Indestructible: The Rest of the Pappy Gunn Story

By Scott Spangler on June 27th, 2022

During a bimonthly recon of a used bookstore hoping that some unexpected title would catch my eye, Indestructible: One Man’s Mission That Changed the Course of World War II arrested my scan with the image of a red Beech 18 wearing prewar US red-dotted star roundels and red and white tail stripes. “A True Story,” it said, so I was curious about the Beech 18’s unusual livery. Pulling John R. Bruning’s 540-page tome from the shelf to find a back-cover explanation, the book explored the life of Paul Irving Gunn, better known during World War II as Pappy, engineer of the famed B-25 gunships that ravaged Japanese vessels with their low-level strafing runs.

My mistake was not buying this book. My mistake was starting to read it after dinner. Bruning is an efficient, clear, concise, and comprehensive writer telling a compelling story. Every page leaves you wanting to know what happens next, so you turn the page again and again and again. I didn’t get much sleep that night, or much work done the next day. If your curiosity compels you to open this book, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before World War II and his trial-and-error engineering that turned a pirated Dutch B-25 into the gunship scourge of the South Pacific in 1942, Gunn was known by all, including his family, by his initials, PI. Those letters also represent the Philippine Islands, which is where the Gunns lived when World War II started, because PI was the driving force behind the nascent Philippine Air Lines, whose fleet consisted of four Beech 18s, all painted red, the favorite color of his wife, Polly.

With some of the only flyable aircraft in the area after the Japanese attacked the Philippines in 1941, PI was flying the Beech 18s for the Americans when the Japanese invaded Manila and interned his wife and their four children two boys, Paul and Nathan, and two girls, Connie and Julie. Bruning employs a nuanced organization that reveals the family’s existence at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp and PI’s efforts to reach Manila and free them.

This alternating narrative shows how PI became Pappy and how his life experiences led to his legendary accomplishments. In all of the other accounts I’ve read about him, people called him Pappy because he was older than those he served with, and that’s it. These presentations never explain what was behind this age difference. Pappy was older because he’d served 20 years as an enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot.

As a member of Fighting Squadron (VF) 2, known as the Flying Chiefs because many of its pilots held that rank, PI flew from the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, and several that followed, including the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga. But he also flew float-plane scouts launched from cruisers and participated in simulated airborne attacks on Navy ships and stations. The make-it-up-as-you-go environment of this aviation era, when aviation, naval and otherwise, was fighting tradition unimpeded by progress, is what made Pappy such an innovator. And pervasive interservice rivalries perhaps explain why other accounts do not include this essential information.

Before catching up on my sleep after finishing the book, it was clear that Indestructible would make a great movie. And it turns out that it almost was. Sony acquired the movie rights to Bruning’s book in 2014. Mark Gordon is listed as the producer, and the only other information the interweb revealed is that the film is in “development.” All we can do is hope. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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