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A Combat Pilot's Story
by John W. Harris
Chapter 1 - They Called It Training
On arrival at Iwakuni, Japan, training got underway. I had only a few hours in T-6s and T-7/11s since I'd left the service in 1947, other than some time in light airplanes. B-26 pilots were in short supply, probably because the Air Force had just sent a combat ready wing of them to SAC. The higher ups probably understood this but the guys who were at Iwakuni waiting for replacements so they could come home sure didn't. Most of them were twenty some missions over their supposed requirement. While they were giving more than their share, we were trying to get trained enough to get started.
During this period a max effort mission, day formation to a point not far north of the bomb line, was scheduled. Few day missions were happening since the change from day missions to night work. Apparently this one had some special significance because the commanders went all out to be sure it went off well. There were practice missions flown locally at Iwakuni.
I was scheduled in the right seat of a single control airplane on one of these. It didn't help much for training, but it was a fun and interesting flight. The formation was more of a gaggle. Although a few did an excellent job, more than half only flew in the vicinity of the lead airplane. The guy I flew with was one of the good ones, (Capt. Hank Melton) as well as the pilot flying the other wing in our "V". Fortunately, I had my camera along and got a picture that shows two wing tips really pinching the top of the rudder of the lead airplane. That's tucked in! I didn't get to go on the live mission. I don't remember much about it except they all got back. Maybe the practice flight helped them make a better show of it.
I was given a gunnery training flight. It consisted of the instructor doing the flying, in daylight. He used up almost all the ammo. He them sent me up solo to get some practice. The guns quit on the first pass -- out of ammo. My next firing was on a live mission north of the bomb line. My first bomb drop was on a live mission. I believe the training could have been a lot better, but it was done by guys who had been up all night, flying live missions, and probably weren't too motivated.
The training received was better than nothing, but didn't resemble the conditions under which the upcoming missions would be flown. In Japan, most if not all, training was in daylight at Iwakuni. There were no simulated missions into the mountains at night. No bombing and strafing, and no mention of anti-aircraft fire and what to do about it. From what I was told, the combat crew training at Langley was better, but low level at night in the mountains just wasn't done. So there I was, an 1100 hour pilot who had flown very little in the last four years, and with practically no training for the job I was about to undertake.
Griff DeNeen's (shown at right) background and training situation closely paralleled my own. He was responsible enough to take the complaint to the Squadron CO, but I think it only got him singled out as a complainer. He had no training for the job either, and even less flying experience during his break in service than I. For practical purposes, he hadn't been in an airplane in five years. He had flown the A-26 about forty hours seven years before during WWII. The complaint was real enough.
I think the situation where untrained crew members were sent into combat came about as a result of a gap in the "pipeline" of trainees as more B-26s were put to use in Korea. The Air Force simply provided pilots to fill the slots and the school couldn't handle the surge. The squadrons were left with the job, and weren't prepared for it. They probably didn't know about the problem until we arrived.
I complain about the lack of training, but I really did put myself in that position by volunteering for a job knowing that I didn't have the qualifications. As it turned out, the qualifications wouldn't have helped much. Looking back on it, I'm sure I would have done the same thing over again.
I don't intend to be facetious at all when I say this, but some of the best training occurred in the Officer's Club, usually at the bar. It was easy to get the more experienced pilots, most who had attended the B-26 school at Langley AFB and had many missions under their belts, to loosen up and describe in detail the procedures and techniques they used. I can't think of a single instance where this caused me any trouble. The information gained was invaluable. On the other hand, one instance of "school" info was enough to get someone killed.
Specifically, the dive angle used for bombing and strafing. We were supposed to dive at 30 degrees, steep so the gunnery pattern would be concentrated and accurate. I tried that by estimating the angle of the canopy sill to the horizon and making a pass. The angle seemed much too steep and pullout had to be started before getting into firing range. Everyone was using about a ten to twelve degree dive angle, (and calling it thirty) which is much steeper than it sounds, especially when you're doing 300 MPH and firing at 1500 feet and lower.
The next problem was to get on the mission schedule. The peace talks had just started and all the attached pilots wanted combat missions on their records before the war ended. After a few weeks, this wore thin and things started to move. The peace talks were still going on when I rotated home.
I flew two "dollar" rides as a passenger in the "idiot" seat, one with Col. Belser (shown at right) and one with Capt. K.D. Johnson. The idiot seat was sort of a fold down bicycle seat behind the Navigator. I was miserable the whole time. I couldn't see out very good because there wasn't room to raise my head.
Someone in Operations, trying to be good to the new pilots, scheduled my first mission as pilot in command for takeoff before dark. Great. We even arrived in the target area before it got real dark. Problem was, I didn't really know what I was doing. An "old head" navigator had been scheduled with me. That was another good SOP to take care of the inexperienced pilots. We were supposed to rendezvous with another B-26 in the Wonsan area on the east coast. We each had flares on the rocket rails, and the idea was that first I would drop flares for the other B-26 then he would drop for me. It was a good idea but he never showed up.
Nobody liked working under flares. I had my switches all set up and was ready to go. We spotted a vehicle's headlights. It was still light enough to see the big terrain features, hills, coastline, and roads. It was wide open and my approach would be to seaward with no obstructions. I started a dive from about 8500 feet with the power back, opening the bomb bay early to increase drag and keep speed in the proper range. The pass looked good (to me) and I placed the gun sight pip slightly over the target because I thought the range was great. Apparently it was short. It sure did look different under those conditions. "Different" probably isn't the right word, because I had never done it before. The APIs (armor piercing incendiaries) tore up the rice paddy right where the pip was pointed. What to do? I aimed lower and missed again, short. All of a sudden I realized I was out of time and in very close to the vehicle. I pulled up hard and thought, Maybe this 500 pounder will get him and salvage the pass and my ego.
Too late, I realized minimum drop altitude was a long way above me. While all puckered up, waiting for the explosion to blow the airplane out from under me, I become aware of a great, bright light behind me. I hadn't changed my "bombs/rockets" switch to "bombs" (the flares were on the rocket rails). The flare was a big relief to me, and I'll bet, the truck driver too. Sometime later I found out about max. release airspeed for the flares, 190 mph. We were doing about 300. It should have shredded the flare's parachute, but it didn't. Embarrassing! Nobody hurt. This is still training but in enemy territory.
The control wheel on the B-26 had three switches, or buttons, on it. The gun trigger, the bomb release button, and one other I can't remember. The throttle had a microphone button to use with the throat microphone. The throat mike did help free your hands at critical times, except maybe when you're pulling G's and it would hang a ways below your throat and no sound would come through. That's no time to be talking anyway. More often than not, the operator would pull the throat mike up to his lips and talk. I made a pass on some vehicles one night and things didn't go very well. I got all lined up and tried to fire the guns and nothing happened. I repeatedly tried to fire until I ran out of time and pulled up and realized what was wrong. I was pressing the mike button. The navigator asked, "What happened?" I said, "I was pressing the mike button instead of the gun switch." He said, "What're you trying to do, talk them to death?"
There were always occasions coming up that required the "new guy" to get a so-called "dollar ride". That was when the experienced pilot flew the airplane and showed the new guy how to do it. It got to be dangerous. Several airplanes were lost or damaged when a "new guy" was aboard and the experienced guy was simply trying too hard to perform. I flew two of them that I remember. One of them was with Gene Tyner. Later I felt embarrassed because the demonstration I did was nothing to be proud of. My firing passes were higher, and I was generally less aggressive. I was genuinely afraid with the new guy on board. It seemed like a hex to me. I hope he appreciates that I went overboard trying not to show off. There were at least two news media people that were lost along with entire crews. Ego could be a dangerous thing when coupled with a night mission in a B-26.
I was given sufficient takeoffs and landings to feel safe in the airplane. There were almost no emergency procedures training, no bombing, and practically no gunnery, and little or no instrument training. When I landed with an instructor one day, he said, "OK Jones, you passed your check just fine, they'll put you on the mission schedule soon." He thought he was giving someone else a final pre-combat check. When I told him I wasn't Jones he said, "It's okay, you're ready."
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