Military Life in December 1941

When the events of the early days of the U.S. entering World War II are recounted, the most often heard story is that of thousands of Americans who volunteered to fight. What about those men who were already in the military? How did their lives change? Through the diary entries of men from the Fifth Air Force, we can give you some insight into what they experienced before and after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

From Lewis “Tad” Ford of the 33rd Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group

…when December 7th came, I got my first day off in a month., why it was a real boon. Days off were assigned by crew and Disbro had his own plans, so I slept late, floated into town, and went to a show to see Sgt. York in mid-afternoon. I was surprised about halfway through the picture to see my name come up on a caption underneath the movie, saying “Lieutenant Ford, report to the box office.” A driver was waiting for me with a staff car to give me a ride back to Langley field: Pearl Harbor had happened.”
We were first told to move all of our personal goods back to the field into the VOQ. Then we were told, no, don’t. Pack everything you don’t want to take with you and send it home. Then, back in the Squadron we spent three or four hours loading the bomb bays with all sorts of maintenance gear. Then we went to our quarters to get as much sleep as we could.
I lived with four other guys. At about 3:30 I took the first telephone call telling Lancaster to report out to the squadron at 4:15. Five minutes later I got one regarding Robbie, and then another for Hitchcock, and finally my own. So, we all ended up at the squadron at 4:15. At 5:am, 12/8 we were wheels up on the way west as a group, 60 airplanes in all.
The only important thing that happened between there and Muroc Dry Lake [Edwards Air Force Base in California] was that Mark Lewis got killed at El Paso, leaving us with Millard Haskins as the group commander.

Built next to a dry lake, Muroc Air Base was initially an extension of March Field in 1941, mainly used for submarine patrols off the southwestern US coast. The 22nd Bomb Group briefly flew patrols from Muroc before the unit departed the United States. (Robin Highham Collection)

Excerpt of a letter from from Gerald C. Cook of the 2nd Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group

“Practice makes perfect.” This seemed to be the goal of the 22nd. We made many practice runs in order to be ready for any eventuality which might occur because of war in Europe. Then on 12/7 Pearl Harbor took place. As soon as the news reached the US, the 22nd BG officers alerted all of its personnel to return to base as soon as possible. We started the mad rush to get every plane ready for a flight to the west coast within 24 hours. This was a tremendous feat for so much to be done in so short a time! We reached the set goal, and within 24 hours the entire 22nd BG took off en mass and headed west.
It was while we were flying over the state of Mississippi that I so vividly remember hearing President Roosevelt address the Congress (as well as the American people) and give his Declaraion of War speech). Because of the limitations of the B-26 we could not fly all the way from the “East to West Coast. We made our first top near Tucson, AZ. That night there was an unusual rainstorm. Some of our planes got stuck in the mud and we had to wait a few days until we could get all the planes airborne again.

From the diary of Lt. Roland Birnn of the 27th and later 3rd Bomb Groups
12 December, 1941 Clark Field, Philippines

Very quiet morning. Low clouds and light rain. No fun living in the open. Talley and I went to enlisted man’s barracks 1/3 mile away for a shower. Now deserted—been bombed several times. Hear air raid warning—ignored it because it was too cloudy for a raid. Heard a second warning as I finished dressing. Went outside and saw nine bombers in a “V” formation. Ran for cover—ran like we had never ran before. Finally had to drop to the ground when the bombers got too close. We hugged the ground. Bombs dropped in train, straddled us. Just lucky. Ground sure shook—so did I.
Got up and moved farther away. Then nine more bombers came over. Clark is right on the edge of a mountain range. The bombers whipped around the mountains, just under the clouds, and were on us before we could do anything. We hit the ground again.
Rather nerve racking to lie in the open and wait for bombs to hit. They get closer and closer. The ground started to shake and the explosions hurt our ears. When attack had passed, we saw nine others off to the side. Walked back to HQ through tank area. Noticed that the bombs hit this area. One bomb hit a gun emplacement—killed everyone. Saw other wounded men being carried away. Bomb hit a B-17 on the field. They seem to know when we have anything on the field. Back in HQ area found a bomb had hit 50 feet away from my bunk. I am moving out. They know this is HQ. Japs strafed when they came over. AA got a couple of ships. We had no pursuit up.
Ordinance setting off duds now. They give no warning—just the explosion. When one goes off nearby, everyone hits the dirt. Gets a little nerve wracking. Japs now have an air base in the norther part of Luzon. Our bunch is getting administrative jobs since all the planes are burned. We’re doing the jobs the pursuit outfit was doing here. They moved into the hills. Shrapnel sure is mean looking—jagged edges are sharp as a knife. Hope I get to finish this diary. [Lt. Birnn was killed on a test flight in 1942.]

Caught Offguard: Attacking the Manila Airbases

Some months prior to December 1941, Major Lester Maitland thought it would be a good idea to prepare for an enemy attack on Nichols Field in Manila, Philippines by digging trenches. Although this task was carried out, his idea was mocked and given the nickname of “Maitland’s folly.” Around the base and Manila as a whole, the idea of the Japanese attacking this island seemed to be incomprehensible.

By late November 1941, members of the 27th Bomb Group had arrived in Manila and noticed the peculiar attitude toward defense and cautionary measures. Lieutenant Harry Mangan of the 27th observed that “A strange sense of impending war was evident in small personal ways, but not in military ways that I could easily see…Dependents of military and certain civilian personnel had been sent to the United States…but there were no air raid shelters, gun emplacements, nor revetments at Fort McKinley, or at Nichols Field that I could see. There was a strange mixture of awareness, but still an attitude on the impossibility of war. Military dress was expected in the Officer’s Club after 5:00 p.m., and we actually got a lecture from the Fort McKinley Post Commander on his distaste for our airmen wearing Flight Line clothing during the day…”

News of the attack on Pearl Harbor came quickly on December 8th (the other side of the International Date Line) and Group C.O. Col. John H. Davies roused his men to give them the news. No one knew what to do, or had the planes to fly in the event of an attack, so they just went back to bed, where sleep would soon be hard to come by: several false alarms woke them up, and was eventually followed by a real attack on Nichols Field. It sent men running for the trenches. Others were given jobs as radio operators, antiaircraft gunners and whatever else was needed during the chaos. Eight hours later, Fort McKinley was attacked as well. With so few antiaircraft guns at the bases, there was very little that the U.S. troops could do to fend off the Japanese.

 

Water-cooled machine gun

Lieutenant Harry Roth sits with a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun. With this type of light weaponry to serve as their air defenses, the Allied airfields and installations around Manila were all but helpless against the heavy Japanese attacks beginning on December 8, 1941. (Harry Mangan Collection)

 

“In morning found Japs had hit Nichols Field and destroyed hangars. Also hit the PAA radio station near McKinley. Was issued a service type gas mask. Had two more raids near us at 1045. Ibea, a small pursuit field, has been completely wiped out. Japs dropped tons of bombs on it. At noon bombs hit in officer’s mess—killed lots. Some of the men are now assigned to our group—they’re all bomb happy. Almost everyone has moved and is living in the jungle at the edge of post.” Dick Birnn wrote.

About half the available B-17s and P-40s at Manila were destroyed. Men were left reeling from the ferocity of the Japanese attacks. The 27th suffered its first casualty, PFC. Jackson P. Chitwood, who had been manning a machine gun at Nichols Field when a bomb burst nearby. These raids wound up being the first of many on the bases at Manila and Clark Field, which was located to the northwest of Manila.

Flying the A-24

In late December 1941, 40 graduates from the 41-H Flight Class arrived in Australia after being diverted from their planned destination in the Philippines. They were soon enrolled in the 27th Bomb Group’s A-24 Dive Bomber School. The core of experienced 27th BG pilots trained the fledgling pilots on the basics of flying the Douglas dive bomber and how to make a dive bombing attack. The aircraft was not a favorite of the 27th’s pilots, who complained that the aircraft handled like a truck compared to their preferred plane, the speedy twin-engined A-20 Havoc low level attack bomber. A silver lining of the A-24 was that its low speed kept the number of crashes amongst the new pilots to a minimum. Despite the plane’s poor reputation with the Army Air Force pilots, the plane would be used by the Navy to sink more Japanese ships than any other U.S. aircraft.

The new pilots learned how to fly the A-24 at “Little Randolph,” (so named after Randolph Field, TX) located at Archerfield, Brisbane. After four or five weeks of training, the graduates of the school were assigned to the three 27th Bomb Group Squadrons, the 16th, 17th and 91st. They were promptly ordered to fly their bombers from Brisbane to Darwin, which would be the starting point for a move to Java. While they were initially supposed to fly up to the Philippines, the rapid Japanese advance forced a change in plans.

A-24

This photo, taken while the 27th Bomb Group A-24s were being assembled in the Brisbane area, shows an A-24 from behind with a clear view of the perforated dive brakes. (27th Bomb Group Collection)

One of the A-24 instructors was 2/Lt. James H. “Harry” Mangan of the 27th Bomb Group, who wrote about his time as a flight school instructor in his personal diary.

January 1, 1942
Our school starts tomorrow or the next day. Harry Galusha is C.O., Zeke Summers, Asst off., J.R. Smith operations, Tubb – Supply and myself Engineering off. We will also act as flight instructors. I don’t know how it’s going to be flying from the rear seat of an A-24 with just a throttle stick and rudder but I’ll soon find out.

January 2, 1942
School has started and “Tim” [2/Lt. Francis E. Timlin] and “Gus” [1/Lt. Gustave H. Heiss] are to be added to the instructors here. . . . My students aren’t bad. I rode ‘em around today and let ‘em feel the ship out from the rear. Tomorrow or so will try to solo ‘em.

January 3, 1942
I shot a few landings with my students and then soloed ‘em. Meant to mention their names: Hayden, Anderson, and Wilkins. All of whom are not bad. Hayden’s the hottest to date – Wilkins the weakest. [Note that Wilkins later became commander of the 8th Bomb Squadron and would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions over Rabaul Harbor on November 2, 1943.]
I’ve enjoyed the last few days of instruction. I wanted it back in the States but they wouldn’t listen to me. Instead I went to a hell-bent-for-leather outfit of attack and perhaps I’d not be sorry. Instructing I guess does get terribly “old”.

January 10, 1942
The days have become pretty much of a routine now. We’ve a few spare men of the 8th Material [Squadron] for a ground crew and our school’s going great. It’s the first decent deal we’ve pulled since we left Manila and I’m enjoying it. So far we work on the school during the day, assemble ships as we train then clean up for dinner and occasionally grab a Jeep or car & go into Brisbane.

January 23, 1942
We moved from Archerfield today to Amberly field and I hated to move. Good bye to freedom and order, hello wheel-spin. Good bye to the decent mess the Aussies shared with us, good bye to table cloths, waitresses (WAAF), cold beer and cokes before dinner. Oh well I’m used to that stuff. Have some pleasant memories of lifting gas for our Southport trip, going out with Les Jackson, Hill, and others.

The 91st has formed now at Archerfield with Harry Galusha, Zeke, J.R. Smith, Tubbs and some of the trainees. “Gus”, “Tim” and myself are joining our 17th here at Amberly. Oh yes, add Salvatore and Ed Backus to the 91st. Think Ed Backus got tired of the flub dubbing here and the Lennon’s Hotel life so took over the 91st Squadron. I personally believe they now have more spirit than in 17th but – we shall see how they fare. They are due to go to Java within a few days. The P.I. deal is out and we are now destined to help the Dutch. Right now I’m trying to sort out ships and get them equipped with the better jobs.

Looking them over today I had to smile disgustedly at the way the planes were originally shipped and how much additional work we’ve had to put on them to make them somewhere near fit for combat. We are using truck tires for the wheels – we’ve no replacements. We lacked hand triggers for the guns until frantic wires to General Marshall brought a B-24 out with electric solenoids etc(?) Oh yes, and even then brought the wrong stuff and not enough!