Bats outa Hell
©1991 by Max B. Ferguson. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Max B. Ferguson, 1215 Taylor, Charleston, Illinois 61920.
The excerpt from Reminiscences written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was previously published by McGraw-Hill, New York, ©1964.
This book is a tribute to the many enlisted men and officers of the 499th Bomb. Squadron who did not return from the SW Pacific.
I want to express my appreciation for the courage and assistance of the first enlisted man from the 498th or 499th Bomb. Squadron who began wading over his dead buddies to help fight the fires on the Thomas Nelson on November 12, 1944. After the fires were out I was too euphoric to be alive to worry about the name of an assistant.
This book would not have been possible without the critical reading of the manuscript by Mr. Victor Tatelman and Dr. Jane Ferguson Andersen.
This is a story of the 499th Bomb. Squadron on Biak off the coast of New Guinea during WWII; I have strived to make it as accurate as possible. Most events are true. Charlie Phillips, Vic Tatelman, Corie Johnson, Henry Jepson and Robert Stewart are still living to attest to the accuracy of several episodes. Brig. General Richard Reinbold, our commanding officer, can verify events concerning administration. I did not keep a diary, but I have referred to the daily letters I wrote my wife for special events and dates. Many specific details of traumatic events have been supplied by living members of the squadron; they are crystal clear after over forty years. It is always difficult for an author to separate the reported events which might have happened.
One fictitious character, Carl Zark, is a combination of Carl Conant, Lawrence Bannister, Bert Shaber and several Okies rolled into one. Zark's co-pilot, Paul Shores, is also fictitious. Everyone else mentioned is either a friend of the 499th or a member of the Squadron.
I want to express my appreciation for Paul Luttrell's comments on Carl Conant. He was Carl's co-pilot in the original 499th cadre.
During the entire Papuan campaign, the enormous flexibility of modern air power was constantly exploited. The calculated advance of bomber lines through seizure of forward bases meant that a relatively small force of bombers operating at short and medium ranges; could attack under cover of an equally limited fighter force. Each phase of advance had as its objective an airfield which could serve as a stepping stone to the next advance. In addition, as the line moved forward, naval forces under newly established air cover began to regain the sea lanes, which had been the undisputed arteries of the enemy's far-flung positions. Ground, sea and air operations were thoroughly co-ordinated. It was a new type of campaign--three dimensional warfare--the triphibious concept.
Biak, 180 miles northwest of Wadke island; lay next in the line of my advance. On May 27, 1944, the 41st Division made the initial assault on southern Biak in the face of light opposition. The light enemy resistance at the beachhead held little hint of what was to come. Utilizing the peculiar topography of the island, the enemy devised a brilliant defense structure. His principal units were held in check until our forces moved from the shore to the hilly terrain inland, where from overhanging crags and caves the Japanese savagely counterattack. Behind 5-ton tanks they drove a wedge between the first wave and the main attacking force. We threw in reinforcements, and after violent fighting, by July 22nd major resistance had been overcome. The tenacity of the enemy was shown in his casualty list of over 7,200 dead, including those killed in mopping-up operations.
Figure 1. Back row left to right: Capt. Robert Post, Capt. Morris Bradshaw, Capt. Victor Tatelman, Capt. Max Ferguson; Front Row: Capt. Walter Barnes, Capt. Marty Wood, Capt. Ed Egan.
Lawrence J. Hickey, Warpath across the Pacific. Published by International Research and Publishing Corp, Boulder, Colorado.
July 14, 1944
"Capn, the C.O. wants to see you," drawled my clerk, Ben Miller, as he hung up the phone.
"I wonder what in the devil he wants 'to eat my ass out' for today?" as I expressed my thoughts verbally. I should have guessed, for we had been at Nadzab in the Markham river valley (New Guinea) for several months, and we were out of range of good targets for our B-25s.
My daily uniform was a white Auzzie helmet with officer's insignia and a pair of khaki shorts. I thought I had better improve my appearance so I went out to the Jeep and put on a somewhat clean khaki shirt.
As I ambled toward squadron headquarters I pondered what could be the cause of this very rare occasion. A few weeks before I had written a reply-by-endorsement on Alan Anderson's radio operator who had broken radio silence when they turned back before reaching the target for the day. Andy was one of my best friends; I had to reply the next day after my ground radio operators had reported Andy's plane had 'gone in' over Wewak. Certainly if Dick was going to ask for a reply-by-endorsement, he would have done it through the mail. I felt better as I walked into the office.
I greeted 1st Sgt Maloney, "Good morning, the C.O. has requested my presence."
"Go on in," he replied.
Major Dick Reinbold had graduated from West Point and had one of the best disciplined squadrons I was to see in the Pacific. I felt he thought he could do anything that was reasonable with a B-25.
I snapped a salute--not because he was an 'iron ass', but to show my respect.
He returned my salute, "Good morning Ferg., draw up a chair," as he motioned to a chair beside him.
"Good morning," I relaxed as I sat down, for I knew if I was going to get 'eaten out', I'd get it standing.
"Ferg. we need a good man to take an advance echelon to Biak, as it will be our next home."
"Where in the hell is Biak?" I had probably read about the infantry invasion in the Guinea Gold, but at the moment it didn't ring a bell.
"See the chicken on this map." New Guinea is shaped like a chicken with a long curved neck pointing westward. "About a hundred miles north of the middle of the neck, there is an island called Biak. The 41st infantry are working it over now, so the CB's should have a coral airstrip ready soon. That will be different from landing on these iron mats," Dick thought aloud.
"Are there tropical beaches, coconut palm trees, and beautiful native women?" I questioned.
"I would answer that, but I know you're married. We'll send as many men and equipment as we can get in two B-25s; take your personal belongings, tools for clearing an area and building a crapper; fill the rest of the bomb bays with tents, for we're going to be staging a mission out of there before the ground troops arrive." Dick continued, "You'll eat at Group; are there any questions?"
"Would you have a case of good U.S. whiskey for trading material?"
"That's a stupid question Ferg.--you know I'd drink it if I did."
I rose to go, "Put my two clerks, Miller and Shane, on the orders, for they are good workers."
"Tell 1st Sgt. Maloney to warn all the advance echelon men to get out their carbines and oil them. The infantry is clearing the area, but the island is honeycombed with caves; there are still a few yellow S.O.B. in them."
It was the same old story--get settled down comfortably with a board floor and electricity in your tent, an officer's mess, a good dark room, then the B-25s run out of good targets and the squadron makes an 800 mile leap to a forward area. War is hell.
July 16, 1944
We completed our planning in two days and were ready to go. I was to fly with Lt. Bert Summers; since he didn't take a co-pilot with him, I got to fly right seat. I usually rode in the radio operator's compartment behind the bomb bay; with fuel smell and flopping tail I was usually, if not sick, uncomfortable after 200 miles. Bert relaxed with his left hand on the control column, and the plane flew straight as an arrow.
After about an hour Bert asked, "Max, how about flying it awhile?" "What do I need to know?"
"Just keep it on the navigator's heading; there are about 50,000 Japs at Wewak; we don't want to pay them a visit."
I tried to relax and keep it on the heading. The plane would drift to the left, then I would over correct, and I would be to the right of the heading. After a dog-leg pattern for several miles, finally in mild exasperation, I said, "Bert, fly this damn thing--I need to do some sight-seeing."
We passed over Hollandia and close to Wadke Island, our two most forward airstrips. Native huts, coconut plantations, and New Guinea jungle slowly passed beneath us. We changed heading and swung out over the water. Along the shore the water had a greenish cast, but as the ocean deepened it became an intense blue. A native out-rigger canoe moving parallel with the shore showed periodic dull flashes as the oars moved out of the water.
In a few minutes we could see the peculiar stairsteps of Biak. It appeared that coral beds had been at a certain level for a long period of time, then the water level had changed quickly, and they had grown at another level for a long period. Not far off shore there was a sharp line in the water indicating another stairstep. Ashore there were a few coconut palms and other trees, but mostly shrubs. Some uprooted trees and debris were scattered about from the recent landing.
Bert racked the old B-25 over and took a look at the cream-colored coral strip as he buzzed the primitive control tower.
"It looks like the CB's have built a honey of a strip," I commented.
"Well, if you grease it in well enough, it doesn't make much difference what the materials are, so long as it's smooth," Bert replied.
We circled and headed into final approach. The landing was so smooth it was difficult to tell when we touched down; the two planes taxied over to a hardstand. "Bert, I want to thank you for a pleasant trip. Since you fellows have a five hour trip back to Nadzab, better grab a bite to eat and be on your way. Place all the cots, mosquito nets, shovels etc. into a pile. Miller, you stand guard until I get back. I'll look up 345th Hdq. and see if I can borrow a 6x6 or a jeep."
It was about 1230. "I would guess that the quickest place to get something to eat will be at Group," Bert commented. We hailed a jeep and talked the driver into taking the five of us to Group Hdq. about 1 1/2 miles from the strip. By the time I had procured a jeep and been shown where the new 499th area would be, the four crewman had eaten. I picked them up and took them back to their planes.
After the planes had taken off, and it was quiet, I noticed for the first time the rumble of artillery and the occasional chatter of a machine gun. We ran shifts eating and hauling until the equipment was all in our new area.
I urged the men, "Let's clear an area for one tent and get it up so we can keep our equipment dry." There was a dark cloud forming in the east.
We were still driving tent stakes when it began to pour. As we huddled in the tent Shane commented, "Welcome to the land of tropical beauty, coconut palms, and beautiful native women," then he paused, "Hell would probably be cooler than this."
"I'll bet those guys firing those 75's ain't under a tent; those poor bastards of infantrymen," Brydges added.
There was more chatter; I finally interrupted, "Let's plan a little strategy. I paid fifty bucks for a quart of Auzzie gin at Nadzab, so I could encourage an engineer to have a dozer operator level an area for us, but that will take time. I'll be lucky to get one in three or four days. There are probably Japs in those caves over there, so I want a big area cleared around our three tents. There isn't enough dry wood to burn these green shrubs, so I'll see if I can find an old Jap fuel dump. For the next two weeks we're going to have to forget about the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes, this rotten salty water and our backs, and work our 'asses off."
As the rain had almost stopped, I slipped on my poncho and headed out to the road along the beach. As I left I yelled back over
my shoulder, "No souvenir hunting until we get a large area cleared. M/Sgt. Tummelson, see a temporary latrine is dug."
I reasoned--the airstrip was in a very limited area along the beach; somewhere within walking distance there should be a Jap fuel dump. When I hit the road, I turned left away from the airstrip. Ahead I could see three clusters of coconuts palms in different areas of the low shrubs between the shore and the first ridge of the coral stairsteps. Before I got to the second grove, I could see several fifty-five gallon drums that had not been hit with either bombs or artillery shells. There were about ten barrels, but you never took just what you needed--you stocked up to use in the future or to trade to someone else. As I walked back to Group I thought, 'I forgot to bring my carbine, and I forgot to be careful in case of booby traps.' I borrowed a jeep and with the help of a couple of men, soon had all the barrels in the 499th area.
There was enough dry wood and debris to start a fire, but not enough to burn the green brush piled around the edge of our area. Since I had been told hundreds of time never to throw gasoline on a fire, I would not let the men use it until I experimented. It was evidently low octane, for I took about two-thirds of a bucket of the Jap aviation fuel, tossed bucket and fuel toward a pile of burning green brush, then back-pedalled quickly. It worked perfectly, and we were soon melting down the green brush piles.
One of the fellows commented, "It won't be long 'til we need a dozer."
After the hot day, the setting sun and cool breeze off the ocean made the area very pleasant. The sound of the tide from the beach was interspersed with the rumble of 41st Div. artillery.
Despite the heat and salty water we had two pyramidal tents up for the enlisted men and one for me with a large area cleared around them. Cots and mosquito nets were ready. We were all dragging when we headed toward Group for supper, that is everyone except M/Sgt Tummelson. Every time when I had wanted him during the day he was gone; there weren't any women around so I suppose he was in the caves looking for souvenirs. He was supposed to act as 1st Sgt. to help me get the area ready for the arrival of the flying personnel for a staging mission in a few days. I caught him at supper and 'ate him oul' in front of the men. I was wasting my time for he was old regular army and didn't give a damn about anything. "Sergeant you've leaked oil all day. Let's see if you can take care of posting
two guards tonight on the corners of the area. We'll run two shifts--one 'til midnight and one from midnight 'til dawn. I'll take one of the graveyard shifts."
If there was a true adventurer among the men it was Harold Brydges; he cut in, "I'll take the other shift with you Captain."
After a year in the Pacific this was the first time we were close to enemy troops. As it began to grow dark without area lights, I could sense the jitters among the men; this was why I volunteered for the graveyard shift. I took some soap and went down to the ocean to wash off a little dirt before I put on clean khakis. I hated to bathe in salt water, but the water we were drinking was being pumped out of a crevice within thirty feet of the beach; there was no use stealing a panful of water to deodorize. I was tired so I wrote my daily letter to my wife before dark and hit the sack.
I slept well, but awoke at 2345. I dressed, picked up my flashlight and carbine, then selected a place for right guard post so I had a clear field of fire. I was within thirty feet of my pyramidal tent. I had only been on guard post a few minutes when I wished I had dug a fox hole so I wouldn't have been quite so conspicuous. I was so unaccustomed to pulling guard that it didn't perturb me that I hadn't relieved another guard. The moon was shining and I could see clearly, but occasionally I could hear spooky Jap calls in the caves less than an eighth mile away. The other guard, Brydges, was a very dependable teletype operator in my communications section. At first I wasn't concerned about not seeing him, for I took my post a little early. After several minutes the moon began to set, and with the Jap calls, I became anxious as to what had happened to Brydges. If I had been a private, I would have pulled guard duty at my post and not worried about the other man, but I was responsible for every individual in the two tents. I had not relieved anyone; I had not seen the Sgt. of the guard and hadn't seen my fellow guard. I pondered what to do. All enlisted men were in two tents that projected into a cleared area facing the bluffs and caves. I reasoned that maybe Brydges might have overslept, and I was the only guard on duty. I was on the right corner guard post; I decided to walk slowly around the tents to the left corner and softly call Brydges name, so I wouldn't wake the other men. On the other hand I didn't want to alarm Brydges and his M-1 either. I arrived at the left corner post and found it vacant. My anxiety increased, for in this area I had a poorer field of vision since the moon had set. Slowly I retraced my steps again softly calling
Brydges; by the time I returned to my original post, it was very dark. I didn't know what to do, but I decided as long as everything was quiet, I wouldn't disturb anyone. It was about two o'clock, and I was beginning to feel the effects of the tension, so I decided to sit down and let time solve my problems. This may have saved my life, for as I rustled the ground cover, 'Baloom' an M-1 bullet whistled over my head.
I yelled, "Brydges", then after a little recovery, "You're a hell of a poor shot." For some reason I wasn't scared--at least I knew where the other guard was--on the same post as mine.
I guess the 'Good Lord' protects stupid people, for I had almost pulled an 'Andrew Jackson' twice in one night. The next morning the men said they all had their 45's cocked when I had called Brydges as I moved around the two tents.
July 17, 1944
At breakfast I gave the men their assignments and hit the sack. When I awoke at noon, there were a dozen jobs to be done so the confusion of the previous night was quickly forgotten.
I took two salt pills a day and encouraged the men to do the same because the poor water and tropical heat, might cause heat stroke. We tried to make the salty drinking water palatable with coffee, but it was still horrible. We could drink rainwater from the tents, since there was almost a daily rain, but we lacked containers. At lunch I asked Shane to either hitch-hike or walk to the line and borrow at least one cold chisel or something to cut the heads out of the Jap fuel barrels so we could collect rainwater for drinking or bathing. I told Miller to either beg, borrow or steal some soap from Group supply so we could get rid of most of the oily taste from the fuel. By evening we had three reasonably clean containers sitting under our tent flaps. For the second day the men had really worked hard chopping down the shrubs and melting them down with Jap fuel.
July 18, 1944
Our water supply was being pumped from a crevice within thirty feet of the ocean. I knew when the squadron arrived, we'd need water
that wasn't half salt; I concluded the only solution was a well. I did not know how to 'witch' for water, so I selected a site away from the latrine, borrowed a pie pan from the cooks to use for level and climbed a tree next to the well site. I filled the pan with water, leveled it, and selected a spot in the top of a tree at the edge of the ocean as I sighted along the top of the water in the pan. I found we would have to dig about thirty feet to be on the level with the ocean, where we would be assured of some water. The well sight was some distance behind the living area toward the caves; at the time I didn't realize what an eerie trip it would be to get water at night. To get down thirty feet we would need an air compressor and spade from the engineers, and it would probably take a quart of liquor. I decided the quart of gin I had, would best be spent on a bulldozer--the well would have to wait.
I decided to pay the engineers a visit. I changed from my shorts to a pair of pants, since I was meeting someone I didn't know. I put on my Auzzie helmet with my officer's insignia and went to Group Hdq. to borrow a jeep.
When I arrived at the 46th Co. Engineers, I asked an enlisted man who was the C.O. and where I might find him?
"That is the C.O. tent behind these three," and he pointed to it. "His name is Capt. Robert Rodgers."
I thanked him and walked to the orderly room. I greeted the 1st Sgt. and asked if I might talk to the C.O. He motioned to a neighboring tent.
After Rodgers saw me, he invited me into his tent. "What can I do for you?" he asked in a soft southern drawl. "Could it be that it's Captain Tex Rodgers?" I guessed. "You're right--Texas A&M."
"I'm Max Ferguson, a product of Iowa State Teachers College. Could I take a little of your time?"
"Sure could--all I've got is time; I've been here 20 months; I'm waiting to get back stateside just like you are. Pull up a box and sit down."
"I'm acting Exec, for a group of B-25 men who are clearing an area for the 499th Bomb. Squadron who will arrive in about a week." As I pulled up my box and sat down, I guessed I had my bulldozer; I put the quart of gin on the floor. "We need one of those leveling devices; I know I couldn't rent one, but maybe we could do a little bartering." I placed the sack of the quart of gin on his desk.
"We have a lot of urgent things to do, like build a basketball court, build some roads, build a dock ramp etc., but maybe we can find some time after working hours." He wrote down my name, 345th Group telephone number, and the area to be cleared. "We'll try to help you out within a week. Thanks for the gin."
As I left I remarked, "I appreciate your time, and I apologize for the Auzzie gin, but it was the best I could buy in Nadzab."
I scanned the area as I left; there was a truck with a motor and air compressor that I would need to dig the well. Despite the gargantuan amount of work to be done, I felt good. With a bulldozer we could level our area and construct roads for the best campsite we had had overseas.
When I arrived back in the area, the men were huddled under a tent, for it had begun to rain. I ducked into the tent; my clean pair of khakis were soaked on the front side. "How are you coming on the posts and frame for the mess hall?" I inquired. "They haven't decided on whether to cover it with galvanized roofing or tent material. Is there anything you need?"
Tom Regan, the advance echelon carpenter, replied, "We could sure use a good post hole digger. This digging deep holes in coral is a lot of B.S."
"If you would tell me whether we'll have a 100 mile an hour typhoon or not in the next few months, I could tell you how deep to put your holes," I replied.
"Where are we going to put the Communications Office and ground station?" Miller questioned.
"You and Shane select and clear a site east of the officer's area; be sure the ground station is close to two trees so we can get an antenna up 20 to 25 feet. When we get a bulldozer in a few days, we'll put a road into the area." I turned to the rest of the men, "We are in a forward area, it wouldn't hurt to have some fox holes. I think I'll dig one. I sure as the devil wished I had one the other night on guard duty. Where's Shafer?"
We heard a yell toward the caves. Shafer came out from behind some shrubs without his gun, shepherding the smallest emaciated Jap I had ever seen; he must have weighed less than 80 pounds. He excitedly commented, "Hey Capn I brought you a souvenir. I was standing at the mouth of a cave looking at a beat-up Jap machine gun, when this character came up lo me with his hands in the air--barking out Japanese. What do I do with him?"
With a straight face I replied, "Those who fluff-off from work have to stand guard on prisoners. He can sleep with you tonight."
"The hell he will," and with an almost plaintiff look in his eyes, "What am I going to do with him?" See Figure 4 in photo section.
"I'm in communications, not intelligence; we'll take him to Group. Come on."
Major Darwin was Group Executive Officer, one of the most personable and efficient officers in the 345th Bomb. Group. Just as I called to the Major and asked permission to enter, I was hit with this pungent stench. Due to his poor food, the Jap had slit the seat of his pants, so all he had to do was squat, and he was in action. He had taken a crap just to the side of the entrance to Major Darwin's tent. I always tried not to irritate my superior officers; I didn't enter, but called to the Major, "I brought you a souvenir." Before he could reply, I headed back to the squadron area.
As I left, "Shafer, you caused this damn thing; Get a shovel and clean up."
I don't know what they did with the prisoner--I didn't care.
July 19, 1944
After dark on a quiet night we occasionally heard the Jap jargon like the first night we were on Biak. They caused no trouble except to steal a little food from the mess hall and try to survive.
The day after the Jap surrendered to Shafer, a medium tank rolled into an area east of 499th clearing and began firing 75 shells into the caves. A crowd collected in the light rain, and stood around cheering like they would at a football game.
"Hit 'em again harder."
"Jolly good shot, Mate."
"Over hill and dale--"
I don't understand the military.
July 20, 1944
Major Reinbold, Capt. Wood, Exec. Officer, and Lt. Corcoran, Mess Officer, arrived about noon from Nadzab in a B-25.
Without asking who had cleared the area, one of the other
squadrons moved into some of our cleared area and began putting up tents. I raised hell with the officer in charge, but to no avail.
Dick (Major Reinbold) arrived just in time to act as peacemaker. "Don't worry about it Ferg., we'll use some area on the east side of what you have cleared. Any chance of getting a bulldozer?"
"I've paid rent on one, But I don't know when I can get it. I'll go over to Group and give Capt. Rodgers a ring to see if he could help us while you're here." About twenty minutes later I reported back to Dick, "I gave him a call, and he said he hoped to get the dozer over tonight."
Knobs of coral protruded through the shallow dirt cover; it slashed your shoes when you walked; you needed to watch where you stepped so that you didn't twist an ankle. Coral was porous and the daily rains disappeared as if they had sublimated; despite all the water the ground was never muddy.
About dusk a big D-6 and smaller D-3 rolled into the area. Dick supervised the two bulldozers 'til midnight, then I got up and relieved him, for he had to fly back to our old base at Nadzab the next morning. The dozer finished clearing a large area for the enlisted men, leveled a small area on a high nob closer to the caves for the officers, leveled a spot for our two communications tents, and built several access roads. By morning the officers and enlisted areas were gleaming yellowish coral as smooth as a billiard table. At 0200 the D-6 operator headed for home, but the D-3 was still working at daylight. I thought, now we're ready for staging or to move the entire squadron. It was one day overseas that I made some points with my C.O.
As I took the three men to the plane I complained, "Dick we've got to have some transportation; would you get me a jeep as soon as possible?"
"Will try to get you one tomorrow, if we can get a C-47; we will be staging through here to run a mission to the Halmaheras in a week, so we need tents erected, cots, and mosquito nets for 36 flying personnel as well as some line men. We aren't going to take our mosquito nets and air mattresses with us, so keep an eye on them, Ferg. The area looks great; keep it up."
"Marty would you like to stay up and get some Exec, experience?" I questioned.
"Hell, I have to get the entire squadron ready to move next week; I would gladly trade."
"I think I'll stay here," I replied.
Corky cut in, "Fergy put a couple more posts at the end of the mess hall; it's a little small."
"O.K. Dick send me back a quart of liquor; I want to rent a jackhammer."
Ken McClure ditched in Dick's plane The Goddess that he flew across the Pacific; he was in 'Lil Shiftless today. They taxied to the end of Mokmer strip, asked for take-off instructions, revved up the old B-25, and were soon airborne.
July 21, 1944
The next day when the C-47 came in with jeeps, men and equipment, one of the men from the line delivered to me a quart of Seagram's 7 Crown. I unloaded a jeep and headed for the engineers.
After our greetings I set the sack with the whiskey on Capt. Rodger's desk and commented, "Part of this is for the tremendous job your bulldozer operators did for us; with the other part I'd like to rent your truck with the air compressor so we can dig a well. The water here is p.p. (piss poor)."
"We have a job for it today, but after that you can have it 'til we need it again. Be sure to have one of the enlisted men explain how to service it."
"Would you give me a note to one of your enlisted men for permission to borrow it?"
"That won't be necessary; I'll have someone run it over this evening if we get through and you can bring him home. One more thing--I think you're wasting your time, for I don't know of anyone with a good well. How deep are you going?"
"We will hit ocean level at about thirty feet."
"Good luck, but that is damn deep to hand dig a well."
I shook his hand, "thanks for the counsel." I was somewhat deflated as I returned to my jeep.
At noon mess I assembled the men. "I have a jackhammer coming from the engineers tonight. I need four men to help me attempt to dig a well. When the entire squadron arrives in eight or ten days, we're going to need a lot more water. Four men volunteered. "You fellows find the coolest, quietist place you can, and get a little sack time this afternoon. We're going to work all night. The rest of you
set up tents and cots for at least 45 combat crewmen and line men; in a few days they're staging through here on a mission to the Halmaheras."
About dusk the truck with the air compressor arrived. We selected a 6'x6' site behind the officer's area and placed three flood lights in small trees. Despite the bright lights it was eerie working so close to the caves. The porous coral cut easily with the jackhammer, yet the sides of the well were strong enough to support us without shoring. We went down five feet very quickly; when we could no longer throw out the coral with the shovel, we loaded it into a large bucket and winched it out of the hole. By 0200 we had a six foot square hole down fifteen feet; we decided to reduce the size of the hole by half, so we wouldn't have to move so much coral. I took my turn in the pit with the other four men and by breakfast time we were all dragging. I was tired and depressed, for we had a perfectly dry hole that was twenty feet deep.
July 22, 1944
Tom Regan, the Montana kid, was 499th carpenter; he came around at breakfast and sat down beside me. "Captain Ferguson you're really gambling on those coral walls; better let me try to get some shoring on the inside of that well in the next couple of days. You couldn't save a man if a wall caved in on you."
I had been a little queasy at night with the stray Japs around despite the good lights we had, but I hadn't thought about a wall crumbling. "Good idea, Corporal; let me know when you're finished; I hope we can borrow the air compressor again."
I told the well-diggers to hit the sack 'til noon.
As I stepped into the sunlight, I saw a Lt. with pilot wings walking into the area with his B-4 bag. Despite being weary, dirty and wearing only a pair of shorts with no insignia, I walked up to the pilot and apologetically stated, "I've worked all night, and I'm not very presentable, but welcome to the 499th; my name is Max Ferguson."
"I've heard you were here; I'm Byron Reed." He paused, "I used to go with the same girl you did."
"Oh, my gosh. Here I am 10,000 miles from home on the other side of the world, and someone walks up to me and says he's gone with the same girl, Now which girl could that have been?"
"Oh, I never considered her a steady; I used to go over and cry on her shoulder when we were both having partner trouble." Byron's home in Peterson, Iowa, was only ten miles from Royal, where I taught in high school.
"We got into Nadzab yesterday." They said, "Don't even unload; we'll find a place for you to sleep; then head for Biak tomorrow."
"Byron, follow me and maybe we can get you a little breakfast before it's too late."
As we entered the mess hall, Byron commented, "Max, I hear you're in communications; I've got a really good radio operator, but he's a regular 'iron ass'."
I yelled at the cooks, "Get this man a good breakfast, he's an Iowan."
I stepped back into the sunlight with a vision of four or five hours of sleep. Two enlisted men were coming down the path from the road; both were wearing the wings of flying personnel; I knew the T/ Sgt. was the radio operator, for they were awarded an extra stripe over the other non-commissioned flying personnel. The T/Sgt. had his overseas cap at a jaunty angle, clean pressed pants, shined boots and a '45 in his shoulder holster. He walked up to me with his B-4 bag, set it down, and snapped a good salute, "Soldier, aren't you out of uniform?"
Any other time I would have let it pass; I was too tired and sleepy to be in a mood for games. Despite Byron's warning I was so taken aback that I mumbled, "Ah, well."
"Stand at attention when you're speaking to a non-commissioned officer," he snapped.
My adrenalin was flowing. "Excuse me Sgt.; I'll be right back." I dashed into the mess hall and borrowed a fatigue cap with Lt's bars that was about four sizes too small. I grabbed a box from a corner of the mess hall and returned to the T/Sgt. I snapped him a salute. "Attention hut. Pick up B-4 bag--forward march." For fifteen minutes as I sat on the box, I used every command I had learned in the military; when I ran out of regular commands I improvised a few. The T/Sgt. was short of stocky build; the B-4 was a heavy load in the tropic heat. Soon his clean khaki shirt was sweat through, front and back, by the oppressive sun.
Finally I tired of my entertainment, I stood up. "T/Sgt. halt. At ease. I'm Captain Max Ferguson, acting Exec, for the advance
echelon. You will be in my communications section as a radio operator." I extended my hand which he automatically shook. "Welcome to the 499th and Biak."
I suppose I tried to tell him, we do things a little different overseas. I headed for a sponge bath and some sleep.
That afternoon, I got to thinking, it really isn't a good policy to 'rack' a man wearing a '45.
July 24, 1944
Those of us in the 499th advance echelon arrived a week ago, and except for one night when Marty, Dick and Corky stayed with me, I had been by myself. I was ready for some tentmates, especially if they brought a generator for lights and power for my radio. Group brought a generator, so my men usually went over to their mess hall at night to play cards and write letters.
The bulldozed squadron area was an improvement over the rough coral, but I was ready for some tentmates to arrive and help build a floor and frame for our pyramidal tent. In the past if transportation was plentiful, we would take apart the old floor, package it, and send it to the new squadron area. However, if we arrived without a floor, we would borrow a squadron 6x6 (truck) some night, select a quart of liquor from our meager supply, or if we were out, pay fifty dollars for a quart of raw Auzzie gin or whiskey, and head for the shipping clocks. One inch boards were placed between the thousands of fifty-five gallon drums of fuel shipped overseas; so with a quart of whiskey for bartering, we usually found a thirsty Sgt. at the docks. It was a rare exception if we didn't leave the shipping area with enough lumber to floor two or three tents. I always tried to be sure there was a board floor for the communications office and ground station. It was especially important to keep the telephone, teletype and radio equipment out of the coral dust. When we could find no legitimate excuse for a board floor, we stated, 'It was necessary for the morale of the troops.'
I still didn't have my own jeep, for the line personnel needed both jeeps for servicing the planes and loading bombs. I walked out to road along the beach and thumbed a ride to the line near the straw-colored coral Mokmer air strip. Armament and Engineering were setting up pyramidal tents for servicing planes when they will stage in
from Nadzab for the mission to the Halmaheras. I stopped when I saw a 499th jeep and thanked the driver for the ride. M/Sgt. Croop was in charge of engineering on the line. I greeted him, "Hi Sgt. how are things going?" "Not too bad."
"Would you leave a jeep at my tent tonight after chow, if you're not going to be using it? I need to do some scouting." "What are you looking for, Captain?"
"I think Lt. Egan will bring up some inch flooring in a bomb bay, but I need to put together some support for a tent frame. I also need to borrow a cold chisel to knock the heads out of some more barrels for water."
He dug a homemade chisel out of their tools and handed it to me, "Good luck, there are probably only 400 or 500 others looking for wood for flooring and framing material."
That evening after supper I took the jeep on my scavenging hunt. I drove east along the coast road away from the airstrip watching the shoreline. In a desolate area where the 41st Div. had invaded, I noticed some wood sticking out of the sand at tide level. After a little digging I uncovered two long 2x4s; I thought to myself, 'I don't know where you came from, but I know where you're going.' I washed them in the surf and hauled them back to the wood cache inside my tent. Just as I left my tent, a 75 boomed; which reminded me I should take my carbine. By the time I had hauled two loads of 55 gallon drums from another Jap fuel dump to the new officer's area on the hill behind my tent, the sun was setting. When the enlisted and officer's areas were split after the bulldozing, I gave all the rain barrels to the twenty enlisted men. After scrubbing the barrels with soap and using water for laundry and bathing for a week, the rainwater would be almost drinkable.
The day had been hot as hell and humid; except during one rain shower, the men had spent the day setting up pyramidal tents for the flying personnel, who would stage in, in a few days, and worked on the long frame for the mess hall. With the exception of M/Sgt. Tummelson, who was always souvenir hunting or fluffing off, everyone worked hard and seemed to enjoy the challenge of opening a new area despite a little danger.
With adequate non-salty water, Biak wouldn't be such a bad place to live, however, I was in the gutter. I stank from only two salt water baths in a week, was out of clean clothes, and no letters from my
wife since I had arrived. I wouldn't mind living in a pyramidal tent by myself on the coral, if I could transport my wife in for an hour or so each evening. I need some big band music, a soft water bath, a clean bed, and my wife....
A faint roar of many planes greeted my ears; there was no red alert, so they must be Air Apaches. The muffled roar gradually increased; in a few minutes six blue noses of the 'Bats outa Hell' buzzed the strip for landing instructions. Just before the Bats were on final approach, six Falcons (498th) flew over for landing instructions.
As I jumped in the jeep and headed for Mokmer strip, I thought, thirty minutes ago I was in the gutter, now I've just experienced the emotional high of G.I.'s of all ages--see your own Group in military formation. Maybe, I'll be lucky tonight and get a letter from Berneice. I checked at the first plane, "Who's in charge?"
"Lt. Summers flew the lead plane, I presume he is."
I searched until I found Bert (Summers) unloading equipment, "How was the trip?"
"Smooth as grease. Do you have places for 43 men for the night?" Bert questioned.
"We have plenty of tents erected, but I need a dozen more cots and mosquito nets. Did you bring any with you?" "Check the bomb bay of Naas's plane." "Did you eat before you started?" "No, and I'm hungry as hell."
I picked up cots and mosquito nets, then dropped Bert and a load of men at the Group mess hall. The advance echelon men were not exactly happy, when I routed them out to set up cots and nets for the flying personnel.
"Capn, do you have any flashlight batteries?" Brydges questioned.
"I think I have some left; look in the top of my footlocker. Shafer, can you drive a 6x6?" I questioned. "Sure."
"Come and help me transport the 'fly boys' to the mess hall." After two trips we had everyone at Group mess; I instructed the officers where lo bunk and Miller look care of the enlisted men.
As I walked into my dark lent, I could see someone fumbling in the dark. "Here, use this spark in the dark," as I handed my new tentmate my dim flashlight, "My name's Max Ferguson, I'm usually
Communications Officer, but now I'm in charge of the advance echelon."
"John Grice, pilot," was the reply as he vigorously shook my hand.
"I'm from Cedar, Iowa and Iowa State Teachers College. Where's your home?"
"I'm a Mulberry, Indiana product."
"Briefing for tomorrow's mission is at 0530; anything you need?"
"Unfortunately I left my '45 and flashlight at Nadzab."
"Can't help you with the gun, but I'll see if Sgt. Buechler is still awake, as I need batteries myself. Be right back."
The Sgt. was awake and produced a flashlight and batteries for me. As I walked back to the tent, I wondered what had happened to my '45; then I remembered I had loaned it to Andy Anderson the morning his plane 'went in' over Wewak. As I entered the tent I commented, "We're in luck tonight, John; he had an available flashlight and some batteries.
As we pulled off our outer clothes, and climbed into our mosquito nets, I sensed John was 'up tight' before his first mission. "O.K. you're from Mulberry, Indiana. Let me guess--a farmer off the back forty, had spent one or two years at Purdue, and they grabbed you for the Air Corp. I don't mean any bad inference of being a farmer, for I was raised on a farm.
"Most of my life has been in Egypt on the Nile and surrounding areas; our home was on the delta at Monsura north of Cairo."
"You're from Egypt, and I guessed you were a corn-fed midwestern farmer. That is almost as amazing as my wife saving money."
John chuckled and from his voice seemed to relax. "I was born at Hoopston, Illinois, where Dad had his first church after graduating from Seminary of United Presbyterians. He spent most of his adult life as a missionary in Egypt; about the only time I was in the states was when Dad was back recuperating from some health problem. One of these was at Mulberry, Indiana. We had a home in Monsura, but spent most of the time floating on the Nile in the houseboat 'Ibis', from which Dad conducted his evangelism. I played around the pyramids, the sphinx and native hovels with kids along the water. I had one 'hairy' trip into the western desert alone on a motorcycle in the early part of the war; we had some Italian bombings, but generally it was a lot of fun."
"I expect you're pooped tonight, but I want several evenings of
'bull sessions' for more detail. Keep your arms away from the netting so the few mosquitoes don't nail you through it, have a good night and a dull first mission tomorrow."
Conrad Jordan and Ed Reel came in from the mess hall. I introduced them to John. "I might warn you John, that these veteran pilots will tell you combat stories to try to scare the shit out of you. A few might even be true.
"Well, maybe, but it will have to wait 'til later, for I'm tired as the devil after the trip up here today," Jordan replied with a chuckle.
July 25, 1944
I didn't go to the morning briefings; I got up when I heard the planes taking off. Since the airstrip was closer to our living quarters than in the last three areas, I was wide awake before I knew what was happening. After breakfast I gave the men their assignments. "I'll be at my tent washing clothes if anyone has a question."
Brydges asked, "Capn, could I borrow a washing barrel when you get done?"
"You can pick it up after lunch." Standard procedure was to take a 55 gallon drum, cut it in half, set it on three rocks, collect dry wood, then build a fire under your clothes water and boil them for an hour. Brydges knew that you usually tore up your hands making the half-barrel.
I went back to my tent where we had several spare barrels and with the aid of M/Sgt. Croop's home-made chisel, began hammering; it wasn't exactly a quiet job, so I hoped no one was trying to sleep. In fifteen minutes I had two clothes washing barrels. All nearby dead wood had been used to burn brush so we had to go almost to the caves for more. I picked up my carbine; I was super cautious, for I knew there was a Jap behind every bush. I kept looking for wood until I was only fifty feet from the large cave opening that was directly behind the officers area. I could smell stinking decaying material, but curiosity overwhelmed me; I was going to take a quick look inside the entrance. The large entrance narrowed quickly into two dark passage ways that were three or four feet wide, and penetrated deeper into the coral ridge. Just inside the entrance was a medium sized Japanese tied to a splinter of rock in the standing position with part of his head shot away. His clothes were of fine
quality, indicating he was an officer. Someone must have been unhappy with his orders.
At the cave entrance I noted another dead Jap with bones protruding; as I hoped to go to medical school when I got back to the states, I guessed I might make some use of a few bones before I left Biak. I grabbed all the dead wood I could carry and retreated rapidly toward my tent.
I arranged the two tubs on rocks, dipped water out of a rain barrel and was soon heating water. I scrubbed the collars and any grease spots with soap; tossed the clothes into two tubs and soon had the water rolling in a boil. As I looked up, Shafer approached from the mess hall crew.
"Captain, I just run a big damn splinter in my thumb when a 2x4 slipped through my hand," he exclaimed.
"I don't suppose there's a Doc. this side of the 41st Div. I'm an old industrial first aid man--let me look at it," I replied. The splinter was so big and in so deep I knew I couldn't get it out with a pocket knife. Let's go over to Major Darwin's tent and see if they brought any medical supplies." As we walked to Group I commented, "What we need is a little ethylene chloride to freeze it, and some splinter forceps to remove the wood. I doubt they'll have either one."
I checked the 1st Sgt. tent, "Sgt., I have a man with a giant splinter, did you bring any medical supplies?"
"There's a trunk over in Major Darwin's tent."
I called, "Major, may I interrupt you?"
"May I check the medical trunk to see if there is anything I can use to take a splinter out of this 499th man?" "What do you need?"
"A little ethylene chloride for numbing the finger; I doubt there is any in the chest. If I have to take this splinter out, I want him either numbed inside or outside, for there is some cutting to do. Also I need some splinter forceps." We looked through the contents of the trunk without finding either material. "I'll have to make do with a pair of hemostats and some whiskey. Do you have any spirits?"
"Look at that bottle of clear liquid," the Major replied.
I had overlooked a pint bottle labelled C2H5OH. I picked up a bottle of merthiolate, a roller bandage, a hemostat and the alcohol bottle. "Unless you want to do this, we'll leave you to your headaches."
We went to Shafer's tent. "I'll collect a few things and get ready for surgery." I took my mess-kit cup to the mess hall and luckily found an open can of grapefruit juice; I took it back to the tent and added some alcohol. "Down this and your thumb won't feel so bad. No hurry." I returned to my tent and added some wood to the fire for washing clothes. I sat down and reread an old letter from my wife, killing about twenty minutes; I knew the anesthesia would last for a couple of hours, so I didn't hurry.
I went back to my patient, "How was the juice?"
"Juss fine. Have ya got any more?"
From the thick tongued reply I knew I had gotten enough alcohol in the juice. "Sit down on the ground and put your arm on this box. Here is some wood to chew on in case you feel something." I sat down so he couldn't see what I was doing. With my pocket knife I opened a little bigger area down the side of the splinter. I tried to force the blunt hemostat behind the splinter, but his skin was too tough.
"Capn Fergooson, I need a lill more juice. It hurts like hell." came the drunken reply.
"Chew on your stick; I'll be through here in just a minute." I made a little bigger incision, forced the hemostat behind the splinter and soon removed it, despite the squirming arm.
"Yow ee," he yelled.
I liberally covered the wound with merthiolate and bandaged the thumb. "Let me look at that in a couple of days to be sure you don't get a bad infection. Sack out this afternoon, and you'll feel better."
I returned the medical supplies to the Major's tent, "Sorry to bother you again. Thanks for the use of your equipment. Notice we left most of the alcohol, too."
I walked to the 499th mess hall. Yesterday, the staging planes brought two tarpaulins of hospital tents to cover the mess hall frame. Since they were a man short, I helped them until the canvas was in place. "Be sure to tie those babies down securely to take 100 mph winds; however, leave the flaps up for a possible afternoon shower. You can work on mess hall shelves, mess line and tables if it rains. Shelly, didn't the cooks and Lt. Corcoran give you the exact mess hall lay out?"
"Right," he continued, "Captain, when is the rest of the squadron coming up?"
We heard the roar of a single plane. Everyone stopped work and watched; finally Brydges yelled, "It's a Blue Nose; wonder if they've got any mail?"
As armament and engineering always needed the two jeeps more than the construction crew, again I had a choice of either walking or hitchhiking to the line. "You fellows keep working, and I'll go check the plane. If there is any mail, I'll be right back," I promised. I had almost walked to the line, when a 499th jeep stopped. I could see a 3 KVA generator sitting in the back seat with a bundle of wiring.
"Get on the hood, Fergy; we're loaded to the gills," Lt. William Smith drawled in his Texas accent.
"Did we get any mail?"
"Yes, and there's a can from Cedar, Iowa."
"Head down this road to the mess hall. We haven't had any mail since we arrived; the men are hungry for some letters," I directed. I climbed onto the left side of the hood since everyone drove on the left hand side of the road. With several hand signals Smitty soon pulled the jeep in behind the mess hall. We unloaded the generator, and as I pulled out the mailbag, I could see a jumble of parts for a coke machine.
Smitty was somewhat apologetic when he said, "Sorry we only had room for part of the coke dispenser--will try to bring up the rest of it in the next day or two. It just came in, so rather than try to use it at Nadzab for only a few days, they sent it up here."
As I started to hand out the mail, I commented, "We couldn't take letters, lights, and cokes all in the same day---these men would think they were Stateside. After chow before you continue on the mess hall, a couple of electricians string up some lights, fix a rain cover for the generator, then fire it up to see if runs O.K. Remember lights are run in parallel; don't tie the two ends of the wire together. We're almost late for chow; everyone had better hurry."
I took my mail to my tent, tossed the five letters from my wife on my cot and placed the karo can in my footlocker. I knew what was inside the can. My Mother, although exceedingly scotch, purchased the best mixed nuts she could buy, roasted them, then sealed them in a half-gallon karo can with sealing wax. When the can was opened in the Pacific, the nuts tasted as if they had just come out of the roasting oven. I only wrote my Mother once about the hundred's of
moldy fruit cakes we threw away in the Pacific; she solved the shipping problem.
As I walked back to the mess hall, I decided the advance echelon men would divide the nuts as a token of my appreciation for their hard work and sweat. Miller and Brydges were sitting in the mess hall 'beating their gums'; the rest had not arrived for work. "Tell the crew that we'll have a meeting here tonight at 1900; try to get the generator going so we'll have some lights."
As I returned to the tent, I felt especially good. The C.O. had complemented me on how well we had prepared the squadron area; the day was cooler than usual with no rain in sight, and I had 5 letters to read from my wife. Everything was going to wait until I read those letters. I could hear the planes returning from the day's mission. I had almost finished the letters, when Jordan walked into the tent.
"How was the mission?"
"Plenty of ack ack in the little narrow slot we were bombing. Hotz pealed off for another target, and we didn't see him again." "Wasn't Grice his co-pilot?" "I'm afraid so."
John 'hung his jock' on his first mission. I can't believe it. The stories about Egypt are locked away forever.
The flying personnel are a funny breed.* They never dwell on losses of their buddies, for in a few days they may have to fly another mission over the same area. Today a wingman may catch an ack ack shell in the pilot's compartment and quickly crash. Tomorrow another plane will be in that wingman's spot. There is no time for public grieving; it can only be inside each man.
I thought to myself, 'The curse of war is not getting killed, but Missing in Action.' The buddies, the wife or girl friend, the parents, the friends all hope he got down safely, and he'll come walking in later. After forty years they are still waiting.
My eyes were still red when I went to eat. After supper I took a sponge bath in tent water, and put on clean clothes; I took my
*It was over forty years later, I actually learned what happened to some of our crews. Thompson just mushed into a tree, Andy Anderson caught one of our own bombs. A copilot stated, "I flew the plane over the target, for the 1st pilot was scared shitless."
writing material and can of nuts to the mess hall a little before 1900. A few of the flying personnel were using the lights to play cards and write letters, but not one of the advance echelon men was present. I started a letter to my wife.
Promptly at 1900 I heard the noise of men talking; in walked eight men in Indian file with Shafer leading the way holding his white bandaged thumb in the air. From his walk I could tell he was still feeling no pain. Behind him walked the rest of the men, their thumbs in the air with a white rag around each one. In a chorus they stated, "Capn, we got alot of splinters."
"If I had any anesthesia (alcohol) I'd share it with you, for I lost a tentmate today. However, if you'll gather around, you might be interested in this can of mine." I chipped away the sealing wax and popped the lid with a screwdriver I had brought with me. The aroma of fresh nuts filled the corner of the mess hall. I kept shaking out small handfuls of nuts until they were all gone.
Miller commented, "For once it serves those bastards--that are always skipping out. Let me speak for the whole crew in saying, thanks."
Shafer went back to his tent and brought in a fruit cake he had received. It was tinged with mold, but we ate it anyway.
"How about a game of hearts, Capn?" Brydges asked.
I agreed, and for two hours we yelled, cussed, and pleaded in an exciting game with two teams of three each; I think it was the only time in 2 1/2 years overseas I played cards with enlisted men. When I carried my empty karo can back to my tent, I had partly forgotten losing a tentmate.
July 27, 1944
Ed (Egan) arrived today; he had been Technical Supply Officer. He would probably complain if I said it was a nothing job; at least while Bill Farmer was on leave, Ed was Engineering Officer to coordinate the work of the mechanics on the B-25s.
Ed was a 'Joisey' boy who missed his calling to be in the entertainment business. He was an eternal optimist who never had emotional lows like I had. My other tentmate, Walt Barnes, and Ed both read and spoke fluent Spanish; when they read and gave air corp slang
translations to some Spanish books I purchased in Australia, it was the funniest entertainment I had overseas.
This may be a yarn or it may be true, but an enlisted man told me that Ed sawed off a bolt of a B-25 and the nose wheel collapsed while in training at Columbia, South Carolina. They unkindly called him 'Hacksaw Egan'. Maybe that was part of the training he needed to later be President of Egan Machinery for twenty years.
When Bill Farmer came back from Australia, he was transferred to the 498th squadron and Ed was made 499th Engineering Officer. Both were good E.O.'s, but I would guess the crew chiefs 'leaned on' Dick, commanding officer of 499th, to keep Ed.
Charly Puleston left me an old condemned parachute when he went to Bomber Command; during the after noon Ed and I put it on the ceiling of our pyramidal tent for insulation.
"You know, Ed, with each move I keep throwing away more stuff, sending some home, until I get down to bare essentials, such as grass skirts, 110 volt radio, photo equipment, poker chips, playing cards etc. I'm sorry I didn't get a big box of those lemons back in the jungle at Nadzab. If you slice the end off a green coconut, pour out a little milk, squeeze in a little lemon or lime juice, pour in adequate gin; it makes a wonderful Tom Collins," I commented.
"How much is adequate?" Ed questioned.
"If Ben was making it, he would pour out all the milk and fill it with gin; others like a little less."
July 28, 1944
Two C-47 loads of communications equipment arrived today. Only one tent floor for office, ground station and radio mechanics tent on the line; I guess we'll have to draw cuts for it, and try to find other lumber for the remaining two.
It will be great to be Communications Officer again and not Acting Exec. We will place the ground station and office on the bulldozed area besides the officer's tents where Miller selected. Our telephone switch-board will be at Group; the teletype in the Operations tent on the line where it belongs. By tomorrow night we should have the ground station in operation so it can monitor missions.
Radio operators on planes are required to keep radio silence on the way to the target, but it is bedlam on the air waves when they head
for home. The ground station becomes very important for keeping a record of the location of damaged planes in case they have to ditch.
July 29, 1944
One of my teletype operators brought in a news sheet from A.P.O. 713 (our former base at Nadzab); Russians are almost in Warsaw; U.S. has almost taken Tinian, Guam and Saipan. Come on Allies, I'm ready to go home.
Equipment and men are pouring into camp. A C-47 can move about everything in the squadron except a 6x6 (truck); they have been landing in a steady stream today. Three cooks and kitchen equipment arrived in the first load; tomorrow we'll be eating in our own mess hall. We have good food for the Air Corp; evidently we have some men that are good at scrounging extra food and trading. The squadron has a stripped B-25, Fat Cat, which has been used to bring in fresh food from Townsville, Australia, and for ferrying personnel. As we get further away, there will be fewer leaves and less fresh fruit and vegetables.
July 30, 1944
Since the communications office was close to the officer's area, I had my linesman run a telephone line to our living quarters and install a phone. Ed has found it very convenient to call the engineering line concerning problems rather than make a jeep trip to the strip after working hours.
I called the communications office, "Sgt. Shane," came the reply.
"Sgt., you and Miller run down the radio operators, since there is no mission today, and have them report to the ground station tent at 1600. Three hours should give you plenty of time to find most of them. Tell them we'll take a picture so don't look too bad. Leave their '45s at home I requested."
"O.K., Captain," came the obedient reply.
I decided to stay in our living quarters and put together some notes for the meeting; this would avoid some of the numerous interruptions I usually got in the communications office. It was a delightful,
Figure 2. Radio Operators Back Row (left to right): Robert Curtiss, Arthur Weaver, George L. Mathiason, Robert L. Wade, Michael Gallows, Wesley B. Paul; Middle Row: Edward L. Clark, John H. Apetz, Robert L. Johnson, Stephen Landchak, William G. Butts, Walter G. Miller; Front Row: Leonard F. Peacock, Elwyn R. Burke, Charles Sylvanowicz, Franklin B. Desenberg, Roland W. Horton Jr.
sunny day, and most of the flying officers were playing volleyball; the officers area was quiet.
About 1530 I went over to the communications office to check the mail and sign any necessary papers. At 1545 the flying radio operators began straggling into the pyramidal tent of the ground station located beside the communications office. I went over to meet the men as they came in; (those whose name I could recall I greeted with their last names, the others by Sgt. Any new man I introduced myself to
Figure 3. 499th Communications Men
Back Row (left to right): Robert Bauer, James Camilleri, Pax Baker, John Defenbaugh, Herbert Walker, John Crane, Lawrence Collins, __________, Robert Shaw;
Middle Row: Edward Schertzer, Martin Cantwell, William DeSantis, Leo Gerstner, Kenneth Johnson, Angelo Cruz, Harold Brydges, Joe Johnson, William Conners, Harry McDonald;
Front Row: Robert Wakefield, __________, William Rosenblum, Max Ferguson, John Leonard, Ben Miller, William Shane, Rene Caouette.
and shook hands with him. By the look that Byron Reed's radio operator gave me, I doubted I had been getting good advertisement.
A new man stepped up to me, "Don't believe I've met you Capt. Ferguson; I'm Arthur Weaver from Gilman, Iowa; a town that is 500 strong."
"Let's see; that's about a hundred miles north of my hometown of Cedar, Iowa. If Gilman is 500 strong; Cedar is a weak 50. Welcome to the 499th; I hope you have 50 dull missions.
When seventeen men had arrived I stated, "Let's get this glamorous picture taken first." We went outside, several snapped pictures and then we returned for the discussion.
As soon as everyone was seated on a chair, bench or on the floor
and were quiet, I began, "On July 26th, T/Sgt. Anuta, radio operator on a crew with Hotz as pilot, disappeared. We'll probably never know what happened to them. Probably there was no chance for him to get out a MAYDAY or S.O.S. Each of you are on a crew for just one reason--to relay information to the ground station or anyone else that will listen, when your plane is in trouble.* When your plane is in trouble, don't be too polite; let down your trail wire antenna, turn up your power, and drive everyone else off the channel. On the Rabaul raids, several planes were in trouble; that makes the job still tougher. This means that on all missions you need to monitor your ground station frequency at intervals to see if you need to help one of your buddies, who is in trouble or is about to ditch. First send MAYDAY or S.O.S., pilot's name, then approximate location. In all the confusion while over the target, DON'T forget to check the time when you leave it. In fact write it down. Don't depend on the navigator to give you the minutes off the target-KEEP IT YOURSELF. If we know that your plane ditches thirty five minutes off target; this gives us a very limited area to search for you; that's a lot different than looking in all of the S.W. Pacific. Contact the Cat if possible; be alert at briefings and write down the Cat special call letters. Also write down the blinker letter for the day, used in Navy ships; your pilot may forget it with all his other duties. I was with a drunk Navy Captain one night, "We have no problem with plane identification; we shoot 'em down and identify 'em in the water."
"If you can't contact the Cat, call our ground station and we'll do our damndest to get the message to the Cat. If you can't contact the Cat or ground station, relay your message to a buddy radio operator, for he can keep working the channel, long after you have ditched. Let me repeat don't depend on the navigator or you may not have a navigator in your plane; always keep time away from Biak, and always keep time away from the target, for when you multiply that times 160 miles an hour, we'll know approximately where you are. Be sure your IFF (Identification Friend and Foe) radio is working if you come straggling in late at night."
*A few days later radio operator Corie Johnson helped save his crew by sending MAYDAY to a B-24 of the Jolly Rogers who relayed it to a P-38 who brought the Cat, They had ditched between two Jap held islands.
"Before a mission be sure the loose life raft is in the back of the plane along with your parachutes. There is a life raft release over your head in the radio compartment; there is also another life raft release in the rear of the pilots compartment. Before a ditching or crash, sit with your back to the bombay wall with your parachute behind your head.* If you're going to crash land, sit on the life raft, in case the floor is torn out of the plane. After a ditching you're going to have to dive through the bottom hatch or go out over the bombay, if you're skinny. Don't inflate your MAE WEST inside the plane and get hung up when you're trying to get out. We're still flying a few B-25Cs with the flack shield behind the radio compartment; after you've heard Bob Stewart's story, I think you'll keep it wedged open if you ditch."
"S/Sgt Desantis is in charge of the ground station; see him if there is any way we can help you when you're flying. The ground station is the place to practice some afternoon when you're bored."
"I've taken more time than I intended, If you have any questions I'll answer them personally. Anyone not interested in the Bob Stewart's story may leave; no one budged.
Bob Stewart's ditching
"The 500th Squadron sent 21 radio operators on leave to Australia on one C-47; They ran into a thunderstorm and all were lost. The call went out to all squadrons--recruit some ground men to fly to Charter Towers, Australia, to take radio operator training. Bill Storch and Bob Stewart, two of my radar mechanics, were willing to give it a try. Both qualified and reported back to the 499th Squadron to fly missions as the radio operators.
Bob was on the crew of Lt. MacWilliams, when they were returning from a strafing mission to Hollandia; the nine planes of the 499th ran into a solid weather front. The planes, led by Captain Dick Baker, tucked in close and headed into the front. A narrow clear area
*We later found this was a no win situation, because on several crashes and ditchings, the tail section broke off behind the bombay where the men were sitting.
opened, and as they were trying to let down through the slot, S/Sgt. Sweet, engineer on 020 noticed oil coming from the right engine. 1st Pilot MacWilliams, not wanting to endanger the other planes, pulled out of formation.
Mac pushed his intercom button, "Pilot to radio operator, Sgt. send out MAYDAY--we are unable to feather our right runaway engine, we may have to ditch soon."
T/Sgt. Stewart let down his trail wire antenna since they were out of formation, and turned on his long range radio transmitter. As soon as it had warmed to put out a signal, he kept repeating in the clear, "MAYDAY-020 has a runaway engine, MAYDAY-020 has a runaway engine." Despite efforts by Mac to find the clear slot, the front was solid to the water. Mac watched his altimeter as he lowered the violently shuddering plane through the pea soup toward the water. See Figure 5 in photo section.
"Pilot to radio operator, prepare to ditch back there, we are going to ditch as soon as we hit the 'deck'."
Turret gunner S/Sgt. Jack Menefee sat with his back to the 3/8th inch flak door behind the radio compartment.
Bob reeled in the trail wire antenna; he didn't want it wrapped around his neck if he went out the bottom hatch of the plane. He looked at the narrow tunnel over the bomb bay as an escape route; he thought, 'I've never gone through that darned thing; I'm not going to take a chance getting my 225 pounds stuck in it now. I'll go through the flak door and down through the rear hatch.' The B-25Cs had a 3/8th inch iron flak partition behind the radio operator's compartment with a door in it. It protected the forward personnel and bombs from Jap Zero bullets.
Despite a 'reeled in' antenna, he kept sending on the key, 'MAYDAY; MAYDAY; MAYDAY-' when he thought they were almost to the water, he snapped off the power to the radio and positioned himself with his back to the bombay wall. The shock of the planes violent stop snapped the men; he checked himself for injuries and seemed all right. He checked to see if there was anything he should take with him, as he watched the water rise in the radio compartment. He checked his Mac West and pushed the flak door with his hand; it did not move. He braced himself on the IFF radio and pushed hard with his legs--if still didn't move. Water was up to his chest.
"Jack are you there?" Bob called in a panicky voice. "This damn door is stuck".
"Still here, Bob," Jack replied just as he was ready to dive into the water rushing through the open escape hatch in the floor. "Maybe I can get this hunting knife in a crack." He pried and the door moved slightly, but the water was rising rapidly. In desperation he pried hard; Bob heard the knife snap.
Once when Bob was a freshman football player he had been badly beaten by an older stronger lineman; he had gone to his coach expecting sympathy. "You're never beaten until you admit it to yourself," his coach had commented and walked away.
"Sorry, Bob I can't help you anymore--I have to leave." Bob heard Jack's splash as he dove through the escape hatch in the bottom of the plane. The only sound was the lashing waves, but he didn't hear them. The old strain, 'You're never beaten,' kept flashing in Bob's mind. 'You're never beaten? You're never beaten! You're never beaten!' Bob took a deep breathe of air still in the gun bubble and submerged. With adrenalin pumping to all his muscles, he assumed a fetal position, braced himself, and gave the door the push of a giant. His head throbbed and his legs gave maximum effort as long as they could; the door moved slightly. He knew this was his last chance, for the air in the gunner's bubble was almost gone. With a prayer on his lips, he repositioned and shoved with the power of a desperate man; the door slowly opened against the force of the water. He went up and got a quick breathe of air in the bubble, moved through the flak door and dove out the escape hatch.
As he surfaced outside the plane, a ragged yell of, "Yea, Bob," broke the sound of the quiet Pacific.
Bob swam less than twenty feet when the tail of old Stingeroo elevated slightly and sank to its resting place.
I was in my tent trying to complete a little communications paperwork that had been neglected for over two weeks. The activity in the office and ground station nearby were sometimes very distracting, especially during a mission. I looked out and saw a new man coming toward the tent.
He was a little under six feet with compact muscles which slightly
rippled his sun tans in his fluid walk. His graceful movement made me think 'super athlete'.
"Is this the tent of Ferguson and Jordan?" he questioned.
He walked in and extended his hand, "Carl Zark, 1st Pilot."
"Max Ferguson, Communications Officer."
"Major Reinbold told me I was to bunk with you fellows. He also said you would give me an hour's orientation lecture on Biak women."
"I haven't seen any native women since I've been here, and you'll be lucky if you meet two Red Cross gals in all your overseas tour. You're the damndest pilot I ever saw, checking on women before you have a place to eat and sleep."
"Everything in its proper sequence. What about eating and sleeping?"
"You can't miss the mess hall; it's the largest building down by the shore; we eat 1700 to 1800. There is a cot and mosquito net; check with squadron supply near the mess hall to see if they have an air mattress. Is this your first overseas tour?"
"Yes, spent some time in the R.C.A.F.," he commented as he headed toward supply.
Carl's face was tanned, with cheek bones that might indicate a little Indian heritage. There was a little strabismus in his right eye, but most people probably wouldn't notice it when they saw the 'Come Raise Hell with Me' in both eyes and heard his lighthearted voice. He was not twenty years old like all the rest of the flying officers; I guessed he might be thirty or thirty-two year old vintage.
Walt (Barnes) arrived today. Ed and I had the barrels set and flooring started for our new home; Walt left his adjutant duties and helped in the afternoon. We finished the floor, put up a frame, and covered it with a new pyramidal tent. We moved the parachute out of our old tent and left it standing for someone else. We ran light wires to tie into power from the generator; we have lights as long as someone keeps gas in the generator.
It was great to have a new board floor and radio, but our tent was like grand central station after supper. Somewhere Ed had scrounged a one-burner gas stove that ran on 80 octane gas; it was the only stove in the officers' area, so it also attracted company. Big band music was coming in from San Francisco on my radio; I think it reminded all of us of dancing with some good-looking gal in the States.
Our tentmates were three pilots, Lt. Conrad Jordan, Lt. Ed Reel and the new member Lt. Carl Zark.
"March 28th is my third wedding anniversary, and I'd like to be home to celebrate," I commented.
"Max, I would guess, if you asked any G.I. going back to Alexander the Great, what he wanted most--he would reply, I want to go home," Walt commented.
"I disagree," Carl interjected, "He would want a good-looking young woman."
"I'm assuming he would find the gorgeous, seductive female after he got home," Walt replied.
"Even if Germany falls by Xmas, I doubt they could get a replacement to Biak for you by then," Conrad added.
Ed (Egan) chimed in, "They broke out of the pocket last week in France, but with this unconditional surrender of Ike's I don't think the dumb Krauts are going to roll over and play dead. Max, you'll be lucky if you make it home by next fall."
"I've just got one mission completed, but I'd rather wait than fly 50 missions like you guys," and I gestured toward the flying personnel. "However, it seems they should send the married men home first; just look what we're missing."
Carl chuckled, "Just think what those Okie girls are missing when I'm not there. I tried to avoid a pregnancy every Saturday night."
"What about the other nights of the week, Zarko?" Reel asked.
"An Okie girl doesn't have to be very old when she learns she can run faster with her pants up, than you can with yours down. During the week it's pretty tough, but come Saturday night, a little moonshine, Wowee--," Carl Volunteered.
"Shut up, Carl," Walt urged. "You're as bad as that book I just read, The Amorous Gentleman of Quality. The guy was making a woman in a trough in a bakery; he pulled out and went in the bread dough. He was afraid all the women in the French town would get pregnant if they ate his bread."
Will Wolfe came in carrying a large container of hot chocolate; "Let's have a Biak banquet. Ed you fire up that gas stove of yours, but don't blow up the tent."
"I'll go to the mess hall and borrow a pan to pop some popcorn; Bert Shaber left me his supply when he went home," I commented.
We took a mess kit cup filled it with hot water and added the hot chocolate mix. It evidently contained powdered milk, for it was
delicious; or maybe it tasted good because it had been so darned long since I had had any.
Carl Zark had spent time developing certain routines; when someone came around who hadn't heard them, we would ask him a question and out rolled the replay. While I was popping corn someone asked, "Where are you from, Zarko?"
"I'm from Paradise, Oklahoma, the place where the girls trip you and beat you to the ground. Of course Paradise, Pa., is better, for it is only fifteen miles from Intercourse. I knew a fellow from Intercourse; he really had problems. A girl would ask, 'Where are you from?' 'I'm from Intercourse.' Pop, he would get slapped. I guess he must have muffled his from so it sounded like for. The fellow eventually learned to stay out of arm range of women. Which reminds me, I haven't been on leave. "How about the Auzzie women?"
"Marty Wood and I are married, so we didn't go out boaring ["whoring"?] around when we were on leave in Sydney. I think Jordan can tell you better than I can," I commented.
"On their first leave in Australia some of the early 499th officers on flying status either purchased or leased an attractive four-bedroom house overlooking Rose Bay in Sydney. It is located in one of the finest housing areas of the city with the back yard running down to Bondi beach. One crew of three flying officers and one ground officer usually went on leave of seven days at the same time. Many of the Australian men had been gone since 1939 fighting in the desert in North Africa; many never returned. This caused many lonely Auzzie gals. Naturally, the men on leave needed someone to keep them warm on cold nights in Sydney. They didn't do much sight-seeing or cooking, but they almost screwed themselves to death, for 499th officers were almost ready for another leave by the time they had recovered from the last one. For more details ask someone who has been to the house on Rose Bay," Conrad commented.
"Let's get some missions in, so I can go on leave," Carl replied.
The smell of popcorn reminded me of my college days when I lived in Baker Hall at Iowa State Teachers College. Anything cooked or popped in the rooms was strictly 'tabu', but we had corn poppers and when we used one, you could smell popcorn in a janitor's closet two dormitories away. We would get reprimanded, but it wasn't too long before we were hungry for popcorn again. The smell permeated the Officers area, and many came around for one or two handfuls. I kept
working until it was all popped. The party was still going when the lights went out.
Carl jumped up, "Don't leave anyone, I'll put more gas in for the engine-generator." The generator started and the lights come on again. As Carl reentered the tent, "I wouldn't have done that, but the native dancing girls haven't been around as yet."
"Zarko, one thing you have got is a good imagination," Ed Reel added.
August 1, 1944
Digging fox holes in coral with a pick and shovel was not impossible, but in the tropical heat it was much easier if you had some dynamite. I had heard the navy had a supply. I had no liquor to trade, but I got in my jeep and headed toward Navy Quartermaster supply. I asked one of the men in the area who was C.O. and where he might be found? He motioned to a tent a short distance from the road.
I walked over to the tent opening and asked if I might come in? I saluted, for I didn't know the man I was meeting. "I'm Max Ferguson, in the 499th Bomb. Squadron; some of the B-25s on Mokmer are ours."
"My name is Hawkins." I noted the two stripes on his arm.
"We have some large latrines and foxholes to dig; could you help us out with some dynamite?"
"I like your helmet, but it's hardly regulation, is it?" he commented.
"It's an Auzzie helmet like they wore in North Africa; actually I'm more concerned with keeping my head cool than with regulations."
"We have some dynamite, but it would require a requisition. It would take six months to get it up through Air Corp channels and down through the Navy chain."
"I hope to be home in that time," I saw I was wasting my time. "I'm like the old farmer said about his steers trying to breed cows; I tried," as I walked out the door of the tent.
I guess my punctured ego was worse than my real need for dynamite. I was still furious, when I walked into the communications tent; I barked something at Corporal Ben Miller, one of my clerks.
He saw I was in a bad humor, and with a smirk on his face replied, "I didn't do it."
As I grinned, I replied, "I went over to that damned Navy to borrow a little dynamite, and they wanted a requisition. That Lt. knew it would take six months. I told him I hoped to be home by then.
Shane cut in, "Your trouble is that you don't know which road to take. We went swimming after work two nights ago, and we saw several cases marked dynamite sitting on the beach. Take a left at the beach road, and it's about two miles stacked along the shore."
"You wouldn't kid me would you?"
"All you need is a moonlight requisition."
That night I talked Walt into going with me. I didn't tell him the mission for the evening. We followed Shane's directions and after a fifteen minute drive, in the moonlight we saw the dynamite stacked on the beach under a large coconut tree.
"Walt, I brought along a crowbar; I want a half case of dynamite to dig some foxholes."
"You can't just take half a case and leave the rest of the box open here on the beach."
I tossed the crowbar in the jeep and loaded a whole case. As I set mine in the back of the jeep, he also set in a case. "Well", I said, "We should really have another spare," and loaded another case. Walt picked up a fourth case and set it in the jeep.
"You didn't tell me where we were going tonight, so I don't want you to have to come back and get more when I can't help," as he loaded on a fifth case. I jumped into the driver's seat and started the jeep. It was a typical moonlight requisition--you go for half a case and take five. My next problem was where to store it; the communications tent was off by itself; I was afraid someone would borrow it before I used what I wanted. Since our tent had a board floor, I decided to store the dynamite under it.
August 2, 1944
An Ed headed for the line the next morning, he noticed the boxes, "Are those full?"
"Yes, since we're in a forward area, we need to dig some foxholes," I replied.
"If someone touches it off, we'll really have a good one about twenty five feet deep and twenty feet wide," he grumbled as he headed for work.
The day went by quickly with the usual afternoon rain. After the rain we cut the heads out of three more barrels for more rain water for the officers. I took a sponge bath after supper and put on a clean pair of khakis. With lights in most tents, there was less traffic in ours. I was in a good mood; now I would have a little quiet to write my daily letter to my wife.
It had just gotten dark when the air raid siren sounded. Everyone scrambled for helmets that we hadn't used in months. In the confusion Ed cut loose, "I wonder where the son-of-a-bitch is, that stored those cases of dynamite under our tent.
Jordan commented, "I don't think a Jap could shoot straight enough to touch it off."
"Say, you damned corn fed Iowan, I told you to store it under your communications office," Walt complained. The barbed comments continued; that reminded me I would have to see Capt. Rodgers for a hand detonator for the dynamite.
We all scrambled for a slight depression in the coral some distance from our tent. Not more than a dozen men in the entire squadron had sweat enough to hand dig foxholes in the coral.
The ack ack commenced; we could hear a Jap plane coming in at low level. The forty millimeters made so much noise, we couldn't tell whether or not small bombs had been dropped. As we huddled in the shallow depression, my buddies continued to tongue-lash me with 'big hams', 'stupid Iowan', 'the idiot from communications', 'I wonder how he ever made Captain'?.
The Jap plane turned out over the ocean and a few seconds later the noise stopped.
We returned to our mosquito nets. Before I went to sleep, I decided I would have a foxhole next to the side of the tent, so I could roll out of bed directly into it. Also if I wanted to keep my present living quarters, I had better move the dynamite.
August 3, 1944
I moved the dynamite over near the communications office, which was about fifty yards from the officer's area. I went to see Capt. Rodgers at the 46th Co. Engineers and borrowed a detonator, some caps and some wire.
After digging on the well, I knew that hand digging a foxhole would be difficult. It took an hour to get down about eighteen inches, under the tent flap next to my cot; I decided I needed some help. There was a diagonal crack in the coral in the bottom of the hole; with an iron bar I soon enlarged it so I could cover one stick of dynamite. I was very careful and jumpy, for I had never shot any dynamite before. I hooked the wires to the stick of dynamite like I had been instructed; covered it with coral and unrolled 150 feet of wire. I gingerly attached the two wires to the detonator and took a deep breathe as I anticipated a big explosion. I twisted the handle of the detonator as hard as I could--nothing. I twisted it again--nothing. I thought; this looks like one of my many successful failures. I waited fifteen minutes, for I didn't want to lose a hand from an explosion. I went back to the foxhole; the coral in the bottom had not been disturbed. I had a friend, George, who came over as a flying engineer; he was currently working as an aircraft mechanic. He had shot some dynamite. I jumped in my jeep and drove out to the line. George was changing plugs in a B-25 engine. I called him down and explained what I had done.
He scratched his greasy chin; "I expect it fired, but shot down in the crack. Get a couple buckets of that clay material near the east end of the runway," he instructed as he pointed to the end of Mokmer strip. "Dig a much larger hole and tamp the clay under and over the dynamite as compactly as you can; I think you'll hear the next one."
"George, in this bunch of Air Corp men, you can find someone who knows how to do most anything--except get back to the states. Thanks a lot; send me a bill in the mail."
"Glad to help you Captain," he replied.
I picked up the clay and returned to the foxhole. George was correct; the dynamite had fired down the crack. I reasoned, I didn't get anything out of one slick; I think I'll put in two. I enlarged the hole, thoroughly packed clay underneath, attached the cap and wires to the two sticks, then gingerly parked the covering as well as I could. I thought, if this doesn't go, I can't ask George for counsel again. I
carefully checked my two wires and walked to the detonator. I took a deep breath, and gave the detonator a crisp turn. There was an immense explosion; one sharp piece of coral cut through the tent flap and kept right on going. Most of the pulverized coral was channelled by the tent flap up into the tent; the interior looked as if a dusting sprayer had spent a half hour on the six cots, floor and footlockers. The mosquito nets above each of the cots were speckled with coral dust; the finer material had sifted through onto our air mattresses. Ed's new camera, my open footlocker, the table, the shoes and hanging clothes were all blanketed. I thought, it will take the rest of the damned day to get this mess cleaned up so my tent-mates won't see it. If I had put down the damned tent flap, very little would have come into the tent. I started to clean on Walt's cot, when I heard someone coming into the area. Ed had come in early from the line.
As he climbed the steps into the tent, he exclaimed, "Max, what in the hell is going on???"
"I was digging a foxhole with the help of a little dynamite."
Ed looked at his new camera, his cot and all his clothes covered with a thick layer of coral dust. "Are all Iowans as stupid as your are? This is the damndest mess I've seen in 22 years. Are you sure you weren't dropped at an early age?" I heard some profane words I had never heard before and a rehash of a lot of others--most were unprintable. It seemed like he went on cursing for ten minutes; after awhile he wore out and exclaimed, "Let's get the damned place cleaned up."
We never had another air raid on Biak; the foxhole was never used.
August 4, 1944
Before I went overseas May 1, 1943, I made an allotment of $150 a month to my wife. That was more than her $100 a month salary for teaching first grade. As months went by, and I heard nothing about saving money, I had to make an educated guess. An old maid school teacher shared an apartment with my wile; I believed she and my wile had become addicted to fancy clothes, fancy eating, fancy entertainment or something. I didn't feel the fancy entertainment
was for a 4F*, so I suppose I should have been grateful. I decided the money was sublimating (disappearing without knowing where it went). Despite several letter requests, I was never told any money was accumulating. Thus, I started sending spare money to my Dad, who placed it on deposit in the Wright Savings Bank, Wright, Iowa. It was one of the best banks in Iowa during the depression.
Salary on Biak was paid in Dutch guilders, since we were in the Dutch East Indies; a guilder was worth about 53¢. If you didn't buy liquor which was in very meager supply, or if you didn't play poker or gamble at some other card game, money was worthless. As we got further from Australia, there was less chance to spend a little on leave. Cigarettes and a limited amount of beer were rationed free. A little candy and a few other toilet articles could be purchased at the PX. Once in awhile the officers had to purchase new khakis.
Pay day was late this month due to the move to a new base. After the Auzzie pound ($3.25), a stack of 53¢ guilders made me feel like I was handling stage money.
On May 1, 1943, we boarded the passenger ship, President Johnson, (built in 1902) for a trip to Australia. A tinge of sadness to leave home and a wife, was mixed with a thought of exciting adventures in the S.W. Pacific. The saying on many lips was 'Golden Gate in '48', as we moved under the San Francisco bridge. A five year war seemed very probable. I quickly forgot all of this, as we hit the ocean swells of the continental shelf. All my life I had suffered from the motion of riding in the back of cars or trucks, county fair rides, airplanes and trains.
The weather was fine, but the roll of the ship kept my nervous and digestive systems unhappy. I did not 'feed the fishes', but after three days laying in my bunk reading and sleeping, I was totally disgusted with my Hawed physiology. I had heard there was a 'pot limit' poker game every day in the Officer's mess. All I had ever played was penny ante poker; it was a game in which there was no psychology involved. I only had a little over one hundred dollars, but I decided I would get in the 'pot limit' game even if I lost the hundred bucks in a half hour. I was accepted into the group of six poker players with the comment, 'We'd just as soon lake your money as anyone elses'.
*A man not qualified physically for the armed services.
Most games were either five card stud or five card draw, with jacks to open and a three card limit on the draw. There was a fifty cent ante and with six players, the first bet could be three dollars. If the opener bet three dollars and everyone stayed, the second round of betting could be opened with eighteen dollars. This was a hell-ofa-lot of money in 1943 for a poor country boy.
For the first day I played conservatively trying to learn the game as fast as possible. Although you can never be sure in a poker game, I don't believe anyone was cheating. Johnson Craig, a tall muscular South Carolinian with a comic speech as smooth as grease, was one of the poker players; I think a player would have received a broken arm if Johnson thought he was cheating.
In the next three days I had beginner's luck, for I ran my roll up to $450. It was amazing how little you worry about motion sickness when you're winning at poker. By the time I reached Brisbane, Australia, on May 25th, I was down to $100. In my entire life I have never spent $350 as well, for over twenty days I was not troubled by sea sickness, despite two days of a bad storm.
August 7, 1944
Captain Rodgers who had loaned me the bulldozer and the air compressor truck was over looking for a knife-switch. After I found one in our communications equipment; we received an invitation to attend an ice cream fest at their company that evening. We had been over to visit them two weeks before. They had 20 gallons of liquid ice cream mix; two hundred men were standing around drooling, and the machine wouldn't freeze.
I had talked Ed into taking us over in his jeep. The engineers had rolled out a beautiful white coral basketball court; they also had regulation baskets and basketball. Before the ice cream party we played a basketball game. After much sweat Ed and I had two points apiece; we were on the same team that rolled to a lop-sided 10 to 8 victory. To play a basketball game and have all the ice cream you could eat the same evening in the tropics--I was afraid my 'emotional band' was going to break.
The engineering officers told us that after 18 months in the Pacific, we would be eligible for 21 days leave in the Slates. They
didn't say whether Mac (MacArthur) would approve it or not. One of their men was going home after 33 months overseas.
One of the high points of the evening was meeting a Lt. from Minnesota, who was in charge of the Base Engineer Depot; all engineering supplies came through his department. I told him I had taught in high school and directed band at Royal, Iowa, only twelve miles from Spenser. He had been raised in southern Minnesota; he had been in Spenser and the lake region many times. He even remembered Hammer's Cafe. I know now if I need some engineering supplies, where I can find them; it's a little different than the Naval Officer and the dynamite.
It was difficult for a civilian to understand how we operated in combat. Each unit was issued adequate supplies for combat operation with little accountability. It was the Commanding Officer's job to know what was required for his unit to function effectively. If he thought some material was excess, he was free to loan, trade, give (not sell) it to a friend who needed it badly or turn it back in to quartermaster supply. Ed, Walt and I had a darkroom next to our tent at Nadzab. The photo-recon. squadron, who took our 5th Air Force intelligence pictures with their B-24s, kept us supplied with fresh hypo and developer for developing and printing pictures. Many 499th officers and enlisted men used the dark room when it was free. If the photo-recon squadron needed something, we would go to a lot of trouble to supply it.
A 1st pilot, Lt. Pepper went overseas with the 499th, but he was continually bugging the C.O. to get transferred to a fighter squadron. Finally he was transferred to a P-38 transition squadron in Australia. Pepper was on one of his training flights when he saw an unoccupied jeep parked out by itself. He dived on the jeep in a simulated strafing attack and hit his gun button. The switch was not on safe, and he shot the hell out of the jeep. Someone got his plane number and the jeep cost him $1100. There was some accountability.
Here is another fringe of the supply problem. Watches were issued to all flying personnel; they were not a luxury--they were a necessity for Coordination of Strikes. We were over a thousand miles from a business where a watch could be repaired.
Among the many skills of my radio mechanics was a watch repairman named James Camilleri. He had a jeweler's lens and a few essential watch repair instruments. He first began working on
watches in the corner of my office (pyramidal tent) in the jungle at Dobodura. During the repair of one of those early watches, a spring flipped out the side of the tent onto the litter of the jungle floor. Three of us spent two days on our knees looking for that damn spring; we never did find it. Thus, evolved a small screened-in two-man officers tent for Camiller's workshop; it was standard equipment for the rest of the war. See Figure 6 in the photo section.
There was a weekly flow of flying personnel to Australia for rest and recuperation; most were glad to bring back watch parts and tools for Camilleri, especially if he had repaired their watch.
August 10, 1944
Since my well wasn't finished, and they ran out of pipes to pipe in fresh water, we had made some moonlight requisitions of P-38 wing tanks for storage of rain water to take showers. Ed somewhere scrounged a pump, so we could pump the rain water out of our barrels into the overhead wing tanks. Walt and I put on shorts and were out in the afternoon downpour 'pumping like mad' to get everything full of soft water.
After the flurry of moving to a new base, getting the communications wheels moving smoothly, securing good living conditions in a floored tent, the work load decreased to little more than an hour a day. Boredom soon set-in.
During my leave in Australia, I purchased three volumes of Cunningham's Human Anatomy to study for Medical School.* The plates were very mediocre, but the written material was superb. After a few nights of studying, I decided I needed some specimens. After the rain today I took a wooden box up to the caves to secure some leg and arm bones. I also carried my carbine, but the Japs were harmless--just trying to steal enough food to survive. I brought the bones back and boiled them in my wash barrel to clean and sterilize
*One of the luckiest events of my life was being short of making the 1947 Medical School Class at the University of Iowa by .02 or .03 grade points.
them. I dried them and placed the specimens in my footlocker to at least delay the razzing of my tentmates.
August 12, 1944
lt was 1700. I had showered from the rain water collected in barrels under our tent flaps, and put on clean khakis. Walt had just arrived from his adjutant's work; Ed was still on the line. A new pilot in clean pressed khakis called up the steps, "Is this where Carl Zark lives?"
"Yes, come in," I answered.
He bounded up the four steps and extended his hand, "Paul Shores."
"Max Ferguson, I'm in Communications; this is Walt Barnes, he helps keep the administrative situation confused. Have you got a minute; sit down. I would guess you are part of Carl's team."
He pushed back a mosquito net and sat down on a cot. "You know Biak is a hell of a long way from Kansas where we picked up our B-25."
"It just hit me that you guys have to be pretty good technicians to haul an old B-25 along at the torrid pace of 150 mph for over 10,000 miles, half way around the world," Walt commented.
"Maybe technicians isn't the right word, but you must be competent and above all believe you're good enough to keep her up there as long as you've got gas. It makes you think of a lot of things in your life, when you jump her off at night from San Fran, and head for Hawaii that is over 2100 mile away. M.C. (Williams) would shoot me for this after thought, but it doesn't hurt to have a good navigator.
"Is it true Carl was in the R.C.A.F.?" Walt questioned.
"As you can guess, he's not twenty years old like all the rest of us. It may be he was too old to be accepted as a pilot trainee in the U.S.A.F., so he went to Canada and was accepted in the R.C.A.F. program and became a pilot officer. He got into trouble with his drinking and wild flying; he was probably in the process of being Cashiered, When the U.S.A.F. initiated a policy of taking American flyers with R.C.A.F and R.A.F, experience and inducting them into the U.S.A.F. in grade. He probably got the authorities to give him his personal file, and perhaps by altering some information came back to the U.S. and was accepted as a Lieutenant in the U.S.A.F.
Carl is a real Anglophile; people from Canada, Britain and Australia can do no wrong."
"Are you sure Carl isn't the hero out of a book somewhere?" Walt questioned. "It's chow time, Paul, would you join us for supper?"
"Be glad to."
As we went through the chow line, a cook noticed Paul was a new man. "Have you heard about Sam's car?" Sam was a Jewish cook from the Bronx.
"It's a Urinate; a real Pisser." (The mark of a good car in this era was to have a Hupmobile, Essex or Hudson straight eight.)
We sat down on a bench to eat our supper. "Paul I've probably heard about Sam's car a hundred times since Port Moresby; I wish they would write back to the States and get a new joke."
"Where do you fit into the Zark story?" Walt questioned.
"I was about a month out of flying school when I was assigned as his co-pilot. He was light-hearted especially friendly and seemed genuinely glad to meet me. He accepted me as a competent pilot when I felt like a rank amateur--which I was. He was never condescending or pushy and gave every indication of having complete confidence in my competence. I think I was probably the envy of the rest of my flying classmates, who had been assigned to the 499th Squadron. He was enthusiastic about flying and made all crew members and non-flying personnel comfortable working with him. On the other hand--" he paused.
After we cleaned our trays and mess kit cups, we dipped them in boiling water. We headed toward the officer's area.
"My friends call me Beach rather than Paul. I can't believe how good this Biak meal was."
"We have good cooks. We don't always have fresh meat, Beach; a ship must have just unloaded. Our tent has one of the few radios in the Squadron; come over when the generator is running." I commented.
"Is it possible to hear the rest of the story, sometime?" Walt questioned.
"Well--maybe?" Beach replied as he headed for his tent.
August 13, 1944
It was Sunday. I told Shane and Miller to take the day off and go to church. I was going to do a little communications work, write my daily letter to my wife, and at 1030 go to Protestant church services in the 498th mess hall. They are to start a Biak chapel tomorrow.
The ground station operators were monitoring the air lanes. I could hear the generator running for their power and the chatter of Morse Code.
August 17, 1944
During the afternoon I loaded two barrels of Jap fuel to burn some brush in an area we had cleared for additional tents, got mired in a rare sand dune and burned the clutch out of my jeep. 'My' was the wrong term, for we had two jeeps in the entire communications section for servicing the radios after missions, repairing telephone lines, occasional recreation for my men, etc. I rarely borrowed it.
I inquired at Group Hdg. as to repair, and they directed me to an Ordnance Co. by one of the fighter strips. The Ordnance men told me not to 'hold my breathe' 'til it's repaired, for it usually takes several weeks.
Despite the B-25 being a small attack bomber, it was loaded with radio equipment. When a new plane arrived, the first thing we did was pull the Marker Beacon, since there were no transmitters in the Pacific.
In the older planes the only navigational equipment was the radio compass. The radio compass was tuned to a distant station; the B-25 was flown with the compass indicator needle pointed toward that station. If you kept the plane on course for gradually increasing signal strength, that meant you were flying toward the station. However, if you tuned in 180° out, you would be flying away from the station. The pilots had to judge whether the radio signal was getting stronger or weaker to know if they were flying toward or away from the station. Many limes this was very difficult. The 345th Bomb Group started 64 planes at night from San Francisco, one at a time, so they could land at daybreak in I Hawaii, 2100 miles away. Sixty-two planes made it. In general the amateur navigators did a very good job even with a radio compass.
Near the end of the war, replacement planes came in with Loran (long range navigation) radios. They were an immense improvement over the old radio compass.
On the way to the target for the day there was to be no radio transmitter operating; even the IFF was turned off. This was an attempt to prevent the Japs from knowing a few friendly bombs and a little hot lead was coming.
The pilots had three Command set radios tuned to three separate frequencies. These were for close air to air communications in bad weather and over the target on missions, to assist in take-off and landing instructions, and to help crippled planes in getting back to airstrip.
Everyone in the crew wore a throat mike and headset; these were plugged into the intercom system. By pressing a switch and calling a crew member's name on the intercom, you could contact any member of the crew if they were wearing their headset. Throat mikes were very very poor transmitters.
The IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radio sent a signal to any U.S. airstrip that this was a friendly plane. Thus, a Jap plane with no IFF triggered a red alert when they approached one of our airstrips at night. There was an explosive charge in each set under the radio operator's seat, so that if a plane crashed in enemy territory, the IFF radio components would be destroyed and not compromised. Many a red alert was triggered because the radio operator forgot to turn on the IFF when approaching a friendly airstrip. You can guess, the IFF charges went off sometimes in maintenance and other periods when they weren't supposed to.
The radio operator and his receiver-transmitter were placed in B-25s for long range communications. In very good weather with the trailwire antenna down beneath the plane, the radio operator was able to transmit his Morse Code over a thousand miles. A different card was carried everyday for encoding messages; in an emergency such as wounded aboard, airplane engine problems, or threat of ditching, the Morse Code was sent in the 'clear'. The 499th communications ground station was located next to the communications office, so if a plane had gone in over the target, a plane was in trouble, or a routine mission report on the way home--we were the first to get the news. Usually a Cat (Catalina flying boat) was part way to the target during a mission, so a radio operator could call them directly, if a plane was going to ditch. Many men survived
WWII because of good radio operators; a ditching later in the book is a good example.
August 19, 1944
Walt, Ed (Egan), Conrad and I had just started on a hand of post supper bridge.
Morris Bradshaw, armament officer, bounded up the steps to the tent.
"What have you been doing, Brad?" Walt questioned.
"Been busier than the devil with all the missions," he commented.
"What do you hear from those twins of yours?" I asked.
"Wife says they're O.K. Say, Max, have you been back to look at your well?" Brad questioned.
"No, with adequate rainwater, I had forgotten it. What about it?"
"I'll play your hand of bridge, while you go look."
As I climbed the coral knoll behind the officer's area, I could see in the fading sunlight, the well had been enclosed for a latrine. As I walked closer, I could see someone had erected a sign, Deepest damn shit house in the world. See figure 7 in the photo section.
I thought of all the sweat the four men and I had expended to dig that hole--then they had turned it into a crapper. As I walked around it, I was really irritated. Work on the well had been as futile as war itself. When we started the well, I could visualize getting down to ocean level at thirty feet and enough water gushing in for the entire group. . . . However, we might have dug another very difficult ten feet for a dry hole, or had a man injured, or killed despite the shoring. As I paused in the twilight of another quiet, cool, tropical evening which was almost mosquito free, my agitation subsided. I guess the Good Lord protects those who are gamblers or 'weak in the upper story' as my Dad often stated.
August 22, 1944
Walt, Ed and I were just finishing our supper. Walt scanned the mess hall, "I wonder why the clown is standing to eat his supper?"
"Zarko is probably entertaining or telling a yarn to someone," I commented.
We cleaned our mess gear and headed toward the tent. "I think I'll start the generator so we can tune in San Fran., as it's almost dusk," I stated. When I got to our tent, I flipped on the 110 volt radio from the communications section.
"Instead of big band music from San Francisco, let's get Tokyo Rose tonight," Walt suggested. "I was getting her the other night around 1000 K.C."
"She doesn't have the least damn accent, and her voice is sex-deluxe," Ed commented.
I tuned in a strong station; Harry James was playing Celito Lindo. The music ended and a woman's voice asked, "How are you American soldiers tonight?"
"Fine, thank you," Walt replied.
She continued, "Do you suppose your wife or girl friend is out tonight with a 4F? Wouldn't it be pleasant to nuzzle up to a blonde or brunette."
"Or a red-head," Ed offered.
"It is too bad to waste those clean sheets and good beds that are Stateside. It is fall and the fruits and vegetables are ripening. How about a fillet for supper tonight? Maybe a little wine with a good dinner--what could be better?"
Carl climbed the tent steps; he picked up a book off his cot and began reading while standing.
"Darn it, Carl, you interrupted the sex-machine, Tokyo Rose," Ed complained.
"She's just trying to make you feel bad," he replied.
"Why don't you sit down, Carl?" Walt questioned.
I turned off the radio.
"I had the 'fuzzie wuzzies' this morning"--
"Let me interpret--he had the G.I.'s (diarrhea)," Walt interjected.
Carl continued, "I was coming from a late breakfast, when I got hit. I rushed to the enlisted men's sitting room because I didn't think I could make the officer's.
An enlisted man was standing outside and stated, "You don't want to go in there."
"It's not whether I want to--I've got to or else--," I pushed the door open and could feel the heat coming out the holes. He had poured gasoline into the pit and set it afire to kill the wildlife.
Sometimes the choices in this old life, aren't too good. Either crap in your pants or get hot nuts. I chose the latter which was a mistake."
Too bad we didn't get some movie film of you balancing over a hole--trying to prevent getting completely fried. The home folks would certainly enjoy it," I commented. "I'll put some of Doc Weiner's wonder salve on your blisters before bedtime, if you won't fart in my face."
"I'm beginning to wonder about my tentmates--living with two cripples," Ed added as he pointed to my two bandaged hands.*
August 25, 1944
The cool evening breeze carried a salty algae smell from the ocean. Ed was strumming his guitar; the rest of us were either writing a letter or reading. Major Dick Reinbold (C.O.) climbed the steps to the tent followed by a new man wearing pilot wings.
"Since this tent has the only radio to get Tokyo Rose, the best squadron guitar player, and more B.S. than anywhere else in the Pacific, I'd like for you to meet a new man, Lt. Charlie Phillips," Dick stated.
Each of my tentmates stated his name and offered a greeting.
"Lt. Phillips, I'm from Iowa, but I'll lay 100 to I odds you aren't," I stated as I noticed his southern drawl.
"Lets not be too formal--names, Charlie. I'm from North Carolina, Chapel Hill to be exact."
"I came over to make Reel, Jordan and Zark feel bad that they missed the mission to Lambeh Strait, yesterday," Dick commented.
"That's an incorrect statement if I ever heard one," Charlie replied.
"I want Charlie to give an account of his first mission with the Bats outa Hell, for I don't think he'll ever forget it." "This would probably be better told over a couple of beers, but I'll
*Either atabrine, that we look for malaria, or a tropic fungus or both kept the backs of my hands continually infected and roughened in the SW Pacific.
fire up the stove and make some water for hot chocolate while you're narrating, Charlie," Ed Egan offered.
CHARLIE PHILLIPS ON HIS FIRST MISSION TO LAMBEH STRAITS IN THE CELEBES
When I was told by the Operations Officer that I would fly with Major Reinbold, I thought this will be an easy one with the C.O. leading the 499th Squadron. I believe you call it--a milk run. We had been told at briefing to leave the big ships alone as they were bad targets for B-25s. What they really meant was that 'you'll get your ass shot off'.
It was a long, but uneventful trip to the Celebes. Dick pulled the plane up over a slight hill to look at the strait, and there was the biggest damn ship I had ever seen in my life; it was laying crosswise in the narrow channel.
Dick called on his command set for the other flight of three planes to go around the strait; he instructed his wingmen to cover the shore line on each side of the strait to keep down ground fire. As he headed toward the cruiser, I thought I was riding with a pussy cat, but here is a damned pit bull.
Dick was moving the spray of the eight fifties in the nose back and forth along the deck of the ship. Fifty caliber shell casings were streaming past the windows; black puffs of ack ack were everywhere; sure seemed to me like an untidy damn war. Signal lights were flashing all over the cruiser, but I couldn't read a damn letter they were sending. The sporadic fire of the nose fifties were interspersed with staccato of twin fifties in turret and single waist guns in the tail as they hammered the many ack ack positions along the shore. As we raised and flashed over the ship, I toggled out one 500 pound bomb which hit the side; the bomb of Lt. Boyd on our left wing went long.
As we cleared the cruiser, there was a small cargo ship straight ahead in the channel. We strafed it, and I toggled out another 500 pound bomb. Our tail camera showed we definitely sunk it.
As the planes ducked behind some land to get out of the ack ack, I
thought, I've still got two bombs left. I called to Dick, "We've got to make another run on that cruiser; we've got two bombs left." (I should have toggled all four bombs and bracketed the cruiser; later I found you learned something on each mission you flew.) We later learned the ship was a heavily armed mine-layer, Itsukushima.
As we headed for Biak, Dick pretended he didn't hear my request.
After an hour on the way home I commented, "Dick, I'm kind of new at this game, but what were those damn signal lights they were trying to send when they were under attack?"
"Signal lights hell, those were the flashes of six inch guns."
All the planes were badly holed, but no shell hit a man or vital part of a plane.
After the debriefing Dick gave a little pep talk, "This first mission of yours was as tough as they get. If you fly another fifty missions, you won't run into as much ack ack as Lambeh strait. You can relax from now on, for the rest of the missions will be down hill."
After Charlie had finished his story Dick commented, "You know we have to keep up the morale of the troops."
August 28, 1944
After supper I went over to Charlie Phillip's tent, because I wanted to hear another of his stories, or Chapel Hill specials, or Charlie Phillips yarns--. Maybe none of these are correct.
I called into the tent, "Anyone home?"
"Come in," was the reply.
"Charlie, I hear you're trying to rewrite 499th history, or add some flourish to it, or some damn thing. Tell me about your mission to Mokmer airstrip," I stated.
As we moved to a new base, we were always reticent to leave lumber or other materials behind, for we would have to do without it, or go out and scrounge for it at the new home.
MISSION TO MOKMER AIRFIELD
by Charlie Phillips
"Yesterday the Operations Officer asked me to fly a B-25 back to our old base at Nadzab and pick up a load of engineering supplies, pipe and lumber. After we landed at Nadzab I didn't fill up with gas, for I guessed we'd be loaded to the hilt. We kept piling material into the bomb bay, the engineer's compartment, and the tail section until we were heavily loaded. We even took the plexiglass off the tail and had pipes sticking several feet behind the rear of the plane. Despite the heavy load, there was no problem getting off the long metal strip at Nadzab."
"When we arrived back in Biak, Mokmer airstrip was socked in with a local tropical storm. I hadn't refueled at Nadzab, so I needed to get down in a hurry. We called the control tower at Sorido, a short fighter airstrip several miles up the coast where there was enough visibility to make a safe landing. We landed on the tip of the runway, braked hard, and finally turned up a rough road, dog leg left, at the end before we finally stopped."
"We called 499th engineering, told them to come pick up their supplies and to check the plane and nose-wheel thoroughly before it was flown back to Mokmer service area. The crew chief went over and checked the plane later yesterday; he found it O.K."
"When I was planning to move the B-25 to Mokmer airstrip today, George Harding, who had just arrived in the squadron with a very bad cold, asked to fly right seat. He wanted to know if the cold was bad enough to keep him from flying a mission."
With the empty plane we had no trouble getting off the short runway. We called Mokmer control tower and asked for landing instructions; they told us to swing long on final (approach) and follow a Cat (Navy Catalina flying boat) in landing. I switched off my Command radio set. At about three hundred feet agl* it felt as if we were getting severe prop wash from the Cat.
"George, this is the damndest prop wash I ever got into; help me
*Above ground level.
hold the controls." Despite our efforts we couldn't hold the plane from turning right. We came mushing in sidewise; as we hit the runway, it folded the tricycle landing gear. We bellied along on the coral runway; as we came to a stop, we could see and smell fire burning behind the cockpit.
"Let's get the hell out of here," George yelled as he snapped off the escape hatch over the pilot's compartment and exited. Despite the fire and the possibility of a fuel tank exploding, I remember neatly placing my throat mike and ear phones on the steering column before I crawled out.
The plane was burning like hell when I slid off the nose. I heard several desperate cries for help. My first thought was, 'Has some G.I. hitchhiked a ten mile ride when we didn't know it, and now I've got to go through that damned fire and pull him out.' I looked up and instead of the twin tails of a B-25, there were four. A P-61 night fighter had landed on top of us around two hundred feet and piggybacked on in. So it wasn't prop wash--.
Two men emerged from the night fighter; we caught them as they slid off the two planes and helped them put out the fire on their clothes.
"I hope to hell that is everyone," I exclaimed as we moved quickly away.
As we watched the planes burn from a safe distance I told George, "Once in awhile you're lucky; probably none of us would have gotten out if we'd had a full load of gas."
"Here's another guestimate; I may be wrong, Charlie, but the problem was--that damned night fighter pilot can't see in the daytime only at night."
We went over to the area hospital to get some stitching done. We were greeted by a Doctor I had been partying with the previous night; he was a friend of Doc Weiner, our Squadron Flight Surgeon. I told him I might be interested in Medical School, and he invited me to come over sometime and talk about its problems.
When he saw me he exclaimed, "Charlie, I didn't tell you to get all chopped up as an excuse to come over and talk medicine."
The two P-61 men had some second degree burns so he took care of them first. George had to have a chunk of plexiglass removed from his left leg. The P-61 propeller had torn loose a piece of conduit back of the first pilots seat and driven it into my left arm; luckily it
didn't get the bone. Metal and glass had really hammered me, for I had a total of thirty eight stitches.
As we left the hospital, I suggested, "George, we had better go see the C.O."
"O.K., but I don't especially relish the job."
Dick Reinbold was still in his C.O. tent. We called and asked permission to enter.
"Come in." As we entered, Dick requested, "Sit down gentlemen."
I really didn't know what kind of reaction we would get. "I suppose you either heard or saw our unhappy landing."
"Unfortunately, yes. I hate to lose a plane because it's so damn far from Kansas where we get them," he replied rather brusquely. On the other hand, I hate alot worse for pilots to 'hang their jocks'."
"There is one thing for sure--if you two fly 150 missions, you won't need to worry about another P-61 pilot landing on you. The future missions will be easy compared to today's problem. The rest of your tour is going to be down hill. We may get you some time in Australia while those cuts heal."
It was three months later when I was going home by boat, I was assigned a bunk and found the P-61 pilot above me. I exclaimed loud enough he could hear, "I'm moving, for I'm not giving him a chance to land on me a second time."
August 29, 1944
It was twilight; the officer's area was quiet except for generator engine and an occasional laugh. All my tentmates were present as the evening movie hadn't started.
"Ed, did you get the burned planes residue cleared today?" I asked.
"That was done yesterday. We were lucky it didn't happen when the air was full of B-25s returning from a mission."
"Max, doesn't your wife ever get tired of the B.S. in your letters?" Walt queried, as he noticed I was writing a letter.
"I don't know, but I would like to be in Storm Lake, Iowa, to ask her. She is curious for each change in A.P.O. number as to where our next base is located. A radio operator of mine, Greene, after completing his fifty missions, either wrote or called and told her we were at Dobo (Dobodura). I got a letter today from my Sis asking whether
we were east or west of longitude 150°; she wants to get into the act too."
"It's very simple; tell her this, Max. She knows where we started--she knows where we are heading, Tokyo. Draw as straight a line as she can and stay on land between the two places," Ed Reel commented. "Further, tell her to watch the newspapers for places where Mac (MacArthur) has made his landings. They arc not killing yellow bastards for taking territory--it is to move air bases toward Tokyo as fast as possible. Tell her that we're staging missions out of advanced bases within a week after the infantry clears them; the entire squadron usually moves up in less than a month."
"Reel, you should be a reporter for a newspaper rather than a pilot; I appreciate your help," I added.
"Not too bad, concise, accurate etc., but that has nothing to do with how we shall spend our evening," Walt questioned. "Shall we go see Errol Flynn in some grade B movie or play bridge?"
"I remember one of the Auzzie liaison officers at Dobo, who was a friend of Errol, say that whenever he went into a tavern in New Guinea either he would be thrown out or someone else would be. He was an aggressive agitator," I remarked.
"Let's go to the show; we can play bridge tomorrow night," Conrad suggested.
"You fellows go ahead, I'll finish my letter and do some studying on anatomy," I added. The backs of my hands were itching to beat the devil; I wanted to put some boric acid and clean bandages on them.
For forty years a roller bandage has reminded me of 1939-1940 when I worked graveyard shift as an industrial first aid man at John Deere's in Waterloo, Iowa. It cured me of panic every time I saw a pool of red (blood). I gained confidence as I removed rust from steel embedded in corneas, wrapped fingers, and dressed other wounds. One night I painted a very bad case of fever blisters with silver nitrate. I can imagine the ribbing that man took until the brown wore off six weeks later.
September 2, 1944
Once in awhile you've got to recreate to keep up the morale of the troops. Ed came in early from the line, we borrowed food from the
mess hall, Ed, Walt, Conrad, Will (Wolfe) and I drove along the ocean road about four miles and went swimming. Conrad had cut the legs off a pair of khaki pants for a make-shift bathing suit; the rest of us swam ala nude. It was a rather dangerous place for me, a non-swimmer, because the coral stairstep was very close to the shore line; it dropped off about twelve feet straight down. Someone had left a diving board; the divers were in 'water heaven'.
I was in the water and Walt was standing on the diving board clowning, when a native canoe rowed past. He waved and yelled something to them in Spanish. Then he realized there were four women in the canoe, and he turned beet red. He stepped off the diving board and turned the 'family jewels' out of the women's view. See Figure 8 in the photo section.
I called out, all together men, "Lay down I want to talk to you." This was Walt's standard greeting to everyone.
Before the women's canoe disappeared from view, eight native boys ages about three to ten, came down the coast. We greeted them and coaxed them to do some singing. All of them were good singers, but a little three or four-year old was the star. They sang "God Bless America" which some G.I. had taught them. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was sung indicating some missionary contact. See Figure 9 in the photo section.
We had a pilot who always insisted on singing "Swissdale Will Shine Tonight", his old high school song, at officer's parties. Ed sat down on a coconut log in the middle of the native boys and taught them "Swissdale Will Shine Tonight".
Standing on the beach in the cool moonlight with the native boys singing church hymns in Dutch and their native tongue, I wished for a sound movie camera to preserve the evening for the rest of my life.
We gave them what bread and boiled eggs we had left and five refreshed men headed back to camp.
September 4, 1944
I was going to forget about a dark room for the photography hounds, but with an abundance of spare time, I decided to build one; several had offered to help. I cleared an area next to the communications office, scrounged some lumber, fixed a water barrel, ran some electric light wires from the communications office, and after two
afternoons work, some help from Walt and Ed, it was almost ready to operate. 'If I make it home, I want the best damn collection of pictures from the SW Pacific'.
After supper I was writing a letter to my wife, when I heard a mellow familiar voice; it was Fred Tidyman. As he climbed the steps to the tent, I greeted him and shook his hand, "Good to see you; are you up to stay?"
"Just got in yesterday--you know the confusion," Fred replied.
Walt stepped up and shook his hand, "Lay down I want to talk to you."
"I remember that greeting."
"You remember our tentmate at Nadzab, Ed (Egan); this is another Ed, Ed Reel, first pilot. I call him Reel to separate the Ed's. This is a man who claims we would lose the war if we didn't have Okie pilots, Carl Zark. What could I do for you?" I questioned.
"Same old story; try to fix living quarters so you're as comfortable as Stateside."
"We've got an extra P-38 wing tank behind the tent; I had some flooring left from the darkroom; you'll need several barrels to collect rain water," I volunteered. "The thing I appreciated most was the rain water pump for our showers. Would you know where you could scrounge another one, Ed?"
"I'll see what I can do," Ed replied.
"Reel, Fred is with the photo-recon squadron that takes the high altitude pictures of targets for your missions. He is a professional photographer. They fly the 'old flying coffins', B-24s. Tell him about your California escapade in a B-24."
Fred sat down and relaxed, "We were at low altitude--400 or 500 feet in a photo-recon B-24. The flight engineer and I were in the engineer's compartment behind the pilots. It had the usual smell of all 24's--fuel mixture. The engineer told me he didn't like the sound of the engines, I'd better get on a parachute. I got my arms in the shoulder harness, but before I could snap my buckle, he jettisoned the escape hatch, pushed me out and followed. The plane crashed before we hit the ground. I'm alive today because of one man's good judgment. As you probably guess, I was a wee bit shaken emotionally; I would guess everyone is a little different after they have 'looked the great beyond in the teeth'.
"I have heard you tell the story before, but it still sends shivers up my back," Walt commented.
"A congenial Texan, Captain Rodgers, is C.O. of 46th engineer Co. on the island; they have really helped me with a bulldozer etc. Give me a ring as soon as you are settled, and I'll take you over and introduce you. We have our dark room ready to go, so we'll be over for fresh hypo and developer," I added.
"O.K. Thanks for the offers of wood and equipment, gentlemen," Fred stated as he rose to leave.
"Good to have met you, Fred; get us some good pictures for our missions," Reel commented.
Two personal things on the island were valuable; Jap souvenirs and pictures to send home in our letters. As to the latter, I tried to keep the water barrel full and fresh photo material in the dark room. We had a make-shift enlarger using a camera lens in addition to a printer. Both enlisted men and officers took their turn using the dark room at night, when not working.
September 10, 1944
My section chief was Robert W. Bauer, a gold miner and rancher from Mancos, Colorado. He was a good administrator as well as politician, for he kept the communication bachelors, which varied in age from seventeen to forty five, smoothly working together. The radio mechanics serviced the planes after missions; I rarely heard of their problems unless it was a personal one. We had equally good ground station operators for monitoring radio traffic after the planes had hit the target for the day. All worked together to keep the phones and teletype operating properly. One or two hours of shuffling paper each morning was necessary for office work, as Ben Miller and William Shane handled communication details very efficiently. Boredom from lack of work had begun.
In the evening I wrote a daily letter to my wife and told her that I loved her. Considerable time was spent studying human anatomy. Despite being poor bridge players, we spent alot of evenings playing bridge while we listened to my radio. There was an occasional poker session when there was no mission the following day. We saw many grade B movies with infrequent live stage shows with band and real females. Even the stage shows were dangerous, for one of my flying radio operators, T/Sgt Horton, was watching a Bob Hope show from a tree, got to laughing, fell and broke an arm.
I had the best music library in the squadron. I purchased several albums of popular music while on leave in Sydney; I sent ten dollars to a friend in a music store in Spenser, Iowa, and he must have sent me fifty dollars worth of sheet music. Ed Egan was a good guitarist and used alot of the music; he serenaded us many evenings when he wasn't playing bridge. I had a trumpet and Albert system clarinet, but I was such a 'lousy' musician I didn't like to practice when anyone was around. See Figure 10 in photo section.
I wonder how many American G.I.'s would complain about being bored with this much activity--maybe we wanted too damn much.
September 15, 1944
Mac was moving. He landed on Morotai island in the Halmaheras; Dick (C.O.) said by evening the G.I. bulldozers were working on the airstrip. The 'Bats' can stage out of Morotai and extend their range another 400 miles.
The Operations Officer called, since we have the only phone in the officer's area, and said he thought LeRoy Putoff, navigator on Dick Reinbold's crew, was O.K. Pass the word to the rest of the men. Leroy had started for Nadzab as a passenger on a plane, and it didn't arrive. The downed plane was found with 'crew O.K.' written on the wing. He spent two and a half days walking out of the jungle with nine other men; no one was injured.
September 19, 1944
It had been a bad day; I was in the office about noon, when S/Sgt DeSantis came over with one of the flying radio operator's report that only five 499th planes were in formation after they came off the target. Ed Reel's plane was missing. Could it be there's a curse on the pilots, who are my tentmates? We lost Alan Anderson at Nadzab; John Grice and bad news on Ed Reel.
I boiled some clothes, worked an hour in the office, pumped the shower wing tanks full of water, and even two letters from my wife did not break the spell of pessimism and depression during the afternoon.
At supper I inquired of the flight leader, "What do you know about Ed Reel?"
"My tail gunner said he came off the target O.K., but soon started falling behind."
"At least he didn't go in over the target," I replied.
"We'll just have to hope 'they didn't hang their jocks'."
Some were in to listen to the radio, but I couldn't concentrate to write a good letter to my folks. There was no bridge game and after a little Tokyo Rose, everyone hit the sack.
Everyone was asleep, but it was one of the very few nights that I couldn't. I kept thinking of the empty bed in the corner of the tent. I was almost sub-conscious when I heard someone come into the I area and up our steps.
"Is that you, Ed?" I questioned.
"Yes, it's good to be home," he replied in his mellow, weary voice.
"We had to ditch with no life rafts; it was your radio operator, Corie Johnson, and the Jolly Rogers that saved us."
"Thank the Good Lord you're back."
September 20, 1944
After breakfast I reported to the office at 0810; Sgt. Shane was already working.
"Good morning Sgt., Lt. Reel ditched yesterday; he told me that Corie Johnson, their radio operator was responsible for getting them back. There is no mission today, so round up the flying radio operators for a meeting at 1000. We'll have Johnson give an account of what happened; maybe his report will impress them more than what I say."
"Roger, Captain," he replied courteously. "Get Miller to help you."
At 1000 I greeted them, "Good morning, gentlemen, I apologize for Miller and Shane waking some of you this morning, but I want you to hear T/Sgt Johnson's report of Ed Reel's ditching yesterday, before he goes on leave. You're free to go after he finishes. After the report if anyone had a question about something, I'll try to help you.
Johnson sit here on this chair and tell them what happened." "Do you want all the gory details?" Johnson queried. "All of them."
MISSION TO MANADO ON THE CELEBES
by T/Sgt Corydon M. Johnson
"Hey, Sergeant, rise and shine," the C.Q. called.
I rubbed my eyes and exclaimed, "My gosh, it's only five bells." The mission for the day was to the airfield at Manado on the tip of Celebes island; when I viewed the intelligence map, it looked halfway to Africa. The generator was not running, so I dressed by flashlight, strapped on my '45 and headed for Rosy's (Rosaire Dubois) tent; he was gunner on our crew. The two of us yawned our way sleepily to the mess hall. We had an especially good breakfast for the S.W. Pacific, consisting of french toast, oatmeal, and coffee. We were joined at breakfast by Sam (Sherwood J Singer) our engineer. We climbed aboard a 6x6 and headed for the operations tent on the line.
When the six crews of thirty-six men had assembled for briefing, Lt. Nunes asked, "Would you give me your attention?" Still some noise--"Quiet dam it--Captain Fox will be leading the mission today. Take over Floyd."
Captain Fox rose, "We have an eight hundred mile mission to Manado airstrip on the tip of the Celebes. Everyone take a look at the geography involved after the briefing. The infantry moved into the island of Morotai at the north end of the Halmaheras this week; the airstrip may not be good, but you could get down in an emergency. The rest of the Halmaheras are Jap held, so be alert for fighters when we fly over them. We haven't been to Manado before so we don't know what to expect, however, that may work in our favor as they won't be expecting us either.
Back to mechanics. Engineers be sure those gas tanks are topped off. Pilots, it's a long mission so we've got to squeeze on gas; we
want at least an hour's reserve. We will go in six abreast; don't forget your wingmen when you are strafing. Again we're carrying para-frag's*; copilots do a good job."
The briefing droned on--my tension was beginning to build from the excitement and danger of the mission. It flashed through my mind; I should have something exciting to tell my kids. My daydreaming was broken--Lt. Nunes was summarizing, "This airstrip is our first really good mission since Rabaul; make it a hot one. Take off is 0630.
While Ed was giving our plane, Doodles Jr. a visual inspection, Sam borrowed a crew chief's ladder and checked to be sure the gas tanks were 'topped off. As we loaded, I noticed everyone was wearing a Mae West except Ed. He was carrying his on his arm; evidently he didn't like to wear it on such a long flight. Rosy and I crawled into the tail section; all the radio operator's equipment was just behind the bomb bay. I liked flying, but I didn't relish nine hours of burnt fuel smell on the mission.
Rosy spent most of the sightseeing tour in the gun turret bubble; I looked out the waist gun window for sharks, boats, and especially fighters over the Halmaheras. Four hours passed rapidly. I was just beginning to relax when Ed called over the intercom, "Be over the target in about fifteen minutes. Sam check the bomb bay after we get off the target to be sure a para-frag hasn't hung up."
For over seven hundred miles I had merely been a passenger, as there was always radio silence on the way to the target; my work was about to begin. As the plane was diving down for the strafing run, Rosy again climbed into the gun turret over the radio compartment; I went back to the waist window. Suddenly the plane began to shudder as Ed cut loose with the eight, fifty caliber guns in the nose. Ack ack was coming from all directions; black puffs surrounded the line of six fire-belching planes. A gun crew on our port side targeted us. As soon as the wingman cleared, Rosy's tracers from his twin fifties and my single gun blanketed the gun position. They stopped, but we were getting hot lead from all directions. As I looked at the battle confusion, I thought, 'My God, we can't make it through all of this'. Black smoke and fire were rising from two Jap planes our wingmen had
*Parafrag's were twenty two pound bombs on a parachute.
strafed. As I looked back, the first para-frag's were beginning to explode as they hit the ground. The sky was filled with tiny white parachutes as they streamed from the six planes among the drifting black ack ack puffs.
The staccato of the nose guns and the shuddering of the plane would stop momentarily as Ed shifted the nose of the plane to another target. I hoped he was conservative and saved a few rounds for possible Zeros on the way home. As I looked down the line of bobbing blue Bats on the nose of the B-25s, the sporadic fire of the fifty calibers was terrifying. I can't imagine what it would be like to the poor Jap bastards on the ground.
As we cleared the airstrip, the ground fire and strafing stopped as suddenly as it had started. Ed was 'pouring on the coal' just above the tree tops, as that was the safest place to be. We turned out over the ocean. I could feel the plane climbing as Ed shoved the throttles forward; we needed to get into 499th Squadron formation quickly for fighter protection.
It was time to relax for a long boring trip home. I returned to the radio compartment, turned on the transmitter, and let down the trail-wire antenna. For me the competition of trying to send a strike report to the ground station, when fifty other operators were trying to use the same channel, was enjoyable.
In the engineer's compartment behind the cockpit, Sam, our engineer, had a hunch something was wrong; the port engine was not as smooth as usual and the plane hadn't climbed quickly into Squadron formation with the advanced throttle setting. Oil pressure was normal. When he made a visual check, he noticed oil dribbling from the rough engine. Sam leaned into the pilot's compartment and commented to Ed, "There's considerable oil streaming from the left engine; shall I call Corie and have him ask for an escort plane?"
Ed watched the leaking engine briefly and replied rather excitedly, "These old babies will fly half way round the world on single engine. We'll make it O.K." Ed continued glancing at the leaking engine.
'Bull shit,' Sam grumbled to himself, as he almost exploded. Appraising the emergency, Charlie Yackiw, co-pilot slipped his parachute over his mae west. Ed hit the button for intercom, "Corie, we have an oil leak in the port engine; get on the key and send S.O.S. and position reports for a Cat every five or ten minutes. Bob, keep Corie up-to-date on position reports. Over."
"About fifty miles off target," navigator Bob Driscoll cut in on the intercom.
"Roger, Ed." I turned on the transmitter to the key and in my excitement immediately began sending S.O.S.'s, but I could tell by my headset, I wasn't putting out a signal. I kept sending S.O.S.'s; soon I could hear radio traffic. I tuned the set, turned up the volume and in the clear (not encoded) hammered the key in my excitement, 'S.O.S., Ed's plane on single engine, sixty miles off target.' I listened; there was still heavy traffic. I turned up the volume 'til it squealed, then backed off, 'S.O.S., S.O.S., S.O.S., Ed's plane sixty miles off target.' I listened; the channel was almost clear. 'Mayday, Mayday, Ed's plane on single engine--sixty miles off target.' I hoped some Jap station wouldn't pick up this message in the clear, and send out fighters to greet us. We were in danger of ditching between two heavily defended Jap islands.
Radio operator, Richard Burks, on crew of Mr. Q, a B-24 in the Jolly Rogers Bomb. Group, heard the S.O.S. and replied, 'Ed's plane, this is Jolly Rogers at 8000 feet. Will look for you after we come off the target. Will call Cat.'
'Thank you very much Jolly Rogers,' I replied.
Burks switched to intercom, "Lt. this is Dick, watch the pond when we head home, some B-25 boys are on single engine."
First pilot of the B-24, Harry E. Pennington Jr., replied in his Kentucky drawl, "Roger, we'd want help if we were down there. Wilco." He switched on his command set, Joe are you listening?" There was no answer. When Joe in the wing plane looked over, copilot Alan Wise motioned to his headset. Harry waited for Joe's command set to warmup, then hit the mike button, "Joe, on the way home look for a B-25 crew on single engine. Keep a sharp eye, they may need help. Over."
"Good idea. Wilco. Roger," Joe replied.
Back in Doodles Jr. co-pilot Charlie Yackiw suggested, "Ed, let's open the cowls on both engines to cool them all we can." He continued, "How far can this old tub fly on single engine?"
"It's a good single engine plane, and we can throw over alot of crap," Ed's voice trailed off in thought. "Call Corie and Rosy and tell them to throw out everything they can move." He called to Bob, "Give me a heading to Morotai; that's alot closer than Biak."
As Ed opened the cowls, Charlie scanned the ocean surface in case the aircraft had to ditch. There was a brilliant tropical sun; with little
wind the Pacific was very smooth. Ed cut power to the bad engine and hit the feather button. The propeller did not feather (turn forward) and cut the drag on the plane; instead it windmilled and sent heavy vibrations throughout the frame-work. As flight characteristics suddenly changed, Ed yelled to Charlie, "Help me hold the controls." We were about 500 feet; with the violent shuddering there was real danger an engine or wing might shake loose.
"Get down in a hurry--prepare to ditch--Charlie call Rosy and Corie--." Everyone was yelling to be heard over the noise of the shaking plane. Ed gave the thumb's down to Bob and Sam in the engineer's compartment.
As the vibrations of the plane increased rapidly, we moved quickly toward the ocean surface. "Are you cutting power?" Charlie yelled as he motioned to the good engine.
"No. Pull the escape hatch after we hit--"
Both pilots were holding right rudder and watching the approach of the calm Pacific as Doodle Jr. made its last glide about 1100. In the excitement the cowl flaps were not closed. Ed cut the right engine just as the plane slammed into the water tail low. Flying water blinded the cockpit; there was a thunderous noise. The plane glided a short distance; the open cowls probably drug the nose under the water in a second crash. With the tail 30° high the forward men thought they were submerged. Charlie pulled the overhead escape hatch as soon as he recovered from the sudden shock. Ed was first to exit followed by Charlie; Bob helped Sam clear the opening after his Mae West had caught.
When Charlie called Rosy and I to throw out everything unless absolutely necessary, I had been sending emergency signals steadily with only short intervals--to listen for a reply. Rosy quickly stripped the two fifties out of the turret; I took out the IFF and all other radio equipment except the transceiver I was using on the key. I saw Rosy push the small life raft through the hatch; I thought, we will probably be needing that. I continued on the key; I was unable to raise the 499th ground station. Evidently our low altitude and 600 miles was too far. If I could have reached them, I knew they would try to contact the Cat. My only contact had been the Jolly Rogers radio operator in Mr. Q. When the plane began to shudder after the attempt to feather the prop of the bad engine, Rosy and I knew we would be ditching soon. I told Rosy to place his back to the bombay and protect his head, as Fergy (Communications Officer) had
continually reminded us in flying radio operator meetings. When Charlie called over the intercom, "Prepare to ditch," Rosy all ready had his back to the bomb bay with a parachute protecting his head. I reeled in the trail wire antenna, shut off the radio and joined Rosy.
There was a deadening sound as the plane slammed into the water, a short glide and a second crash. After so much noise, there was a frightening stillness, except for the sound of waves lapping against the side of the plane. I reached above the radio compartment and pulled on the life raft release; it did not move. I called Rosy for help; despite our efforts it would not release. Even though the plane was tail high with little water coming through the escape hatch, Rosy was reticent to dive through the opening because he couldn't swim. I threw out two food boxes we had saved, then dove through the hatch. I climbed onto the fuselage to use the exterior handle to release the life raft. Sam joined me; we pulled as hard as we could, but old Doodle Jr. had been in too many tropical rain storms without service. The handle broke.
Rosy had inflated his Mae West inside the plane, so Bob had to help him through the escape hatch. We all moved away from the plane; it had floated over two minutes. Slowly the tail elevated, and it slide gently beneath the surface. Despite our many problems, we felt like losing an old friend.
We collected the food boxes, a pillow of Ed's and surveyed our problems; we did not have a life raft. I wondered if we were in shark country. Ed appeared to have the only injury as his face was bloody from a cut on the bridge of his nose. Bob splashed over to Ed, "Let me check your wound." After washing off the blood Bob commented, "Chances are very good you'll survive. How do you feel?"
"Got a headache, otherwise O.K." Ed continued, "I've been in better situations, but if we work together, we may get out of this yet. Can everyone swim?"
"I can't," Rosy replied.
"The old Mae West will keep your head up, Rosy; Sam you stay with him," Ed requested as he noticed the apprehensive look in his eyes. "Everyone help each other get your shoes off; it will help your floating."
"Does anyone have a knife?" Charlie questioned, "I don't want Ed to be the only one to get a purple heart." The joke fell flat, but it did help to ease the tension.
Each Mae West had a packet of dye which could be torn off, and
thrown into the water to help repel sharks and attract attention from the air. After a period of listening to the lapping waves on men and food boxes, Bob commented, "I think I'll throw out some dye." Everyone twinged as we heard his Mae West rip from the dye package. The life vest was ruined; Bob was to spend the next three hours supported by the food boxes and Ed's pillow.
"Did you contact the Cat, Code?" Charlie questioned.
"No couldn't raise him or 499th ground station. Contacted Jolly Rogers operator who said they would watch for us on the way home." We had been in the water about an hour, when we heard the faint sound of airplanes.
"I'll lay ten to one its got four fans, at least it isn't a bunch of Jap fighters," Charlie commented. We were within fifty miles of the Jap held Halmaheras, so one of our concerns was the possibility of Jap fighters strafing us.
"Maybe that's the Jolly Rogers," I commented. Everyone became alert with the sound of planes. From eight or ten thousand feet, far to the north, the rumble of a flight of B-24s filled our ears. Everyone was yelling, "Come on Jolly Rogers, Come on flying box cars, This way you flying coffins, etc." Despite the violent splashing and waving, the B-24s maintained their heading and were soon out of sight.
"I'll never go on one of these damned missions again without a mirror; you could see the reflection today for forty miles," Sam commented. We were 15 minutes south of the equator at midday on 19 September, 1944. The sky was clear which was good for finding airmen in the water, but the sun was brutal on human skin.
"The water from a life raft would be handy as hell right now, but spit out any ocean water from a wave, for the phosphorus will make you sick," Charlie warned. Mouths were dry; since Rosy lacked a cap, his face was beet red from the sun glaring off the water.
"I'm going to throw out another dye marker just in case---." I carefully removed it from my Mae West, opened it, and threw it as far as I could.
Several minutes passed with only the sound of lapping waves. There were no prayers aloud, but six hopeful men were praying this would be their lucky day. The faint sound of high altitude engines again broke the quiet. "Spread out and everyone splash to beat the devil," Sam requested.
Over the sound of the splashing I yelled, "Come on Jolly Rogers, Come on Jolly Rogers ." Everyone was yelling and splashing.
Never again in my life shall I see such a beautiful sight as when Mr. Q racked over to start the downward spiral. Soon the wingman followed. They had seen our dye marker in the water. I knew they couldn't pick us up out of the water, but they might drop us a raft and get us out of shark country. More important maybe they will contact the Cat and give them a signal on which to home to our location.
The second B-24 slowly circled down, made a pass to study our condition, saw we had no raft, then made a second run to drop one. We watched in apprehension as we saw the life raft clear the side window and catch on the horizontal stabilizer of the twin tails. This made the plane very difficult to fly. After a period trying to dislodge it, he slowly waggled his wings in a 'so long' and headed for Biak.
Lt. Harry Pennington, 1st pilot of Mr. Q, saw what had happened to his buddy, so he directed two of his crew to push out a life raft through the bomb bay. As they were moving it through a narrow door, it accidently inflated and had to be punctured before it was dropped. One of the crew members got a broken arm in the accident.
Dick the radio operator had stayed on the key and sent position reports, but was unable to raise the Cat. It was not far away on the other side of the Halmaheras.
When Charlie started to swim for the raft, he realized he was still wearing his parachute; he removed it and gave it to Bob. Charlie and I were very disappointed when we found the raft had been punctured. Slowly we towed it back to the rest of the men. The C02 bottle connection was broken, the hand pump was shattered, and the raft was leaking where it had been stabbed with a knife. The six-man raft would only support two; as Rosy could not swim and Ed's injury to his head was hurting, they were rolled onto the raft. Bob continued to shepherd his food boxes.
As a can of water was opened and passed around, Rosy raised it in toast, "Here's to the Jolly Rogers." The Gibson Girl, a hand cranked radio for sending homing signals, was removed from the emergency package. A man on the raft and one in the water tried to operate it, but after sporadic attempts it was abandoned. In examining the emergency equipment someone laid the Very pistol (for flares) on the edge of the raft; Charlie yelled and grabbed as he watched it roll into the ocean and disappear. This was probably the most valuable tool for attracting a friendly plane, if the B-24 had to leave when its gas
supply ran low. The punctured raft had helped raise our morale, but after two and half hours in the water under a blistering sun, we wondered where was the Cat?
After Mr. Q had been circling the downed men for over an hour, Dick, radio operator, in exasperation called Harry, first pilot, on the intercom, "I can't raise the Cat, either there's no Cat out there, or his radio isn't on, or his radio isn't working."
After a brief pause Harry replied, "Dick switch to VHF, and here in the cockpit, we'll try to get him on our Command set."
After the Command set had warmed up, Harry called, Mayday, Mayday, B-25 crew in water 150 miles off target. He listened; nothing. "S.O.S., S.O.S., B-25 crew in water 150 miles off target; they are west of Halmaheras. This is the Jolly Rogers." He heard the click of a microphone switch.
"This Yeller Dog, a P-38 flying cover for the Cat, Jolly Rogers." "Cat's radio must be out. We will have to climb to get over the Halmaheras. Keep sending signals." The P-38 pilot called to his buddy, they slowed as much as they could; as they flew by the Cat, they motioned FOLLOW US---
Harry knew that his old B-24 had stayed the limit, he made an extra large circle, and as they flew by blinked out 'Good Luck' on the identification lamp for ships. There was a waving hand in each window as it passed. We all knew he would be squeezing on gas before he got home. We had been in the water over three hours--still no Cat.
"An old football coach of mine used over and over the trite old saying 'when the going gets rough--the rough get going'," Sam commented. "At last I understand what he meant. If we're here a few hours or a few days, we've _____" The wind was increasing; a wave filled Sam's mouth with water.
We all heard it about the same time, an eerie sound of whistling wings. Rosy yelled, "There's two P-38s." One pilot flew by so close we could see him in his small cockpit. On the second pass he made an extra long turn and slow-rolled as he passed us.
As the P-38s circled, we heard a different sound, "Don't anyone get excited, but I think I hear a Cat," I commented as casually as I could.
As the old twin-engined Cat landed next to six thankful men, they
at last knew they would live to fly another day. See Figure 11 in photo section.
September 23, 1944
I yelled into the tent, "Anybody home?"
"Come in," was the chorused reply.
"Ferg. what could I do for you?" Dick questioned.
"We're going to have a bull session in our tent; these new pilots get so much B.S., I would like for you to tell them a true episode about the mission to Los Negros on leap year day, 29th February. You were squadron leader; would you come over and give us a play by play?"
"I'm writing a letter to my wife, Ferg." See Figure 13 in photo section.
"Come over when you get finished, even if we don't have a damn thing for refreshments."
In about ten minutes Dick climbed the steps to our tent.
"Carl (Zark) do you remember meeting our C.O., Dick Reinbold?" Conrad Jordan questioned.
"If I didn't remember, I'd probably get tossed out of the squadron," Carl answered with a smile.
"This man is a deluxe bullshitter from Oklahoma, and we'd like for him to hear a true story of a mission for a change," I added.
"If we don't get a citation for the Los Negros strike, I'll always think we should; let's take it from the beginning," Dick stated.
499TH MISSION TO LOS NEGROS
by Major Dick Reinbold
It was 29 February, 1944, and Mac (MacArthur) was making a mini-landing on Los Negros, a small island in the Admiralties, for an airfield for his fighters to protect the flank of his New Guinea operations. At the time our squadron was based at Dobodura, New Guinea.
On the morning of the mission Capt. Julian Baird, Operations Officer, called for attention at the briefing of flying personnel. "We have a mission to cover a landing in the Admiralties. Let's hope there is good coordination between air and ground. Since Major Reinbold will be Squadron leader today, I'm going to let him do most of the talking."
I stepped to the front of the room near the intelligence charts. "We have a guest today, Dickson Brown, reporter for the London, England's News Chronicle; he will be flying in my plane." There was clapping for the guest. "Stand up Dickson; let's show him what the 'Bats outa Hell' can do." More whistling and clapping for the guest.
I waited a minute for the briefing room to quiet; "We may not have any ack ack or Jap fighter problems, but not only is there a light rain here, there is bad weather most of the way to the target. It may be P.P. (piss poor) for flying, but it's great to have the protection of cloud cover for a landing. LeRoy (Putoff) is my navigator; the leader of the second flight also has one. It's important for the wingmen to tuck in close when we're going through pea soup. What's the heading LeRoy?"
"Three five five," came the reply.
"Radio silence except in dire emergency. Blinker letter for identification to navy ships is W. Going to carry 500 pound bombs with two second delay. After each pass be sure to delay at least thirty seconds so we don't catch one of our own bombs. All radio operators should have call letters for the Cat in case of ditching. One of the things they emphasized over and over at the Point (West Point) was that the most difficult military operation was an amphibious landing on a hostile beach. Today we're not going to let a little weather stop us from helping those poor bastards from the 1st Cavalry that are landing on Los Negros. Pat (Goforth) take over tor intelligence.
"I'll bet we lost our fighter cover as well as the other Squadrons of the 345th Group when we hit the storm front," co-pilot William Rush worth commented.
As I watched the altimeter fall, I moved down and attempted to fly under the storm on the deck; the fog was solid. Dickson leaned over and asked me, "How often do you fly through pea soup like this on your missions?"
"Not very often, but there may be G.I.'s getting their ass shot-off this morning, if we don't help out on this landing."
Dickson looked out the side window at the two planes bobbing a few feet away, "Not too bad to be a flight leader in this stuff, but hell to be a wingman."
"What's the E.T.A. (estimated time of arrival), LeRoy?" I called over the intercom.
"Three hours and fifteen minutes; we are out over two hours."
As we struggled through the zero visibility and occasional lightning, we all hoped there wasn't a tree, high tower, tall ship, or more probably another airplane in our line of flight. We had not seen the other flight since we hit the front.
LeRoy called over the intercom, "Out about two and half hours; Dick, it will be damned disgusting to fly on instruments for over two hours, then find the target socked in to the ground, or worse not be able to find it."
"If we're lucky enough to have a two hundred foot ceiling, we'll do them alot of good," I replied.
We wondered if the other flight was O.K. The minutes seemed to pass very slowly as we kept our heading in the dense fog; the lightning had subsided.
With a smirk on his face, LeRoy called over the intercom, "Dick, we've been out three hours; in ten minutes you should look down to your left and see the guns of the U.S. Navy firing."
He had hardly finished his statement, when we broke out of the fog. Destroyers were in a line tossing six inch shells onto the Momote airfield and the area behind Los Negros beach. As the guns belched, they looked like one continuous ball of fire. Further out to sea, larger ships were moving slowly with their guns still smoking.
I turned on the Command radio, "First Cavalry this is Dick in the lead plane, do you read me? Over."
"Five by five, Dick," was the reply.
"Pull off your shelling, and we'll take over. I'm going to make a pass first and scout the area." "Roger," came the reply.
The three planes of the second flight broke out of the fog. "Lt. Summers, circle the second flight until after I make a scouting pass." The shelling stopped, and we could see the infantry begin to load into landing craft called Higgins boats. I called over the intercom, "Turret gunner if you see anyone obnoxious on the scouting pass, send them a greeting."
I buzzed the coast line and short airstrip; we only saw three Japs in one ack ack position. As I started to circle for the bombing run I called Summers, "I'll take the first strip along the coast; you move your flight inland along side it. Save half your bombs for a third and fourth strafing run. Don't believe there is much here. Each flight will go in three abreast. Take plenty of time so we don't get our own bombs. Over."
"Roger,Dick, we'll take second and fourth bombing runs."
As we circled for the second pass, I motioned to Dickson, "See that narrow entrance through the reefs into the harbor. This landing would have been suicide with alot of Japs in defensive positions." The Higgins boats began to move through in single file.
As we completed our final pass, Rushworth commented, "This was kind of a fun mission--when they weren't tossing all that hot lead at us."
The 1st Cavalry infantry were close to the beach as Summer's flight completed their strafing run. As there was very little ground fire, almost every man in the landing crafts were waving at us. Only one man was killed in the landing.
I commented to Rushworth, "That's the way a triphibious operation should be run. I doubt the timing could have been improved if Mac had been here himself."
Again we had over two hours of blind flying on the way home. All six planes returned safely.*
*The 499th Squadron received the Presidential Citation for the mission; Major Reinbold and Capt. LeRoy Putoff were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The other three Squadrons in the 345th Group and the fighters turned back because of bad weather.
September 24, 1944
During much of my tour in the SW Pacific, I had skin lesions on the back of my hands; it may have been a reaction to atabrine, some allergy, some fungus, or plain old 'jungle rot'. For awhile it would be almost healed, then it would break out again, itch like the devil, and I would have to keep them bandaged and soaked with boric acid. When I was an industrial first aid man, we used boric acid in the eyes; I believe there should have been a better fungicide.
Due to the limited U.S. supply of quinine, the yellow dye, atabrine, was developed as an anti-malarial drug. After taking it for six months, if you weren't dark brown from a tan, your skin was a sickly yellow. The standard rumors were it would make you impotent, sterile, etc.
Doc Weiner, our Squadron Flight Surgeon, took Lt. Rushworth, acting C.O., and me over to a dermatologist at the area hospital.
Rushworth had flown seventy missions and had a very bad case of the 'crud' in an unenviable spot. It wasn't much of a problem to recommend that he head for the States.
The dermatologist looked at the backs of my hands and a patch near my tail bone and said, "Everyone over here has the 'crud' like that; if it doesn't heal in four years, I'll recommend you be sent home."
"Would it make any difference if I needed to get home to cure my wife's menstrual cramps?" I replied.
"Afraid not; here's some salve to ease the itching."
There's nothing I appreciate as much as real consideration and sympathy.
After seeing the dermatologist, I dropped into the mail room when I got back to the 499th area, "Any mail for Fergooooson?"
"I think Lt. Barnes picked it up; even a package, I believe."
As I walked to our tent I thought, 'I don't want to break my record and get a moldy fruit cake; it hasn't been long enough for Mom to send me another can of nuts; someone wouldn't send me a yellow tie like Walt received--' I climbed the steps to our tent and picked up a package on my mosquito netting. As I shook the package, I noticed
Linda Ferguson on one side and Capt Max Ferguson on the other; at least my wife was thinking of me.
I opened the package and found a cradle toy meant for Linda, who was only a few weeks old. Bright yellow, blue, green, and red celluloid rings were suspended on a pretty pink ribbon. No other package I received over seas provided as much fun as that toy. I hung it in front of our tent, and every native or Filipino kid that saw it, haggled with me to buy it; they wanted it for a toy-starved younger brother or sister. When I moved from Tacloban to San Marcilino on Luzon, I left it hanging in front of my tent.
September 25, 1944
My Darling Wife,
Since there are only 76 more days 'til Xmas, I think it is important that I discuss my wife's Xmas present. Up to 1944 we have never been extravagant--have we? Oh! you bought me a watch last year and probably paid between fifty and a hundred dollars for it, but you couldn't have spent money on me more wisely. Never before have I been able to buy you anything more expensive than a two dollar pair of paper shoes, 'til this year, so--. If I get home next year and we start squeezing pennies to complete five years of college, I'll probably get pretty scotch, so with your approval I want to invest in a small Xmas present for you this year. Now if I were close enough to call you on the telephone, I could wait for an answer, but over here it takes about one month for an answer, so here is plan A. From the time a girl is fifteen and starts wearing lipstick, to the time she's old enough to walk with a cane, she always looks with covetous eyes on them. I know it will be in order, since I've seen you look at them yourself with that glint in your eye. Now I saw one that you paid sixty dollars for, which--1 guess I'd better not express what I thought. I hope to be home in time to whip out with you once this season to wear it--I said I hope to. I know you want one. Finances are as near right at the present, as they're going to be. We should save four thousand this year besides this investment. O.K. where is the money coming from? I sent you forty dollars for a dress or fall coat which I doubt you spent. I'm going to go down and get a money order for a hundred bucks; I'm going to send a hundred bucks at the end of this month. Take my allotment of one hundred fifty bucks for Oct. 1st; that makes three hundred fifty dollars. I don't think we should be extravagant and invest over five hundred bucks, but any amount up to that.
First, I want you to go to a reliable store, even if it costs you more money; second, I want you to take someone along who knows what they're buying. Janet, where you stayed last year, would be best, for I expect she's purchased several herself. Third, you have never asked me for one so that is all the more reason for you to get one for Xmas. Fourth, what ever you pick out I'll be satisfied, for I think you ability to select things from an art standpoint is much better than mine.
Now let's see--you have the money, have your partner's approval, don't forget to buy in a reliable store and take someone skilled along. Only one more thing I've got to get home this winter so I can whip out with my wife in her new fur coat. It can be anything from mink to skunk--what ever you want, darling. I layed awake quite awhile last night trying to think of a good Xmas present, and this is the result.*
Enclosed is a hundred bucks.
I love you,
September 27, 1944
It was a beautiful dry tropical evening; the sun was just setting. The breeze from the ocean made khakis feel very comfortable; there were almost no insects to disturb us. The lights in our tent came on, as we heard someone start the 3 K.V.A. generator. Two letters from my wife had put me on 'cloud nine'.
Tokyo Rose was sending us greetings along with some big band music from very scratchy records. Someone was coming into the area; it was too dark to see the face, but in silhouette I could see a B4 bag. "Another replacement crew," I exclaimed.
A familiar voice called up the steps, "Is this Walt and Ed's tent?"
Almost in unison we replied, "Come in, Vic."
"Conrad, I believe you were a part of the squadron before Vic had completed his fifty missions and was transferred back to the States," Ed (Egan) commented. "Vic Tatleman, this is Ed Reel, first pilot and
*As of 1991 she still has the beautiful muskrat coat; it's still in style????, but she won't wear it, give it away or have it remodeled.
Carl Zark also a first pilot." They greeted each other and shook hands.
"Could it be that you are A.W.O.L. from the States, Vic, and just happened to show up on Biak in the 499th?" Walt questioned.
"Don't worry fellows I'm on an official courier trip to the Vth Bomber Command. While I was in Nadzab, I thought I might as well run up and see if the Squadron was functioning smoothly," Vic explained.
"Gentlemen, before you get done listening to Vic's yarns, you'll probably guess that he's an operator deluxe. He was a first pilot on one of the 499th original crews; he also flew a famous plane by the name of Dirty Dora," I commented. "He is also one hell-of-a good pilot to have survived."
"You know it's so damned good to be back, I think I'll write a letter or two and just stay for the rest of the war.*
"Vic you should have been examined by a psychiatrist while you were in the States," I needled.
"He'll probably put in for leave in Sydney tomorrow," Ed (Egan) stated.
I countered, "Tomorrow evening at 1900, Vic I want you to tell Ed (Reel) and Carl about the 18 October, 1943 raid on Rabaul, I know you are tired tonight. Postpone your Sydney request for a couple of days."
An hour passed quickly as we heard some Stateside stories and discussed early problems in the 499th.
"O.K., Max, will see you tomorrow night; also have something from States to show you," Vic commented as he left.
"I guess the strongest thing we will have to drink tomorrow night will be hot chocolate," Walt complained. "We need something for the reunion."
*I believe Vic was the only man in our Squadron to be transferred back to the States and get reassigned to the 499th for a second tour of duly in WWII.
September 28, 1944
As Vic climbed the steps to our tent a little before 1900, he reached inside his shirt and pulled out a fifth of U.S. Johnny Walker. "I thought the account of this mission would sound better with a little refreshment."
I glanced at Carl, I thought he was going to drool as he rolled his tongue and distorted his face.
"I'll be right back," I commented as I headed for the mess hall and hoped I could beg, borrow or steal some fruit juice. When I returned with some pineapple juice, Vic was primed and ready to describe the mission.
345TH MISSION TO RABAUL 18 OCTOBER, 1943
by Vic Tatelman
First some background: Rabaul, south of Truk, was the main base of the Japanese Forces in the Southwest Pacific area. All the enemy forces on New Guinea were supplied from there; the Jap fighter and bomber strength was also concentrated in this area. Simpson harbor, a major naval base at Rabaul, was the permanent port for two cruisers, two destroyers and several corvettes.
From the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943, Rabaul had been hit more or less regularly by B-17s of the 19th Bomb. Group and B-26s of the 22nd Bomb. Group, especially during the allied operations against Guadalcanal and the Southern Solomons, but the missions never contained more than a dozen airplanes and the damage was never extensive. Aerial reconnaissance invariably reported over one hundred combat ready Japanese aircraft in the Rabaul area.
The primary mission of the Vth Air Force in the New Guinea campaign was to destroy the Japanese Air Force in the SW Pacific Area, especially the bomber force at Rabaul, which would hinder the allied advance along the north coast of New Guinea. By the late summer of 1943, Rabaul was within range of the B-25s of the Vth Air
Force, as Dobodura on the north coast of New Guinea had been secured and staging airfields had been built. The mission of 18 October, 1943 was designed to destroy the enemy air forces at Rabaul.
The Strike Plan: With fighter cover, two B-24 groups would attack in early morning, simulating an attack on Rabaul Township, to draw the Jap fighters up to intercept. Then the B-24s would turn and make their bomb runs on all but two airstrips in the area, destroying any aircraft, particularly bombers, in revetments adjacent to the strips, pockmarking the runways, and forcing the returning Jap fighters to land on the two undamaged strips, Rapopo and Tobera. Two groups of B-25s, the 345th and the 38th, would then attack these two airstrips, hopefully catching the refuelling enemy fighters on the ground along with the bombers that were based there. According to intelligence reports on 16 October, total aircraft strength in the area, was eighty nine fighters, sixty five medium bombers, and twenty one light bombers.
On 17th October the 345th Bomb Group of thirty six planes left Port Moresby, the 499th from fourteen mile strip. Arriving in Dobodura in the middle of a red alert, the planes held off about an hour, finally landing at Strip fifteen about 1100.
The Group was led by Deputy Group Commander, Lt. Col. Clinton U. True, in the lead squadron, the 498th; followed by 501st in number two position in the group formation, the 499th in number three position and the 500th in number four.
The 499th was comprised of:
Flight 1-Capt. Orin N. Loverin (Squadron Leader) Lt. Ken D. McClure Lt. Richard Baker
Flight 2-Lt. George L. Cooper Lt. William N. Parke Lt. William W. Cabell
Flight 3-Capt. Julian B. Baird Lt. Victor W. Tatleman Lt. Phillip Gath
Mission to Rabaul; Rabaul was the Jap fortress of the Pacific. Everyone knew that for a brief time, they would be flying into the jaws of hell.
When we staged to Dobo for the mission, we slept on strange uncomfortable cots without air mattresses. The hot muggy New Guinea night of 17 October, 1943, was especially bad even for the tropics. It was after 0300 and sleep was elusive. I had just fallen asleep when the operations clerk nudged me through my mosquito
netting. The thought of Rabaul brought on a cold sweat as we dressed in silence. Baird and I walked down to the mess tent; stomach too tight--no food, just coffee--then on the briefing.
Imagine you are in briefing and on the mission with me
When the briefing map is uncovered, the fear becomes gnawing, tangible, living--Rabaul. First just a minimum briefing--formation position, flight leaders, navy blinker letter, call signs, report by the intelligence officer. Joe Stephens, Australian Liaison Officer, announces, "When you go down, aahh, I mean if you go down, make your way to this location," and he points to a map location on New Britain. Then, take off sequence and time 'hack' to synchronize all watches.
Now final and detailed briefing. The lines and positions on the chart get translated into names and times, points and sequences. I glanced at my co-pilot, Willie Graham; he's taking notes and looking grim. I wink and get a weak smile in return. I think back to our training together, and the formation of the crew. He's a good copilot, invariably ready at the precise moment for his part of the joint effort.
Captain Loverin leads the 499th take-off at 1000 and assembles the squadron over the strip; Julian Baird, C.O. leads our flight. I am on his right wing; Gath on his left. Baird is a damn good flight leader; his instructions and guidance precise. Gath and I are both comfortable and confident in his precision flying.
The Group assembles at Oro Bay and heads for the target at 2000 feet. Two squadrons of the 38th Bomb Group join us over the Buna wreck along with three squadrons of P-38 fighters. The assembled formation now heads for Kabanga Bay, the initial point of attack.
Shortly after leaving Dobo, the concentration of clouds begin to increase, and after forty five minutes the front ahead appears to be solid up to 12,000 feet. Col. True, Group leader, looks for a hole, sees none, and heads into the turbulent pea soup. The tension of one pilot flying blind is considerable, but to have fifty planes on instruments in the same area--. Baird turns on his blue formation lights--it helps a little. Gath and I snuggle close; can't lose him in fog; practically in his cockpit. Willie helps on the wheel; he and I are beginning to think alike.
There is a break in the clouds; we can see the formation is going to move down and go through on the deck. The fighter cover is gone. Col. True maintains his heading; he has decided to continue the mission unescorted. We move down to one hundred feet; it appears no one was lost in the soup.
The closer we get to the target, the more the fear builds, everybody feels it, but it's not mentioned. Talk is clipped, reduced to monosyllables; more so since fighter cover is gone. The weather front must have turned them back; I wonder if True knows they're gone.
Flying to the target, one is busy holding formation, loading and testing guns, reviewing the attack plan, recognizing ground features, navigating, and all the time the fear builds. When the target area is sighted, the fear drops away and is replaced by calm concentration. I know exactly what I'm doing, and what I'm assigned to do. The crew is sharp and alert, their familiar tasks and duties are second nature. I have no concern about their coming performance; our crew is a team, we rely and believe in our own abilities and in each other.
As we cross the coast, the 38th Group leaves us for their targets. Col. True leads our Group to a point about ten miles south of Rapopo airstrip, where we started our right turn into our bomb run. Since the 498th and 501st precede the 499th over the target, in order to let them clear the area, Capt. Loverin leads the 499th in a 360° circle just south of the target, then over the airstrip from south to north. Anti-aircraft batteries cover both ends of the strip as well as two on each side. Ack ack is heavy, but inaccurate. The eight fifties in the nose comb the batteries directly in front of them; since we are nine abreast, the pilot and turret gunner have to watch wingmen when they fire. The co-pilot is busy toggling out one hundred pound bombs on airplanes and ack ack batteries.
As we approach the target, there is no sound except the drone of two engines and occasional directions on the command radio. Then the eight fifties begin firing, the plane shudders violently, shell casings drifting past the pilot windows. Engines at maximum power, bombs exploding, the confusion of flying through smoke and black ack ack puffs; aiming at targets on ground, keeping one eye on Baird--can't let him get in line of fire--it all blends, almost like slow motion. Willie has one hand lightly on the wheel, feet on the rudders--if I am hit, he must fly immediately--so close to the ground, so fast, the split second to grab the wheel would be fatal if he is not already on it.
We cover the west side of Rapopo airstrip, in smoke from bombed and strafed planes by the 498th and 501st squadrons. Smoke obscures the targets, but also limits the effectiveness of Jap ack ack batteries, giving us some protection. The inaccuracy of the Jap gunners may be due to the surprise raid or lack of practice. Only one other low-level attack had been launched against Rabaul.
Leaving the airstrip and crossing the beach, we notice several ships in the bay; especially one that looks like a ferry boat directly in our line of flight. All three airplanes in our flight strafe the boat, observing direct hits, and people diving and falling into the water. We broke right and the three airplanes of our flight joined rapidly, but it is sometime before our flight joins Loverin and the rest of the Squadron. No 499th planes were lost over the target, but the fun is about to begin.
When the first B-25s of the 498th, 500th and 501st Squadrons come off the targets, they are met with swarms of Zekes, Jap carrier fighters.* Luckily for the 499th, the first Squadrons that came off the target attracted the most fighters. It was always a dilemma for the pilots, do I expend all the ammunition in the eight fifties in the nose over the target, or do I conserve some for a head on pass by a fighter. Off Cape Gazelle the 499th is jumped by fifteen Zekes. A total of twenty one passes is made; most broke off before coming into range. Ten passes came within range and three Zekes are shot down by our gunners in Flights one and two. All nine planes of the 499th returned to Dobodura safely without loss of personnel.
General Kenney's dilemma
The 345th Group had a tough mission to Wewak on 16th October; two days later Col. True had led 33 planes to attack Rabaul. The B-24s tried to work around the weather, but finally aborted the mission. The fighters turned their formation around and headed for home when they hit the weather front.
At this point radio operators in most planes received a message
*See Warpath Across the Pacific by Lawrence Hickey for an account of the fighting in these Squadrons.
from headquarters canceling the mission. Everyone in the 345th Group watched in surprise as Col. True in Red Wrath had continued toward Rabaul. Col. True claimed his radio operator never received the message to cancel the mission.
Back in Dobodura, Col. Fredrick Smith at 1st Air Task Force Headquarters didn't believe the story and was ready to nail True for disobeying orders to abort the Rabaul raid.
Three days later Col. True was ordered to Brisbane to report to General Kenney, Commander of Vth Air Force. Col. True reported twenty two kills of Jap fighters with five probables by the 345th Bomb Group; this did not include five that flew into the water. Many more were destroyed by strafing and parafrags on the ground. Two planes of the Group had to ditch; two men of the crews were saved.
He reported his story about not receiving the radio message. Kenney didn't believe him any more than most of his pilots had, but a court martial didn't seem appropriate. After consulting General Whitehead, General Kenney decided the Distinguished Service Cross, nation's second highest award for valor, was more in line.
Col. True read headlines in Brisbane papers, 'MacArthur using daring new tactics, sends B-25s over Rabaul unescorted.' True reasoned, "If they are going to try me now, I'll say it was Mac's idea."
September 29, 1944
As Ed, Walt and I dipped our mess gear into the boiling water after supper, Paul Shores (Beach) was directly ahead of us. "Last time you were over you said there were still more interesting yarns about Carl," Walt commented.
"Come over after he goes to the show tonight," I requested.
"O.K. I don't have anything special to do."
It was dusk; the lights had just come on, when Beach climbed the steps to our tent. Ed had his gas stove burning to heat water for hot chocolate.
"Carl would probably kick my ass, if he knew I told some of these stories, but under his halo of humor, he has a real alcohol problem," Beach commented.
"I noticed he 'blotted up' about half the Johnny Walker that Vic brought the other night," Wall added.
"There in lies the story. On one of our earliest training flights at
Columbia, South Carolina, a night practice bombing mission on a Lake Murray target, Carl and I were pilots for our crew bombardier, M.C. Williams, and a couple other bombardiers who were to share a load of twelve 'blue devils'. Williams met me as I approached the flight line and, acting very mysteriously indicated I should help solve a problem; he led me directly to our aircraft. It wasn't until I got into the cockpit that I had any inkling as to what was wrong. Carl was in the 1st pilot's seat dead drunk and sound asleep. Williams told me that he and the other guys were confident that things would go all right, and they wanted to complete the mission without calling attention to Carl. We could not leave him on the ground, for he would be found and be in real trouble. So we fastened his seat belt, I got in the co-pilot's seat and we completed the mission without waking Carl. He was still asleep when we returned; we carried him into the operations building and put him on a table. He was still there the next morning as people were coming in for muster. There was alot of laughing and joking about his condition. The Operation's Officer asked who flew the mission the night before? M.C. and I replied that we had all been in our proper positions and completed the mission as scheduled."
"This could only happen in an Air Corp training program," Ed remarked.
"One of the reasons I can't tell you about many of his drinking antics, I was a teetotaler when I joined the 499th Squadron. He might be 'on the wagon' for two months at a time; he would not visit the Officer's Club or visit anyone with whiskey. But when he decided to drink or psychologically was compelled to drink, he would pour it down. He would disappear and no one would know when he was going to reappear."
"He is very sharp; both his parents are medical doctors. Carl is a very good pilot--more than very good--he is the best. His work as an Officer has been exemplary. He just has a devil on his back, and at times he tries to drown the devil in a bottle."
"What about his eyesight?" Walt queried.
"I know you have heard rumors, but I think his eye problems have been greatly exaggerated. He told me his eyes would not measure up to standards for flying because they were not correctable to 20/20. I doubt any records will show the facts. I feel that he got examiners to put down acceptable figures each time he was tested. He never had
any trouble reading newspapers, manuals, orders etc. His deficiency must have been distance vision."
"He told me about pulling a P.R. man's leg when he wore a pair of thick glasses of the cataract patient," I commented. "When he showed me the glasses, I think I saw the corner of an eye chart. It wouldn't detract from an eye test, if you had memorized all the letters."
"At Reid River, Doc Brown had threatened Carl with permanent grounding if he ever saw him in an airplane again not wearing glasses. As we started our next flight, Carl put on his glasses; as he was taxiing from the hardstand, he was startled by the nearness of a tree on his left; he swerved right, rather violently, and hit a tree with the right wing tip. He was really shaken up; he jerked off the glasses, taxied back to the hardstand and swore he would never put on the damned glasses again. As far as I know he never did; Doc Brown never mentioned them either."
"Once he took a U.S.O. girl up to initiate her into the 'Mile High Club'. Only Carl and the girl were aboard, but he claimed 'George' (autopilot) flew the airplane very well. There were autopilots in the early C and D model B-25s we had at Columbia; none in the later planes."
"Beach, it looks to me that you have material for a book; you had better start keeping notes," I commented.
September 30, 1944
We were low on water from missing a couple days rain, so I took my jeep and a water trailer down to the source of water near the ocean, filled the tank and hauled a load of water back to our area. It started a tropical downpour and by the time I got back my tentmates had the shower tanks all pumped full. With the extra water I decided to wash my dirty khakis.
When Carl saw the boiling water, he asked, "Fergy, could I throw in a pair of pants?"
"Sure if they won't give me the 'crud'."
He came down the steps to the tent with pants in left hand, mimicing a basketball dribble with his right; as he approached the boiling water, he switched the pants to his right hand and imitated a beautiful basketball hook shot; the pants landed in the wash barrel.
I yelled at Carl, "Have you got a squaw to help me do this job?" I went into the tent to write a letter to my wife and kill some time while the clothes boiled. About twenty minutes later I went out to add some wood to the fire and stomp the clothes. When Carl made his hook shot, one leg of the pants had flipped over the back side of the washing barrel and was completely burnt off to the crotch. It was one of those emotional things when you wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. No doubt Carl will wear the one-legged pants and have everyone in the squadron laughing before he throws them away.
October 1, 1944
"With all the flying skills of the 499th crewmen, I wonder if I'm rooming with a Babe Ruth, a Joe Louis, a San Musical, etc.? Tonight, it isn't how ugly or good looking, how rich or poor, how under sexed or over sexed, but your highest athletic accomplishment, as a kid, a teenager or as an adult. Anyone disagree?" I stated.
"We can't talk and play bridge too," Jordan complained.
"O.K. Max, you start it off, but remember we can interrupt at anytime," Walt added.
In 1939 I was a senior at Iowa State Teachers College. After struggling for three years to pay my way, I felt like an aristocrat making sixty four dollars a week as an industrial first aid man. I worked graveyard from 0001 to 0700, sat in classes from 0800 to 1500, then worked out in wrestling from 1500 to 1700. I tried to sleep from 1800 to 2330, but even with a minimum of romance, my sleeping hours were rather limited. Now, if I admit the truth, I slept more than half the time in lectures, so I did get adequate sleep.
Graduating from a small high school, there was no time or money for any sport except basketball. As a freshman at T.C., we had heard many good things about Mac, Ave Mccuskey, the varsity wrestling coach; he was young, very fair, and would help you no matter how poor you were at wrestling. The first time you go to a wrestling work-out, you begin to learn the missing skills. At the time at didn't
seem too important that I was over six feet heavily boned, and at one hundred sixty pounds had barely enough muscles to cover my bones. This meant I was always lacking in power. A good wrestler needs power, good coordination and skill, the wrestling moves. In addition to lack of power, my coordination was average to poor, so my only hope for success was to develop wrestling skill.
Mac was the type of coach who would allow the poorest member of the team to challenge an Olympic champion for a position on the varsity squad. Many times I challenged and 'saw the lights', that is got pinned or at least roughly handled. I won the 155 pound in intramurals a couple years, but was never able to make the varsity squad. It was the last match of the 1939 varsity season with the University of Iowa, and our 175 pound wrestler had impetigo. On Monday before the match Mac said, "Ferg, you and Homer Lund will try out at 175 tomorrow; we're short-handed."
That night before I went to work, I hardly slept, for I was wondering and hoping that my dream of a purple award jacket might yet come true. Lund didn't weigh much more than I did; during the try-out on Tuesday I got behind early and rode him the rest of the match.
When I went to work at 2350 Thursday night, I arranged for a buddy to take my Friday night shift. I doubted I could beat a good varsity wrestler twenty pounds over my weight class, but I had made the squad--I was so high, my feet hardly touched the ground.
We travelled to Iowa City in two cars, weighed in, and had a light lunch. The T.C. squad was not the wrestling power of the National Champions of the late 1940's, but Mac was confident we could beat Iowa. In pre-meet pep talk, Mac went over each opponent. When he came to the one hundred seventy five pound class, he stated, "You can't expect Ferg. to beat someone twenty pounds heavier, so you other guys will have to pick up the slack in team points." Having said that, he paused, "I believe you have the skill to beat him Ferg."
The team score was about even, when Bull pinned his Iowa opponent at one hundred sixty five before I was hardly warmed-up. Mac cautioned as we walked to the mat, "You're under-powered for this big guy, so if you win the coin toss, take down position in the second period, get loose, then let him work off some of his power; I believe you know enough wrestling to beat him."
In the first period I tried to evaluate my opponent; Mac was right--he had plenty of power, but he seemed to have little wrestling
skill, at least not enough to take me down in the first period of three minutes. It was grunting and shoving as we countered for position; I only did enough to keep from getting penalized for stalling. I won the coin toss for the second three minute period, took down position, made an escape, and was standing in twenty seconds. My first glow hit me; 'maybe I have enough skill to win this match, if I follow Mac's advice.' I had one take-down; my strategy was to wear down my opponent. I thought I might beat him by smothering, for we were both pouring out sweat and body odor from the tension.
Beginning the third period, with top advantage, I used a half-nelson and crotch hold as I broke him down for my first attempt at a pin. This was a mistake, for it's a hold requiring power; I could not hold his shoulders on the mat for the required one second. Only three points for predicament. To win the contest by decision with the most points in the match, was not enough; this meant three team points. To earn a purple award jacket--it took a pin of the opponent for five team points. Greed bubbled, here was my one lifetime chance to make my athletic mark. I reasoned, if I put all my weight on his shoulders, maybe they could be held on the mat for a second. Rolling him over, I scissored his left arm with my legs, threw my body across his chest and powered into his right arm. His shoulders may have been on the mat for a full second, but my body so obscured the pinned position, the referee didn't give me the call. He escaped through the side door. My glimpse of the clock showed a little over a minute left.
My last hope was to wait near the end of the match and give it everything I had. With thirty seconds to go I turned him over and put on a cradle; he rolled from side to side as I strained to the limit to hold both shoulders on the mat for a full second. I moved a little to the rear, drove down and forward with all the strength I could muster, as I listened for the slap of the mat which an official uses to signal a pin. The buzzer sounded; only three more predicament points for match score.
I had won 16 to 4 in match points for a decision, but was depressed--I had missed a purple award jacket. I was dead tired; after two more matches I still wasn't ready to shower. An hour later when we were served enormous steaks, I was too tired to eat.
On the way home as we passed the lights of John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa, where I worked, I was beginning to feel a little better. With a 1.000 percentage in varsity competition, even a Dan Gable
couldn't boast of that, and I earned it while working graveyard shift.
About five weeks later Mac called me into his office. As he handed me a purple and gold award jacket, he commented, "You deserve this." I have never owned anything I valued as much as that purple jacket.
October 2, 1944
"Is it bridge tonight or more of these damned yarns?" Conrad questioned.
"Walt says he was a runner who could beat some of the Indians, we've got to hear him," I countered.
"What about this prowess as a runner, Walt," Ed Reel questioned.
"Prowess is not the right word, but after I tell you this yarn, you can supply your own. I grew up in Zuni in western New Mexico near the Zuni Indian Reservation; our home was about a quarter mile from the trading post on the edge of the reservation where my father worked as an accountant. He was also the local postmaster. When I was a boy and played with the Indian kids, there wasn't much to do but run and get into as much trouble as possible."
"Give me a 'for instance'," Ed Egan interrupted.
"Once a year the Zunis would come through town with a drove of burros enroute to a lake twenty miles south of us, where they collected salt on the shoreline. On this evening they camped a short distance from our house. After dark my brother and I decided it would be fun to collect as many burros as possible and drive them into the small fenced area behind our house. About daylight the next morning a bunch of agitated damned Indians were hammering on the door to our house--about ready to break it down. At first Dad didn't know the cause of all the ruckus, but he was soon informed. My brother and I in our upstairs bedroom were afraid Dad was going to get scalped."
"My first observation of competitive running was the 'stick' races by the Zuni Indians, which started in front of our house. There were two teams of five men each; they would compete barefoot and throw a cigar-sized stick with their feet. The spectators would have to ride their ponies at a canter to keep up with the 'stick' athletes, so they really moved. The Indians would bet like crazy--their saddles,
horses, blankets and maybe their wives too, I don't know, on the winner of the twenty five mile race."
"After our Mom died, Dad sent my brother and me to a boarding school, St. Michael's College in Santa Fe. My first year was the equivalent of being a freshman in high school. I decided I would propel my one hundred ten pounds of 'spring Steele' into competitive football. After a couple of practices they damn near killed me; I was too little, too skinny and must have been too damn dumb."
"After the football initiation, I decided I would be a runner; so for a year I ran cross country regardless of rain, snow, or any other kind of weather. Track season arrived and without any counselling I decided I would compete in the half-mile."
"Before my first competitive race I thought they would start off at a 'lope' and then sprint at the end. They started off like they were running the hundred yard dash--I reasoned that if they could do it, so could I. By the end of the first quarter I was panting and gasping about to 'go down', but I kept plugging along. The leaders lengthened their lead until I was last or next to last to cross the finish line. I have never been so damned tired before nor since--I couldn't move my arms or legs, nothing worked--I melted into a heap. I was sure I was going to die; then, I was afraid I wouldn't."
"Needless to say, I never ran any more half-miles in competition and moved to the distance running where I belonged. I continued running daily. St. Michaels was not real big in cross country running, but I competed in several meets and won most of them."
"When I went to college I ran in freshman cross country and earned a freshman letter. The next year I decided I had to have a varsity letter, so I competed and won all my varsity meets. I finally decided that daily workouts were for the birds, even if I did win, it wasn't worth it--so I quit."
"Walt, you ruined a promising story when you quit. Couldn't you get drafted, take up smoking, start chasing Indian maidens or some other worthy cause. For a while I had you in a class with Pavo Nurmi." Carl complained.
"I'm a little disappointed, for when I heard the story originally, I thought you were chased by rattlesnakes a few times," I added.
"I'm waiting for your fabrication, Zarko," Walt stated.
"It's another one of those stories where you're dropped at the end."
"Come on, Carl, there is no time like the present," Ed Reel encouraged.
"I had a date with a young lass from a neighboring high school; she was a real queen, but regardless of what I did, I couldn't make any points with her. One night Paradise was playing her high school in basketball. I thought, this is a chance to really make an impression on this attractive brunette. I was the 'so-called' star or hotshot of our team, so I talked to most of my teammates, when the coach wasn't around, and suggested they 'feed me the ball' so I could impress this gal. We always had a lot of fun during basketball games, so they were glad to cooperate."
"Both teams were playing 'run and gun', so as soon as the opposing team shot the basketball, I took off for our basket. I made several 'snow birds' some from far out, and others on drives to the basket. I was relaxed and about seventy percent of what I put up, went through the hoop."
"In the middle of the third quarter we were twenty points ahead, so I decided this was the time. I was going to get a 'snow bird' and make a left-handed dunk shot."
"I took off early on an opponent's shot, received the pass, dribbled twice, and jumped as high as I could for the left-handed dunk. I didn't get high enough for a good dunk, but in the course of trying, I put my right hand on the rim and stuck my middle finger through a loop of netting. The basket scored, but for an instant I was suspended by that damned middle finger--it wasn't for long, for one
hundred fifty pounds were too much for the old wooden backboard; the basket rim crashed down on my head. There was no way to make a quick repair, so the officials decided we would have to forfeit the game 2-0. Not only that, but I never did get another date with that cute gal. If you don't believe the story, see how my right middle finger is an inch longer--as he held up two equal length middle fingers."
"I can't get my feet high enough to get out of all this B.S.; I'm going to bed," Conrad stated.
October 3, 1944
The cool salty evening breeze off the ocean with no wild life (mosquitoes) combined with 'In the Mood' by Glen Miller from San
Francisco made the tent very pleasant. For a change the generator could be heard running as everyone was either reading or writing a letter.
Marty Wood called into the tent, "Are you home, Max?"
Everyone chorused, "Come in Marty."
"I've got to go out and help the radio mechanics run pre-flights for tomorrow, for when a new Exec. Officer singles you out--you're going to catch hell for something," I commented.
"Sit down, I just came to collect a bet," Marty (Wood) replied. He had come over with the original Squadron as a Norden bomb sight officer. After a few months in New Guinea the planes were changed from medium altitude bombers to low level strafers. What ultra minimum job he had had--then became obsolete. I tented with Marty at Port Moresby; we had gone to the Auzzies and purchased three cases of large cans of peaches. With nothing to do, he disliked getting up for breakfast at 0700, so he would sleep late and about 1000 have a large can of peaches for breakfast. That was fine for one or two weeks, but I remember coming into our tent one morning after several months of canned peaches and seeing Marty staring at an open can of peaches and not eating. His facial expression said, 'I can't eat another damn peach--I'll starve first.'
"O.K., back to the present; I was thinking of you eating peaches at Moresby," I commented. "What could I do for you?"
"Max, this outfit never reminisces, but tell the pilots here about Coop and his flying."
"Capt. George Cooper was a first pilot in the original 499th Squadron; being a Kansan he named his B-25, JAYHAWK. He was only 5'6" or 5'7" in height, but his flying skills, his muscular coordination, and visual acuity were so good, he believed he could stretch the performance of the old B-25 to the very limit."
"At Port Moresby the 499th Squadron was located at the base of a camel-shaped mountain. It had a high peak with a lower area between a shorter peak. Marty and I had built a tent floor and frame on a point about thirty feet higher than the enlisted and administrative area between us and the camel-back."
"One morning I heard the roar of a B-25, looked out, to see Coop and Jayhawk lower than our tent. He swooped down over the mess hall and up toward the notch between the two mountains. Never in my life have I had a few seconds as tense, as I mentally pushed Jayhawk up the mountain to keep it from mushing into the ground. They barely made it through the notch."
"Tell them about leaving for the States," Marty requested.
"At Dobodura the squadron area was located between two rows of tall trees; the mess hall was in the center with the officer's tent area on one side and the enlisted men's on the other. Coop had completed his fifty missions; Marty and I took Coop and his B-4 bag to the strip to be flown over the Owen Stanley mountains to Port Moresby on his way home.
We said our 'Good Byes' and he climbed the hatch into his old Jayhawk for the last time. I noticed he was in the left seat (first pilot). He taxied to the end of the metal runway, called the tower, revved his plane and started down the runway. It was typical Cooper take-off; he held the plane on the runway to the very end, gained all the speed he could, then roared into the air.
Marty and I were thinking the same thing. Would he give us a grand finale?
As the plane climbed, I commented, "It's not like Coop, but I think he will head for Moresby."
As we watched him climb, Marty replied, "I have faith in him; I think he will give us one more."
I retorted, "I'll lay you a pound ($3.25) he heads for home."
"He must have been at least three thousand feet when Marty reached in his pocket and pulled out a pound. I matched Marty's pound as I watched the plane climb higher. Suddenly the plane banked sharply, and I knew I had lost. The roar of the plane slowly changed as it dove faster and faster for the 499th mess hall. Down, down he came as the wings began to release a peculiar whine. I prayed all the rivets and bolts were good ones as the roar of the engines increased. He disappeared below the tree tops, and for an instant I had a sinking feeling--he's not going to make it. The roaring plane quickly appeared above the trees and headed for Port Moresby."
Marty added, "All he was trying to say, Max, was 'I'm one of the best in the business'."
October 4, 1944
Major Reinbold stepped to the door of his C.O. tent and called to the administrative tent next door. "Walt are you busy?" "Always, sir," came the prompt reply.
"Come over a minute; I have a job for you."
Walt pulled a box, doubling as a chair, away from his typewriter and went to the C.O.'s tent.
"I want you to call Group Operations and ask if there is a 499th mission scheduled for tomorrow; if there isn't we'll have our first officer's party here on Biak."
"Sir, is this listed in the T.M. (technical manual) as one of the duties of an adjutant?" Walt replied in jest.
"Yesterday no; tomorrow no; today yes." Dick was an administrator who wanted things to move when he got an idea. "Check the mess hall for a few cans of juice; get the additive from Doc Weiner, and find someone who will tolerate a bunch of drunken pilots for one evening."
"Roger." As Walt left the C.O.'s tent, he thought to himself-the party will only be in our tent as a last resort. As he headed toward the mess hall, Corky (Lt. Corcoran), the mess officer was leaving. "Just the man I want to see," Walt greeted Corky. "We're having an officer's party tonight, and we need eight or ten cans of juice; I hate to be particular, but make it something besides your damn grapefruit. I'd appreciate it, if you'd drop them off in our tent at the back of the officer's area.
"Walt, this is Biak, not Florida, but I'll scrounge what I can," Corky replied.
On entering the Flight Surgeon's office, Walt approached Doc. Weiner and quietly explained his needs so enlisted men didn't hear. Both men knew that the success of the party hinged on some ethyl spirits. "Drop it off at our tent, if you will please, Doc." Within two hours two gallons of ethyl alcohol were delivered to our tent in paper sacs.
As he walked back to the officer's area, Walt saw Bert Summers and tentmates were about to complete a wooden floor and frame for their pyramidal tent. It was standard construction to put fifty-five gallon barrels at each corner and one in the middle; supporting timbers and the board floor were placed on top of them.
"Bert, I have a good idea, how about an officer's party in your new home to christen it tonight?"
He started to say yes, then replied, "Better check with my tent mates." He called them into a huddle; after a few minutes discussion summarized, "Only one dissention so I guess it will be O.K."
"You'll need some lights; check with squadron supply for wire and bulbs. Any electricians in the bunch?" "Only six," came the chorused reply.
A new pilot living in a neighboring tent overheard the party plans and came over. "We need a party, and I'm going to the chaplain to see if I can borrow his portable organ."
Bert and crew had just completed spreading the pyramidal tent over the wooden framework when the daily afternoon shower started. "Not too many snakes or wildlife in the area, but it's sure good to be off the coral even if there isn't any mud," was the first comment.
"How about it; a party on the other side of the world."
It was twilight, only the rattle of mess kits being washed, and occasional laughter or muffled talk broke the tropical quiet. A light breeze from the south covered the area with salt water aroma. Since Mokmer's coral runway was not lighted, few planes landed at night; only a lonesome Jap or P-61 night fighter was heard after dark. I thought I had better get my daily letter written to my wife, for after the party I might not be in condition to write, but in the mood or visa versa. Enhancing my good humor were three of my wife's letters.
I heard the generator start; I turned on the light and radio. Big band music was coming in from San Fran.; it was scratchy and weak, but it further elevated my mood.
Ed came in from the line and late chow. "Max, how about turning off the radio? Got to get in a few licks before tonight's party." He picked up his guitar and tuned a couple of strings.
His first tune was my favorite 'The Sheik of Araby'. "Damn, if my wife was here I believe I could even dance on this rough wooden floor." He continued strumming, and I had my wife's letter completed when Walt arrived.
"Fergy, would you come help me pick up some kettles for tonight's party?" Walt questioned.
We collected the large kettles from the mess hall, and carried juice and ethanol over to Summer's tent. "I told Corky to get us something besides this damned grapefruit juice, but here it is," Walt complained.
"What's wrong with grapefruit juice?"
"I'm not going to answer that. You tell me in the morning." We left the party 'firewater' and went back to our tent until time for the party.
Figure 3a. See Fig. 13 in the photo section.
Carl was back from flying a courier mission to our old Nadzab base.
"How was the trip?" I questioned.
"O.K. I don't like flying right seat, but I guess everyone has to be checked out."
"Got our first Biak party tonight, Carl," Walt stated.
"I can't go; I don't know the etiquette; I might not hold my fifth finger cupped correctly when I'm drinking."
"If you sit with us we'll try to instruct you," Ed replied.
When we heard Ben Wilder singing 'Lydia Pinkham', we headed toward the party tent.
There was no party program, but songs followed a certain sequence. Everyone would sing a song, then Ed would work out a short interlude on the guitar with the organist. We started off on 'Persian Kitten', and as the evening passed and most of the party goers were suffering no pain, the songs got dirtier and dirtier. Near the end would be the 'Big Fucking Wheel'. Mixed among the other songs would be 499th originals, 'We Go up the Valley' and 'Blue
Nose'; the latter was sung to the wartime tune 'Bless Them All'. Occasionally someone would do a solo on a new one.
We Go up the Valley by Harry Palmer
Oh! we go up the valley every morning
We come down the valley every night
Tojo's a sadder and a wiser guy
Since he saw that Blue Nosed flight.
We are rough and tough, you bet
And the Nips ain't got us yet
So we'll go to hell
With a victory yell
And the D.F.C. I'll bet.
And the purple heart I guess.
Victory Yell of the Bats outa Hell
(tune: Bless Them All)
I know there's a Blue Nose that's taking off soon
Bound for the port of Rabaul.
Eight fifties loaded and bomb bays full,
We're out to get them to hell with it all
So they'd better beware of our guns
We'll blast 'til the last Jap is done,
There'll be no more Nippons for Yankees to trip on--
The Bats outa Hell killed them all.
Killed them all-Killed them all
From Wewak right down to Rabaul
Kill all the slant-eyes and set their suns,
Hold down the trigger 'til yellow blood runs,
Cause the 499th's on the ball
We'll strafe 'til we see them all fall.
There'll be no more Zeros or Japanese heroes--
For the Hats outa Hell killed them all.
Sink them all Sink them all
From Wewak right down to Rabaul,
Since our bombs are skipping, there's no Jap shipping,
The Bats outa Hell sunk them all!!!
Mosquito nets had not been put up, so first comers sat around the edge of the tent on the six cots; as more officers came they sat on the floor around the kettles of grapefruit juice. Carl, Walt and I sat on a cot just to the right of the door. I pinched Carl, "I don't see your buddy, Beach."
"Beach stays on the wagon; he's a teetotaler."
After the third song I had sipped briefly on my mess-kit of juice; Carl had already tossed down a full one.
"Slow down Carl, I know you're only twenty, but the night is young," I stated in a fatherly fashion.
"I'll do all right," came the muted reply.
Someone called 'Big Fucking Wheel'.
"It's too early," came the chorused reply.
"We 'Go up the Valley', then."
Ed called to the organist; "Play it in 3b and start off on F."
When the stomping was especially heavy during the song, I thought I heard a board crack, but with all the noise I couldn't be sure. Carl had almost finished his second mess-kit cup of drink.
"Are you O.K., Carl?" I questioned.
"Fine, fine"--and in one motion he grabbed his mouth and
turned to heave over the back of the cot onto the ground. He left his trail on Walt who was sitting on his right.
"I'll be a son-of-a-bitch; I love this grapefruit and alcohol mix," Walt exploded as he tried to do a little clothes cleaning.
"Come on Carl, let's take a walk," I exclaimed. We partly stepped, partly rolled down the four steps of the tent. Instead of heading toward our tent, I pointed him seaward in the hopes I could walk off enough alcohol that he wouldn't get sick in his own bed or our tent. I had only drunk a half cup of the damned grapefruit juice, and I was rubbery legged. It was a pleasant windless tropical evening even though neither of us were in a condition to enjoy it; at least we didn't have to worry about a rock python wandering through the area like we did in Moresby. We could hear the organ cranking away on 'Victory Yell' to the tune of 'Bless Them All'. Everyone liked the original 499th verses and were vigorously stomping their feet. We were about half way back from the ocean, when we heard the
cracking of lumber. The music stopped and was replaced by yells interspersed with 'Save the Organ'.
As we learned later, the fifty five gallon barrel in the middle of the tent accordioned, the floor folded in the middle, and threw twenty eight partly inebriated men, six cots and an organ into a narrow groove.
I sat Carl down on the steps of a tent and hurried back to the party. Some men were coming out each end; some had clung to the high edge of the floor and were dropping to the ground. Amidst the yelling, grunting, farting came the call 'Save the Organ'. One drunk was still singing 'Victory Yell'; someone had a pinched foot and was cussing in pain. After four or five 'Save the Organ', other slogans were heard.
"Remember Pearl Harbor."
"Oregon or Bust."
I think we could blame Rushworth for singing his old high school song 'Swissdale Will Shine Tonight'.
Slowly we dislodged men out each end--hoping no one was seriously hurt; even the organ looked in good condition. The tension was broken when one of the last men was waving his white handkerchief as if he surrendered.
After the last man had his ankle pried loose, the men began to disperse. Summers and his tentmates moved their cots and mosquito nets to an unoccupied tent without a floor.
Just as I got back to our tent, the generator ran out of gas. Carl hadn't made it home, so I went out to see if the Japs had gotten him.
Conrad, Ed (Egan), Walt and I were playing bridge. As usual I was in an impossible three NT bid; luckily my partner, Walt, didn't 'eat me out' when I went down four tricks.
"Let me interrupt your bridge a minute," Carl questioned. "How bad have the 499th operational losses of B-25s been during the sixteen months of the war, Ed?"
"One is too many to lose non-combat. My maintenance men do a hell of a line job; they try to prevent mechanical problems on any 499th plane that is flying. If we lose a non combat B-25, it is usually a guess as to mechanical problems, pilot error, weather, sabotage
etc., especially if you don't hear from the pilot of the plane in trouble. Erum and Sims, two first pilots just checked out for left seat, took a B-25 up one quiet sunny day at Nadzab--never returned. Cabell never got into formation on a mission and crashed into the ocean; it was his fifty first mission," Ed replied.
"Frequently the operations officer would ask a pilot to take a B-25 up at night so the searchlight crews could get a little practice following a plane. Few Jap bombers bothered us, so searchlight crews got little work," I commented.
"On 9 May 1944, Lt. Howard Rhode flew a B-25 on a searchlight mission with a four man crew and two passengers. One of the passengers was Lt. Jack Hoopes, a new Intelligence Officer, who had recently arrived in the 499th to replace Captain William Lawson who had moved to Vth Bomber Command Intelligence."
"The B-25 was flying level at five or six thousand feet when it dipped its nose in a sharp dive. If Air Corp men had been running the searchlights, I believe they would have sensed something wrong and pulled off the intense blue-light after a short dive. The searchlight operators must have thought the pilot was playing games, for they kept the lights on the plane as the wings whined and it hurtled toward the ground."
As I watched the early part of the dive, I remember screaming, "Pull off the lights you stupid bastards--they're going in." The distinctive whining roar of the diving plane increased as it came down--down--down. The searchlight followed it into the ground. This could have been a sabotaged plane."
"As I stood at attention at graveside services the next day while Taps were played, I thought, only an arm or leg or piece of body in each casket, not even a whole body for a wife or parent to mourn. Six young men who had lost their future."
Ed continued, "Here is another bizarre accident in which all men survived. Lt. Claude Burger was taking off for a mission from the metal strip at Seventeen Mile at Moresby. His copilot was the C.O., Capt. Edison Walters, who was not used to flying right seat. About half way down the strip Burger gave Walters the thumbs up signal (wheel's up), but he didn't respond. Burger hit the brakes to stop the rotating wheels before they moved into the nacels of the plane. The B-25, not having gained flying speed, settled down on the slowly rotating wheels; they ended in a pile of junk at the end of the runway.
The only casualty was the loss of a couple of fingers on the navigator, Lt. Louis Higgins."
"As long as you have men and women flying airplanes, you're going to have operational losses. Let's get back to bridge, it's your deal Ed," Conrad added.
October 7, 1944
My darling wife,
I'm going to talk packages for a moment. My cousin, John Purdin, when I last saw him, told me he was asking his Mother to send him packages of needles and thread, etc. that he could sell to the natives of New Guinea and the Philippines. On second thought he may want to trade for something besides money. I guess he got his business acumen from bootlegging during prohibition. For his sales I have a twinge of the same feeling I do for the men who sold beads to the American Indians.
Do not send me soap, shaving cream, tooth paste, candy, chewing gum, photo supplies or clothing. Fred keeps us in photo materials, and I can get the rest of the things at squadron supply. Please send for Xmas, a three cornered small file, hair oil--either Jergens or Vasoline, a small flat roller for rolling out prints, half a dozen clarinet reeds, new wood clarinet mouthpiece and my wife. I would even be willing to wait a few months on her.
I could request a case of Johnny Walker, but the postman would probably confiscate and drink it.
I keep telling Walt to give me part of his $50,000. payroll he draws each month, so I can make a fast trip home. His reply, "I'm going to take it all and catch a fast sub to San Francisco myself."
Capt. Rodgers, C.O. of 46th Engineers, and his adjutant were over for supper tonight. I complained about being over here seventeen months--they have been here thirty.
The Chaplain of the Jolly Rogers, 90th Bomb Group, is Protestant and has our Sunday Services; he is an excellent speaker and makes you do some thinking. The 345th Bomb Group Chaplain is Catholic and has services for both groups too. When we leave in a few weeks, I'll hate to leave the attractive native built chapel.
All my love,
P.S. Don't send any food that isn't sealed in metal. We throw away moldy fruit cakes by the hundreds.
October 9, 1944
"What have we got here, Carl?" Ed (Reel) questioned as he lifted a pair of thick lensed glasses of a cataract patient out of Carl's foot locker.
"Ed, I had so damned much fun with those the first time I used them that I brought them overseas."
"I was new in transition to B-25s at Columbia, South Carolina; a young reporter looking for a story on a pilot and flying was funnelled to me by the operations officer. I guess I had already established myself as a character. At some things I'm not real sharp, but I can spot a reporter or P.R. man a mile away."
We exchanged greetings. "The Operation's officer told me you're a first pilot and very skilled at your trade. Would you show me a B-25 and tell me something about flying it?" the reporter questioned.
"It's only a short distance to the flight line, lets walk." I scanned the area around the closest plane for a chock before I slipped on the glasses. I had been a clown in high school gymnastics and learned to fall flat on my gut without tearing up some muscles. I wish I could have seen his face as I touched the chock and fell flat.
"Oh, my goodness," I exclaimed; "Damned chocks are always getting in my way."
As he picked me up, he noticed the glasses. "I thought pilots never wore glasses."
"That's when they're flying. You know a war is on, and they're taking almost anyone who can jump an old B-25 into the air. Let's take a look at the pilot's compartment."
With glasses on, I felt my way along the fuselage to the rear hatch. I presumed he had never seen a B-25 before. "Here we are," and I climbed the steps into the radio compartment; the reporter followed. It was a B-25C with the flak plate removed and the gunner's turret in the rear. "Let's see where are the control columns?" as I fumbled around the radios. "I want to show you how to fly today."
The reporter broke into a laugh, "I have seen bullshitters before in
this job, but never one of your class, Zark. Why don't we go up front to the pilot's compartment."
October 10, 1944
We are always having to separate fact from fiction (rumors). I suspect that life is so boring for some G.I.s that they spend their spare time starting rumors. The favorite rumors are about rotation to the states.
Since we arrived in Port Moresby, the flying personnel have been returned to the States after flying fifty or more missions. Everyone thought it was great when Capt. Norman Hyder was first to complete his fifty missions and returned to the States.*
The ground personnel first heard we'd be rotated in twelve months, then eighteen, then twenty-four--. When we visited an Engineering Company and most men had been overseas more than thirty months, we guessed we'd be in the S.W. Pacific for the duration.
I had a 45 year old radio mechanic who stated he was merely going overseas for the ride. He must have known the right people, for when we got to Port Moresby, he disappeared, and I didn't see him again.
I do not remember a single man on the ground being rotated to the States before the end of the war, except for medical problems.
In the summer of 1945 when WWII was nearing an end, there was an official point system. Those over 85 points would be sent home first; children were worth five points each. I remember Bradshaw, our armament officer, bragging that he had ten points at home on the living room floor; he had twin girls.
Everyone followed the different military campaigns, for complete victory was our best hope for a trip home. My wife sent me the Des Moines Register, but the military news was almost a month old when it arrived. News summaries came in on our squadron teletype. My 110 volt radio brought in news from San Francisco. An army newspaper such as the Guinea Gold, carried latest news from Europe.
*After a brief period in U.S., he was sent to the China-Burma theater to teach strafing to the pilots.
Patton's drive in France had been slowed as he outran his supply line. Russians were charging into Warsaw, Poland. Everyone hoped Germany would surrender before winter. The U.S. Navy has taken Guam, Tinian and Saipan.
Rotation to the States was like a carrot on a stick, it gave all of us something to hope and pray for daily.
October 11, 1944
As Walt, Ed (Egan) and I went to breakfast, I decided it was time for a poker game as no mission was scheduled for the following day. "Walt, do you mind if we have a poker game in our tent tonight?" I asked.
"No, it won't be any worse than our grand central station the last few nights as they listen to your damn radio." "How about you Ed?"
"I've got to write Doris a letter tonight, so I'll find a light somewhere else," Ed replied.
Our tent had about the only table large enough for seven poker players. During the day I asked former poker players and new men until I had six other players for the game at 1900. I told each to bring a box or a chair, as well as a stack of guilders.
It was dusk of a cool tropical evening, when they began clattering in with their chairs and boxes. Lt. Charlie Haire, a navigator, from 77th St. in the village of New York, was part clown, part nut, part entertainer etc., He had organized a counselor group for the poker party; behind each player was an adviser to make recommendations for proper play. Never before nor since have I had as much fun in a poker game as when one gentleman is telling another how to spend his money. There was a continuous jargon of raise, call, drop, fold, draw your gun etc.
"With this new stage money, what are we going to have for limit?" I questioned. Three men suggested a guilder (53¢); only one wanted pot-limit. I continued, "Guilder limit, three raises on pair or last card--quit at midnight.
Charlie sat down behind me and commented, "Max, I know you're inexperienced at this game so I'll play a couple hands; all you have to do is put the ante and bet in the pot---and rake in the money.
The man on my right dealt a hand of five card stud. When my
down card was dealt, Charlie grabbed it and wouldn't let me see it. My second up card was the king of hearts. I opened, the second player raised, and so did the fourth; it appeared they each had a pair. When my turn came, Charlie commented, "Too bad you can't bet a hundred guilders, but raise one." Everyone called. No one paired on the second up card; I was dealt the three of hearts. Player with an ace bet, fourth player raised, as the bet came to me, Charlie said, "Shove in your pile or at least raise a guilder." Everyone dropped except the second and fourth player.
On the fourth card I received the ten of hearts; the other two did not show a pair. Fourth player with an ace high bet, Charlie said raise and second player dropped. On fifth card I received jack of hearts; fourth player checked; I would have guessed he had a pair of tens.
Charlie said, "Bet the limit."
Fourth player pondered, "You could have a flush, but I'd bet you had kings wired from the gun as they're none showing." He threw in his hand without calling. As I pulled in the pot, Charlie flashed the hole card as he threw it in, in my peripheral vision I could see it was one of the black twos.
Charlie's chatter continued, "Did you learn something with that hand, Max? It may take you a long time, but you've got to show steady improvement to ever be a good poker player."
I shuffled the cards on second deal and had them cut. I called five card stud as I layed the deck on the table. I dealt everyone a down card and one up; my up card was an ace. "Max, that's bad poker, dealing yourself an ace; everyone will think you have one in the hole and will drop out. You can't make a pot that way," Charlie cautioned. I insisted on seeing the whole card; he flashed it. I had an ace in the hole. On the second up card one man paired with eights; he bet, I raised, everyone stayed. On the third up card another man got jacks paired; he bet, I raised; three players dropped. On the fourth card another player got a pair of kings, I dealt myself another ace.
"Bet your two aces, Max," Charlie requested. "Do you suppose anyone has two pairs to beat your bulls?"
I bet the aces, man with pair of jacks raised, pair of kings called and I called. I threw down the three winning aces; I didn't want to break the game before it got started.
"You should have raised, but I think you're making a little
progress, Max; maybe in four or five years--. I've got to go write a letter; you're on your own now," Charlie stated as he left.
"Take that bull shit of yours out and bury it somewhere, Charlie," Zark requested. "Deal the cards."
The six other advisers stayed for most of the poker session.
October 12, 1944
"The flying personnel never need to worry about a move; they load their B-4 in an old B-25 and head for the new home. Since we're going by boat, the communications section has had to build several additional boxes for equipment. Telephones, teletypes, radios, tents--even Camilleri's watch repair tent has to be packaged," I complained.
"In engineering we're supposed to keep the planes flying and send the unessential material on the boat. Hell, it's all essential," Ed (Egan) added.
"Carl, you're not concerned about the move, what are you worrying about?" Walt questioned.
"My girl friend has a saving's account. I'm wondering if she's happy putting alot into the account while I'm overseas, or if she's doing a little spending with a 4F. The problem is--she wants me to hoard like some Cistercian monk."
"I have heard so many married men complain about their wives, that I guess the married women have huge saving's accounts. Maybe the men who never complain, are the lucky ones whose wives do not have accounts. I often wonder if saving's accounts are factors in many divorces--of course some men will complain about anything."
"I wonder about the married man who isn't saving and has a mistress. She can't have a saving's account; she's got to be spending. I suppose she works on some kind of credit card system."
"I'm just like several million G.I.s overseas; I hope that Okie gal of mine is putting alot into her saving's account, and when I get home she'll want to go on a spending spree. When she decides to spend, it's worth waiting a long, long time."
October 15, 1944
We had completed a cycle. There were no good targets for B-25s within five hundred miles; it was time to move toward Tokyo. Staging out of Morotai had increased our coverage of the S. W. Pacific by three hundred miles, but we could only reach the southern tip of Mindanao of the Philippines.
Leave a pleasant tent with a board floor and insulating parachute, cool nights, a fine chapel, good water supply, the deepest damn shithouse in the world, and excellent communications set-up for some unknown damned place. I suppose I should be thankful we're on the offensive; otherwise I might be gray haired before I got home. Always before the flight echelon had either staged or moved to a new area before the ground troops arrived. This time they will stay on Biak until we establish a new base in the Philippines. I tried to get Major Reinbold (C.O.) to let me stay with the flight echelon, but I was given the prestigious job of Police and Prison Officer on the Thomas Nelson. I was on the old Victory ship for three weeks, but never did learn whether it had a brig or not.
In the north Atlantic every ship sweat out a German sub. There was little anxiety about a Jap sub attacking our convoy on its trip to Leyte, for at this time there was complete U.S. domination of air and sea lanes in the S.W. Pacific. A later episode illustrates how one battleship fooled the American Navy Brass.
Before our first move we had learned what was essential for efficient communications operation; the extraneous equipment we had brought overseas was turned in to Group Supply. Just as American G.I.s usually learned a job quickly; they also learned to move efficiently. After two very long days, the communications section had everything piled on the dock ready to go. Equipment needed for preflighting planes was left with a few men on Biak; all other ground personnel as well as some men on flying status were forced to make the trip to Leyte by boat.
Each officer was never rationed in the amount of material he could take, but the process was always the same--send some home, give some away, throw a lot in the junk, place a bulky object like a musical instrument in the section equipment, then take twice as
much as you should. The enlisted men carried a barracks bag with them and one was stored in the 'tween decks'. I never checked the communication boxes; some personal property of my enlisted men moved in them too.
Figure 4. The prisoner.
Figure 5. (left to right) 1/Lt James Mac Williams Jr., 1/Lt Leo Fleniken Jr., T/Sgt Bob Stewart, S/Sgt Jack Menefee, S/Sgt Charles Sweet.
Figure 6. Camilleri's watch shop.
Figure 8. Left to right: Walt Barnes, William Wolfe, Conrad Jordan, Max Ferguson.
Figure 9. Native boys.
Figure 10. Ed Egan and I.
Figure 11. Left to right: 1/Lt. Ed Reel, 1/Lt. Charles Yackiw, 1/Lt. Robert Driscoll, T/Sgt Corydon Johnson, S/Sgt Sherwood Singer, S/Sgt Rosaire Dubois.
Figure 12. Major Dick Reinbold.
Figure 13. left to right: 1/Lt Harry Palmer, 1/Lt Jim Salter, 1/Lt Francis Corcoran.
Figure 14. Counting shoe laces.
Figure 15. Out-rigger canoes.
Figure 16. left to right: 1/Lt Charlie Phillip's and 1/Lt Chuck Price.
Figure 17. In convoy.
Figure 18. mail call.
Figure 19. Catalina Flying Boat (Cat).
Figure 20. Communication's Office.
Figure 21. Tough shit ticket.
Figure 22. Mokmer airstrip.
Figure 23. The author collecting specimens.
Figure 24. Fur Coat.
Figure 25. Left to right: Miller, Defenbaugh, Shane.
Figure 26. Biak Airstrips.
On The Thomas Nelson
October 17, 1944
After a couple twenty hour days, all the equipment and personnel of the 498th and 499th ground echelon were loaded on the old Victory Ship, the Thomas Nelson. The sweat, hard work, and profanity of the past few days were forgotten; enthusiasm surged 'let's get this boat moving to help end the war'.
Our first stop was back to Hollandia on the northern coast of New Guinea to pick up the convoy. We were anchored in the harbor for two days while the convoy formed. A few rain showers interspersed the intense tropical heat; despite the pollution many swimmers cooled in the harbor by diving off the ship. The last mail came aboard Oct. 19th; it included a letter from my wife stating she had a new muskrat fur coat.
As Police and Prison Officer, it was my job to try to keep a small ship with 550 men aboard, in a habitable condition. Air Corp men were not a highly disciplined group, but they did do enough cleaning that dirt didn't run in over their shoe tops. Each group cleaned their own area. I usually drafted 1st Sgt. Maloney or someone else to help me sweep the aisles and inspect the living quarters in preparation for the inspection of the ship's C.O., Capt. Hanna. Three, two by tens were nailed in a U shaped crapper on the starboard after deck; water was used to flush human wastes over the side of the ship. The only screen was the ambulance tied down forward of it.
On my first inspection of number five 'tween decks', there was a
pile of wood four by fours occupying a large area. Several of the 499th enlisted men who lived in the area were good friends, so I called them together. "It's a free country, but if you will recruit some help and spread those four by fours solid over the wood covers to the hold, it will really give you alot more room. You can place your cots or play cards on top of them."
"Good idea, Captain," came the reply.
On checking the next day the wood pile was neatly spread over the lids to the hold. The four by fours were carried for damage control. I believe the double covering of the hold later helped save the ship in a kamikaze attack.
My communications men staked out an area on the port side in front of the fantail. Somewhere they had scrounged a canvass, which they used to keep off the tropical sun, while they played chess, cribbage, wrote letters etc. They kept their cots topside except in very heavy rain. Other groups of enlisted men gathered with their friends in areas of the second and fifth 'tween decks' for temporary living quarters for the ten day trip. The 'tween decks' were pleasant for one or two days; however, with no fresh water showers, the area was soon aroma deluxe; tobacco smoke was some disguise. The Pacific was quiet for the trip; the acid smell of seasick men was not added to the other odors.
There were twelve officers in a small structure on the starboard side, that we called a doghouse. Everyone had twice as much junk as he should; we almost had to inhale and exhale at the same time. The officer's meals were G.I. rations, but they were served on china, so we didn't have to wash mess kits. There were three fresh water showers which the officers could use occasionally. In the intense heat I usually wore shorts and my Auzzie helmet with officer's insignia; this reduced the amount of clothes that needed washing.
The first, third, and fourth 'tween decks' were filled with barracks bags, jeeps, trucks, section and medical equipment. The deep holds below the 'tween decks' contained barrels of eighty octane gas and para-frag bombs.
October 20, to October 29, 1944
The officer's mess had a speaker from the ship's master radio (no television); everyone listened to the news during and after supper. On
the evening of our departure of the convoy on Oct. 20th, the news reported thai Mac Arthur had landed on Leyte island in the Philippines. After many rumors we at last knew where we were going. We were somewhat lulled by the continual good news about the landing and naval bailies. A few days before we arrived in Leyte gulf, a Jap battleship came around the southern tip of the island; a few baby flattops (aircraft carriers) prevented the battleship from sinking all the American ships in the harbor. If there was ever real wartime drama, it was when a sky full of Navy pilots about out of gas, were trying to get down on Tacloban airstrip that had only been occupied two days. The battleship had sunk the flattops.
The officer's mess carried big band music after the news; after dark it provided light to play cards, write letters or hold bull sessions.
Capt John C. Hanna was our ship's C.O.; he was a man in his mid forties, a veteran of WWI. He tried to keep the ship's crew and air corp men happy. I was called into many arbitrations to clear walkways, gun nests, move materials, and clean areas.
Ten days on a troopship in the tropics is the ultimate in boredom. I studied human anatomy, played a little poker, alot of bridge, some cribbage and wrote letters to my wife with nothing to say. Our most exciting times were choosing up sides and counting shoe laces.* See Figure 14 in photo section.
Many devices were used to combat boredom. A buddy one morning gave a five minute lecture on how good the semolina (cream of wheat) tasted for breakfast. Art Pritt and Bob Driscoll took turns pulling tricks on each other. Late one morning I went into the doghouse, and Art was nailing Bob's shoes to the wooden floor with twenty penny spikes.
On the third day out, a group of officers were sitting on the after deck; no one was in the mood to play cards, and someone suggested telling bad jokes. Someone else suggested we would need a rating scale; ten is for a good joke and zero to one for a bad one.
"O.K. gentlemen, I'll start off," I commented. "In the little town of Cedar, Iowa, where I was raised we had many characters, but
*A rather cultured school teacher friend of mine would comment at a dull party, "Let's choose up and smell arm pits."
these two were in the ultra class. Jasper Warner had a new 1917 touring model T Ford. It had a gas lever and a spark lever on the steering wheel; these had to be adjusted properly or the car would flood with gas and not start. One day a cousin, Lincoln Warner, came across the street. Jasper was cranking (no starter) on his Model T, and it wouldn't run. After a discussion, Lincoln stated, 'If you want to get that Ford running, let the air out of the back tires and pump them (by hand) up again.' After sweating on the tires for an hour, Jasper cranked the Ford and it started."
Someone commented, "If you want a bad joke, that is a good start; I'd give that a minus two." Most evaluations were one or two, only one five.
Art Pritt's contribution. "A ninety two year old had married a young gal; she was continually complaining about not getting pregnant. Finally the old guy went to the doctor and asked what he could do to get his wife pregnant. The doctor said, 'Take in a boarder.'
'I can't see how that will help, but just as you say doc'
The doctor didn't hear from him until he met him in the grocery store six months later, 'How are things?'
'Wonderful, wonderful, my wife's pregnant; boarder's pregnant too.'
"I knew sex would get into these jokes, but I'll give that a seven or eight. Who's next?"
Palmer G. Laughridge, Group Communications Officer, continued, "When the Model A Ford replaced the Model T, there were a host of jokes. A city guy and friend were standing watching a farmer out in a field with a manure spreader distributing barn yard ashes. The city fellow asked, 'What kind of machine is that?'
'That's a Model A Ford.'
The city fellow replied, 'I knew it would shake the shit out of you, but I didn't know it would spread it.' "
Several laughed heartily. "I always like to hear that joke, for the Chevrolet owners give it a ten, while the Ford owners think it is a minus five," I commented.
Dick Madsen cut in, "A roofer stepped off a roof and broke his leg.
The doctor asked, 'What happened?'
The roofer replied, 'Eighteen years ago I was working for a farmer. One night the good looking sixteen year old farmer's daughter came into my bedroom and asked, 'Is there anything I can do for
you?' This afternoon when I stepped off the roof, I just realized what she wanted.' "
"That's an old Reader's Digest joke, but I think one of the best," Art Pritt added. Your turn Walt.
"Ed (Egan) and I were walking down a Sydney street, when we saw this buxomy woman with a red handkerchief knotted between her two boobs. Her hair was uncombed and her lined dark face was as hard as nails.
"I'll bet you five pounds; she's selling it," Ed stated.
"She may not be selling it, but I would guess she's renting it a lot."
Most agreed this was in the six to ten area.
"When Zark gets up to Leyte, be sure to ask him to do this routine of his. Here is a poor replay. First he sets you up with some of his B.S.
'American men have the longest cars, the biggest biceps, the longest legs, the biggest bank accounts, the longest mustaches, the biggest asses, and the longest shirt tails in the world.' At the same time he mentioned longest shirt tails, he flipped open his pants zipper, and a coiled spring popped a long piece of white cloth through the zipper opening. At first you were startled, but his timing made it funny as hell. I've got to go pull an inspection."
When ever an uninitiated person makes a trip across the equator, he is called a canvas-back. Those who have previously crossed the equator and been initiated are called shell-backs. The latter feel that all canvas-backs are fair game for an afternoon of entertainment when they cross the zero line.
For the first event the initial of the home state was cut to the scalp through the hair; a little molasses was added to make the remaining hair lay down. Greases, dye, and stinking cheese were rubbed on the naked upper torso. After an hour of entertainment, one of the 499th G.I.s being initiated, grabbed a firehose and watered down everyone within thirty feet. This concluded the program.
For the uninitiated ship's crewmen the suffering covered many hours of the tropical day.
October 29, 1944
We arrived in Dulag harbor off the island of Leyte; within four hours we had an air raid alert. The floor area of the doghouse was
about ten feet by three feet. To see ten men in that small area looking for their helmets, when they didn't remember where they had placed them, was one of the funniest episodes of the war. Someone got to laughing and farted so we had to withstand a gas attack in our turmoil. Father Koslowski, the Group Chaplain, was in the group, so everyone felt they had to temper their speech.
When we all got out on deck, the yellow bastard was hitting Tacloban airstrip at low level; two fires indicated he had hit two planes; he continued along the beach in intense ack ack, finally turned inland and headed for home.
After the air raid a boat brought out 498th and 499th mail. Sixteen letters from the States, ten from my wife, put me on 'cloud nine'. At last we were given our new A.P.O. 321.
Major Darwin, Group Exec, and Captain Marty Wood, 499th Exec, went ashore on the mail boat to look for areas of operation for the ground personnel.
With field glasses we could see the Filipino homes of poor people with nepa shingle roofs (shrub palm); these were similar to other tropical homes. I originally belittled them, but later found after living in one that the multilayered palm leaves cooled the interior better than any other roof.
November 4, 1944
Still on the Thomas Nelson. After many alerts and several air raids we finally saw a Jap plane shot down.
Between air raids the harbor swarmed with Filipino in outrigger canoes. They knew the Americans had money, and they came out to relieve the G.I.s of some of it. The teenagers spoke fluent English, and were the world's best hagglers. Usually an older person waited in the canoe while the younger people did the swapping. The Captain of the ship let down a ramp so they could climb up to the deck. They brought invasion money, prewar Philippine pesos, grass sandals, but most coveted of all fresh fruit and coconuts.
The young gals had neat dresses, but the men's clothes were tattered. Two young women wanted to swap for clothes; we told them first they would have to sing for us. We had a mini floor show, before they left loaded with khakis, blankets, soap, etc. See Figure 15 in the photo section.
Somehow with all the swarm of Filipino outrigger canoes, I had a gut feeling there might be an unfriendly in the crowd passing info to the Japs.
November 6, 1944
One of the Filipino traders stated it was the monsoon season. The ground ashore was a swamp; thus, the 498th and 499th ground echelons were still on the boat. Rain and a baby typhoon had moved into the harbor; the wind increased during the day 'til it peaked at eighty five mph. I hope the communications men had found a dry place below deck. I looked out the doghouse door and an air mattress blew by horizontally. I got drenched walking a few feet to the door of the officer's mess. At least we got a reprieve from air raids.
November 9, 1944
A 499th B-25 brought up mail from Biak and a letter from Charlie Phillips.
I don't know why I'm making all this 499th history, but here is:
STAGING OUT OF MOROTAI
by Charlie Phillips
Morotai was a typical example of MacArthur strategy. Move the infantry in and capture an island; bulldoze out a coral airstrip, then bring in the fighters and bombers to sink the Jap shipping so the Jap army was helpless because of lack of supplies. There were thousands of Jap Infantry on the Halmaheras, but they had no boats to get across the forty mile strait to cause any trouble on Morotai. See Figure 16 in photo section.
Only minimum service personnel of crew chiefs, some armorers and two communications men were left on Biak to service planes. On November 6th orders came from Group to load 500 pound bombs for a staging mission out of Morotai to the southern Philippines. About an hour later orders came to unload the bombs.
I had spent a pleasant month in Sydney, Australia, as a result of the P-61 accident, and had just arrived back in the Squadron. I was assigned as co-pilot for Captain Floyd Fox, Operations Officer. After the bomb snafu we finally got the six B-25s air-borne at 1620; the other three squadrons had left several hours earlier. After we had covered about two-thirds of the 550 miles to Morotai, we could see the dark blue mass of a tropical storm as dusk approached.
Floyd called the other pilots on his command set, "Turn on your blue formation lights so we can see each other in the storm ahead. Flight two move away; wingmen tuck in close. Hope the storm is a small one."
"Roger and Wilco," were the replies as the lights came on in all the planes.
"Corky, (navigator) stay on the intercom with the radio operator and give him as good a position report as you can at ten minute intervals. This may be a very long night," Floyd ordered over the intercom. Being Squadron Leader we had a navigator in our plane--before the night was over each plane would need one. Each plane was carrying one or more ground personnel to service the B-25s for the mission from Morotai, thus several crews did not have navigators.
At about 1830 we hit the turbulence of the storm; it was the worst I was ever in, in a B-25. With the violent movement of the planes in zero visibility, wingmen moved over to prevent colliding; soon everyone was on their own.
Floyd Fox was a considerate human being with more empathy for his fellow man than most people. We were flying in turbulent pea soup; he not only felt responsible for the seven people in his own plane, but as commander, for the thirty five men in the other five aircraft as well. He hoped all the planes would find solid ground somewhere that wasn't Jap occupied, but also prayed they wouldn't collide in the zero visibility before they found it. Lightning flashed very close to the plane.
At short intervals I called on the command set, "Morotai control tower this is Fox's B-25. Come in please." No answer.
Navigator, Lt. Corcoran, took us past the E.T.A. for Morotai and
we did a 180 (degrees). We flew on that heading for twenty minutes and did another 180.
T/Sgt Clark, radio operator, called on the intercom, "Captain Fox?"
"There is no squadron ground station on Biak, for they are headed toward the Philippines. I contacted one other 499th plane, but that is the only response I can get--there is nothing out there," he complained.
"O.K. Thanks for the report," Floyd replied.
"Morotai control tower this is Fox's B-25. Do you read me?"
After an hour in the pea soup I looked at Floyd and thought I saw about as much bottled tension as I'd ever seen. I called over the roar of the engines, "Floyd, I'm a first pilot, let me take over so you can relax for a few minutes. Get yourself a drink of water."
He looked at me with appreciation and stated, "Take over Charlie." I glanced over a few minutes later and his head was down.
"Morotai control tower this is Fox's B-25. Give us a call."
Not only did we need to dodge the other planes, but there were several thousand foot peaks on the tip of the Halmaheras only forty miles from Morotai. This kept us from going down on the deck under the storm. The lightning and turbulence had decreased considerably.
The engineer behind us screamed, "Lights, lights, lights."
Floyd saw the lights through a small opening in the clouds, grabbed the controls and gave me an 'I'll take over' look. I called over the intercom, "Be sure that damned I.F.F. (identification friend and foe) radio is on; we don't want any hot lead thrown in our direction." I pressed the command set switch, "Morotai control tower, would you turn on landing lights and give us some instruction; this is Fox's B-25. Over." No answer.
When we got under the clouds, lights covered a large area. We circled and flew down the middle of the lights looking for the airstrip. "Morotai control tower, do you read me?" No answer.
As we circled for the second run, Floyd exclaimed, "I may be blind, but I can't see anything that looks like an airstrip."
I pressed the intercom switch, "Anyone see anything that looks like a landing strip?"
There was a chorus of "no's" from the crew.
"Morotai Control tower. Do von read me? Over." No answer.
On the second circle more lights went off rather than come on. Everyone was straining to see where to land. "On the third circle I'll move out along the shore; maybe we can see better in silhouette," Floyd commented.
"Morotai control tower, this is Fox's B-25; give us landing instructions, please," I called in desperate plea.
I heard a switch close, "Come on in Fox's B-25; the red alert is over. We will turn on landing lights. However, you are not close to the airstrip. If you see lights, it is probably the Jap infantry camp in the Halmaheras. Over," came the call from the control tower operator.
"Thank you very very much operator," I replied.
"Head about 330 degrees for Morotai," called Corcoran.
In a few minutes we saw the primitive landing lights of the runway. We made a short circle to get on final (approach) and set down on the end of the soft coral. After we had braked to a stop, we sat and looked at each other, "Charlie, while you were at the controls, I said a little prayer, only to look down a few minutes later and see the lights."
"We have had more than our share of luck tonight, for if we had bellied in along the shore of that infantry camp, there would have been a barbeque tonight, and we'd been the meat."
With beautiful tropical sunshine the next day, the mission was cancelled, and we returned to Mokmer airstrip on Biak.
We were met at the operations tent on the line by Major Reinbold, "How was it Floyd?"
"It was the worst flying that I have ever had. We were trying to get down on Morotai airstrip in pea soup; they were under red alert and wouldn't answer us or give us any help."
"Yes, I've heard. Draper got down with you on Morotai. Nunes made it back to Nooemfor island, which is only a few miles from here. Opie and Mosser flew all the way down the New Guinea coast to Wadke island before they got down. Ed Reel is missing," Major Reinbold paused, "This was a bad night for the 499th; this is the worst weather problem we've ever had. Floyd and Charlie, if you're over here ten years, you're not going to be flying again in weather like yesterday--from now on, your missions are all going to be down hill."
I scratched my chin and exclaimed, "You know. Major, I've flown
three missions in the squadron, and I've heard the same assurance after each one--I'm beginning to wonder???"
November 11, 1944
With our other problems few remembered it was Armistice day of WWI. We had been on the Thomas Nelson for almost a month; everyone was getting restless. Each day when I saw my communications men, the reply to almost any question was, "Get us off this damned boat."
I countered by saying, "We don't want to lose some of you by getting into mud over your head." We had a big blast of mail when we arrived, but very little since.
The harbor was full of anchored ships. Cans (destroyers) moved through them on patrol duty.
Air raids harassed us many evenings with good weather. They were mostly strikes on Tacloban airstrip which had planes lined up wingtip to wingtip without any revetments. Despite no planes attacked the ships, many were uneasy because missions of U.S. planes had not destroyed the Jap planes on Luzon.
November 12, 1944
It was Sunday; we hadn't had a church service the month on board ship. It wasn't conducive to worship next to an open crapper.
Conditions are usually worse for enlisted men than officers. They had had a month of crapping in an open trough, eating mediocre food, living in crowded conditions with nothing to do except read, write letters, and play cards. Even a docile rat in a crowded group for prolonged periods, will bite you when you try to pick it up. Crowded men respond just like rats; they don't bite, but they wish to hell they could. Men who specialize in never working don't mind sitting on their ass, but men who are used to working seven days a week are soon frustrated by boredom.
The old Victory ship had been in the Pacific for nine months without much general maintenance. As Police and Prison Officer I tried to keep it habitable for the 550 men in the 498th and 499th. Each day I recruited someone to help sweep the aisles and inspect the
living quarters. After about a month on board, any exercise was enjoyable. One of my many many mistakes of overseas duty, was not organizing a calisthenics group for the boat trip. Living quarters and equipment covered the entire deck, but we could have worked out in the aisles and any other available space.
My communications men had brought a tarp with them and erected it over an area on the port side in front of the fantail. K.C. Johnson and Wilson Scott, two of my heavyweights, were playing chess at the back of the tarp next to the hold. A hearts game was also in progress; the rest of the men were either talking or writing letters. On this Sunday we had completed our cleaning duties by 1100, and I ended at the communications section to see if my men were all healthy or if anyone needed something. K.C. Johnson had had a severe tooth ache for three weeks, but the rest of the men seemed cheerful and in a good humor.
I greeted Johnson, "How's the tooth K.C?"
"With all this codeine, I'm having a hard time beating Scottie."
"From the looks of most of you, evidently you're getting plenty to eat. Is everyone O.K.?" I questioned.
I heard the repeated chorus, 'Get us off this damned ship', also 'I'm O.K.,' and 'We can't help Mac win the war here,' were the replies.
Lt. Richard T. Lee, a replacement pilot, had been forced to make the boat trip because he hadn't been assigned to a crew and plane. He was nearby leaning on the port railing. "Lee, how about some cribbage?" I called to him.
"Good idea, if you won't pull your rank on me."
"I'll pick up the board and meet you in the officer's mess."
As we started to play, Lee commented, "This is great; no one else around; maybe we can have a little peace and quiet. Guess they're all out on deck soaking up the sunshine."
"At home I always thought of Sundays and church as a quiet time. It's Sunday, but I can't remember how long it's been since I went to a church service in a real church. Your deal, Lee."
We were in the middle of our first game, when we heard a small explosion that was no louder than a large firecracker. We continued to play. After we finished the hand, curiosity got the better of me, "Lee, I'm going to see what happened; will be right back."
As I started down the galleyway to the stern of the ship, an enlisted man ran by with blood streaming down his left hand. I stepped
through the galleyway door into hell. Islands of fire everywhere--stifling sweet smell of burning flesh--men fallen in all directions----deck awash in red--all covered by a fine mist from punctured water pipes.
I wanted to scream, but instead a calm settled over me---I thought if you want a chance of being alive tonight, you'd better work like hell for the next few hours to keep these fires out of the gasoline and para-frag bombs in the hold of the ship. I didn't know one of the fires was only fifteen feet from five inch shells in the fantail.
There were only two men alive on the rear of the ship. A man on the port side was sitting upright in the middle of several dead--his left arm and shoulder blade had been completely blown off, but there was no bleeding. The next time I looked, he had fallen forward. A wooden stairway had been built for men to get in and out of the fifth 'tween decks' where they bunked. The top four steps had been blown away; standing on the fifth step with only the upper part of his body showing was one of my flying radio operators, T/Sgt Corie Johnson.* He was suffering from shock with eyes asking, 'How do I get out of here?' Off and on for 40 years afterwards I have awakened at night and wondered, 'Did I help Johnson get out of the 'tween decks'?'
I ran for the hose used to flush the latrine, but it would only shoot water a few feet due to bullet holes. I moved three bodies to free the hose attached between the fourth and fifth holds. With good water pressure I soon extinguished a small fire burning in the fifth 'tween decks'. I did not go down to check for others--there was too much burning topside. A front tire on the ambulance parked on the starboard side flared; in trying to get the hose far enough to extinguish it, I pulled the rotten hose in two. I was without water.
As I ran toward the front of the ship I noticed a large hose above the portside alleyway. I quickly yanked it off its hanger, then saw the fittings were for loading fuel oil. I dropped it and ran to the station between the first and second holds. It was a good hose which I quickly unscrewed, luckily not needing a wrench. I carried it aft and attached it where I had broken the rotten hose. Again I had water; I glanced at my watch, 1230; where the hell was everyone else??
* Johnson had helped save his crew when they ditched in a B 25.
Evidently the wing of the kamikaze had caught the fifty ton boom over the third hold and rolled it over the port side of the ship; the plane must have cart-wheeled and hit the port side near the communications area. There was a wheel strut lying where I had been standing at 1100. The canvas was burning fiercely; I quickly extinguished it. Scottie and K.C. were slumped over their chess board. When the strafing started, the young and agile had dashed for the protection of the steel fantail supporting the five inch gun; the less mobile had fallen where they were hit.
A can (destroyer) had moved along the starboard side and hand signalled, they would throw me a line. They shot me a rope, and I began to drag aboard a high pressure hose. I remember the euphoria of the moment, for I thought with a high pressure hose we could quickly extinguish the rest of the fires. I barely got the tip of the hose over the railing of the ship, when two tires on the ambulance nearby blazed several feet high. The skipper of the can must have thought we were going up--the destroyer backed off, pulling their damned hose with them. I cursed the skipper; I would kick his ass to this day if I ever met him.
An enlisted man* brought aft a hose and attached it to a water pipe on the port side; small shrapnel holes high in the water line had caused a mist over the area. He gingerly began stepping over his dead buddies to help put out fires--at last some help.
Over the crackling fires and confusion I heard the booming voice of the fat seventy year old Captain of the ship, "If you sons-of-bitches had done your job, we wouldn't be in this mess."
My first reaction was to up-end the bastard into the 'tween decks'; I was rung out emotionally, but I exhibited a little control and replied, "Where has that fine fuckin' undisciplined crew of yours been during the last hour and half?"
Two of my ground station operators, Larry Collins and William DeSantis had come from the living on the front of the ship and returned to the graveyard. William yelled, "What can we do Capt. Ferguson?"
"See if you can find another hose."
*I never did learn his name.
Larry was weaving from an injury from the attack. "Larry go forward and get some first aid for that wound," I suggested.
My tentmate, Walt Barnes, came out of the galleyway door, "How're you doing Max?"
"We may make it now, but I'd still get on a life jacket," I cautioned. He was carrying a white sheet he had scrounged for dressing some of the over one hundred wounded; all medical supplies were burning in the ambulance.
Luckily, we were on the port side when the ambulance gas tank blew. It didn't spread the fire as much as I had expected. A man of the ship's crew walked up and asked, almost apologetically, "What can I do?"
"Get something to pry open the back doors of the ambulance; a hammer or crowbar will do." I replied.
We had the fires in the 'tween decks' and port side extinguished. As we turned to the starboard side I stumbled over a part of the engine of the kamikaze and fell flat; "The son-of-a-bitch is going to get me yet!" I threw it overboard.
We finally quenched the burning tires on the ambulance. The crewman arrived with a crowbar, we pried open the rear doors of the ambulance, and with three hoses we soon extinguished the internal fires.
After two and half hours the fires were all out. The crewman stared at me for a moment, "Captain, I believe you need a cup of coffee."
"That's the best offer I have heard today." As we headed toward the ship's galley, I called to Corporal John Patrick Crane*, one of my telephone operators; he was a forty five year old Irishman out of Chicago. "Corporal, this ship's crewman has offered me a cup of coffee. Would you join us?"
"lt has been a bad day--I need one."
As we sat down, I asked for a couple of cups of coffee. I believe one of the ship's cooks would have given us anything he had. We sat quietly thinking how lucky we were to be alive.
*The initial explosion caused an enlisted man to fall from the 'tween decks' Into the hold. Corporal Crane received the bronze star for helping the man get up to the 'tween decks' and saving his life.
"Out of seventy or eighty dead on the rear of the ship, you and I lost eight communications buddies today," I stated.
"It has been a perpetual question, since man first developed, 'Why them and not us?' "
"The engine hit where I had been standing twenty minutes before."
"Captain, do you remember asking the men in the fifth 'tween decks' to spread out the pile of 4x4s over the lids to the hold?" John questioned.
The character that hit us today was loaded with phosphorus or some kind of burning material. There were several fires burning on those 4x4s today."
"You're suggesting that layer of wood kept the fires out of the eighty octane gasoline in the hold. John, you and I were very close to joining those dead on the stern of the ship."
I sat in silence enjoying my coffee. "Sometimes the strand of survival is rather tenuous--especially in wartime. My father has a large scar under his chin on his neck where a barb wire ripped into his skin, when he was skating as a young man. If that barb wire had caught the carotid artery or vein, neither he nor I would be alive today. If the men hadn't moved those 4x4s several weeks ago, the old Thomas Nelson would have gone up today. The loss of the skilled ground personnel of the 498th and 499th Squadrons could possibly made the war last a little longer."
Several weeks later I was put in for a bronze star along with several others, but when the awards were made, my name was missing. I was bitter. Despite directing the fire fight for two and half hours to save a Victory ship and its troop, there was no recognition.
In September, 1979 I attended our Squadron reunion in Colorado Springs where I met Corie Johnson, my former radio operator. As I was introduced to his friends, his first statement was, "This is the man that helped me out of the 'fifth tween decks' and saved my life."
There is no greater reward.
When Crane and I returned to the deck, an LCI (landing craft infantry) had loaded over one hundred wounded off the forward part of the ship and was heading for shore. Another LCI was along side loading men and barracks bags as fast as possible; no one was
worried about the swampy ground ashore, they wanted to get off the damned ship. A red alert sounded. Loading stopped and the men on the LCI hunkered down to try to be invisible.
I did not feel immortal, but I decided that if the five inch gun crews on the bow and over the fantail, besides the twenty millimeter crews on starboard and port sides, could stand out in the open and throw lead at a kamikaze, I was going to watch. I picked up my helmet and found some steel I could stand behind in case of strafing.
A kamikaze came over the town of Tacloban which was several miles northwest of us, and flew through a hail of lead, between the Thomas Nelson and shore, as he looked for a boat to crash. My heart lurched into my throat; were our men going to get it again? I watched as the forward five-inch gun crew worked feverishly. I thought, is that dumb gun crew going to shoot at a kamikaze, a fourth mile away in a left hand swing with their primitive sight. The gun boomed; a wing fell off the plane and it crashed into the harbor.
Another kamikaze came through a curtain of ack ack and dove into the deck of a Liberty ship about a thousand yards to our rear. Some burning material flowed over the side of the ship; after dark the stream of burning material looked like a Walt Disney movie. I was amazed the next morning the ship was still floating.
The men continued to load on the LCI despite the red alert. When loaded, it headed across a mile of open water toward Dulag beach. Its only protection were two nests of fifty caliber machine guns. When the LCI was about half way to the beach, another kamikaze dropped over Tacloban and headed straight for them. Small ack ack fire bracketed the light Jap plane as it covered several miles of Dulag harbor. I remember squeezing a small pipe of the ship with both hands, as I watched in disbelief as the kamikaze came on and on toward the LCI. I could see tracers of the fifties from the LCI, light ack ack from shore and nearby ships blazing at the oncoming Jap. When very close to the LCI, it nosed over and exploded in the water, a lucky bullet must have gotten the pilot. I looked at the pipe in my hands; in my tension I had bent it.
An hour later just before dusk another kamikaze flew into the area and headed toward the Morrison Waite, a sister Victory ship, carrying the other squadrons of the 345th ground echelon, the 500th and 501st. My good friend, Capt. Robert L. Shetron, 501st Communication's Officer, was standing at the top of a wooden stairway to a
'tween deck' on the Waite, when a strafing shell caught him. The suicide plane crashed into the stairway. Twenty two were killed and forty wounded.
Someone needed to stay on the Thomas Nelson and help clean up the horrible mess; two other enlisted men and I stayed on the ship. That night as I went to bed in the doghouse, I wondered who of my friends were still alive. I had seen my tentmate, Walt Barnes; I knew he was O.K.
I thought, most days of the boat trip I had ended my on deck inspection at 1130; this was the time when the kamikaze hit. For the first time in my life I thanked God for being alive.
November 13, 1944
Fighting fires of the kamikaze were bad, but cleaning the after deck was worse. Air Corp men did not wear their dog tags around their neck as per Army Air Force regulations; they either kept them in their barracks bag or threw them away. If the dead did not have a billfold or letter on them, identification was very difficult. When a twenty eight year old helps make a rick of his deceased friends like a stack of firewood, it leaves an indelible imprint on his psyche. It was a long afternoon.
A red alert sounded just at dusk. A kamikaze flew through a curtain of lead at about five hundred feet and dove into a Liberty ship several miles to the south. I wished the 345th flight echelon was located on Tacloban, so we could take care of the suicide planes on the ground. We later learned they were coming from an area intelligence hadn't suspected. They were flying off Dewey Blvd. in Manila; the planes were camouflaged among the houses.
November 14, 1944
This is a continuation of the episode Staging out of Morotai. When the flight of six 499th B-25s hit the weather front about dusk on their trip to Morotai's airstrip on November 6th, Ed Reel was 1st pilot of one of the planes under Captain Floyd Fox.
Ed had flown several combat missions as well as ditched in a quiet Pacific; this was reported earlier in the book. His co-pilot, Lt.
George Harding had never flown a combat mission. There was no navigator in the crew. I feel, if after making a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get down on Morotai airstrip, Ed Reel might have survived, if he had had a dominant veteran navigator who had firmly stated, "Do a 180 degrees, Ed, and let's head for Biak where it isn't storming." This is what three other crews did.
A boat brought out mail which a courier B-25 had brought up from our former base at Biak. The following letter was delivered to me.
Dear Captain Ferguson,
M/Sgt Robert Bauer, your communications section chief, suggested I send you some material on our ditching, since Lt. Ed Reel was a tentmate of yours. Even though I haven't felt like it, I have written down a log of our seven days, for my grandchildren.
DITCHING OF ED REEL'S PLANE
by M/Sgt Henry Jepson
We could not raise the Morotai control tower on the pilot command radio. T/Sgt Butts had been unable to contact anyone on the long range radio with the trail wire antenna down. After two or three passes to try to locate the Morotai airstrip we were hopelessly lost. We were afraid to get down on the deck because of the several thousand foot peaks on the tip of the Halmaheras. About 2015 Reel decided we would ditch after burning up most of the gas. No one was too concerned, for he had ditched previously and all the crew had survived. However, the previous ditching had been on a quiet ocean in the daylight.
Three men were behind the bomb bay in the radio compartment, S/Sgt Douglas C. Osborne, T/Sgt William A. Butts and Corporal Robert J. Schoonmaker. S/Sgt Alan F. Joyner and I were in the engineer's compartment behind the pilots.
We circled in heavy rain, lightning, and rough turbulence 'til about
midnight when Reel ordered everything thrown into the ocean that could be snapped loose, except the life rafts. The fifty caliber guns from the turret and waist guns were jettisoned. All radios, except the transceiver Butts was using, plus other spare materials were tossed out.
When the notice we would soon be ditching came over the intercom, Butts reeled in his trail wire antenna, and took his place beside Osborn and Schoonmaker. They were seated with their backs to the bomb bay with a parachute behind their heads. Butts had kept sending MAYDAY in the clear for over five hours, but he had received no response.
I glanced at my watch; it was a little after 0100. I leaned over to Al, "Get your shoes off, I hope we get a chance to walk on this fuselage." He was facing backwards behind the co-pilot in the sitting position. The landing lights were turned on as Reel lowered the plane in the pitch black night. When I saw the forty foot waves, I thought, this won't be a ditching, but a burying. I sat down behind the pilot with my back against the partition. I didn't feel the plane had slowed sufficiently to be even close to stalling speed, when I could feel it skim a couple waves--then a violent deafening crash as the powered plane plunged into the ocean. I was stunned, but quickly recovered. The drone of the engines and the shock of the crash were replaced by the lapping of high waves and eerie screech of metal rubbing on metal.
Before we ditched I said to myself several times 'Release the life raft'; after recovery I grabbed for the life raft handle only to get a splinter of metal in my hand. I was more cautious and released the raft. The turret gunner's bubble had been snapped off the plane by the impact. The rain had stopped; I could see the dim outline of overflow rain clouds in the dark sky. I stuck my head up through the bubble area; the night was very dark, but the outline of the plane could be seen very clearly from the florescent algae riveted to the fuselage and wings on impact with the water. Both engines were gone; the wings of the plane had broken, and they released a cadaverous sound as they flapped in the waves. I jumped and pulled myself out of the engineer's compartment up onto the fuselage. The life raft was inflated and tethered on a rope. I was confused; the front area of the plane was clearly outlined in florescence, but I could not see the tail section. A shredded khaki figure surfaced--I grabbed and rolled Schoonmaker into the life raft.
"Are you all right Schoon?" I questioned. There was no answer.
Al had recovered and was trying to pull co-pilot Harding from a side window back into the pilot's compartment. "Need some help, Hank; Harding has had enough sea water," he yelled.
I started to move back inside the plane when another shredded khaki outline surfaced. "Hold it a minute," I yelled to Al. I luckily grabbed Osborne as he swept past and rolled him into the life raft; it appeared in the dark his legs were flopping.
Al stuck his head through the bubble area, "Would you move down on the fuselage over the pilot's compartment and see if you can push Harding's head back inside?" The co-pilot's window was not large enough for an exit; Harding in his dazed state had one arm and his head outside--violently retching from the sea water he had swallowed. The projecting arm was loosened by Al, and with a good shove, Harding fell back into the water of the half-filled pilot's compartment.
"Stay up there, Hank, and I'll move him in your direction." Harding was little help, but we drug him up through the area of the bubble and into the life raft.
"Al, it's time to get out of here before this old baby sinks." After we untethered the life raft, we took opposite ends; the wind quickly moved us away from the sinking plane. An engineless shell with wings flapping in eerie dissonance, outlined in florescence, all the tail section missing behind the bomb bay--a sad ending to a plane that had flown so many good miles.
I had mixed emotions; we were leaving two buddies behind, but I thanked the Good Lord for being alive and for the four other men with me. Doug was in the worst condition; his right leg had been mangled. At first he moaned with every wave, but as the sea quieted, it was a moan and 'Oh damn' every time he tried to move or someone jostled him. Al helped get his head up when he got sea sick. We were five closely crowded non-sailors in a rubber raft. Maybe it was Schoon's dazed state, but he was the only one who didn't retch from the bucking waves.
After an hour or so the clouds began to show occasional glimpses of the southern cross; the ocean was moving in large swells rather than the former sharp waves.
"Arc you awake, Al?" I questioned.
"Do you want me to try to get a little sleep or are you in the mood?"
"Hank, if you can get enough room to be comfortable, go ahead. I'll be on guard."
I crowded Schoon a little so I could sit down and rest my head on my knees. Doug groaned. It wasn't long--.
The early rays of the sun gave a comfortable warmth after a hectic cold wet night. I was in a middle conscious state, when I heard, "We have an air pump, cans of water, flare gun, chocolate, fish line, first aid kit, sea marker, rubber sheet, paddles etc.
"Who's going to be quarter master?"
"Better, who's going to be No. 1 Boy?"*
"Either Al or Hank; they were the least hammered last night," Schoon suggested.
"I defer to Hank," Al replied.
I had to rationalize that maybe Lt. Harding, who was the only commissioned officer in the group, and who had complained of headaches all night, was in poor condition to give orders or make decisions.
"Has anyone had first aid training?" I queried. There was no positive reply. "Al, you and the Lt. look each other over. Schoon, I'll work on you. When we get through we'll pool our guesses about Doug."
Schoon's right ear was partly severed, there was a slit in an eye brow, and his face was a network of scratches and dried blood. Through his shredded khakis I could see bruises and dried blood around his mid section. I hesitated a moment, "From the way you look, it seems you weren't worth saving last night," I teased. The slight smile helped the painful process of cleaning that followed. After some salt water cleaning and some sulfa on the torn ear, he looked and felt much better.
I pulled out my handkerchief; "This is to clean the bottom of the boat; give it back when you're through." I had broken my ring finger in the crash, but luckily removed the ring early in the night; it was swollen twice normal size.
*This was the top native administrator in a New Guinea village appointed by the Auzzies. They wore distinctive hats denoting their position.
We decided we could only make Doug as comfortable as possible where he lay in the bottom of the raft. We took turns keeping the sun off his face. Each time we would try to move him he would grimace in pain.
"What's the best guess as to where we are?" Schoon questioned. "After all the turns Reel made last night, we could be in Alaska for all I know."
"With this damnable headache I don't know whether I can help or not. I looked at operations map yesterday. It was around 350 miles from Biak to Morotai; Morotai is the only land area to be friendly in this area; all other may be Jap occupied," Harding replied.
"I watched the headings after we couldn't find the airstrip; we moved north and maybe a little east. We're above the equator," Al added. "If I remember my geography, there is a small island between Morotai and the Philippines, but if it's Jap held, we don't want to go there."
"An airplane will probably be friendly; a boat or sub could be Jap. We're better off than if we had crash landed on the Halmaheras, for it is supposed to be loaded with Japs," I reminded them.
"We need to keep someone on guard duty to use the mirror on a plane if the sun is shining, and we think the plane is friendly; we had better save the flare for a Cat. A buddy told me that on Reel's first ditching they dropped the flare gun in the ocean. Take care of our equipment," Al pleaded.
"O.K. I'll take the first two or three hours of guard duty. Who will keep time?" Schoon asked jokingly.
Everyone unconsciously looked at their wrist watches. I wound mine, and it started running. I must have kept it out of the water when I was reaching for Ed Reel or else it was really waterproof. Before an hour had passed my watch had also stopped.
With the calm ocean and nausea subsiding, everyone except Doug was feeling better. Both his legs were swollen to twice normal size; oh! how I wished for a shot of morphine to give him some relief.
In the early afternoon I broke the silence, "Fellows, we may be out here a long time, so we've got to ration our water and chocolate bars. I suggest a half square of chocolate and a can of water." Hearing no dissent, I cut three small squares of candy in half.
As I passed out the chocolate, Al made a feeble attempt at humor, "Just imagine this is a prime T-bone steak." With the boo's that followed, food was seldom mentioned again.
I opened a small can of water; my urge was to down the half-pint of water at one gulp, instead I passed it to Al and said, "Save me some at the end; wet your lips and one small sip." When the can of water was returned with more than my full share, I was almost hit with euphoria, for I knew that this group of five men were stable enough emotionally that we could last for several days under very rugged conditions.
About the middle of the afternoon Harding stated, "I'm no weather man, but I've been watching the movement of that rain cloud over there," and he pointed with his finger. "I believe it is going to come over and soak us. Al, you and Schoon hold the rubber sheet, Hank you run the can we opened this afternoon, and I'll hold up Doug's head so he can drink while the can is being passed." The rain cloud slowly moved over us; for several minutes it was a typical tropical downpour. I collected water in the can as fast as I could and everyone got three or four swallows.
We got alot of water into Doug; from whom came the feeble reply, "Thanks, Lt."
A small ship passed far to the east; we used the mirror, but all Al got was exercise. If they had been looking our way, we were probably below the horizon.
Since we hadn't seen any sharks, all except Doug took turns sitting on the donut with their feet in the water and kicking vigorously to increase the blood flow. Stomach pangs during the first day of starvation are always the worst; the small chocolate bar furnished no relief. However, the drinking water buoyed our spirits and helped us get through the second night.
Guard duty the second night had worked reasonably well for the four of us. I had taken a turn soon after dark and was on watch again when the sun rose. From some snores I knew some had gotten a little sleep. The ocean was calm; its surface was broken occasionally by a flying fish, which would glide perhaps a hundred feet, then slip back into the water. A school of small fish flipped the top of the water sporadically around our raft. I thought as I watched them, I'm glad they're not snakes--it seems someone told me that all sea snakes are poisonous. We're lucky too, that the fish are one foot rather than ten or twelve foot sharks. It was a beautiful morning with a brilliant sun, cool clean air with only a few high cumulus clouds in the sky. The tropical sun caused parched lips, burnt skin and ulcerated sores,
yet we had to hope for sunshine in case of a passing plane, so we could use our mirror and flares.
I broke a long silence, "Anyone know how to send S.O.S. with a mirror?"
The Lt. cut in, "I don't think the type of signal makes a lot of difference, but S is three dots or short flashes and O is three long flashes." Al handed him the mirror for a demonstration.
Toward evening I wondered if we could last two or three weeks. (I didn't know that you needed at least a half pint of water a day to wash out your urine; this means a week without water is a long time.) Today we opened the second of our five tiny cans of water; although our shrunken stomachs didn't remind us so much of hunger, thirst was ever present. Only a lip-wetter from the shower today.
On the third day, November 9th, the sun rose to remind us of another water-glaring, blistering day. As I watched the flaccid unresponsive men, I wondered, if this is the end. I had never been a rabidly religious individual, but I wondered if the Old Creator up there was for or against us? Our situation was not impossible, but it was desperate. Would parents who lost a son feel any worse than a wife who lost a husband? I had always hated the notification, 'Missing in Action', for it gave some hope when there was usually very little. I dismissed the morbid thinking. If we could avoid a whale or shark attack or a bad storm, we should be able to tolerate lack of water until someone finds us.
"Listen," Schoon almost yelled.
"It's not a B-25 so be ready to hit the deck, in case it's a Jap," Al cautioned.
We all wanted to hear a rescue Cat, but we knew a friendly plane would soon get us one. "Lt. you work the mirror, Al fire the flare when they're in best position to see it, and I'll throw out some dye marker," I urged. We all waited hopefully as the C-47, several miles to the east of us at three or four thousand feet, slowly droned on. When they were still approaching, Al put a flare out in front of them. When the plane racked over to turn in our direction, a yell went up from five parched throats.
The pilot made three passes over us and on the third, they pushed out a life raft and a can of water. We quickly rowed over to the new raft and can, but the water can had broken and was partially filled with sea water; it could not be used to hydrate our shrunken bodies.
I'm not sure who said it first, "I.el's live it up; we'll be picked up
tonight or tomorrow." In the euphoria we passed out a half pint of water apiece and divided all the remaining candy from the two rafts.
Schoon cautioned, "You'd better not eat this rich chocolate too damn fast or you'll be sick." For the next hour the water and chocolates with the expectation of the arrival of a Cat either late in the day or tomorrow, made the two rafts an almost boisterous place despite the cracked lips and empty stomachs.
Late in the afternoon we heard a multiengined plane far to the east, but out of signaling range. For a few minutes it gave us false hope, but by dusk the day's euphoria had been tempered by the realism that we were on a large ocean and someone could have made a mistake.
On the morning of the 10th, Al was awake at daylight watching for the Cat; 'Today is going to be the day,' he said to himself in almost a whisper. All morning we scanned the glaring sky and listened intently for a sound of hope.
Even though we had more room with the Lt. and Doug in one raft and the rest in the other, the continual jerking of one raft by the other bobbing raft, was very annoying. Around noon Harding called to us, "I think that son-of-a-bitch of a pilot flew on and forgot about us." His statement summarized what we had all been subconsciously fearing.
The C-47 raft had pencilled on its side, HELP ON WAY; LAND 120 MILES SOUTH. "I think we'd better forget about their help and head for land," I commented.
Schoon objected, "I think we'd better head east to the plane and shipping lanes, because all the land around here is Jap-held, except Morotai. Remember they invaded Leyte over three weeks ago."
After the emotional tumble of not being rescued, the good will of each man had dissipated. The effects of ulcerated sores, parched throats, irritating beards, and sunburned blisters were surfacing.
"If we don't stay in this fucking spot, so they can find us, we'll all be goners," Harding countered.*
*On November 10, 1944, the commanding officer of the 499th Bomb. Squadron appointed Summary Courts Officers for the men of Ed Keel's crew, who were presumed dead.
"I don't know what we should do, but I'm tired of this damn jerking raft," Al added.
"If one of us is rescued, then we can look for the other raft," I commented trying to act as peacemaker. Late in the afternoon I called to the other raft, "We have decided we're going to shove off and head south. Good luck." I'm glad I couldn't hear what Harding replied. We untied the tether, hoisted our tiny sail and rapidly moved away. We had a half pint of water and no food. We soon got tired holding the sail, so we cut holes in the corner of the sheet and rigged it on two paddles; this was much easier to hold. We were moving rather crisply at four or five knots.
That night we were commenting on feeling a little guilty about leaving the other raft and two men in poor physical shape, when we heard a peculiar noise. "I don't know what it is, but it has some kind of motors; lets fire a flare and get help," Al suggested.
"That may be a Jap sub., and I sure as hell don't want to be a P.O.W.; I'll take my chances on the ocean," I countered.
"Do you want me to walk over and see what it is?" Schoon teased.
"I'm thirsty and hungry as hell; I'm going to fire the flare," Al rebutted. The flare lit up a large area; no ship was in sight and the diesel engines stopped immediately. After the area was dark again, Al temporized, "Well, you win a few and you lose a few."
On the morning of November 11th a rain squall passed over us so we collected two or three swallows apiece. Around noon Al pointed, "Look at that damned dorsal fin." The size of the fin indicated a ten or twelve foot shark. It headed straight for the raft, scraping the bottom with its dorsal fin as it passed underneath.
Schoon punched at it with a paddle, "We love your company Herkimer, but don't get too damned friendly; I'm not in the mood to be shark food."
"I don't know any sharkology, but don't hurt him, we're in sort of a minority as far as size is concerned," Al cautioned.
Herkimer followed us the rest of the day; he discouraged us from hanging our feet over the edge of the tube and kicking vigorously which furnished us our only exercise.
Our stomachs were so shrunken hunger didn't seem to bother, but thirst plagued all our waking moments. On the morning of the 12th, Al called to Hank, "Hand me that fishing line and some of those shiny candy wrappers, I'm going fishing. As the book says, maybe we could use some fish juice."
"Please don't hook that damned Herkimer, he might be more than we could handle," I commented.
Al fished most of the morning; he would jig the hook and foil up and down; then after a rest move to another area. "Do you know which are poisonous and which aren't, Al?" Schoon queried.
"No, but if I don't catch any it won't make any difference." A school of fish swam by, one grabbed the hook, and Al lifted over a foot-long fish into the raft. "Now what?" he questioned.
"Let an old fisherman have it," I requested. I took our knife, stripped off the skin and scales, cut three small fillets and handed one of them to each of the other men. In case we wanted another piece, I gutted the fish and cleaned up the mess. I was chewing on my third piece of fish when I thought I heard the rumble of twin motors.
We watched and listened intently; it was a Cat far to the east. We knew it was too far away, but we waved our sheet, splashed the water, and yelled as best we could with our parched throats. It held its course and was soon out of sight. In about an hour a Cat was seen far to the west and we repeated our activities.
"Do you suppose they have found the other raft and might be looking for us?" Al queried.
It was a long night, I'm not sure whether I dozed or not. We were not thinking about the cold and spray from the waves, but wondering and hoping tomorrow would be our lucky day.
The waves were a little higher than usual, but the morning dawned crisp and clear. After a week our beards were beginning to match the aromas from the rest of our bodies, yet our minds were not on a hot shower, but a Catalina Flying Boat. Early in the morning we saw a Cat circling far to the south. We threw out our last dye marker; we were out of flares, but we made as much movement as possible moving the sheet. We saw them turn and head straight for us. It was a Navy Cat with a big black cat on its nose representing its call letters VPB 54; it landed and taxied over to us. I wondered if it were really true--we were going back to civilization. We headed to the 17th Station Hospital on Owi Island.
The men in the other raft were rescued the day before on November 12th. Lt. William T. Smith and crew were lost on November 13, 1944, on the search mission looking for the second life raft.
After reading the letter, I stood up and began to walk around the after deck. Another loss of a good friend, Lt. Ed Reel. War is like
bridge--a game of mistakes. The ditching of Ed's plane had caused the loss of nine American G.I.s.
I decided I would make a brief check of equipment and hitchhike a boat ride to Dulag beach. I crawled down the broken stairway to the fifth 'tween decks'; personal gear of the deceased men was strewn between the burned 4x4s. I paused and examined a bulging musette bag; it contained only double edged Gillette razor blades. There were enough blades for a man to shave during his entire stay in hell. I wondered if the owner of the blades survived the kamikaze attack, had he planned on selling them, taking them home???
This reminded me of a very very unpleasant job. I had to write letters of condolence to the wives and parents of the eight men I had lost in the communications section.
When I checked the fourth 'tween decks' where the extra barracks bags of the enlisted men and section equipment were stored--I was horrified. Many medical chests had been smashed; evidently looking for ethyl alcohol. It appeared razor blades had been used to slit the bottoms of the barracks bags; clothing, toilet articles, and personal belongings were strewn everywhere. I didn't know whether stevedores, the ship's crew, or enlisted men were responsible. I doubted it was any use to tell the Captain or Ship's Officers; they hadn't even helped fight the kamikaze fires to survive.
November 16, 1944
It has probably been true since the first soldiers or sailors were carried to foreign lands. Their most frequent thoughts were--when am I going to get home?? Our C.O., Major Reinbold, received a leave in the States; when he got back, he was worthless. All he could talk about was his baby daughter and getting back to the States to stay.
In a few days I'll have nineteen months overseas. It appears the war in Europe will not be over until Spring for possible replacement of S.W. Pacific men of the ground echelon. Flying officers and enlisted men are required to fly fifty missions before they are rotated back to the States. For the ground men all they got were rumors; it was a second class status.
When I get back to Iowa, there is no way I'll do another overseas
tour of duty. Regardless of how juicy the rumors are for leave in the States, I'm going to have to stay for the duration.
Just started a letter to my wife and there was an interruption by an air raid; there is one interruption much worse than of a letter.
With no wife around I've been having trouble starching my shorts. Have had a persistent case of jock itch; the gentian violet treatment has my shorts, undershirts, and khakis a sickly purple color. I shouldn't complain, for it's not nearly as bad as the crabs I got off a toilet seat where they were giving 'pros' at Camp Grant, Arkansas. It was a question of learning from a rather bitter experience.
November 18, 1944
They have coined a word over here--ocapie. We say that headquarters is ocapie--organized confusion and planned inefficiency. I imagine they are saying it about Captain Marty Wood, 499th Exec. Officer, for the LCI dumped the healthy ground echelon men ashore after the kamikaze attack with no tents or mess hall available.
I have stayed on the Thomas Nelson to help with the movement of equipment ashore.
In the drama and turmoil of war there were pleasant times that sparkled like diamonds, especially when you were at low ebb. Ensign Ben Berg was skipper of the LCT, No. 1065, that was unloading the Thomas Nelson. While the black stevedores were loading the LCT, we had time to get acquainted. His Dad was Superintendent of Schools at Newton, Iowa. Ben was a pre-law student at the University of Iowa; he hoped to go back there after the war.
I complained about no letters from my wife in the last three weeks. He suggested that I ride in on the last load of the evening, check the mail, stay with him over night, and come back in the morning.
We lifted anchor at 1610 and headed for Dulag beach. I went up on the bridge so we could talk as the diesel engines pushed us shoreward. Ben was twenty-two; one of his statements, "I'm getting too damned old to fight this war; they should send over some younger man to replace me."
He had been on many SW Pacific landings. Following my episode with Ben, he was making a landing south of Leyte Gulf with 1065 loaded with ammunition. Either friendly fire or the Japanese dropped a shell into the LCT and seventeen of the thirty four crew
were killed. Ben was injured and taken to an Army Hospital administered by the movie star, Lew Ayres. When he was partially recovered he was given the job of giving shots and helping around the hospital due to shortage of medical personnel. With this first taste of medicine, it later eased the way to medical school and an M.D. degree with a specialty in radiology.
On shore I found six letters from my wife and a package of photo equipment. I located Walt Barnes in all the confusion and requested he save me a spot when they set up his pyramidal tent.
When an LCT approached shore it dropped anchor in water deep enough to float the craft. It then unreeled a cable to the anchor as the engines pushed the LCT onto the beach far enough they could unload equipment without getting too wet. G.I.'s used 6x6 trucks to unload quickly. When I completed mail call, they were almost unloaded and ready to return to the Thomas Nelson. The ramp was raised; then the engines wound the cable to the anchor and pulled us off the beach.
We were only part way to the Thomas Nelson when it began to rain torrents. Ben told his men to drop the mud hook (anchor) and we would stay for the night.
I told Ben I was hoping to get into a medical class at the University of Iowa. After a delicious dinner and a hundred questions about the University, we went down to his sleeping quarters as he had an extra bunk. Ben stated, "I don't care what rank you are, I'm the skipper of this Craft, and I order you to sleep in my bunk." It was a terrible shock to sleep between clean sheets.
Next morning when I returned to the Thomas Nelson, I was really refreshed after Ben's hospitality.
On Leyte In Philippines
November 25, 1944
At last I'm on good old 'terra firma' again; forty one days on a damned boat is too long. A hospital tent had been set-up on Dulag beach above the high tide mark for 499th Officers. I was given a cot among the other seventeen.
It was before the medical profession had learned to use vitamin B3, niacin, for depression. If I had known then, I would have been pouring down niacin. The kamikaze, the clean-up, Ed Reel's loss, and the ransacked material in the 'tween decks', had left me at low ebb. The night with Ben really helped, but I needed about ninety days in Sydney, Australia, or at least the two clowns I had for tent-mates, Walt and Ed, in our own tent on Leyte.
A surge of letters from my wife helped. Men in communications began clamoring: where shall we put the office, we need a ground station in operation, where are the telephone switch board and teletype to be located? We had a new problem; we had to appease friendly Filipino civilians when we placed our tents. Getting back to communications work was a great catharsis.
When we arrived, rumors of all kinds were being circulated; unfortunately several were true. Only five days before we arrived, a Jap battleship had steamed around the southern tip of Leyte; several baby flattops were the only protection for the entire invasion fleet. Some of the flattops were sunk, and the air borne pilots had to try to get down on Tacloban airstrip before they ran out of gas. The
airstrip had only been open two days. Luckily, the battleship was damaged enough so that it retreated; or it would have been disaster in Leyte bay.
On November 9th the Japs unloaded six transports on the west side of Leyte to reinforce ground troops. Only four B-25s were on Leyte, but they were quickly drafted to attack six troopships and six destroyers. Lt. Fredrick Dicks, Operations Officer for the 500th, plane was lost in the attack. T/Sgt Roland Horton, one of my flying radio operators, had volunteered to fly on Dick's crew. Our future Commanding Officer for the 499th, Capt. Wendell Decker, survived the mission.
November 26, 1944
It had been a busy day finding places to put tents for the different work areas of communications. Despite the loss of eight men in the section, everyone was upbeat and ready to get on with the war. The men of the flight echelon were still on Biak, but should be flying in soon.
It was difficult to fashion a fox hole when the water level was two feet below the surface of the ground or digging in the soft sand on the beach; even though you were encouraged to do so from the many rumors about the enemy. One rumor was that a Jap plane had bellied in on the beach a few miles from our area and landed Jap infantry.
I wrote a letter to my wife and prepared for bed, as there were no lights in the hospital tent. Even though it was the beginning of Philippine winter, it had been a hot day; the breeze was blowing off Leyte gulf, yet the evening was hot and humid. We were in 'mosquito heaven' again so I stripped to my white shorts and climbed into the mosquito net over my cot.
There was rarely anyone landing or taking off at Tacloban airstrip at night; it was twenty miles north, but final approach was over our camp area. The only sounds were the quiet rollers on the beach and the murmur of squadron activity. There was an occasional 'crump' of exploding artillery shells of a U.S. division several miles inland. I wondered how the infantry G.I.s survived in the mud, snakes, and mosquitoes among the Jap bullets. I thought of my wife and wondered which of my younger brothers would be drafted; I drifted into sleep.
There was a blast of repeated M-1 shots not far away up the beach. Are we being invaded--helmet--where's my shallow fox hole--get carbine--do I want to stay on this damned beach? I quickly decided I would rather be with friends off the beach. I put on my helmet, grabbed my carbine, and headed across the sixty feet between the hospital tent and the enlisted area. Several more shots were heard up the beach. As I was about half way to the enlisted tents, someone called, "Who goes?"
"Ferguson." Only then did I realize that probably everyone in the damned area had his carbine sights on my white shorts.
As I arrived at the enlisted area, someone stated, "Captain you're lucky as hell this was a bunch of Air Corp Men, for if it had been infantry, you would never have arrived with that white target."
The next day we heard that a Filipino, who was slightly comatose, probably from malaria, had walked up on an American guard.
November 27, 1944
The rumor is that the flight echelon is coming up from Biak soon. The B-25s of the 345th Bomb. Group have been needed for missions since the invasion, but there has been no physical place to put them. On each side of the mile and half Tacloban airstrip Navy fighters, Air Corp fighters, C-47s, bombers, and some four engined DC-10s were parked wingtip to wingtip. The engineers must have found some rock and gravel to cover the swampy ground to make forty hardstands for the B-25s.
I don't envy Ed (Egan) his job of getting all the B-25s of the 499th ready to make the thirteen hundred mile trip safely from Biak by the Palau islands to the Tacloban airstrip.
The hospital tent on the beach had come down; between showers many of us had been putting up six man pyramidal tents for another hundred men. Walt and I moved into one of the tents and reserved an area for Ed. It was good to have all our personal things back together. Luckily they didn't smash into my footlocker on the boat. I dug out the cradle gym my wife mistakenly had sent me and hung it in front of the tent. Every Filipino kid that came by wanted to haggle for it.
About dusk we invited a paratrooper artillery man into our tent to
get out of the pouring rain. We gave him a blanket, and he curled up on the grass floor of the tent. Before he went to sleep he commented, "What a treat to be dry and warm."
November 28, 1944
Dulag had a gently sloping sand beach. Last night Dick, Marty, Walt and I went swimming. It was different from Biak; we had to wear swimming trunks due to the civilian crowd.
The enlisted men were happy; the teen age Filipino men had been hired to do K.P. The women were busy washing clothes for the G.I.s, and if its a typical army the women will be doing other things for them too.
The four squadrons of B-25s of the 345th Bomb Group arrived at half hour intervals late in the afternoon. The Bats buzzed the area and the Tacloban airstrip before they made their 'fighter peel off for landing. I thought, after a few missions to Luzon we won't be bothered by anymore damned Jap air raids.*
November 29, 1944
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. How I would like to be at my Grandmother Ferguson's family dinner with the rest of the tribe.
I came from the communications office to my tent. Someone said Beach was looking for me. I finally located him near his tent. "I suppose you have been told, I'm going to be sent back to the States on leave."
"No, Fergy, I have bad news. A week ago we had a staging mission out of Morotai to some oil fields on the Celebes. I had a bad case of G.I.'s (diarrhea) and couldn't go. Carl caught an ack ack shell in the
*On January 7, 1945, the 345th Bomb Group flew a mission to Clark Field on Luzon. B-25s and A-20s lined up sixty four planes in a row to strafe and drop para-frag bombs on the airstrips. Lt. Arthur Browngardt, Jr. and crew were lost on the mission. See Warpath Across the Pacific by Lawrence Hickey for details.
pilot's compartment--crashed and burned. It was all the crew except me that flew the plane from Kansas."
"I'm sorry, Beach. I expect you're asking yourself the same question I did after the kamikaze attack. Why did I survive?"
With tears in his eyes he turned and walked away.
Harold Brydges, John Grice, K.C. Johnson, Ed Reel, Carl Zark----when will it ever end?
They won't know a loving wife, take a grandson fishing, enjoy the euphoria of a good workout on a quiet Sunday morning, accept the hug of a daughter at her high school graduation--nor forty years later see an undisciplined, long haired, son-of-a-bitch burn a U.S. flag--
40 YEARS AFTER
Graced with youth and foolish questions,
He asked, "What was it like there?"
"It was a long time ago," I said, but
I knew what he wanted; a story
Of ancient fire and the faded snarl
Of a B-25 lugging a belly-full of iron
Over the endless and patient water;
A story of ships and cities destroyed
And gallant planes returning in the dusk.
"Were they brave?" he asked, but I
Could give to him no proper answer;
He wanted a scene from a movie;
Strutting actors, sneering at their fate,
Flying down the barrels of alien guns,
Dying with a brilliant, brittle speech
Of duty and of honor. Oh, there was
Enough of both, but I had never heard
Anyone speak about them. They were carried
Quietly; worn in silent assurance, and
I knew that they belonged in those who wore them.
"I don't remember any more," I said.
"But what were they like?" he whined.
"They were men!" I said, "And I
Shall not, in this life, see their like again."
William C. Hilton
Prof Humanistic Studies
Wayne State University
499th Bomb Squadron
Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation.