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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
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be had. In its place were endless lectures, endless training, and, when Moznette was transferred to another crew, the breaking in of a series of temporary copilots. Eventually, Long Beach, California, native Charleton Hugh Cuppernell joined the crew as Moznette’s replacement. A smart, jovial ex–football player and prelaw student, built like a side of beef, Cuppernell got along with everyone, dispensing wisecracks through teeth clenched around a gnawed-up cigar.
Louie, ready for the chill of high altitude. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
When they first went up over Hawaii, the men were surprised to learn that their arctic gear hadn’t been issued in error. At ten thousand feet, even in the tropics, it could be sharply cold, and occasionally the bombardier’s greenhouse windows froze. Only the flight deck up front was heated, so the men in the rear tramped around in fleece jackets, fur-lined boots, and, sometimes, electrically heated suits. The ground crewmen used the bombers as flying iceboxes, hiding soda bottles in them and retrieving them, ice-cold, after missions.
Training mostly over Kauai, the men discovered their talent. Though they had a few mishaps—Phil once taxied Super Man straight into a telephone pole—in aerial gunning, they nailed targets at a rate more than three times the squadron average. Louie’s bombing scores were outstanding. In one dive-bombing exercise, he hit the target dead center seven of nine times. The biggest chore of training was coping with the nitpicking, rank-pulling, much-loathed lieutenant who oversaw their flights. Once, when one of Super Man’s engines quit during a routine flight, Phil turned the plane back and landed at Kahuku, only to be accosted by the furious lieutenant in a speeding jeep, ordering them back up. When Louie offered to fly on three engines so long as the lieutenant joined them, the lieutenant abruptly changed his mind.
When the men weren’t training, they were on sea search, spending ten hours a day patrolling a wedge of ocean, looking for the enemy. It was intensely dull work. Louie killed time by sleeping on Mitchell’s navigator table and taking flying lessons from Phil. On some flights, he sprawled behind the cockpit, reading Ellery Queen novels and taxing the nerves of Douglas, who eventually got so annoyed at having to step over Louie’s long legs that he attacked him with a fire extinguisher. Once, the gunners got so bored that they fired at a pod of whales. Phil yelled at them to knock it off, and the whales swam on, unharmed. The bullets, it turned out, carried lethal speed for only a few feet after entering the water. One day, this would be very useful knowledge.
One morning on sea search, Phil’s crew passed over an American submarine sitting placidly on the surface, crewmen ambling over the deck. Louie flashed the identification code three times, but the sub crew ignored him. Louie and Phil decided to “scare the hell out of them.” As Louie rolled open the bomb bay doors, Phil sent the plane screaming down over the submarine. “The retreat from the deck was so hasty, it looked like they were sucked into the sub,” Louie wrote in his diary. “I gave the skipper an F for identification, but an A+ for a quick dive.”
The tedium of sea search made practical joking irresistible. When a loudmouth ground officer griped about the higher pay allotted to airmen, the crew invited him to fly the plane himself. During the flight, they sat him in the copilot’s seat while Louie hid under the navigator’s table, next to the chains that linked the plane’s yokes to the control surfaces. When the officer took the yoke, Louie began tugging the chains, making the plane swoop up and down. The officer panicked, Louie smothered his laughter, and Phil kept a perfect poker face. The officer never again complained about airmen’s pay.
Copilot Charleton Hugh Cuppernell. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
Louie’s two proudest moments as a prankster both involved chewing gum. After Cuppernell and Phil swiped Louie’s beer, Louie retaliated by sneaking out to Super Man and jamming gum into the cockpit “piss pipe”—the urine relief tube. During that day’s flight, the call of nature was followed by an inexplicably brimming piss pipe, turbulence, and at least one wet airman. Louie hid in Honolulu for two days to escape retribution. On another day, to get even with Cuppernell and Phil for regularly stealing his chewing gum, Louie replaced his ordinary gum with a laxative variety. Just before a long day of sea search, Cuppernell and Phil each stole three pieces, triple the standard dose. As Super Man flew over the Pacific that morning, Louie watched with delight as pilot and copilot, in great distress, made alternating dashes to the back of the plane, yelling for someone to get a toilet bag ready. On his last run, Cuppernell discovered that all the bags had been used. With nowhere else to go, he dropped his pants and hung his rear end out the waist window while four crewmen clung to him to prevent him from falling out. When the ground crew saw the results all over Super Man’s tail, they were furious. “It was like an abstract painting,” Louie said later.
Phil’s remedy for boredom was hotdogging. After each day of sea search, he and another pilot synchronized their returns to Oahu. The one in front would buzz the island with wheels up, seeing how low he could get without skinning the plane’s underside, then goad the other into going lower. Phil hummed Super Man so close to the ground that he could look straight into the first-floor windows of buildings. It was, he said in his strolling cadence, “kind of daring.”
For each day in the air, the crew got a day off. They played poker, divvied up Cecy’s care packages, and went to the movies. Louie ran laps around the runway, keeping his body in Olympic condition. On the beach at Kahuku, he and Phil inflated their mattress covers, made a go at the waves, and nearly drowned themselves. Tooling around the island in borrowed cars, they came upon several airfields, but when they drew closer, they realized that all of the planes and equipment were fake, made of plywood, an elaborate ruse designed to fool Japanese reconnaissance planes. And in Honolulu, they found their Everest. It was the House of P. Y. Chong steakhouse, where for $2.50 they could get a steak nearly as fat as a man’s arm and as broad as his head. Louie never saw a Chong diner finish his meal.
For the officer half of the crew, paradise was Honolulu’s North Shore officers’ club, where there were tennis courts, pretty girls with ten-thirty curfews, and boilermakers. When the crew got the best gunnery scores in the squadron, Louie rewarded the enlisted men by pinning his insignia to their uniforms and sneaking them into the club. Just after Louie got up to dance with a girl, Colonel Matheny sat down in his place and began talking to the terrified Clarence Douglas, who was pretending to be a second lieutenant. When Louie finally got free and ran to Douglas’s rescue, the unsuspecting colonel stood up and told him what a damn fine man Douglas was.
Waiting to fly. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
One day on the club’s dance floor, Louie spotted the lieutenant who had ordered them to fly on three engines. He scrounged up a bag of flour, recruited a girl, and began dancing in circles near the lieutenant, dropping a pinch of flour down the officer’s collar each time he swung past. After an hour of this, the whole club was watching. Finally, Louie snagged a glass of water, danced up behind his victim, dumped the water down his shirt, and took off. The lieutenant spun around, his back running with dough. Unable to find the culprit, he stormed out, and Louie was the toast of the club. “We had one more girl for us,” he said.
November became December, and the crew still hadn’t seen any Japanese. There was hard fighting down on Guadalcanal, and the men felt excluded, frustrated, and intensely curious about combat. Every time a B-17 was brought up from the fighting, Louie and his friends went to the airfield to gawk at it. At first, all the planes looked the same. Then an airman showed them a lone bullet hole. “My golly!” Louie said later. “Our hair stood on end.”
Three days before Christmas, the crew’s hour finally came. They and twenty-five other crews were told to pack three days’ worth of clothes and report to their planes. Walking out to Super Man, Louie found the bomb bay fitted with two auxiliary fuel tanks and six five-hundred-pound bombs. Judging by the auxiliary tanks, Louie wrote in his diary, their destination was likely “a long hop somewhere.” Instead of the Norden bombsight, Louie was given the handheld sight, which probably meant that they’d be dive-bombing*. The crew was handed a packet of orders and told not to open them until airborne.
Five minutes after Super Man lifted off, the crewmen tore open the orders and learned that they were to make a heading for Midway. When they landed there eight hours later, they were greeted with a case of Budweiser and very big news: The Japanese had built a base on Wake Atoll. In the biggest raid yet staged in the Pacific war, the AAF was going to burn the base down.
The next afternoon, the crew was called to the briefing room, which was actually the base theater, strung with limp Christmas tinsel and streamers. They were going to hit Wake that night, with dive-bombing. The mission would take sixteen hours, nonstop, the longest combat flight the war had yet seen. This would push the B-24s as far as they could go. Even with auxiliary fuel tanks, they would be cutting it extremely close.
Before the flight, Louie walked to the airfield. The ground crewmen were preparing the planes, stripping out every ounce of excess weight and rolling black paint on the bellies and wings to make them harder to see against a night sky. Coming to Super Man, Louie climbed into the bomb bay, where the bombs sat ready. In honor of his college buddy Payton Jordan, who had just married his high school sweetheart, Louie scrawled Marge and Payton Jordan on a bomb.
At 4:00 P.M. on December 23, 1942, twenty-six B-24s, laden with some 73,000 gallons of fuel and 75,000 pounds of bombs, rose up from Midway. Super Man slipped toward the rear of the procession. All afternoon and into the evening, the planes flew toward Wake. The sun set, and the bombers pressed on under the timid glow of moon and stars.
At eleven P.M., when his plane was about 150 miles from Wake, Phil switched off the outside lights. Clouds closed in. The bombers were supposed to approach the atoll in formation, but with clouds around and the lights off, the pilots couldn’t find their flightmates. They couldn’t risk breaking radio silence, so each plane went on alone. The pilots craned into the dark, swerving away from the faint shadows of others, trying to avoid collisions. Wake was very close now, but they couldn’t see it. Sitting in the top turret of Super Man, Stanley Pillsbury wondered if he’d make it back alive. In the greenhouse below, Louie felt a buzzing inside himself, the same sensation that he had felt before races. Ahead, Wake slept.
At exactly midnight, Colonel Matheny, piloting the lead plane, Dumbo the Avenger, broke radio silence.
“This is it, boys.”
Matheny dropped Dumbo’s nose and sent the bomber plunging out of the clouds. There beneath him was Wake, three slender islands joining hands around a lagoon. As his copilot called out speed and altitude figures, Matheny pushed his plane toward a string of buildings on Peacock Point, the atoll’s southern tip. On either side of Matheny’s plane, B-24s followed him down. When he reached his bombing altitude, Matheny hauled the plane’s nose up and yelled to the bombardier.
“When are you going to turn loose those incendiaries?”
At that instant, the buildings on Peacock Point exploded. It was forty-five seconds past midnight.
Matheny tipped his bomber and looked down. Peacock Point, struck by Dumbo’s bombs and those of its flanking planes, was engulfed in fire. Matheny knew he’d been lucky; the Japanese had been caught sleeping, and no one had yet manned the antiaircraft guns. As Matheny turned back toward Midway, wave after wave of B-24s dove at Wake. The Japanese ran for their guns.
Up in Super Man, well behind and above Matheny’s plane, Louie saw broad, quick throbs of light in the clouds. He hit the bomb bay door control valve, and the doors rumbled open. He set his bomb rack on the “select” position, flipped on his bomb switches, and fixed the settings. Phil’s orders were to dive to 4,000 feet before dropping the bombs, but when he reached that altitude, he was still lost in clouds. Louie’s target was the airstrip, but he couldn’t see it. Phil pushed the plane still lower, moving at terrific speed. Suddenly, at 2,500 feet, Super Man speared through the clouds and Wake stretched out, sudden and brilliant, beneath it.
Pillsbury would never shake the memory of what he saw. “It looked like a star storm,” he remembered. The islands, sealed in blackness a moment before, were a blaze of garish light. Several large infernos, spewing black smoke, were consuming the atoll’s oil tanks. Everywhere, bombs were striking targets, sending up mushrooms of fire. Searchlights swung about, their beams reflecting off the clouds and back onto the ground, illuminating scores of Japanese, wearing only fundoshi undergarments, sprinting around in confusion. What neither Pillsbury nor any of the other airmen knew was that among the men under their bombers that night were the ninety-eight Americans who had been captured and enslaved.
Waist and tail gunners in the bombers fired downward, and one by one, the searchlights blew to pieces. To Pillsbury, “every gun in the world” seemed to be firing skyward. Antiaircraft guns lobbed shells over the planes, where they erupted, sending shrapnel showering down. Tracers from the firing above and below streaked the air in yellow, red, and green. As Pillsbury watched the clamor of colors, he thought of Christmas. Then he remembered: They had crossed the international date line and passed midnight. It was Christmas.
Phil wrestled Super Man out of its dive. As the plane leveled off, Louie spotted the taillight of a Zero rolling down the north-south runway. He began synchronizing on the light, hoping to hit the Zero before it took off. Below, very close, something exploded, and Super Man rocked. A shell burst by the left wing, another by the tail. Louie could see tracers cutting neat lines in the sky to the right. He loosed a bomb over the south end of the runway, counted two seconds, then dropped his five other bombs over a set of bunkers and parked planes beside the runway.
Relieved of three thousand pounds of bombs, Super Man bobbed upward. Louie yelled “Bombs away!” and Phil rolled the plane roughly to the left, through streams of antiaircraft fire. Louie looked down. His group of five bombs landed in splashes of fire on the bunkers and planes. He’d been a beat too late to hit the Zero. His bomb fell just behind it, lighting up the runway. Phil turned Super Man back for Midway. Wake was a sea of fire and running men.
The crew was jumpy, coursing with adrenaline. There were several Zeros in the air, but in the darkness, no one knew where they were. Somewhere in the galaxy of planes, a Zero fired on a bomber, which fired back. The Zero disappeared. Pillsbury looked to the side and saw yellow dashes of tracer fire, heading directly toward them. A B-24 gunner had mistaken them for an enemy plane and was firing on them. Phil saw it just as Pillsbury did, and swung the plane away. The firing stopped.
The bomb bay doors were stuck open. The motors strained, but couldn’t budge them. Louie climbed back and looked. When Phil had wrenched the plane out of its dive, the enormous g-forces had nudged the auxiliary fuel tanks out of place, just enough to block the doors. Nothing could be done. With the bomb bay yawning open and dragging against the air, the plane was burning much more fuel than usual. Given that this mission was stretching the plane’s range to the limit, it was sobering news.
The men could do nothing but wait and hope. They passed around pineapple juice and roast beef sandwiches. Louie was drained, both from the combat and the incessant quivering of the plane. He stared out, sleepy, watching the stars through breaks in the clouds.
Seventy-five miles away from Wake, one of the men looked back. He could still see the island burning.
As day broke over the Pacific, Brigadier General Howard K. Ramey stood by the Midway airstrip, looking at the clouds and waiting for his bombers. His face was furrowed. A brow of fog hung two hundred feet over the ocean, spilling rain. In some places, visibility was down to a few yards. Finding tiny, flat Midway would be difficult, and there was the question of whether the bombers’ fuel would last long enough to bring them home.
One plane appeared, then another and another. One by one, they landed, all critically low on fuel, one with a dead engine. Super Man wasn’t in sight.
Out in the fog, Phil must have looked at his fuel gauge and known that he was in real trouble. With his bomb bay open and wind howling through the fuselage, he had dragged away most of his fuel and was running on empty. He didn’t know if he’d be able to find Midway, and he didn’t have enough fuel to make a second pass. At last, at around eight A.M., he saw Midway dimly through the mist. A moment later, one of Super Man’s engines sputtered and died.
Phil knew that the other engines would quit almost immediately. He nursed the plane along, spotting the runway and aiming for it. The engines kept turning. Phil dropped Super Man and touched down. Just after the plane turned off the runway, a second engine died. As it reached its bunker, the other two engines quit. Had the route been only slightly longer, Super Man would have hit the ocean.
General Ramey ran to each bomber, calling out congratulations. The tired Super Man crewmen dropped out of the plane and into a mob of marines, who’d spent a year waiting to deliver retribution to the Japanese for what they’d done to their brothers at Wake. The marines passed out shots of liquor and feted the airmen.
The mission had been a smashing success. Every plane had returned safely. Only one bomb had missed its target, plopping into the water twenty feet offshore. The Japanese base had been gravely damaged—by one estimate, half of its personnel had been killed—and America had demonstrated the reach and power of its B-24s. And though the men didn’t know it, the American captives had all survived.
Phil’s crew spent the day sitting in the rain, watching several albatrosses make comically inept attempts at landing on the flooded runway. Early the next morning, Super Man carried them back to Kahuku. Louie spent New Year’s Eve at a party with Moznette and his bombardier, James Carringer, Jr., and didn’t drag himself back to the pornographic palace until four-thirty. He pulled himself together a few hours later, when Admiral Chester Nimitz presented the Wake pilots with Distinguished Flying Crosses and their crewmen with Air Medals.
News of the raid broke, and the men were lauded as heroes. The press played up their Christmas gift to the Allies. STEEL FILLS JAP SOX, read one headline. In Tokyo, radio broadcasters had a different take. They reported that the Americans, upon encountering Japanese defenses, had “fled in terror.” In the Honolulu Advertiser, Louie found a cartoon depicting his role in bombing Wake. He clipped it out and tucked it in his wallet.
With the dawn of 1943 and the success at Wake, the men felt cocky. It had all been so easy. One admiral predicted that Japan might be finished within the year, and Phil overheard men talking about going home.
“Methinks,” he wrote to his mother, “it’s a little premature.”
* Dive-Bombing was an unusual and unlikely use of a huge bomber. But in the Christmas 1942 Wake raid, all of the B-24 crews, including Zamperini’s used dive-bombing tactics, as was verified by both Mr. Zamperini and the reporters who rode along on the raid.
“Only the Laundry Knew How Scared I Was”
IT WAS EARLY MORNING ON JANUARY 8, 1943. THE SUN HADN’T yet risen. George Moznette and James Carringer, who had spent New Year’s Eve with Louie, joined their crew at the beachside airstrip at Barking Sands on Kauai, preparing to lead a three-plane training run over Pearl Harbor. The pilot was Major Jonathan Coxwell, one of Phil’s closest friends.
As he taxied out for his flight, Coxwell tried to reach the control tower, but the tower’s radio was down. He powered his plane down the runway, lifted off, and flew over the beach and into the darkness. The two other planes took off after Coxwell. Later that morning, they returned. Coxwell’s plane did not. No one had seen it since takeoff.
During a briefing at eight, Louie was told that Coxwell’s plane was missing. Phil’s crew was slated for practice bombing off Barking Sands that morning, so they went early and walked the beach, looking for some sign of their friends. Someone found a $400 paycheck that had washed ashore. It was made out to Moznette.
The Super Man crew was fifteen thousand feet up when the lost B-24 was found, lying on the ocean floor not far offshore. All ten crewmen were dead.
Coxwell had barely made it past takeoff. He had cleared the runway, turned, and slammed into the water. Several crewmen had survived the crash and tried to swim to land, but sharks had found them. The men were, Louie wrote in his diary, “literally ripped to pieces.” Five, including Moznette, had lived in the pornographic palace with Louie and Phil. Carringer had just been promoted to first lieutenant, but had died before anyone could tell him. They were buried in the cemetery in Honolulu, joining the men killed at Pearl Harbor.
The B-24 Stevenovich II just after being struck by flak. The plane spun several times, then exploded. The radar operator, First Lieutenant Edward Walsh, Jr., was thrown from the plane and managed to open his parachute. He survived. The other crewmen were presumed dead.
Louie was shaken. He’d been in Hawaii for only two months, yet already several dozen men from his bomb group, including more than a quarter of the men in his barracks, had been killed.
The first loss had come on the flight from San Francisco, when a B-24 had simply vanished. This fate was sadly common; between 1943 and 1945, four hundred AAF crews were lost en route to their theaters. Next, a plane had caught fire and crashed at Kahuku, killing four men. Another plane had hit a mountain. A bomber had been forced down after losing all four engines, killing two. In one bomber, a green engineer transferring fuel across the wings had caused gasoline to pool on the floor of the bomb bay. When the bomb bay doors had scraped open, igniting a spark, the plane had exploded. Three men had survived, including a passenger whose hand had happened to be resting on a parachute when the blast flung him from the plane. After the Wake raid, a plane sent to photograph the damage had been hit by antiaircraft fire. The crew had sent out a last message—“Can’t make it”—and was never heard from again. Then had come Coxwell’s crash.
These losses, only one due to enemy action, were hardly anomalous. In World War II, 35,933 AAF planes were lost in combat and accidents. The surprise of the attrition rate is that only a fraction of the ill-fated planes were lost in combat. In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook noncombat losses.
As planes went, so went men. In the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in nonbattle situations, the vast majority of them in accidental crashes.* Even in combat, airmen appear to have been more likely to die from accidents than combat itself. A report issued by the AAF surgeon general suggests that in the Fifteenth Air Force, between November 1, 1943, and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action.
In many cases, the problem was the planes. In part because they were new technology, and in part because they were used so heavily, planes were prone to breakdowns. In January 1943 alone, Louie recorded in his diary ten serious mechanical problems in Super Man and other planes in which he flew, including two in-flight engine failures, a gas leak, oil-pressure problems, and landing gear that locked—fortunately, in the down position. Once, Super Man’s brakes failed on landing. By the time Phil got the plane stopped, the bomber was three feet short of the runway’s end. Just beyond it lay the ocean.
The weather also took a toll. Storms reduced visibility to zero, a major problem for pilots searching for tiny islands or threading through the mountains that flanked some Hawaiian runways. B-24s were hard to manage even in smooth skies; in some tropical tempests, not even the combined strength of pilot and copilot could keep the plane in hand. Twice in one week, Super Man flew into storms that buffeted the plane so violently that Phil lost control. Once, the plane was flung around the sky for ten minutes, leaving the temporary copilot so paralyzed with fear that Phil had to call Louie to take his place.
One day after sea search, as Phil was detouring around a squall, Cuppernell asked him if he’d dare fly into it. “I can fly this thing anywhere,” Phil said, turning the plane into the storm. Super Man was instantly swallowed, and Phil could see nothing. Rain drummed on the plane, wind pivoted it sideways, and it began porpoising, leaving the crewmen clinging to anything bolted down. They had