In October 1934, Terry Lee—described as a “wide awake American boy” of about 10 years of age—and Pat Ryan—termed a “two-fisted adventurer”—arrived in China. They had a treasure map, left to Terry by his grandfather, and were in search of a lost gold mine. Before they reached their destination, though, they ran afoul of pirates operating along the southern coast of China. The pirate leader was a remarkable woman known as the Dragon Lady. The setting for all this was “Terry and the Pirates,” a syndicated comic strip written and drawn by Milton A. Caniff. It was enormously popular. It spun off a long-running radio show, a movie serial, and other products, and claimed 30 million readers at its peak.
However, chasing pirates and brigands wasn’t Terry’s ultimate destiny. In World War II, he became a pilot in the US Army Air Forces and flew P-40s and P-51s with the Fourteenth Air Force Flying Tigers in China. That is the image of him that has been remembered ever since.
Terry, grown to young manhood, learned to fly in China with Col. Flip Corkin. Caniff liked to model some of his characters on real people. The prototype for Corkin was Air Force Col. Philip Cochran, a noted World War II pilot and leader of air commandos in Burma. (See “The All-American Airman,” March 2000, p. 52.) He became a continuing character in “Terry.”
Terry, Flip, and their colleagues had a great following among airmen, and the strip had considerable morale and public relations value. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, assigned an officer to assist Caniff with any technical details he needed. Caniff produced another strip, “Male Call,” without charge for camp and base newspapers. It featured Miss Lace, who was reminiscent of the Dragon Lady but less standoffish.
During a newspaper strike in 1945, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia read the funnies to children over radio station WNYC. His “dramatic reading” of “Dick Tracy” was fondly remembered.
“Comic” strips were so called because they began with the likes of “The Katzenjammer Kids,” “Moon Mullins,” and “Mutt and Jeff.” By the 1930s and 1940s, though, the “funnies” had matured and were also the domain of adventure continuity strips, including “Flash Gordon,” “Dick Tracy,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Prince Valiant,” and “Smilin’ Jack.”
Terry ended the war as a lieutenant and in 1946 was recruited by US intelligence as an undercover agent. He took a job as a pilot for Air Cathay, a down-at-the-heels freight line flying war surplus transports.
Caniff launched a new strip, “Steve Canyon,” with great fanfare on Jan. 13, 1947. Its beginning was the cover story that week for Time Magazine.
Jet PilotHe was called to active duty as a major during the Korean War. In 1952, he qualified in jet aircraft, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and became commander of an air defense interceptor squadron. One of his pilots, introduced in 1953, was Lt. Peter Pipper. Again basing a character on a real person, Caniff modeled the ebullient Pipper on the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.
Caniff also had a special relationship with the Air Force Association. He served as president of AFA’s Iron Gate Chapter in New York, was on the AFA Board of Directors, and in 1965 was AFA’s Man of the Year. When Terry Lee joined AFA in 1946, it was the subject of the strip on July 19. As Caniff told it, AFA had Flip Corkin send Terry and his sidekick, Hotshot Charlie, their lapel pins with a letter saying, “Glad you’re in the lodge.” Corkin wrote on AFA letterhead, which let Caniff provide the AFA address to his readers.
Terry and Steve weren’t the only airmen in the funnies, nor were they the first. “Fliers were celebrities in the ’20s and ’30s, like ballplayers, prizefighters, and movie actors,” said Ron Goulart in The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips in the Thirties. “People wanted to follow aviation not only in real life but in all the entertainment media. So there were air movies, air pulps, and a slew of air-minded comic strips.”
Another early entrant was “Buck Rogers” in 1929. Buck, a World War I pilot, went to sleep and woke up in the 25th century. It was more of a space opera than an aviation strip, but the first flying machines to appear were a squadron of biplanes. Even the spacecraft looked and performed much like airplanes. The artist, Dick Calkins, had been in the Army Air Service in World War I and sometimes signed his work “Lt. Dick Calkins.”
Mosley was one of the volunteer pilots who helped form the Civil Air Patrol. He flew more than 300 hours of CAP anti-submarine patrols off the Atlantic Coast in 1942-43 and was awarded the Air Medal. In 1976, he was inducted into the CAP Hall of Honor. “Smilin’ Jack” ended in 1973 after the longest run of any aviation strip.
In 1936, Sickles quit in a dispute with the syndicate and was replaced in midstory by A. Bert Christman. Christman drew “Scorchy” for two years and became a pilot himself. In 1941, he joined the American Volunteer Group, the famous Flying Tigers, engaged by China to protect the Burma Road. On Jan. 23, 1942, Christman was flying a P-40 in the defense of Rangoon when he was shot down. He bailed out of his aircraft, but a Japanese pilot strafed and killed him as his parachute came down.
There were various other aviation strips. Among them: “Ace Drummond” (1935-40), “Barney Baxter” (1935-50), “Bruce Gentry” (1945-51), “Flyin’ Jenny” (1939-52), and “Skyroads” (1929-42).
The Blackhawks were freelance fighter pilots, operating from an island in the Atlantic, first fighting Hitler and, later on, despots and criminals of assorted stripes. Blackhawk’s team was multinational: Olaf, Hendrickson, Andre, Chuck, Chop Chop, and Stanislaus. Their leader, Blackhawk, came from Poland.
The question was, what was that strange-looking airplane that the Blackhawks flew? The two engines and the leading edge of the wing were well forward of the fuselage and the cockpit. It looked almost as if the airplane held the wing in its teeth, like a knife blade. Bill Ward, one of the artists who drew “Blackhawk” from 1942 to 1945, did not know what the airplane was, either. He worked from art samples he had been given and assumed the airplane to be fictional. As airplane enthusiasts saw right away, the Blackhawk airplane was a Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket. It was the prototype for a Navy fleet defense fighter, designed in 1938. It first flew in 1940 but soon gave way to more effective aircraft designs.
Bob Stevens was commissioned in the Air Corps in 1943. He flew just about every World War II fighter the Army Air Forces had except for the P-39. He transitioned to jets and set a world speed record in 1950 in the F-86 Sabre. He later commanded the first Atlas missile squadron and retired as a colonel. In his second career, he was an editorial cartoonist for Copley News Service and his work was syndicated in more than 300 newspapers. He continued to fly his own puddle-jumper airplane.
Jake Schuffert’s cartoons will be instantly familiar to all except the youngest of Air Force veterans. A typical Schuffert character had a big nose, an ample waist, and frequently a cookie duster mustache. Jake drew fast and produced a great deal of material. It appeared in Airman Magazine, Air Force Times, and in all sorts of other places, including the Air Force Art Collection and USAF Humor exhibit at the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Jake spent 13 years on flying status before entering the graphics career field. He kept on drawing, retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant in 1962, returned as a civilian employee, and retired again in 1986. His cartoons appeared in Airman for more than 27 years. At first, his page was called “It All Counts for 20,” then “It All Counts for 30,” and finally, “Here’s Jake.” For a year following his death in 1998, Airman ran a monthly selection of the best of Jake’s cartoons. In 1999, some of Jake’s drawings from The Task Force Times were shown at a special exhibition at the Allied Museum in Berlin.
“Jungle Jollies”As an Air Force Reservist, Jack Tippit had a long affiliation with Airman Magazine, beginning in 1963. He drew a monthly page, “Jungle Jollies,” during the Vietnam War, and developed the little spaceman who for years presided over the magazine’s letters page. He was at his best illustrating articles that had a lighter side. He retired as a colonel in 1974.
“Don Winslow of the Navy” was begun in 1934 by Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Frank V. Martinek to help Navy recruiting and public relations. Winslow was a Navy intelligence officer whose adventures satisfied the need for action in peacetime. In World War II, Lieutenant Commander Winslow and his pudgy partner Lt. Red Pennington saw plenty of combat. The strip lost some of its steam after the war but continued for years in both newspapers and comic books.
“Willie and Joe,” among the most famous cartoon characters to come out of World War II, were first drawn in 1940 by Army Pvt. Bill Mauldin for the 45th Division News. Mauldin, working in the evenings and in his spare time, depicted a pair of disheveled dogfaces who got through the privations and dangers of war with as much good humor as they could muster. They eventually moved to a bigger readership in Stars and Stripes. Gen. George S. Patton was not amused and attempted to squelch Mauldin, but he was not allowed to do so. Willie and Joe were featured in Mauldin’s postwar book, Up Front, and Mauldin went on to a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Mauldin, a neighbor of Caniff’s in New York, joined the cast of “Steve Canyon” as Lt. Upton R. Bucket.
“Beetle Bailey” by Mort Walker began in September 1950 as a college humor strip but nobody was interested. After six months, Walker had only 25 client newspapers signed up. Beetle joined the Army March 13, 1951. It was a stroke of fortune for Walker. “Beetle Bailey” currently runs in more than 1,800 newspapers. How it worked out for Beetle himself is open to question. He has 56 years time in grade as a private. He and the troops at Camp Swampy still wear Army uniforms from the 1950s.
Newspaper funnies have mostly reverted to being funny. Only a few adventure continuity story strips remain and none of them are about the Air Force. Now and then, we see the World War I American air ace Snoopy flying his doghouse against the Red Baron, but such episodes are infrequent. Besides, artist Charles Schulz is dead and “Peanuts” is in reruns.
In the current version, there is a Green Lantern Corps, and the most prominent member is Hal Jordan, a test pilot equipped with a green ring that endows him with super powers. When not rigged out in his Green Lantern regalia, Jordan serves in the United States Air Force Reserve and flies an F-22.
The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 19, due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag