THE ROCK FRATERNITY
The 40th Bomb Group, U.S. Army Air Corps, circled the globe during World War II. The journey started at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, in 1941 where the group's aircrews flew B-18 type aircraft, and ended at March Field, California, in 1946 while they flew B-29 type aircraft. Station assignments along the way included Aruba, Antiqua, Curacao, Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, Galapagos Islands, Kansas, China, India, and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. The group remained intact during its combat tour flying antisubmarine patrol in the Caribbean Theater, through its air assault against the Japanese Empire.
During much of the war, the group operated from primitive grass or gravel airstrips. Veterans of this world journey agree that Baltra Island (The Rock), Galapagos Archipelago, had the most severe living conditions of all their station assignments. From February to June 1943, the 45th Bomb Squadron flew B-24 type aircraft from The Rock. Other squadrons stationed in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama, used the island as an overnight stop while on patrol missions. Personnel of the 45th Bomb Squadron believe that those who were never stationed on The Rock, do not qualify for membership in The Rock Fraternity.
I'm sure Charles Darwin, who first visited Baltra Island in 1835, would concur in the following description of this inhospitable sliver of land. He would agree that the land resembled an imaginative artist's conception of the surface of Mars. Why was life so unpleasant there? Perhaps this description will provide the answer. The tiny island measured one mile by two miles, and was inhabited by iguanas, lizards, turtles, scorpions, small snakes, and countless sea birds. The shores teemed with wildlife swept northward from the Antarctic by the Humboldt Current. Penguins, walrus, and seals were everywhere. There were no trees and no grass. Vegetation consisted of cactus and a few shrubs. Despite the island being only 28 miles from the equator, the waters offshore were extremely cold.
Geologically speaking, The Rock was separated from nearby Chaves Island by some giant upheaval, probably caused by a volcanic explosion accompanied by earthquakes. Minor earthquakes still shake the land every week. The land's surface is a wild jumble of shattered rocks, pumice, lava beds, shale, and dark red volcanic dust. As if to underscore Baltra's volcanic origin, smoke and hot gases frequently come from fissures dotting the island. There are many places where the surface rocks are too hot to stand on.
Squadron personnel lived in tents fastened to rocks that kept the cloth homes from being blown away in the unceasing southeast trade winds. The winds raked the island at 30 to 40 miles an hour -- day and night. Red volcanic dust, as fine as talcum powder, penetrated everything not sealed. What is normally a simple task to keep clean, was a constant battle on The Rock. Fresh water, barged in from Panama, was for cooking and drinking only. We shaved and bathed in salt water using a gooey, brown bar of something the Army Quartermaster called salt water soap. The stuff left a residue that had an odor so objectionable that we often abstained from shaving with it and walked around with scraggly beards.
The food served on Baltra Island deserves special mention. Our mess tent reeked with the smell of canned bully beef, spam, salt pork, powdered eggs, dehydrated cabbage, and dehydrated potatoes. Instead of bread, we ate unsavory hard tack that was probably left over from World War I. A yellow colored grease with a foul odor was our butter substitute. Our flight crews soon learned how to improve their dismal diet.
We were eager to fly the patrol mission that included an overnight stop at Guatemala City where we could enjoy hot, fresh food and hot, fresh water showers. Before departing on the two-day mission, the flight crew would collect money from those who remained behind, and while in Guatemala City, they went shopping in the local markets. When they reported to the flight line to prepare for the flight back to The Rock, they loaded their plane with bread, meat, vegetables, fruit, and milk. Those flights to the city did much to improve our diet and to raise our morale.
The 45th Bomb Squadron's tour of duty on Baltra Island lasted four months. It seemed like forty. In June 1943, the 40th Bomb Group was alerted for transfer to the States. I'm sure personnel in the other three squadrons were happy to be going home, but none of them could possibly be as elated as the veterans of The Rock Fraternity. I remember taking off from the miserable airfield and heading out to sea without regret.
Our stateside assignment was at Pratt Field, Pratt, Kansas, where, for a couple of months, we flew aircrew transition missions in Boeing's YB-29 Superfortresses. Later, we were issued combat model planes and prepared to go overseas. When additional personnel arrived to increase the group's numbers to combat strength, a strange social mix developed. Newcomers formed the lower level. Three of the four squadrons that served in the Caribbean Theater formed the middle level. The 45th Bomb Squadron's Rock Fraternity took its place at the top of the pecking order.
One group of the newly assigned personnel found such an arrangement difficult to accept. They were veteran Instructor Pilots who flew B-24 type aircraft at Tarrant Field, Texas. They were superbly qualified with much more flying experience than The Rock Pilots. These new Pilots had graduated from the Advanced Instrument Flying School, and had flown half their considerable number of flying hours during instrument and/or night conditions. The Rock Fraternity pilots had flown no night missions, and had very little formal instrument flight training in the previous 18 months. No matter. All newly assigned pilots were outsiders according to the Rock pilots, and remained so for the rest of the war.
In 1979, the 40th Bomb Group Association was formed by veterans of the group. A Newsletter is published to keep association members informed of events and the status of other members. A Memories publication is composed of articles written by members describing their war experiences. Annual reunions are held at different cities around the States -- the first one was held in 1980 in New Orleans, LA. During that reunion, someone pointed out that The Rock Fraternity still existed after more than 35 years had passed, and would exist as long as one original member was alive. One member asked, "What then? Will there be a Rock Fraternity in the hereafter?" A comic who had served on Baltra replied, "Why not? There probably is one in purgatory already!"
Purgatory. No one has ever suggested a better one-word description of Baltra Island, aka The Rock.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *