Long before Campbell introduced ROTC on its campus, its young men fought and died in several wars. Keith Finch ('41), now in his 90s, is one of a dwindling number of World War II veterans still around to tell their tales. Finch showed farm boys how to become fighter pilots during the war, and didn't escape without a few brushes with death himself.
By Billy Liggett
Keith Finch | From farm boys to fighter pilots
More than 40,000 U.S. fighter pilots and airmen were killed during World War II. Many of them died in combat, while even more were killed in training crashes or operational accidents.
It was more dangerous to learn to fly than to actually fly a mission. Those who flew the required 30 missions had a 71 percent chance of not making it back alive.
“Gen. Sherman was right. War is Hell,” says Keith Finch, a 94-year-old WWII pilot and instructor and 1941 graduate of then-Campbell College. “Actually, it’s worse than that,” he adds, his voice trailing off. “It’s much worse.”
You might consider Finch one of the lucky ones. He spent most of the war training the men — many of whom would go from no flight experience to mid-air dogfights with skilled German aces in a matter of months — who had the most dangerous job in the war.
But Finch made his own luck. He was an instructor because he was one of the Army Air Corps’ best. He entered the Air Corps in the summer of 1941 after graduating from Campbell (the Air Force was still six years from existence) and was with his father at the Pinehurst Flight School six months later when he heard about the Japanese attack on the U.S.
“My father was with me, and we heard it on the radio,” Finch recalls from his home in Dunn. “He said, ‘Son, where is Pearl Harbor?’ I pointed west and just said, ‘It’s that way.’”
Days later, Finch was preparing for war. He knew heading in he had the flying skills, but he learned early on that he was also a great shot as well.
“I learned from dove hunting with my dad, you always shoot out in front to hit the dove,” Finch says. “I got to gunnery school, and it was the same concept, only the planes are going much faster. On graduation day, they posted our new stations, and I was a flight instructor. I about fell over … I just knew I was heading to England to fight. But I shot so well and flew so well, I was picked to be a flight instructor. An advanced flight instructor, actually.”
Today, it takes over a year, hundreds of hours of flight time and over a thousand hours of ground school to teach a college graduate to fly a fighter plane. In World War II, young men fresh off the farm were put into advanced flying machines and trained to fly them in months. Finch would start with making his students learn every knob, dial and lever in the cockpit of their P-40s. Before they left the ground, they’d have to pass a blindfolded cockpit check.
“I had to convince them the P-40 was safe, whether or not it really was,” Finch says. “I told my men, ‘You might not like to hear this, gentlemen, but I’m going to teach you to kill and not be killed. You have to fly this plane perfectly. You have to shoot these guns perfectly.’ I always thought that was a pretty good line,” he adds with a wink.
Finch’s first brush with death didn’t happen overseas. It happened over Georgia.
He was flying one of those P-40s from an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va., to a base in Alabama, when the combat-tested, bullet-riddled plane’s engine quit while flying at 10,000 feet near Atlanta. He radioed the nearest tower to tell them he was going down.
“The engine quit, and nothing would start up,” Finch recalls. “So I saw a wheat field, had to keep the landing gear up, and flew toward it. The engine caught fire, and that was all around me. I knew this was a problem.”
Finch thought about bailing from the plane, but he wasn’t much higher in the air than the top of the pine trees, so he stayed in. The impact tore the plane to shreds and shredded Finch’s legs pretty well, too. Otherwise, miraculously, Finch was able to walk away.
He saw action in the war, but war is Hell, and Finch prefers to talk about the men he taught these days. One of them was Hodges … just Hodges. He could fly a plane as well as Finch, and he learned to dogfight by practicing with Finch over U.S. soil. Finch taught him the art of the “tumble,” where a pilot would put the nose straight up into the air, hit a high altitude, then quit flying, letting the plane “flop around, tumble and spin” back down in a spiral dive before cutting the engines back on and flying away — a difficult escape maneuver, to say the least.
“I ran into Hodges a few years later, and I said, ‘What’re you doing here? I heard you were shot down,” Finch says. “Turns out, he was shot and hit, but he did the roll over and drop down, and landed safely in a field. He got out of his plane and walked over toward the Pyrenees.”
Finch heard stories of his pilots flying over marching Germans and “taking off heads, arms and legs.” On D-Day, thousands of fighter planes provided air support for the beach assault in Normandy. Finch says “half of our fighter planes” were destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I got gray-headed in one year,” Finch says. “I couldn’t stand it when one of my boys was killed. Virginia [his late wife] would ask me about it, and I couldn’t talk about it. It’s terrible when you send out 800 B-17s, each with 10-man crews, and only about 30 of them come back.”
The 40s did provide some good memories for Finch, who married the former Virginia Fitchett the October before he went to war [he named his fighter plane “Ginny,” after her]. Finch recalls having to fly planes across country from base to base and once getting to do it over the Grand Canyon. Feeling invincible like any young man in his 20s, Finch flew into the canyon and followed the path of the river — creating a memory that makes him smile to this day. He remembers scaring a friend of his in Lillington by taking his plane from 20,000 feet down to 80 while that friend was on a tractor, minding his work. The fly-by scared the man so much, he jumped from the tractor and took off for the woods.
Word of his stunt reached his father, who raised an eyebrow while picking his son up at Pope Field and told Finch to refrain from doing that again.
Finch was stationed in San Francisco and ready for his orders to fight in the Pacific on the day the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, all but ending the war.
“They dropped the bomb, and we stayed home,” he says. “That probably saved my life. Had we kept fighting, we were going to lose a million more men, they told us. It wasn’t looking good.”
After the war, Finch became a successful entrepreneur and businessman with Finch Construction Company and Finch Oil Company. Finch Construction built several dorms at Campbell University, and in 1989, Finch served the first of three non-consecutive terms as a Campbell University trustee. In 1980, he was named a Distinguished Alumnus by the university, and in 2000, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Campbell.
He lost Virginia in 2011. The couple had three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“War is Hell.”
— William Tecumseh Sherman, speaking to the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy
in June 1879, about 14 years after the end of the Civil War
Edward Pethan | A leader molding leaders
If Edward Pethan (’89) has one regret, it’s that he didn’t hold on to the little slip of paper he wrote on back in January 1984, just days before he left for basic training in the year following his high school graduation.
On that 3-by-5 paper, Pethan wrote down all the things he hated about farm life. The son of farmers in a “little bitty cheese town in Wisconsin,” as he describes it, Pethan had worked in the industry as long as he could remember — often in bone-chilling temperatures during those long Wisconsin winters — and while the Army wasn’t necessarily the “ideal” situation for him, he wanted to always remember that it could be worse. He could be shoveling manure or freezing in the fields at 4 a.m.
“When times were tough in the Army, especially during basic, I’d pull out that card and look at it,” Pethan says. “I don’t know what happened to it … but it provided me with a lot of inspiration during those early days away from home.”
Thirty years later, Pethan is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Last fall, he became only the second Campbell graduate to assume the role of professor of military science at Campbell, the head position for the school’s ROTC program. Pethan, a product of Campbell ROTC, was brought here in an interim role to replace Lt. Col. Michael Mason, and he’ll stay with Campbell after this semester to work with the athletic department.
Not that he always saw himself as a military man. While farm life wasn’t his ambition back in Wisconsin, neither was the Army. Pethan’s short-term plan after high school was to save money for community college and eventually transfer to a state school. His father asked him how he would pay for the second part of that plan and suggested the Army as an option.
“I used a couple of expletives,” Pethan recalls. “And, in short, said ‘No way.’”
His father called the recruiter anyway, and Pethan eventually came around to the idea of having his education paid for by the government in exchange for a few years of service. He was sent off to basic training in Fort Knox, Ky. Surprisingly, he enjoyed it. And he excelled at it, earning the Gauntlet Award as the top member of platoon. He then went on to “jump school” in Fort Benning, Ga., followed by his first assignment with the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg. While at Bragg, Pethan watched his roommate buckle down and take night classes at Campbell’s Bragg campus.
Interested in the idea of eventually becoming a commissioned officer, Pethan did the same, riding his bike at night from his apartment to the Bragg campus and back in all kinds of weather. In ’87, he applied for and earned Green to Gold Scholarship, allowing him to enroll that fall in Campbell’s ROTC program as a junior. He collected his money, bought a truck and moved to Buies Creek.
“Campbell’s program, even back then, had a great reputation,” Pethan says. “It was a much more conservative campus back then, but for a guy like me who needed to focus in order to get through the academic part of it, it was a great place to be.”
Pethan was an average student when it came to science, math, English and the basics, but he excelled in the ROTC program. He was an A student in his military courses and a member of the ROTC’s Ranger Challenge team that won the region’s annual competition of skill, physical ability and military knowledge.
“I’ll admit now that one of the reasons my GPA suffered was the time I put into the challenge,” he says. “I spent every moment I had training for the rope bridge, patrolling night or getting ready for the 10K march. The whole experience taught me a lot about myself and what I can do. It’s the fondest memory I have of this ROTC.”
Pethan graduated in ’89, and two years later, he was deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm. He later served in Haiti in ’95 and in Kosovo in 2001. While in Kosovo — a peace enforcement mission that involved intercepting weapons and drug smugglers — Pethan met President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and presented a “fairly extensive briefing” on their mission to them. Two months later, Pethan received news of commercial airplanes flying into the World Trace Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and into a field in Pennsylvania.
Pethan would serve in the Middle East again in 2007 and 2008 before his retirement. He returned to work for Fayetteville State and Campbell Battalion as assistant PMS before taking over the lead role last fall.
“The basic duty of a PMS is to oversee the program, make sure we’re recruiting quality cadets and make sure the cadre instructors are qualified and competent,” Pethan says. “Teaching the MS4s (seniors) is the best part of this job. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting out and talking to new prospects or young cadets, but the opportunity to be in the classroom or on [field training exercises] with our seniors to coach, teach and mentor them … if I could do that every single day forever, it’d be my dream.”
Glenn Hedrick | Something worth fighting for
Glenn Hedrick IV (’05) looked up to Justin Smith during their time in Campbell University’s ROTC program. Hedrick was 18 and green, Smith was 26 and a veteran who served in the Army’s Special Forces in Iraq.
Both men were at Campbell to get an education and become a commissioned officer in the military. Smith mentored Hedrick and the other younger cadets and eventually became their friend.
“He was a great friend to us,” Hedrick recalls. “There was a group of five of us, and we hung out all the time. He took us under his wing, and he meant a lot to all of us.”
Months after Hedrick graduated, Smith was killed while serving in Iraq when a car bomb detonated near his patrol. Smith left behind a wife, an 8-year-old stepson and a 1-year-old son.
“He was extremely devoted to his country,” Hedrick says. “One of the most selfless men I ever met. For those of us who knew him and were about to be deployed ourselves, this was the first wake-up call that we could die or our friends could die. But his death motivated us. His dedication to this country and this military showed us this was something worth fighting and dying for.”
Hedrick would go on to become a helicopter pilot, flying Blackhawks in multiple deployments in Afghanistan, including a stint commanding the only U.S. Army aviation unit in Western Afghanistan. He has also flown security missions for President George W. Bush.
His first experience was flying several dangerous missions in Kabul, near the Pakistan border. He flew in bombing missions and witnessed a world much different than the one he grew up in in the U.S.
“I was 22 at the time, and I saw children with missing limbs, adults screaming for their mother in the back of a helicopter,” Hedrick says. “It was a growth experience for me. I became a man during that first deployment.”
He had a few scares as well. He successfully landed a Blackhawk after an engine fire over Afghanistan once — making it to a safe zone and avoiding having to land it in the middle of enemy territory. The operations center he worked out of was the target of a rocket attack, and avoided being in the middle of it by not being in his room at the time.
“The funny thing about combat is that during it, you’re not as stressed as you probably think you will be,” he says. “It’s surreal, but at the time, you’re moving by the numbers and doing what you’re trained to do. It’s not until you’re done and back at the base when you realize you probably should have been scared.”
Today, Hedrick is no longer in aviation and is currently attending the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. His wife, Laura, is a 2007 graduation of Campbell’s College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences.