Water on Your Wings

William R. Orr

You stride the aluminum deck of your compartment like a sailor with a weather eye out for the wind, the effects of which you can easily see on the water a few feet below.

Once you get onto it, it’s a cinch, as we found in our low-level raids against the Marshalls. The problem of getting wind is simple at 50 or 100 feet. You look out the window and see what it is, put it into vector form on the computer and write it down in the log. Very simple. What I mean is best made clear by a trip my outfit made to Taroa Island in Maloelap Atoll in January 1944. I was with my regular crew in a B-25-G known as "182."

Ours was a wing ship, in company with 11 other Billy Mitchells. We were four flights of three airplanes in formation at 50 feet. A Tokyo tank and four 500-pound delay-fused G.P.s were in each bomb bay.

We had just rounded the first turn of the journey and the squadron had taken up a heading of 340 at 2 degrees North, 174 degrees East, which worked back to a track made good of just 345. The air was rough and we were in and out of rainsqualls and thunderstorms which made formation flying difficult and caused the flights to spread out and gain a little altitude, maybe 100 feet. As we flew north, the frequency and intensity of the storms of the inter-tropical front diminished and the sun stayed with us for increasingly longer intervals.

We were out to make a run on suspected shipping at Maloelap. If there were no ships we’d hit the revetments, gun-emplacements, buildings and other installations on Taroa. We had all been to Maloelap before; it was an old established Jap Empire fighter base.

For a while I watched the ocean and as the local disturbances caused by the frontal activity abated, the sea ran strong and turbulence died down. "As the sea goes, so the wind blows," I remembered, and it was easy to estimate wind direction within five or ten degrees. I figured around 70 degrees to 80 degrees.

Then I laid my computer on the windowsill behind the co-pilot, with the wind circle up, the azimuth scale on zero. I stood the Weems Plotter on edge, passing it through the grommet in the center of the circle and lined it up vertically to the fronts of the waves. By sighting down the plotter and using the formula true heading plus relative bearings equals true bearing I came out with a wind from 80 degrees. I wrote it down in the log, where I also kept times of turning, average air-speed and compass headings. It’s easy to forget things if you don’t write them down and every navigator I know admits keeping some kind of a log, although it may not be on a printed log sheet.

Then I bent over the B-5 driftmeter, just a little in front and below the starboard window in the navigator’s compartment. The ocean streaked along below the plane, every angular crest thrown up by the wind glinting sunlight, every toppling wave leaving big foam flecks. At 50 feet and at 180 indicated, the light spots on the surface flash through the driftmeter in streaks like the linear blurs of light which come out in a time-exposed photograph of a busy street at night.

I lined up the driftmeter on these streaks and recorded the drift. Next was the compass and in formation you have to take an average.

When I climbed into the astro-dome, I looked back and saw 12 wind-wakes in the sea, from the propeller blasts of the 12 planes. That’s how low the formation flew. The farther they got from Tarawa the closer together they packed and the lower they got. That was the mob instinct and I was grateful for it.

I zeroed the astro-compass finally and read off the relative bearing and the time. I wrote it down, read the compass, wrote that down.

Then I returned to the dome and spent some minutes making faces and grinning at Alkire, our top-turret gunner. I looked around at the other turrets. The formation was coming abeam of Mille Atoll now, southernmost of the eastern Marshalls and still held by the Jap. Mille was another one of those "read it and weep" propositions. We would pass about 50 miles east.

When I got down from the astro-dome, I saw our co-pilot Mirzaoff talking through the mike and looking back through the tunnel that runs over the top of B-25 bomb bays. The plane vibrated faintly as if shaken far away; Shermer, the tail gunner was testing his gun. Immediately afterward, the top turret went off and the ship shuddered. Gill, our radio operator, test-fired the waist guns.

I left my deviation calculation and tapped Casey on the shoulder, "Want me to charge the side guns, Case?"

When we first got these package and remote charging guns we had a lot of controversy about the proper method of pulling the gun charges. The tendency is to jerk and hope while the T.O. calls for a "firm, steady pull."

The gun cared for, I went back to the old deviation. In low latitudes, the procedure for obtaining true heading from the sun, using the astro-compass, becomes inaccurate because the LHA drum, representing the equatorial plane, is vertical to the azimuth ring of the compass. Rapid changes in the sun’s azimuth and only the slightest error in leveling the astro will throw readings on the true heading ring off many degrees. It is hard to get a good sight using a fixed declination.

It’s a lot of extra trouble to open up 218 and work out a solution for azimuth but we all came to the conclusion that it was the only way out. It’s much easier to use the astro-compass, say at 30 degrees to 50 degrees. All you have to get is an LHA, set latitude and declination and there you are. Turn it around until the little shadow falls between the two lines and read off true heading. (Put that latitude somewhere around 112 West and boy, you have something!)

By the time I got through with extracting deviation it was time to get another good bearing on the waves. "The wind always blows from 90 degrees at the equator," they say, but it’s good to check. I lined up the computer and Weems Plotter again and come out with just about 75 degrees true bearing.

The wind piled up the wave crests before it until the sides of the waves got so steep that the crests just had to smooth themselves out. They tumbled over in a waterfall, the pressure of the wind against the walls of the waves forcing the crests to fall downwind. The wind just blows the tops of the waves and the foam stays behind as the wave moves on. When I first began reading wind direction from the waves, I thought any fool could plainly see the apparent motion of the foam, and figure out that the foam was moving with the wind. The foam appears to move (and there is a very slight movement of foam, due to gravity trying to level out the surface of the sea), but this lasts only a few seconds. Actually the foam stays put as the wave moves on. The wind blows the sharp crest of the wave off and forms a white cap which disappears when the wave is leveled off. That’s all there is to it.

It’s all very clear to me now, but I still wonder where little waves come from and how they grow up to be big waves and even swells. The longer the wind blows in one direction, the bigger the swells get. When the wind changes, the swells begin to die down and new little waves are started, merge and grow bigger, until they begin to form their own swells. And there you have a bad spot for a water landing – a nice cross-swell. At high altitude you sometimes can’t tell what direction the surface wind is actually coming from because an old swell is still playing around and a new young one is not quite big enough to eliminate it.

I finally got to work again and wrote out a DR position. I began to think seriously about our ETA to turn in toward the initial point for the target.

I diddled in the computer, using present wind and true heading and came up with a tentative ETA, 1107. I would use this if Casey began to get curious.

The possibility of the Jap’s catching on to our low level route was gradually becoming more real to the whole crew. It was reflected in the way Case flew right in there and by the way Mirzaoff kept rubbering at the sky ahead of the formation. I stuck my head up into the dome again. The turret was revolving very slowly. It stopped. The black gun barrels pointed for a moment menacingly at a cloud, then continued to search again.

At this point I decided it was best not to invite flip small-talk with the gunner. It was then that I noticed Mirzaoff’s pained, tense look as he stared out to starboard. The right wing man of our flight was flying off by himself, about 60 or 100 feet above the rest of the formation. I looked and felt the chills go up and down my back.

"Who is that?" I yelled at Mirzaoff.

He shook his head in contempt and tapped Casey on the shoulder. Casey had seen it, too. He was looking that way. He shook his head resignedly. "They’ll kill us all," he said, and returned to his formation flying.

I muttered a few unkind things about the high-flying plane and pretty soon it flew back down to join us. It was a lot of trouble for the pilots to fly formation so low and we did it only for security. One joker flubbing the dub could attract the Japs to us.

I worked out another DR position using my accumulated instrument readings and the constant wind and decided that the formation would swing westward at 1107. I was certain enough about it to volunteer the information. But before I told Casey I worked out an ETA for the target, tentative, because there would be a sharp increase in speed from the IP into the target. Using the latest poop I made an ETA for the IP at 1123 and an ETA on the target for 1129. I was now prepared to answer any of Casey’s questions. Usually the ETA target was all the pilots really wanted but I gave extra service such as ETA’s for the big turns and initial point.

"Turn about 1107," I told Case.

"When are we going to get to the target, Old Man?"

"About 1129," I replied. I stepped down into the compartment and looked at the cannon shells. Fifteen HE and six armor piercing. I piled up the Air Almanac, 218, cleared the navigator’s table, putting things where they would be handy but out of the way. I sat up on the table and looked at my watch. About five more minutes, I figured. The heat coming through the wings was terrific in the compartment.

My watch slowly unwound past 1105. I watched the leader hopefully – held the watch up to my ear. The second hand traversed the sixth minute and started in on the seventh. A few seconds after 1106:30, the lead plane began to run noticeably left wing down. Within ten seconds there was no doubt that a radical change had begun.

It was a long turn. I sat behind the pilots and studied the surface of the ocean. "Have to hand it to old Kirsch. His ETA was right on the ball," I admired to myself.

Mirzaoff grinned and held up his right hand, with the forefinger and thumb making a small circle.

At the end of this turn the B-25s had spread a little but not too bad. It had been a very gradual turn. The formation closed again.

I reached forward and shouted into Casey’s ear, "Next turn at 1123." Then I stepped down and stood watching the compass as it settled close to my estimated course. The squadron was running in toward Maloelap Atoll now, hugging the water closer than ever. Fifty nautical miles to go, down wind. I figured 16 minutes of it.

I began pulling the flak suits off the .50 cal ammunition cans. I slid the back of one suit down behind Mirzaoff and helped him adjust the belt. The chest piece and apron were passed forward and the co-pilot was in his armor. Then Mirzaoff took over and I helped Casey into his. I laid the helmets on the floor beside them…I put on my own flak suit then climbed up to look for land.

I levered open the breech of the cannon. Sliding out a tray of HE shells, I rammed one into the gun and the breech snapped closed. I pulled out the other trays and took the shells out, laying them side-by-side on the table, fuse forward, where they would be easy to reach when we started firing. I had nine on the table and one in the gun.

When I had finished loading the cannon I looked up and saw that the formation was turning on the course to run over the target. From the IP it was about 170 true but I noticed that the compass settled on 170 degrees. This was Kirsch’s effort to make sure that we would come in. We liked to come across Taroa from north to south because we were on an approximate heading for home and that helped keep formation after we left the target when the fighters would be on us.

Casey’s hand was on the throttles and Mirzaoff was running up the r.p.m. I estimated five minutes before they would be on the target. I checked the compartment, braced my canteen among the navigation books. I leaned forward into the cockpit and shouted, "The cannon’s loaded – on safe!"

The airplanes were on the run now, like a charge of cavalry, on a line abreast. I could hear those bugles blowing. I crouched behind the pilots and watched for land. We were crossing the sea in a quartering wind, indicating about 220 by now. One, two minutes had passed and yet no sight of the string of islands leading southeast down to Taroa. All three of us were watching, straining, listening to the moan of the props as they attained speed, 2300, 2400 r.p.m. Casey was dressing left on the leader in the center and we jockeyed a little, trying to keep the line.

The haze was tricky and deceptive and we were too low to see much ahead. Then the dim masses of coconut trees became visible, dull, grey shapes rising out of the curve of the horizon.

"There it is," Mirzaoff said, pointing. The entire eastern fringe of Maloelap came into view and our course veered eastward. The cat was out of the bag now. We saw the island with damaged radio towers a couple of miles north of Taroa.

Taroa, with its airfield, was dead ahead. We were on a course that would take us over the lagoon beach, some ruined sheds, a couple of piers and two AA batteries. The other two ships in our flight would be over the water except when crossing thin reef. We were the shipping flight and that was supposed to be our course. Once you were in this formation, you tried to keep it no matter what, or you’d be laying bombs for someone else to run over – or vice versa.

We pulled up to about 200 feet. We were indicating 240. I stepped back into the compartment and turned the safety switch to "Fire!"

"Okay!" I yelled, "she’s ready!"

When I climbed back up I saw the Japs taking to the air, three and four at a time, zooming as if they didn’t need wings. They were swarming around there like bees. I didn’t see any enemy ships, just one that was sunk and which bitter experience had shown us was nothing but a 20mm nest.

The cannon went off just then and took me by surprise. I had to beat myself to quit looking and get back there to load again. We weren’t in range but it was best to start shooting out here because the ground gunners might get away from their guns by the time we got to them. The fumes from the first round swirled through my nose and into my head, filling up the vacuum in there. I threw in another shell and hit Casey on his shoulder. That was our signal for him to press the trigger button. Right away she went off again and from then on I slaved away, throwing in those cannon shells. I never had a chance to see what we were doing, but it’s just as well, I guess. It was load and reload and kick the empty rounds out of the way for the next 40 seconds until the sweat was soaking up my Mae West under the flak suit. Between the banging of the cannon and the thudding of the 50s I was deaf, and the smoke was pretty awful. I breathed it like an old artilleryman. I was carried away, throwing in those cannon shells.

In the midst of it all Case quit shooting and the first thing I knew I was flat on the floor behind the gun, trying to hold onto a cartridge. It started to slip from my hands in the centrifugal force of a steep turn so I went down with the shell to keep it from hitting the floor and breaking open. I grabbed for the safe switch so the gun wouldn’t go off while I was down behind it.

We began to level off some and I scrambled up, craning to see what we were doing. George, our flight leader, had seen a ship, so he went after it. As we were in his flight, we went too. But we were spread out so much we weren’t very effective. I remembered, for a wonder, to turn the cannon switch back to "fire." We were gradually closing up on George and we could see him and the right- wing ship letting the boat have it with the cannon and the machine guns. They were hitting pretty well, because there was smoke and a lot of spray kicked up around the ship. Their top turrets were shooting at some fighters that were hot after them.

And then our cannon went off again and that’s all I know about that. Casey fired the HE shell in the cannon and two more of the armor-piercing shells I loaded, before we racked into a steep left turn and got the hell out of there.

I still had one more round out on the table to load, one in the gun and three in the rack. I grabbed hold of the hand-rail overhead and hung on as we made this turn. Through the astro-dome I saw that we were over the middle of the lagoon heading south and east again to catch the squadron. Taroa Island was abeam, a flat expanse of white blotched by smoke and dust from the bombs and guns. Two columns of black smoke were already well into the air and there seemed to be a big fire at the north end of the island. A few airplanes were flying around the field aimlessly. I tried to see the ship we had strafed but couldn’t from this angle.

We leveled out and I remembered to look at my watch. It was 1132. I climbed forward. Not far ahead of us, George and his right wing man were heading out to join the squadron, faintly visible, low over the water south and east of the target. There were a lot of Jap fighters with them and two or three Bettys flying off to one side. Just as I began to think of where we were and how far we’d have to go to catch up with the squadron, Alkire let go a long burst with his turret. Almost at the same instant we saw the turrets of the three planes ahead of us firing.

I turned around and stuck my head into the dome to see what they were shooting at. A Jap fighter, presumably a Zero, flashed past so close you could see the Japanese characters on his inspection plates. There were several others right behind him.

My head retracted out of the astro-dome like a turtle. I pulled my flak helmet clear down over my shoulders, so to speak, and said to myself, "This is one of the times they mean when they tell you about keeping cool."

To help keep cool I spent a few seconds reading the average compass heading and airspeed, 130 degrees and about 230 indicated. Only I read it 130 indicated and 230 degrees at first until reason came to my rescue. Casey, Mirzaoff and I were all leaning forward, trying to push that B-25 along. George was pushing his flight to catch the rest of the squadron and we were pushing to catch up with George.

The boys in the back could see what was about to happen but we couldn’t see a thing until after it happened. We were the last, lone, lorn vertebra of this exceedingly long dog’s tail. Casey shoved the throttles all the way forward. Mirzaoff advanced the prop pitch and used both hands to hold it there. I would have used my foot to help them if it would have done any good.

The props dug into that sea level air and really went to work. I turned my head back into the cockpit and felt the stifling heat blast. The engines were raging, gobbling up the gasoline like some voracious creature tearing into a hunk of fresh meat.

And we began to visibly gain on George. Our interception with the squadron was working out, too, because some of the fighters caught sight of us closing in on the main bunch and came over to us to help their brethren. Easy meat, we were.

I looked at the compass reading again and watched the airspeed climb. We flashed across the east reef of the atoll about ten miles below Taroa, when the first head-on attacks hit us. They came straight for us one after the other. The first one went by leaving us kind of dazed. Casey’s head was out on the second one. He pulled up with a jerk and let them have it with the cannon and the four machine guns at the same time. That second Jap pulled out to the side without firing. I guess we surprised him and none of the others came our way.

I threw in the other shell on the table and took out all the rest to be ready. Then we took some hits from the rear. Alkire and Gill started yelling over the interphone. And there was no firing from the turret.

"They blew the turret off," Alkire yelled, "all the ammunition is getting sucked out."

Casey turned around to me and shouted, "Get back there and get on a waist gun, Old Man!"

I nodded and went back. Crawling over the bomb bay, burdened with flak suit and life vest was naturally quite an experience but I wasn’t about to leave them behind.

Gill had been manning both guns, going from right to left as the occasion demanded. He stayed on the port gun when I came up. I took the starboard gun and waited, hoping the stops weren’t out of the line for the tail. Tiny fragments of plexiglas were all over the radio compartment. Alkire was still in his turret, trying to get one to work. He didn’t seem to be hurt. The turret dome had been half shot away and it was very inconvenient up there for him. It let a lot of extra air into the ship.

The Japs left off these passes from the rear and pulled up to fly parallel with us, off to our right side. This break lasted long enough for us to rejoin George. There were about 15 fighters flying even with us and faster than we were. They made runs on my side from one to three o’clock and from nine to eleven on Gill’s side.

Alkire got his left hand gun working and it was a credit to him. The 20mm that had burst against the receiver of his right hand gun and blown out half of his plexiglas dome didn’t scratch Alkire since the bulk of the gun protected his face. He was a pretty startled boy, though.

One Jap came in low and fast, from about 2000 feet and about a mile ahead and to the right of us. This hero was really intent on dying for the Emperor. He was so low I couldn’t fire at him. One of the turret gunners got him before he reached us. He was afire. We could see it spread swiftly into each wing an instant before there was a big puff of boiling, orange-black smoke.

He kept coming, a hurtling ball of flame – out of control – strewing the sea behind him with pieces of his plane. He came straight in at the flight leader but it was not because he was trying to ram the flight. The two other ships in the flight pulled up in a crunching stall. The ball of fire went by under them and I saw the doomed pilot free himself from his cockpit as he went by. He was slammed against the vertical stabilizer by the slipstream of his burning plane. An instant later it hit the water and was swallowed up.

A moment later Gus called me, "Old Man! Get up here quick. We got to transfer some gas. Right now!"

"Okay, okay," I tore off the headset and my flak helmet and burned a groove across the top of the bomb bay. Mirzaoff was waiting for me to show and he motioned to me in the direction of the wing tank he wanted filled first. I switched on the pump and turned gas into the right engine. Getting out of the bomb bay, I looked out and saw that our flight had at last reached the squadron.

I turned the gas into the left wing in a couple of minutes, then back and forth until all the gasoline was out of our bomb bay. Then I looked out and saw in the middle of the squadron a B-25 flying with its landing gear hanging out of the nacelles. It had been hit over the target but averaging 220 indicated had kept in formation with wheels hanging down and some controls shot away. Later we learned that both pilots, Holty and Provost, had been wounded.

When I looked that time the compass was reading approximately 145 and I decided that I would use that for my average compass heading when I had a chance to navigate again.

"I’m going back to the waist," I yelled into the cockpit.

Casey shook his head, "No," without turning around so I stuck my head up where I could find out what he wanted.

"Look through the dome and see if you can see any holes," he said.

I climbed up and looked back through the dome. The first thing I saw was Alkire’s bare head practically out in the breeze, with his turret cover only jagged remnants. His helmet had blown off but he was shooting his one gun at some uneager Jap coming in from our right. There was a hole in the top of the fuselage over the bomb bay that I hadn’t noticed when crawling through it and one in our left flap. I looked over the wings but could not make out any more holes. That was a marvel to me for half a dozen times I had seen the ocean torn up by Jap bullets right under us. There would be a blank space right in the middle of the bullet plumes and I’d say to myself, "Oh, Oh – this is it!" because I couldn’t see how the little devils missed us so often. It was easy to picture the wing absorbing the bullets that should have been tearing up that blank space of water.

I told Casey what I had seen and he nodded.

"Find out where we are," he said, "we’re going to be low on gas if this keeps up."

This was pleasant news. We had been using about twice as much gas usual for close to an hour now. I found it hard to concentrate on navigation. The fighters were still with us. My compartment was a tangle of used 75mm rounds, parachutes that had been thrown around in the steep turns and zooms we had made.

I put on the headset and listened over the interphone as I began the laborious process of getting a good position. It was 1205. I figured I could give us a heading for Makin or Tarawa anytime that would be good enough under ordinary circumstances but if we were low on gas it would have to be better than that.

"Did he go in?" Gus asked.

Looking out the window I saw trouble. The leading Jap fighter on the right side started to make a pass. He did a nice slow roll, flew along s