[AVweb's reprint of A Pilot's History began with Chapter 1.]
The news broadcasts and newsprint was not what I had seen and heard when covering the large expanse of the Pacific and its battlefields. The field commanders put out news slanted to benefit their positions. The civilian news reporters were obviously censored. Those that did not follow the military line, I can well imagine, were not being invited to stick around or left out of the briefings or perhaps called unpatriotic or even shipped out.
Some pilots were able to ignore what they were seeing, a few did not comprehend what was going on and a few took to alcohol at times to release their tension, or maybe to just try and forget. I just grew old for my age, as did some others in the war zone. The mass of civilians I came into contact in the land of the big PX were really a bunch of cheerful, very busy people. Factories were humming with 24-hour shifts and paying well and the workers were receiving a lot of overtime.
California had a lot of shipyards and it was amazing what they were turning out. I think it was a freighter-a-day. People complained about rationing, which included tobacco, whiskey, nylons, sugar, autos, gasoline and meat. Housing had rent controls and was hard to find. Rent control forced the birth of a gray market. Everyone was living at a very fast pace to win the war. Women were brought into the workforce.
I was given the VIP run known as the "Brass Hat Run" for a while. It was the run to Honolulu and back. The aircraft was set up like a regular civilian airliner with plush seats instead of stretchers and canvas seats. In the cockpit, we had the navigator behind the co-pilot, along with his table for maps and equipment, and a flight engineer in the jump seat. The radio operator sat behind the pilot and then behind the operator was the crew's latrine and two stacked, canvas, crew berths. The crew's quarters was the only place smoking was permitted.
A few medium-rank officers tried to throw their rank around to get possession of the crew room and berths. A colonel bustled aboard at Hamilton having a cabin attendant carry his baggage into the crew room and proceeded to take over a berth. I took a walk into the main cabin, saw a general stepping aboard and saw to it he was assigned a seat. I invited him to come forward to see the "crew's" quarters. He looked around at our crowded area and I said, "We allow general officers to use a berth or visit with us in flight." He caught on pretty quick and, eying the colonel, he said, "Thanks, but I prefer to ride with my staff and we are comfortable in the main cabin." The colonel shortly picked up his baggage and went to the main cabin.
In those days the radio operator had to use Morse code most of the time and also code and decode the messages in some areas of operation. The navigator had to use a bubble octant through a plastic bubble on the ceiling of the aircraft. A little bumpy air could make the bubble dance around and throw our plotted position miles off the actual position. With pre-planning, an average navigator could observe, calculate and plot a three-star fix in about 20 minutes. That meant we were about 60 miles past our last known position when he found out where we had been. This was before Loran and decades before GPS. It called for making a lot of educated assumptions.
Long Run From Honolulu
It always seemed longer on the return trip because the apparent orbit of the sun was contrary to our movement. On the east-bound run we could watch the sun go down, the stars come up, the moon come up and then watch them go down while the sun came up again. Our no-wind time averaged about 12 hours.
The C-54 was a marvelous aircraft in relation to what was available before the start of World War II. We had range and reliability. If we had head winds on this run, for every 30 gallons of extra fuel we needed, we had to delete one passenger or throw off 180 pounds of cargo. To avoid reducing our payload on these trips, I worked to match the maximum engine efficiency with the optimum speed of the aircraft and its gross weight. At the halfway point we would be out of about half the fuel, but with the decrease in weight, power reductions and our speed made good, we would save enough fuel for a good reserve.
As a rule of thumb, we developed a habit of speeding up the aircraft in a headwind equal to 10 percent of the wind speed to get out of the wind's retarding effects. Conversely, we retarded our power on tailwinds to take advantage of the free ride. There was always the possibility of a thunderstorm sitting over an island with the only airport within a thousand miles. There was also the possibility of poor celestial conditions for the navigator and we would have to search for the island. Yes, there were radio beacons, but not always of strong signals. Sometimes the pointer would rather point to a thunderstorm.
Eddie Rickenbacher, Chairman of Eastern Air Lines, floated around about 15 days in a life raft because of these problems. It was disturbing when one of my classmates took off from Honolulu for Hamilton with passengers and cargo and after one routine radio report was never to be heard from again, nor any wreckage found.
As a routine, we and other classmates bought his shirts, shoes and knickknacks from the widow to help her, regardless if they were suitable for us. Military personnel were not paid very much in those days. The wives would help the widow to pack up for return to her parents and would give moral support. My whole flight crew was paid less than a civilian captain on a contract carrier flying the safer overseas routes.
In operations at Honolulu prior to a particular flight to Hamilton Field, the chief pilot came up to me with, "Hi, Carl. I don't want you to try to set a new course record." With that he went about his business. Puzzled, I asked the navigator about the winds aloft. "The Pacific High has moved south; if we dog-leg it north, we can pick up a very strong tailwind." After studying the charts I said, "Let's do it." A short time into the trip we played the altitude some to get the maximum assistance. Instead of reducing power as the fuel burned off, I was guilty of adding a little bit -- just a little bit -- of power. We made excellent speed almost to the coast and checked in over San Francisco, only to be notified to "hold" because Hamilton was fogged in. A rarity. We did land shortly after, and an operations officer said, "You set a new record from Honolulu," as if he was on the lookout for a record! I do not know if the words from the chief pilot were meant for me to not try for a record or to call my attention to the possibility of setting a record with good tailwinds for the credit of the Wing. I never heard either way.
Philippines and Leyte
Getting into the Philippines brought a couple of new problems. We received some anti-aircraft fire. Could not tell if it was enemy or friendly fire. It didn't really matter because their aim was pretty bad. I also saw some aircraft off in the distance. They were single-engine fighters that we took to be enemy and treated them as such, by ducking into an overcast cloud. Manila was the first war-torn city I had ever walked through. With multi-story buildings staring at you with glass-less windows, no roofs, no floors and all the black walls, it reminded me war was not a glamorous pastime. I was assured of this when I saw the children and civilians without food or water.
We took off from Manila for Leyte without a forecast. Not knowing if a "letdown" procedure existed for Leyte, we tried to stay under the overcast, flying over a narrow, crooked strait of water between the hills that would lead us to Leyte. The navigator sat on the jump seat between the pilots saying such things as, "A 20-degree turn to the left in 15 seconds," then he would consult his chart again, and then, "20 degrees to the right," as we skimmed low over the water in reduced visibility. With the weather deteriorating and knowing it was a "suckers game," I broke it off before it got too bad by pulling up to an altitude to clear the hills. It is very easy to be seduced into trying to stay in contact with the ground by going lower and lower, with less and less visibility, until the hoped-for light at the end of the tunnel becomes a hill without the time or space to avoid it. You really have to know when to break it off.
Shortly we felt we had flown into a waterfall or were in a submarine. One engine began to backfire, so we eased back on the throttle until the malfunction eased off, then the second engine backfired and we had to reduce power on it, too. Shortly thereafter, the third engine began to act up. The cockpit windows started to leak, which was the first time in my experience for that to happen in a C-54. My pants were soon wet. (I don't think I was the cause of the wet pants.) The flight engineer believed the Pratt-Whitney R-2000-7 engine magnetos were shorting out. I wasn't sure if it was water ingestion through the air intakes when flying through the solid wall of water.
We were able to maintain our altitude until the water eased off and, when we were in the clear, the engines dried out. We received a report of a decent ceiling over Leyte. We passed overhead, went out to sea for our letdown through the undercast, and broke into the clear. We proceeded to the airstrip, staying well above mastheads of ships in the harbor. I had brought part of MacArthur's staff out of Hollandia, New Guinea, to Leyte earlier and was glad to see that nasty part of the war in New Guinea close down. I got some letters from buddies that joined the Air Corps with me, who were still overseas with the original 49th Fighter Wing. The Wing had the highest score of enemy aircraft shot down in World War II; also, the top-scoring ace in the war was Major Richard Bong, with 41 enemy planes on his scorecard. The supporting crews lived in tents without floors and suffered multiple attacks of malaria, jungle rot and diarrhea with only a few visits to Australia in almost three years of overseas service.
I always considered I had it easy in the war compared to the ground troops, especially the mental cases. Some of the infantry had been in a hostile environment too long and were brought aboard in straightjackets or strapped to stretchers, too violent to let loose. There was cursing, yelling and moaning, and some insisted on abusing themselves. This was always tough on the flight nurses and medical technicians. The doctors began to set a limit of mental patients on a flight because they were too hard to control. Of course, some mental cases were harmless but had lost their mental capacity. I thought the mental patients were worse off than the physically injured. Would they be lost in a mental hospital for the rest of their lives? And then I often wondered what were their chances of recovery.
It was airpower that cut off the Japanese on the north coast of New Guinea from supplies and reinforcements. They were sick and starving and decided to make their way along the north coast of New Guinea over impossible terrain to the East Indies. They died by the tens of thousands. It was reported after the war 280,000 Jap troops started, but only a few made it to the East Indies where the Japanese still held land with military bases.
Beauty Amidst Destruction
In spite of the war going on around us, I took time to admire the brilliant sunsets and sunrises that are found in the tropics. There were gorgeous days with friendly, puffy, white clouds over cobalt seas. The islands were a delight to see. Some were low-lying coral rings enclosing a blue lagoon. Some times there would be a string of motus (small islands) connected by coral reefs with waves dashing over the coral at high water or with high winds. The lagoons were often dotted with coral heads and some would be totally enclosed and others would have breaks in the reefs that would give passage to a boat for entering the lagoons. Some would be small in size while others were up to 100 miles in diameter. In the volcanic areas, the islands would be mountainous and covered with a dark green jungle. Some had pure-white sand beaches and delightful palms.
On volcanic islands, the beaches consisted of black sand caused by volcanic activity and usually the leeward-side beach was protected by a barrier reef. My imagination would just think of all the fish and lobster in the protected water and how tasty they would be. The cockpit was a perfect place to view these scenes, including the occasional native village of thatched huts. In some areas, the village had been built over the water on stilts. I vowed to myself that Jeanne and I would one day visit these idyllic places by boat. Many years later I kept my promise, and Jeanne and I sailed to these places in a small boat, just the two of us, and spent a few years roaming the waters and islands.
Thoughts of the Future
At the start of the war my colleagues and I felt ourselves to be invincible, even when accidents happened to those around us. We felt they had made foolish mistakes, but we would not make any. I guess that was a self-protective mechanism to help keep our confidence level high so we could do our job. Among ourselves we never talked about "after the war," as if it would never end or we would not survive it. It was only after the invasion of Japan loomed before us that my peers and I began to talk hopefully of activities we would do when this job was settled. I remember one particular dark night in the cockpit with only the instruments lit, and the crew quietly at work. It had been a long flight when the radio operator broke the silence and said in a low voice, "The Germans have surrendered." Tears rolled down my face.
We were all quiet and lost in our private thoughts. I was grateful for the darkness to hide my emotions. I was thinking of what this would mean to people of the world and in particular to my younger brother in the 101st Airborne in southern Germany and an older brother in the Merchant Marines. Perhaps, after all that I had seen, heard and witnessed, maybe I still had some compassion left in me.
Now the military forces in Europe could be released to help out on the war against Japan. With this thought in mind, we all began to think there might be a future.
I had been on one of the first four-engine planes to go in Kwajalien and the same on the invasion to Saipan. Now it looked as if I had been selected -- or perhaps it just happened that way -- for Okinawa, too. In Guam the plane was loaded with passengers and cargo. Some of the cargo was hand grenades. There was a shortage of them for the troops on Okinawa, as it was thought not to be good idea to put them on a merchant ship until the shooting stopped in the harbor. "How about the shooting in the air?" I asked. "Don't be picky, Carl, you can't live forever!" was the reply. With that we left Guam.
We approached the island of Okinawa with its ring of ships and aircraft. Ground fighting was heavy on the south and north ends, with the airstrip somewhat in the middle -- a Japanese-built strip. On final approach and about one mile out, I was told to break it off. There was a bombing raid going on and they were abandoning the control tower. Being happy to do so, I found refuge over a battleship or cruiser that was shelling the shore, hoping he would recognize me as friendly. We assumed his area would be protected from Kamikaze planes and other enemy aircraft. When he let loose with a salvo while we were overhead, we got a bumpy ride and watched for his shells to explode on land. We saw some Kamikazes and followed some fighter radio conversations that were doing their thing to fight off the Japanese. We were soon cleared to land. This time we had slowed down, with landing gear and flaps down, and had flared out to land when another bombing raid took place and the tower said to go around; they were evacuating the tower again. I thought it safer to land and did so; I saw no reason not to stay on the ground. Had we done our slow climb out, we would have been a good target.
Asking for fuel, we were told the admiral couldn't find the refueling ship so fuel was not available. Japanese paratroopers had landed on the field the night before and blown up some planes with plastic explosives and shot up the tower. The field hospital had just been bombed but they would send us those that still needed help and we would have to take off immediately after reloading. Where to? Iwo Jima, where the weather was good. The engineer and navigator agreed we had enough fuel to make it to Iwo Jima but not enough for Guam. My choice was limited.
We had a fair load of wounded, a few passengers and the normal complement of nurses and medical technicians. It was the job of Operations to clear or authorize the load. I was told there were also two check pilots. I was too busy to ask many questions. I just assumed the pilots were from our wing and had gotten to Okinawa some way for reconnaissance, so I promptly invited them to the cockpit and crew quarters.
With the tower's report of no enemy planes in sight and no reported danger en route to Iwo Jima, we took off for an uneventful climb to altitude without any fighters getting on our tail. All went well for the first part of the trip. As night came on, when we were about an hour out of Iwo Jima, the radio operator brought word that the weather was dropping rapidly in Iwo. He was requested to confirm the report with more details and to monitor it closely. There was a radio beacon at Iwo inline with the runway and not too distant from the approach end. We could position ourselves with an ADF (automatic direction finder) for a landing if the weather was not too bad. My chart showed Mount Surabachii off the runway a short distance. (This is the same mountain that is so well-known by the famous photographs of the American flag being raised on its peak.)
As we got closer to Iwo, the tower announced over our VHF to a PBY [Ed: an amphibian aircraft] that also wanted to land on the strip that the airport was now closed due to weather. They were told go to the lee of the island, land in the sea near a ship, and a boat would go rescue them. When I talked to the tower, he told me to do the same as the PBY! The weather was reported at 100-foot ceiling, restricted visibility and dropping. I explained to the tower I was not an amphibian and therefore was not able to land on the water, the number of injured members I had aboard, plus crew, my doubts about being able to get them out of the aircraft if ditched, and the problem of being found under these weather conditions. However, they had no other suggestions and the weather was dropping and not expected to improve any time soon. I asked my co-pilot and navigator for any "outs" they could think of, only to receive negative answers. The check pilots, including one with a headset listening to the tower, could only shake their heads.
I called the senior nurse and told her the odds were against us for a good landing. I asked her to prepare her patients and know where the emergency exits were located. I asked the check pilots to go aft and be as much help as possible as I would attempt a landing, perhaps gear-up. They quietly went aft; it was safer in the main cabin than in the cockpit. I asked the radio operator and navigator to secure their equipment and then, prior to landing, to secure themselves in the crew compartment. A walk through the main cabin showed everyone quietly at work.
The tower was advised we would try to land and to alert their hospital and emergency equipment. When I told them to turn the runway lights as bright as possible, they announced they only had kerosene flare pots. These are about the same as birthday candles! That really hit me in the stomach. I suggested a couple of jeeps at the landing end with their headlights converging on the runway, and to remove any obstacles near the runway such as other aircraft or trucks. Also we wanted a constant update on altimeter settings and wind conditions. The ceiling had dropped down and visibility was zero with thin spots and no wind. I worked out my plan and told the co-pilot and engineer what parts they were to play. The tower operators did not seem too happy with our decision to land. I never kid myself about success or failure. There was only a 50-percent chance of everyone coming through this alive, and I was the one in control of all their lives at this moment.
We came over the beacon at cruising altitude and knew where we were. We circled to the left, descending away from the mountain, and slowed the aircraft to pass over the beacon at a 1000-foot elevation. This was above the terrain and on a heading to the airstrip, aligned with the landing strip. Coming over the beacon the third time, the engineer dropped the landing gear as I started a circle to the left, descending constantly at a controlled airspeed to pass over the beacon at a given altitude. I planned to continue the descent blindly to touch down on the runway approach end. That was a hairy part. The tower announced he was in and out of the fog. The wind was calm. The tower height was 50 feet. For the last hundred feet of descent, I could feel the tension in the cockpit build almost to the breaking point as we continued descending blindly at close to 100 mph in the fog. We knew it would only be seconds before we would impact the ground, the runway or some obstacle.
"Flare Pot!" yelled the co-pilot as the altimeter registered 30 feet and descending, as the fog was still obscuring my vision. I cut the four throttles and tried to flare out a little but she hit the ground almost instantly. I rammed the control wheel forward to stick her on the ground as the water and mud flew about making loud noises as it hit the fuselage. I had seen the second pot go by on the co-pilot's side but I did not know if we were on the runway or to the left of the runway. At least we knew we were moving in line with it when another one showed up. To my relief a flare pot showed up on my side to indicate we were on the runway. I was not sure of how much runway was behind me or in front of me. Then it became a matter of keeping the aircraft straight and stopping her before we ran out of runway. Visibility was less than a hundred feet in drifting fog. Riding the brakes, she stopped with the wheel pushed forward holding her on the ground as the fog swirled around us.
We shut off our engines and everyone quietly sat where we were. Moments passed; no one stirred, no one said anything. The tower asked, "Where are you?" I replied, "We are on the runway -- send us a 'follow-me' jeep." We waited for a while, and then, "They cannot find you." So we blinked our landing lights again and a jeep eventually arrived out of the mist and fog. They said we were on the runway and it would be best just to spend the night where we were. They did not have a hospital but could send a doctor out to check over the injured we were carrying. There were no quarters for the crew or ambulatory patients, nor any mess hall for food, but they could bring out hot food now and again for breakfast in the morning.
The taking of Iwo Jima was extremely costly in lives because the Japanese were well in trenched and the land honeycombed with tunnels, especially the mountain I had to avoid. The troops slurred its name, Mount Son-of-a-Bitchee. There had been over 25,000 dead and injured in this largest battle the Marine Corps had ever undertaken, with 125,000 troops put ashore. For the first time, marine casualties outnumbered Japanese. The brass validated the sacrifice in men as worthwhile due to the huge number of airmen making emergency landings while going on their raids to and from Tokyo, en route from Tinian, Saipan and Guam. Later I was to read the numbers were fictitious to justify the miscalculation on what it cost to conquer the island.
If there had been a lot of emergency landings, I would have expected the airport to have a better runway, especially better lights and some instrument landing system such as ground-controlled approach (GCA). There would also have been a set-up to handle the injured men and to feed and transport the crew as well as emergency equipment such as fire trucks and ambulances. We saw none of this.
The tower agreed they would provide battery carts for our light system; also they would empty the honey buckets, but refueling before morning was not possible. Scavenging Japanese controlled the fuel areas during the night. I was told in the morning there would be fuel. We were isolated and vulnerable to attack, so I asked for an appropriate military guard, which they provided. The base provided everything they said they would. Through the day's events, I was exhausted and slept soundly, only to awaken once to find everyone comfortable. Even the wounded were as good and comfortable as could be expected, and luckily there weren't any unexpected emergencies.
A very welcome hot breakfast was brought to us after daylight and a refueling truck took care of our fuel shortage. We cleaned ourselves and the cabins the best we could while waiting for the weather to lift. We took off as soon as we received enough visibility and ceiling improvement to get on our way to Guam. No one except the flight engineer had gotten off the aircraft. (He had to supervise the refueling and inspect the exterior.) Daylight and some lifting of the weather had shown our position to be a little better than halfway down the runway, which was a very rough dirt runway with rain puddles and plenty of humps and bumps. Our rough ride had made me wonder whether or not I was really on or off the runway during the landing. Due to the weather, I never did see the whole runway.
The crew outperformed any others I had ever flown with in regards to following instructions, not questioning, and then professionally executing the plan. It took a lot of quiet courage to know what was going on and to perform their duties in a normal manner. I had given myself only a 50-percent chance of executing my plan successfully. Ditching would have been worse for the wounded, perhaps for all of us. There was no good data on ditching a C-54, whether it would fall apart or hold together, especially in rough seas. Approaching gear-up would have been better if we missed the runway, but then we would have also run the high risk of burning. So I put the gear down and gambled on hitting the runway with enough ahead of me to stop. My unexpected equation was the visibility and/or ceiling. There was practically none with only an occasional thin spot in fog and smog. Fate had been very good to us.
I regret not getting names of the entire flight crew and medical crew for a letter of commendation for their professional performance.
I believe this was the most critical piece of flying I had ever done and that old-fashioned luck played a big part in its success with so much at stake. I was very grateful.
I halfway expected to hear something filter down from the chief pilot's office or questions regarding my decisions. Not a whisper. Our check pilots, in hindsight, I believe were possibly impostors with or without the connivance of the loading officer. Normally check-pilots fill out a lot of forms, confirm names of crewmembers and ask a lot of questions to judge the correctness of our thinking with a critique at the end of the flight. Especially so when they out-ranked me and were older than I.
When in Saipan, we could watch the B-29s take off by the hundreds for the raids on Japan from the island of Tinian, which was a short distance from where we stood looking over the sea. Since the collapse of Germany, there had been a strong shift of military strength to defeat Japan and this bombing effort was part of it. One after another, the heavily-laden bombers would rise above the island to make their almost-flat climb-out for altitude. Once in a while one would rise above the island only to turn away from us to circle back to the island. Some would drop out of sight below the island and for those we would cross our fingers for the safety of the crew. The aborts, probably due to engine failure, did not make much of a dent in the steady stream of bombers about to fire bomb Japan.
A few B-29s were based on Saipan. One night prior to a raid on Japan, they were parked on one end of the runway and my crew was in a tent close to the opposite end. A low-flying Japanese Betty bomber dropped a few small bombs. One of the B-29 bombers blew up, causing the two nearest to it to catch on fire. They must have been loaded with magnesium firebombs, as it turned the darkness into daylight. The Jap bomber flew by so close we should have thrown rocks at him!
On Saipan, when our forces were assured victory, the civilian Japanese did not believe they would be well-treated. They consisted of women and children of the Japanese contract workers as well as the men. By the hundreds they jumped off the cliffs to the rocks far below or into the sea. Only a couple of hundred were captured and penned up. They were a pretty pathetic group to look at. I began to wonder about what would happen to the large group of civilians on Okinawa. If they fought to the death, it would indicate what would happen when we invaded the home islands.
We all wondered about the homeland population. If they fought as fanatically when we invaded Japan proper, it would be a tough and costly battle. The rumor going around at that time was there would have been a million casualties. The tempo of our work was increasing as we got closer to Japan and our lines of supply were being stretched. A modern airline pilot averages 80 hours a month or less with a maximum allowed of 100 hours. One month my crew did 160 hours of flying with poor accommodations and food, plus performing other duties that eroded proper rest. This took its toll on one long flight.
My co-pilot and one other member of my crew had been given bunk time for a couple of hours of sleep in the early part of a long trip. I began to feel the need for some shut-eye and I asked the co-pilot to take my seat and have the flight engineer sit in the co-pilot's seat. I was sound asleep in the crew berth for about 45 minutes only to awaken with my ears feeling a pressure change. I rapidly went forward to find the radio operator asleep with his head on the table and the navigator in the same position. The flight engineer was slumped in the right seat, chin on his chest and eyes closed. The co-pilot was practically snoring, with the airplane on autopilot and losing altitude. The autopilots in those days worked off gyros and had to be adjusted for altitude and course every few minutes. Even a passenger moving about would change the altitude while walking fore or aft. I never trusted the co-pilot after that demonstration and I never left the pilot seat thereafter, only taking small catnaps in place.
On another flight when I was having difficulty staying awake, I asked the nurse for pills to help keep me awake. She also gave me other pills for sleeping after landing. I lost the sleeping pills and was a walking zombie for 24 hours.
I met up with a classmate pilot who was puzzled and angry. We had been flying almost always with full loads, especially out of Hamilton Field, to the West. He had been asked to stand by for several hours with his crew to wait for a piece of cargo. When it arrived, it was securely tied down in the center of the main cabin. Then he was told to wait for a passenger, a civilian without a name who would tell him when it would be OK to take off. He was to take on board no other passenger or cargo. He was to go straight through to Guam, stopping only for fuel and food. Additional crew would be available to him. Eventually, an insignificant civilian appeared and said it was OK to leave and they took off. The civilian stayed with the mysterious box of cargo. The pilot told me he could have carried "X" number of pounds of cargo and this was no way to win the war flying not even half loaded. The events that were soon to follow led us to believe it all had something to do with the atom bomb. At times we knew so little of what goes on about us.
We continued to build a supply of men and cargo in Okinawa. The ground forces had built us a new, large airport (Kadena) with long, coral-rock runways. The construction crews were doing remarkable jobs across the Pacific.
I was bringing up the 11th Airborne Division, which had dropped on Corregidor, from the Philippines to Okinawa to help with the invasion of Japan proper. None of us thought that would be an easy task. I was surprised on walking through the cabin to hear my name called. It was from a paratrooper I had gone to school with years ago. It was really a small world.
On one of my approaches to Okinawa, we had to letdown through overcast. I was notified there was a new gadget to help us: GCA system was in operation. They would guide me in by radar, line up the aircraft with the runway, and tell me what altitude to be at and when to descend. Later, they would have a radar glide slope. After being given a few courses to steer, we were told to start descending. No worry! There was a good ceiling height. As we broke out of the overcast, the runway was a long way off and a very solid, puncture-proof hill was facing us. We thanked them for their help, then found and lined up the runway by ourselves. In all fairness, I have used GCA many times since that day with only a few surprises.
It was about this time frame that we flew through a typhoon going to and from Okinawa. This one did not seem to be too bad at flight altitude, but it really played havoc with the Navy ships in the area. One story was a destroyer rolled over ... something about the fuel and ballast being wrong. There was even the rumor it would delay the invasion of Japan due to fleet damage. My radio operator also brought forth a message that a new type of bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. "So what?" was my feeling. Rumors were plentiful. "What difference could another type of bomb make?" Then the second bomb was dropped and we heard about its magnitude. "Unbelievable."
Then came a rumor Japan would surrender. I was called to the operations tent and ordered to fly to Ie Shima, a very small island a few minutes beyond the far horizon. I was familiar with its name because a famous and very well liked war correspondent had recently been killed there, named Ernie Pyle. I was surprised because we had hundreds of crews waiting for a flight and I did not think it was my turn. We were all happy to go, for we were sleeping in the airplane and all of us suffering from diarrhea from eating out of mess kits at the field kitchen. Or perhaps it was the drinking water.
Landing on Ie Shima was no problem, with its coral-rock runway. Only a couple of small aircraft were there and a few tents and people. Taxiing in, I blew a tire on my left main wheel. Having dual wheels on each main gear, I could still taxi, and I parked it fairly close to the operations tent and a twin-engine aircraft. I ordered by radio from Okinawa a new wheel, tools and men to change it and possibly another aircraft if it was a priority load to be transported. I noticed the plane parked a short distance away was Japanese. There were three men in very neat uniforms, not Americans, leisurely stretching and walking around as if they had just completed a long trip. With jackets and billed flap-top caps, they looked very formal. I looked for bodyguards but could see none.
I got busy, having my engineer get sand bags and timbers so we could build a ramp and, using the good wheel, taxi up on it. This way the bad tire would be off the ground, ready to be replaced. My relief plane arrived with parts and mechanics and we were ordered to return to Okinawa when airworthy. Being busy with changing the tire, we did not notice what happened to either the Japanese plane or our relief plane. Later we learned the Japanese had sent a plane to Ie Shima with a contingent of high-ranking officers to be flown to Manila by U.S. transport to converse with MacArthur about the surrender and landing of allied troops in the Japanese homeland. There had been no sign of cargo or American troops to be transported anywhere while we were on Ie Shima. Perhaps a blown tire caused my crew to lose a claim to fame.
About Aug. 26, 1945, we started to move troops from Okinawa to Atsugi Airport outside of Tokyo. When I quote these dates, I do not recall if I was recording West longitude dates or East longitude. When crossing the International Date Line, I believe I used the take-off date for landing as well. We departed on Aug. 28, 1945 for Atsugi with a load of airborne troops. We were in a cloud cover part of the way and when it broke we could see Mt. Fuji, a beautiful mountain. We understood why the Japanese attributed spiritual values to the mountain.
The airport at Atsugi was not impressive. It had a small runway with potholes, shot-up hangers and buildings, and destroyed Jap aircraft. With no one around, it was complete desolation. MacArthur announced later, "It was the greatest gamble of the war," putting troops on Japan proper not knowing if crazed civilians lead by a fanatical military would kill us off.
The troops disembarked, formed up and marched off the airport, down a desolate dingy road, I assume with a lot of apprehension. I guess they had brought their marching orders with them. No other aircraft of ours showed up. We were the only flyable aircraft at the airport. A group of straggly men appeared dressed in rags. I looked for signs of our own invasion troops; there were none. Hollow eyed, gaunt, silent men answered a few questions in American-accented English. They had been prisoners and asked if we could fly them out of there. An American soldier appeared and said he could load us up with released prisoners. Their prison doors had been opened when the Japanese knew the war was lost. The prisoners had to scrounge for food and water and worried that the civilians would take out their frustration on them. The population of Japan had been on a starvation diet as well. When the Japanese knew they were defeated, the Americans were fed better in prison and treated better. This was not so for British, Dutch and Australian prisoners. They were in bad shape, enough to bring tears to one's eyes.
I continued to shuttle troops and some supplies to Tokyo and ex-prisoners to Okinawa. They never spoke of their freedom, what they could expect, or what they would like to have. They had no emotion. When I talked to them, they acted as if they had already given up on life. All my crew cared so much for these people; I could see it in their actions and hear it in their voices.
War Is Over
On the last trip I made from Tokyo, as I climbed for altitude, I could see the battleship Missouri steaming into Tokyo Bay with the "brass" onboard to accept the Japanese surrender. I had, on one of my first trips to Tokyo, flown over the city itself. I had struggled with too many people for too long not to see our final destination. At low altitude I circled the once-proud city of millions of hard-working people. It now was only a burned, black piece of ground, awesome in its desolation with no moving soul or vehicle. One bright spot showed up. A moat, a wall, a green circle of vegetation and trees and some stone buildings, untouched by destruction. The palace of the emperor stood as a tribute to the conservation and skill of the bombardiers on the B-29s, or of the Japanese firefighters. Seeing the wasteland, I thought of the people returning and the huge problems of rebuilding. A few years later I was to return and see what a marvelous job they had done.
The war was over. The island of Okinawa was being emptied of troops and material. Operations were planning the rotation of flight crews to the home base at Hamilton and subsequently for release to civilian life. It was decided to give so many points for time in service, time for overseas and a lot of points for medals. It was all on the honor system. Looking at all the "greenies" around me, I was sure I would be in the top 10 percent to leave. And I was glad, because I had not heard from Jeanne for weeks, as I was moving too fast. Our first child was past due and she had no family members around to help.
When the points were counted, I found myself on the bottom part of the group, or so I was told. Even though it was to have been based on the honor system, I don't think there had been any. Perhaps I should have stayed closer to headquarters and picked up more medals or maybe asked for them. I never had. As a result, I was one of the half-dozen crews chosen to go to India on a temporary duty to fly the "Hump."
[Continued with Chapter 5.]
To send a note to Carl and AVweb about this story, please click on his name at the top of this page or click here. More articles, stories and fiction about the joy of aviation are found in AVweb's Skywritings section.
Eric Brill of Kahului, HI brings a taste of the Pacific to our mobile devices today with an shot that'll make you rethink getting that seaplane rating. Click through to enjoy it and full-size and selection of other incredible reader-submitted photos.