sharp returned to Utah after the war and earned an engineering degree from the University of Utah, then moved to California to accept a job at Lockheed. Among other projects, he worked on the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird for years. Test pilots would fly the plane at predetermined speeds, Sharp would gather and analyze the data — particularly airspeed and stability — and then determine if was safe to go faster and, if so, how fast. If successful, the process would repeat itself at a another prescribed increase of speed.
“After analyzing the data, we’d tell them, for example, that it was safe to go another two-tenths of a mach at a certain attitude, from 1.4 to 1.6,” he says. “We ended up at 3.2 mach.” After the SR-71 project, he worked on the L-1011.
While working for Lockheed, Sharp was still flying fighter planes on weekends. He joined the Utah Air Guard while completing his degree and later the California Air Guard. It all ended on one flight. Sharp was towing a target over the gunnery range in a T-33 somewhere near Yuma. Two jets were flying toward him to shoot at the target, but the jets collided in a ball of fire close to Sharp’s plane.
“It was a tumbling ball of fire coming toward me,” says Sharp. “I thought, 'Man, this is going to be close.' It was more than close. I can still see that collision right now.”
One of the pilots was knocked out of his plane and was found lying dead in the desert. The other pilot, in Sharp’s words, “disintegrated.” The brother of one of the pilots was in the second seat of Sharp’s aircraft.
“Right then I decided I was going to quit,” he says. “I thought, 'I’ll never grow up to see my grandkids if I keep doing this.' We’d lost a couple of pilots the previous year, too. I don’t know how I landed the plane.”
After returning to the nearest base, he was supposed to fly the plane to his home base near Van Nuys, but Sharp was so rattled that he wanted to take a train instead. His superiors ordered him to fly the jet home. “I was nervous the whole way,” he says. “It looked like every plane in the air was trying to hit me. I got it on the ground and walked away and never looked back.”
He hasn’t piloted a plane since then.
In 1988, he retired from Lockheed Martin after 33 years. To stay physically and mentally sharp, he decided he would play the piano for an hour and walk for an hour every day. He practiced that routine for decades. Sharp has played the piano for his Mormon ward’s priesthood meeting for 35 years and still can’t read music. “I’m getting a little better, I think,” he says. He and his wife, Jackie, have three children, 13 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
A couple of years ago, family members asked him to tell them about his war experiences. He sat on a chair in the middle of the room and his large extended family gathered around him and listened. Like the rest of the world, they wanted to hear a firsthand account while they can.
Recently, Sharp was asked if he still thinks about the war.
“Every day, basically,” he replies. “I thank God he provided some protection for me all my life and especially during that period. I thank him every day for that.”
Author’s note: This is the third installment of a trilogy, although it wasn’t intended as such at the outset. The stories chronicle the experiences of a trio of Utah fighter pilots who flew together during World War II and became such close friends that they were nicknamed The Three Musketeers. In 2014, I wrote the first of the three stories: A narrative about Jerry Kelly, who was shot down over Germany and died. Still, there seemed to be more to tell, and earlier this year I wrote a second story about Don Evans, who was shot down over Belgium and spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. The following story chronicles the war experiences of Bob Sharp, the lone surviving member of the Musketeers.
The project began when I was contacted several years ago by a young investment analyst named Ryan Kelly. In his spare time, he became so intrigued by family stories of his uncle, Jerry Kelly, whom he never met, that it became an obsession. He spent years reading old letters and interviewing acquaintances and eventually hired a professional researcher to find more information about his uncle. In the course of his research, he learned about The Three Musketeers and managed to track down Sharp, as well as the son of one of the Musketeers, Ken Evans, who recently completed a manuscript about his father’s war experience. What began as a story about Jerry Kelly blossomed into three stories about the men who forged a bond in the midst of uncertainty and danger.