TEN DAUNTLESS DOUGLAS DIGBYS
England's Royal Air Force purchased a few Douglas B-18 type aircraft from the United States in 1938. They named the bomber Douglas Digby pursuant to the RAF custom of naming their airplanes with the first word of the manufacturer. Thus the name, Douglas Digby. We never learned where the word Digby came from since it did not fit the pattern of British warplane names such as Spitfire and Beaufighter. The plane was so slow that the RAF was fortunate a Digby never encountered a German fighter plane. Men of the 40th Bomb Group called their B-18S (in humorous jest) The Dauntless Douglas Digby.
In June 1942, our bomb group made a harrowing trip from Puerto Rico to Panama through U-boat infested Caribbean waters aboard the Algonquin. My 45th Bomb Squadron comrades and I hoped to fly the new four-engine bombers assigned to the 6th Air Force. We were not that lucky. After debarking at Balboa, our squadron was assigned duty at France Field near Colon, Panama, on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone. The tiny grass field was home for 10 of the scruffiest B-18s any of us had ever seen. They were about seven years old, and had been in Panama most of that time. The salt-laden air of Panama had corroded the surfaces of each plane from its nose to its tail. Compared with these fossils, the B-18s we left in Puerto Rico seemed like new.
What had the 45th Bomb Squadron done to deserve this fate? The other three squadrons in our group moved to bases in Panama, Guatemala, and Ecuador to fly four-engine bombers. NOTE: The 29th Squadron was initially stationed at Aqua Dulce, Panama, and assigned Northrop A-17 fixed gear, attack aircraft. It was later transferred to Ecuador. In time, we learned our Group Commander sent us to France Field because our crews had the most experience flying B-18s on antisubmarine patrol against German U-boats. Another factor was our effort to help form the air and ship convoy system used to protect Allied tankers around the Dutch Islands of Aruba and Curacao. A concentration of German submarines had shifted to the western Caribbean Sea because the convoy system was not used there.
The danger was so critical that Navy and Air Force Staff Officers were waiting for us at France Field. Before he had time to unpack his luggage, our Squadron Commander was directed to schedule four patrol missions to be flown the following day. Squadron Commander Major Jim Gianetti assembled the squadron in an ancient hangar during a heavy downpour. While his audience dodged streams of water falling through leaks in the roof, he directed that four of the old bombers be prepared ASAP for test flights. The quality of our maintenance was about to be tested.
Line Chief M/Sgt. Sigmund D. Chalk and his assistants inspected all ten bombers. They selected the four with the least engine flying time and wheeled them into hangars. By nightfall, they had prepared a long list of parts required to make the planes safe to fly. Since there were few spares in stock, crew chiefs worked all night cannibalizing the other six planes for used parts. Three of the best supply scroungers drove a truck much of the night making a round trip to the Panama Air Depot, at nearby Albrook Field, for new parts and supplies.
By dawn, the four planes passed their preflight inspections, and were being made ready for their test flights when an officer in Headquarters called and demanded to know why the planes had not departed on patrol. Major Gianetti explained that the planes were ready for their test flights, and that it would be unwise for them to go on patrol until flight tested.
When the heavy rain slackened, Major Gianetti, Capt. Oscar Schaaf, 1st. Lt. Eddie Glass, and 1st. Lt. Alex Zamry took the four planes on test flights. After 30 minutes of flying, they landed and gave the crew chiefs long lists of minor malfunctions, none of which were serious enough to ground the plane. All four planes were cleared to fly patrol missions, and were quickly refueled and loaded with depth charges. At noon, June 19, 1942, the four pilots listed above, with their aircrews, took off on the first antisubmarine patrol missions flown from France Field. While the missions were in progress, four more planes were moved into the leaky hangars, prepared for flight, then flown on test flights.
Despite the substandard condition of the 10 bombers, the 45th Bomb Squadron flew an average of seven patrols daily from June through November 1942. During 1,000 patrols from France Field, the squadron had only one engine failure. This mishap caused Pilot Roy Reeve to ditch the plane in the Caribbean Sea a few miles from Colon, Panama. All crew members escaped serious injury, and were rescued without delay. The plane remained afloat, and was towed to land and used for spare parts. When one considers the age and condition of the planes, the lack of spare parts, the substandard maintenance facilities, and Panama's terrible rainy season, the squadron's accomplishments were outstanding. It is a sad matter of fact that not one form of recognition -- not one commendation, not one award, not one medal -- was bestowed upon the squadron.
We were justly proud that the convoy system we helped invent was adopted for the protection of Allied shipping in the western Caribbean Theater. The system was so successful that the German U-boats moved to the South Atlantic Theater in 1942.
When the 45th Bomb Squadron moved to a new field, where we flew four-engine bombers with radar and other modern equipment, none of us regretted the lack of recognition for our accomplishments while flying B-18s at France Field, Panama.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *