World War II: Interview with Czech Ace Frantisek Perina
Frantisek Perina, one of France's outstanding fighter pilots during the dark days of 1940, was an expatriate Czech in the cockpit of an American-built Curtiss Hawk.
Interview by Jon Guttman
As Adolf Hitler's quest for Lebensraum ("living space") expanded beyond the original boundaries of Germany into the ethnically German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and then into Czechoslovakia itself in the late 1930s, thousands of Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen escaped to foreign countries. They knew that war was inevitable, and they hoped to participate, to assist in the liberation of their country.
Frantisek Perina (pronounced "PEAR-zhi-nah") was typical of those exiled warriors. Like many, once out of Czechoslovakia he offered his services to the French. When France fell, he fought on with the British. A champion competition flier in the Czechoslovakian air force before World War II, he was credited during the Battle of France with 11 aerial victories in less than three weeks--earning the status of "ace" in only two days. He achieved that record at the controls of a Curtiss H-75A, the French designation for the P-36 Hawk, a former mainstay of the U.S. Army Air Corps that had already become outdated by 1939. France had felt compelled to import the American aircraft to make up for a lamentable shortage of its own suitable fighter aircraft.
Despite its obsolescence, the Hawk had a remarkably varied career during World War II, seeing combat with the air forces of France, the United States (scoring the first aerial victory over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941), Britain, the Netherlands, Thailand, Vichy France and Finland.
Military History senior editor Jon Guttman interviewed Perina shortly before he left the United States to return home to the Czech Republic.
Military History: What was your background prior to taking up a career in aviation?
Perina: I was born on April 8, 1911, in Morkuvky, in southern Moravia. I was brought up a country boy on a small farm--the nearest big city was the provincial capital of Brno, 20 miles from my home. It was not until I was 14 that I actually went to Brno. I had five years of elementary school, followed by three in grammar school, after which I learned a trade at vocational school. At the same time, I trained for three years as an apprentice to be a machinist. I finished my apprenticeship at age 18, but I only worked six or seven months after that.
MH: Why is that?
Perina: About that time, I saw an air show at Brno and liked it so much that when I saw a recruiting advertisement for the Czechoslovakian air force in the newspaper, I went right to the military department to ask for an application for military air school. I started training at Prostejov airfield on October 1, 1929.
MH: What was your training like?
Perina: I started out on the Letov S-10 Sardinka (sardine), which was based on a World War I Austrian design. Many Czech training aircraft were left over from World War I, but more modern indigenous designs were taking their place. I next trained on the Letov S-14 and the Avia S-18 Komar (mosquito), which was a very good trainer.
MH: How long did it take for you to become a qualified pilot?
Perina: I had had only two hours of dual-control flying. My instructors wanted me to solo after my sixth flight. The commander of the base would not let me go earlier, but I learned pretty fast.