FRANCE FIELD PATROL
In the 1942 June to November period, the 45th Bomb Squadron of the 40th Bomb Group averaged seven antisubmarine patrol missions daily from the grass surface of France Field located across the bay from Colon, Panama. While flying outmoded, twin-engine B-18 type aircraft, our mission was to protect Allied shipping in the southwest sector of the Caribbean Sea. This sector had attracted a large pack of German submarines from the North Atlantic Theater. The 45th Squadron joined the U.S. Navy to form a convoy system to use against these battle-tested U-boats and their crews.
A typical six-hour patrol began with a predawn breakfast. The crew of five consisted of Pilot, Copilot, Bombardier, Radio Operator, and the Crew Chief who also served as Gunner. When the squadron began operations at France Field, there were only two Navigators assigned for crew duty. The unit did not have enough Navigators to man each crew until about eight weeks after starting patrols. Before then, two Pilots and the Bombardier handled the navigation duties as best they could.
A patrol mission briefing was just that -- brief. It covered weather, navigation charts, radio codes, visual signals, allied shipping data, and enemy sub activity. The Squadron Operations Officer, 1st. Lt. Marvin Goodwyn, usually briefed us, and since he was a man of few words, we had to pay close attention to him.
Our tour at France Field was during the rainy season, so the weather was uniformly bad. After a briefing, we carried our flying gear and patrol kits through the rain in the dark to our assigned aircraft for preflight checks. Since the heaviest showers occurred in early morning, our pot-bellied bomber was often squatting among puddles of water. By the time we completed the preflight inspection, we were thoroughly drenched. Everyone became accustomed to being wet during a mission, especially the pilots because the B-18 windshield and side windows leaked constantly in flight.
After the engines were started, the control tower cleared us to taxi by flashing a green light at us. The ungainly bomber would then splash through drenched grass and deep puddles until we arrived at the south end of the take off strip. When we had turned around to line up for take off, rain made it difficult to see the tower's steady green light which was our clearance to take off. When take off power was applied, a man could walk alongside the plane for a short distance while it accelerated at a very slow rate. Around 80 MPH, the plane would lift off gracefully, and start climbing at 200 feet per minute until reaching cruise altitude. We then flew across the bay to the Colon lighthouse, which was our last checkpoint until we arrived at Roncador Cay four hours later.
Patrol cruising speed was 135 mph. Normal patrol altitude was 1,000 feet so we could stay below clouds on the outbound leg. It was easy to fly a B-18 in heavy rain squalls and below turbulent clouds that were common along the Panama coast.
At dawn it became possible to distinguish objects on the surface of the ocean. The pilot would trim the Sperry autopilot, turn on the automatic flight controls, and join the other crew members to scan the ocean surface below for submarines. Since the plane did not have radar, our efforts to spot a submarine were almost fruitless, especially during rain showers. At morning's first light, a wily U-boat Captain usually submerged his boat to conning tower or periscope depth to make his location difficult to detect. Even so, one factor favored the B-18 crews and made our efforts worthwhile. Daily patrols over a wide area of the Caribbean Sea usually prevented U-boats from making daylight attacks.
Three hours after take off, and about 400 miles from France Field, we altered heading to the southwest and flew toward Roncador Cay. The small sand spit was only a few feet above high tide, and was surrounded by underwater reefs. It's only inhabitants were a few birds and turtles. We figuratively sweated out the flight toward the Cay waiting for the ETA (estimated time of arrival) to run out. With luck, or good navigation, the check point came into view. If strong cross winds, or heavy rain showers, caused us to miss the check point, we had to change heading at the expiration of the ETA, and fly a heading we hoped would take us to a familiar landfall on the Panama coast near France Field.
While searching for submarines, we would record all sightings of allied ships and debris such as rafts, oil slicks, and oil drums that were indications of a successful submarine attack. On the northern sector of our search area, we often saw evidence of such attacks since the prevailing easterly winds carried debris from the many losses of allied shipping in the Puerto Rico and Lesser Antilles area. All this evidence clearly showed that the life of a merchant seaman in the Caribbean Sea was very risky.
The greatest problem facing aircrew members on a patrol mission, was the strain of having to remain vigilant by constantly staring at the water for signs of a U-boat. Even the radio operator, who had only a small window near his seat, spent his time looking for submarines while wearing his headset. When someone reported over the intercom that they saw something out of the ordinary, the pilot turned the plane to investigate the sighting. Usually, it was a floating oil drum, but occasionally
the object would be garbage. U.S. Navy, U.S. merchant marine, and foreign boat crew members used the ocean as a dumping ground for all their waste material. The frequent descents from cruising altitude to check each sighting served as a diversion and break in the monotony of our constant vigilance. If an oil drum caused the investigation, it often became the target for a bit of gunnery practice.
It usually began to rain shortly after we passed check point Roncador Cay. From then until we landed at France Field, flying became a fight to stay below a solid cloud layer so we could maintain our watch for submarines. When visibility was restricted by a heavy rain squall, a U-boat Captain often surfaced because he knew our limitations. His lookouts and acoustic listening devices could give warning of the approach of a patrol plane.
The B-18 was so slow that if we sighted a submarine while cruising at 1,000 feet altitude and 135 mph, we rarely had time to get to the target before it dived out of sight. At first sight, we went into a power dive with both engines at full throttle. Usually, the wake of the submarine's crash dive disappeared before we arrived at the point where we should release our depth charges. When that happened, the frustration we felt made us wonder if we were contributing very much to the war effort. In spite of those doubts, we continued to fly patrol missions, continued to stare at the sea below, and continued to hope that we would sink the next U-boat we spotted.
As we approached Panama, several hazards developed to make the patrol more interesting. First, making landfall at a predetermined coastal area was a matter of luck for a crew flying without a navigator. Heavy rains and low cloud layers made identifying land features by visual contact extremely difficult. Second, the antiaircraft gun crews of the U.S. Army in the Canal Zone, had standing orders to shoot at any plane not approaching from a proper direction. Finally, radio aids to navigation were not reliable. When one considers the navigation errors that occurred, it appears that certain aircrews led charmed lives. One aircrew made landfall at Bocas del Toro, 100 miles west of its desired destination.
It seems incredible that the 45th Bomb Squadron completed more than 1,000 patrols under all the hazards described above without losing one plane due to navigation errors. The only plane lost during patrols from Puerto Rico and France Field, was the plane ditched near Colon after it lost an engine and could not maintain flight. The flight crew survived, but the plane was towed to Colon and cannibalized for parts.
If we made landfall during a period of light or intermittent showers, we had no trouble finding the channel entrance to Colon, and subsequently France Field. In the five months we operated from France Field, few flights were diverted to an alternate landing field due to weather or in flight problems.
The lack of engineering experience of our pilots was offset by the expertise of our veteran maintenance crews who were men of great common sense and remarkable ingenuity. When confronted with a problem that required a part that was not on hand, they either cannibalized another plane, or used a suitable substitute. If that were not possible, a custom built part usually did a satisfactory job. I vividly recall flying a patrol mission with a P-40 fighter plane's fuel line modified to fit my plane's engine nacelle. It worked perfectly, thanks to the skill of M/Sgt. Britton C. Vick.
During the five months I flew patrol missions from France Field, I never was apprehensive about my plane being in proper working order for flight. Aircrew members learned that our mechanics did not release a plane unless it was ready for a safe flight. Our confidence in this respect eliminated one source of mental stress that all aviators experience in combat. Squadron Historical Records reveal that in the 12,000 engine hours flown in five months at France Field, only one engine failed in flight, and that failure resulted in the plane being ditched in the sea. Best of all, not one man was lost during this difficult period of combat despite all the operational handicaps we had to overcome.
When we landed at the end of a patrol, we were debriefed by Squadron Operations Officer Lt. Goodwyn and a few Intelligence Officers. Everything recorded in our Flight Log concerning sightings was passed without delay to local Naval authorities. They used the information to update intelligence reports made to Allied ships sailing within the Canal Zone. As sparse as the data was at times, it added to the Battle Order map and helped make the passage of Allied convoys safer. When our five months at France Field ended in November 1942, German submarines had moved to the South Atlantic where land based planes could not reach them, and where naval vessels did not escort Allied cargo ships.
Despite our criticism of the outmoded B-18's many limitations, we were grateful that the clumsy bombers were available and dependable as we gained experience in flight operations. My Pilot Individual Flight Record reveals that I averaged more than 175 hours of flying time each month that I was at France Field. Since all those hours were flown during daylight patrols, obviously, the Dauntless Douglas Digby bomber was a reliable airplane for its assigned task.
We did not realize it at the time, but the many experiences and hardships of life on the ground in a combat theater, and the flying hours we spent learning aircrew coordination, prepared us for more trying days ahead. After transferring to the States for training, our 40th Bomb Group would fly Boeing's B-29 aircraft on combat missions against Japan in the China-Burma-India Theater and on Tinian, Mariana Islands.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *