THE FIRST MISSION
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 40th Bomb Group sent a flight of four B-18 bombers from Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, to Coolidge Field on the British West Indies Island of Antigua. The planes were to be flown on missions that would prevent French warships in the Fort de France Harbor, Martinique, from joining the German navy. Navy Intelligence personnel told us that a breakout, as they called it, could occur at any time. On our daily flights around Martinique, we were to gather intelligence, but our primary mission was to keep the French vessels in the harbor.
Construction at Coolidge Field was underway according to lend lease arrangements with Great Britain. The agreement provided for the United States to receive certain Caribbean military bases in exchange for 50 World War I destroyers. Coolidge Field's runway was reported to be ready for our operations, but limited basic billeting and operational facilities were available.
I was Copilot on the first B-18 aircrew to land at Coolidge Field. The Pilot was 1st. Lieutenant James Ira Cornett, one of the best Pilots in our 40th Bomb Group. Lt. Cornett set the old bomber down with one of his silk-smooth landings, but this time there was a different ending. As we touched down, a great rumble came from the fuselage. Coolidge Field's runway was covered with a layer of slimy, gray mud, chunks of which were thrown by the spinning tires against the plane's lower surfaces. Fortunately, a paved runway under the mud was firm, so we taxied by using extra engine power. Lt. Cornett described these conditions to the other pilots and directed them to land.
We were greeted by the Base Commander as we climbed out of the plane. He said a U.S. Navy message warned that the French warships were getting up steam, and could leave Fort de France very soon. We had orders to prevent such an event. When Lt. Cornett asked about the mud on the runway, the Base Commander replied that it did not bother him, and that our B-18s could take off and land safely during all normal operations. Then he instructed us to refuel and take off on a patrol mission soon. By that time, the other Pilots landed and parked their B-18s close to ours. Lt. Cornett briefed all crew members on our mission, and instructed us to get our planes ready for flight.
Each plane was serviced with a max fuel load, and loaded with four 500 pound bombs. The gross weight of each plane was such that almost full throttle was required to taxi in the sticky mud. At the end of the take off runway, Lt. Cornett briefed me on the emergency procedures to use in case we aborted take off. Much to my surprise, the straining B-18 accelerated slowly and lifted off with some runway to spare. A large quantity of mud had accumulated on the wheels and tires, so we left the gear down for a few extra moments hoping some mud would spin off.
The other planes took off safely, and caught up with us after our first turn toward Martinique. The great streaks of mud on their lower surfaces did not prevent them from flying normally. Before our three weeks at Coolidge Field ended, we learned that our B-18s operated quite well on the muddy runway.
In less than an hour, our formation arrived over Fort de France Harbor, where we found the French warships anchored exactly as shown on aerial reconnaissance photos. There were no signs to indicate they would soon be sailing. Our formation flew around the island until late afternoon, then returned to Coolidge Field. The landings were like the first -- noisy and muddy.
None of the French vessels moved during the three weeks we flew morning and afternoon flights around Martinique. Daily U.S. Navy reports continued to read as if the French warships were within minutes of steaming away to join the German Navy. Eventually, we learned that the French Commander promised the Free French Government he would scuttle his vessels rather than allow them to join the German Navy. In late December 1941, our B-18 unit was replaced by personnel from St. Lucia and Trinidad, and our very interesting mission ended.
NOTE: Please forgive me for writing this personal information. I was the youngest and greenest Copilot in the unit when I was assigned to the 40th Bombardment Group. When I was scheduled to fly "The First Mission" with veteran 1st. Lieutenant James Ira Cornett, I learned of his unrelenting demand for perfection by members of his aircrew. He expected top performance in the air and a spit and polish dress appearance on the ground. The first night at Coolidge Field, I scraped the mud from my shoes and put them under my bed while preparing to turn in. Lt. Cornett saw me, and stopped polishing his shoes to tell me in a firm voice to polish my shoes before putting them away. You may be sure I did just that. I spent more than an hour removing the dingy streaks of mud, and followed that routine very carefully for the following three weeks.
In January 1982, I received an 11-page letter from James Ira Cornett. Among other things in the lengthy letter, he commended me for shining my shoes every night in 1941 at Coolidge Field.
WHO SAYS TRUE MERIT GOES UNREWARDED?
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *