TRIBUTE TO A COMBAT CREW
This belated tribute to my B-29 combat aircrew comes from an unlettered person. Its real merit is that it comes from the heart of one who owes his life to the 10 great men who flew with him on the longest bombing mission of World War II. I was the Pilot of a crew that included: Copilot Robert A. Winters, Navigator Herbert C. Hirschfeld, Bombardier Charles E. Biehle, Flight Engineer Louis L. Grace, Radio Operator Fred H. Thompson, Jr., Central Fire Control Gunner Samuel P. Winborne, Left Gunner Ralph M. Smole, Right Gunner Leo E. McBride, Radar Operator Stanley V. Sienkiewicz, and Tail Gunner Delbert C. Glover.
The quiet bravery, technical skills, and dogged tenacity that these splendid young men displayed during our in flight emergency were outstanding. It is my hope and prayer that the lapse of many years, and the obvious deficiency of my writing, will be forgiven as I express my gratitude to those comrades who are still living. I regret that I did not write this tribute while all my crew members were alive.
In early August 1944, 54 B-29 Boeing Superfortresses from four bases in India assembled at the RAF Airfield, China Bay, Ceylon. Their mission, nicknamed Operation Boomerang, was to bomb the Japanese Pladjoe Oil Refinery at Palembang, Sumatra. On August 10, our crew joined the strike force, and as our plane neared the coast of Sumatra we began to lose oil through a leak in #4 engine's oil cooler. The Flight Engineer estimated that we would have to shut down the engine and feather its propeller soon after we bombed the target. According to his aircraft performance charts, our plane could not reach China Bay on three engines from Sumatra. If we bombed the target, we would be forced to ditch our plane in the Indian Ocean.
I had to make a decision. We could salvo our bombs into the ocean and return to the airfield, or bomb the target with the prospect of having to ditch our plane before reaching China Bay. I carefully considered these options while weighing them against the fact that the oil refinery was producing most of Japan's aviation fuel. I made a decision that would place us in a life-threatening situation: I elected to attack the target. All 10 crew members supported me without hesitation. We wanted to help destroy the target regardless of the risk involved.
We bombed the target as briefed, then turned back toward China Bay with four engines running. After leaving the target area, the Flight Engineer reported only 15 gallons of oil remained in the #4 tank, and that much oil was needed to feather the engine's propeller. Copilot Bob Winters reduced the engine's RPMs to turn the four blades to positions of minimum air drag. This precautionary action was a key factor when the propeller later continued to wind mill at a constant speed.
When the #4 tachometer indicated engine speed to be 1,200 RPMs, Copilot Winters shut the engine down and announced that he was going to feather the propeller. When he depressed the feathering button, the propeller did not feather. Instead, a great stream of oil appeared on the engine cowling as evidence that the feathering pump was rapidly depleting the remaining oil. He quickly released the feathering button. The propeller continued to wind mill at a constant 1,200 RPMs, and presented us with the serious threat that should it become uncontrollable, then runaway, it could spin off into the fuselage. Such an accident occurred during early testing of the B-29. The plane was destroyed and all its crew members were killed. Not one of us believed the propeller could wind mill very long.
Realizing that there was no hope of reaching China Bay on three engines at our current gross weight, we decided to jettison every removable object not required to safely fly the plane. Once we were beyond enemy fighter aircraft range, the gunners fired all ammunition. Then the Bombardier, Radio Operator, and Radar Operator helped to jettison the bomb racks, gun sights, gun computers, armor plate, bulletproof glass, cabin pressure regulators, bomb bay fuel tanks, and the bombsight and its stabilizer.
Each man had flown many flight tests in early YB-29s, and their knowledge of the B-29's systems was well above that of the average combat crew. They used that knowledge and tools from their in-flight tool kits to remove many aircraft accessories. Sufficient weight was jettisoned that our plane was able to maintain 10,000 feet altitude at 150 miles per hour with reasonable power settings on the three good engines.
When we flew over the west coast of Sumatra, we had more than 1,500 miles of Indian Ocean to cross before reaching the RAF Airfield at China Bay. The Navigator and Flight Engineer estimated the fuel tanks would go dry about 300 miles short of our destination -- providing the #4 propeller did not go out of control. A British cruiser and a destroyer were stationed along the B-29 withdrawal route to China Bay, and were standing by to rescue any crew that ditched. It appeared likely we would need to be rescued. None of us relished that service, because several B-29 ditchings resulted in crew fatalities and injuries.
After a short discussion on how useful our parachutes and pistols would be over the Indian Ocean, we jettisoned them. The gunners dismantled the gun supports and ammunition cans, pulled the guns into the cabin, and threw those items overboard. Then they used wire cutters and tin snips to remove the gun turret wells. This chore continued for several hours, so I picked this time to have Copilot Winters take control of the plane while I went through the tunnel to the aft pressurized compartment to see what had been accomplished so far. I found the Gunners and Radar Operator busy around the turret wells. Other than a few seat cushions and seat belts (items useful during a ditching or crash landing) the compartment was bare from the bomb bay bulkhead to the aft bulkhead. Even the padded green upholstery was gone. The compartment looked like a new fuselage section sitting on the Boeing Wichita production line.
I had carried with me my pilot's map of the Indian Ocean annotated with the separate locations of the two British vessels, and pointed to the place on the map where I thought we would run out of fuel. We knew that during previous B-29 ditchings the aft bomb bay doors collapsed, so we decided that all five men should sit aft of the rear bulkhead just forward of the auxiliary power plant. I had each man assume his ditching position and review his emergency procedures.
Before ditching, the upper hatch door would be removed to provide an exit above the water line of a floating B-29. After ditching, each man would inflate his Mae West (flotation vest) once he was outside the hatch. We then decided which of the two life rafts each man would board. When we finished the discussion, not a man showed the slightest outward trace of fear as they went back to work dismantling the turrets and taping the ends of electrical connections hanging from the fuselage walls. Their apparent calm was a real balm for my jangled nerves.
Just as I turned toward the tunnel to return to my pilot's seat, the Left Gunner handed me his headset and flashed me a broad smile. The Navigator had called with great news -- we picked up a tail wind of 40 miles per hour at our present altitude of 10,000 feet. Realizing that this altitude could be used in a slow descent to increase our speed as we approached our destination, and considering the new tail wind, the Navigator and the Flight Engineer estimated that we now had a slim chance of reaching China Bay!
I took time to explain our good fortune to the men in the rear compartment, then hurried to the front of the plane to confirm this encouraging development. Another check verified that the tail wind was real. The fuel gauges checked O.K. Now, if the propeller continued to wind mill at the low RPM, our chances of making it to China Bay would improve by the minute.
Copilot Winters had flown the plane manually for almost three hours, so I took over. I was surprised to find the flight controls very sensitive to my touch. Our crippled plane was flying extremely well despite extra trim needed to counteract the wind milling propeller.
When we flew past the British cruiser and radioed our ground speed and estimate of our time for arriving at the destroyer, the cruiser radio operator was disappointed that we would not ditch alongside his ship. Two hours and 300 miles later, we flew past the destroyer and reported that we were continuing. Soon afterwards, we met a Dutch PBY from China Bay, and when we contacted its Pilot, he offered to land and pick us up if we ditched. We of course declined. Our chances of making it to the RAF Airfield were steadily improving.
About 200 miles from our destination, a single-engine Walrus seaplane came into view. The Pilot was a gung-ho type RAF officer who offered to rescue us if we ditched. We wondered how he intended to load 11 passengers into his small airplane. When we met the dashing Pilot the next day, he explained that he would take us aboard and taxi on the water until a naval vessel picked us up. When we inspected his plane, we realized that some of us would have had to hold on outside the fuselage. Fortunately, we did not need his service.
Copilot Winters and I kept trying to pick up the China Bay homer, but the radio compass needle only hunted in a random pattern. Our predicament was apparently known to several ground stations because our Radio Operator was receiving a stream of messages. He found it difficult to answer all of them. One bit of encouraging news came in a weather report from Kandy, Ceylon. It reported clear sky conditions over China Bay, and a lone thunderstorm over the southern mountains of Ceylon. We could see the thunderstorm's huge, anvil cloud to the left of our course more than 100 miles ahead.
About 200 miles from China Bay, the #1 engine fuel pressure dropped, the engine coughed a few times, then stopped. The #1 fuel gauge indicated about 75 gallons of fuel remained in the tank. We were expecting this since other crews reported their outboard tanks ran dry before the inboard tanks due to tank capacities and the location of the outboard fuel booster pumps. We feathered #1 engine and transferred its remaining fuel to the inboard tanks. Naturally, the airspeed decreased. Rather than advance #2 and #3 throttles to regain airspeed, which would cost us more fuel, we decided to begin a long, gradual descent from our present altitude. The Navigator and Flight Engineer estimated we would reach China Bay with 100 gallons of fuel. The Flight Engineer estimated we had reduced the basic weight of the 72,000 pound airplane by at least 10,000 pounds. Our lightweight, two-engine B-29 was flying almost as well as it did at normal weight on four engines.
Copilot Winters took control of the plane, and when he started our descent from 10,000 feet, I moved from my seat back to the area between the Navigator and the Flight Engineer where we made another check of our fuel situation. We decided that if we were on course, and if the ground speed held, and if the propeller continued to wind mill, we should have about 125 gallons of usable fuel for a two-engine landing at the RAF Airfield.
At the end of our conference, Flight Engineer Louie Grace gave me some sage advice. He suggested, "Make a straight-in approach. Don't put the gear down until you know you can make a dead-stick landing. Remember, we jettisoned the auxiliary power unit, so the gear and flaps must be extended by the battery and generators." Drawing strength from their calm, reassuring voices, I patted both on their shoulders as a sign of confidence and thanks, then returned to my seat.
"I CAN SEE THE SHORELINE!" This electrifying yell from the Bombardier brought a fantastic wave of jubilation throughout our plane. Sure enough, a faint line of breakers was visible. We all began to talk at the same time. Later, none of us could recall what anyone said. As if to confirm our good fortune, the radio compass needle settled down and showed the airfield to be dead ahead. Soon we could see the mouth of China Bay and the vessels anchored in the bay. Navigator Herbert C. Hirschfeld's accuracy while navigating under extreme pressure, was superb.
Since we had jettisoned our parachutes, everyone took his ditching/crash landing position. The RAF tower operator was so excited that he could hardly talk to me. Our Commanding General was in the tower with him, which added to his excitement and to ours. Everything was in order. We were cleared for a straight-in approach and landing.
When the runway came into view, we were virtually lined up for a landing. We continued to descend through 6,000 feet, and I held off lowering the gear and extending the flaps until I was sure we would make the runway. Then we literally floated to an extremely soft landing at a touch down speed of less than 70 miles per hour -- 30 miles per hour below a normal landing speed. When we turned onto the first taxiway, the nose wheel strut was fully extended due to our light gross weight. It felt like we were taxiing up a steep incline. Suddenly, both engines stopped running. Their booster pumps had become uncovered when the remaining fuel flowed to the rear of the tanks. Later, our Flight Engineer and a Boeing Service Engineer drained the fuel, and found 140 gallons. We could have flown for only a short time providing the plane was level or in a nose down attitude.
When the nosewheel hatch was opened, our Crew Chief M/Sgt. Britton Vick scrambled into the cabin. He was followed closely by an old friend, Colonel Alva Harvey. It was a joyous reunion. Colonel Harvey had been a member of the 40th Bomb Group in 1941, but now he commanded a sister bomb group in the XX Bomber Command. The Colonel handed a pint of bourbon whiskey to Flight Engineer Louie Grace.
After Sgt. Grace sampled its contents, the bottle was passed to Radio Operator Fred Thompson, to Copilot Bob Winters, and then to Crew Chief Vick. I can vividly recall the expression on Sgt. Vick's red face as he looked at the pitifully small amount in the bottle. He shook his head, turned the bottle up, and drained the remainder. It should be noted that the rest of us in the front compartment did not drink any of the whiskey.
When we climbed down the front entrance ladder, we were met by the five crew members from the rear compartment. Everyone began to talk at the same time while hugging and pounding each other. Laughing and grinning were contagious. It was a very happy moment for all.
General Laverne Saunders from the XX Bomber Command Staff, the portly RAF Base Commander, and some of our 45th Bomb Squadron buddies joined in the merriment. Everyone eventually climbed aboard the plane to see what had been accomplished. Without exception, they were amazed to see a bare-to-the-bones B-29 after it had been stripped to its aluminum fuselage. Ed Whitney, the Boeing Service Engineer, said, "It looks to me like it was sucked clean by a giant vacuum cleaner."
After a hurried debriefing, our crew ate some K rations, showered, and went to bed. We had flown almost 20 hours. Eleven of those hours were flown with a wind milling prop, and the last two hours were with only two engines running. By the time we had rested and eaten again, we learned that most of the other 53 Operation Boomerang aircrews had departed for India.
We spent the next nine days at China Bay while our plane was being repaired to the extent necessary for us to fly it back to our home base at Chakulia, India. During that time, my combat aircrew helped our Crew Chief install the parts and accomplish the maintenance required to make our plane airworthy. We concentrated our efforts on the #4 engine -- the one that had wind milled for 11 hours. We preoiled it, changed its oil cooler, and cleaned its oil tank. A replacement engine was sent from India, but by the time it arrived, our original #4 engine had passed all ground checks, so we decided to let another crew use the new one for their plane.
We were so anxious to get home that we filed a flight plan and took off for India without making a test flight. We circled China Bay long enough to make sure the plane was running O.K., then without landing for a sump plug check, we radioed the tower that we were heading home. The #4 engine ran normally during the four hour flight until we were descending to land at Chakulia. Then the #4 engine's cylinder head and oil temperatures went up, and its oil pressure went down, so we shut it down for the landing. Soon after we parked the plane, our Crew Chief discovered that the engine had failed internally.
In spite of the judgment error I made during the Palembang mission, my crew must be credited for dropping our bombs on the target, and for saving our lives on the withdrawal flight to China Bay. Three events stand out in my mind as pivotal in that flight. First: Copilot Bob Winters' reducing the #4 engine to low RPM resulted in the engine being able to wind mill for 11 hours. Second: Navigator Herb Hirschfeld's superb navigation guided us straight to our base. Third: The tailwind from Divine Providence pushed us to a safe landing.
The price of my decision to bomb the oil refinery was high. As a result of the strip job we did to it, a combat ready B-29 had to be converted to tanker status. For the remainder of the war, it hauled fuel and cargo over the Hump from India to our advanced base in China. One small redeeming factor was the popularity our cruise logs had with combat aircrews. Up to that time, there was no aircraft performance information available for a B-29 flying with a wind milling propeller.
We were soon to become well versed in the art of military paper work. The XX Bomber Command Staff did not believe that we threw our parachutes, pistols, and flak vests overboard. One officer accused us of lying about the .50 caliber machine guns. He insisted that the guns could not be removed in flight. When he came to Chakulia and looked at the plane, he quickly changed his mind. Letters were still being written about our mission when my crew finished its combat tour and returned to the States six months later in February 1945. I was stationed at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama long after the World War II armistice was signed, when I received the last letter concerning the pistols having been jettisoned over the Indian Ocean.
It is my sincere hope that this paragraph will not be misunderstood. In April 1944, the 45th Bomb Squadron, 40th Bomb Group, departed Pratt, Kansas, for the China-Burma-India Theater with 15 B-29 combat flight crews. The ravages of enemy action during combat missions, losses over the Hump while hauling fuel and cargo to China, and a variety of in flight and ground accidents due to fire and technical failures, took a dreadful toll of those 15 aircrews. When our crew returned to the States, it was the only one that did not suffer a death or combat injury.
The other 14 aircrews of the 45th Bomb Squadron had either ditched, bailed out, crash landed, been shot down, or been captured by the Japanese. I do not mean to imply that our good fortune was due to our being superior to others. We simply were the luckiest 11 men among the best men I have ever known. Above all, we owe our survival to Almighty God who saw us through some dreadful situations. The Palembang mission is a classic example of our good fortune.
Father Bartholomew Adler, our beloved 40th Bomb Group Chaplain, said during the first 40th Bomb Group Association Reunion in 1980, "Perhaps we have never felt as close to our fellow man as we did during those days of true comradeship when we were encouraged, inspired, strengthened, and helped by one another."
That is a perfect description of how I feel about my crew for making it possible for us to reach China Bay during Operation Boomerang. It is why I write this Tribute to a Combat Crew.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *