Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Doing the Impossible

From the book "Flyboys" by James Bradley

If there's any of you who don't want to go, just tell me. Because the chances of you making it back are pretty slim. ------Jimmy Doolittle quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

On December 21, 1941, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt met with his masters of the land, air and sea. There were challenges everywhere for an America that had been caught off guard with the sixteenth largest military in the world.

The U.S., like Japan, had two basic types of aircraft in its arsenal: land-based and carrier planes. Carrier planes were small and light; they could take off and land on short aircraft carrier runways and their size made them useful as fighter planes and small bombers, but they couldn't match the bomb loads of their larger cousins. The bigger and heavier land-based planes were able to travel farther, but required longer airstrips to get lift; if a land bomber attempted to land on an aircraft carrier, it would crash through the wooden landing deck.
Several of the missions sixteen B-25B bombers are visible. That in the foreground is tail #40-2261, which was mission plane #7, piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Ted W. Lawson. The next plane is tail #40-2242, mission plane #8, piloted by Captain Edwards J. York. Both aircraft attacked targets in the Tokyo area.

USAAF aircrewmen preparing .50 caliber machine gun ammunition on the flight deck of USS Hornet while the carrier was steaming toward the mission's launching point. Three of their B-25B bombers are visible. That in the upper left is tail #40-2298, mission plane #6, piloted by Lieutnenant Dean E. Hallmark. That in top center is tail #40-2283. It was mission plane #5, piloted by Captain david M. Jones. Lt. Hallmark, captured by the Japanese in China, was executed by them at Shanghai on 15 October 1.

Japan's Pearl Harbor strike force had gotten away unscathed because of surprise. With Japan now on the alert, Yankee aircraft carriers would be detected and destroyed if they dared approach the Land of the Rising Sun. And while U.S. land-based planes could reach Japan from airfields in Far Eastern Russia, Joseph Stalin had kept the USSR neutral in the fight with Japan and refused his Amerian ally permission to originate from Russan territory. The coastal areas of China were all in Japanese hands.

But what if....what if long-range army bombers could take off from an aircraft carrier. All military experts (Japanese and American) had simply assumed they could not.

The Billys (the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell army land-based bomber) were too big (50 feet long, with a 67-foot wingspan) and heavy (14 tons) to launch from an aircraft carrier. But if they could.......long-range punch combining land-based bombers with an aircraft carrier would catch the Japanese with their guard down.

Such a complicated and dangerous mission called for a combat leader who was an inspiring commander, a methodical thinker who could anticipate and solve myriad problems, a scientific mind who could weight the odds, and a strong personality who could bull his way through the layers of somnalent bureaucracy. Only one person came to mind. He was none other than the Babe Ruth of Flyboys, the irrepressible Jimmy Doolittle.

At the age of 45, American's preeminent Flyboy was as old as flying itself. Jimmy had "won nearly every aviation trophy there was." A fearless daredevil, a crowd-pleasing barnstormer, Jimmy had been generating headlines and thrilling world audiences with his acronautical aerobatics for twenty years. Jimmy regularly set and then broke international racing records. He had been the first to fly coast to coast in less than 24 hours and then first to do it in less than 12. Jimmy was a short, muscular fireplug of a man with a confident grin above his cleft chin. His nose was a little crooked from having been broken on his road to becoming a boxing champion. He was just 5 feet 4 inches tall and never weighed more thatn 145 pounds, but he was a giant who reached the clouds.

Once Jimmy was at a party in Argentina, where he was in an air show. After a few too many tequilas, he was demonstrating handstands on a high balcony when the balcony gave way and Jimmy broke both his ankles. He still flew the next day. His doctors protested, but Jimmy strapped his aching cast-encased feet onto the rudders. Even in casts the work his feet had to do in piloting made him almost black out a number of times from the pain. But Jimmy looked at the bright side: since his feet were strapped in and he couldn't get out in case of a crash, he could leave his bulky parachute behind.

Jimmy was a military and commercial test pilot before wind tunnels enabled aeronautical engineers to predict how much an airplane could withstand before disintegrating. That meant he found out personally by pushing himself and his flying machines to the limits of new destruction. He crashed on numerous occasions and parachuted three times to save himself. But it was not all spectacular feats of risk taking. Jimmy was the first to be awarded a Ph.D. in aeronautical science from the Massechusetts Institute of Technology and was the brains behind the development of hte high-octane gasoline that powers all planes today.

Once Jimmy was on board FDR's secret plan, a group of army Flyboys training in Oregon was given the opportunity to volunteer for a "dangerous mission that would require you to be outside of the United States for a few months." All 140 signed up and transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for training in February of 1942.

Taking off on extremely short runways at bare minimum airspeed was he exact opposite of how they had previously flown. Abruptly pulling up a heavy bomber with the tail almost dragging on the ground was unnatural to them, and a harrowing experience. It could be done as long as an engine didn't skip a beat.

On March 3, 1942, the Flyboys finally met their commander. Until then they had never heard his name and his identity was kept a secret.

In the large meeting room the air was abuzz when the great little man himself walked in and announced, "Doolittle is my name." They knew exactly who he was as he was already a legend. They knew they were in for something big and that this mission was very important if he was involved in it.

Then, and several times over the next 45 days, Jimmy reminded his young volunteers that this vital mission would be dangerous. "If anyone wants to drop out, he can. No questions asked." Not one Flyboy ever accepted his kind offer.

It wasn't until the USS Hornet and Doolittle's Raiders were safely out into the Pacific that it was announced, "The target of this task force is Tokyo. The army is going to bomb Japan, and we're going to get them as close to the enemy as we can. This is a chance for all of us to give the Japs a dose of their own medicine." Cheers filled the air and sailors jumped up and down like small children.

Lileutenant Colonel James. H. Doolittle (left front), leader of the attacking force, and Captain Marc A. Mitscher, Commanding Officer of USS Hornet pose with a 500-pound bomb and USAAF aircrew members.

The key to the mission was the innovative idea of combining an aircraft carrier with the Billys. Japan assumed itself safe from air threats because land-based U.S. Army aircraft couldn't reach the homeland from Hawaii or Midway. And if the U.S. Navy was foolish enough to move an aircraft carrier within effective striking range of Japan, the American force would be obliterated. No one in Japan imagined that heavy land bombers could lift off from carrier decks - even some on the USS Hornet had their doubts.

The plan was simple. The Hornet would sail within four to five hundred miles of Japan and the 16 Billys would launch in the afternoon. The Hornet would then skedaddle back toward Pearl Harbor as the raiders dropped their bombs over the cities of Japan at sunset. Then they would fly on to China (the bombers were too heavy to land on the Hornet), where homing beacons would guide them safely to an airfield in Chuchow, beyond Japanese control.
As the Hornet headed for history, a typhoon-force wind buffeted the ships. Howling winds and sheeting sea spray had deckhands crawling across the deck on all fours to keep from being washed overboard.

Early on the morning of April 18, 1942 two Japanese ships observed the American fleet and radioed a warning to Tokyo. Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese had stationed a string of 50 civilian-manned, radio-equipped "picket boats" 650 miles out in the Pacific.

USS Nashville firing her 6"/47 main battery guns at a Japanese picket boat encountered by the raid task force.

U.S. destroyers were ordered to sink them. A sailor recalled watching and thinking, "That I will never forget or feel good about this until the day I die. They are shooting at women and children screaming and running around. Inside your mind you think what the hell happened to the Ten Commandements? We're not supposed to do this to one another."

"They know we're here," the Hornet's captain told Jimmy. It was time to roll. Takeoff now, 8 sailing hours and 200 miles short of the intended launch point, suddenly transformed a dangerous mission into a suicidal one. With the element of surprise lost, it was a good bet Jimmy and his boys would be shredded by opposing fighter planes. Even if they survived Tokyo's antiaircraft guns, the extra fuel expended to get that far ruled out reaching the do-or-die Chinese airfields. One pilot remembers, "Cold chills were running up and down my spine....I don't think there was a man leaving who really believed he would complete the flight safely."
The plane at right has tail #40-2282. It is mission plane #4, piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Everett W. Holstrom, Jr. during the raid, in which it attacked targets in Tokyo. Note protective cover over its gun turret, and wooden dummy guns mounted in its tail cone. The plane at left is warming up its engines, as was done periodically during voyage.

That's when Doolittle called all hands on deck and said, "If there's any of you who don't want to go, just tell me. Because the chances of you making it back are pretty slim." And nobody batted an eye.

They were going to strike right in the middle of the day and the Japanese had been tipped off. Everyone assumed they would not survive this mission. First, they expected to encounter a swarm of fighters coming after them and Second, if they got to the targets and got out, they could not make it past midpoint in the China Sea and they would have to ditch the planes in a Japanese-controlled area. Nevermind being captured as a prisoner of war. To add to all that the men would face a 24-knot headwind all the way to Honshu.

Navy crew and army pilots slipped, slid, and crawled across the heaving drenched deck to the planes. The Hornet was being tossed about in 30-foot swells, rocking and rolling up and down and from side to side. Gale-force winds made it difficult to stand on deck. It was zero weather conditions.....ZERO! That means they couldn't see acrss the table. The 30-foot sea was 70-feet from the water to the top of the ship and the bow of the ship was going down and picking up water and throwing it over the deck.

USS Hornet as seen from the USS Enterprise.

The Flyboys were forced to take off by speeding down the deck directly into the trough of a huge wave. The Hornet was bobbing up and down like a cork. The trick was to time the launch so that the Billys reached the end of the deck as teh carrier peaked in its upward movement. Each pilot would get the go signal as the front of the ship tilted into the churning foam. Then he would speed down the deck, seemingly headed into the bowels of a howling sea.

As Jimmy prepared to launch he was captured on film. "I knew hundreds of eyes were on me," Jimmy remembered, "especially those of the B-25 crews who were to follow. If I didn't get off successfully, I'm sure many thought they wouldn't be able to make it either."

Could the heavy planes with a bomb load of two thousand pounds get to Japan and then make it to the nearest safe landing point in China? Even before that, could such heavy planes designed for long landing strips get off a short carrier deck?

At that moment Jimmy was a lone Flyboy whose mission was to do the impossible. Jimmy's roaring engines pulled at his brakes "like circus elephants against their chains." The signalman watching the pitch of the carrier signaled "NOW!" The king of the air began his roll. "A navy pilot shouted to anyone within earshot: "He won't make it! He can't make it!" But as Jimmy's navigator later recalled, "We were particularly confident since we had the best pilot in the Air Force flying with us."

Doolittle's plane taking off from the USS Hornet at the start of the raid, 18 April 1942.

Unique view of Doolittle's plane taking off from the USS Hornet.

They watched him like hawks and the boys on deck saw America's premier Flyboy take off with yards to spare. The entire convoy shouted in a surge of relief, a cheer so loud and throaty and ecstatic that the crewmen could even hear it above the roar of their props.

Following Jimmy's lead, the other Flyboys wrestled their fifteen Billys up. Now that they had mastered their dangerous takeoff, they flew for hours just above the angry waves as they contemplated the wiles of the wind. The wind slowed the 'Raiders' down, consumed their fuel, and messed with their follow-the-leader flight plan.

As they feared, their gas gauges confirmed they were on a suicide mission. Being over 600 miles away from Japan when they launched, it was pretty obvious that it wasn't going to fit. The willingness of American boys to risk their lives for their country was not what the Boy Soldier in Tokyo had expected. Rather than stay home in their shells like cowed "merchants," these Americans had as much "fighting spirit" as the Japanese. But they didn't call it that. The Flyboys called it "balls".

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Damaged B-17 Lands Safely After German Pilot Declined to Shoot it Down

This is a painting of the incident - read on .......

Look closely at the B-17 and note how shot up it is - one engine dead, tail, horizontal stabilizer and nose shot up... It was ready to fall out of the sky. (This is a painting done by an artist from the description of both pilots many years later.) Then realize that there is a German ME-109 fighter flying next to it. Now read the story below. I think you'll be surprised ....

Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton, England . His B-17 was called 'Ye Old Pub' and was in a terrible state, having been hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.

Charlie Brown
After flying the B-17 over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Stigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he 'had never seen a plane in such a bad state'. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere.

Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane.

Franz Stigler
Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to turn 180 degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to, and slightly over, the North Sea towards England . He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe . When Franz landed he told the CO that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody. Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.

More than 40 years later, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved the crew. After years of research, Franz was found. He had never talked about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.

They met in the USA at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.

(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown.

When asked why he didn't shoot them down, Stigler later said, "I didn't have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute."

Research shows that Charlie Brown lived in Seattle and Franz Stigler had moved to Vancouver, BC after the war. When they finally met, tey discovered they had lived less than 200 miles apart for the past 50 years.
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