Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chapter 14: Out of the Wide, Blue Yonder

The American and Allied Air Forces earned our respect early. We got our first close-up views of the Lockheed P-38 Lightnings the day we landed. Two were warming up for the take-offs on Henderson Field, and great clouds of coral dust billowed up behind. They were unique planes, these twin-tailed crafts, with their pilots riding atop the wings in teardrop nacelles. Propelled by two powerful Allison in-line engines, a P-38 in flight set up a majestic roar. At low altitudes a whistle could be heard accompanying the roar, and this is the plane about which I first heard it said that the Japs named one of our planes the "Whistling Death." Later I heard the same thing said about the Vought Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, both Navy fighters.

The P-38 seemed to be strictly an American's plane, that is, it was never popular with the RAF or the RNZAF who preferred single-engine fighters. But the men from down under loved the old P-40's. These Curtiss planes, called War Hawks and also Tomahawks, were of the type made famous by the Flying Tigers, and, in the opinion of many U.S. airmen, had seen better days. But let there be a "condition red," that is, an alert for air attack at Guadalcanal, and the New Zealanders would take off in their P-40's to intercept the Jap planes. A short time later, back they would come, swoop over Henderson Field, and execute "victory rolls" signifying that they had downed enemy planes. More than once I have seen a single RNZAF plane do three victory rolls, meaning that its pilot had got three Jap planes that trip.

The P-39, the Bell Airacobra, was, in my opinion, the most graceful looking aircraft in the sky. Powered by a single Allison in-line engine, which was located amidships, the Airacobra had a long, poiknted nose and trim, slender lines throughout. We used to see this ty pe quite often in Fiji and learned to recognize it by the sound as well as ty its silhouette, for P-39's based at Nanadi frequently used to fly over our Sigatoka area, seemingly skimming the trees. The engine purred "like a sewing machine," I used to say. Americans were not keen on this type of plane either, I understand, although the Russians could not get enough of them. The Airacobra was an unusual plane too. Besides having the engine located in an unorthodox place, it was the only fighter at the time that carried a 37mm. cannon in its nose. This gave it unique value as a tank-buster, which is why the Russians liked it. Having its engine mounted behind the pilot instead of in front of him gave the plane a peculiar invulnerability for quite a while: the enemy, seeking to immotilize it, would always fire at tis nose - where its engine ought to be.

These, then were the first Army aircraft we saw overseas, and for many months the only Army fighters. The Navy strength was better represented in the islands, and we saw the new Corsairs and Hellcats of the Navy (the latter planes replacing the Grumman F4F Wildcats) long before we saw the Army's newest, the Thunderbolts and Mustangs, which were being introduced in Europe. They gave us a tremendous lift; there is something inspiring about a flight of planes, something irresistible in their roar which draws all eyes upward toward them no matter how often they pass overhead. They were such miracles of mechanical ingenuity and workmanship that we couldn't conceive of the Japanese - or of anybody else, I guess - as having aircraft even almost as good as ours. There was a little false optimism in such thinking, a little over-done national pride, but not much. It was the United States, after all that had developed the Norden bomb sight, the multitudes of excellent fighter craft for both the Army and Navy, and those colossal heavy bomber, the B-17, the B-24, and later the B-29. And American aircraft were flying in all corners of the world, with nearly a half-dozen different national emblems on their wings. There were few of us earthbound soldiers, I guess, who did not respond with awe and respect to the sight of these planes.

Another type of aircraft won, not our awe, but a kind of humorous affection, and that type was the small reconnaissance and liaison plane, which was represented by the L-4 (the famous Piper Cub) and the L-5 (built by Stinson.) They were used by Divison Artillery first, and later by each separate artillery battalion, for spotting enemy installations such as gun implacements, troop bivouac areas, motor pools, or supply and ammunition depots. They were flimsly looking, "parasol-wing" monoplanes, reminiscent of the "crates" of World War I, and their air speed was probably not over 90 miles per hour. They were reliable little crafts, however, and I believe we lost only one in all the time our division was using them (which was from the beginning of our New Georgia campaign in July 1943 to the end of the war.) They frequently flew over Jap anti-aircraft batteries of all calibers, but they were never fired upon. The enemy knew that our Cubs had direct communication with our artillery and that if they could not bring down the plane with one shot, so to speak, there was no sense in firing and giving away the position. The Germans also had similar respect and restraint toward the liaison plane. They dubbed it the German equivalent of "First Sergeant" because they always ran for cover when they saw it coming.

On rare occasions we would see one of these planes flying in "combat" formation, and the incongruity of these fragile, unarmed little planes simulating a flight of tough, heavily armed fighters or bombers always amused us. Then a stream of whimsical chatter would usually follow, like this:

"S'pose they're gonna bomb or strafe?"

"Bomb, I guess. They can carry a bomb load of two hand grenades."

"What kind of guns to they carry."

"Oh, a pistol mounted in each wing, I guess."

"I hear the new ones got heavier armament."

"That so?"

"Yeah. A pistol on each wing and a carbine mounted in the nose. Boy, they'll be able to blast hell outa things then!"

"I hear they're gonna carrier-base them Cubs."

"Sure. They're buildin' flight-decks on some of the LST's."

Perhaps I should add that this joking was not malicious or sarcastic - just good-natured. All of us appreciated the value of these small planes, and I imagine we were a little proud of them.

I have said nothing about the bombers - the Flying Fortresses (B-17's), the Liberators (B-24's), and the Billy Mitchells (B-26's) - but then, they spoke pretty well for themselves. They were always a superb sight, whether singly or in formation, especially the Forts and Libs. We saw between thirty and forty on a mission to Munda, and we whooped with joy at this display of air strength, the like of which we had not seen before in our theater of operations.

The sight that really stopped us, however, was the return of a B-17 from an air battle somewhere in the Central or Northern Solomons to its home base on Guadalcanal. (We were still at our Grenade Hill camp, neophytes in the Solomons, and so were pretty impressionable anyway.) The bomber was coming in low and laboriously, because two of its engines had been put out of action by enemy fire. As she passed overhead she was low enough for us to view the battle scars, and we felt like doffing our caps, I think. We could see daylight through a couple of spots in the wings, and some of the gun turrets, or "blisters," were shattered. The tail gunner's place looked especially grim. The gun itself, still and stark, was pointing downward, and the plexiglass housing had been shot all away. Someone reminded us of the saying among Air Force men about the tail gunner on a bomber. "If, after the end of a mission, the tail gunner doesn't get out with the rest of the crew, you don't lift him out - you wash him out with a hose."


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