"Dark Flight"

Written by Ken Farner
Excerpted from "The Crow Flight", Newsletter of the 41st Bomb Group, Issue 9, June 1, 1999

They woke us up on a dark 2:30 a.m. on January 20, 1944. It was sandwiches and coffee at the mess hall. Probably it was too early for the cooks to dish up the usual "salt pork"bacon and hydraulic (dehydrated) eggs breakfast. Trucks to the flight line at 3:15 and engines started at 3:30. It was a black night with no moon and we were about to take off on our second combat mission in the central Pacific. Yesterday we had been briefed that the target would be Maleolap, deep in the Marshall Islands. These islands had been mandated to the Japanese soon after World War I. We were up early so we could hit the target soon after dawn. Yesterday the navigators too, (I was a navigator) had gotten together with the squadron navigator and we had planned the course to the target. From our base, Apemama, southernmost island in the Gilbert Islands, 20 miles above the equator, we would fly north, out past the Jap held Mili to avoid their radar, to a turning point into target, total distance 600 miles. It was an awful lot of ocean and no land check points on the way, just blue sea water.

Now it was take-off time and the Major, the squadron commander, took off first with the squadron navigator aboard. He was to wait above while the three flights, four planes to a flight, took off, formed up, and then he would lead us to the target. I flew navigator with Kelley, our A flight leader, and we got off, flew over the field several times and soon all of the flights were formed. I noticed that the remote compass was still spinning crazily but we had been doing a lot of turning so I called out a heading of 340 degrees to Kelley and went back to my maps, charts, and work. We were maintaining strict radio silence on all radio, even interplane, but Kelley finally got my attention and yelled and asked what was the matter with the compass. It was still spinning wild and I knew it couldn't be used. The B-25 Billy Mitchell bomber underneath us must have been the noisiest airplane the Air Force had. With its two huge Wright Whirlwind engines thundering away about eight feet on each side of us made communication miserable and we had to scream and yell to each other to be heard. So I was up behind Kelley's seat screaming that the big compass was out and we agreed that he would have to use the small pilot compass above the instrument panel until the Major picked us up and led us on. B-25s had their main compass built out on the wing tip as far away from the magnetic attraction of the motors as possible and it was electrically connected to dials on the pilot's instrument panel and the navigator's compartment. The small independent compass above the panel was not nearly as accurate but could be used in emergencies.

We could see from the running lights of the other planes that most of us were there but it began to appear that everyone was following us. Where in the Hell was the Major? Another conference with Kelley and we finally agreed that everyone thought we were the Major and we would have to lead the bunch at least until it got light enough to see what was up. No way could we use the radio to find out, strict orders, no radio after take-off. They had impressed upon us very severely that there may still be enemy radios in the Gilberts to spot us and even enemy subs could surface, especially at night, and radio to the Marshalls that bombers were on the way. I had tried to impress on Kelley that it is difficult to rely on the small compass with so far to go but there was really nothing else to do so I went back to my table and went to work. I reworked my course first. The true course to the TP (turning point into target) was 345 degrees. Operations gave us the weather before we left and the wind was from 45(NE) 10 knots per hour plus 2 degrees for wind drift or a true heading of 347 degrees. Then deduct a minus 9 degrees for compass variation which is the difference between the actual north pole and the magnetic north pole that all compasses insist on pointing to. Somewhere up there in northeast Canada lies an enormous mother lode of iron that attracts tha compass needle and this made a magnetic heading of 339 degrees. The next step was to take care of compass deviation or error which I didn't have on the small compass. This is usually small so I still kept the same true heading of 340 degrees. Our actual ground speed was about 175 knots per hour which converts to about 200 miles regular statute miles per hour. Three and one half hours should see us close to TP.

An hour later we were about 20 miles right of Makin atoll, the northernmost island in the Gilbert group, but it was too dark to see it. Another thirty minutes later it began to get light enough to take count. We could see that all three flights were intact but the Major was nowhere in sight. Kelley and I agreed again we would have to keep on leading. He was A flight leader and the other flight leaders had no reason not to follow him I was concerned about the compass but now that the sun would be out soon I could use instruments to check it and get the compass deviation. I could also check the wind drift by using the drift meter on the white caps on the sea below. At about this time we had also dropped our altitude to about 50 feet off the water. We would remain there until we hit the target. The first Jap island, Mili in the Marshalls, would be coming up in another thirty minutes about 20 miles left of us and we didn't want their radar to pick us up.

As we passed near Mili I remembered real well our mission there three days ago. The colonel, our group commander, came down from Tarawa to lead us and I suppose it went as well as possible for the first one. Out from the target we lined up the planes with the Colonel in the middle and then we roared full speed to the target firing everything we had. I was too busy loading the GD cannon (more about that cannon later) to see much of anything and probably not as scared as I thought I would be. We were soon off the target and on our way home. Mili was the warm-up and the easy one. It was close enough to our Gilbert bases that our light planes, the pea-shooters (Pursuit) and the attack planes, could hit it and had been doing so for several weeks. But Mili still had two twin anti-aircraft guns firing and smaller automatic weapons.

Well our target today was not another Mili. It was preety well untouched and virgin but it was still another hour away. We knew it still had all its guns firing and there were still Zeros based there.

I suppose it's time now before target to tell where we came from and how we got here.

About a year before I had graduated as a bombardier at Victorville, Cal. and had been sent to Hondo, Texas as a student officer to take the full navigator's training course. Arriving there we were told that we would be trained as dual rated bombardier-navigators to fly in the new big B-29s that would be ready for us when we graduated. Since their range was so great it was decided that there should be two bombardier-navigators aboard. But graduating in May we found that the B-29s were not ready so they sent us out as navigators, mostly to B-17s and B-24s, four engine bombers, but eight or ten of us were sent to the west coast for B-25s. I finally landed at Portland, Ore., at the air base there, where I found I would be doing both jobs on the twin engine B two five. The Portland squadron was one of four squadrons with group headquarters at Fresno, Cal. Each squadron in training was training combat crews for an Alaskan base that was raiding the Japanese Paramashiro Island just above Japan. At Portland I was assigned to a crew in C flight where the crews learned to fly together. C flight graduated to B flight which made continuous sea patrol flights off the Pacific coast to patrol for enemy shipping. After a month or so in B flight the crews went on to A flight which prepared for combat duty in Alaska. We all flew the standard B-25s with the plexiglass bombardier noses until one day in September, 1943, (I was still in A flight) B-25Hs began arriving at our field. These were something new with a 75 millimeter cannon extending from the navigator's compartment out under the pilot and cut through the front nose eliminating the front bombardier nose. Here was the most heavily armed bomber the Air Force had. Along with cannon the plane had two forward firing 50 caliber machine guns packaged on the front side of the plane's nose, a top turret in the middle section firing two 50 calibers, two side 50s for the radio man to operate, and a rear 50 for the tail gunner. In addition to this the plane's bomb bay could carry 1,000 lbs. of bombs even when we later added a half bomb bay gas tank to get extra range.

I got a new crew, assigned to A flight Kelley's crew. In another week or two they had expected to be leaving for combat action in Alaska but orders were changed now. His bombardier had never been checked out for celestial navigation so I got his job. I hadn't been in the squadron long enough to know Kelley but his reputation was big and I was to later know, too, that he was one of the best, if not the best, in the 47th Bomb Squadron. He was about 20 years old, about 120 lbs. dripping wet but he knew how to fly that B two five.

We soon found ourselves flying these planes to Hawaii but had no idea where we would go from there. The guess was to the South Pacific. Our ship was the first in the squadron to land at Hickam field in Hawaii and a Major in a jeep greeted us with "Welcome to the 7th Air Force". This was in early October 1943.

No doubt the smallest of the then nine US air forces, the 7th had been based at Hickam at Pearl Harbor time and later had gotten into the battle for Midway. It looked like it was about to expand, about one thousand miles west into the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. In November came the battle for bloody Tarawa along with the taking of Makin and Apemama and the Gilberts were secured. After airfields were built and rebuilt on these three islands our B-25 medium bomb group and a B-24 heavy Group was ready to operate. Our job after arriving in the Gilberts in January 1944 was to "soften" the Marshalls and destroy their air power there.

Back on the way to the target at the time I reckoned we had reached the TP I gave Kelley a heading of almost due west and yelled to him that we should reach the target about 30 miles away in about ten minutes. I began to stack up my navigation equipment to get it out of the way of the coming action. I put on my heavy flak jacket, put on my GI trench helmet, sorted out the 75 millimeter shells and got ready to load that cannon. Since the breech opened into the navigator's compartment (which was barely big enough for one man to operate in), the navigator inherited the cannon loading job.

The entire 20 or 30 islands in the Gilbert and Marshall chains are atolls. An atoll is a fringe of narrow islands and reefs built up around a lagoon which is 10 to 50 miles across. None of these islands rise out of the ocean over 30 or 40 feet and that includes the tops of the palm trees. Approaching in a plane at 50 feet above the sea we couldn't expect to see the target until we were within three or four miles of it so we still had several minutes to go. I kneeled up behind Kelley's and Allen's (our co-pilot) seat peering out with them looking for the target. Gad it could get hot when you're scared, in a closed metal plane with a hot sun beating down 50 feet of the ocean very near the equator wrapped in a thirty pound steel flack jacket topped by a heavy GI steel combat helmet. Where is that damned island? The ten minute ETA passes and no island! Kelley looked back at me puzzled and I yelled, "Give it a few minutes more!" Well, 5 to 10 minutes and no island and we decide something is definitely wrong. First we lose the Major, then the compass goes out, where's that damned island? I go back to the maps again. Since we were hitting or supposed to hit the southern part of the atoll any error must have dropped us south of the atoll, how far past or below I didn't know. Also I had finally noticed by the compass that we had drifted several degrees left of course in our run in to target. According to my maps south of the target and no doubt below us were two atolls, Arno and Majuro, that spread out east and west over a distance of about 50 miles with only a distance of about 10 miles between. Now that we could gain some altitude, heading south towards them we should pick them up in about 30 minutes. Kelley was yelling for a heading so I told him my idea. He agreed on turning south and asked if there were any military targets on either Arno or Majuro. I got out the PIF (Pilot Information Folder) and found nothing on Majuro now but a few natives. (Three months later though, it would be the biggest US naval base in the central Pacific with hundreds of ships in its lagoon.) The strike maps did show a Japanese radio tower on the southeast tip Arno. I told him about the tower, it was a military objective, and gave him a heading for it. He shouted OK and turned to that heading. The whole damned squadron were still behind and with us so finally at this time he broke radio silence and called the other planes and told them where we were going and what we hoped to hit. No objections, they seemed to be real glad to keep following and did so.

About 20 minutes later there were Majuro and Arno below and we all dropped down and prepared to strike the radio tower on Arno. Diving down to about 50 feet over target, speeding up to over 250 knots per hour, shooting 75 millimeter cannon shells all the way, disgorging at least a hundred 100 lb. bombs over the target area, strafing with many machine guns all over the place, all on tiny strip of island barely wide enough to cover a good city block. But again I was back there on my knees shoveling shells into that cannon so I didn't see much of the target. Our boys cold literally fly those B two fives like they were pea shooters, tucking in those wingtips so that they were almost inches from those of their wingmen.

Coming off the target the planes pulled up to a decent altitude again and I gave Kelley a heading for Makin and we were on our way home. It was another hour and a half to Makin and I had plenty of time to worry. I had had to lead the planes to the target and had missed it. I was sure I would be blamed and in disgrace. Could they court martial a man for that? Surely there would be some punishment. And we also had another serious problem, maybe we didn't even have enough gas to get home. In Navigation school we had been taught that for any mission you would always plan for 25 percent more gas than you would need just for any emergencies. But we didn't operate that way in combat and on this mission if flown normally we would have enough gas but nowhere near a 25 percent reserve. But we had not flown this mission normally. Flying full throttle into and over target the plane used almost half again as much as at normal cruising speed and we had done this twice, the first time 20 to 25 minutes trying to find it. We had also gotten off course making the total distance farther so we were getting mighty low on fuel. As I recall Kelley and I on our way home tried to figure fuel consumption and so on and it looked mighty close. So I had other worries now, the entire squaron ditching at sea, all my fault.

Well, we finally made it, all of us, landing safely at Makin but it was squeaky close. One pilot swore his engines were coughing and conking out on the runway. He had to take his turn and was the last to land.

On the ground at Makin I was so shook I didn't want to be near anyone. We had to gas up here and then fly on home to Apemama, about 200 miles below. Finally though, I did get up enough courage to join 3 or 4 other navigators or perhaps they came up to me. Anyway, they weren't glaring at me and didn't seem mad and Barger said to me, "You did a good navigating job, Ken." and the others seemed to agree. I finally said I didn't know why I had missed the target and had had compass problems. Several said that they had figured the same turn that I had turned on into target and we finally agreed that drifting off course 4 or 5 degrees put us south of target and out of sight of it. We hadn't been used to flying and navigating so low over the water but we were learning. I felt somewhat better as we finally flew home.

By the time we got back to Apemama it was dark again. We were all pretty tired and were glad when we were told that debriefing could wait until 8 o'clock tomorrow morning.

The Major was at the meeting the next morning but I know he was embarrassed and he didn't have too much to say. He did admit that he couldn't find us yesterday morning so finally came back in and landed. The intelligence officer for the squadron interrogated us about the target we finally hit and the pilots pointed it out on maps and all were quite certain that we had covered the area of the radio tower with everything we had to let go. This strike information would be forwarded on up 7th Air Force through the Group. We weren't kept long and nothing was said about any navigation errors.

As we filed out of the quonset Kelley said, "About everything went wrong yesterday but we finally had enough gas and we finally hit a target, they're going to count it as a mission." This was important to us as we believed then that we would be relieved and could go home after 25 missions.

It was about this time that Allen, our co-pilot, said something that really startled me. "We went over the target so fast", he said, "about all I remember is dodging the radio tower at the last minute and then seeing a bunch of native huts just on the other side."

Suddenly, I seemed to remember seeing something about a native village on the plane's strike maps but it wasn't that close to the tower, was it? I worried about this for sometime and the next time I had a chance I looked at the strike maps of Arno again and definitely, a native village, the main and only one on the atoll, was shown just a few hundred feet beyond the tower. Dropping our hundred pounders, 10 to a plane, lobing our many cannon shells into that whole area, and strafing with our many machine guns we could not have missed pulverizing that whole native village. The population of that village must have been at least 200 people. Later I did mention this to some of the people in our squadron but no one seemed much concerned and we were kept much too busy flying missions the days following to worry much about the past. Two days later, on January 22, our squadron did find and finally hit Maleolap. It was as rough as they said it would be. Two of our planes were shot down over the target with all men aboard lost. How does one get out of a plane that crashes from 50 feet off the water doing 250 knots per hour? Am estimated 40 Zeros followed the rest from the target and worried them for 45 minutes. That was also the day that Cobb and crew ditched at sea after the Zeros left. The Zeros didn't get them, an engine had been shot out over the target and they flew on for an hour on just one engine. Yes, we learned to fight all right and over a year and a half and many missions later our squadron would be the first B-25s back over Japan proper after General Dolittle's Tokyo raid in April 1942.

At the end of the month our armed forces took Kwajalien atoll and one month later they took Eniwetok, which was the Marshall island closest to Japan. Majuro was taken over without any struggle and made into a huge naval base on the road to Tokyo. The rest of the Marshalls that had some enemy installations continued to be hit periodically until the end of the war. "Withering on the vine" it was called. But I don't recall of ever hearing about Arno Atoll again. The 7th Air Force Headquarters must have gotten our report of the Arno strike but nothing was heard from them. There was a war to be fought and won. Someone must have landed there on Arno eventually, possibly at the time Majuro was taken over, it was so close. There couldn't have been more than a dozen Japanese there at any time. But whoever go there first must have found a totally demolished Marshallese village and many killed. All because of a wild fouled up mission flown by a bunch of B-25 crews on a day in January 1944. I can't forget it.


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