For Want of an Airplane

As the war progressed in October 1944, the Allies were finally able to return to the Philippines, beginning with the island of Leyte and its one airfield, Tacloban. As always, a new base had its headaches. The Allies soon discovered that the soil on Leyte turned to mud during the rainy season. This thwarted plans for building other airbases on the island. Over the course of a few weeks, there were three attempts to build bases elsewhere on the island that were soon abandoned because the ground was too wet. Eventually, they were able to build a base at Tanuan, located on the east coast of the island. For the time being, Tacloban would serve as the only airdrome on Leyte, which meant that it would become the O’Hare of the Pacific.

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Pettus, C.O. of the 43rd Bomb Group, was given the job of airdrome commander. “There were constant decisions to make, i.e. where were aircraft to park, where to put the maintenance area, hospital, and air evac sites (these had to be accessible day and night), bomb shelters and fuel storage, provide aircraft refueling for transients, tower operation and dozens of other problems,” he wrote. Usually, a service squadron would handle most of the decisions, but there was no room for one at the base. With that, Pettus and his assistants had to do their best to keep Tacloban organized and operating smoothly.

It wasn’t always easy to keep track of which planes belonged to which group, or if someone took the opportunity to “borrow” an entire aircraft. This was the case for the 63rd Squadron. B-24 #42-63903 made an emergency landing at Middleburg Island, then vanished a short time later. A crew was sent to Middleburg to find the plane, only to discover that it had left the island. An assistant operations officer was told to find the B-24 and given a per diem to do so. After about ten days of “searching” Sydney bars and nightclubs, his money ran out, beginning the real hunt for the plane.

The B-24 was finally discovered to be in the hands of the 22nd Bomb Group. They had stripped the gun turrets and turned the plane into a “fat cat,” which brought fresh food and alcohol from Australia. Needless to say, the officer commandeered the plane and the 63rd Squadron enjoyed a nice party that evening. The aircraft’s changing of hands didn’t end there. It was soon taken by Group Headquarters, then out of the 43rd all together when V Bomber Command heard about the new fat cat.

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