Robert “Smoky” Vrilakas was born in 1918 on his parents’ farm near Red Bluff. His father was a Greek immigrant, his mother a teacher from Wisconsin, and his nickname came from his love of cigars as a high school student from Proberta.
He received his draft notice in the spring of 1941, reporting to the selective service board in Red Bluff “for induction into the army. I sold my beloved Model A Ford for $80” and he was off to basic training at Fort Ord.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary career in the military, where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and more. He tells his story in “Look, Mom--I Can Fly!: Memoirs Of A World War II P-38 Fighter Pilot” ($16.95 in paperback from Amethyst Moon Publishing, ampubbooks.com; also for Amazon Kindle) which includes maps and a wealth of photographs.
Eventually he had the opportunity to train as a pilot. “Flying took me into another world. ... For better or worse, I was hooked.” Then, “about midway through advanced flight training a notice appeared on the bulletin board asking for eighty volunteers to fly P-38s after graduation.” Vrilakas signed up.
He trained at Luke Air Base and graduated in 1943; two others in his class would make a name for themselves, including Chuck Yeager who would become the first human to travel faster than sound, and Dick Catledge, who later “organized and led the first Air Force ‘Thunderbird’ demonstration flight team.”
“The P-38,” Vrilakas writes, “was an awesome sight to us. It was at that time the Air Corps’ top high-performance, high-altitude fighter.” (The “prop wash” once knocked over a portable toilet. The guy inside “made a do-or-die dash for safety.”)
Assigned at first to a base in Tunisia for the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Fighter Squadron, the author flew 50 missions, and details each in the book. As part of the “greatest generation,” he survived. The real heroes, he writes, are those who “made the supreme sacrifice in the very prime of their lives.”