In the drive through the Gilberts Marshall, and Marianas Islands the Allied forces during World War II bypassed many of the Jap-held bases on their way to Japan. Looking at a map of the Central Pacific, you can see the path taken: Tarawa, Makin, Majuro, Aniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian and Guam.
The Jap-held bases left behind were to be neutralized by forces at the bases held. At Maluro there was a Wing of Marine F4Us and Patrol Bombing Sq. 24 with PBY-5A Catalinas, the Black Cat. During the day the F4Us would pound the hell out of the neighboring Jap-held bases, and at night VPB-24 would see that they didn't get any sleep by dropping 500 pounders on the hour. The Jap fighter planes had been knocked out by Admiral Halsey's carrier fighter boys so there was no air opposition. But they had plenty of AA, and they could make it extremely hot when you came in close.
The reason for fooling with them was that Jap subs were using the bases for refueling, and as they got low on food they were killing the natives so they wouldn't steal their food and other equipment. The hottest of these islands (actually they were atolls) were Mili, Jaliut, and Wotje.
Besides VPB-24s' duties of night harassment, we would fly dumbo (air sea rescue) for the F4Us during the day. Hardly a week went by for a while that we would try and make an open sea landing to pick somebody up. This was when we found out our chances of making an open sea landing in the PBY-5As and getting away with it were pretty slim. In fact, we lost seven planes in the first six months trying to land in even a moderate sea. First, if there were swells running it was almost impossible to keep one of the wing floats from catching in the crest of a wave and tearing the wing off. The second was if you hit a swell with any force head on, the bow wheel doors would break in and the impact of the wave would split the hull open-even in a full stall landing.
The record of VPB-24 was somewhere around 54 rescues, but if we had been flying helicopters there would have been many more. There is nothing more sickening than to see a guy shot down in the morning, make it into the sea, get out OK and into a life raft, and cover him all day with every plane that could fly but with thirty knots of wind blowing and seas that were heavy, knowing it would be impossible to land. If you did try and land you would only risk the lives of seven men to save one. For years you wake from a dream seeing him wave to you as it is getting so dark you can barely see him, and the next day go back and find nothing. It wasn't easy facing the boys from the F4U group either.
The atoll of Jaluit had a pretty heavy concentration of AA, and headquarters wanted us to see if we could pick out the gun emplacements at night. To draw their fire we loaded up two five-hundreds and scheduled a midnight takeoff. It took us about 40 minutes to get to the atoll. We made a couple of low level passes to wake them up. Then we climbed to about eight thousand for a drop run. Everybody had a map of the atoll, and they were to mark the spots when they saw AA.
Our plan was to drop one five-hundred pounder, get the hell out of there, and come back later to check what we had. Being Black Cats we didn't think they could see us very well. Approaching the atoll we put the nose down and added full throttle.
As we got over the edge of the reef we let the five-hundred go. They had AA all right! Banking away as sharp as we could and diving for the water, we came out without getting hit. But everyone was pretty badly shook up, so we flew far enough away so they wouldn't hear us. We waited for an hour or so to get up enough nerve to go back and decided we could see a lot more with a little altitude. Coming in high wasn't any better as they threw everything at us. With the 500 armed we weaved around until we got in position and pulled the release. Flak was all around us, but they didn't even scratch us.
However, we had one little problem. The 500 was still there! Rocking the wings didn't help, so we nosed over into a dive and pulled back figuring the added Gs would pull it off. Nothing happened. Climbing up to ten thousand we nosed over and dove toward the water. Not straight down but steep enough that it took the two of us with our feet on the instrument panel to pull out. The SOB didn't come off. Switching it on SAFE, we decided to head back for Majuro.
The problem was, we had fooled around so much trying to get the damn thing off, we had gotten ourselves good and lost. Asking Sparks for a RDF bearing, he came up with nothing so we started a square search. North for two minutes, East for two minutes, South for four minutes, and West for four minutes, North for six minutes, and low and behold there was an atoll. After several radio calls the tower answered that they had us on radar and gave us a bearing home.
We weren't over Majuro, we were over Arno. That didn't bother us as one of our crews spent all night in a Jap-held lagoon before he-and they - discovered where they were. In the distance we could hear a B-24 calling Majuro, and it was our extreme desire to get down before he got there. Calling the tower for landing instructions, we informed them that we had a 500 hung up and requested a bomb crew, crash truck, fire truck, and last but not least an ambulance.
On final approach we took the Aldis Lamp and spotted it on the wing. It was still there. Every pilot always tries for a good landing. This time there was enough adrenaline flowing in that PBY to let us down on fluid. We touched down with hardly a whisper of the gear touching the ground. Taxiing to the parking area off the ramp everyone got out as fast as they could and scrambled under the wing to see how it was holding. IT WASN'T! IT WAS GONE! About that time everything we had ordered had arrived.
Everybody started yelling at once. "There's a 500 somewhere on the runway!" A couple of us jumped on the bomb crew truck and we headed back up the runway. About four hundred feet up, there it was, sitting just off the center of the runway headed the same way we had landed. It was sitting about six inches deep in the coral, and behind it was a trough in the coral about one hundred and fifty feet long where it had ploughed along. Thank God we hadn't landed on Marston matting or a cement runway.
By this time we could hear the B-24 and didn't know if they had heard about it. The operations jeep drove up about that time and he called the tower and put the B-24 in a holding pattern until the bomb crew could get the 500 up. We all pitched in to fill up the trough it had made. The bomb crew was quite positive that it would not have gone off as long as it was on SAFE. Maybe not but the thought of 500 pounds of Torpex dropped from anywhere from ten feet to thirty feet at sixty or seventy knots is not the kind of game we wanted to play.
The crew was pretty quiet driving up to the chow hall, and later it seemed everyone was having trouble getting the coffee cup up to his mouth without spilling it.
This story was written by Albert Richards (Lt. USN, Ret.), and appeared in Air Classics magazine in September 1974.
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