Robert Emmett Dethlefsen, U.S. Army Air Corps
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Mr. Dethlefsen was kind enough to write about his WWII experiences and share them with us. Thanks Bob!
World War II Experience
The story begins on November 6, 1940, my twentieth birthday. Some months earlier, almost overnight, I had suddenly acquired an overpowering urge to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Although I was an avid model builder, using scrap wood and plans of WW1 airplanes from the Sunday "Funnies", I had only seen an airplane on the ground once. That was when a friend and I, both 13, hiked across the San Francisco Presidio to Crissy Field just to see some old Jennies. It was an exhausting all day hike but the soldiers gave us such a welcome I can remember it to this day. But it is too long ago for me to remember just what motivated me to be an aviator. Since the earliest that the Army would accept an application for Flying Cadet training was my 20th birthday, I showed up at 8:00 AM at the recruiting office on that day. With application completed, I was given an appointment for a physical examination at Hamilton Army Airfield in Marin County. This was my first experience with a comprehensive physical and my flying career almost ended there. As an orderly was drawing blood I became faint from watching and nearly passed out. "Don't faint now, don't faint now--you're finished if you do" he exclaimed and somehow managed to calm me down. The next step was with the Flight Surgeon and once again, it was a close call. Everything was fine physically except the "Schneider Test". Never did know for sure, but it was some kind of a blood pressure reading that seemed to be important at the time but was nevertheless abandoned some months later. Probably because not enough people were passing! In any case I was flunking and the Doctor thought it best that I go home and come back for another go at it the next day. Of course that is what I did but after a two hour drive home, no sleep that night, and a two hour drive back the next morning, there wasn't any improvement. The Doctor kept assuring me that I was perfect in every other way and that I was "IN", no matter what, but he wanted the Schneider to be perfect also. I sensed by now that he had taken a liking to me and was doing his very best to do all that he could for me. Early on, he had tested me with a riddle that he presented to each of his applicants. I came up with the correct answer almost immediately, which pleased him immensely, as he claimed that almost no one got it right the first try. I spent the entire day lying on a cot trying to relax but every time he made a move to check the blood pressure, it again went out of sight. So, it was home again, another sleepless night and back again the next morning. By this time it was Saturday and I am definitely not very optomistic about my chances. However, the Doctor decided that enough is enough, announced that my Schneider reading was satisfactory, and moved on to the final step--satisfying a three man board that I was really what they were looking for. My only problem here was convincing them that I really did want to be a pilot since there was nothing in my background that indicated that I was aviation minded. Here again the Flight Surgeon spoke on my behalf and because it was approaching 12 noon, quitting time, I was finally accepted. Accepted as a candidate for Flying Cadet training that is.
The weeks and months that followed seemed to go on forever. An occasional letter from the War Department gave me some comfort in that they were still "thinking about me". But in early April the news finally arrived that I had been selected for assignment to the May 1941 class and I was to be enlisted as a Flying Cadet. My worries, however, were not over. My closest friend, dating back to Jr. High School days, also having a keen desire to be a military pilot, and also being a bit older than I, had already failed to pass the physical exam for both Army and Navy flight training. Knowing that he would soon be drafted, he did a bit of research and, early in 1940, had convinced me that in order to stay together we should both apply for a Navy radio school, the exact nature of which I don't remember. We went to the recruiting office on a slow day I guess, because they were able to process us both at the same time. The net result was that an hour later he had again failed the physical, and I had been enlisted as an Apprentice Seaman. The only consolation was that I was not scheduled to attend the Navy school for well over six months. So, here I am, soon to be inducted into the Army and already in the Navy. A trip to Navy headquarters didn't get me very far--sure they would give me a discharge but only after being assured that I had been accepted by the Army. All the Army would say was that yes, I was a candidate, but as of then there was no assurance of anything. In any case it was no secret to either service as to my status so I was prepared to take my chances and hope for the best. After all, a Commander had said to me "son, if you can fly an airplane, we sure don't want you swabbing a deck".
The big day finally arrived and after a first time away from home goodbye to my family, I headed out for either the country club or the brig. There was quite a crowd at the recruiting office, where the swearing in was to take place, but only one other potential flying ace. No time was wasted lining us up and getting those right hands raised, there was a slight pause and my name was called, a paper was handed to me and the oath was immediately given. The paper was my discharge from the Navy! To this day it is one of my most cherished possessions.
The other newly inducted Flying Cadet, Ed Boyle, and I quickly became friends and decided to travel together in my 1937 Ford Convertible. Although it was a 350 mile trip from San Francisco to Ontario, California we arrived at Cal-Aero Academy late that afternoon. We were immediately overwhelmed by the greeting we received and what appeared to be a genuine show of welcome. That is until we drove through the gate, parked the car and stepped out. That is when the hazing began, and didn't slow down for the next six weeks. Hazing is somewhat the same wherever it goes on so there is no need to go into detail but, even to this day, I have never fully understood what is to be accomplished by grown men treating other grown men like some kind of animal. Although I never even considered the thought of quitting there were times when I almost wished that I might fail, just to get a little peace!
There was, and is, little doubt in my mind that we had been assigned to the country club of flying schools. The buildings, hangars and airplanes were all new and in immaculate condition-the best the Army had to offer. There were two men to a room in a single level, motel like, setting. Although the school was a civilian operation with civilian instructors and employees, and we wore a distinctive uniform, there was a small group of army officers who really ran the show. The Commanding Officer was then Capt Robert L. Scott, later to gain fame as the author of "God Is My Co-Pilot".
Although life was very difficult for the first few weeks, we did have the weekends off and, after the first two weeks, were allowed to leave the base on Saturday and Sunday. The routine was alternate morning ground school and afternoon flying, beginning almost from day one with very little free time. Even though I had never even seen an airplane close up before, I have no remembrance of my first flight. But, I do remember the second flight. Of course, the second thing to be learned, after getting off the ground, is how to get back down again in one piece. After only my second or third attempt, I proceeded to ground-loop. Well, the instructor was the first to say that he was to blame for allowing it to happen but the fact remained, I was the pilot and it was now a part of my record. It might be well to explain that I was flying the famed Stearman airplane which was notorious for being a ground-looper. What happens is that as the airplane slows down it is easy to lose directional control resulting in a gentle, but unrelenting turn to one side or the other and, in the process, drags the outer wing tip along the ground. Aside from the wingtip, the only injury is to the pride. Since the airplane is fabric covered, with a piece of linen and a pot of varnish the airplane is back in service within a couple of hours. After 10 hours and 53 minutes of instruction, not bad considering I had never been in an airplane before, the instructor climbed out and waved me on. A few minutes later, after a couple of landings alone, he waved me in and I had survived the first hurdle.
For awhile life was once again good. Ground school was not difficult and required little or no homework. With the weekends free, the whole of Southern California was at our doorstep. Within a short distance there were two bona-fide country clubs that gave us welcome to share their facilities and their daughters. The famed beaches were not that far away as were the many nightclubs and dancehalls of the big band era. Since Cal-Aero was both a primary and basic school, the only such civilian school of its kind, there were actually four classes in progress at the same time, resulting in four graduation parties while I was there, and all of them generously sprinkled with Hollywood personalities, no doubt in some small way attracted by then Major Scott. Although Ed Boyle and I became good friends, we were not roommates. Everything in the Army was organized either alphabetically or by height and in this case, Company, Platoon and Squad was by height. Ed was somewhat the taller. My roommate was Thomas C. (Corky) Wortham, a real gentleman, albeit from Texas, from whom I learned a great deal. We remained good friends and roommates all the way through until final graduation from advanced flying school.
Back to the flying. About a week or so after soloing, with ten or fifteen landings behind me, I somehow managed to ground-loop. That was good for a laugh and a gold star, my second, on the ground-loop chart on the mess-hall wall. That was on a Monday with nothing but blue skies the rest of the week. The following Monday I did it again! This time I expected the axe to fall but, again, no one concerned except me. The instructor rode with me on Tuesday and was pleased with my performance. Wednesday started out as a bright and shiny day but late in the afternoon the wind came up like it often does in that area, there is a special name for it that escapes me at the moment, and I was out in the wild blue yonder. When I returned to the aerodrome there was one Stearman upside down right in the middle of the field and two others that obviously ground-looped. I didn't stand a chance and up went my fourth star. That did it! Now the axe WAS about to fall. An hour with the Flight Commander the next day accomplished nothing, and another hour the following day with an Army Lieutenant ended up with the same result--every landing was a potential disaster. Each of these men insisted that, given a little more time, they would have me back on course, but the allowable time was limited, and I was scheduled for a "Wash Ride". This was just a formality, where an Army check pilot substantiated the fact that you were sub standard before they kicked you out. No one ever survived a Wash Ride. For reasons that I no longer remember, not ground loops, my buddy Ed was also scheduled for a Wash Ride on the same day. We thought it over and decided that we would talk to the Canadians who hung around outside the front gate waiting to recruit failures like us for their Air Force. Just being accepted for US flight training was good enough for them. I don't really know if any check pilot was any better or any worse than any other check pilot but I, at least, drew the one with the worst reputation. was first and off we went. I never did have any problem with take-offs so I got it off the ground and circled to land. As the wheels touched the ground I must have received a message from somewhere--the landing was a greaser. So we give it the gun and go around again--another greaser. This time we went out to the practice area where I showed off a little air work. Not bad considering the fact that most of my time until now was taken up trying to land in one piece. After the third satisfactory landing, I gave it the gun and started to go around again, when he grabbed the controls, stormed back to the line, got out of the airplane muttering "what in the hell am I riding with you for" and walked away. I have never scratched an airplane since. Ed Boyle ended up in the Canadian Air Force. For the next few weeks, until completion of Primary, I counted not the number of hours left to fly but, the number of landings I would have to make. All went well and the day finally arrived when I could bid the Stearman farewell and move on to the Basic Training. Life once again became worth living and, as I remember very few details, the flying must have gone well. One incident does standout however. Since I had my own car, on one week-end I asked for permission to drive to, and spend one night, in San Francisco. Permission was necessary for travel in excess of fifty miles from the base. For whatever reason, the Lieutenant I spoke to insisted that I take two days and return on Monday. That particular Monday was a holiday but not for us and, when I returned, all hell broke loose. Even though I had a legitimate pass I was considered just short of AWOL, and the Commandant of Cadets was ready to throw me out. When I went to the Lieutenant who had given me the pass, he said, in so many words, that this was a good time to learn that Lieutenants don't take the rap for cadets! Even though I was a cadet officer and all the senior officers went to bat for me, I was confined to the base for the rest of my stay at Cal-Aero and awarded a huge number of demerits. Up until that time I had accumulated only the two mandatory demerits that are given on the first or second day just to show you who's boss. From then on, it got a bit lonely on the weekends, as I sat in my room working off demerits. Normally, one hour of walking wipes out one demerit. But as an officer it changed to two hours of room confinement for each demerit. In this case there were simply not enough hours left, before graduation, to sit them all off. So, after everyone else had gone home, they let me revert to walking in front of headquarters until my debt was paid. A day later, I was finished and off to Stockton Army Airfield for advanced training.
Stockton Army Airfield
Life at Stockton was like a whole new world. Apparently the Army decided that it was no longer necessary to treat us like children and we were now able to concentrate completely on the job at hand. Ground school and flying continued but in a much more relaxed atmosphere and we were now flying the real thing- the North American AT-6. Formation, cross-country, high altitude and, everybody's favorite, the "rat race". This consisted of the instructor finding some huge cumulus clouds and then trying to lose the students that were following, while weaving in and out, up and down and roundabout. We had full weekends off and, with San Francisco less than a hundred miles away, I was able to go home almost any time. Officially, we were to graduate on December 12, 1941 so just about every phase of training was completed by the previous Friday, December 5., and I was at home on the "Day of Infamy", December 7. In fact, it was just after leaving church and turning on my car radio that I first heard the news of Pearl Harbor. Graduation Day arrived on schedule and, sure enough, I had finally made it--a 2nd Lieutenant-Pilot in the US Army Air Corps!
Reno December 1941
There was time for one big weekend in San Francisco and a chance to show-off! But that didn't last long and then the big question was "where do we go from here"? Earlier, there had been some backdoor recruitment for the Flying Tigers but, now that the US was in the war, that came to a halt. Nothing much happened for a few days and then the orders began to come through. How they decided who went where was anyone's guess but, in my case, I couldn't have been more delighted. My orders, along with 5 others, read, in essence, Report to the Commanding Officer, Air Corps Technical Training Detachment, Reno Airport, Reno, Nevada, for the purpose of undergoing instruction in multi-motors at the Boeing School of Aeronautics thereat. The reporting time was to be no later than 09:00 AM, December 21. By this time I had taken delivery of a brand new 1942 Plymouth convertible, one of the last to be delivered before production switched to strictly military vehicles. A red convertible makes for instant popularity so it was no surprise that three others offered to join me for the move to Reno. We left Stockton late in the afternoon December 19 and it wasn't too long before I was experiencing my first time behind the wheel, driving over snow covered roads. Luck was with us as one of the gang proclaimed that he was from Colorado where this kind of driving conditions was an every day occurrence. So, he took over and, instead of me, became responsible for driving off the road and getting stuck in a snow-bank. No harm done but we did have to wait until daybreak for a road clearing crew to pull us out. The big surprise came when we showed up at the Reno airport and discovered that there was no Commanding Officer and no Air Corps Detachment! For some reason that now escapes me, we checked in at the El Cortez Hotel which was at that time one of Reno's newest and finest. And, it turned out, that is exactly where we were supposed to be. The Boeing School of Aeronautics was really a part of United Airlines and United was running the show. Rooms had not only been booked for us but the one week of ground school associated with this operation was conducted right at the hotel, and the hotel charged us the magnificent sum of $3.00 per day--what was at that time a 2nd Lt's quarters allowance. So, here we were, six 2nd Lts with wings, in Reno where they hadn't even seen a soldier yet, four days before Christmas. To top it off, some of Reno's most prominent families were to entertain us throughout the holidays. So for the one and only time in my life, I ate Christmas dinner using silverware from Tiffany.
As it turned out, the only member of the Army on sight was a Sergeant who kept the records. There were two ground school instructors from United Airlines who kept us busy for the first week but, somehow, failed to convince us that the nights in Reno were meant to study aircraft systems. Then some UAL line pilots showed up and became instant instructors. The first 25 hours of flying were accomplished in a Boeing 247, a 14 passenger, 2 engine airliner. That was followed by another 25 hours in a DC-3, the 21 passenger queen of the skies. It was all a mix of day, night and instrument flying crammed into a three week period when the normal Reno weather is not so great. When not flying we were completely free to wander around Reno wearing winter flying jacket and boots with cap tipped at the appropriate angle. With nearby university sororities and our holiday hosts, there was no lack of company. It all came to an end however, when, at the appointed time a Captain Callish showed up, gave us all a check ride and signed us off as 2-engine pilots. The Party was over.
Jackson Army Airbase
Now it was on to the big time, next stop Jackson Army Airbase, Mississippi. On our arrival, the base appeared to be almost deserted, the former occupants, a B-26 Group having departed for duty in the South Pacific. A small cadre had been left behind as the nucleus for a new group with a full Colonel (Robert D. Knapp) and three or four Lt. Colonels as the only pilots. New airplanes soon began to arrive from the factory but, after just a few hours of instruction, the entire fleet of B-26s was grounded except for a flight back to the factory for modification of the wings. After too many losses by Ferry pilots, it had been determined that they were just too hot for fledgling pilots to handle. This left only an old B-18, a derivative of the DC-3, for us to fly while we awaited the B-25s that would be our final aircraft. There were also on the field a number of Lockheed Ventura's which were being delivered to the British by civilian pilots, when the US entered the war. Washington eventually decided that those airplanes were needed for coastal patrol and that they should be ferried to McChord Field in Washington. The Colonel decided that he would deliver one of these, and took me along as co-pilot. Not really "co-pilot" as the Ventura was meant to be flown by only one pilot, but I think he wanted company and, at the same time could give me some training. We actually started our westbound trip by flying to Myrtle Beach, on the east coast, where a new gunnery range was being put together for use by the B-25s that were soon to come. After inspecting that site, we headed west and made an overnight stop in Little Rock, Arkansas. This part is a bit hazy but I do remember that, since the Colonel had previously been a top Air Corps commander in the Arkansas National Guard, we were very well treated by local natives and stayed in some pretty fancy surroundings. Then, it was on to North Island NAS, San Diego, for whatever reason that again escapes me. There are only two things that remain fixed in my memory. One, somewhere over the Midwest I got airsick for the first and only time in my life--probably a result of too much of the good life in Little Rock. The second thing involved flying. Early on Colonel Knapp, who was beginning to act more and more like my father, decided that I needed the experience of flying the Ventura more that he did. And experience like none I have had since, is what it was. Although directional control on the ground was normally maintained by use of the rudders, braking was done by pulling back on a handle similar to an old-fashioned auto emergency brake. The handle was on the pilot's right side, so it was necessary to use the right hand for that and cross over with the left hand to work the throttles. Any lingering thoughts remaining from my not too distant ground-looping days, were quickly dispelled. Before the trip was completed I had become a certified Ventura pilot. One more incident I can still remember. On one occasion, while I was the pilot, I made a move to switch fuel tanks from one that was running low to a full tank. Col. Knapp suggested that I wait a bit longer, until that tank was closer to empty and, of course, I waited. In fact, I waited (forgot?) a bit longer than he had anticipated and suddenly both engines sputtered and quit. Fortunately he was experienced enough to get them going again, all the while letting me know in no uncertain terms what an idiot I was for letting the fuel tank run dry. A quiet half hour late, as the sun sank slowly in the west, a rarity occurred, a full Colonel apologized to a 2nd Lt.!
After leaving the aircraft at McChord AAF, Tacoma, WA, we boarded a train for the long trip back to Jackson. From here on I was on my own. Although we were on the same train, Col Knapp pretty much preferred to travel in the club car, unaccompanied by the 2nd Lt, and that was fine with me. I finally had a chance to relax! Not much had changed during the two weeks that we had been gone, no new airplanes but there had been some new pilot arrivals. I was assigned duty as Mess Officer, and I had an office, but I don't believe I ever did anything except sign papers that a Sgt put in front of me and inspect the kitchen every morning to make sure that it was still there. I did get to see a bit of the countryside and learned that the Civil War was still in progress but everything changed when the sun went down. Seemed like the major hotels and night spots of Jackson were not aware that Mississippi was a "dry" state, as long as you brought your own bottle. The state line was not that far away and it was no secret as to where the bottles could be found. All the while we were participating in one training exercise after another but still no new airplanes and only an occasional flight.
One day the Col called me to his office and said that he had an assignment for me. The Commanding General of the 3rd AF, in Miami or Tampa, I don't remember which needed, a pilot to fly his C-47 and, since I was qualified in the DC-3, essentially the same airplane, it looked like a good move for me. As we talked, or should I say as he talked and I listened, his mood slowly changed and before long he was telling me that it would not do my career any good and to forget it. I'm sure that he was right. A few days later. I along with nine other pilots received order to report to Columbia AAF, South Carolina for duty as pilot, B-25. I never saw Col Knapp again but certainly have never forgotten him. He, and the classmates I left behind, made a name for themselves in North Africa and Italy and Col Knapp was made a General.
Columbia Army Airbase
Columbia, SC, must have been place where the term "military town" originated! Aside from the air base which was huge, there was nearby Ft Jackson, which seemed to be home of just about every other branch of the Army. One trip downtown was enough to make one wish that the practice of saluting had never been invented. Even a 2nd Lt reached the point where "enough is enough". But now it became clear that there really was a war going on and it would not belong before we would be taking a real part in it.
Although I was not aware of it at the time, A B-25 Group had been split in half, one of which under the command of Jimmy Doolittle had gone to Eglin Field to train for an unspecified mission. The remaining half, of which I became a part, was reformed and began training for "Mission X". The initial group consisted of 10 aircraft each with a crew of six. That would be Pilot, Co-pilot, Navigator, Bombardier, Radio-Gunner and Engineer-Gunner. The eldest, the pilot, was 24 years of age, 2 classes ahead of me in flying school, and had a very limited number of hours flying time. The rest of has had no experience other than that acquired at school. The next few weeks consisted of heavy duty flying. Daytime, nighttime, cross-country, bombing practice and gunnery practice. The only thing that stands out from that period is that the Navigator was always lost, and we invariably had to rely on radio fixes or just plain looking out the window for something that showed on the map. And then it came time to leave.
We were given one day to make final preparations, and sworn to the strictest secrecy were allowed to make a couple of telephone calls to family and, in my case, a girl I longed for in Reno. I also arranged to leave my car where it could eventually be picked-up by my two brothers who made the 3000 mile trip from San Francisco. The next day 10 B-25 aircraft and crews departed for West Palm Beach, Florida which was to be our final staging area before heading into the unknown.
While the airplanes were being outfitted with long range fuel tanks and given an extensive servicing, we had a night on the town and a couple of days to see the sight. On the third day we were given a serious briefing as to what we might expect en route to South America and we were given a shakedown inspection. Although the airplanes were considered combat ready, even to the point of having a full load of ammunition for the guns, we were very much limited as to the personal belongings we could carry. With sealed orders in hand, not to be opened until after take-off, and a flight plan for Trinidad, away we went, each of the 10 airplanes on its own. The date was May 3, 1942, destination Karachi, India.
The pre-flight briefing we had been given pertained primarily to the weather conditions that we were likely to encounter. A great deal of stress was put on the fact that there was a stationery front that lie across our path to South America, that could not be avoided. It was too wide to circumvent and, since it ranged from sea level to 25 or 30 th0usand feet, there was no going over or under. So the advice was to put your head down, hang on and drive through. Numerous aircraft had gone through before us and there had been no reported losses. It should be pointed out however, that these had been flown by experienced Ferry pilots and navigators who had been around a bit longer than we had. We were to be the very first B-25s to be flown by combat crews through South America and across the South Atlantic. In any case, when we reached the front, which was right where it was supposed to be, our boy decided that he would find an unobstructed way through! Up, down, right and left, we tried them all but the only thing we accomplished was to get the Navigator totally disoriented. In the end we did what we should have done in the first place, we ploughed on through. That was the wildest, roughest, toughest, scariest ride I have ever had, to this day, in an airplane. The rain rained, the hail hailed and the lightening flashed. The instrument panel shook so badly we could not read the gauges, but with both of us hanging on to the steering wheel we managed to stay reasonably upright and, just as the man said, we broke out in the clear on the other side. If there had ever been any doubt about how well a B-25 was put together that doubt had been dispelled. Even heavily overloaded as we were, I don't think we popped a single rivet. And Krazy Glue had yet to be invented! Of course we had zigged and zagged so many times, that the Navigator didn't have the vaguest notion as to where we now were. In his defense it must be said that he had only recently completed navigation training, and without following the headings he gave us, we were asking him to guide us half way around the world. At this point we began to understand why we had left Florida at 02:00 AM. As the sun came up we were approaching the coast of South America and were able to revert to the old tried and true method of navigating, reading a map. Without too much searching we found what appeared to be the proper airfield in Trinidad, and completed the first leg.
That night, after rest, fuel and aircraft servicing, we again headed south for Belem. No weather problems but again it took some concentrated map reading to find the place, even though it was on the coast. After fuel and food, we headed south to Natal, Brazil, our final pause before the "big hop" across the Atlantic. Natal was a large staging area for all types of aircraft and crews enroute to Africa and it was here that final preparations were made and briefings given to our group of 10, assembled together for the first time. The flight across the Atlantic was to be non-stop to Roberts Field in Liberia. Although Ascension Island has existed for some thousands of years, it certainly was not equipped with an airfield at that time and none of us had ever heard of it. Each airplane and crew was to go its own way, taking off at different times with no communication between us for the roughly 10 hour flight to Liberia.
Across the South Atlantic
Shortly before midnight May 6, 1942 B-25 41-12513 took off from Natal, Brazil headed in the general direction of Africa. There were the standard fuel tanks in the wings, an additional tank in the bomb bay and yet another in the crawlway to the bombardiers compartment. Should have been enough fuel to get us to anywhere--and back. It was a dark night but our spirits were high as we felt that, finally, we were aimed in the right direction. A jug of very black Brazilian coffee kept us wide awake for quite awhile but what really woke us up was the sight of a burning ship far below. While we excitedly pondered who, what and why this was happening so far south in the Atlantic, it slowly became clear. The moon was just beginning to rise and we were seeing the reflection on the water. As we droned along every thing seemed to be going as planned. The radioman was in contact with Wright-Patterson, the navigator periodically gave us a fix, and with no auto-pilot on these early B-25s it was necessary that one or the other of the pilots be at the controls constantly. Then, shortly before dawn, the bubble burst. The navigator owned up to the fact that he didn't know where we were and hadn't known for some time. Well, no matter, so what else is new! But this time there was something new---with only a very large ocean below us, the map didn't do us much good. But, we still had a good bit of fuel and Africa would be pretty hard to miss. About this time, the bombardier decided that he was also a navigator and sort of took over for a time. Before long, the pilot, the navigator and the bombardier took turns telling me which way to steer and it was beginning to look a bit shaky. As I claimed to know essentially nothing about navigation, I did the driving while they argued about which direction to try next. As we zigged and zagged once again, it soon became quite clear to me that we were in serious trouble and stood a good chance of ending up in the drink. Ending up in the drink, in the South Atlantic in May of 1942 would have been the end of the line-PERIOD. That was not my plan so I decided to get into the act. It stood to reason that constantly changing course was not a good thing to be doing. Since we did not know whether we were north, south, east or west of where we would like to be, it seemed our best chance was to take a 45 degree course and hope that land showed up before we hit the water. The fuel remaining soon became seriously low and we began to think about, and prepare for, ditching. No matter how indestructible the B-25 seemed to be, it's designers had never taken into consideration how well it would float. As far as the eye could see, low clouds stretched in every direction so it became necessary to descend to just above the waves if we were to see any great distance ahead. But then, there it was, without a doubt, land showing up through the clouds ahead. But we still had a long way to go and the fuel gauges were all essentially reading ZERO. It was hard for me to believe but the suggestion was even considered that we now actually try to find Roberts Field. That idea faded quickly when it was decided that a controlled landing on the beach was far superior to running out of fuel and perhaps going down in the jungle. It appeared that we were approaching the land at a rather shallow angle so with a bit of a turn we made a landfall much more quickly, and soon were able to line up with straight stretch of beach. The plan was to belly in with the gear up but, as we got a better look at our "airstrip", I could see that there was a grassy border which offered the good possibility of a satisfactory gear down landing. With no time for discussion, down went the gear, locked in place a split second before touchdown. It was a good landing-not perfect-too long and too fast. The trees ahead came up too soon and braking was necessary. This brought the nose down while still moving at a pretty good speed, causing the nose wheel to dig in and the gear to collapse. The glass bombardier's station had been crunched to about half size and both propellors were curled back. But we were safely on the ground with no physical injuries. We had been in the air almost exactly 12 hours.
On the Beach
Of course the first question was where in Africa are we and how safe are we? It didn't take long to find out. Within a very few minutes a couple of men came running towards us and, since they had a smattering of English, we learned that we were at the southern tip of Liberia, approximately 140 miles south of our intended destination. Just a few more degrees to the right and we surely would have ended up well short of land. Shortly thereafter, an English missionary arrived on the scene, and assured us that even though we were many miles from nowhere, we were perfectly safe. Since this was on the normal route between Roberts Field and Accra, and since the radioman did manage to get the word to someone, he really didn't know who, that we were about to go down on the beach, we were spotted from the air that afternoon. Although the traffic could not be considered heavy, each aircraft that circled to have a look sent the word deeper into the bush and, by sundown, there was a solid mass of jabbering humanity surrounding us. As the darkness took over, the crowd seemed to melt away and the "mumbo-mumbo-mumbo" slowly subsided. But, at the crack of dawn, there they were, back again in even greater numbers. There were four or five men who had served in the Merchant Marine and that spoke English reasonably well so, we "hired" them as guards. This was more to keep the crowd back than anything else. Because it rained for five minutes every hour and because a B-25 was not designed for comfort, finding a place to relax or sleep was almost impossible. To top it off, we had ejected the top hatch over the pilot's compartment just before landing, and then couldn't find it, a hundred trips up and down the each, notwithstanding. There was one spirits lifting incident that must be mentioned. The pilot of one of the first Pan-Am planes to give us the once over, wrapped a message around a can of corned-beef and dropped in right in our lap. His message told of the US victory at Wake Island he offered congratulations for our successful beach landing.
One of the aircraft that circled the first day was a Pan-American Grumman "Duck" that was used primarily to transfer passengers from the their Clipper landing site to Roberts Field where they continued their journey via DC-3 or C-47. A message was dropped stating that there was a river not far from us and that they would return the next afternoon to pick up the two "worst off" or, the pilot and navigator. The Duck was back on schedule the next day, brought some halfway decent food, said he would be back when his schedule would permit, and departed with pilot and navigator. He did come back again the next day and left with the bombardier and engineer. Meanwhile for lack of something better to do and anticipating the day that we might try getting the airplane off the beach, I "hired" some more of the locals to lift up the nose and turn it around. This was not an easy task to be done on a beach with a distinct language problem to boot but somehow we managed to get it done. Although I did have plenty of US money, it wasn't much good to these people and how to pay them was going to be a problem. As clamor for payment got louder, someone, perhaps the missionary suggested sending some dollars to someplace where it could be converted to local coinage. This was done by ocean-going canoe. It took two days and they brought back what was the equivalent of $40 in pennies! Now however, there was a real problem. How much is owed to whom? So the Paramount Chief of the village set up a table at which he, I, and the missionary sat. The locals didn't want the missionary to participate because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to cheat as much--he understood their language. Each person who had a claim presented himself and after describing what he had done, the Chief decided what should be proper payment. This took quite some time and as the line didn't seem to get any shorter, I began to worry that the box of coins would empty too soon. However, this was not the time for our luck to give out, and sure enough the last coin went to the last man in line. The Chief was more than happy to accept US $3 as was a fellow I had used as an interpreter.
The Duck did not show up on the 4th day so it was not until day 5 that the radioman and I were finally restored to something approaching the good life. This time they brought down a repair crew with tools and spare parts, tents, food and whatever else to make it a real picnic at the beach. When I arrived at Roberts Field the big question was, can the aircraft be made to fly again. With my limited years and experience there was little I could offer. But with the regular rain and the proximity of a salt water ocean, I felt that I could see the corrosion going on before my eyes, and had strong doubts. In any case, new props were hung, the nose wheel braced (could not be retracted so it would be a gear down flight), canvas over the greenhouse and with a bit of fuel loaded one month later it was ready to go. The pilot and I were returned to the scene to give it a go. Small trees were laid in a row and the tires were slightly flattened to help us get started. We started to roll and after a few zigs and a few zags we appeared to be on our way. But no, about that time the pilot's better judgment told him to abort, resulting in another nose wheel collapse, two more bent props and the greenhouse shoved back another foot.
On my walk back to the river, I never looked back and never saw 513 again. We then, along with the navigator, were sent on to Accra, Gold Coast, to await further orders. The remainder of the crew had long since moved on looking for the action. There was really nothing for us to do while we had been waiting at Roberts but with the help of the local Firestone Rubber Plantation Supervisor, we did some sight-seeing in and around Monrovia, the capitol of the country. Almost daily one or more airplanes of every variety would come through on their way east, and we would be brought up to date on the news. On the same day that we had left Natal, three other B-25s also departed, one of which also became disoriented (lost) and managed to find an airfield north of Liberia, and landed in Vichy French territory. That crew was interned for almost a year. Some time later, a year or more, I ran into someone who claimed to have first hand knowledge of the final outcome of our disaster. It had taken almost six months but the plane had again been repaired, this time properly. Then, it took more time to find a couple of pilots willing to give it a second go. They did get off the ground and were half way to Roberts when the engines gave out. They went down in the jungle and although there were some serious injuries both men survived. If there was any salvage of parts I believe it was done by local Liberians. The question now was, do we continue our journey east or, return to the US for another airplane. While the folks that make that kind of decision debated we were sent on to Accra, Gold Coast to await further orders.
El Geneina, Darfur, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
Stopping at Takoradi along the way, we arrived at Accra on the 5th of June, transportation provided by PAA-Africa Ltd Airways. The US Army airbase at Accra was huge. Everything that arrived on the west coast of Africa either by air or sea, was funneled through here to the rest of Africa, the middle east and all the way to India and China. It was truly a 24 hour a day operation servicing, what seemed like every type of aircraft ever built. For us however, nothing. First days and then weeks went by with no word from Washington--no further orders. We did some sight-seeing, but mostly eat, sleep and dawdle away our time, until one day a Major came up with a job for us. A ship would be arriving shortly with a load of P-40s destined for Cairo and service in North Africa. The trip across the middle of Africa would require refueling at a couple of airfields where no US Army personnel were based and thus no one to report their arrival and departure. So, after a crash course in how to operate a code machine, a not very sophisticated gadget, I was sent to El Geneina, Anglo Egytian Sudan, with the title of Control Officer. Here was an airfield, operated by the RAF, inhabited by Pan-Am personnel servicing all types of American aircraft, with all except RAF living in a BOAC Guest House. It was intended to be only a refueling stop but, early on, the word had gotten around that Francois, the PAA chef, had been head chef at one of the finest bistros in Paris. This sometimes resulted in more overnight stays because of "mechanical difficulties" than the place could handle. Dinner was often served in three shifts and those of us at the bottom of the totem pole sometimes wondered why Francois had such a great reputation. Presumably, the P-40s would have completed their crossing within a week, or perhaps two weeks at the most and I would then be recalled to Accra or, better yet, sent on my way to war-wherever that might be.
The P-40s came and went, but no new orders came for me. Instead, more US Army people began to arrive. A weather officer with two EMs were the first to arrive, followed shortly by a Communications Officer with two or three EMs. Before long a bunch of construction workers showed up and before long they had built a concrete block building with living quarters and offices for US personnel. Weeks were going by and every time I asked to be relieved I was told to sit tight, further orders would be coming. Then one day I got the word. Pan Am's one year contract to operate the route across Africa was coming to a close and the US Army was taking over, with me now in charge of the El Geneina operation. the only problem was that, even though there were now, weather people, communications people and mechanics, there was no one to run the cargo handling and aircraft dispatching operation. The Pan Am people quit working as of midnight on the appointed day even though they were receiving orders, relayed through me, that they were to continue performing their usual duties until relieved. The Pan Am station manager took the stance-We do not take orders from the US Army. It took a few days, with pilots refusing to leave without a weight manifest, until they fully understood that the would not get one from me, but I eventually convinced my new boss, a Colonel in Cairo, that his orders were being ignored. The next morning, the first airplane from the east arrived with the Colonel on board. He requested that all Pan Am personnel be assembled in my office. After introducing himself, he produced a book containing the Article of War, which he proceeded to read, emphasizing the section that, in effect, states that any US citizen, in a war zone, that refuses to follow orders is guilty of treason. When he asked who now wished to return to their normal duties, the response was 100% affirmative.
The traffic through El Geneina was not heavy. An average day might see 3 or 4 C-47s, maybe a few assorted BOAC, RAF and an occasional US Army stray. It left a lot of time for seeing the local area which was not very extensive. Probably the only thing that had ever caused the airfield to be built was Geneina Fort. This was straight out of a Beau Geste movie lacking only a Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. It was built of stone, with corner blockhouses and a small town within its walls. In command were two "Bimbashi", with the rank of Major in the British Army. If such a thing is possible, 11 miles from the geographical center of Africa, they lived in splendor. I would not have believed it outside of a movie! Their command was Number 1 Company, Western Arab Corps, Sudan Defense Force. I have no idea what they might be defending as there was not even an all weather road within hundreds of miles. There was also Geneina Town but this area was the poorest of the poor with little to see or do.
Meanwhile, as the days dragged by, more and more Air Corps people were arriving and the Pan Am people were either integrated into the Army or sent home. It was only after I was given control that I discovered that there was a small warehouse, jam packed with all kinds of delicacies that had been reserved for the Pan Am elite and anyone they chose to have as guests at their table. And there had been some rather prominent folks go through. Colonels, Admirals, Congressmen, Senators and at least one General. As I would greet each one deplaning , more often than not I would be asked "what are you, a pilot, doing here"? After telling them my sad story the response was almost always the same-"wait 'til I get to Cairo, or Accra, depending upon which direction they were headed, and I'll get you out of here. Of course, none of these people were nearly as influential as they thought they were and I continued to spend my days swatting flies and the evenings watching the sun go down, and the nights marveling at the lightning flashes that never seemed to end. On one occasion, I confronted one of my superiors with a request for some kind of orders to back up my present situation. When he claimed that, since I didn't belong to the ATC, they were not in a position to issue orders, I informed him that I would be leaving on the next aircraft headed east. He changed his mind, and wrote some orders! At the same time he did come up with an explanation as to why I was still there. Seems as though the entire contingent of ATC personnel that was to have replaced the Pan Am people had been diverted to man a new route across the southern part of Africa. The war had not been going well in North Africa and there was fear that the present route, of which we were a part, might be in jeopardy. Now that a number of months had gone by, even Washington had discovered the existence of this remote outpost and began to send all sorts of directives, requests for morning reports and even a complete set of War Department regulations. By now we boasted a roster of 4 officers and about 40 enlisted men, but no one in a category to replace me. It wasn't until late November, after almost six months in Africa, that one sunshiny day a 1st Lt. arrived to take over as Control Officer. It took a couple of days to make the transfer complete but now that I was once again on my way, another day or two made little difference. It was necessary to return to Accra where I had to fight off attempts to transfer me to ATC, before I was handed new orders directing me to "proceed on original orders" to Karachi, India.
On to Karachi, India
The trip from Accra to Karachi was memorable for a couple of reasons. It had now been almost six months since I had been in a pilot's seat, and would soon be ineligible to collect flight pay. The trip across Africa was long and tedious so it didn't take much to convince the crew that I could serve as an instant auto-pilot. By the time we reached Karachi, I was able to add 11 hours of C-53 co-pilot time to my log-book. There was an overnight stop in Khartoum and another chance to enjoy the "Entertaining Wanderers", refugee Central European singers and dancers who had become marooned in Africa. The stop at Aden, was extended to the point that we were able to make a sight-seeing trip to Cleopatra's Wells and surroundings, a real once-in a-lifetime experience. The following day, after six months on the road, I finally arrived at New Malir Cantonment, Karachi, India. It was the 15th of December, 1942.
With orders from the Karachi American Air Base Command, I immediately reported to the 341st Bombardment Group, 490th Bombardment Squadron and was welcomed as the "Prodigal Son". New Malir, spread over a very large area, housed elements of the RAF, the British Army, the Indian Army, the US Army, a well equipped hospital, and sundry other smaller detachments. With the associated airfield and the city itself being some miles distant, transportation was required to get to almost anywhere. In our case, we were allotted 2 1935 Ford 4dr sedans for the entire group of officers, which didn't quite do the job no matter how many we tried to jam in. At the time, the 490th owned more aircraft than pilots necessary to fly them so I was back in the air, in a B-25, the day after reporting for duty. It didn't take long though as new crews were showing up almost daily, and on January 8, 1943, 24 days after arrival, I was checked out as first pilot and given the squadron's 10th airplane. Bombing, gunnery and formation flying training filled our days with 16mm movies and an occasional wild trip to town took care of the nights for the next few weeks, but by the 1st of February it was time to get serious, and move out. It was still a long way to the front but with one final stop at the US Army Supply Depot at Agra, we found our new home and operational base at Ondal, India. Along with a B-25 of my own, came a pair of shiny silver bars! A few days after joining the 490th, my new CO did what he could to make up for my being Shanghaied, for so long, by the Ferry Command and got me promoted to 1st Lieutenant. The days really were beginning to look a little brighter. The living conditions at Ondal were quite tolerable and except for the ever present mosquitoes at night there were few complaints. New flight crews and airplanes continued to arrive and in about two weeks we were fully staffed and ready to go to work. Not only ready, but eager, and with a strong feeling that we were going to do a good job. For reasons that I don't fully understand, the 490th was a "detached squadron", operating separately from the 341st group and receiving operational orders directly from the 10th Air Force. Even though the organization had only been born at Karachi, with bits and pieces from many different sources, we had become a very tightly knit group that acted and performed like we had already "been there". I believe that 100% credit belongs to our first CO, Major James A. Philpot, a hard, fair, tough, fun-loving, fearless, pearl-handled revolver carrying dare devil. There were those who complained that his dangerous training tactics were going to kill someone, but his answer was "perhaps, but a considerably larger number would live because of the training". Within a few days, all of the ground support had arrived, new flight crews and airplanes were showing up and being fine tuned. The war was about to begin!
Since it was still a long way to go, from Ondal just to the border of Burma, and then a good bit further to our intended targets, the B-25 maximum radius of action became an important factor. There was a forward British airfield at Argatela that, even though it did not have a paved runway, was capable of handling a B-25 squadron for a short period of time. Therefore, for our first mission, it was decided that we would fly to Argatela the first day, at which time bombs and fuel would be loaded in preparation for the next mornings take-off. I doubt very much that anyone got much sleep that night, but we were surely wide awake for the before dawn briefing. Target-- Gokteik Viaduct, a railway bridge spanning a deep gorge just before the tracks entered a mountain tunnel. Since every single one of us was on his first mission, there were no veterans, it seemed only natural to follow our leaders and follow the book, just the way we had been training. All ten aircraft got off on schedule, made a slow circle and managed to move into a reasonably loose formation. Oh, I am sure that there was at least one straggler, it turned out that there was always at least one, until the going got rough, and then it was a TIGHT formation. As we crossed the Chin Hills, the sun was well up and at 12,000 feet, there was nothing to see but solid green jungle for miles and miles and miles ahead. The feeling was hard to explain. Some combination of excitement, nervousness, exhilaration, wonderment and, I am sure, some degree of fear. As we strained our eyes trying to make something out below, it seemed absolutely inconceivable to us to think that there could be anyone actually down there fighting a ground war. Of course we also strained to catch sight of expected opposition from Jap aircraft but thankfully, for at least our first go around, there was none. As we approached the target area, and began the bombing run, the little "puffs" of smoke began to appear. If bombs are to hit the target there must be, for at least a brief period of time, a straight and level run and it is at that time that the Ack-Ack is most effective. But not today. None of our aircraft were hit but then, I rather doubt that any of our bombs did a great deal of damage either. Of course we immediately broke away and headed for home, not completely out of the woods with yet another two hours over hostile territory, suffering only from numerous cases of "dry mouth". Once again we headed for Argatela and closed out the mission in just under four hours flight time. Once again the aircraft were serviced, refueled and rearmed in readiness for a repeat performance the following day. This time the victim was to be railroad yards at Thazi Junction. Once again there was no opposition enroute but the anti-aircraft fire was a bit more intense. AA fire is something you just don't get used to and it does take some effort to remain calm when you know there are explosions all around you. And you do know that they are exploding all around you because you can see the explosions. If there was any comforting thought, it was that as long as you could see them all was well. You would never see the one that hit you. This time we had the option of landing again at Argatela or, if fuel permitted, continuing all the way to Ondal. After Five hours and fifty five minutes elapsed time we put down at home base with fuel to spare. Now we were all veterans.
We continued to operate through Argatela or Calcutta's Dum Dum Airport for the next couple of weeks but no longer without incident. We knew it was coming, so the surprise was not too great when we encountered our first ZERO fighters. Fortunately, the Jap early warning system was not very early so we were well on our way home, and were able to take limited evasive action. Without any type of fighter escort of our own, our best defense was to stick together and keep our return fire concentrated. Nevertheless, the lead aircraft of our third element was seen to pull away, losing speed and altitude rapidly. An effort was made that afternoon to locate the downed airplane or crew but the fact that it was in enemy territory did not allow for a very intensive search, and nothing was found. Around the fireside that evening the biggest question seemed to be "why weren't we all shot down?". We could see the fighters coming at us and we could plainly see the tracers seemingly right in our face! Of course, like the ant-aircraft fire, the stuff that looked like it was coming at us, was really ending up far behind. From that time on, we encountered sporadic fighter opposition although it was mercifully always on our way home. The Jap alert would go out when we were spotted outbound and they would try to catch homeward bound. As long as the weather allowed, we dropped our bombs from 10,000-12,000 ft, where the fire from the ground was not too effective. There were times though when cloud cover forced us to descend to much lower levels giving our bombardiers less chance to make an accurate bomb run, and their gunners a much closer target to aim at. I must say though, that none of our airplanes were ever seriously damaged by ground fire while I was a part of the 490th. There had been damage and even loss of planes due to fighter activity, but no loss of life or serious injury. My turn did not come until my 32nd mission. Once again, we were on the way home when the biggest crowd of fighters that we had ever seen showed up. First reaction was that it was a long awaited RAF escort but, when the tracers started coming, it was obviously not the good guys. Just when we thought that we had it made, there was a tremendous explosion just beneath the cockpit floor. One of the engines went wild and the airplane, although under control, began to yaw wildly forcing us to pull out of formation. With nothing better to do, we tried moving the throttle and prop controls and suddenly the engines were almost synchronized, allowing us to once again pull up with the rest of the flight. Very shortly we were back over friendly territory, the enemy disappeared and we were able to back off a bit. With time to think and take stock, we learned that the bombardier was ok and he learned that there were two pilots still flying. From the backend we learned that the top gunner had been nicked just enough to get a purple heart but not enough to require any more than a band-aid. The turret had been damaged and it appeared that a small piece of one rudder was missing. There was no visible damage up the front but it did appear that we had lost all hydraulic pressure, making a quick refresher in emergency procedures the appropriate course of action. Long before reaching the airport it was clear that there was no hydraulic pressure so we cranked down some flaps. When it came time to lower the landing gear our luck held, and the gear fell into the locked position of its own weight. Long approach, one more notch of flaps go down, wheels touch and with very slight use of the air brakes, the five hour and thirty-five minute mission is complete. Climbing down the ladder my knees gave way and I had a bit of trouble walking the first few steps. It didn't hurt to be greeted by the CO who treated us like some kind of heroes, even though all we really did was hang on. Subsequently, the ground crew found the remains of an explosive shell that had hit the engine and prop control cables for one engine. Neither one had been completely severed, but with half of the strands cut, the cables had stretched about an inch, which is just about the way it looked in the cockpit. The ruptured hydraulic reservoir was in the same area. The war looked different now.
As time went by, and we continued to gain experience, our operations through Argatela were discontinued and we were making nonstop roundtrips from Ondal to the target and back. But with times ranging up to six hours and forty minutes we were beginning to waste a good bit of engine time that was not easily replaced. Another move was in order and, this time, it was to a newly constructed airfield at Kurmitola, still in India near Dacca, but much closer to the Burmese border. This move effectively lowered our time enroute by at least two hours, not only reducing wear and tear on the aircraft but also on the flight crews. By now, we were a fully equipped squadron of 19 planes, divided into 4 flights of 4, with 3 spares, and a full roster of men to support and fly. I don't think we ever got 16 airplanes in the air at the same time but on many occasions got close, and considering the area in which we were operating, it was considered acceptable. Most of the time we were still dropping bombs from medium altitude on bridges or railroad yards but every now and then, when we weren't having much luck, we would give it a go at low level. This allowed for much greater accuracy but at the same time gave the opposition a greater crack at us both from ground fire and then from their fighters as we struggled to gain altitude to clear the mountains ahead. On one occasion the crew was forced to bail out of their badly damaged airplane, survived the drop into the jungle, and somehow all managed to find their way home with only superficial wounds. On another occasion, two "healthy" airplanes escorted one of their "limping" comrades to a friendly airbase before turning for home. Once again there were no injuries except to the aircraft.
The single runway at Kurmitola was hacked out of a jungle with a railroad spur running nearby to facilitate delivery of bombs, fuel and whatever else it took operate an airbase. There was a daily train from Calcutta that passed by every day about noon which dropped off fresh fruit and vegetables, the morning newspaper and, if you had ordered in advance, a quart of ice cream. And that made train arrival the high point of the day. Besides a headquarters building there were, a mess hall which also served as the briefing room, officer's and NCO's clubs, numerous low level 2-man to a room living quarters, and a rudimentary outdoor movie and entertainment area. Not quite up to country club standards but far better than we had expected and there was plenty of local help that could be hired to maintain our quarters and handle the laundry. With the living area located some distance from the airstrip, it had early on become the habit of pilots returning from other than combat missions to "buzz" the camp area to signal their imminent arrival. One incident that has already become legendary, must be recounted. Every military unit, regardless of size, had a monthly liquor and cigarette allowance, which could not be entrusted to a delivery by rail. So on the designated day, a B-25 with a temporary pallet fitted to the bomb-bay, would be dispatched to Calcutta, solely for the purpose of bringing home the goods. With 8 cans of beer and 2 cartons of cigarettes per person in addition to one 5th of whiskey per officer, it was the most valuable B-25 in all of India, and its pilot the man of the hour. This procedure worked perfectly for the first three deliveries and then disaster. Our "man of the hour" pulled up too abruptly as he announced his arrival, resulting in the collapse of the pallet and subsequent, right on target, bombing of home base with a full load of beer. Although there were a great many damaged beer cans, and straw rooftops, there were no damaged people and for this one time, we were happy to report our bombs had been ineffective. For the pilot, it was better than receiving a medal. He has a place in history and will be remembered forever.
I don't know whether someone got hung up on the movie "We Strike At Dawn" or for what reason but, for the longest time, that is just what we were doing. Get up in the middle of the night, eat breakfast, get briefed and away we go at sun-up. Aside from the fact that we were home before lunch and had nothing but a boring afternoon ahead of us, surely the Japs also had it figured out and had a much better chance of interception. Soon as we began to stagger our departure time, if nothing else, we got a better nights sleep. And I believe that as time passed, there were fewer and fewer sleepless night. Experience soon told us which targets were likely to give us the most trouble and which could be considered relatively harmless. On a couple of occasions we came close to doing ourselves in. One day ten airplanes had completed their take-off but before the squadron had formed up, four had turned back because of engine problems. Investigation disclosed that automobile fuel had inadvertently been switched with aviation fuel. And then there was the day we blamed it on the weather. Anyone who had been there for a week knew that it could rain almost anytime and it usually did. After all, we were practically living in a rain forest. But, no matter how hard it came down, it almost always could be counted upon to at least let-up in a few minutes. So on this particular day, as we return from a mission, the airfield is out of sight beneath huge rain shower. Perfectly clear a mile away but just the approach to the runway visible. The customary procedure was to fly overhead in showboat formation and then break away at proper intervals and follow the circling leader in to a landing. This would have been a good day to practice making circles in the clear and wait for the storm to pass. But, by now we had become the hotshot Burma Bridge Busters and couldn't be bothered by a little rain. The result was one aircraft off the runway to the right and totaled. A second airplane clipped its wing on the first and received major damage. Two more off to the left with minor damage. When it became my turn to touch down the visibility was slightly more than zero and without knowing what was ahead there was strong tendency to come down hard on the brakes--especially after catching a brief glimpse of what had gone before. However, a quick reminder that this runway had always been long enough before, made "easy does it" the order for the moment. There was a brief moment of relief when we reached the end of the runway but the turn-off was blocked by a parked freight train, leaving no room to turn. Not knowing who or what was still coming behind us created a near panic situation. We had to get off the runway! Shut down the engines-- Everybody out-- With brakes off, push on the wheels until clear of the boxcar--Everybody back in-- Start the engines and get the hell out of there. Just for the record, the CO had been number one.
All of this time I had been flying the same airplane 41-13161, which was beginning to show its age. I will be forever grateful to the line crew-chief who did an outstanding job of keeping it in fighting trim. Mainly because it was always ready to go, we were constantly fighting to keep it from being used for anything but its primary purpose, dropping bombs in Burma. Use one of the clunkers for training, or transportation to Calcutta or whatever. Soon though, it had reached the limit, with extensions, of hours requiring engine overhaul. At that time I was given the choice of a newer airplane, with auto pilot, or going to the Indian aircraft factory at Bangalore where I would be guaranteed that two new, not rebuilt, engines would be installed. Not much of a choice. I chose to keep the same crew-chief and we all went for a visit to Bangalore.
By this time with an abundance of flight crews clamoring to fly missions, there was time for R and R. One crew at a time was given a week off to head for the mountain playground Darjeeling, or the city playground Calcutta.
Life in India
As the weeks went by, the tempo increased until at least part of the squadron was somewhere over Burma every day.. With the Jap's being able to rebuild the bridges at an astonishing rate, we were seemingly hitting the same targets , over and over again.. At the same time, there was a marked increase in the opposition , both from ground fire and from fighter planes. I really don't know what type of aircraft they were but, as far as we were concerned, if it was shooting at us it was a "Zero". As a flight commander, I was also responsible for checking the proficiency of newer pilots, and doing test flights after major repairs on any of the flights aircraft. We also took turns doing the "weather check". This consisted of one airplane , alone and minus bomb load, heading out over Burma in the direction of the target for the day, to get some idea of what type of weather could be expected.. It was not the type of mission that I looked forward to! Although it was not necessary to go all the way to the target, there was deep penetration at times . 10 or 12 B-25s in formation is one thing but , all alone, one B-25 does not have a very formidable defense.. More than one aircraft did not return from a weather mission. Meanwhile, on some of my "days off", I made another trip to Bangalore to pick up a refurbished B-25, spent a few days acting as a taxi for a base inspecting Colonel , and managed to sneak in a couple of five day passes to Calcutta. Calcutta had everything that any metropolis has, and maybe more than most.. There were grand hotels, grand government buildings, grand theaters and a grand train station.. The movie houses had reserved seats and it was in a grand box that I saw "Gone With The Wind " for the first time. But, it was the signs of abject poverty and filth that left the greatest impression. The train station was a monstrous building seemingly filled to capacity with people and garbage. Much of that mass of humanity never left the building., begging by day and sleeping on the floor by night.- It was very much the same in the center of the city . The sidewalks were filled with beggars , many of whom would not move more than a few feet for days at a time, for fear of losing their claim on that tiny bit of territory. At night though, it became a different world. As the sun went down and the lights came on, it was time to leave the sights and move into the splendor of the Imperial Hotel. Only in the movies had we ever seen anything like this.. High ceilings with dozens of fans, ornate furniture , immense dining room with monogrammed china and silverware and a whole platoon in uniform to wait on us.. To top it all of f there was the dinner music that , as the evening wore on , blended into the unforgettable Big Band sound of the `40s. It was here that I experienced "As Time Goes By" for the first time. War or peace, it was all the same to the British Colonials, life went on!.
During the month of August, 1943, I flew only five combat missions, three of them as squadron leader., and on September 1st led the squadron on my 61st, and what turned out to be my last, mission.
There was one more trip to pick up an airplane at Bangalore, one more trip to Agra to pick up an AT-6, and one more pilot to be checked out as 1st pilot.. My last assignment as a member of the 490th , one of the most enjoyable, began on September 18th. A shipload of P-40s had arrived at Karachi en-route to northeast India where they were to add to the ever growing force protecting the airlift to China , over "the Hump". For a number of reasons, primarily the distance involved , the need for frequent fuel stops, and pilots with limited navigational skills it was deemed desirable to give them an escort -- someone to follow.. It took a whole week to move 14 P-40s from one end of India to the other , but that included a three day stop at the Agra Supply Depot for final aircraft modification and outfitting the pilots with winter equipment.. To give them a longer range, each P-40 had been fitted with an additional "bathtub" fuel tank that was slung beneath the fuselage, which slowed them down considerably. The problem this created was that they could not keep up without overheating their engines and I felt that I could not fly slowly enough without falling out of the sky. In this case , I believe I was the one lacking in experience, and felt it necessary to make a circle from time to time so that the troops would not fall too far behind.. It was at Agra that I received word that my "go home" orders had arrived, and I was sorely tempted to turn around and do just that.. But instead, we all got drunk at the Officers Club , piled 14 fighter pilots into our B-25 and gave them the hair-raising ride of their life, just as the sun came up! Somehow we all survived,, found our way to the proper airfield nestled amongst the tea plantations of northern India, and headed home to Kurmitola. For the moment my war had come to an end.
I have driven by Stockton Field many times in the past few years, and
have often wondered if anything remained of the WW2 activities. It
wasn't until a few days ago, when I stumbled on your website, that I was
aware of the budding museum. Don't know how I missed it since I have
been on the internet for 15 years.
Briefly explaining the Boeing 247--
A few days after graduation, six of us (I have no idea of how we were
chosen) were sent TDY to Air Corps Training Detachment, Reno, Nevada. Three of us drove to Reno in my spanking new RED 1942 Plymouth
Convertible, on December 22, 1941, and quickly discovered that there was
no "Air Corps Training Detachment". For whatever reason, I don't
remember, we went to the El Cortez Hotel, and there found that it was
the "headquarters" we were looking for. Only difference was that the
show was being run by United Airlines.
After a week of ground school, at the hotel, we started two-engine
flight training. The instructors were United line pilots and the
aircraft we used were regular United planes that were used between their
scheduled flights through Reno. We received a total of 50 hours, 25
B-247 and 25 Dc-3, with an even mix of day, night and instuments. When
finished, we were certified as 2-Engine first pilots, and returned to
Stockton. As you can probably see from the photos, it snowed practically
every day we were there, so it really was some good real world training.
I am not quite sure that I would have felt secure riding as a passenger
behind someone with my limited experience at that point. Since this was
a civilian school, we were required to obtain a student pilot license,
and as military students we were required to carry parachutes.
Since we had just entered the war, Reno had hardly ever seen a
soldier, let alone six 2nd Lts with wings and leather jackets. I have no
idea how it was arranged, but three local socialite families entertained
us royally for the entire Christmas-New Years season. Really tough duty.
Yes, I still have my logbooks, flight records, 201 file and just
about every piece of paper I ever received from the War Department. The
only pictures that I have are of airplanes or individuals--nothing to
show any of the facilities at Stockton.
I hope to stop by sometime in the near future to take a look at your
layout. Since I ended up in B-25s, I am always happy to take a closer
look at these restored beauties.
Thanks again Bob for sharing your experiences and thank you for what you did for our Country!
TO ALL OF OUR COUNTRY'S VETERANS, WE HERE AT VINTAGE AIRCRAFT WOULD LIKE TO SAY:
THANK YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID FOR OUR COUNTRY!
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