Pilot Spotlight: Edward L. Larner Makes History

On October 28, 1942, 89th Squadron CO Maj. Donald P. Hall made the following entry to his diary: “Capt. Ed Larner, a classmate of mine has just come over from the states. Ed and I used to fish a lot while we were at Barksdale Field [in Louisiana]. He and 12 other are joining my Squadron. We flew to Port Moresby today. Good to be back with the squadron.”

Captain Edward L. Larner, who was originally with the 46th Bomb Group, had been reassigned and sent to Maj. Hall’s 89th Squadron in the 3rd Bomb Group. He arrived as an experienced pilot with more than 800 flying hours under his belt. It wasn’t long before Larner made a name for himself as a fearless low level A-20 pilot and he came to the attention of Gen. George C. Kenney. “I found I had another fireball in the 3rd Attack Group, named Lieutenant Ed Larner,” Kenney wrote on November 10th. “That lad was good. He had fire, leadership and guts.”

90th Squadron C.O. Edward L Larner
Captain Edward L. Larner joined the 3rd Bomb Group in late October 1942. A classmate and friend of Maj. Hall, he was assigned to the 89th Squadron where he made a name for him- self as an aggressive combat pilot. Barrel-chested and willing to put up his fists, he always wore a beat-up service cap pushed back on his head. He would soon become one of 3rd Bomb Groups preeminent pilots and commanders. (Gordon K. McCoun Collection)

After the A-20 strafer project was deemed a success, Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox began working on similar strafer test modifications for the B-25 Mitchell. Some senior pilots were skeptical that a medium bomber could be utilized for low level strafing. However the North American bomber did have the range necessary to reach Japanese air bases. Kenney was in favor of Larner’s promotion to C.O. of the 90th Squadron. By the end of December 1942, Larner was at Port Moresby, training 90th Squadron pilots on these modified B-25s.

Around the time of all this armament development, word about the 43rd Bomb Group using B-17s to skip-bomb ships was getting around. Major William G. Benn had led the first successful skip-bombing attack on October 23, 1942 and was continuing to work on the technique up until his death on January 18, 1943. Pilots in the 89th Squadron began practicing skip-bombing in A-20s around the end of December 1942, followed by 90th Squadron pilots in their newly-modified B-25s a few weeks later. Even though pilots still had their doubts about using B-25s in that manner, they continued their practice throughout the month of February.

On March 3rd, Larner, who had since been promoted to Major, was leading the 90th Squadron into what would be known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. He put their practice to use and proved that the B-25 strafer would be an effective skip-bombing aircraft. Breaking away from his formation that day, he was followed by three of his lieutenants. “Damn it! Get the hell off my wing and get your own boat!” he yelled at them.

Nearby, Capt. John P. “Jock” Henebry watched Larner make his solo run. “I was leading the second element. Everybody was rather apprehensive. When everybody saw him make that pass and hit it with at least one and maybe two and the explosion and so, that just ignited the whole thing and the guys got the idea if he could do it, they could do it.” 

When Maj. Larner had taken over command of the 90th, the Squadron was reeling over the loss of senior pilot and former commander, Captain William “Red” Johnson, who had crashed on a transit flight near Townsville, Australia on New Year’s Eve. Larner’s transfer to the 90th and his confidence in the B-25 as a strafer bomber would re-energize the men in the Squadron. The combat crews were excited to watch their leader make that flawless first run on March 3rd.

Unfortunately, Maj. Larner would not remain the 90th Squadron’s leader for long. While he was a bold pilot, some of his flight maneuvers led him to be deemed reckless by some of his peers. His trademark approach would be the cause of his death on April 30, 1943. Coming in to land at Dobodura, he dove towards the airstrip and flew low over the field, then pulled up sharply into a chandelle. Usually, he performed this maneuver in a B-25 that was not full of fuel, eight passengers, baggage, tools and 2000 pounds of bombs. When Larner pulled up, the plane stalled, went into a flat spin, then crashed and exploded on the ground. There were no survivors. He left behind a wife and two daughters. Captain Jock Henebry would go on to lead the 90th Squadron.

Pappy Gunn and the A-20 Strafer

“Build a fire under anybody that can do us any good in getting the planes put together and sent up here…If you can catch any A-20’s coming up from the South marking time in Brisbane kick them [the pilots] in the pants for me and tell them we need those A-20’s. Do anything you think best to get planes assembled and tanks and guns installed…Every plane we have is today out on a mission. More planes — more missions…Sure glad that you are down there to get that job done.” —Col. John Davies to Capt. Pappy Gunn

It was with some resignation in May 1942 that the 89th Squadron C.O., 1/Lt. Donald P. Hall, surveyed the reassembled Douglas A-20A bombers and came to grips with the reality that these were the same ones they trained on in the U.S. and had been flown in four maneuvers. Their attack bombers were old. At least one of them had come from the Douglas factory in late 1939. They were all worn with plenty of mileage and some were beyond their peacetime service life of 273 days.

Unfortunately, factory-new aircraft would not be forthcoming over the next year of war, as all new production of the speedy light bomber were destined for the fight against Germany in the fronts of North Africa, Europe and as lend-lease for the Soviet Union. 3rd Bomb Group crews would have to “make do” with their old A-20As, a practice that many of the men were familiar with, having grown up during the Great Depression.

Their bombers lacked the range necessary to reach the combat front and their frontal armament of four .30-caliber machine guns lacked the firepower needed to cause enough damage and destruction. The planes would receive a series of modifications to turn them into fearsome attack bombers. These improvements and the tactics developed in 1942 and 1943 would go on to impact the air war strategy of the entire theater.

First up was the limited range of the aircraft. Depending on the bomb load, the A-20 had a combat radius of 260-337 miles, not far enough for a flight from Port Moresby to the Japanese bases of Lae and Salamaua on the other side of the Owen Stanley Mountains. That modification was straightforward: each A-20 was eventually outfitted with two 450-gallon fuel tanks in one of the two bomb bays.

B-25 Pappys Folly
Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn in the cockpit of one of his early B-25 strafers “Pappy’s Folly” in early 1943. (G. John Robinson Collection)

The other modification was to the A-20’s light defenses up front, which consisted of four .30-caliber machine guns along the bottom of the nose. Captain Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn was convinced that a heavier armament could be installed inside the nose section of the bombardier’s compartment. The person who allowed him to realize this vision was an Army Air Force pilot and engineer who Gunn had known from his pre-war days in the Philippines, Capt. Frederick G. Hoffman. Their paths crossed again in Australia on April 28, 1942 when Hoffman was overseeing the assembly of aircraft in Brisbane and Gunn was down there to begin work on a strafer prototype. They discussed the project and Gunn was introduced to engineer 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins, who would facilitate the installation. First, Capt. Bob Strickland and Pappy Gunn had to go see Army Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. George H. Brett to receive the go-ahead for the project.

After an OK from Gen. Brett, a prototype was put together. It made a successful first test, leading to Pappy Gunn declaring that he wanted to see all of the 3rd’s A-20s modified with the four nose guns. Once the planes were assembled, serviced and flight-tested at Eagle Farm, they were flown to Amberley for fuel tank and strafer modifications. There was an ample supply of .50-caliber machine guns that had been salvaged from dozens of P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk fighters that had crashed by new pilots learning to fly the powerful Allison-engine pursuit planes during training and ferry flights from January through April 1942.

A-20 strafer installation
This is a frontal view of the Douglas A-20A-1 with four .50-caliber machine guns installed inside the bombardier’s compartment. The metal tubing is part of the hydraulic system for charging the guns. Officers of the 3rd Bomb Group, engineers at Amberley Field as well as enlisted men of different service units around Brisbane contributed ideas and helped design and fabricate this successful weapon system. The five men who were most responsible were Capt. Pappy Gunn, Capt. Donald P. Hall, Capt. Fred G. Hoffman, 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins and T/Sgt. Victor J. Mitchell. Prior to the installation of the forward-firing heavy machine guns, the A-20A’s forward armament consisted of four .30-caliber guns, two on each side of the fuselage. (William J. Beck Collection)

Pappy Gunn took Col. Davies’ urging to get the planes done and ready for combat as quickly as possible. This required the acquisition of myriad aircraft parts and supplies. He was rumored to have drawn a gun on one supply officer which got him banned from the Brisbane area for several months. Just a few months later the successful strafer modification was adapted to the B-25 Mitchell by Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox, the senior “tech rep” of North American Aviation.

In early 1943, the pilots of the 89th and 90th Squadron began to develop their own low-level bombing technique, similar to skip-bombing that had been successfully established by Maj. William G. Benn with the B-17 crews of the 43rd Bomb Group in 1942. (For that story, read Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.) This technique combined with the strafer modification turned the A-20s and B-25s of the Pacific Theater into low-level powerhouses that helped drive the Japanese out of New Guinea and the Philippines.

Any records and photographs documenting this modification process were never created, did not survive the past 80 years or possibly remain undiscovered. The story is told here for the first time using the personal diaries, memoirs, correspondence and interviews with the 3rd Bomb Group pilots and officers who were there.

For the full story of the A-20 strafer modification, read Chapter 9 of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I.

After Dark in the Park

Come meet the president of IHRA!

Author Lawrence J. Hickey will be doing a 15-minute presentation on Pappy Gunn and the conversion of the medium bomber into a low-level strafer as part of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center’s After Dark in the Park series. This will be held in Theater 2 on September 6th at 6:30pm.

Topics Larry may cover include:

  • the development of B-17 skip-bombing
  • Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox’s strafer idea
  • the A-20 and B-25 strafer conversion in the 3rd, 345th, and 38th Bomb Groups
  • the troublesome B-25G with its 75mm cannon
  • modifications to the B-25J

Larry will be joined by several other experts, including two of our co-authors, Osamu Tagaya and Michael J. Claringbould, in the Pacific field for an exciting evening covering both Japanese and American aspects of World War II. You won’t want to miss it!