World War II in the Pacific

Target Twenty-Five

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Note: This article is based on a section of Race of Aces that we edited out after the first draft.  Still, it is one of my favorite pieces of writing, as I grew up in Bay Area and in 2017 visited many of the places mentioned here. Photos from that trip are interlaced through the text.

Race of Aces is available now at bookstores and on-line sites everywhere.

May 3, 1942

San Francisco Bay Area

The intruder appeared on a spring Sunday night when the San Francisco Bay glittered silver under the light of a full moon. Europeans would have called that a “bomber’s moon.” They hated such nights, for a full moon helped guide enemy planes to their cities. A bomber’s moon meant a maximum effort; no sleep for those on the ground and a firestorm of high explosives would likely engulf their cities again.

AO5Y4917 At U.S. Army Radio Station B3, the night watch stood a vigil over the City by the Bay. Twenty-five hundred feet atop Mount Tamalpais, just north of the Golden Gate, B3 wasn’t really a radio station at all. That was just a name designed to throw off the Japanese fifth column assumed to be hard at work detailing California’s defenses.

Instead,  B3 was a top secret, state-of-the-art radar site, and its electronic wizardry could detect Japanese planes up to a hundred and ten miles away. Only a few talented operators truly understood the new technology, but the men on the mountain above San Francisco were among the best at it.

At 10:50 that night, the radar crew spotted the intruder. The blip on their oscilloscope bloomed about seventy miles west of Marin County out over the Pacific Ocean. Heading east at almost two hundred miles an hour, it was way out of the normal air lanes used by friendly aircraft.

AO5Y7023  Radio Station B3 got on the “hot phone” and called it up the chain of command as Target #25. Word of the contact reached IV Interceptor Command’s operations room at headquarters in Oakland less than ninety seconds later. Female civilian volunteers, holding long poles that resembled pool cues, stood around a massive table map of the San Francisco area on the ops room’s main floor. When a new contact was spotted, their job was to lay down a target stand with an arrow showing its direction. Every thirty seconds the plot would be updated. In a world before computers, human power did the calculating.

The senior officer in the ops room, known as the Controller, sat on a second floor balcony that overlooked the plotting map. He stared at the target stand thinking about potential destinations. A slight turn, it could hit the Mare Island Shipyard. A sharper turn, and the target could hit San Francisco from the north. AO5Y7217

They had to be certain Target #25 was not a wayward friendly. He turned to his staff and ordered them to run down the identity of the contact. The Navy, Army Air Force and Civilian Aeronautics Administration stationed officers on the balcony. They grabbed phones and checked with their people. Any flight plans approved for this time and location? Could a plane be off course?AO5Y7218-2

At 10:54, the replies came in. “Not one of ours.”

The Controller notified his chain of command. Meanwhile, the incoming aircraft vanished off B3’s radar scope.

Did it change course?

The last report from Tamalpais suggested Target #25 could be either a single aircraft or a small, tight formation of several. Either way, it wasn’t friendly. That meant there were Japanese ships somewhere off the California coast.DSC08124-2

The Federal Communications Commission got involved at 11:00 on the dot. Enemy planes could use radio signals to guide them through the night to their target areas. Without any idea where Target #25 was heading, IV Interceptor Command ordered full radio silence from the Central Valley north to Eureka.

Ten minutes later, citizens of the Bay Area listening to late night radio were the first to learn something was wrong. The NBC affiliate in the city, KGO, went dark just as the newscaster covered the latest from Corregidor. On another local station, KPO, Harry Owens and his orchestra kicked off their half hour set. Both suddenly vanished, words and music replaced by the unsettling hiss of static. Husbands and wives sitting in their living rooms around the family’s Philco radio exchanged nervous glances. Was this another drill?

The bomber’s moon suggested otherwise.

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As alarm spread through the neighborhoods and farms all over the Bay south to Fresno, the Controller at the ops center prepared to do battle. Anti-aircraft guns went to full alert, manned and ready with orders to shoot anything that came into range. Searchlight crews stood by their massive devices, sweeping the sky for the enemy raiders.

At Mill’s Field—present day San Francisco International Airport—two Curtiss P-40 Warhawk interceptors prepared to take off into the night. Two more waited at Oakland Airport, and other fighters readied to launch at Hamilton Field across the Bay, their pilots already in the cockpits, engines warmed up.

Three minutes after the radio stations left the air, the Controller turned to his Civil Air Raid Warning officer and told him to kill the lights.

AO5Y7095       From Monterey north to Bodega Bay lights went off. Dozens of air raid sirens around San Francisco proper wailed to life as the city went dark. Trolleys trudging up the city’s legendary hills on their last runs of the night were bathed in darkness. The city planned for such moments by painting white “blackout stars” at intervals along the tracks so the blinded drivers could find a stopping point.

The trolleys braked to a halt. Cars throughout the city pulled over and the drivers hustled out to peer upward from nearby doorways. Trains, busses, cars on the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate all came to dead stops as darkness enfolded them.  Lit only by the bomber’s moon, the people aboard sat in vehicles, trapped on the bridges that surely the Japanese considered prime targets. At least one woman stuck on the Bay Bridge picked up some knitting and went to work. Panic was not an acceptable response that night.

Nor was ignoring the blackout order. Volunteer wardens rushed through their assigned blocks, blowing whistles at anyone whose dwellings showed even a spearpoint of light their curtains. Some business were slow to respond. Neon lights along the waterfront continued to blaze as the rest of the city went dark.  A seventy-three year old air raid warden saw a light on his block and rushed to dim it. As he did, the tension of the moment proved too much for him. He died of a heart attack while trying to unscrew the bulb.

In March, the Navy issued shoot to kill orders around the Marina district for anyone violating a blackout. The sentries guarding the docks took this seriously. When a cabbie failed to douse his headlights, they shot into his vehicle and narrowly missed his head.

The military killing American civilians who forgot to turn a light off may seem extreme today, but it was not to San Franciscans of 1942.  They’d  seen the newsreels depicting the destruction Nazi bombers wrought on London during the Blitz. Others showed the Japanese carpet bombing cities in China. After Pearl Harbor, the war no longer seemed far from the Pacific surf lapping the beach at 19th Avenue. Indeed, San Franciscans were among the first mainland Americans to be touched by it when a crippled British cruiser limped under the Golden Gate the previous summer. The ship docked at Mare Island for repairs with over a hundred dead still aboard, killed in German air attacks off Crete weeks before. The locals watched as the British carried their dead from the ship’s battle scarred hull, loaded them into an American ship and took them back out past the Golden Gate to be buried at sea.

AO5Y6925 The idea that somebody’s son or husband could be summarily dumped overboard off the California coast left a deep impression on the citizens of San Francisco. A few months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they knew lives would be shattered here at home.  The telegrams began arriving the next day, and San Francisco felt the war in its heart, if not in its streets.

The wounded followed the telegrams as ships arrived filled with victims of the surprise attack. The burnt and traumatized men flowed into the hospitals. Those who could speak told stories of flashing Japanese bombers, strafing Zeroes and a Nisei fifth column that stabbed Hawaii in the back.

Then, the first floating wrecks arrived under tow, bound for Mare Island’s repair yards. Teams of workers descended on these warships to repair them. There were no days off. Three shifts, twenty-four hours a day, the shipyard workers labored furiously as if their families and homes depended on these vessels returning to war.

Meanwhile, the downtown bars became hubs of gossip, each one a node amplifying tidbits gleaned from the returning warriors. The gossip grew so pervasive after the ships’ crews spent their liberties in the Marina district bars, getting drunk and sharing tales of the Pearl Harbor attack, that the Navy launched a full counter-offensive against idle talk. Intelligence teams went out and recruited fifteen hundred bar tenders to act as the navy’s ears in their establishments. If they spotted anyone in uniform talking out of turn, they were to report them immediately. Cabbies and desk clerks, hotel bellhops all joined the eavesdropping effort.

AO5Y8214One bartender reported a young lieutenant who repeated a story that the Japanese fifth column had actually operated a short wave radio from the basement of the Marine Corps barracks at Ewa Field on Hawaii just after Pearl Harbor. Later in December, a search team found the transmitter and several Japanese clustered around it and shot them dead.

Navy investigators in San Francisco looked into this yarn and found most of that to be spurious. There was in fact a Japanese-American ham radio operator who had nothing to do with Ewa Field, or any enemy fifth column. His radio gear had been confiscated without anyone getting shot. The Japanese-American ended up serving with five of his brothers in the U.S. armed forces, and the lieutenant spreading the rumor was severely punished.

Stopping the spread of gossip one rumor at a time was like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon—pointless. A macro effort was needed, and so that spring, the government declared war on words.  The Navy hired a cadre of Madison Avenue PR-types to create catch phrases for easy public consumption reminding them to keep their mouths shut. Among the early drafts sent out to the acquiescent media outlets were such rough drafts as:

Words are like razors—they may cut your throat.

The idle tongue carries death in its wag.

Speak fitly or be silently wise.

Finally, some genius streamlined the message: loose lips sink ships. The message stuck, and some well-intentioned, patriotic Americans began reporting on their neighbors, friends and associates when they overheard war rumors. The military offices in the Bay Area received letters detailing which soldier or officers said what, where and when.

Nevertheless, the stories of broken, dying men pulled from the flaming wreckage of America’s battle line spread through the civilian population. The fleet had been crippled, that became common knowledge long before the navy officially admitted the full extent of the loses at Pearl. In those nodes of the Bay Area’s grapevine, the people realized the precariousness of their situation. The Japanese seemed strong and victorious everywhere; America weak and defeated. With the battleships gone, the Army Air Force’s planes smashed, what was to stop the Japanese from sweeping to the California shores?

In this context, shooting a cabby for violating the blackout didn’t seem extreme. Not after Japanese submarines shelled Santa Barbara, sank ships off shore and machine-gunned survivors in their lifeboats. The cruelty of battle lay just over the horizon, and the whispers of it fueled the fear.2729050830_53c01e24a5_o-700x858

Reports of sabotage by a Japanese fifth column spread through California. A railroad bridge destroyed by fire was blamed on Nisei saboteurs, as was an industrial explosion at a shipyard. Reports from the Philippines pointed to an intricate network of spies who helped pave the way for the Japanese invasion. Why would it not be the same way in California?  When thousands of second-generation Japanese-Americans renounced their citizenship after Pearl Harbor and set about traveling to Japan to serve in its military, the first steps were taken to round up all Japanese-Americans into camps.

South of San Francisco, the Federal government incarcerated eight thousand Japanese-Americans at a former race track. Some of the prisoners lived in the horse stables. Before the war, these men and women had been part of California’s prosperous middle class. Now, their government threw them into hay and muck while “permanent” internment camps were completed elsewhere.

AO5Y4368Then their flyers began to do die. Aircraft crashes were rarities in pre-war life that garned headlines in the local papers. As the Army Air Force and Navy flung farm kids into cockpits and tried to teach them how to survive at the controls of advanced aircraft full of untested technology, crashes took place every day in California. Residents around Hamilton Field heard the whine of overrevved engines like mechanical death wails. They felt the explosions like earthquakes rocking the ground. They learned to live with sights of crash boats fishing the bodies out of the bay, or search crews picking remains out of hillsides strewn with wreckage when pilots slammed into the coastal mountains in bad weather. The crashes grew so frequent that by May, the newspapers barely gave a fatal one more than an inch or two of ink.

Golden-Gate-700x932  Life lost some of its value, replaced by the need of the country to field a modern air force capable of defeating Hitler’s blooded veterans. The rest of the world had a two-year head start, and to catch up meant casualties. Young men died; their families mourned. For others, these micro-tragedies just became a feature of the new landscape. They also reminded everyone that the world California knew on December 6, 1941, no longer existed.

Under the bomber’s moon, San Francisco braced for attack that night. The sirens wailed, families retreated into basements or make-shift bomb shelters. Thousands of other patriotic Americans turned out to man their volunteer civil defense stations. For months as San Francisco expected an air raid, small mountains of sand piled up on street corners, ready to be used to smother flames should bombs cause the water system to fail. Every block had a warden, an aid station staffed by volunteers, and a pre-teen bicycle messenger cadre pulled from the local chapter of the Junior Victory Army. When Japanese bombs finally did fall, each San Francisco block would fight the flames and destruction as an organic team of neighbors and friends. If the volunteers couldn’t contain the devastation, they could call on the firefighters and medical personnel waiting to respond to the worst hit areas.

When the Mayor called for volunteers for this civil defense network, fifteen thousand San Franciscans responded. A hundred and fifty thousand more from California to Washington manned the aircraft observer corps’ chain of outposts. The military wasn’t just mobilizing for war, the entire civilian population on the West Coast mobilized for it as well.

The lights stayed off that spring night for almost an hour. The people of Northern California held their breath, stifling fear as they huddled together in their shelters.      At 11:28, Radio Station B3 picked up the contact again. This time, they tracked it heading back out to sea northwest of the Golden Gate.  The radar crew watched it melt away to the west. Six minutes later, they lost the contact for good.DSC07944

The anti-aircraft crews received the stand down order. The block wardens in San Francisco sent their people home just before midnight when the all-clear siren broke the tension. The cars and busses trapped on the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate fired up their engines and puttered on their way. The train began to run again. The radio stations returned to the air just in time to sign off for the night. No information was given. Wartime secrecy meant a compliant media willing to not report things everyone had known had happened.

At station B3, the watch changed and fresh eyes stared at the oscilloscope, waiting and wondering what would happen next.AO5Y6925

The same thing happened at IV Interceptor Command. The plot was deemed a valid contact, not a flock of geese or some errant friendly plane. What did it mean? The intelligence officers gathered to talk it over.

A small formation, or a single plane, meant a recce mission or a nuisance raid. Possibly, a Japanese aircraft carrier task force lay somewhere west, hidden in the fog. More likely, a raiding cruiser or long-range submarine had launched its float planes to scout the coast’s defenses.  That was the most plausible explanation for what happened that night.AO5Y8955

Combined with top secret intelligence reports suggesting a series of major Japanese offensives would soon be unleashed, the idea that San Francisco was being snooped by an aerial scout left the Army Air Force jittery. They called for reinforcements, and soon fighter squadrons protecting New York and New Jersey would be on their way to bulk up the Bay Area’s air defenses. In the meantime, the fighter squadrons at Hamilton Field, Oakland and Mills would stand alert, weapons loaded, ready to take off at a moment’s notice to protect the citizens by the bay.

AO5Y8958 After midnight, those shaken citizens of San Francisco emerged from their basements and bomb shelters. The lights came back on, providing whatever sense of normalcy remained in a world where seemingly at any moment, their lives could be torn apart by bombs and fire.  As heads hit pillows, thoughts turned away from what lay over the horizon. To focus on that meant a night bereft of sleep since the future seemed bleak indeed.

To the south of the Bay Area, in the heart of the San Juaquin Valley, two young aviators rode out the alert in a Fresno hotel room. They’d been driving from Luke Field, Arizona en route to Hamilton Field, where the Army Air Force assigned them to an interceptor squadron tasked with defending San Francisco. Neither claimed to be experienced pilots. Second Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Bong had graduated from flight training only a few months earlier. He’d been training other pilots since as an instructor at Luke. His fellow pilot, Danny Robertson, was equally inexperienced. Together, they were part of a steady stream of reinforcements flowing to the squadrons defending the West Coast.

bong08The night of the air raid alert, they drove into Fresno from Anaheim. They grabbed a late dinner and returned to their hotel shortly before the contact first flared on B3’s radar oscilloscope.  Though exhausted from the travel, the two young men took turns writing letters home to their parents on the single desk between their hotel room’s beds.  They were either still writing, or just ready to turn in for the night when the radio stations left the air and the lights went out all over Northern California.

If Dick Bong held any illusions that duty at Hamilton Field would be a cushy Stateside gig like his time at Luke, the air raid scare that night put that notion to rest.  The West Coast wasn’t a backwater to the Pacific War; the military and citizens of California considered the Golden State part of the front lines. The enemy was coming. It would be his job to help stop them as part of San Francisco’s first line of defense.

For more on Race of Aces, please see:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/race-of-aces-review-when-lightning-strikes-11578672169

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Home Front, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: | 1 Comment

Love in the Pioneer Cemetery

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The Civil War Memorial at Pioneer Cemetery. MacArthur Court, the University of Oregon’s old basketball arena is in the background.

Yesterday was my daughter’s seventh re-birthday. As a high school freshman, on January 7, 2013, she underwent neurosurgery at Oregon Health Sciences University to drain a cyst that was that was pushing her brain off its center line and causing her significant issues. She came through the ordeal with flying colors, finished high school as her class valedictorian, and is currently completing her B.S. in biology.

Each year on January 7th, we take the day off and go celebrate together. Part of that ce

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Renee and I yesterday at the Eugene Barnes & Noble. They had a few of our books! 🙂

 

Relebration includes a bookstore visit–Powells Books in Portland, or the Barnes & Noble in Eugene.  Then we go off and do something else fun. This year, we went and hung out with bald eagles, osprey, hawks and owls at the Cascades Raptor Center in south Eugene.

On the way, I stopped us very suddenly in front of a little house not far from downtown Eugene.

“What are we doing here?” She asked.

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The Johnson family house, purchased in 1936. This is where Gerald lived while going to high school and the University of Oregon.

I grabbed an advance copy of Race of Aces from the back of the car and answered, “Meeting the owner of that house!”

Very reluctantly, Renee followed me to the front door. I rang the bell. Renee whispered, “It looks like we’re missionaries or something.”Race of Aces_Sara Vladic quote[1]

A very kindly older woman answered the door.  I introduced us and said, “Your house used to be owned by the Johnson family.”

“Why yes, I’d heard that!” she said, surprised.

“Their son, Gerald, grew up here. He became one of the great fighter leaders for the Army Air Force during WWII, and Oregon’s top ace.”

I handed her Race and said, “Thirty years ago, I wrote a research paper in graduate school about Gerald and all his neighbors here and what happened to them during WWII. That start led to this book.”

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Gerald with his first (and only) car, a ’37 Plymouth he bought in 1941 as an Air Corps cadet. He’s in front of the house while on leave.

They were remarkable neighbors. John Skillern who lived behind the Johnsons, served in the 10th Mountain Division. Jim Bennet was killed aboard a PT-Boat at Iwo Jima. Marge Goodman lived next door. She joined the Navy and documented captured Japanese aircraft brought back from the Pacific. Her brother became Haile Selassie’s personal pilot. Many never came home. Others were blown to the winds by the war, choosing to make the military their career following VJ Day.

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Johnson as a cadet at Luke Field, Az.

 

In 1942, as Gerald headed off to war in his first combat deployment, his squadron flew through Oregon en route to the Aleutian Islands.  Gerald, piloting a Bell P-39 Airacobra, flew right down the street in front of his family’s house, pulled up and executed a mini-aerobatics show for his neighbors, who streamed out of their homes to watch the show.

His family missed it. They’d been off having a spring picnic north of town.

As Renee and I drove down that street, I related the story to her. Witnesses said he flew between the trees lining the sidewalks.

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The street Johnson buzzed in 1942. The trees were smaller 78 years ago :).

 

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Gerald in his P-38 en route to the Aleutians in June 1942.

Later that day, after we we met some of the coolest birds we’ve ever seen, I took Renee to Pioneer Cemetery that sits in the middle of the University of Oregon campus. In 1990, as a young grad students, I spent almost two years documenting the veterans who were laid to rest there.  It is a remarkable place, full of history. Including a small, but crucial moment for Gerald Johnson.

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One of the many Civil War vets buried beside the U of O campus. In 2017, while research Race of Aces, I stopped at Vicksburg and followed the 37th Ohio’s attack route in a pouring summer rainstorm. 

 

In 1939, Gerald was a freshman at the U of O, enamored with a girl he’d seen while hiking north of town a few weeks before. He asked around and discovered she was a senior at University High, which was acquired by the college years ago and became the education building. Barbara Hall lived southeast of campus, and each day she would walk through the cemetery on her way home.  Somebody told Gerald of her routine, and he dashed off after school to find her.

He caught up with her near the Civil War Memorial and introduced himself. It was the start of a romance that transcended distance, separation and war.  That moment the two met in the autumn rain, they became soul mates.

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Barbara and Gerald home on leave in front of the Hall family’s house in south Eugene.

 

Bill Runey was a classmate and friend of Barbara’s. He stayed in touch with her after graduation, then joined the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. He ended up in Gerald Johnson’s fighter group in New Guinea. In the fall of 1943, Gerald flew into Bill’s airfield, found him and introduced himself. They hadn’t known each other in Eugene, but Gerald had seen on some paperwork that Bill was from his town. He was delighted to learn that Bill was friends with Barbara. The two put the war on hold for an afternoon and sat under the wing of a P-40, talking of home and their mutual friends. Despite their differences in rank–Bill was a young LT, Johnson a Major, Gerald shared some deeply personal things, including the depth of his love for Barbara.  They became fast friends.

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Bill Runey at Gusap, where the two Oregonians met for the first time.

When I started researching Gerald’s life, I met Bill through Barbara in 1992. He quickly became like a second father to me.  For years, we met for lunch once a week, often with Barbara, sometimes with other veterans from Eugene. The Uni High grads stayed in touch all their lives, meeting once a month to chat about old times, grandkids and life in Eugene. I was fortunate to meet some of them through Bill.

The last time I saw Bill, he was dying at a local care facility. I sat beside his hospital bed and read part of Indestructible to him.

He’d always wanted to meet some of the Japanese pilots he battled against over the skies of New Guinea. I was never able to arrange that for him, but I did introduce him to the head of the Zero Fighter Pilot’s Association in 1999. We had lunch together, and the two warmed up to each other and exchanged letters for years, though they fought in different areas of the Pacific.

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Bill in the cockpit of his P-40N Warhawk.

 

On a trip to the USAF archives, I had found a diary and a POW interrogation report of a Japanese bomber crewman captured right near Bill’s airfield. Several crews were shot down during air raids on that American outpost. Some survived by stealing food from American supply dumps, until they were hunted down and killed or captured.

I read Bill the two reports. It was the best I could do for him, and he looked at me and said, “I think his plane was the one I shot down that month.”

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Bill and I in Eugene together in about 2003.

 

Bill passed two days later at 96. He was a great guy.  His family asked me to help lay him to rest. So on a day in August, 2016, we gathered at the cemetery where his dear friends Barbara and Gerald first met and fell in love. Only a few yards from the Civil War Memorial, we said our goodbyes.  He rests in peace, surrounded by generations of warriors, neighbors and friends.

In the winter rain yesterday, Renee and I visited Bill, and I told her the story of how Barbara and Gerald met. 81612547_10219242304385822_6329328411730771968_n

Not forgotten.

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Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Uncategorized, World War II, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Wingtip to Wingtip, Wave After Wave

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Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, who finished the war with 22 confirmed air-to-air victories.

 

Colonel Gerald Johnson and the Napalm Attacks in the Philippines

 

The 1945 Battle for Luzon is often remembered solely by the drive from the beaches at Lingayen Gulf to the Battle of Manila, with daring special operations and air assaults conducted to rescue American civilian internees and prisoners of war.

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Men of the 37th Infantry Division crew an anti-tank gun in the house-to-house fighting in Manila, February 1945.

There is no finer work written on the tragic Battle of Manila than James Scott’s Rampage. This book is a telling, deeply emotional and vivid description of the house-to-house fighting and senseless mass murders that defined the battle. It is not an easy read, but one that provides critical insight into the mindset of American leaders in the Western Pacific during the final months of the war.  Scott’s book is a sober reminder that the cost of liberation sometimes came at an unbearable price for those who sought to liberate.

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Yet, even after the fall of Manila, there was considerable fighting left to be done elsewhere on Luzon. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops, well-organized and deeply entrenched, had retreated into the mountainous terrain northwest of Manila and were determined to make the FilAmerican forces pay for every inch of ground they captured.

From the end of February to the end of May, the bulk of both the U.S. Eighth and Sixth Armies battered there way forward toward several key objectives: Baguio, the Philippine summer capital, the mountain passes from Central Luzon into the Cagayan Valley, and the dams that provided Manila’s water supply.

The Japanese resisted with ferocious desperation. In countless small actions, they died to the last man.  We Americans remember the Alamo, Wake Island, the 20th Maine’s stand at Gettysburg and the 1st Minnesota’s suicidal charge on the second day of that battle. What is exceptional in American military history was routine for the Japanese Imperial Army. During the fighting for these three objectives, they proved their nihilistic courage time after time. That willingness to fight to the last bullet and breath combined with the Imperial Army’s broad and relentless brutality toward civilian and captured American servicemen made the Japanese a truly terrifying foe.

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Men of the 25th Infantry Division fighting on a ridge near Baguio in April 1945. The next month, the 25th would see fierce fighting at the Cagayan passes.

 

From the end of February through April and May, the two U.S. Armies hammered their way forward through pouring rain that turned the few roads to rivers of mud. The Japanese made the Allies pay for every ridge they seized, and the fighting bogged down to a World War I-esque battle of attrition.

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The terrain over which the 33rd Infantry Division had to advance to assault Baguio.

 

 

In April, on the Eighth Army’s front, the 33rd Infantry Division struggled forward to liberate Baguio. They faced formidable defenses built around ridges, hilltops and a river line. The Japanese dug in deep, bored tunnels in the mountain sides, carefully concealed artillery pieces that could be pulled back into deep caves after a fire mission.

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US Army map of the 33rd Infantry Division’s fight to liberate Baguio.

With the Japanese Army Air Force and Naval Air Force destroyed in the Philippines, the U.S. possessed complete command of the air over Luzon. The ground troops turned to the aviators for help in breaking the Japanese resistance.

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Cockpit view of a P-38 dive bombing mission near Baguio.

Thousands of ground attack missions were carried out against specific targets, sometimes only a few hundred yards from the forward most FilAmerican troops.   The P-38 pilots in the V Fighter Command went from flying for months against Japanese bombers and interceptors, to finding themselves carrying out close air support strikes. There was no glamour here, no press, no racking up of victories that could be glued to the sides of their P-38s. It was difficult, dangerous low-altitude work that required great skill and coordination to do without killing friendly troops.

 

Those grinding, daily dive-bombing and strafing missions became a vital source of support for the ground troops. The few Japanese who were captured stated they feared the fighter-bombers more than they feared American artillery bombardment.  Why?

 

Napalm.

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A 25th Infantry Division squad under fire near Baguio, April 1945.

 

In mid-April, on the 33rd Infantry Division’s front, the 130th Infantry Regiment called for air support to help the rifle companies get through a network of fortified hills overlooking a river.  The theater’s highest scoring fighter groups—the 49th and 475th— answered the call along with several others. For days, the fighter-bombers drenched the Japanese defenses with napalm and five hundred pound bombs.  In one attack carried out by the 49th Fighter Group, a tunnel was hit with napalm, killing two hundred Japanese soldiers.

 

These attacks broke the back of the Japanese resistance. The 130th got across the river and the 33rd Infantry Division liberated Baguio’s ruins on April 26, 1945.  It was a remarkable display of air-ground cooperation, and it set the table for larger operations in the weeks ahead.

 

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Though ordered out of combat by General Kenney, Johnson continued to fly ground attack missions with his 49th Fighter Group all the way up until July 1945 when he was promoted to a staff job within Fifth Air Force HQ. There he helped plan the air component of the invasion of Southern Japan.

Flying with the 49th during many of these attacks in support of the 130th was quadruple ace Gerald R. Johnson.  Johnson and Charles MacDonald of the 475th Fighter Group were the two leading aces still active in the SWPA by this point of the war. McGuire was dead, Kearby was dead and Bong was back home about to join the P-80 Shooting Star program.

Far Eastern Air Forces commander, General George Kenney, specifically ordered 5th Air Force commander Ennis Whitehead to pull Johnson out of combat to save him for the post-war era.  He was looking down the road and knew the USAAF would need a crop of brilliant leaders to gain independence from the Army and secure the primacy of American airpower in any future war.

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George Laven, Gerald Johnson, Clay Tice standing. Bob DeHaven, Wally Jordan, Jim Watkins in front row. The photo was taken a month after the mass napalm raids.  Watkins, Jordan and DeHaven were all aces along with Gerald.

 

 

Johnson was not having any of it. At twenty-four, he was a full colonel and in command of the 49th Fighter Group. He refused to let his men do the difficult flying without him.  Through April, he flew against the Japanese defenses around Baguio, sometimes two missions a day.  He coordinated many of the strikes from the air, communicating with the forward air controllers on the ground to get the bombs and napalm where they needed to go.

When the fighting ended and Baguio was liberated, the commander of the 130th Infantry, Colonel Arthur Collins, wrote a detailed letter to Gerald Johnson thanking him and his pilots for their skill and destructiveness.

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The ruins of Baguio, April 1945.

The following month, two major battles culminated almost simultaneously. In the Sixth Army sector, the 43rd Infantry Division was trying to take the Ipo Dam from a Japanese force that included three regiments and multiple additional battalions. The force defending the dam totaled over seven thousand men. The 43rd’s advance was slowed by the fierce Japanese resistance.

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The Ipo Dam was one of two that controlled the water supply into Manila. Capturing them from the Japanese became a top priority after the fall of the Philippine capital.

This time, V Fighter Command worked out a new type of attack to break the Japanese hold on the dam. Instead of going in as flights or squadrons, the fighter-bombers would go in as entire groups in one, rolling hammer-blow designed to drench five key defensive positions with massive quantities of napalm.

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US Army map of the Ipo Dam operation showing the 43rd and 38th Infantry Division’s boundary and area of operation.

On the morning of May 17, 1945, Johnson gathered his pilots and briefed them. He was excited and exuberant—one of his pilots later described him as sounding like a high school cheerleader (he was a yell leader at Eugene High, so that fit).  As a final word to his men, the great ace declared, “We’re going in wingtip to wingtip, wave after wave!”  he then led the 49th into the fight.

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Johnson ,at left, leading the 49th on the May 17, 1945 Ipo Dam attack.

They saddled up and flew the mission—along with two hundred other fighter-bombers.   The squadrons dove down into the valley around the Ipo Dam in tight, line abreast formations, driving through clouds of smoke boiling up from the preceding attacks, and delivered their deadly ordnance on their targets.

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A P-38 (at left) makes a run over a hilltop defensive network near the Ipo Dam during the May 17, 1945 raid.

The mass attack by V Fighter Command left the Japanese defenses in a shambles. Almost seven hundred Japanese were killed outright—ten percent of  the total number holding the dam. Dozens of vehicles, guns, supply and fuel dumps were incinerated by the blankets of napalm.  Of those Japanese who survived, many panicked and fled the slicks of fire immolating their fighting positions. When V Fighter Command learned this, future attacks included a wave of light bombers dropping parafrags to kill those men as they fled.

The 43rd’s assault carried through the areas devastated by the napalm raids and quickly seized the dam. An unusual number of Japanese were captured, most dazed by the aerial onslaught. They were quickly interrogated to determine the effectiveness of the napalm strikes, and the POW’s offered a few insights:

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Captured Japanese at the Ipo Dam, under guard by men of the the 43rd Infantry Division.

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Another photograph of the POW’s taken at the end of the Ipo Dam fight.

This novel attack tactic was duplicated a few days later on the Eighth Army’s front where the 32nd and 25th Infantry Divisions were locked in a terrible fight along the Villa Verde Trail and Highway Five some ninety miles north of the Ipo Dam.  The line of advance to seize the two vital passes into the Cagayan Valley was exceptionally narrow, supplied by twisting, winding roads turned to bogs by the incessant rain. The two American divisions faced two intact Japanese divisions, one of which was an armored unit. Yard by yard, the fighting here had raged since February 21st, and the Japanese were taking a terrible toll of the Americans. Ultimately, it would cost some seven thousand American and Filipinos to clear the mountains and open the passes.

 

To support the final assaults on the passes, V Fighter Command assigned four groups to carryout rolling mass napalm attacks on the Japanese 10th Infantry Division. For two days, Gerald Johnson led the 49th against these defenses at the Balete Pass. The defenders were smothered in flaming napalm. Following the 49th’s attacks came waves of fighter-bombers from the 475th, 8th and 58th Fighter Groups to add to the carnage on the ground. Artillery pieces were burnt in place. Dugouts and bunkers and caves were turned to charnel houses. Stunned Japanese survivors emerged from their entrenchments to flee the fires, only to be cut down by parafrags dropped by A-20s of the 312th Bomb Group.

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P-47 Thunderbolts, probably from the 58th Fighter Group, coming off target during the mass attack on the Japanese defenses around the Ipo Dam.

 

Both passes were captured shortly after these attacks. Some thirteen thousand Japanese died in the fighting there.

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Men of the 32nd Infantry Division advance up the Villa Verde Trail en route to the Cagayaan Valley passes.

 

 

Fighter pilots generally hated ground attack missions, preferring instead to be out hunting in the clouds.  Shooting Japanese planes down made the headlines, but these mass napalm attacks saved the lives of countless American GI’s struggling forward in the worst imaginable conditions.

For Gerald Johnson, that was one of his most meaningful accomplishments. In New Guinea and on Leyte, he’d seen first hand how the infantry lived and fought. He felt tremendous respect for them, and knew his lot in the war was much easier than what they faced.

One night, after losing a close friend, Gerald sat down and wrote of that respect to his father:

“Our men are fighting the most difficult battles of the war… Men are wounded or killed. Husbands, fathers. Brothers and sons are giving their last full measure, Dad. There are no braver or courageous men anywhere than these thousands of unsung heroes who are defeating the Jap[anese].

A few of us get the medals and become “heroes” yet we live well and have a fighting occupation that suits our stomachs.

Every time I started to complain, I think how selfish, how little I am. Those men lie awake in a stinking water-filled foxhole, waiting for a rustle of a Jap[anise] crawling on his belly. Those men who crawl out of the mud in the midst of a lead filled morning to find their buddy next to them is dead, his throat slit because he was too sleepy and exhausted to maintain constant vigilance—they are the real heroes dad.”

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A heavy weapons squad from the  25th Infantry Division at the Balete Pass.

 


Notes:

The American troops on the ground sent messages of thanks to the fighter groups involved in these attacks:

The 130th Infantry Regiment’s commander, Colonel Collins, sent this to Colonel Gerald Johnson:

AO5Y1592AO5Y1593This was sent by the commanding general of I Corps, which carried out the assault on the Ipo Dam.  General Swift apparently witnessed the subsequent mass napalm strike on the Eighth Army’s Front at the Balete Pass a week after the dam was captured.AO5Y1600

 

For more on Gerald Johnson, the ace race and the fighting in the Southwest Pacific Theater, please see our upcoming book, Race of Aces, due out on January 14, 2020!

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Categories: World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Kids from West Eugene

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Gerald R. Johnson, Oregon’s top ace who left the University of Oregon to join the Air Corps during his junior year in 1941.

 

A Tuesday morning tale.

In 1991, I sat in a house in Eugene, Oregon and peered into a USAAF locker box filled with letters, diaries, photo albums, home movies and personal effects of a fighter pilot long forgotten by the state he loved. In all those letters, and through his writing, I met an entire cast of kids from Eugene’s west side who grew up in the Depression, started school at the University of Oregon and ultimately ended up scattered all over the globe as a result of WWII.

I wrote a grad school paper on the kids in this neighborhood, and how the war affected this little community around West Broadway. The war was brutal to this neighborhood and the friends who bonded playing together as kids. It destroyed the pre-war social fabric. In its place, a new one gradually was cobbled together as some of them came home. Others were killed in action. Others found careers elsewhere. One ended up as a 3rd world dictator’s personal pilot. Some stayed in the military, returning to Eugene only after they did their 20 years.

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John Skillern, who lived behind Gerald Johnson in Eugene, served in the 10th Mountain Division as a ski and climbing instructor. When the division deployed to Italy, he served in the front lines in combat as an infantryman through the final, climactic battles of the war.

All that became the basis for my M/A thesis, then eventually my second book, Jungle Ace. For the book, I had to strip out most of the stories from the neighborhood to concentrate just on one of its sons, Gerald R. Johnson.

Today, I head back down to Eugene to give a speech about these kids. Some of them I never met, some of them became dear friends in the 1990s. One was in my wedding party. Preparing for this speech as been like returning to a part of me I’d left behind sometime after I wrote the Sandbox in 2005.

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Major Tom Taylor’s bomb group, the 305th was one of the first to see combat from England at the start of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

So. today I’ll be talking about men like Major Tom Taylor, commander of the 364th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, killed in action in early 1943 over German-held Europe. Aaron Cuddeback, killed in action during a raid on Germany in March 1943, Jim Bennett, killed by a kamikaze in the Pacific while serving aboard a PT-Boat. Joe Jackson and Brian Flavelle, killed a year apart during raids on the Ploesti oil fields, and Gerald Johnson, Oregon’s ace of aces who vanished in a typhoon in October 1945.

 

 

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Brian Flavelle’s bomb group training for Operation Tidal wave, the low altitude raid on Germany’s vital oil facilities in Ploesti, Romania. Brian’s aircraft crashed en route to target with a loss of everyone on board.

 

The U of O is a very different place than it was in 1941. There were over 220 alumni killed in WWII. If there was a battle, a U of O Duck was almost certainly somewhere in the mix. From the first days of the war in the Philippines, to the final shots in the Pacific, kids who once were chatted up by recruiters in Eslinger Hall bore witness to history, and often helped make it.

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Jim Bennett initially couldn’t get into the military, as he was working at Boeing in Seattle in a job considered vital to the war effort. In 1942, during a short family vacation to Utah, people on the street spit on him for not being in uniform. The humiliation drove him to do everything he could to get out of his work at Boeing. He ended up in the Navy, serving aboard PT-Boats. He was killed in the summer of 1945 in a Kamikaze attack.

 

 

 

 

 

Telling these stories, keeping their memories alive? That’s why I’m here.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Oshkosh Eye Candy

DSC01554Last week, I was supposed to only be at Oshkosh for Monday and Tuesday.  I ended up staying until Sunday morning, shooting photos on the flight line for up to fifteen hours each day.  I was simply amazed at the diversity of aircraft coming and going in the morning, long before the official air show began. Seriously, if you love aviation, get to Oshkosh sometime in your life if you’ve never been. It is the holy grail of warbird events.

Here are some of my favorite moments from the week:

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Panchito, a B-25 belonging to the Delaware Aviation Museum, makes a pass over the field.

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A MiG-17 going for altitude

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Seriously, one look at a B-2 and I start to believe all the Roswell myths.

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The hunters warming up. Two beautiful F-86 Sabres ready to launch.

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An F4U Corsair with a Bearcat on its wing, return to Oshkosh in the rain.

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The venerable C-47 Skytrain.

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A B-52 makes a low altitude run over Oshkosh.

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At the break: A P-51 and an F-35 Lightning II during the final pass of the Heritage Flight.

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The show-stopper for me was this Douglas A-20 Havoc, the world’s only flyable one. I never got to see it fly, but it stole my heart because it represents the 5th Air Force’s 312th Bomb Group and because Pappy Gunn modified the 3rd Attack Group’s A-20s before he tore into the B-25 in the spring and summer of 1942. Hence…this next image:

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Categories: World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Mitchells of Oshkosh

DSC01362Last week was a very special one for me. After finishing up doing research at the Richard Ira Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, I drove south to Oshkosh, pitched a tent and spent five days photographing the aircraft.

This was a bucket list event for me, and I’ve wanted to see this amazing event for most of my life. Being a West Coast native, getting to Oshkosh in the middle of busy summers just wasn’t in the cards. This year, it coincided with my transcontinental research trip, so I camped out, got filthy, grew an almost-beard, and shot photos fifteen hours a day.

Talk about bliss.

The highlight for me this year was the B-25 squadron that showed up. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many B-25’s. They had so many that two seemingly went into overflow parking in Warbirds Alley!

In the rain at dusk one night last week, the B-25’s lined up exactly like Doolittle’s planes had been arrayed on the U.S.S. Hornet before the April 18, 1942 raid on Tokyo. I was down right on the flight line to see this amazing tribute as, one after another, the Mitchells roared down the runway and into the air.

Breathtaking.  Here are some of the photos I took of that spectacular display, an homage to an era where our nation  produced some of the greatest aircraft and aviators in history.

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The first two Mitchells warm up before launch.

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This CAF B-25 was restored to memorialize a USMC B-25 from VMB-612 that was lost on its 23rd mission in the Pacific.

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This rare bird is the oldest surviving B-25 Mitchell. It was fourth off the North American production line, served as General Hap Arnold’s personal transport, was used later by Howard Hughes and ended up in Mexico and Indonesia before returning home to be a featured aircraft of the Long Island, NY American Airpower Museum.

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Barbie III, a 1st Air Commando B-25H Mitchell, rolled off the assembly line in 1943. Owned now by the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, it was the second H model produced during the war. Barbie III is also the only B-25H flying with an actual 75mm cannon in the nose.

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Put it in black and white, and that could be Dobodura, New Guinea, in the summer of ’43.

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This is the Yellow Rose, a B-25J also built in 1943. It served with the 334th Bomb Group stateside and was used in aircrew training as late as the mid-1950s. It belongs to the Central Texas Wing of the CAF.

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Mitchell in the Golden Hour.

 

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Oshkosh is just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. How many times do you get to look up at sunset and see this?

 

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Champaign Gal touches back down in the rain after the demonstration flight. It is part of the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio.

 

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Briefing Time, owned by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, is painted in the markings of a B-25 that flew with the 340th Bomb Group during the Italian campaign.

 

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The  Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum owns this beautiful eight-gunned B-25, “Hot Gen” and carries the markings of 98 Squadron, RAF in honor of the Canadian crews who flew the Mitchell in that unit.

 

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When the last B-25 touched down, it felt like I’d just seen a once-in-a-lifetime event. What an homage to an aircraft and its crews who played such a key role in winning the air war over the SWPA and in the MTO.

For those of you out there who want to learn more about the B-25 and some of the characters who modified and flew them in the Pacific:

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Categories: World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The U-Boat Killer

A U.S. Navy armorer loads a long belt of .50 caliber ammo into the nose turret of an Atlantic Theater Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber. Very long range aircraft like this variant of the B-24 helped ensure German U-boats had no safe place to surface and recharge their batteries while on patrol in the Atlantic. U.S. Liberators and Privateers are credited with sinking at least 23 U-boats in the course of the war.

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The last flying PB4Y2 Privateer airborne over Chino in May 2017. The nose turret was removed when it was used as a fire bomber, starting in the 1960’s.  It served in that capacity until 2006. It just went through a thorough restoration and is now on the air show circuit.

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Categories: ETO, European Theater of Operations, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: | 2 Comments

Stories from Golden Gate II

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Men of the 381st Infantry Regiment advance on Big Apple Ridge, June 12, 1945.

 

The 96th Infantry Division trained at Camp Adair, Oregon in 1943-44. Known as the “Deadeyes,” the division was one of four that called Adair home, but it was the only one sent to the Pacific. The other three went to Italy and Western Europe.

PFC Castaneda and his regiment served on Leyte Island in the Philippines first, then took part in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring and summer of 1945. In eighty-one days of continuous combat, Castaneda’s division lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action. Thirty-two Deadeyes are still classified as Missing in Action from Okinawa. Only the 6th Marine Division suffered heavier losses.

Louis Castaneda was killed on Okinawa on June 12, 1945, just shy of his 24th birthday, during an assault on Big Apple Ridge, a key position in the last Japanese defense line on the island. He is laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery.

 

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Categories: American Warriors, World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Leave a comment

The Planes of Fame Air Show Aviators

DSC07389Last weekend concluded one of the best warbirds air shows in the country. The Planes of Fame Air Museum puts on an astonishing display of military aviation heritage every May in what has become a major tradition within the warbirds community.

For most who attend, myself included, the amazing aircraft are the stars of the show. Thousands of photographers carrying insanely expensive gear turn out to capture these rare birds in flight. If you’re a member of any of the warbirds of WWII Facebook groups, no doubt you’ve been seeing their results.DSC07256

It dawned on me this year that the aviators and crews who keep these aircraft functional are the real stars. Who wakes up one day and says, “Gee, you know, I’d really like to spend my life working on Pratt & Whitney R2800 engines from the 1940s?” I mean, the market for that skill has got to be pretty limited. Ditto with the pilots like Steve Hinton, his son, Chris Fahey and Mark Foster. Some are prior service military aviators, others are legacies drawn to the family’s passion. It has to be something akin to a monastic calling.AO5Y3446

So today, I want to share a few moments I captured on the ground and in the air that highlight these remarkable folks who have taken the road less traveled to a unique and unusually special life. It is a dangerous one, as the many crashes, lost friends and aircraft can attest.  Jim Maloney. Jimmy Leeward.  Jay Gordon. Marcus Paine last year at Madras. The list is a long one. Yet, that does not dissuade them from climbing into the cockpit of aircraft built seven decades ago to carry men into battle at the cutting edge of their nation’s technological envelope. What a wild ride that must be.

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Here’s to a safe 2017 season and many more spectacular moments with these remarkable  historical artifacts.

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John Kerpa in period attire at the controls of an SBD Dauntless.

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When your P-63 King Cobra’s door won’t latch….who ya gonna call?

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Seriously, how cool would it be to put on your resume, “Pilot of the only complete airworthy A6M5 Zero on the planet?”

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John Kerpa channels Bill Ault on the weekend of the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of the Coral Sea.

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Mark Foster makes a low level, high speed pass in Wee Willy, a P-51 painted in the markings of the 357th Fighter Group’s Captain Calvert Williams. Willaims scored the legendary 8th Air Force group’s first kill during Big Week in February, 1944.

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In the CAF’s homage to top Navy ace David McCampbell is Chris Liguori, who has been flying since he was 14 years old. Got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.

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Lt. Col. (ret) Robert “Lips” Hertberg in the cockpit of this AT-6 Texan. Col. Hertberg flew F-16’s, initially with the 496th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and later became an F-16 instructor.

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John Hinton, Steve Hinton’s brother, in the cockpit of a Desert Air Force P-40.

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Another shot of Lt. Col. Hertberg in the T-6.

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Jason Somes Taxis this beautiful late model Spitfire. Jason earned his pilot’s license at age 19 and has been racing at Reno since 2003.

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Steve Hinton watches his brother depart in the P-40.

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Jason returns from a flight to a very eager ground crew.

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Chris Fahey in the only flying P-38J left in the world.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chino’s Legendary Planes of Fame Airshow

AO5Y3975For one weekend every year since 1957, the skies over Chino, California fill with the sights and sounds of World War II aircraft. Nestled on an old Army Air Force base where the likes of 24 kill ace Gerald R. Johnson once trained, hosts this incredible event as one of its main fund raisers. These days, lucky visitors to Chino can see upwards of forty warbirds thunder overhead.

It is an awe-inspiring sight.

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My dad found the museum one day in the mid-1950s. He was out driving around with his best friend from high school and looked over to see a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter just sitting in a field. Both boys had grown up on the Southern California coast during the war and had fallen in love with aircraft as they watched F4U Corsairs and P-38 Lightnings zooming over their homes. A Corsair even crash landed in front of my dad’s place on the Balboa Peninsula in 1945.AO5Y6509

So of course, they stopped. The museum back then was basically a field full of WWII aircraft discarded by the military and somehow acquired by the founder of Planes of Fame, Ed Maloney. One plane, a Japanese J2M Raiden fighter, had been a plaything for local kids at Griffith Park in Los Angeles before Ed acquired it. Rumor has it that some thief had pulled the seat out of it and pawned it, and Ed had to go to the shop and pay $50.00 to get it out of hock and re-install it in this incredibly rare warbird.

Back then, you paid a quarter at a tent that denoted the museum’s entrance, then walked through part of a bomber’s fuselage to enter the field of warbirds.

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As a kid living in the Silicon Valley, my dad would sometimes take me down to the Chino air shows. I still have snapshots I took in the 1970s with a 126 instamatic camera of the museum’s A6M5 Zero that had been captured on Saipan’s Aslito Field in 1944. Years later, while in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I discovered my landlady had been in charge of checking in and documenting captured Japanese aircraft as they arrived in Southern California. Quite possibly the initial paperwork the U.S. Navy generated on the Planes of Fame Zero had been filled out by Marge Goodman.AO5Y5847

Anyway, the trips down to Chino became a father-son thing for us Brunings. In 1986, we stopped going. I left for college that fall, and as graduate school and a career up in Oregon dominated my time, the chance to get to Planes of Fame became a pipe dream. Then came marriage, two kids and a new career as a military historian and writer.

Finally, after I came home from Afghanistan, we revived the tradition. Five of the last seven years, we’ve road tripped down to Chino for the air show. In 2013, we brought my son and made it a tri-generational road trip. AO5Y7833

This year, my dad and I returned and spent the weekend out at the Chino Airport, amazed and inspired by the thousands who turned out to see the old birds fly.

AO5Y5938World War II is slipping from modern memory as the few remaining veterans of it pass. It won’t be long before we won’t have anyone alive who experienced the war at all. But thanks to Planes of Fame, the visceral sensation, the raw power and speed of the planes our grandparents flew in defense of our nation will endure and live in the memories of succeeding generations. Ed Maloney was a visionary, and thanks to his aircraft rescue efforts long before anyone saw value in those aluminum bodies, the sounds and sights of these amazing machines will continue to fill the skies over Southern California for years to come.AO5Y2187

It is a truly special place. If you love aircraft, make a point of coming here someday. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be in the heart of the warbirds community.

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Below are some more photos I took this weekend at the 60th Planes of Fame air show.

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The Planes of Fame P-38J Lightning in 475th Fighter Group ace Parry Dahl’s markings.

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Warming up the CAF Mitsubishi A6M Zero on Saturday May 6, 2017

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Pilot Chris Fahey at the controls of the POF P-38. The sound of this plane’s twin Allison engines is like crack to your friendly writer.  After spending nine years researching and writing a biography on P-38 ace Col. Gerald R. Johnson, this aircraft became very dear to my heart. In the 90’s, I interviewed a lot of men who flew them in New Guinea and the Philippines during the war, and they swore by its firepower, range, speed and one-engined flight abilities.

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Mark Foster at the controls of this beautiful P-51 Mustang. It wears the markings of the 357th Fighter Group, a crack 8th Air Force unit that included Chuck Yeager and ace Bud Anderson.

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The Planes of Fame B-25 Mitchell making a pass over the Chino airport. This bird’s been used as a photographic aircraft for various aerial scenes in movies for several decades. After writing Pappy Gunn’s story in Indestructible, the side pack .50 caliber machine guns endear this bird to me. Every time I see it fly, I think the spirit of Pappy Gunn flies with it.

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A Red Air Force Yak prepares for a flight with the Korean War demonstration part of the air show.

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This year’s show included this stunning bird, a Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer U.S. Navy patrol bomber. 

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I’d never seen a PB4Y in flight before. The first pass it made during the airshow left me absolutely speechless. Loud, slow and huge, the plane is a dominating presence. I checked my Fitbit after it thundered by and saw my heart rate was at 150. I got credit for cardio, so props to the pilots for bringing on the work-out inducing excitement in their low-altitude passes.

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When I was in 3rd grade, my Uncle Dean gave me a book for my birthday entitled, “Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces.” I read it in a recliner next to the T.V. for hours every night after school. I still have it, though it is beat up and missing its dust jacket. One of the chapters is called, “Trapped By Zekes at Rabaul” and details one of ace Ike Kepford’s most harrowing missions in the South Pacific. This weekend, a Corsair in Kepford’s markings went blasting past me, and I was taken instantly back to those nights curled up in that 70’s-era chair, engrossed by Edward Sims’ recounting of Ike’s miraculous escape from pursuing Japanese fighters.

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Morning on the flight line, Saturday’s sunrise shoot.

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Steve Hinton piloting an F4U in Korean War markings from VMF-214’s 1950-51 deployment. 

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A bit of movie history. This was a modified BT-13 trainer altered to look like a Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, then used in the film, “Tora Tora Tora.”

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The only place I know of where you can see two Japanese A6M Zero fighters fly. The bottom one is Planes of Fame’s Saipan Zeke.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War I, World War II, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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