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only been at one thousand feet when they’d flown into the storm. Now the plane was pitching so erratically that they couldn’t read their altitude, and with no visibility, they didn’t know where the ocean was. Each time the plane plunged, the men braced for a crash. Oahu had been in sight before they entered the storm, but now they had no idea where it was. Phil gripped the yoke, sweat streaming down his face. Pillsbury strapped on his parachute.
Riding the bucking plane at his radio table, Harry Brooks picked up a signal from a Hawaiian radio station. The plane was equipped with a radio compass that enabled Harry to determine the direction from which the signal was coming. Phil strong-armed the plane around and headed toward it. They broke out of the storm, found the airfield, and landed. Phil was exhausted, his shirt wringing wet.
The runways were another headache. Many islands were so short that engineers had to plow coral onto one end to create enough length for a runway. Even with the amendments, there often wasn’t enough space. After long missions, groups of planes occasionally came back so low on fuel that none of them could wait for the others to land, so they’d land simultaneously, with the lead pilot delaying his touchdown until he was far enough down the runway for the planes behind him to land at the same time. So many planes shot off the end of Funafuti’s runway and into the ocean that the ground crews kept a bulldozer equipped with a towing cable parked by the water.
For loaded B-24s, which needed well over four thousand feet for takeoff, the cropped island runways, often abutted by towering palm trees, were a challenge. “The takeoff proved exciting,” wrote Staff Sergeant Frank Rosynek of one overloaded departure. “Six of us had to stand on the narrow beam between the bomb bay doors with our arms spread out on each side over the tops of the twin auxiliary fuel tanks. The smell of the high-octane aviation fuel was almost intoxicating. The plane lumbered down the runway for an eternity and we could see the hard packed coral through the cracks where the bomb bay doors came up against the beam we were standing on, one foot in front of the other. There was a SWOOSH and pieces of palm fronds suddenly appeared jammed in the cracks, on both sides!… Only the laundry knew how scared I was.”
And then there was human error. Pilots flew or drove their planes into each other. In B-24s notorious for fuel leaks, airmen lit cigarettes and blew up their planes. On one flight, when Super Man’s No. 3 engine died, Pillsbury found the temporary copilot, oblivious, sitting with his boot resting against the engine’s ignition switch, pushing it into the “off” position. Louie was once asked to join a crew whose bombardier had gotten sick. Louie, too, was feeling ill, so the crew found another man. During the flight, the tower warned the pilot that he was heading toward a mountain. The pilot replied that he saw it, then flew right into it. The strangest incident occurred when a bomber made a sharp pull-up on a training run. A man inside, trying to avoid falling, inadvertently grabbed the life raft–release handle. The raft sprang from the roof and wrapped around the plane’s horizontal stabilizer. Barely able to control the plane, the pilot ordered his men to bail out. He and his copilot somehow landed safely, and everyone survived.
Finally, there was the formidable difficulty of navigation. Making extraordinarily complex spherical trigonometry calculations based on figures taken from a crowd of instruments, navigators groped over thousands of miles of featureless ocean toward targets or destination islands that were blacked out at night, often only yards wide, and flat to the horizon. Even with all the instruments, the procedures could be comically primitive. “Each time I made a sextant calibration,” wrote navigator John Weller, “I would open the escape hatch on the flight deck and stand on my navigation desk and the radio operator’s desk while [the radioman] held on to my legs so I would not be sucked out of the plane.” At night, navigators sometimes resorted to following the stars, guiding their crews over the Pacific by means not so different from those used by ancient Polynesian mariners. In a storm or clouds, even that was impossible.
Given that a plane had to be only a tick off course to miss an island, it’s amazing that any crews found their destinations. Many didn’t. Martin Cohn, an ordnance officer on Oahu, was once in a radar shack as a lost plane, unequipped with radar, tried to find the island. “We just sat there and watched the plane pass the island, and it never came back,” he said. “I could see it on the radar. It makes you feel terrible. Life was cheap in war.”
The risks of flying were compounded exponentially in combat. From the sky came Japanese fighters, chief among them the swift, agile Zero, which dominated the sky in the first half of the war. Zero pilots pummeled bombers with machine gun fire and massively destructive 20mm cannon shells, which rammed gaping holes in their targets. When these failed, some Zero pilots rammed their planes into bombers, kamikaze-style; one B-24 returned to base with half of a Zero hanging from his wing. From the ground came antiaircraft fire, including flak, which burst into razor-sharp metal shards that sliced planes open. To survive AA fire and enemy aircraft, bomber pilots needed to change their altitude and direction constantly. But on approach, the Norden bombsight, not the pilot, flew the plane, so evasive action was impossible. B-24s were in the control of the bombsight for three to five minutes on approach; Japanese range finders needed less than sixty seconds to pinpoint bomber altitude. The math favored the Japanese.
In combat, bombers even posed risks to one another. To fend off fighter attack and hit narrow target islands, planes had to bunch very close together. In the chaos, planes collided, fired on each other, and worse. In one incident, three B-24s on a mission to mine a harbor flew in tight formation through a narrow canyon at fifty feet, under intense ground fire. As they dropped over the harbor, the right wingtip of a plane piloted by Lieutenant Robert Strong struck the greenhouse window on the plane to his right, piloted by a Lieutenant Robinson. The collision rotated Strong’s bomber onto its left side and under Robinson’s plane just as Robinson’s bombardier dropped a thousand-pound mine. The mine crashed into Strong’s plane, and though it didn’t detonate, it tore an eighteen-square-foot hole in the fuselage and lodged itself just behind the waist gunners. Strong’s B-24 was nearly cut in two, and the mine’s parachute deployed, dragging the plane down. Crewmen cut the parachute free and shoved at the mine, but it wouldn’t budge, so they dismantled their guns and used the barrels to crowbar the mine out. As Strong tried to get the nearly bisected plane home, the tail flapped in the wind, and a huge crack crept up the fuselage. Impossibly, Strong flew his Liberator eight hundred miles and landed. When Jesse Stay, a pilot in Louie’s squadron, went to see the bomber, he was nearly able to pull its tail off with one hand.
The risks of combat created grim statistics. In World War II, 52,173 AAF men were killed in combat. According to Stay, who would become a squadron commander, airmen trying to fulfill the forty combat missions that made up a Pacific bomber crewman’s tour of duty had a 50 percent chance of being killed.*
Along with safe return, injury, and death, airmen faced another possible fate. During the war, thousands of airmen vanished, some during combat missions, some on routine flights. Many had been swallowed by the ocean. Some were alive but lost on the sea or islands. And some had been captured. Unable to find them, the military declared them missing. If they weren’t found within thirteen months, they were declared dead.
Most of the time, stricken Pacific bombers came down on water, either by ditching or by crashing. Crewmen who crashed were very unlikely to survive, but ditching offered better odds, depending on the bomber. The B-17 and its soon-to-be-introduced cousin, the gigantic B-29, had wide, low wings that, with the fuselage, formed a relatively flat surface that could surf onto water. Their sturdy bomb bay doors sat flush to the fuselage and tended to hold in a ditching, enabling the plane to float. The first ditched B-29 not only survived, it floated onto an Indian beach, completely intact, the following day. The B-24 was another story. Its wings were narrow and mounted high on the fuselage, and its delicate bomb bay doors protruded slightly from the bottom of the plane. In most B-24 ditchings, the bomb bay doors would catch on the water and tear off and the plane would blow apart. Less than a quarter of ditched B-17s broke up, but a survey of B-24 ditchings found that nearly two-thirds broke up and a quarter of the crewmen died.
For B-24 survivors, quick escape was crucial. Without sealed fuselages, Liberators sank instantly; one airman recalled watching his ditched B-24 sink so quickly that he could still see its lights when it was far below the surface. Every airman was given a “Mae West” life vest,* but because some men stole the vests’ carbon dioxide cartridges for use in carbonating drinks, some vests didn’t inflate. Life rafts were deployed manually: from inside the plane, crewmen could pull a release handle just before ditching or crashing; from outside a floating plane, they could climb on the wings and turn raft-release levers. Once deployed, rafts inflated automatically.
Survivors had to get to rafts immediately. Airmen would later speak of sharks arriving almost the moment that their planes struck the water. In 1943, navy lieutenant Art Reading, Louie’s USC track teammate, was knocked unconscious as he ditched his two-man plane. As the plane sank, Reading’s navigator, Everett Almond, pulled Reading out, inflated their Mae Wests, and lashed himself to Reading. As Reading woke, Almond began towing him toward the nearest island, twenty miles away. Sharks soon began circling. One swept in, bit down on Almond’s leg, and dove, dragging both men deep underwater. Then something gave way and the men rose to the surface in a pool of blood. Almond’s leg had apparently been torn off. He gave his Mae West to Reading, then sank away. For the next eighteen hours, Reading floated alone, kicking at the sharks and hacking at them with his binoculars. By the time a search boat found him, his legs were slashed and his jaw broken by the fin of a shark, but thanks to Almond, he was alive. Almond, who had died at twenty-one, was nominated for a posthumous medal for bravery.*
Everyone had heard stories like Reading’s, and everyone had looked from their planes to see sharks roaming below. The fear of sharks was so powerful that most men, faced with the choice of riding a crippled plane to a ditching or bailing out, chose to take their chances in a ditching, even in the B-24. At least that would leave them near the rafts.
The military was dedicated to finding crash and ditching survivors, but in the sprawling Pacific theater, the odds of rescue were extremely daunting. Many doomed planes sent no distress call, and often, no one knew a plane was down until it missed its estimated time of arrival, which could be as long as sixteen hours after the crash. If the absence went unnoticed until night, an air search couldn’t be commenced until morning. In the meantime, raft-bound men struggled with injuries and exposure and drifted far from their crash site.
For rescuers, figuring out where to look was tremendously difficult. To keep radio silence, many crews didn’t communicate any position during flights, so all searchers had to go on was the course the plane would have followed had everything gone right. But downed planes had often been flying over huge distances, and may have veered hundreds of miles off course. Once a plane was down, currents and wind could carry a raft dozens of miles a day. Because of this, search areas often extended over thousands of square miles. The longer rafts floated, the farther they drifted, and the worse the odds of rescue became.
The most heartbreaking fact was that, if searchers were lucky enough to fly near a raft, chances were good that they wouldn’t see it. Rafts for small planes were the size of small bathtubs; those for large planes were the length of a reclining man. Though search planes generally flew at just one thousand feet, even from that height, a raft could easily be mistaken for a whitecap or a glint of light. On days with low clouds, nothing could be seen at all. Many planes used for rescue searches had high stall speeds, so they had to be flown so fast that crewmen barely had a moment to scan each area before it was gone behind them.
In mid-1944, in response to the dismal results of Pacific rescue searches, the AAF implemented a vastly enhanced rescue system. Life rafts were stocked with radios and better provisions, boats were set out along the paths flown by military planes, and searches were handled by designated rescue squadrons equipped with float planes. These advances improved the odds of rescue, but even after their advent, most downed men were never found. According to reports made by the Far East Air Force air surgeon, fewer than 30 percent of men whose planes went missing between July 1944 and February 1945 were rescued. Even when the plane’s location was known, only 46 percent of men were saved. In some months, the picture was far worse. In January 1945, only 21 of 167 downed XXI Bomber Command airmen were rescued—just 13 percent.
As bleak as these odds were late in the war, men who went down before mid-1944 faced far worse. Flying before the rescue system was modernized, they faced a situation in which searches were disorganized, life rafts poorly equipped, and procedures ineffective. Everyone on Phil’s crew knew that should they go down, their chances of rescue were very low.
The improbability of rescue, coupled with the soaring rate of accidental crashes, created a terrible equation. Search planes appear to have been more likely to go down themselves than find the men they were looking for. In one time frame, in the Eastern Air Command, half of the Catalina flying boats attempting rescues crashed while trying to land on the ocean. It seems likely that for every man rescued, several would-be rescuers died, especially in the first years of the war.
With every day that passed without rescue, the prospects for raft-bound men worsened dramatically. Raft provisions lasted a few days at most. Hunger, thirst, and exposure to blistering sun by day and chill by night depleted survivors with frightening rapidity. Some men died in days. Others went insane. In September 1942, a B-17 crashed in the Pacific, stranding nine men on a raft. Within a few days, one had died and the rest had gone mad. Two heard music and baying dogs. One was convinced that a navy plane was pushing the raft from behind. Two scuffled over an imaginary case of beer. Another shouted curses at a sky that he believed was full of bombers. Seeing a delusory boat, he pitched himself overboard and drowned. On day six, when a plane flew by, the remaining men had to confer to be sure that it was real. When they were rescued on day seven, they were too weak to wave their arms.
There were fates even worse than this. In February 1942, a wooden raft was found drifting near Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. Upon it was the body of a man, lying in a makeshift coffin that appeared to have been built on the raft. The man’s boilersuit had been in the sun for so long that its blue fabric had been bleached white. A shoe that didn’t belong to the man lay beside him. No one ever determined who he was, or where he had come from.
Of all of the horrors facing downed men, the one outcome that they feared most was capture by the Japanese. The roots of the men’s fear lay in an event that occurred in 1937, in the early months of Japan’s invasion of China. The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED.
What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.
Every American airman knew about Nanking, and since then, Japan had only reinforced the precedent. Among the men of Louie’s squadron, there was a rumor circulating about the atoll of Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands, a Japanese territory. On Kwajalein, the rumor said, POWs were murdered. The men called it “Execution Island.” It is testament to the reputation of the Japanese that of all the men in one fatally damaged B-24 falling over Japanese forces, only one chose to bail out. The rest were so afraid of capture that they chose to die in the crash.
For airmen, the risks were impossible to shrug off. The dead weren’t numbers on a page. They were their roommates, their drinking buddies, the crew that had been flying off their wing ten seconds ago. Men didn’t go one by one. A quarter of a barracks was lost at once. There were rarely funerals, for there were rarely bodies. Men were just gone, and that was the end of it.
Airmen avoided the subject of death, but privately, many were tormented by fear. One man in Louie’s squadron had chronic, stress-induced nosebleeds. Another had to be relieved because he froze with terror in the air. Pilot Joe Deasy recalled a distraught airman who came to him with a question: If a crewman went mad during a mission, would the crew shoot him? The man was so jittery that he accidentally fired his sidearm into the ground as he spoke.
Some men were certain that they’d be killed; others lived in denial. For Louie and Phil, there was no avoiding the truth. After only two months and one combat mission, five of their friends were already dead, and they had survived several near misses themselves. Their room and icebox, inherited from friends whose bodies were now in the Pacific, were constant reminders.
Before Louie had left the States, he’d been issued an olive-drab Bible. He tried reading it to cope with his anxiety, but it made no sense to him, and he abandoned it. Instead, he soothed himself by listening to classical music on his phonograph. He often left Phil sprawled on his bed, penning letters to Cecy on an upturned box, as he headed out to run off his worries on the mile-long course that he had measured in the sand around the runway. He also tried to prepare for every contingency. He went to the machine shop, cut a thick metal slab, lugged it to Super Man, and plunked it down in the greenhouse in hopes that it would protect him from ground fire. He took classes on island survival and wound care, and found a course in which an elderly Hawaiian offered tips on fending off sharks. (Open eyes wide and bare teeth, make football-style stiff-arm, bop shark in nose.)
And like everyone else, Louie and Phil drank. After a few beers, Louie said, it was possible to briefly forget dead friends. Men were given a ration of four beers a week, but everyone scoured the landscape for alternatives. Alcohol was to Louie what acorns are to squirrels; he consumed what he wanted when he found it and hid the rest. In training, he had stashed his hooch in a shaving cream bottle. Once deployed, he graduated to mayonnaise jars and ketchup bottles. He stowed a bottle of a local rotgut called Five Island Gin—nicknamed Five Ulcer Gin—in radioman Harry Brooks’s gas mask holster. When an MP tapped Brooks’s hip to check for the mask, the bottle broke and left Brooks with a soggy leg. It was probably for the best. Louie noticed that when he drank the stuff, his chest hair spontaneously fell out. He later discovered that Five Island Gin was often used as paint thinner. After that, he stuck to beer.
Phil, like all airmen, had to cope with the possibility of dying, but he had an additional burden. As a pilot, he was keenly conscious that if he made a mistake, eight other men could die. He began carrying two talismans. One was a bracelet Cecy had given him. Believing that it kept him from harm, he wouldn’t go up without it. The other was a silver dollar that jingled endlessly in his pocket. On the day that he finally ran away with Cecy, he said, he’d use it to tip the bellboy. “When I do get home,” he wrote to her, “I’m going to hide with you where no one will find us.”
In the early days of 1943, as men died one after another, every man dealt with the losses in a different way. Somewhere along the way, a ritual sprang up. If a man didn’t return, the others would open his footlocker, take out his liquor, and have a drink in his honor. In a war without funerals, it was the best they could do.
* The military didn’t break down nonbattle deaths by cause, but statistics strongly indicate that accidental crashes accounted for most deaths. First, the nonbattle death figure excludes those who died while interned, captured, or MIA. Disease, too, can be excluded as a major cause of death: given that in the entire army, including infantry fighting in malarial jungles, 15,779 personnel died of disease, disease deaths in the air corps had to be a small percentage of nonbattle deaths. Finally, given that some 15,000 airmen died in accidental crashes stateside, it seems highly likely that the huge number of accidental crashes in the war would have produced similarly high numbers of deaths.
* When Louie and Phil were deployed, a tour was thirty missions. The number was later adjusted upward.
* It was called a Mae West because it gave the wearer a bountiful bust. In the 1970s, service personnel updated the name, calling them Dolly Partons.
* Two published accounts of this incident mistakenly identify Reading as the one who was eaten by the shark. Newspaper reports in which Reading was interviewed confirm that it was Almond.
Five Hundred and Ninety-four Holes
IN FEBRUARY 1943, DURING A BRIEF VISIT TO THE EQUATORIAL island of Canton, the Super Man crew had its first encounter with exploding sharks. Canton was a seething purgatory in the shape of a pork chop, consisting mostly of coral and scrubby plants huddled close to the ground, as if cringing from the heat. There was only one tree on the entire island. The surrounding waters were tumbling with sharks, which got trapped in the lagoon at low tide. Bored out of their wits, the local servicemen would tie garbage to long sticks and dangle them over the lagoon. When the sharks snapped at the bait, the men would lob hand grenades into their mouths and watch them blow up.
The Super Man crew had been sent to Canton for two missions over Japanese-occupied Makin and Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands. On the first mission, the lead plane made a wrong turn, and the men found themselves over Howland, the island that Amelia Earhart had been aiming for when she had vanished six years earlier. They noticed gouges in the Howland runway, the calling cards of the Japanese. Once they got sorted out and found Makin, Louie couldn’t see his target through the clouds. They made three circles with no luck, so their colonel ordered them to drop the bombs anywhere and get going. Through a gap in the clouds, Louie spotted a row of outhouses and, with giggling glee, walloped them with three thousand pounds of demolition bombs. To a cheer from the crew, the outhouses blew sky-high.
Two days later, the men flew back to the Gilberts to photograph the islands, bringing a six-man camera crew. They buzzed several islands under fire, snapping photos. With Super Man’s nose bloodied from an antiaircraft round, they turned back for Canton. Three hundred miles from home, engineer Douglas made a discovery. Super Man’s eccentric fuel gauges, which had been jiggling around, had settled very low. Douglas announced that at their current rate, they wouldn’t make Canton.
Phil slowed the propellers as far as he dared and “leaned” the fuel mixture so that the least possible fuel was used. The crew shoved out almost everything that wasn’t bolted down, and all fifteen men crowded into the front of the plane, in the belief that it would improve air speed. Knowing that their chances of making Canton were slim, they considered Howland, but then recalled the pitted runway. They discussed ditching near Howland, but that raised the issue of sharks. In the end, they agreed to try for Canton.
Wedged together in the front of the plane, all the men could do was wait. The sun set. Louie stared into the dark below and thought about what it would feel like to crash. The fuel gauges inched lower, and everyone waited to hear the engines sputtering out. At last, with the fuel gauges at absolute bottom, Phil spotted a searchlight craning around the sky and runway lights dotting the dark below. Realizing that he was way too high, Phil dropped the plane so sharply that Pillsbury bobbed into the air and hung there a moment, weightless, before slapping down.
As Super Man touched down on Canton, its tail settled lower than it had been in the air, causing the last drops of fuel to shift back. A moment later, one engine quit.
Two weeks later, the men saw what would have awaited them had they gone down at sea. A B-25 flying off Oahu radioed that it was low on fuel, then went silent. Super Man was scrambled to hunt for it. After an hour and a half of searching, Louie spotted a curl of gray smoke. Two Catalina flying boats were heading toward it. Super Man followed.
When they arrived at the crash site, the men were astonished by what they saw. Two life rafts, holding the entire five-man B-25 crew, floated amid plane debris. Around them, the ocean was churning with hundreds of sharks, some of which looked twenty feet long. Knifing agitated circles in the water, the creatures seemed on the verge of overturning the rafts.
The Catalinas reached the men before the sharks could, and the B-25 men treated their rescuers to drinks that night. But the Super Man crew now understood the feelings of the grenade throwers on Canton. On a later flight, when they saw several sharks harassing six whales, they dove low over the water and shot at the sharks. Later, they felt guilty. On future flights, when they saw sharks, they let them be.
Nauru was a little afterthought of land, eight square miles of sand sitting alone in the Pacific, about twenty-five hundred miles southwest of Hawaii. It was the kind of place that the world might have left alone, were it not for the fifty thousand tons of high-grade phosphate that lay under the feet of the grass-skirted natives. A central ingredient in fertilizer and munitions, the phosphate had been discovered in 1900, and since then the island had been home to a community of European businessmen and Chinese workers who mined the land. When the war began, Nauru became a priceless prize.
Japan seized Nauru in August 1942, imprisoning the Europeans who had not fled and forcing the natives and the Chinese to mine phosphate and build a runway. They enforced their authority with the sword, beheading people for infractions as trivial as the theft of a pumpkin. When the runway was complete, Japan had a rich source of phosphate and an ideal base for air strikes.
On April 17, upon returning from a run, Louie was called to a briefing. America was going after Nauru in a big way, sending Super Man and twenty-two other B-24s to hit the phosphate works. No one in the squadron saw a bed that night. They left just before midnight, refueled on Canton, and flew to Funafuti,