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Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2015

Old tales for new times: WW2 pilot's story to be filmed

Sunday, July 3, 2011

John Ross sits in his home near Normandy Lake and looks through flight books, history books -- and the scrapbook his wife made that he never even knew about until after she died.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
Little more than a year ago, World War II pilot John Ross of Manchester told his story to the Times-Gazette -- and what a story it was.

One of the most decorated pilots in history, Ross was pivotal in winning the Battle of the Bulge. He was the only reconnaissance pilot -- meaning spy in the sky -- to make it back from a scouting run with information crucial for the Allies. It was information that led to their victory over the Germans in the pivotal, costly battle.

Daring danger

He was shot down three times, including one incident over the North Sea. Being shot down in the P-38 was especially dangerous because the plane had a dual tail with a cross bar between them. When the pilot ejected, it was all too easy to be whipped back and thrown against the bar -- called the Pilot Killer -- and end up with a broken back and an almost certain fatal wound.

When Ross ejected over the North Sea, he arched back as he flew out of the cockpit and grabbed the Pilot Killer with his hands, flipping himself over it.

It was an amazing feat, and when movie producers Michael Henschoot and Sean Bridges of Travelin' Productions heard about it, they thought it need to be captured on screen.

"It's a story that needs to be told," said Henschoot.

Careful decisions

But when they contacted Ross, he wasn't talking.

In fact, he hung up on them.


"I thought it was some kind of scam," laughed the nonagenarian. "I used some language that wasn't good."

They finally got his attention by telling him about his own life, obscure facts that indicated the men had done some serious research on Ross's exploits. They told him they were coming to meet him.

Ross's son Randy, a lawyer living in Florida, told his father not to talk to them until he got there, but the men had called from the Nashville airport and arrived a day before Randy. Ross didn't sign the contract, though, until his son looked it over carefully.

Legitimate producers

"They were the nicest people," said Ross. "One of them did the animation for the Spider-man movie. It was an adventure for someone as dumb as I am."

In fact, both producers have impressive credits. Bridges, who found out about Ross from Chip Ramsey, editor of the Saturday Independent in Manchester, has acted in several movies and television shows, including two years on "Deadwood" as Johnny Burns, and Reece Witherspoon's friend Eldon in "Sweet Home Alabama." Just last year, he did guest spots on "Bones," "The Mentalist," "Private Practice," "True Blood," "Lie to Me," and "Justified."

Bridges has produced other works before, including the short A "Night at the Zoo," and "Paradise Falls."

Henschoot (pronounced "Henscot") co-produced "A Night at the Zoo" with Bridges and also directed it, but his work has been mostly in animation and CGI. He was the lead animator on "Sky High," "Master and Commander," and "Bless the Child." He also worked on "National Treasure," "Black Hawk Down," "Minority Report," and "The Ring," to name a very, very few.

Big screen hopes

The digital experience is what he brings to the project. The two men originally planned to make a short film about Ross's dramatic escape from the falling P-38, including his acrobatic maneuver, using computer graphics imaging.

But once they met Ross, and heard his whole story, those plans changed. They're still going to make the short, but they hope to use it to convince backers to finance a feature-length film.

"The World War II stuff is in itself such a big deal," said Henschoot. "But when we heard the rest of it ... it needs to be told and it needs to be seen."

What could be more interesting that the dramatic escape? After several days of interviewing Ross on camera, the two men found the answer -- just about his entire life, that's what.

Exciting life

Ross was born in 1918 and lost his father when he was only 8. He started working as a boy, doing everything from chopping cotton to running a dairy.

"Nobody treated me like a kid," said Ross. "I was driving and everything."

Ross hopped a train during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, joining many other out-of-work men. Of course, he was a lot younger than most. He'd get off in one place and work on a farm for a while, the move on to something else. His longest job before joining the service was working for an oil company, learning every aspect of the job, from gopher to roughneck.

"I got into it with one of my bosses and got all my teeth knocked out," Ross said. "They fired me -- but they gave me a good recommendation."

Ross had seen a pilot fly by and realized that was what he really wanted to do.

"I love speed," he said. "Even when I was a kid, I drove wide open."

In fact, one of the jobs he held that never showed up on a resume was bootlegger, bringing alcohol into dry states. He didn't care about the booze -- he just wanted the Buick.

Ace of the sky

The first time Ross took the exam to see if he could go into pilot training, he failed miserably. Understandable, since he hadn't even finished grade school, much less college.

Pearl Harbor had already happened, and Ross found himself in San Francisco, welding together the massive battleships for the war effort, but he still had his eye on the sky. His determination impressed one pilot, who tutored him every night after Ross left work.

"He taught me physics, all about vectors, everything I'd need to know," he said. "When I took the test again, I scored 125 -- out of 135."

The rest, as they say, is history. While he was spying on the Germans and getting shot out of the sky (the recon planes had no weapons so they were lighter and faster -- but vulnerable), his wife Leona was at home, collecting articles and saving them. When the officer showed up at her doorstep for the third time to tell her he was shot down and presumed dead, she only rolled her eyes and said "He'll be back."

A world of love

Mementos of his long life are displayed in his home, including photographs of his wife and of him during his days as a World War II pilot. Two producers have bought Ross's life story for a film and spent several days here interviewing him.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
They were married 72 years before she passed, and many of those years were spent traveling and raising five children (and enjoying a countless brood of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.)

A commercial pilot after the war, Ross was able to take "Sis" around the world -- literally. It would probably be easier to name the places they didn't go than the ones they did, but their travels ranged from Branson, Mo., to Berlin, from Hawaii to Honduras. They lived in more than a dozen states and visited almost all of them.

Before his wife succumbed to Alzheimer's, she asked Ross to write out lists for her, the places they'd lived, the places they'd gone and the jobs he'd held.

Those very lists were what he had in hand as he told the two producers his life story.

After she passed, he found a scrapbook she had kept of his adventures in the war, a scrapbook he'd never even known existed.

"She was a beautiful woman," he said. "She was the most beautiful woman in the world."

Looking ahead

Henschoot and Bridges are working on the preliminaries for the short film now, and it may be years before it sees a screen. Ross, 93, knows there is a chance he'll never get to see it, but that doesn't matter. The contract he signed makes sure his heirs inherit the final amount the producers are paying -- including a percentage of the gross.

He also knows they'll get to see it -- and maybe they'll understand their father and grandfather that much better.

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this story is a real piece of Americana.i usually dont send e-mails.i haven't even written over ten letters in my life.this guy reminds me of my father-in-law,bob hopkins,deceased.i truly hope he gets to see the completed movie.i'll remember you and your brave service Mr. Ross this 4th of july. sincerely rick mcclain

-- Posted by rickmcclain on Mon, Jul 4, 2011, at 11:30 AM

Congratulations, Mr. Ross. I do hope you live to see your story on the screen. Lots of you service men really had a story to tell, but few wanted to talk about it. My late husband spent 4 years in the Marine Corps, but did not wish to talk about it. I am sure your experiences will be greatly appreciated. Good Luck to You.

-- Posted by Poksalad on Wed, Jul 20, 2011, at 1:55 PM

John Ross lives in our RV park in Sanford, Florida, and I had the extreme pleasure of speaking with him last Sunday morning for about a half hour. He is such a humble man remarking that the true heros of WW2 were the woman on our production lines for the war machines. He said that nobody talks about them and he thinks they deserve to be honored. I was in the Air Force and was part of the satellite command and control network and understand the vital recon missions he flew in WW2 as well as his U2 flights during the cold war.

-- Posted by walt_irv on Thu, Jun 14, 2012, at 10:39 PM

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