“HACK!” yells the Mayor at the start of every Roll Call. You’d better not be late, and if you can’t make it you’d better have already checked in. Every fighter squadron in the Air Force has a bar located within its confines, it’s renaming as a “heritage room” is inconsequential as it still serves aviators as a sanctuary regardless of the name. The tradition of this most sacred event, the Roll Call, dates back to World War I when technology did not permit radios in airplanes. Reconnaissance planes occasionally had Morse-code radios but often removed them to save weight. These aircraft reportedly preferred dropping notes to the advancing forces on the ground. Fighters however, didn’t have any radio equipment, but rather utilized formation flying and visual signals to coordinate attacks.
When contact was made with the enemy and a pilot went no-joy with his formation he may or may not ever get the wingmen back together airborne. The next chance he had to see his formation was back at base after landing. At the end of the day, the squadron commander would summon the pilots and take roll for accountability. Those not at Roll Call were considered missing in action or killed in combat.
It was a trying time and roll calls were not taken lightly. Once the German and Allied armies dug in and trench warfare ensued, pilot casualty rates normally exceeded their infantry counterparts on the ground. Over the entire war, an estimated 20 percent of all pilots were lost and the average pilot only lasted two weeks on the front lines before being shot down. In 1918, the average British pilot lived only 93 flight hours. Often, Roll Call was a sobering moment when pilots accepted the losses of their brethren and came to terms with their loss together. This comfort couldn’t last long, as they typically had to return to combat the following day. To help them overcome this dilemma, they turned to imbibing (heavily?), singing songs, and telling tall tales about their conquests to lighten the atmosphere. It was a time to honor those who went before them while also celebrating the camaraderie of the pilots that were with them. As accountability became more accurate, Roll Call became less about taking roll and more about the essential camaraderie it fosters within the formations and unit.
Instead of the Commander taking roll like the early Roll Calls they are now run by the Mayor, the squadron’s morale officer (typically a young Captain). The Mayor still begins every Roll Call with accountability by calling off each person’s name that flies with the squadron. The mayor begins the roll with the most senior aviator, typically the Wing Commander. As Roll Call progresses, the Mayor desperately tries to retain control of the mob as he leads the squadron through stories, traditions, toasts with Jeremiah Weed (an elixir that will be explored on later posts), and a rash of unique shenanigans.
In the World War II film “12 O’clock High” a Toby Jug depicting Robin Hood is used as a signal in the O’ Club bar to discreetly notify aircrews of a mission the following day. In modern Roll Calls several unique signals exist to depict acts of valor, success, and inevitable humiliation as humility is an essential element in the high stakes environment in which a fighter pilot operates. In the East Anglia region of England countless airbases popped up during World War II. American and British pilots frequented local pubs and claimed them as their squadron bars. The No.111 and 72 Squadrons claimed The Jail while the No. 98 Squadron frequented Three Compasses. The Swan and The Eagle are two of the most famous pubs that were used during this period. The Swan, in Lavenham, was frequented by the No. 149 Squadron whereas numerous different British and American pilots spent time in The Eagle in Cambridge. As homage to this storied tradition, to this day both pubs still contain graffiti on the walls written by the pilots of World War II and beyond.
Today’s squadrons emulate this to an extent, in a variety of ways. After the final flight in the unit some fighter pilots etch or burn their name into the squadron bar top, joining the hundreds of names of those who’ve gone before. The most common form of this tradition is for the aviator to simply remove his name tag from his flight suit and add it to a Velcro-covered wall that has every name tag of everyone’s footsteps he followed.