"Taxi From Amami"

Excerpted from the August 14, 1945 edition of the 7th AAF Brief
Written by S.Sgt Bob Price

This is a true story about the crew of the "Tricky Likk" of the 47th Squadron of the 41st.

The end of an air-sea rescue, for all practical purposes comes when the downed airmen are hauled aboard a Dumbo and headed once again for home. That's what the crew of the Tricky Likk thought as they were pulled from their raft, wet and shivering, through the right hull hatch of the Navy PBM that had set down on rough waters off Amami O Shima.

At the time, they were still scores of miles from their base at Okinawa, normally a good hour's flight. Only Dumbo and the crew of the Tricky Likk didn't fly home - they taxiied. For 20 hours through rough and battering seas they rode it out in the sea-bound Dumbo in the longest taxi ride the Pacific has ever seen. Besides, it was night and the Dumbo captain ruthlessly enforced a strict blackout as the careening PBM smashed its way from one wave to another all way to Ie Shima.

The men inside the bucking, erstwhile "flying" boat took a beating that night as they bounced endlessly from bulkhead to bulkhead that no flying crew ever envisaged when signing up for flight training.

It was just about dark when the drifting airmen first spotted the Dumbo flying a routine mission at about 500 feet. They put out sea marker [dye] and fired flares which caught the attention of the PBM. But the sea was too rough for a successful landing and the Dumbo smacked into the waves with a rending crash, damaging the right stabilizer, the rudder and left flap.

The men on the raft knew as soon as the rescue plane came to a stop that she wouldn't be able to take off again, but after two hours in the cold water, they didn't care. All they thought about at the time was climbing into the warmth and safety of the Dumbo just as soon as they could abandon their tiny raft.

Although the crew will always remember the mission principally for its fabulous taxi-ride ending, they will not soon forget the tropical storm, inadequately termed "violent turbulance" by the weathermen, which was the cause of their storm-tossed commuters ride.

It had been a routine bombing mission up to Kyushu until four squadrons of 7th AAF Mitchell bombers got tangled up with a raging weather front. Tricky Likk, manned by a crew that had flown together for 17 months, was lost in the storm over Japan for an hour and a half trying to locate the rest of the flight. After finally coming through the storm safely - an experience the crew said was worse than any flak they had ever encountered- they tried to limp home through another and even heavier front that came up over the northern Ryukyus.

All during the long afternoon the pilot, Lt. Rick Rondinelli, and co-pilot Lt. Arnold Sayer, rode Tricky Likk through "the craziest damn weather we ever saw". By late afternoon the forward gas tanks read zero and the gas in the rear tanks was down to 15 gallons. They were forced to ditch about 30 miles off Amami, about half the way home.

"It was weather like you never saw before", said the navigator, Lt. Nicholas F. Leibrock. "All that time we were lost from our flight we didn't know when we would meet one of them head-on in a cloud." The engineer, S.Sgt Warren F. Kimmy, agreed. "The weather was rotten", he said. "I thought all the time the wings were going to fall off. The ship was fluttering like a goddam bird."

From 1330, when they lost formation, they were completely on their own, bucking the storm in a medium bomber that rode like an untamed cayuse. They finally dropped their bombs on a village they saw through a hole in the clouds and decided to try the run for home.

They came out of the first storm with the radio compass gone and very little gas. S.Sgt Ray Yheaulon, radioman, tried to make some contact but could get nothing but the screech of static. The navigator thought it best to try flying down the chain of islands leading to Okinawa, but all hands even then were aware that it was going to be a tough haul making it home.

Everyone thought the first storm was bad, but the second was worse. The ceiling was from zero to 500 feet with zero to three miles visibility. There were rain squalls and most the time Tricky Likk was flying only as few feet above the deck.

As the plane finally came out of the second storm, the men spotted a large island to the east, which they took to be Okinawa. S.Sgt Frederick E. "Dutch" von Schwerdtner, who was watching things from the back, said "We thought the island was worth a try. We came right up the goddam bay and over a naval station before it clicked that it was Amami and that we'd better get our tails out of there. We were only flying at about 1000 feet and for the life of me I'll never understand why they didn't fire at us."

"Right then and there we knew we were in for it and that we would have to ditch. We emptied our nose guns at installations along the coast and Ray Yheaulon threw the waist guns out at some characters he saw running along the beach. The guns only missed them by about 20 feet. That was our goodbye to Amami and we high-tailed it out to sea."

All the while Yheaulon had been trying to make contact by radio and just 10 minutes before ditching one of the stations he had been calling over and over all afternoon answered and he gave Tricky Likk's location.

Rondinelli says of the ditching that "it was just like the last minutes of the big game. You are scared to death and then when you get into it it isn't so bad." His last words to the men in the waist were, "We're going to ditch in five minutes. Good luck, all."

It was about 1700 then, the sky was overcast, the waves were high and they had just passed through a light shower. The fuel gauge told them that it was now or never. "It worked by instinct", Rondinelli said. "It was like I had never heard a word about ditching. I gave the ship full flaps at 1900 RPMs and settled her down in a nose-high position. We hit the first wave at 90 miles per hour and I gave her full throttle. We landed in the trough of the second wave at 80 miles and I'm sure that that burst of power kept her from dving into the wave. Everything I did was my own idea, like slamming on the throttle, it just came natural."

In the cockpit someone made the logical suggestion, "Let's get the hell out of here." Leibrock pushed Sayers out of the window onto the wing and Rondinelli boosted Leibrock out. In the waist, Kimmy jumped out the left window and was knocked up against the tail. "Dutch" threw out the rest of the gear including the crew's two precious skin stories, "The Three Musketeers" and Donnell's "The Chinese Room". Yheaulon went out the right window and Dutch the left, but the latter caught his leg in the window and fell head-first into a wave. Yheaulon saw that his buddy was in a bad way and jumped in and saved him from drowning.

"We all looked at one another as though asking 'How the hell did you get out here?'" Yheaulon said. "Then we watched the Tricky Likk go down. First the beautiful blonde nude on the side was submerged. It must have taken five minutes for the plane to sink. That is the longest I ever heard of a B-25 staying afloat and it just goes to show what a fine ditching job Lt. Rondinelli did. After the ship went down there was nothing to do but think about our predicament and we had to laugh about that. I don't know what was so funny but we laughed."

Lt. Rondinelli said of his health that "I had swallowed an awful lot of salt water. None of us had eaten since breakfast, so Dutch and I were just hanging over one end heaving salt water and digestive juices - pretty disgusting. Something rubbed against the bottom of the raft and I saw that it was a shark. None of the other fellows had seen it and I didn't want to get them excited, so I said that their heavy shoes had just scraped the deck. All this time the wind was trying to push us toward Amami and it seemed that the raft always was half full of water."

Another shark came by for a look a little later and this time the other men saw it. "That's the first time I was really scared." Kimmy said. "The damn thing looked 20 feet long. It was funny about being in the raft. We all felt bad about losing the skin stories. That seemed to be about the biggest loss at the moment. "The Chinese Room" was a damn fine book as far as I read. It's a story about a bank president who goes to visit his secretary every Mondy night and they have some merry old times together. I was only to the second Monday night. The whole crew was sweating out that book."

Then came the Dumbo, circling and dropping smoke bombs before it made the crash landing that grounded it for the rest of the trip. But the Dumbo skipper didn't seem to think there was anything strange about starting to taxi all the way home. He simply remarked, "Well, there's no use hanging around here", and started the plane off on its now famous taxi trip south.

There were 14 men aboard. Lt. Rondinelli and von Schwerdtner latched onto two of the four bunks. Dumbo was short on food and for most the ride the men were out of cigarettes.

"It was so rough you couldn't stand up so you laid down", Sayer said. "I spent most of my time up in the pilots' compartment. They told me how once they had both engines conked out and they had been forced to ditch up by Iwo. We made 30 rescuees those guys had picked up. I swear that crazy ride back gave me a worse beating up than I had taken all day."

More than once the men thought the flying boat would fall apart. "Everytime it went over a swell I thought it would brake open", said Leibrock. " It would go 'pong' just like the tin crickets you used to get in Cracker Jack boxes. What a racket. They had to keep pumping out the bilge and this meant a window had to be left open. Every wave that hit would flood the inside."

During the ride back the spirits of the Dumbo crew soared to a new high. "We were sitting around up front, too tired to sleep and just smoking butts out the ash trays when word came over the radio that the relief for Dumbo crew had come in. That meant that the guys could go back to the States. Those guys were really on the ball."

After the lonely night-long ride through the darkness and the heavy seas, the dawn brought a bright sun and smoother seas, allowing the Dumbo to increase speed. She bumped along past a steady line of innocent looking islands all the way down the line. At about 1000 Dumbo finally pulled up at le Shima and stopped to refuel, but there was still no food. It wasn't until 1400 when they chugged into the seaplane base at Kerama Retto that they were finally given a shot of whiskey and a square meal.

The men remember that meal and speak lovingly of it: "Fried eggs, bacon, hot coffee, iced tea, toast, fresh butter, jam, and steak that night for supper." The Navy gave them new shoes and what clothing they needed. That night they slept so hard between clean sheets that they didn't even dream of the cold ocean and too-long taxi ride.

Back to the starting place:
Stories of the 41st

Last Updated 02/18/06
For more information contact: Rolf Grandstaff