Life in the Ground Crew

One of the biggest elements that a bomb group kept running smoothly during World War II was the ground crews. Men who did their best to keep airplanes in good condition, even in a climate where it was difficult to do so. Men who took care of mission logistics, making sure that the airplanes were loaded with the appropriate explosives for a mission, that parachutes were in working order, communications were set up properly and so much more.

Glen C. Brown of the 386th Squadron, 312th Bomb Group was on the line one day with the rest of his ground crew when they heard explosions. Brown, who was a member of the 386th’s Armament Section, typically loaded bombs onto the A-20s and maintained the machine guns. While he had the others were working, a batch of Japanese planes attacked the airfield. “…we decided, unanimously, that there were more interesting places to be than around an aircraft, so we left abruptly!”

The 312th aircrews truly appreciated all the time and effort put in by their ground crews, recognizing the long hours they worked to keep up with the mission activity. Crew chiefs cared about their airplanes, even taking it personally if one of his A-20s didn’t return after a mission. As pilots rotated out of a squadron, crew chiefs often wondered about the type of person who would be flying his plane next, and whether or not the new pilot would treat it well. Because ground crewmen never fought in combat directly, they were never credited with combat time, and so served much longer tours of duty than their aircrews even though they were just as vital to the combat mission’s success.

Chow Line on the Flight Line

Keeping the 312th Bomb Group A-20s mission-ready was hard work and frequently required long hours on the flight line for maintenance crews. To ensure that aircraft were always ready, it was often necessary to feed these work crews at the airfield. Here, maintenance men from the 387th Squadron have chow at the flight line. (Jack W. Klein Collection)

These men put in long hours in the tropical sunshine, dust, rain or mud, and the climate provided its own set of issues to deal with. Moisture often worked its way into the electrical systems by way of large electrical plugs that connected the wing and fuselage circuits, which could short-circuit the cockpit instruments. Wet plugs drove them crazy until someone had the idea to use hot air blowers to dry them out.

Cylinder heads would overheat, causing the studs that attached the exhaust ports to the cylinder heads to crystallize and break. If that happened, men spent hours removing and replacing the entire cylinder head because they couldn’t remove the remaining studs. Bushings were also replaced regularly because vibrations and heat wore them out very quickly.

It wasn’t always easy to replace parts on an airplane because there weren’t enough new materials coming in from the States. In March 1944, it was so bad that leaders in the 386th Squadron estimated that potentially 80% of the Squadron’s supply needs had not been met. Ground crews salvaged a lot of materials from wrecked or retired planes to keep their A-20s in the air, and that paid off. Average aircraft operability rates hovered around 85% since the beginning of combat operations, an excellent record for the ground crews.

 

Read more about the 312th Bomb Group in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2019

This week, we’re listing our most popular posts published this year as determined by the number of views. Did your favorite post make the list?

Thank you for your continued support by subscribing, reading and sharing our work, and buying our books. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments. We’ll be back next year with more great content. And now, without further ado, our most popular posts published in 2019.

 

B-25 Impatient Virgin takes off 1. The Disappearance of Capt. Kizzire’s Crew Captain William L. Kizzire’s B-25 is shot down over Boram. The crew survived and disappeared before a rescue could be made.

 

2. Medium Bombardment Attack and Aviation A film to introduce the Pacific Theater to men being transferred from Europe.

Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 3. Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 Take a look at the flight distances between Port Moresby and important locations in February 1943.

 

408th Personnel at Nadzab 4. When Plans Go Awry: A Mission to Palau Captain John N. Barley’s B-24 is shot down after an encounter with several Japanese Zeros.

 

Death of an A-20 5. Shot Down at Kokas The story behind a fatal mission that took the lives of two men and produced one of the most dramatic photo series taken from a combat camera.

 

Taxpayer's Pride wreckage 6. Surviving in a Japanese POW Camp Shot down by Japanese fighter pilot SFPO Shigetoshi Kudo, this B-17 crewmember was turned over to the Japanese after he escaped certain death by jumping out of his plane over New Britain.

 

7. Ken’s Men, Vol. II Announcement We were so excited to share the news of this new release with you!

R&R for the Ground Crews

As World War II continued in 1945, a new program was put in place: two men a month from each ground echelon of an air unit were permitted a 30-day leave to the States. It was a nice thought, but completely detached from the reality of an active combat unit like the 345th Bomb Group. More than 600 men in the 345th were eligible for leave. Many of them hadn’t had a proper break from the action in more than 20 months, and an alternative solution was needed. Majors Maury Eppstein and Everett E. Robertson, as well as two sergeants, set out for Manila by order of Col. Coltharp to rent the two largest houses in they city for leave centers.

It was a hot, dusty 90 mile trip on February 4, 1945 that kept the men on their guard as they watched for Japanese stragglers hiding near the roads. When they reached the city, they were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned by the Military Police. Manila itself was currently engulfed in a bloody and greatly destructive battle that would continue through March; troops had liberated 4000 American and Allied civilians from Santo Tomas University only one day before. The MPs were reluctant to let the members of the 345th into the war zone, but they eventually relented, giving them handwritten passes and directions to the university located two miles away.

Even on the relatively safe pathway they took, the men were shot at once on the way to the university. Shortly after they arrived, the very presence of the men drew a crowd of excited people. None of them had ever seen a jeep before. Nearly two weeks earlier, the Japanese cut off the food supply and the conditions at the school had been deteriorating. People had been surviving on whatever they had. Children often received a significant share of their parents’ rations, and there was a stark difference between the health of the children and adults. Seeing this, the members of the 345th gave the extra rations they brought to those in charge of doling out food to the civilians. Everyone was very grateful for their contributions.

For the next two days, the men searched for suitable houses within Allied-controlled territory. They encountered relieved civilians who had been hiding from the Japanese. The father of one family even dug up a bottle of brandy that he buried in the backyard to toast the Americans. Other neighborhoods were crossed off the map, still occupied by Japanese soldiers. Burning tanks, dead bodies and artillery pieces were scattered all along the route to the neighborhood they were going to look at. Once they found three or four acceptable houses, it was time to head back to San Marcelino.

Villa

As soon as Manila fell to American forces, a small reconnaissance team from the 345th Bomb Group visited the capitol and made arrangements to rent two luxurious villas to use as rest and recreation centers. This photo shows the two-story home used as the “leave mansion” for the 345th enlisted men in Manila. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

After returning to their base and reporting on the conditions witnessed in Manila, the 345th decided to pack a 6×6 truck with food, water, medicine and other aid for those at Santo Tomas. They dropped off the supplies, and then returned to the two locations that were chosen for leave houses to negotiate a rental agreement with the owners. The first house, which was easily secured, was owned by an architect and won a design award six years earlier after it was built. Approximately 40 enlisted men would be able to stay there at a time. At the second house, the leasing process took an interesting turn, as the mansion belonged to the governor of one of the provinces. The lady looking after the house, Dorothia, couldn’t agree to anything without the governor’s permission, so the group spent the night at the house, then went back to San Marcelino the next day.

Again, members of the 345th returned to Manila. This time, it was a much smaller group consisting of Maj. Eppstein and Capt. Stephen N. Gilardi, the 500th Squadron’s Ordnance Officer, who was an attorney before the war. Eppstein wanted to be sure that renting the governor’s mansion was formalized legally and wouldn’t result in any issues for the governor or the 345th Bomb Group. They picked up Dorothia, who agreed to show them the way to the governor’s town. The Americans were greeted warmly and a rental agreement was soon finalized. The governor also threw a banquet for the men. Later on, they went back to Manila, where they dropped off Dorothia to get the house ready, then drove on to San Marcelino.

The houses were quickly prepared for the officers and enlisted men, and it wasn’t long before they were occupied by men on leave. They leased these houses until July, after the 345th moved to the Ryukyu Islands and it wasn’t feasible to fly all the way back to Manila. Colonel Coltharp’s idea provided an incredible boost to the morale of his unit.

 

Read the full story in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Update on Ken’s Men Vol. II

They’re here! After a two day weather delay, our books arrived late on Thursday and we started shipping out orders on Friday. If you ordered a book (or two), keep an eye on your inbox for that notification email saying that your order has shipped. We have quite a backlog, but we’re working through it as quickly as possible. For the rest of you who haven’t ordered yet, head over to our website and buy your copy now! If you haven’t purchased Volume I, we’re running a deal through the end of the year of $10 off when you buy Ken’s Men Vol. I and Ken’s Men Vol. II. As always, thank you for supporting IHRA as we share the stories of the men who fought in the Pacific Theater.

A photo of Ken's Men Against the Empire, Vol II

 

Finding Kagi

For the last 50 years, Japan had been occupying the island of Formosa (now known as Taiwan). Their occupation provided an excellent element of control over the sea lanes between Formosa and the Japanese islands. They built sugar and alcohol plants on the island, which gave them a very useful byproduct: butanol. This flammable liquid was used to make aviation fuel and acetone for explosives. The island also had oil, iron, copper and aluminum, all of which were used by the Japanese. To destroy these industrial plants, U.S. crews first had to make it through the “flak belt,” the heavily-armed southern part of Formosa.

Approximately five million people lived on the island at the start of World War II, and these people were not as anti-Japanese as those on the Philippine Islands. Aircrews going down on Formosa were less likely to find individuals to help them get back to the Allied forces. Still, all eyes were on Formosa being the next stepping stone to the islands further north.

In March 1945, the 312th Bomb Group began flying its first missions to Formosa. First up was a mission to Kagi Airdrome, located in the southern half of the island. It was going to be a very long day: the flight would be more than 1000 miles round trip, which was near the limit of the A-20. About 200 miles of the flight would be over open ocean.

On March 2nd, 36 A-20s from the 386th, 387th and 388th Squadrons met up with they P-38 escorts over Mangaldan for the trip to Kagi. After making the journey to the island of Formosa, the formation began searching for Kagi in the cloudy weather. They found a target, bombed and strafed it, then formed up to head home. Something wasn’t quite right, though. As written in the 386th Squadron mission report, they bombed what they “believed to be Kagi dummy airdrome, which is at Shirakawa 5 miles S. of Kagi town…when the attack was made the pilots were not certain which drone was hit but thought it to be the dummy from available information on the drone…The revetments around the strip were reported as being in perfect condition—almost too perfect.”

It turns out that they didn’t hit Shirakawa, either. Instead, they hit Mato Airdrome, located 25 miles to the south. Years later, Maj. Richard Wilson, leader of that mission, remembered that it was overcast over the South China Sea and he could not see the waves below, which would have helped him determined the direction the wind was blowing. After flying out of the cloud bank, Wilson realized that they were too far west. He turned east, crossed the coast of Formosa and decided to attack the first airfield he saw. Joseph Rutter, who was also on the flight, had a feeling that the flight leader was lost. They were making too many turns, “roaring around over the countryside for what seemed to be half an hour, or at least much too long…”

The mission also claimed the lives of two members of the 387th Squadron. Second Lieutenant Bruce E. Nostrand’s A-20 was hit by ground fire on the return flight. It was damaged enough that Nostrand needed to ditch his plane two miles off the coast of Cape Bojeador, on the northwest point of Luzon. Neither he nor his gunner, S/Sgt. Lyle A. Thompson, made it out alive. A second A-20, flown by 1/Lt. James L. Temple, was also hit by ground fire. He and his gunner made it back to Magaldan without a hydraulic system and crash-landed without injury. A third A-20, flown by 2/Lt. Frederick C. Van Hartesveldt, hit a tree during the attack. While the tree damaged the elevator, bomb bay doors, inner left wing and stabilizer, he and his crew also made it back to base without injury.

 

Read this story in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

Letter From New Guinea

Some humor out of the Pacific Theater. The following poem was included with a diary from Robert Pickard of the 71st Squadron, 38th Bomb Group.

 

Letter From New Guinea (Australian author unknown)

Dear Joe, – – You ought to see me

In my shanty on the rise,

With the great mosquitoes buzzing

And the hordes of ants and flies.

You should see the snakes and scorpions,

And the centipedes and bugs,

And they’re not brought on by drinking

From old black quart pot mugs.

 

We’ve seen these things in Aussie

In the good old droving days,

And they often looked much bigger

Gazing through a drunken haze.

All these monsters in New Guinea

Were a curse and pest at first.

They’re now commercialised by Army,

So the Jap can do his worst.

 

You couldn’t kill these mossies

If you used a bullock yoke.

So they use them now as bombers

When they’re properly tamed and broke.

The ants are much more docile,

Rather sluggish for a hack,

But they used a mob as pack mules

On the Owen Stanley Track.

 

The flies are rather flighty

And they take some breaking in,

But send them after Zeros, and

The flies will always win.

The snakes are used by sappers

On the flooded river ground:

They use them there as bridges

For the soldiers northward-bound.

 

The scorpions, Joe, are streamlined,

They’re bullet-proof as well;

They carry eighteen-pounders

And they blow the Japs to hell.

How to get stores over the mountains

Had the ‘Big Shots’ at a loss

‘Till they used the mighty centipede

To tow the stores across.

 

The bug’s a handy scout car

And he very seldom jibs,

But be careful when you touch him

Or he’ll kick you in the ribs.

The rats are wild and snorty

Like that blooming mare you sold,

But the ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzies’ ride ’em

To deliver ‘Guinea Gold.’

Repost: No More Spam

First published on our blog in 2015, this story will appear in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. II.

 

Throughout World War II, the subject of food was regularly brought up, usually because it was so terrible and the occasional good meal was worth writing home about. While the 43rd Bomb Group was staying in Port Moresby, they put up with field rations that included canned mutton, powdered eggs and “corn willy,” which was Aussie slang for canned corn beef.

Obviously, visits to the mess hall left much to be desired. There was one chef in the 403rd Bomb Squadron who decided to have a little fun with the menus each day and began writing up items such as “Spam ala King,” “Spam Peking,” “Sweet and Sour Spam,” etc. One day, he ran out of ideas and wrote “Just Plain Ole Hairy Spam.” We do not know if scenes similar to Monty Python’s Spam skit played out in the mess hall.

The men grew tired of the bad-tasting, nutritionally-deficient food they had to eat every day and it also lowered their morale. Before long, unit mess officers started up programs to ferry fresh food from northern Australia. Men would contribute money to a fund that would go towards purchasing fruit and vegetables as well as fresh meat, dairy and eggs. Planes typically used for these trips had been designated as war-weary and removed from combat service. They were often known as “fat cats,” possibly adopted from an early 3rd Bomb Group B-25 called Fat Cat that was repurposed as a ferrying aircraft in late June 1943.

Unlike most trips, the plane returning from Australia this time was a brand new radar-equipped B-24 carrying supplies and fresh food such as a side of beef, watermelons and cases of eggs. As the plane touched down at Seven Mile Airdrome, the left tire blew out, causing the B-24 to swerve to the left. Pilot F/O Clarence Molder did his best to straighten out the landing by applying the right break and increasing the power to the left outboard engine, but to no avail. It finally came to a stop in a ditch, with the nose twisting and the outboard props being torn away. Luckily, the aircraft did not catch fire.

B-24 crack up

The B-24 after it stopped in the ditch.

Before the landing went awry, radio operator T/Sgt. Charles G. Meinke had been sitting on the floor with one foot on a case of eggs. After the crash, he feared he was injured and bleeding when his foot was forced through the case and he felt liquid in his shoe. It turned out that he was not seriously injured, but the eggs had broken and the yolks had seeped into his shoe.

Second Lieutenant John P. Harmon scrambled out of the plane and noticed fuel leaking from a ruptured wing tank and another stream that was running onto a hot turbocharger. The turbocharger was so hot that it vaporized the gas as it poured down. Harmon ran for the fire extinguisher to cool down the turbocharger, then took the emergency axe to rescue his crew members still trapped inside.

Several of the other men finally got out through the plane’s windshield and helped Harmon until crash trucks and ambulance crews arrived. To the joy of the onlookers that had gathered, they soon freed the rest of the crew. As happy as the men were to see the crew make it out alive, a 501st Squadron Adjutant was upset to see his large purchase of fresh food littering the runway.

Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. II is now available for preorder!

Cover for Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. IIThe official publishing date will be October 28, 2019. Press proofs have been approved and returned to the printer for publication. Allowing a few days for shipping from the printer, we expect to begin shipping out orders by the first week of November. The primary authors on this volume are Lawrence J. Hickey and Col. James T. Pettus, USAF (Ret). Colonel Pettus was the last commander of the 43rd BG during World War II, and flew B-24s with the unit during almost the entire time the aircraft served with the unit.

Because the 43rd Bomb Group’s history was split into two volumes, we’re also going to offer a limited sale for retail orders only until December 31, 2019 at $10 off when you order both volumes. To be clear, this sale is only for our 43rd Bomb Group books and you must purchase one of each to get the $10 off. Separate orders of either book will be $75 for Volume I (published in 2016) and $80 for Volume II. All orders received after January 1, 2020, will be at the regular price.

As far as we know these combined volumes contain the most comprehensive history of an air unit in combat ever produced. This includes a detailed narrative text, an outstanding collection of black and white and original color photography, extensive maps showing the unit operating areas, bases, missions and losses, and incredible artwork, including 56 aircraft color profiles and seven full color battle scene paintings done by world renowned aviation artist Jack Fellows. Nothing like this has ever been produced before in aviation literature.

All of our books have hardbound full color covers with sewn bindings. High quality enamel coated paper stock is used throughout to hold the best quality imagery for photos.

Here are the specifications for Volume II, which covers the B-24 era of the unit from October 1943 to the end of the war in 1945:
464 pages of new material
32-page color section
32 B-24 color aircraft profiles
4 color combat paintings
677 black and white photos

Between the two volumes, there are:
880 pages
48 color pages
56 B-17 and B-24 aircraft color profiles
7 color combat paintings
1200+ black and white photos

My deepest appreciation for all your support over the many years of this project.

Lawrence J. Hickey

Co-Author and President of
International Historical Research Associates