AJ: To return to the central theme of the interview, would you be able to speak about your first encounter with hostilities in the war; what were your feelings?
PC: You know aerial dogfights in WW II lasted only a few seconds. Most people do not realize this but the fight began and ended very quickly and always unexpectedly. In the fight one had to focus all attention on every aspect of the battle. It could arrive in a fraction of a second and end as quickly yet the memory could last for days or weeks on end. A full week could pass without any action then on Monday of the next week everything could happen at once, a cafouillis. And do not forget that the planes were flying at great speeds often crossing paths at greater than a thousand kilometers per hour. That is fast! You may not quite appreciate it but at these speeds one's reflexes were extensions of the plane itself, instantaneous flying without thought; there was no time for choosing between options, it was all instinct. It was also necessary to have some luck. Personally, I experienced a lot of luck during the war or I would not be alive today. I caught a bullet in the right leg; that is the extent of my injuries after nearly three years of aerial fighting. I cannot explain it except to believe in the concept of luck.
AJ: How did you feel at the end of a mission? Were you tired?
PC: Yes, I was exhausted!
AJ: Morally too?
PC: Nervously, yes; it is all nervous exhaustion. As I mentioned the fight occurred so fast that we managed only by trained reflexes. At the end of the mission we had time to think, to reason, to re-play the mission in our heads, and this process took a nervous toll on us.
AJ: When you left on a mission did you feel assured that you could return or did you think fatally?
PC: One of my friends, General Andrieu, once said, "The worse thing about the guillotine is living through the evening before the execution." Please understand that Andrieu was not wrong; a similar devilish mental strain applied to the fighter pilot when, in the evening, he was thinking about the day's mission, the mistakes made, and all the while he knew that tomorrow he must start anew. But after a shower, a meal, a beer, and communion with your comrades, it was possible to feel somewhat normal again for awhile. During the period before the invasion of Normandy the fighter pilots were the only ones to make war on more or less a daily basis. Sometimes it was surreal to meet with these military folk who were not waging war but who worked in factories, in offices, and who were in another universe from us; it often reminded me in retrospect of the dialogues [small talk] portrayed in Dino Buzzati's novel, Heron. Occasionally, we met in the middle of these people who went to restaurants, to movies, or to a bar in the evenings, and we felt like foreigners; it often felt like a terrifying Scottish shower to meet in a normal universe after having been in a madman's universe for an hour or two shortly before. In fact, this interaction facilitated the onset of mental or nervous fatigue.
AJ: There was something that personally shocked me as I read your book, The Big Show. It seemed to me that sometimes as you described your aerial encounters and victories that you may have felt the air war was something of a game or sport and that the notion of death [opposing pilot's demise] was not mentioned, was paradoxically absent.
PC: Yes, viewed from the outside an aerial dogfight can be a magnificent object of geometry and physics. An aerial fight can be very beautiful if one manages to separate one's self from the event in a sterile manner and hold that a human did not die there, that this was only an exercise, a matter of geometry and aerodynamic physics in space. Everything happens very rapidly. It is necessary to find the solution to an equation in two to three seconds and every problem that presents itself can be quite different from any previous problem or experience. It is difficult to…
AJ: But what were your feelings about your adversaries that fell in aerial combat?
PC: At first I saw only a metal airplane with black crosses; I didn't see the man. And then one day I flew very close to my adversary and I saw his face clearly, I saw the man, and it disturbed me. The full picture of the situation passed through my thoughts like lightening. Here in the 20th century humankind can be very civil towards one another, write literature to this effect, study the humanities in peace, but here in aerial combat we meet in a separate but distinct primary universe, a universe where there is only life or death, no civility, no study of the humanities. I wasn't quite prepared for this revelation. Before the war I studied in an American University close to the beach in Malibu, California, near San Diego and Hollywood. This environment was like a dream world. I learned to pilot in the evenings in a magnificent aero-club. I loved the study of fluid mechanics. Studying in a university was like a dream, a wonderful privilege. Coming out of this dream-like environment into the hostile environment of war where one meets individuals that want to kill you; in fact, they are determined to kill you. This was a madman's universe and it is necessary to understand the fatigue that this environment induced. We flew nearly every mission to 10,000 meters altitude without cabin pressurization and we breathed pure [100%] oxygen. I must tell you that everyone's lungs paid a high biological tax for this. We have all experienced pulmonary problems since the war. In addition, we experienced both negative and positive G-forces without the benefit of a specialized fight suit. Often the negative G-forces experienced were in the range of -2 to -3 and the positive G-forces were commonly +5.0 to +6.6. We often lost vision and consciousness for several seconds. This was a major factor that contributed to our fatigue. Finally, we piloted planes that were very difficult to fly, even dangerous for that matter. This was especially the case near the end of the war flying the Hawker Tempest for example. These planes were real thoroughbreds designed and built for high performance. They were not in the class of the adorable Spitfire. The Tempest required constant attention to every detail. In ground attack missions it was easy to put the plane into the ground and on final approach it was necessary to attend to every detail, especially the air speed, or else one could die easily in a second of wandering attention. This induced pilot fatigue greatly especially over a prolonged period of time. Fortunately, there were periods of brief reprieve. For example, when we were stationed forward in Belgium, Holland, and Germany, we could not become operational immediately because the Americans had uselessly bombed the airfields the week before so we had to wait for repairs. This bombing of the airfields had an adverse effect on out adversaries in that it pushed them into a fight to the death.
AJ: I have read that the Germans attempted to promote the advance of the Allies but impede the Soviet advance near the end of hostilities so that they would fall into the hands of the Allies opposed to the Soviets.
PC: Yes, certainly, very certainly, the end game was played out badly. In this war as in all wars there is a human element that influences the final outcome. This was the case in Napoleon's time and it was true in 1945. The admiration that Roosevelt had for Stalin was an example of such a human factor yet Stalin was a cold monster.
AJ: Did you know about Stalin at that time?
PC: No, good Lord, no. He was widely known as a great figure but he was like an anaconda, a marvel of nature but very dangerous. Their idea was-they often met-:"We are going to bring peace to the world for two centuries. We are going to share the world. You shall occupy this part of the war torn world and we shall occupy that part. Each of us shall maintain peace in our regions of responsibility." Their arguments and agreements were deadly serious but after hostilities two-thirds of Europe was in the hands of the Russians and by the year 1950 we recognized what this really meant with respect to individual liberties for those living under Russia's communist control. It was absolutely dramatic. You know what they say…"the road to hell can be paved with good intentions." Andre Malraux foresaw this very well, or at least he is the individual known best to have written about it. I hope that you have read Malraux's writings?
AJ: (I indicated small ashamed signs confessing the fact that I had not read Malraux) [Translator's note: Andre Malraux (1901-1976) was Minister of Culture alongside Charles DeGaulle from 1958-1969; he fought against colonialism in Indochina, fascism in Spain, and Nazi Germany.]
PC: Oh my! Oh dear me! Ooooh! He was a communist to his death. He made war in Spain. He created a bomber squadron there in 1936. He was an astonishing character. He became a good friend of De Gaulle who liked him and appreciated him a lot. He was a man of very pure judgment; he always demonstrated a storehouse of wisdom and compelling expressions. Well now, after this highly philosophical history lesson let us come back to the main theme of our interview.
AJ: Yes! To repeat, how did you personally consider your German adversaries?
PC: Very well! The pilots, yes! Ah, certainly, I considered the Luftwaffe, the pilots, as equals. If by chance one was shot down it was accepted that it was preferred to be captured by the Luftwaffe, not the Gestapo, or the Waffen SS, or even the Wehrmacht. In a general sense at this time all pilots, specifically all fighter pilots, formed an international organization similar to the "Mafia."