The Tent at the End of the Runway

As related by Capt. Walter A. Krell, C.O. of the 823rd Squadron, 38th Bomb Group.

“Crew training was set up at Charters Towers (70 miles west of Townsville), the base commander of which was an ancient chicken colonel whose constant interference with the war effort was so much help to the Japs. Early struggles to eliminate useless procedures were blocked and impeded by the commander, and I was a constant target of his complaints. He would track me down on the line or wherever and work me over about the behavior of our men on the base, in town, in the mess hall – – I soon had enough to prompt me to ask Shanty [38th Bomb Group C.O. Brian O’Neill] to get him off my back.

“Shanty had me pick him up in Townsville. We flew back to Charters Towers, and drove out to the headquarters just off the end of and slightly to one side of the runway. For 30 minutes Shanty listened in deadpan silence while the old coot unloaded about ‘new undisciplined Air Corps flying tramps’. Shanty, just promoted to full colonel, had borrowed the eagle insignias for his shirt collar. The eagle heads face right or left, according to how they are pinned on – – Shanty’s little eagle faced the wrong way. As we were leaving, the CO spied the error, fetched an eagle facing the right way from his trinket box, proceeded to pin it on Shanty’s collar. Shanty tensed up and I backed off a couple paces, but nothing happened and we left.

“Wherever we went, Shanty always did the flying. As we taxied out, Shanty asked, ‘Which runway leads over the old b’s camp?’ I cautioned ‘The wind’s the other way.’ ‘I didn’t ask you about the wind,’ he countered. The B-25 was light – – Shanty had it off halfway down the runway, flaps and wheels up by runway’s end and still under six feet altitude. He swung over the colonel’s pyramidal tent, straddled the peak with his props and hauled up. We peeled around and looked down – – the tent was smashed flat!

“When I got back to Charters Towers, the old boy was waiting – – did I know within minutes after he had given orders to Col. O’Neill to put a stop to aircraft flying over his area, some crazy pilot demolished the colonel’s tent with him still inside? He had suffered and could have been hurt. I was to track down the pilot. There would be a court martial he raged, red-faced and shaking his swagger stick in my face.

“Then I told the old duck the pilot was CO O’Neill himself who declared anyone stupid enough to set up headquarters in such a site was asking to get hurt, that he hoped he had made his point, and that he was at that moment en route to Brisbane to ask General Kenney (Commanding General, 5th AF) to assign a new training base for these critically needed combat units where they would no longer be an inconvenience to the Colonel. Within two days the Colonel had been relieved of his command and promptly departed the base, whereupon I made it eminently clear to the base paddlefeet that O’Neill could quickly arrange for any of them to be shouldering muskets over the Owen Stanley range – – that their job was to provide the services the flyboys needed – – or else! – – and things did improve!

“It was a great privilege to work with Col. O’Neill.  His qualities of greatness earned the respect and admiration of all those who knew him.”