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!

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The 312th Across the US

After the 312th left Hunter Field, they moved on to De Ridder Army Air Base, which was approximately 50 miles north of Lake Charles, Louisiana. While living at this smaller base, the 312th learned more about supporting ground units in combat. Through this training, they realized how much they needed to work on coordination between operations, intelligence, and communication personnel. Aircrews practiced various dive-bombing techniques and small groups of pilots and intelligence officers spent time with Army units learning about their strategy and tactics.
The Group stayed at De Ridder until they received orders on March 27, 1943 to pack up and move to their next base, Rice Army Air Base, in southern California. It took about two weeks for them to get everything ready for the cross-country trip. During this time, the Group had to deal with their first and only loss at De Ridder: 1/Lt. Elmer R. Cawthon had climbed into an A-24 for an unscheduled flight after leaving a gathering at the Officers’ Club. Cawthon’s plane never returned to the base. The plane wreckage was found near Camp Polk and it appeared that the Cawthon failed to pull the plane out of a steep dive.

Once at Rice, the Group discovered that the living conditions there were a far cry from the comforts they first experienced at Hunter Field. Here, the men lived in tents and endured desert temperatures of over 120 degrees. They couldn’t work between 12:30 and 5:00pm because planes, tools and vehicles were too hot to touch.

rice air base

At Rice, the 312th’s training included lectures and drills with weapons instruction to sharpen their soldiering skills. While practicing the dive-bombing, the crews got bored bombing disks painted on the sand, so they scrounged around the desert and found abandoned cars from the 1930s. They also practiced attacking railroad centers, crossroads, and supply areas to improve their navigation and bombing skills.
In April, the 312th received their first Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. The A-24 was weak against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zeke” fighter in combat, so the group transitioned to the P-40. This single-seat, single-engine plane had six .50-caliber machine guns in the wings and held a 500-pound bomb under the fuselage. P-40

The pilots had to get used to a few differences when flying the plane through a bombing run. There were no dive brakes, so pilots would reach nearly 500mph in a near-vertical dive. When approaching the target, the pilots had to quickly pull out of the dive and this was a very dangerous task. They switched from dive-bombing to glide bombing to keep planes at a 45-degree angle. While sorting out the differences between the two planes, the crews had a couple of other problems to deal with. The intense heat at Rice caused the P-40 engines to regularly overheat and the rubber on the landing gear to soften when the planes would land. Sand covered the runways and abraded the tires on landing. Because of this, P-40 tires were only good for about six landings.
In May, the 312th lost two members of the Group. 2/Lt. James N. Goe was flying an A-24 and demonstrating dive-bombing to his passenger, 1/Lt. James P. Matthews, when the plane inverted as it was coming out of the run and crashed into the trees.
By the time July rolled around, another move was imminent. This time to Salinas Army Air Base, 400 miles northwest of Monterey, California. At the new base, the 312th would have to work harder for proficiency in flying and maintaining the P-40, something they didn’t quite pass at Rice.
The Group was happy to be out of the scorching desert and back in the barracks at Salinas. Of course, the men were kept busy learning interception tactics and taking part in military training. While at this base, the 312th lost two more men. On September 12th, 2/Lt. William H. Gillette was flying a P-40 near Point Sur when he collided with another plane. Both pilots bailed out, but Gillette died of hypothermia. A week after Gillette’s crash, 1/Lt. Jay E. Gowers died when his P-40 crash-landed at Stockton, California. In September the Group started to prepare for the overseas voyage that would soon come. The 312th marched and hiked, practiced first aid, learned how to move up and down ship ladders and were taught censorship regulations and emergency procedures. On November 1, 1943, the Group left San Francisco aboard the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam. They didn’t know where they were going until close to the end of the trip, but they knew they were heading to war.

The Early Days of the 312th Bomb Group

Sixty-seven years ago, the newly formed 312th Bomb Group was stationed at Hunter Field in Georgia. Hunter Field was a new Army post with comfortable barracks, a chapel, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and clubs for the enlisted men and officers. In the relative comfort of this base, the 312th men learned what they needed to do to function as a bomb group. Everybody from maintenance to the parachute department was kept busy fine-tuning their various skills.
Hunter Field

An aerial view of Hunter Field in January 1943.

The Group started training on the Vultee A-35 Vengeance dive-bomber, a very troublesome aircraft for pilots and mechanics alike. The A-35 was a single-engine plane that held a pilot and rear gunner, six .50-caliber wing-mounted machine guns and a single .50-caliber machine gun in the rear. It could carry a bomb load of up to 2000 pounds, but the aiming system was terrible and caused the crews to miss their targets by as much as 100 yards. A-35

The A-35 Vengeance dive-bomber: a troublesome but easy-to-fly aircraft.

When pilots went to land their planes, they hoped that the landing gear wouldn’t collapse on them because it was so poorly designed. As problematic as the plane was, it was easy to fly and fairly stable. The maintenance crews also benefited from the challenges of this aircraft by gaining substantial experience dealing with all the problems. The men worked on and soon perfected their navigation skills and flying in formation.

The 312th BG flew the A-35s until they received the A-36 Apache dive-bomber in late November. This plane was a version of the P-51 Mustang with lattice-type dive brakes in the wings and would not exceed 300mph with the dive brakes extended in a vertical dive. Unlike the A-35, pilots actually enjoyed flying this aircraft. Not long after they started training on these planes, the 311th Bomb Group took them to India. The 312th then flew the Douglas A-24 Dauntless dive-bomber, a slower plane that allowed the crews to train for providing closer support to Army ground forces.

A-36 A-24

(Left) The A-36 was used by the 312th for a short time. (Right) Once the 311th Bomb Group was sent to India, the 312th started flying the A-24.

November 23, 1943 was a tragic day for the Group. While returning to Hunter Field from Little Rock, Arkansas, two members of the 388th Squadron, 1/Lt. Reynolds H. Middleton and M/Sgt. David L. Dean, crashed near Macon, Georgia when they flew into a severe thunderstorm. They were the Group’s first fatalities.
The 312th rotated to Statesboro, Georgia for ten days to practice maneuvers and experience life in the field. Working and sleeping in tents at Statesboro was the first taste of Army life for many men. As the months progressed, the Group continued and finished their training at Hunter Field by the middle of February 1943. From there, they moved to De Ridder Army Air Base and later Rice and Salinas air bases in California, where they transitioned to the P-40. Salinas was the final Stateside training base for the Group.