October 1944 - Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea
Over the past few weeks we've had three disastrous bombing missions to Balikpapan, an oil depot on the eastern shore of Borneo. We're flying the longest mission ever flown by the B-24. We're in the air 16 to 18 hours flying a 2400 mile round trip with a payload three tons heavier than allowed. The target is heavily defended with anti-aircraft and fighters that begin attacking us well before we reach the target. And we're much too far for fighter escorts. We circle Balikpapan waiting for the clouds to clear, still taking continuous punishment from the enemy. Our losses are heavy. But this is another story. The B-24 is not the most graceful aircraft ever built, but it is rugged and reliable and can take a lot of punishment. It is the successor to the B-17 "Flying Fortress" in the South Pacific. The main difference between the two aircraft is that the B-24 "Liberator" as it is known, has two bomb bays rather than one so that one of the two can be loaded with fuel for long flights like the one to Balikpapan.
October 20th - Leyte Island, The Philippines
Allied forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur land to begin the liberation of the Philippines. The Japanese throw everything they have at us. Every enemy aircraft available is marshaled. Alicante Airdrome on the small island of Negros, several hundred miles southeast of Leyte, is being used to refuel aircraft summoned from Japan for this effort.
October 31st - Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea
The 23rd Squadron has been ordered to relocate to Morotai, several hundred miles northwest of Noemfoor. This will considerably reduce the distance of the flight to Balikpapan, which we are still bombing and will bring us closer to Leyte to support the invasion. Our plane, Li'l Jo Toddy, is among the first to move and we are among seven crews ordered on the first mission out of Morotai.
Li'l Jo Toddy Crew
Pilot: Lieutenant Marty Roth
Copilot: Lieutenant Harry Elgee
Navigator: Lieutenant Al Kline
Bombardier: Lieutenant John Wylder
Nose Gunner and Armorer: Staff Sergeant Dennis Jones
Radio Operator and Waist Gunner: Technical Sergeant Don Perri
Waist Gunner: Staff Sergeant Brad Galbraith
First Engineer and Top Turret Gunner: Technical Sergeant Don Kabisch
Tail Gunner: Staff Sergeant Nick Mascetta
Ball Turret Gunner: Tech Sgt. Harold Douglas
Seven aircraft out of Morotai, to be joined by several others flying in from Noemfoor, have been ordered to hit Alicante Airdrome on Negros to support the invasion of Leyte. This is our crew's 18th consecutive mission and we are about to go on leave to Australia after this one. I've changed my Dutch Guilder for British Pounds (all of $100 dollars worth or so) and am looking forward to a break in the action. Headquarters has been kind to us, considering the fact that this is our 18th mission and the last before our leave, and has given us this "milk run" assignment. There is no anti-aircraft at Alicante and supposedly no enemy planes. It will be a walk in the park -or so we think!
We ride from Noemfoor to Morotai as passengers on another aircraft. Lt. Emig's crew has already flown Li'l Jo up and she is waiting for us. We arrive at 4:00 in the afternoon. The runway is just a dirt strip recently cut out of the jungle along the beach. Several of the 100 planes of the 23rd are parked in the grass along the runway. By the time we get oriented and through supper it's already late. We're getting up at 4:00 A.M. and nobody feels like taking the time to pitch a tent, so we sleep in the mess hall.
November 1st - Morotai Island, Dutch New Guinea
It's 4:00 A.M., time to get up. I have a cup of coffee - don't have far to go for it. I can never eat in the morning. The Intelligence Officer has arrived for the mission briefing in the briefing tent. Seven crews -70 men- are all there. The briefing begins at 04:30. We are all pretty relaxed since we do not expect to encounter enemy fire on this mission. The briefing ends around 05:30 and we head for our planes. I'm the nose gunner and Armorer. The Armorer is responsible for keeping the machine guns on the aircraft in working order. Back in the States, I was assigned to be a waist gunner but I traded positions with Brad Galbraith because he couldn't fit into the nose turret. If you're a nose gunner, being small is a virtue, but even I didn't find it very commodious.
I climb on board through the open hatch in the front of the plane through which the nose wheel is deployed. Instead of wearing my parachute harness I'm carrying it. The reason for this is that about a month before, the Army, in its wisdom, came out with a "new and improved" parachute harness. This new harness had a jungle survival pack sewn onto the back. This is a great thing to have in the jungle, but there is no room for it in the nose turret, so I have to stow it in the bombardier's compartment next to the nose wheel. I also attach another new piece of survival gear to the harness - a one-man life raft kit. A parachute is stowed next to my harness.
I climb into the nose turret and try to close the door latch behind me. We've been having some problems with the latch lately and this time it simply won't close from the inside. Lt. John Wylder, the bombardier, uses a screwdriver to wedge the latch closed from the outside. We take off on our two-hour flight to the rendezvous point just off the southern tip of Zamboanga Island where we are to be joined by several other planes from Noemfoor.
It's 8:00 A.M. and we're circling at the rendezvous point but no other aircraft show up, so our seven aircraft assume bombing formation – two "V" echelons, each with one lead aircraft and three across the back. We drop down a few thousand feet to our bombing altitude of 14,000 feet. We are in the second "V" on the right.
When we pass over the target it is covered with clouds. No problem, we just circle around, drop a few thousand feet more, and make another pass. This time the target is clear, but as we start our bombing run we suddenly find we have unexpected company. We did not expect enemy aircraft at Alicante but they are there and our first pass has stirred them up like a nest of hornets. Suddenly they are all over us. I can see about ten. Wylder counts twenty. Later reports said that there were forty or fifty. Suffice it to say they are all over us.
I have all the targets I want and fix on whatever aircraft are closest. No sooner have I completed firing on one target with my twin .50 caliber machine guns than I switch to another. I can feel the aircraft being rocked by explosions. One by one I can see the engines begin to flame as fuel from the bullet-ridden wing tanks begins to burn. I have no time to think about this, though, as enemy fighters continued to swarm all over us. I keep firing repeatedly at one Zero which is maneuvering with considerably more skill than the others. I later found out that most of these pilots were young and had little training because they were primarily Kamikaze fighters and this was a suicide attack. We had not seen much of this before, but the enemy was getting desperate.
Finally, I expended all 1450 rounds of ammunition. I happen to look into the distance and my glance catches three of our B-24's receding into the sky. I know that something is wrong because we are taught to hold formation when under attack so we can provide cover to one another. I quickly take stock of the situation: I'm not wearing my parachute; I'm locked into the nose turret; we're surrounded by enemy aircraft which continue to fire on us; three engines are ablaze; the pilot, copilot, and everyone else has bailed out (we found this out later); and the plane is on it's way down. It doesn't look good.
I can't do any more damage without ammunition, so I start pounding against the turret hatch with the back of my left arm. After several hard swings the latch gives way and the door swings open. I jump out into the bombardier compartment and quickly size up the situation. There is a flight instrument panel on the bulkhead. The airspeed indicator is close to 300 knots and the altimeter is unwinding like the second hand on a clock. Lt. Wylder is somewhat vainly firing away with the small .30 caliber machine guns we carry on board the aircraft. We don't have much time left.
I grab the red emergency handle to manually open the nose wheel door and turn to Lt. Wylder. "Get Out" I shout over the roar of the wind as I turn to put on my parachute harness. Wylder jumps out as I slide my arms through the harness webbing and snap the chest clip. I grab the parachute and with two clips snap it onto the harness. I still have the two straps at the bottom of the harness with two more snaps to clip. I glance again at the altimeter. It's dropping below 1000 feet -seconds from impact! No time left. With my right hand, I grab the two straps that are dangling between my legs. I pull them up between my legs and firmly against my chest. Holding the straps in an iron grip I dive head first out of the plane and immediately pull the ripcord. The high speed of the crashing aircraft produces a huge wind that instantly deploys my parachute. I am jerked violently sideways and, before I can even swing under the parachute, I hit the water. That's as close as it gets and you live to tell about it.
I'm a good swimmer so the water doesn't bother me. My parachute is now billowing out in the wind over the water, making a great white target against the blue sea for the enemy fighters overhead. I see one of them headed my way in a fast dive. I quickly release the chest snaps and the parachute floats free along with my much-needed backpack with the jungle survival kit. I have the presence of mind to also unsnap the one-man life raft pack, duck under water, and swim quickly away from the billowing parachute. Moments later the enemy fighter makes his strafing run. As I come back up and catch my breath I see to my amazement that the bullets are skipping off the surface of the water, just like stones I threw as a kid.
With the enemy planes gone, I look around to see if I can find Lt. Wylder. I spot him about a quarter of a mile off. He isn't a good swimmer but we both have Mae Wests. I unpack and inflate the life raft. To my delight I find it comes equipped with paddles, distress flares, water, and food. How thoughtful of the Army! I get on board the raft and begin to paddle over to Wylder. As I near him I see he is struggling and a little panicky. Only half of his Mae West has inflated and he is having a hard time keeping his head above water. As I near him I see the look of relief in his face, but just as he reaches out his hand and I am about to pull him aboard, I see another enemy plane bearing down on us.
The top of the life raft is yellow and makes a wonderful target, almost as good as a billowing white parachute, but the bottom of the life raft is blue to provide camouflage in just such a situation as this. Wylder hasn't seen the plane, so when I jump out of the raft and turn it over on us he must be thinking I'm trying to kill him. (Later he tells me he's thinking about the girls in Hollywood!) Under the raft Wylder has taken another mouthful of the Philippine Sea and is sputtering and choking. Overhead I can hear the enemy strafing us, but the camouflage works and he misses us. Apparently the pilot figures there are better things to spend his ammunition on so thankfully he flies away.
I turn the raft over, climb in, and help Wylder in. Then I realize that we have lost the paddles, flares, and all our provisions. Although the Army, in its wisdom, had thought to paint the bottom of the raft blue so it could be inverted to provide cover, it had not thought to secure these supplies so they wouldn't fall out if you ever had to do this. When I get out of this mess intelligence is going to hear about this - and that damn jungle pack too!
The two of us are barely afloat in our little one-man life raft. Without paddles the tide is taking us inexorably back towards Negros Island. Having just bombed the place, I figure we would not get a very good reception there. Across the bay, about four miles to the east, we can see the small island of Guimeras. To the north, also about four miles, lies Panay, the third largest island in the Philippine group. Both islands are formally under Japanese control but, as we later find out, they are mostly under the control of the guerrillas!
We sit floating helplessly for several minutes when suddenly several small sailboats appear in the distance. After about 20 minutes we spot a canoe with an outrigger coming towards us. As it approaches we can make out two men in civilian clothes. They could be Philippine or Japanese, we can't tell. They paddle to within a few hundred feet and just sit there and look at us. I ask Wylder if he has a weapon. He says he has his .45 and a jungle knife. I say, "Well, do you have another knife?" He says he has a little utility knife. "Well give it to me" I say. After several minutes of watching each other, Wylder decides to end the standoff. He stands up and gamely shouts "Americano!" Immediately the two men in the canoe stand up, grin, and shout "Filipino!"
With relief, but still some suspicion, we watch as they paddle over to pick us up. We climb aboard, Wylder is in the front behind the first man and I'm in the back behind the second. They are not armed, which is good, but we are still wary because the Japanese offer a bounty for captured Americans. Since I'm a good swimmer, I figure if worse comes to worse I can dive off the boat and get away. The man in the back is Salvador Lopez. As it turns out, he later becomes a very famous political leader in the Philippines.
It's now about 10:15 A.M. Our rescuers begin to paddle us towards Guimeras Island. About 45 minutes later we approach a beautiful beach. It is lined with men, women, and children from a nearby village. As we near the shore they start wading into the water, shouting and cheering in welcome. As we get out of the boat they rush to embrace us. They haven't seen an American in three years and the effects of the Japanese "Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere" has taken its toll on the populace. Japanese abuses have impoverished the people and food is scarce. Each person in the crowd has brought with them a precious gift - an egg. Soon we are sitting down and eating probably the biggest omelet ever made!
Now is when we meet Lt. Abelardo Javellana, the man who saved our lives. He is the leader of a guerrilla group on Guimeras Island and when he saw our planes being shot down and parachutes in the air he ordered his men to go out in their boats to look for survivors. After we eat he tells us that our aircraft crashed nearby and asks if we want to see it. For sure we want to see it. We need to recover the IFF (a radio beacon to "Identify Friend or Foe") and the Norden Bomb Site - two pieces of technology we don't want falling into enemy hands. We will also look for (and hope not to find) remains of any of the crew.
A short while later we arrive at a coconut grove. "Li'l Jo" had come in at a low angle and had cut a swath through the trees as she came to her final resting spot where she blew herself to smithereens. This scattered and splattered debris over a large area. About the only thing I can recognize is the left wheel well and landing gear. Two guerrillas find my .45 and come running up to me. "Is this yours?" they ask in broken English. Now there is nothing more valuable to a guerrilla than a weapon. I tell them "hey, you saved my life, you keep it". They are delighted.
We locate some .30 caliber machine gun ammunition - which fortunately Wylder didn't find - in metal boxes. We salvage this and it comes in handy later. Some guerrillas also find a parachute and point it out to us, fearing that it might be part of the remains of a member of the crew, but no, it turns out to just a spare parachute we carry on board. We don't find either the IFF or the Norden Bomb Site and decide its time to get out of there because the Japanese will soon come to check out the wreckage.
We head to Javellana's headquarters - just a small collection of bamboo huts on raised platforms. It is located a good distance from the beach because the Japanese run daily patrols along the shoreline. Although the Japanese technically control these islands, guerrillas control the interior of them and Japanese who venture alone or in small groups will almost certainly be either captured or killed.
At dusk we eat dinner and are entertained by a tenor who does a good job and we tell them stories about Hollywood. They are very interested in the actors they see in the movies and can't believe that Mickey Rooney is old enough to be married! Before we turn in we meet an old man who saw our planes in the morning and walked all day from the other side of the island to meet and thank us. I was very moved by this. Later we lie down on the split bamboo floor to sleep. These floors have ridges like your fingers and in the morning you have these indentations all over your legs and back.
Around 11:00 P.M. we are roused from our sleep and told that they have rescued two more of our crew. We are really excited by this news and run out to see who they are. Two Americans we don't recognize are outside the hut - Tech Sgt. Don Mix and Tech Sgt. Clyde Whitling. They are from Lt. Sanders' plane that was rammed in the cockpit by a kamikaze. Their aircraft split in half like an egg. Mix and Whitling were the waist gunners and they just fell out. They had their parachutes on and miraculously survived. No one else in the plane did. They were picked up late in the day by Javellana's men and, like us, got a king's welcome at the beach. They hid out at Javellana's father's house until a Japanese patrol forced them to move here. After a little more talk we go to sleep. It's been a long day!