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the tiny atoll from which they would launch their attack. They found it jostling with journalists brought in by the military to cover the raid.
At a briefing, the crews were told to approach Nauru at eight thousand feet. The altitude gave Louie and the others pause. That week, they had made practice runs from eight to ten thousand feet, and the potential for antiaircraft fire to butcher them at that altitude had alarmed the whole crew. “We only hope,” Louie had written in his diary two days earlier, “we don’t bomb that low in actual combat.” Pillsbury couldn’t stop thinking about something else that the briefing officer had said. There would be ten to twelve Zeros waiting for them. He’d seen a distant Zero at Wake, but had never been engaged by one. The idea of a single Zero was daunting. The prospect of twelve scared him to death.
Before dawn the next day, the men walked together to Super Man. With them was a lieutenant named Donald Nelson. He wasn’t on the crew, but asked if he could tag along so he could see combat. At five A.M., Super Man was airborne.
Doglegging to the west to hide their point of origin, the planes took six and a half hours to reach Nauru. No one spoke. Super Man led the mass of bombers, flying with a plane on each wing. The sun rose, and the planes flew into a clear morning. The Japanese would see them coming.
At about twenty past eleven, navigator Mitchell broke the silence: They’d be over the island in fifteen minutes. In the greenhouse, Louie could just make out an apostrophe of land, flat to the horizon. Below, there was a black shadow in the water. It was an American submarine, ready to pick up survivors if bombers were shot down. Super Man passed over it and slid over Nauru. Louie shivered.
It was eerily silent. The first nine planes, Super Man out front, crossed the island unopposed. The air was very still, and the plane glided along without a ripple. Phil relinquished control to the Norden bombsight. Super Man’s first target, a knot of planes and structures beside a runway, came into view. Louie lined up on the gleaming backs of the planes.
And then, shattering. The sky became a fury of color, sound, and motion. Flak hissed up, trailing streamers of smoke over the planes, then burst into black puffs, sparkling with shrapnel. Metal flew everywhere, streaking up from below and raining down from above. With the bombsight in control, Phil could do nothing.
Something struck the bomber on Super Man’s left wing, piloted by Lieutenant John Jacobs. The plane sank as if drowning. At almost the same moment, the plane to Super Man’s right was hit. Just a few feet away, Pillsbury watched the bomber falter, drop, and disappear under Super Man’s wing. Pillsbury could see the men inside, and his mind briefly registered that all of them were about to die. Super Man was alone.
Louie kept his focus below, trying to aim for the parked planes. As he worked, there was a tremendous bang! and a terrific shudder. Much of Super Man’s right rudder, a chunk the size of a dinner table, blew off. Louie lost the target. As he tried to find it again, a shell bit a wide hole in the bomb bay, and the plane rocked again.
At last, Louie had his aim, and the first bombs dropped, spun down, and struck their targets. Then Super Man passed over a set of red-roofed barracks and an antiaircraft battery, Louie’s second and third targets. Louie lined up and watched the bombs crunch into the buildings and battery. He had one bomb left for a target of opportunity. North of the airfield, he saw a shack and took aim. The bomb fell clear, and Louie yelled “Bombs away!” and turned the valve to close the bomb bay doors. In the cockpit, the bomb-release light flicked on, and Phil took control of the plane. As he did, behind and below the plane, there was a pulse of white light and an orb of fire. Louie had made a lucky guess and a perfect drop. The shack was a fuel depot, and he had struck it dead center. In the top turret, Pillsbury pivoted backward and watched a vast cloud of smoke billow upward.
The air battle over Nauru.
There was no time for celebration: Zeros were suddenly all around. Louie counted nine of them, slashing around the bombers, machine guns blazing. The boldness and skill of the Japanese pilots astounded the bomber crews. The Zeros flew at the bombers head-on, cannons firing, slicing between planes that were just feet apart. They passed so close that Louie could see the faces of the pilots. Firing furiously, the bomber gunners tried to take out the Zeros. The shooting was all point-blank, and bullets were flying everywhere. One bomber sustained seventeen hits from friendly planes, or possibly from its own waist guns.
Stricken bombers began slipping behind, and the Zeros pounced. One bomber was hounded by four Zeros and a biplane. Its gunners shot down one Zero before their pilot found a cloud to hide in, scattering his pursuers. Below, Lieutenant Jacobs, Phil’s lost wingman, was still airborne, his plane laboring along on three engines and no right rudder in a circle of Zeros. His gunners sent one Zero down. Thor Hamrin, pilot of the B-24 Jab in the Ass, saw Jacobs struggling. Circling back and speeding down, he opened up on the Zeros with all of his guns. The Zeros backed off, and Jacobs flew on with Hamrin on his wing.
The first bombers, pursued by Zeros, headed out to sea. With its fighters gone and many of its guns destroyed, the Japanese base was left exposed. The trailing B-24s swept in, crossing through rivers of smoke to rain bombs on the phosphate plant. In the last plane over the island, a reporter raised his binoculars. He saw “a volcano-like mass of smoke and fire,” a burning Japanese bomber, a few bursts of antiaircraft fire, and not a single moving person.
Phil and Cuppernell pushed Super Man full-throttle for home. The plane was gravely wounded, trying to fly up and over onto its back. It wanted to stall and wouldn’t turn, and the pilots needed all their strength to hold it level. Three Zeros orbited it, spewing streams of bullets and cannon shells. The gunners, engulfed in scalding-hot spent cartridges, fired back: Mitchell in the nose, Pillsbury in the top turret, Glassman in the belly, Lambert in the tail, and Brooks and Douglas standing exposed at the broad, open waist windows. Louie, still in the greenhouse, saw rounds ripping through the Zeros’ fuselages and wings, but the planes were relentless. Bullets streaked through Super Man from every direction. In every part of the plane, the sea and sky were visible through gashes in the bomber’s skin. Every moment, the holes multiplied.
Just as Louie turned to leave the greenhouse, he saw a Zero dive straight for Super Man’s nose. Mitchell and the Zero pilot fired simultaneously. Louie and Mitchell felt bullets cutting the air around them, one passing near Mitchell’s arm, the other just missing Louie’s face. One round sizzled past and struck the turret’s power line, and the turret went dead. At the same instant, Louie saw the Zero pilot jerk. Mitchell had hit him. For a moment, the Zero continued to speed directly at the nose of Super Man. Then the weight of the stricken pilot on the yoke forced the Zero down, ducking under the bomber. The fighter powered down and splashed into the ocean just short of the beach.
Louie rotated the dead turret by hand and Mitchell climbed out. The gunners kept firing, and Super Man trembled on. There were still two Zeros circling it.
In the top turret, facing backward, Stanley Pillsbury had fearsome weapons, twin .50-caliber machine guns. Each gun could fire eight hundred rounds per minute, the bullets traveling about three thousand feet per second. Pillsbury’s guns could kill a man from four miles away, and they could take out a Zero if given the chance. But the Zeros were staying below, where Pillsbury couldn’t hit them. He could feel their rounds thumping into Super Man’s belly, but all he could see were his plane’s wings. Fixated on the nearest Zero, Pillsbury thought, If he’d just come up, I can knock him down.
He waited. The plane groaned and shook, the gunners fired, the Zeros pounded them from below, and still Pillsbury waited. Then Louie saw a Zero swoop up on the right. Pillsbury never saw it. The first he knew of it was an earsplitting ka-bang! ka-bang! ka-bang!, a sensation of everything tipping and blowing apart, and excruciating pain.
The Zero had sprayed the entire right side of Super Man with cannon shells. The first rounds hit near the tail, spinning the plane hard on its side. Shrapnel tore into the hip and left leg of tail gunner Ray Lambert, who hung on sideways as Super Man rolled. The plane’s twist saved him; a cannon round struck exactly where his head had been an instant earlier, hitting so close to him that his goggles shattered. Ahead, shrapnel dropped Brooks and Douglas at the waist guns. In the belly turret, two hunks of shrapnel penetrated the back of Glassman, who was so adrenalized that he felt nothing. Another round hit the passenger, Nelson. Finally, a shell blew out the wall of the top turret, disintegrating on impact and shooting metal into Pillsbury’s leg from foot to knee. Half of the crew, and all of the working gunners, had been hit. Super Man reeled crazily on its side, and for a moment it felt about to spiral out of control. Phil and Cuppernell wrenched it level.
Clinging to his gun as the shrapnel struck his leg and the plane’s spin nearly flung him from his seat, Pillsbury shouted the only word that came to mind.
Louie heard someone scream. When the plane was righted, Phil yelled to him to find out how bad the damage was. Louie climbed from the nose turret. The first thing he saw was Harry Brooks, in the bomb bay, lying on the catwalk. The bomb bay doors were wide open, and Brooks was dangling partway off the catwalk, one hand gripping the catwalk and one leg swinging in the air, with nothing but air and ocean below him. His eyes bulged, and his upper body was wet with blood. He lifted one arm toward Louie, a plaintive expression on his face.
Louie grabbed Brooks by the wrists and pulled him into a seated position. Brooks slumped forward, and Louie could see holes dotting the back of his jacket. There was blood in his hair.
Louie dragged Brooks to the flight deck and pulled him into a corner. Brooks passed out. Louie found a cushion and slid it under him, then returned to the bomb bay. He remembered having turned the valve to close the doors, and couldn’t understand why they were open. Then he saw: There was a slash in the wall, and purple fluid was splattered everywhere. The hydraulic lines, which controlled the doors, had been severed. With these lines broken, Phil would have no hydraulic control of the landing gear or the flaps, which they would need to slow the plane on landing. And without hydraulics, they had no brakes.
Louie cranked the bomb bay doors shut by hand. He looked to the rear and saw Douglas, Lambert, and Nelson lying together, bloody. Douglas and Lambert were pawing along the floor, trying to reach their guns. Nelson didn’t move. He’d taken a shot to the stomach.
Louie shouted to the cockpit for help. Phil yelled back that he was losing control of the plane and needed Cuppernell. Louie said that this was a dire emergency. Phil braced himself at the controls, and Cuppernell got up, saw the men in back, and broke into a run. He found morphine, sulfa, oxygen masks, and bandages and dropped down next to each man in turn.
Louie knelt beside Brooks, who was still unconscious. Feeling through the gunner’s hair, he found two holes in the back of his skull. There were four large wounds in his back. Louie strapped an oxygen mask to Brooks’s face and bandaged his head. As he worked, he thought about the state of the plane. The waist, nose, and tail gunners were out, the plane was shot to hell, Phil was alone in the cockpit, barely keeping the plane up, and the Zeros were still out there. One more pass, he thought, will put us down.
Louie was bending over Brooks when he felt a tickle on his shoulder, something dripping. He looked up and saw Pillsbury in the top turret. Blood was streaming from his leg. Louie rushed to him.
Pillsbury was still in his seat, facing sideways, gripping the gun and sweeping his eyes around the sky. He looked absolutely livid. His leg dangled below him, his pant leg hanging in shreds and his boot blasted. Next to him was a jagged hole, the shape of Texas and almost as large as a beach ball, clawed out of the side of the plane. The turret was shot with holes, and the floor was jingling with flakes of metal and turret motor.
Top turret gunner Stanley Pillsbury, shown at the waist gun. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini
Louie began doctoring Pillsbury’s wounds. Pillsbury, swinging his head back and forth, ignored him. He knew that the Zero would come back to finish the kill, and he had to find it. The urgency of the moment drove the pain into a distant place.
Suddenly, there was a whoosh of dark, close, upward motion, a gray shining body, a red circle. Pillsbury shouted something unintelligible, and Louie let go of his foot just as Pillsbury banged the high-speed rotator on his turret. The turret grunted to life, whirling Pillsbury around ninety degrees.
The Zero reached the top of its arc, leveled off, and sped directly toward Super Man. Pillsbury was terrified. In an instant, the end would come with the most minute of gestures—the flick of the Zero pilot’s finger on his cannon trigger—and Super Man would carry ten men into the Pacific. Pillsbury could see the pilot who would end his life, the tropical sun illuminating his face, a white scarf coiled about his neck. Pillsbury thought: I have to kill this man.
Pillsbury sucked in a sharp breath and fired. He watched the tracers skim away from his gun’s muzzle and punch through the cockpit of the Zero. The windshield blew apart and the pilot pitched forward.
The fatal blow never came to Super Man. The Zero pilot, surely seeing the top turret smashed and the waist windows vacant, had probably assumed that the gunners were all dead. He had waited too long.
The Zero folded onto itself like a wounded bird. Pillsbury felt sure that the pilot was dead before his plane struck the ocean.
The last Zero came up from below, then faltered and fell. Clarence Douglas, standing at the waist gun with his thigh, chest, and shoulder torn open, brought it down.
In the ocean behind them, the men on the submarine watched the planes tussle over the water. One by one, the Zeros dropped, and the bombers flew on. The submarine crew would later report that not one Zero made it back to Nauru. It is believed that thanks to this raid and others, the Japanese never retrieved a single shipment of phosphate from the island.
The pain that had been far away during the gunfight surged over Pillsbury. Louie pushed the release on the turret chair, and the gunner slid into his arms. Louie eased him to the floor next to Brooks. Grasping Pillsbury’s boot, he began easing it off as gently as he could. Pillsbury hollered for all he was worth. The boot slid off. Pillsbury’s left big toe was gone; it was still in the boot. The toe next to it hung by a string of skin, and portions of his other toes were missing. So much shrapnel was embedded in his lower leg that it bristled like a pincushion. Louie thought that there would be no way to save the foot. He bandaged Pillsbury, gave him a shot of morphine, fed him a sulfa pill, then hurried away to see if they could save the plane.
Super Man was dying. Phil couldn’t turn it from side to side with the normal controls, and the plane was pulling upward so hard, trying to flip, that Phil couldn’t hold it with his arms. He put both feet on the yoke and pushed as hard as he could. The nose kept rearing up so high that the plane was on the verge of stalling. It was porpoising, up and down.
The men who could walk rushed through the plane, assessing its condition. The peril of their situation was abundantly clear. The right rudder was completely shot, a large portion of it missing and its cables severed. The cables for the elevators, which controlled the plane’s pitch, were badly damaged. So were the cables for the trim, which gave the pilot fine control of the plane’s attitude—its orientation in the air—and thus greatly reduced the effort needed to handle the plane. Fuel was trickling onto the floor under the top turret. No one knew the condition of the landing gear, but with the entire plane perforated, it was likely that the tires had been struck. The bomb bay was sloshing with hydraulic fluid.
Phil did what he could. Slowing the engines on one side created a power differential that forced the plane to turn. Pushing the plane to higher speed eased the porpoising and reduced the risk of stalling. If Phil kept his feet on the yoke and pushed hard, he could stop the plane from flipping. Someone shut off the fuel feed near Pillsbury, and the leaking stopped. Louie took a bomb-arming wire and spliced the severed rudder and elevator cables together. It didn’t result in immediate improvement, but if the left rudder cables failed, it might help.
Funafuti was five hours away. If Super Man could carry them that far, they would have to land without hydraulic control of the landing gear, flaps, or brakes. They could lower the gear and extend the flaps with hand pumps, but there was no manual alternative to hydraulic brakes. Without bombs or much fuel aboard, the plane weighed some forty thousand pounds. A B-24 without brakes, especially one coming in “hot”—over the standard of 90 to 110 miles per hour landing speed—could eat up 10,000 feet before it stopped. Funafuti’s runway was 6,660 feet long. At its end were rocks and sea.
Hours passed. Super Man shook and struggled. Louie and Cuppernell moved among the injured men. Pillsbury lay on the floor, watching his leg bleed. Mitchell hunched over his navigation table, and Phil wrestled with the plane. Douglas limped about, looking deeply traumatized, his shoulder and arm, said Pillsbury, “all torn to pieces.” Brooks lay next to Pillsbury, blood pooling in his throat, making him gurgle as he breathed. Pillsbury couldn’t bear the sound. Once or twice, when Louie knelt before him, Brooks opened his eyes and whispered something. Louie put his ear near Brooks’s lips, but couldn’t understand him. Brooks drifted off again. Everyone knew he was almost surely dying. No one spoke of it.
It was likely, they all knew, that they’d crash on landing, if not before. Whatever thoughts each man had, he kept them to himself.
Daylight was fading when the palms of Funafuti brushed over the horizon. Phil began dropping the plane toward the runway. They were going much too fast. Someone went to the hand crank on the catwalk and opened the bomb bay doors, and the plane, dragging on the air, began to slow. Douglas went to the pump for the landing gear, just under the top turret. He needed two hands to work it—one to push the valve and one to work the pump—but he was in too much pain to hold up either of his arms for more than a few seconds. Pillsbury couldn’t stand, but by stretching as far as he could, he reached the selector valve. Together, they got the gear down while Louie peered out the side window, looking for a yellow tab that would signify that the gear was locked. The tab appeared. Mitchell and Louie pumped the flaps down.
Louie scrounged up parachute cord and went to each injured man, looping cord around him as a belt, then wrapping the rope around stationary parts of the plane. Nelson, with his belly wound, couldn’t have a rope wrapped around his torso, so Louie fed the line around his arm and under his armpit. Fearing that they’d end up on fire, he didn’t knot the cords. Instead, he wound the ends around the hands of the injured men, so they could free themselves easily.
The question of how to stop the bomber remained. Louie had an idea. What if they were to tie two parachutes to the rear of the plane, pitch them out of the waist windows at touchdown, and pull the rip cords? No one had ever tried to stop a bomber in this manner. It was a long shot, but it was all they had. Louie and Douglas placed one parachute in each waist window and tied them to a gun mount. Douglas went to his seat, leaving Louie standing between the waist windows, a rip cord in each hand.
Super Man sank toward Funafuti. Below, the journalists and the other bomber crews stood, watching the crippled plane come in. Super Man dropped lower and lower. Just before it touched down, Pillsbury looked at the airspeed gauge. It read 110 miles per hour. For a plane without brakes, it was too fast.
For a moment, the landing was perfect. The wheels kissed the runway so softly that Louie stayed on his feet. Then came a violent gouging sensation. What they had feared had happened: The left tire was flat. The plane caught hard, veered left, and careened toward two parked bombers. Cuppernell, surely more out of habit than hope, stomped on the right brake. There was just enough hydraulic fluid left to save them. Super Man spun in a circle and lurched to a stop just clear of the other bombers. Louie was still in the back, gripping the parachute cords. He had not had to use them.*
Douglas popped open the top hatch, dragged himself onto the roof, raised his injured arm over his head, and crossed it with his other arm, the signal that there were wounded men inside. Louie jumped down from the bomb bay and gave the same signal. There was a stampede across the airfield, and in seconds the plane was swarming with marines. Louie stood back and ran his eyes over the body of his ruined plane. Later, ground crewmen would count the holes in Super Man, marking each one with chalk to be sure that they didn’t count any twice. There were 594 holes. All of the Nauru bombers had made it back, every one of them shot up, but none so badly as this.
Brooks was laid on a stretcher, placed on a jeep, and driven to a rudimentary, one-room infirmary. He was bleeding inside his skull.
They carried Pillsbury to a barracks to await treatment. He was lying there about an hour later when the doctor came in and asked him if he knew Harry Brooks. Pillsbury said yes.
“He didn’t make it,” the doctor said.
Technical Sergeant Harold Brooks died one week before his twenty-third birthday. It took more than a week for word to reach his widowed mother, Edna, at 511½ Western Avenue in Clarksville, Michigan. Across town on Harley Road, the news reached his fiancée, Jeannette Burtscher. She learned that he was gone nine days before the wedding date that they had set before he left for the war.
* Eight months later, Charlie Pratte became the first pilot to stop a B-24 with parachutes. His bomber, Belle of Texas, had been shot up over the Marshall Islands and had no brakes, leaving Pratte to attempt a landing on a runway far too short for bombers. To make matters worse, Pratte had eaten bad eggs and was vomiting as he flew. Touching down at a scorching 140 miles per hour, Pratte ordered his men to deploy three parachutes. With the parachutes open behind it, the plane shot off the end of the runway and onto the beach before stopping just short of the ocean. Pratte and his crew were given special commendations.
The Stinking Six
AS EVENING FELL OVER FUNAFUTI, THE GROUND CREWS nursed the damaged bombers. When the holes were patched and mechanical problems repaired, the planes were fueled up and loaded with six five-hundred-pound bombs each, ready for a strike on Tarawa the next day. Super Man, still standing where it had spun to a halt, its entire length honeycombed, wouldn’t join them. It would probably never fly again.
Worn out from the mission and hours spent helping at the infirmary, Louie walked to a grove of coconut trees where there were tents that served as barracks. He found his tent and flopped down on a cot, near Phil. The journalists were in a tent next to theirs. At the infirmary, Stanley Pillsbury lay with his bleeding leg hanging off his cot. Nearby, the other wounded Super Man crewmen tried to sleep. Blackout descended, and a hush fell.
At about three in the morning, Louie woke to a forlorn droning, rising and falling. It was a small plane, crossing back and forth overhead. Thinking that it was a crew lost in the clouds, Louie lay there listening, hoping they’d find home. Eventually, the sound faded away.
Before Louie could fall back asleep, he heard the growl of heavy aircraft engines. Then, from the north end of the atoll, came a BOOM! A siren began sounding, and there was distant gunfire. Then a marine ran past the airmen’s tents, screaming, “Air raid! Air raid!” The droning overhead hadn’t been a lost American crew. It had probably been a scout plane, leading Japanese bombers. Funafuti was under attack.
The airmen and journalists, Louie and Phil among them, jammed their feet into their boots, bolted from the tents, and stopped, some shouting, others spinning in panic. They couldn’t see any bomb shelters. From down the atoll, the explosions were coming in rapid succession, each one louder and closer. The ground shook.
“I looked around and said, ‘Holy hell! Where are we going to go?’ ” remembered pilot Joe Deasy. The best shelter he could find was a shallow pit dug around a coconut sapling, and he plowed into it, along with most of the men near him. Herman Scearce, Deasy’s radioman, leapt into a trench next to an ordnance truck, joining five of his crewmates. Pilot Jesse Stay jumped into another hole nearby. Three men crawled under the ordnance truck; another flung himself into a garbage pit. One man ran right off the end of the atoll, splashing into the ocean even though he didn’t know how to swim. Some men, finding nowhere to go, dropped