The 19th Heavy Bombardment Group is the only outfit with more than a year of continuous active combat. Its commanders, Brigadier General Eugene Eubank; Lieutenant Colonel James T Connally and Colonel Richard Carmichael (present commander), saw two-thirds of their men killed, captured or wounded during that year of service. Over 1,000 medals have been awarded the living and dead of the 19th. In this story, Captain Albert T Nice, navigator, Sergeant John A Irons, tail gunner, and Staff Sergeant Orville W Kiger, lower turret gunner, tell of one crew of one Boeing Flying Fortress that made up a typical part of this gallant band of flyers. Modestly, Captain Nice, who a year ago was a Second Lieutenant just out of navigation school, omits his record of having failed to reach only one target out of his many combat missions as lead navigator with Lieutenant Colonel Felix Hardison. He has received the Silver Star and an oak-leaf cluster. Fellow members of the Suzy-Q's crew praise him as "a navigator without nerves and who never missed." A New Yorker by birth, an Amherst graduate, Captain Nice is twenty-seven, is married and wants to get back to the Southwest Pacific as soon as possible.
Sergeants Irons, twenty-two, and Kiger, twenty-two, tell their part in the fabulous exploits of the Suzy-Q. Both wear the Silver Star with two oak-leaf clusters. Irons, with nine Zeros to his credit, was born in Hayward, California, but was staying with his parents in England in 1939. To avoid being called into the RAF, his mother sent him over to the United States. He promptly joined the United States Air Forces. Kiger, with a record of seven enemy planes, is from Winchester, Virginia.
We were standing near the Suzy-Q watching the big Java moon fumble its way across a damp sky. The smell of the tropics hung heavy around us, an odor like death itself. Mac was talking about God.
Men of the 19th talked a lot about God those weeks in February, 1942. Perhaps it was because so many of the squadron had met Him or were about to. Colin Kelly had been the first to go. There had been others and more to come.
"I didn't used to pray much back home, Lieutenant," Mac McDonald was saying to me.
"Funny how it comes back easy-like in times like this as if you were a kid again."
I looked at his face, clean-cut and adolescent in the half-light. "How long has it been since you were a kid, Mac?"
He grinned. "Not so long, sir. But in the last three weeks, I feel as if I'm a man and I hope I am, sir. Whatever we can do, all of us, to stop the Japs in Java is little enough. If we don't, they'll be in America soon. I don't care what happens to me if I can stop the buggers."
Not long after that night, they pulled Mac out of what was left of a plane. He looked calm and somehow satisfied. It had come and Mac had been ready to pay the price.
Sergeant Hubert MacDonald Bombardier of the 19th Bombardment Group there was neither time nor place to carve an epitaph. " for his passage, the soldier's music and the rites of war speak loudly for him."
During its year of war, two out of every three in the 19th were casualties. The Group was in it from the beginning. There was that day at Clark Field in the Philippines when the original 19th was caught on the ground and almost half of the Fortresses blasted to bits. That was December 8, 1941, when the ships had only a few machine guns, none in the tail and some of their crews thought you could find safety under a B-17's wing when the bombs were falling. Then the Philippines fell and the 19th went to Java where the 7th Group joined them. So did Suzy-Q.
Suzy-Q was worthy of the 19th fighting tradition. She came off the Boeing assembly line with a silver spoon in her bomb bay and a horseshoe in her nose. The only B-17 to fly around the world, Suzy-Q spent eleven months in the Southwest Pacific, taking it and dishing it out to Zeros and sinking many a Nippon cargo and warship. She was a queen. I am honored to have been the lad who looked at stars when he could see them, shot the sun when there was a sun, and brought her back from twenty-five combat missions singing a paean of victory with her four mighty lungs.
I met Suzy-Q on New Year's Day, exactly one year ago at this writing, in Seattle. I was fresh from a fourteen-week training course in navigation, cockeyed from watching the new gold bars on my tunic, and raring to go. My formal introduction to Suzy-Q wasn't very romantic. To me in that cold dawn, she was just another B-17 to escort through weather and across oceans to some unknown destination. I hoped it would be combat and it was. Suzy, as game a gal as ever rode through a cloud of Zeros, has put 100,000 miles under those wings that glistened with newness a year ago.
I met the skipper, Major Hardison, the co-pilot, Lieutenant Ellsworth E McRoberts, and Sergeants John Irons, tail gunner, Mac McDonald, bombardier, Orville Kiger, radio man, and John A Geckeler, flight engineer. None of us knew then we would be together a long year through what Sherman called "hell" and what we called the war in the Southwest Pacific. Mac was to die within a few weeks time; all of us would age ten years before the Old Man brought the Suzy-Q's wheels back on a runway in San Francisco.
We called Major Felix Hardison the Old Man. (He is now Lieutenant Colonel Hardison.) He's a long, slim Texan, modest as he is quiet. I served with him a year, off and on, and I don't think the 19th had a better pilot in the whole outfit. His DSC, DFC, Silver Cross, Purple Heart and three clusters attest to what he did. Sitting across from the Old Man (Hardison is thirty years old) was co-pilot Lieutenant McRoberts, twenty-two, another slender Texan. As for the rest of the crew, there was John Irons, tail gunner, somewhat of a "limey;" Orville Kiger, radio man; John Geckeler, flight engineer, and McDonald, a veritable kid whom fate had given a one-way ticket on Suzy-Q. All were sergeants. Later was to come Bill Bostwick, side gunner, and Durward Fesmire, bombardier both enlisted men. There were replacements and new faces later on, but that original crew hopes to be in a new Suzy-Q over Java again and soon.
Suzy and her navigator had their first scares together. We flew across to Tampa uneventfully; then on to Brazil and over the Atlantic. Until then, it was easy navigating and I had begun to think fourteen weeks of training school had made me an unusually alert lad with things celestial and meteorological. I didn't know the Atlantic though we hit weather that made the storms around my old Georgia training base look like summer zephyrs.
I couldn't find any stars above or any sea below. I began to feel my tongue growing dry in my mouth. All my assurances of dead-reckoning computation began to wane as the front piled up. A glance at instruments which showed a steady drop in air speed didn't help.
Sitting up there in the nose with the bombardier's back giving scant comfort, I got lonesome all of a sudden and scared.
"Trying to save gas?" I phoned Hardison.
His voice came back calmly. "Not at all ice on the wings."
"Take a look," McRoberts advised. When his flashlight played on the wings, I saw rays of light reflected from a coating of the stuff we used to skate on around Amherst. This was no time for skating.
We came out of it in about six hours. I was pretty weak by then and even weaker when we hit a long, thin island which I couldn't find on my map. It might have been Africa, according to my chart, but that piece of land was something Columbus or Shavetail Nice hadn't found to date. We scuttled around for a few minutes until I discovered the cross-line on my map had neatly obscured the island. Somehow we had hit the coast on the head, barely five miles from my original plan.
My sigh of relief shook even the bombardier, and I modestly accepted congratulations from the pilot. It was the greatest piece of luck a B-17 navigator ever had and I mean luck!
We rode into Java late in January, but we didn't have time to rest and enjoy the climate.
"Glad to see you boys," the CO told us when we put her down at a base which was to serve us for four brief weeks. "We're bombing the bastards in waves of one."
The 19th, of which we were now a part, were groggy from lack of sleep. They had been fighting grim holding-actions since that day at Clark Field. The 7th had joined them in Java and had lost two commanding officers in a week. The Japs were pushing in from all sides; their ships filled the Macassar Straits and their Zeros and medium bombers came in clouds.
We had some coarse rice and overcooked meat for our first meal on the ground, and we slept in a little schoolhouse near the field. The appearance of the 19th was far from the "spit and polish" tradition of my CMTC days at Amherst and my Albany, Georgia, training school. The officers and men wore anything and everything: shorts, overalls, sweat shirts. A shave was a luxury which demanded time; red-rimmed eyes stared at you; men talked in that quiet, desperate tone that meant a check on our nerves.
There I met the immortals of the 19th. Such men as Captain Harl Pease, a New Hampshire Yankee, beloved by his command; a serious-faced boy officer who, a few days earlier, went through thirty Zeros to hit his target and was last seen flaming down into the Coral Sea. And there was Clyde Webb, a West Pointer who shared my love of military tactics. We would talk long into the heavy night, slapping mosquitoes and predicting.
"I think the British will stop Rommel," Webb told me one night. That was at the height of the Afrika Korps advance toward Alexandria. "He'll be stopped and driven back to Libya."
Brilliant, courageous Webb didn't live to see his prediction come true. Like all of us, he had to use his B-17 for low-level work and one day was posted "missing in action." And there was Captain "Shorty" Wheless who fought eighteen Zeros for seventy-five miles, and Captain Alvin Mueller who brought his ship in one days with 1,400 bullet holes in it. The 19th was full of men like that.
Meeting such veterans gave me, a kid just out of college and who still thought his tie should be worn with a proper knot, a bit of a pause. I didn't complain, nor did the rest of the crew, when the CO put us in formation a few hours after we had landed in Java. We were weary from the long trip, but that mattered little. The 19th hadn't had their eight-hours sleep for months.
Our first assignment in Suzy-Q was bombing wharves and warehouses around Macassar, which the Japs were using as a jumping-off place into Java. We went in low, at 8,000 feet. During that mission, I learned the first rules of practical combat navigation.
A B-17 combat navigator hasn't time off. You've got to keep working steadily, keeping your position marked where you will be in an hour or a half-hour in advance of your normal schedule. The course changes frequently; geometry and its rule about a straight line being the shortest distance between two points is true enough, but it doesn't mean a thing in combat work.
"Better get used to these maps we've got here," another navigator had told me on my arrival.
I did have trouble with them. The maps furnished us in Java were greatly inferior to the ones with which we trained, but we got along. We had to.
We left fires on our first mission. Not hand-warming embers, but heart-warming blazes. They climbed up and up into the tropical night as Suzy-Q turned her nose back to Java and purred happily home. Back in the "stinger," Irons yelped over the interplane phone: "Great work, sir!"
I looked up from my charts and watched Hardison's strained face break into a grin. We were a happy bunch. Hadn't been much to it, I thought. No Zeros, good weather, on-the-nose navigation and fires back where we laid the sticks.
I had been nervous and excited, but the comparative lack of danger had relieved me and I bent to my charts again. The stars were big and helpful as if God had sought to aid our mission by white-washing signposts for Suzy-Q's benefit.
A navigator has a break on a B-17, as far as watching the show is concerned. The drift meter is the one thing on the ship that permits you to look straight down, and you can follow the bombs all the way and watch them mushroom white and red against the target.
Our second mission, not so many hours later, was a different story. We knew the Japs were closing in for the kill and their cargo ships and troop transports were bumping against each other in the straits. The 19th had orders to hold and we were desperate. You have to be to take a plane like Suzy in at two thousand feet in broad daylight to make your run.
The Old Man did just that. It wasn't reckless. We had run into a front on the way out from Java. Back in the states that had meant bad weather, but Georgia and California fronts were summer breezes and showers compared to this. We hit electrical storms that rocked Suzy from nose to flipper. And I found out then that fronts in the Southwest Pacific start on the water and go straight up. You can't fly around, below or above them so we went in low.
"There may be some stuff thrown up," Hardison warned. There was.
Funny thing about ack-ack you've heard about it, know what it can do at two thousand feet, but my first look at the stuff reminded me of cotton balls, fluffy and black, breaking quickly around you. Then came the tracers, feathering upward like white lightning in reverse. Then came a sound of ripping metal and three feet from my compartment was a quite realistic hole, ripped there by shrapnel.
"Those ," I said to myself, white-hot with angry realization, "are trying to kill me."
They put some more holes in Suzy that night. There were to be many more before the old lady limped back home, but that was her baptism and she took it in stride like the queen she was. Back of us, as we headed home, were three blazing ships that never would carry another Jap invader. One we sank for sure; the others were were badly damaged and "probables."
That night I got to talking with Kiger, the radio man. We called him "'Orrible Orville" for no good reason at all, since he was a steady lad who stuck to his sparks and took Suzy through many a bad mission. We were sleeping in Suzy with mosquito nets over us, hoping for a breeze to spring up through the hot night.
"That piece came close to you, Lieutenant," Kiger said. "Three feet more and it would have got you, sir."
"A miss," I said, "is as good as a mile." I wasn't aware that my choice of language was far from original.
Orville slapped a mosquito. "Heard some of the ground crew made a bad mistake over at the pursuit base the other day," he said.
Bostwick, the husky six-foot engineer and side gunner, seemed bored. An original member of the 19th, he had bailed out a dozen times since Pearl Harbor, and today's mission was just another job. He looked at Kiger "So what?"
"Nothing," said Orville. "Boys over there put forty gallons into one of the mosquitoes before they discovered it wasn't a P-40 they were fueling."
We laughed nervously. You could make fun of Java's mosquitoes, but they stung like Zeros and had a terrific wingspread.
Some days we were lucky. Most of Suzy-Q's missions out of Java were at night and we got beds in a hotel near our base.
Things got worse during the next few days. The 19th sent formations from our three Java bases day and night, but we were losing ships and not getting others to replace them. The other two bases were hit especially hard, the casualty lists far exceeding ours, which was fairly low.
Those losses to the 19th were inevitable in the face of superior enemy numbers. And I'll always maintain that you can't use B-17s against small warships successfully. You need dive bombers and torpedo bombers for that. We didn't have them, but we went ahead anyway trying to pick off destroyers and cruisers. It was as if a 16-inch coastal defense gun was turned on a tank. At that, we held off the Japs a month and knocked down seven Zeros to every B-17 lost.
When the Japs started sending their medium bombers over in waves, we stuck in or near Suzy. The Old Man tried to get her off the ground whenever a raid warning came through.
"Isn't fair to leave the little lady there without a chance to defend herself," he would say.
Several times, we took off between bomb bursts, dodging through the hills at tree-top altitudes.
I think most of the 19th's losses in Java were on the ground. I can't say just how many, but I know you can't keep a squadron in the air forever, and the Japs sneaked through a couple of times to seriously cripple the other two bases. Our base was lucky; we lost little on the ground.
Whenever they did catch us with our wheels down, we grabbed whatever guns we had and blasted away. We found the woods about the safest place for retreat from the bomb blasts, but not too secure for the Japs laid eggs in all directions.
They were pretty good, there in Java. Both their dive bombing and high-level work were excellent. One sergeant thought their high-altitude work was uncanny. He had gone far out in an open field to "watch the show." We warned him to stick with us. A bomb landed near him, blew him plenty high into the air and left him purple with rage, but otherwise unhurt.
"Those have got telescopic sights or something," he screamed. "They saw me from three miles up."
The Japs pushed on and finally orders came through to evacuate. We made one last night run, but hit a front when we came down and couldn't see our target. We came back to the base, disappointed. The others had left for Australia and we were supposed to be on our way.
Hardison paced up and down in front of Suzy. The rest of us peered into the night and at the horizon which reflected spots of dull red where the Dutch were making sure the invaders found nothing of value to add to their triumph.
We knew what the Old Man was thinking. We hoped he would decide, but kept silent.
"We'll take off and circle until daylight," Hardison said. "Then we'll make a last run. OK?"
We grinned our delight. The Old Man knew his crew was with him.
Suzy-Q killed four hours droning around in the Java darkness. Then came the dawn and the Japs.
We came down low over their beach head and planted a string of beauties on a big transport. I watched the sticks go down, and smoke and flame belched high out of the transport. We left her listing and swooped over the landing barges, sprinkled like raisins between the transport and the beach.
It was Suzy-Q's first strafing job, but she was magnificent. The Japs sent up plenty of stuff, but we retaliated by turning every .50- and .30-caliber machine gun we had on them. We whooped as we saw our tracers eat holes in the packed landing barges; Japs leaped into the sea with their packs dragging them down. It was too low for comfort and we couldn't spend much time there, but we got plenty of Nips that day.
Frankly, I loved it. Originally, Suzy-Q's navigator's compartment had no gun. During the first days I had contented myself with passing up ammunition to the bombardier. I know now how that preacher felt at Pearl Harbor. I just couldn't sit protected by the armor around my nest and watch the guy in front of me have all the fun.
So here I was with a gun, bucking hot and sweat under my hands and acres of Japs underneath. The tracers went into them mute and crumpled. When we winged away, I could hear "Squeaky" McRoberts rasp congratulations over the interplane phones.
On February 28, we left Java for Australia, where a lot of reorganization went on. However, I ended up with the Suzy-Q again and the Old Man and the rest of the gang. We started working on Rabaul where there were plenty of Jap transports and cargo ships and also plenty of Zeros. We got a lot of ships and the Zeros got some of us.
I had my first crack at the Zeros over Lae. A cloud of them came up and hit Suzy-Q on the nose. That's a B-17's most vulnerable spot and they know it.
"Four Zeros at 3 o'clock," McRoberts warned.
We use that clock system of location in the Air Corps. Dead ahead is "12"; dead astern is "6" and at "3", the Zeros would be off to the right and at right angles to us.
Fesmire, now our bombardier, said: "Here's your chance, Lieutenant."
The first Zero came in. Fesmire's tracers stabbed the ship, flitting toward us like a streamlined green wasp. Then the Zero was in my line of fire and I let him have it. I saw the first one's smoke behind him, then I led him and got in a burst. As he hurled upward, Bostwick from the side gun gave him a final squirt.
That was the start of what the Old Man called our triple play: Fesmire to Nice to Bostwick.
Those that were unlucky enough to swipe past our rear got it in the teeth from "'Orrible Orville" and were finished off by Irons when that "Ass-end Charley" put his hot irons to them, they were usually nothing but a smoking mess streaking groundward.
I've heard claims that Suzy-Q got more Zeros than any B-17 in the 19th squadron. I don't know about that, and no one can prove it. A navigator in a Fortress isn't in a spot to see the enemy go in; I'd see him go by like lightning and give him what lead I could. If he did fall, he was out of my range of vision. I know that by the time the triple play had been completed, a lot of Zeros had holes in them.
Those Zeros we met over Java and Rabaul were flown by excellent pilots. They had courage, those yellow devils. I've seen them hurl their fighters on wingtip through our formations, endeavoring to break us up so they could pick off a straggler. It was good flying, but ours was better. We stuck to each other like leeches and knocked the hell out of them.
And I've seen them act like a bunch of schoolboys. After a long running fight, they'd run out of ammunition and would stand off and do stunts for our benefit. It was a weird feeling, sailing along and watching a flock of them do wing-overs, barrel-rolls and Fourth of July carnival tricks, when a few minutes earlier they had been hurling cannon shells at us. I don't know why they put on the show. We didn't have to be convinced their Zeros were maneuverable. We knew that. However, during the last few missions, the change in the quality of Jap pilots was noticeable. They lost their zing. The Jap pilots were much less experienced than in the early days of 1941. We had taken a heavy toll of their veterans and we're still doing it!
By this time, the 19th was no longer alone. We had plenty of help. And I like to think that those early shock-troops-of-the-air like Wheless, Captain Clarence McPherson, Captain John DeFrane, Major Jack Dougherty and the rest helped the B-17s that are over Africa and Europe today fly better because of the things the 19th learned. Learned the hard way, I might add, and on behalf of the 19th, I'd like to point out we're the only Air Forces unit which has received three citations from the Secretary of War.
Me? I'm just a rank-and-filer of that great 19th, a college boy fresh from his Blackstone who, I hope, has become a man but still sophomoric enough to be scared when an oxygen line broke.
From childhood I've had an inordinate fear of suffocation and the idea of going out that way can jar me awake at night with my hair on end. So when I looked up from my chart and saw the oxygen needle dropping like a lonesome Lucifer I yelped a warning to the Old Man.
The needle was running out and we were at 26,000 feet. Any aviation primer tells you flyers die at 25,000 feet without oxygen, and Hardison rammed Suzy-Q's nose down and dived. It was a race that had me worried. At 16,000, with my lungs popping, I ripped off my mask and started to breathe Nature's air again. My knees shake now when I think about it.
We had our fun, too. Some crews are talkative, full of laughs and always a comic aboard. We were a quiet bunch in the main and didn't use the interplane phone except for business. But there was the time when a ricocheting bullet came buzzing in and plunked against the extended rear of one of the gunners. After the fight, he looked to see what damage had been done to his anatomy and found, fortunately, he had only a large purple welt. Kiger, I think it was, chortled through the phones, "He has the purple heart."
I missed the real fun of Suzy-Q's year of travel, during which time she put 100,000 miles under her wings. Tropical fever laid me up and, while I was gone, the boys made a forced landing in Australia. It was in rough "melon-hole" country and the Old Man and the gang ate roots and drank rain water for eight days until they filled in the holes and took off again.
Irons and Kiger were there let them tell their story of Japs, roots and rain water "Tails We Win."
The sky was black with ack-ack that day a year ago in Java. It was the last day and the last mission before we got out. Green and blue tracers were coming at us from all directions, like a storm or a Fourth of July rocket celebration. It was about the only time down in the South Pacific that I figure we were just plain lucky.
We ran right into the main Jap invasion fleet at dawn. And we had only three B-17s in the flight. It got so hot that two of them turned back. So we came in alone at 3,000 feet and let go with our bombs on fifty-seven cruisers, destroyers and transports. The Old Man just dropped down and we strafed the landing barges. The Japs never expected it. Were they surprised! It was a daring, dumb, crazy thing to do, but we salvoed the whole load of 500-pound Dutch bombs right in the middle of the invasion force and sank the biggest transport.
Jap troops swarming on the beaches were hidden by little low hills, so we decided to go in and pop at them. They opened up with ack-ack, pom-poms and heavy eight- and ten-inch shells. Suzy-Q got several two-inch shrapnel holes in her, but no equipment or motors were disabled.
I couldn't get my tail-position guns down far enough to get the range, but when the Old Man he goes crazy when he sees Japs peeled off in a vertical bank, I did some strafing less than one hundred feet above the beach.
You do such things on the spur of the moment and don't realize the danger. We had all six of our .50-caliber machine guns blazing and the bitches scattered. When we thought they had had enough, we flipped down low and made for home, ducking in and out of hills and valleys to keep out of sight.
The whole crew got Silver Stars for this mission, awarded to us when we got to Australia by Lieutenant General George C Kenney, commander of the Allied Air Forces in that area.
But to get back to early December, 1941, and our first mission. We were out on the gunnery range at Spokane, Washington, just shooting off a bunch of ammunition when the boys came running out from the barracks. The Japs had hit Pearl Harbor. Things went plenty fast after that an on January 11, we climbed aboard Suzy-Q at the Boeing plant in Seattle. Since then, she has come through fifty-five completed missions with only three casualties to her crew plus a few bullet holes and shrapnel rips. McDonald, the bombardier, got it at Broome in western Australia.
After a series of hops each plane flying alone so as not to arouse curiosity we reached Natal in Brazil, the taking-off point for Freetown, British West Africa. After a stop at Khartoum, we spent several days in Cairo, sticking around mostly with our bunch, then flew on to Colombo, Ceylon and to Java, landing at Batavia.
The Japs had made a mess of Bandoeng by then. It was just suicide. Three waves of Jap bombers came over every day in groups of twenty-four and they got most of our fighters and bombers on the ground.
Then came our first mission at dawn. We had only ten hours to rest up, instead of the usual twenty-four allowed bombing crews before they take off to contact the enemy. We were out looking for convoys and also hoping to break up swarms of Jap landing barges.
I was in the tail of the ship with a pair of .50-caliber machine guns itching in my hands. Sergeant Kiger we call him "'Orrible Orville" was in the belly doubled up in the Sperry Turret with his manually controlled flexible .50s. Kiger can get in more shots than I can, because his turret rolls around like a barber chair. I've got to wait until the Old Man peels off before I can get the best range on a Jap. That's what happens to us "Ass-end Charleys," as they call the tail gunners.
Lieutenant Nice (he's a Captain now, but was a shavetail then) had an itchy finger for a crack at the Japs so he got himself a gun. He'd bang away up there with the nose man and Bostwick would finish them off if they came his way.
You sort of feel out of things back in the rear of the ship when the tail is whirling around particularly when the interplane phones are cut off. Then you're really on your own and it's up to you to get a burst in the first time the Japs come at you.
Well, we didn't meet up with any Zeros that morning, but two missions later we saw them. We were flying at 28,000 feet and it was freezing cold but, because there's less humidity up there, the plane didn't ice up.
A wisp of smoke whizzed by the ship. It was a "smoker" the Japs sometimes use instead of tracers. Then I looked down and there were thirteen Zeros coming out of a cloud bank 8,000 feet below us. Long before they got near us, 'Orrible and I let go with bursts. We were pretty scared. I could feel sweat soaking into my shirt, but the "smokers" kept on coming at us and you didn't know when those bullets were going to hit. But it's all right when you can shoot back at him. I got that first one as he came in on our tail with both of his 20-mm cannon blazing at us at 400 yards. And he didn't come back. This was my first whack at a Jap and it was a damned good feeling.
While 'Orrible and I were blazing away, Bostwick, the assistant engineer and side gunner, got one and the Jap went down, trailing smoke from his motor. Ack-ack was banging away at us above the roar of the motors. The whole works, ack-ack and all, lasted about a half-hour. The six Fortresses in our flight had to stick in formation. You're sunk if you pull away. We got four Zeros on that mission.
Then we went for the docks at Bali. That was when the Japs jumped us.
It was August 7, and we were ordered to bomb the Jap airdrome at Rabaul in New Britain. By the time we got over the target, Suzy-Q had been hit. We dropped our bombs and only one plane of the thirteen in our flight missed the target it was blasted to smithereens. Then the Zeros started up at us. Kiger can tell you what happened then.
Orville Kiger reporting:
I knew my guns were working, having checked them at several altitudes. I turned my turret down and found that the nearest Zero was out of range, about 800 yards at an angle.
Irons was shooting at him from the tail gun and I put in, too. Another Jap dove in from the other side. One Jap was already in flames. His whole left wing had come off and he was completely on fire from tip to toe. I have never seen a Jap bail out. It was a regular "Snuffy Smith" battle with rivet-hot tracers coming in from all sides.
We didn't hear a word on the interplane phones after the first Jap came up. By that time it got to be fun. Irons hung on to his triggers with long bursts. My guns were getting hotter by split seconds. We were giving them much longer bursts than was good for the gun barrels. But you don't think about those things.
There were two Japs coming for the nose of the ship and Master Sergeant Geckeler, the top gunner, got both of them close in. It was pretty shooting. You could see the Jap pilots as they went by. Their helmets and goggles cover most of their faces and they have no particular expression. They never make a gesture. But some waggle their wings when the boys throw a burst at them Jap playfulness, I suppose.
Zeros were coming in and out fast. Their maneuverability is something. Don't let anyone try to tell you that the Jap can't fly a fighter plane. They were demons for daring and knew all the tricks except pulling down Flying Fortresses. They were good then and they're good now, but after six months of it they began to slack off. Most of us are sure the best Jap pilots are gone and they are sending out mostly inexperienced youngsters now.
On the way home, "Squeeky" McRoberts smelled something burning. He yelled to "Pixie" Geckeler, the engineer, to make a search. We thought sure we were afire and sniffed frantically to find the flame. Suddenly, "Pixie" remembered. "Hey, has anyone looked at Lieutenant Nice?" There he was all cooped up and puffing away at one of his stinky cigars. The tobacco out there was bad, and Nice's pipe was a gas weapon so he was asked to stow it away.
He changed to rubber cigars, I think.
We lost one of our B-17s on that Rabaul mission. It was a noble flight. Captain Pease was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
Irons picks up the story:
On another mission to Rabaul, this time at night, we strafed Jap barracks and dromes for about an hour. There was an anti-aircraft battery shooting at us from the side of a mountain, but Geckeler got him as we skimmed over the water. We were alone in Suzy-Q and she got pretty well shot up before we left the target area. But we strafed gun emplacements that were sending up armor-piercing incendiaries and got away.
Just for something to do we went along to the Lae airdrome, but on the way hit a headwind, ran out of gas and saw that we were going to have to hit the bush. When the Old Man called for volunteers to stay with the ship, we all agreed we'd rather stick than bail out. That's what the whole crew got another Silver Star for that and eight days in the bush.
It was early daybreak when Major Hardison brought Suzy-Q over a rough clearing in the jungle. We skimmed, then crash-landed and finally halted. When we got over the jolt and thanked old Suzy-Q for bringing us through, we climbed out into the tall grass. There right in front of the plane was a six-foot crater-like hole. The bush is full of them in these parts. They call them "melons."
The Old Man sent some of us out to hunt for water and coconuts. All we had in the way of food was chocolate and a few biscuits, and a couple of quart-canteens of water which lasted just about an hour. It was hot and the flies were bad.
That night I contacted our air base by radio and gave them our position. On of the boys found a telegraph line near where we came down. This looked like a break. I think it was the line running from London to Australia. We were going to try to use it, but discovered the ship in landing had cut right through the line. We knew we were somewhere in Australia because of the bush fires that burn constantly. No one pays any attention to the bush fires they just keep on burning.
At night we slept in the bush and it was sweating hot. But that didn't bother us. Our problem was to build a runway to get Suzy off again.
Australia apparently had heard our radio message and knew our position, for they sent out Beauforts, dropped food and water, and several days later a land party found us. It took them three days to do seventy miles through the dense jungle, but they had brought through a tractor and a bulldozer. They had gas for the ship enough to get us back to the airdrome.
Natives and bushmen in the searching party went to work an, with the help of the tractor, filled up the "melon" holes and made a 600-foot runway for us right through the bush. The Old Man and five of us who were a bit cut up by the bush went out on the plane. The rest went back with the land party. And, brother, we never would have gotten in or out if it hadn't been for Major Hardison, the damned-best pilot in Australia. Well, we landed at the airdrome, refueled and then flew on to the American base in Queensland.
We've had some other missions out there, including some narrow squeaks in New Guinea, the Coral Sea, Milne Bay and the Solomons, where we pulled one raid and got a good hit on a Jap convoy approaching Guadalcanal, but none of them touch that dawn strafing party in Java.
One day over the Coral Sea, bad weather kept us from getting the range when we were out hunting for a convoy. This time we were Suzy's crew without Suzy she was in Sydney enjoying a change that the Old Man thought she needed. Anyway in another Fortress, we kept looking for our home base, couldn't find it and finally ran out of gas. At 7,500 feet, the engines coughed and the pilot not Hardison this time gave the word to get ready to bail out. You never saw a calmer bunch when the time came to go. I dreaded it at first thought of all the stories I had heard the boys tell back at the base and was sure I'd land in a tree or something. But, when the Old Man gave the word to go, we just kicked the door and went out. I always believed it wouldn't have happened if we'd stuck with Suzy.
"'Orrible" Orville landed OK in the bush and I got strung up in a tree. The impact wasn't what I'd expected. You were jolted like a jump off the top of a barn.
We were lucky again. But there we were back in the bush, the heat and the flies and no water. Using a pocket compass, we walked all the rest of the day and slept in the bush that night. It was sickening hot and our throats hurt. Next day we hunted for water. Not finding any, we kept on until late in the day with the heat and flies making us feel even lower. Then one of the boys let out a shout someone was coming through the bush. We saw a white sun helmet and a shirt. It was an Australian with an American engineer along. They directed us back to our base.
Do we find it tough at times? Well, the hardest thing to endure is to sit in that rear-gun cubbyhole for seven or eight hours with an oxygen mask on your face. During combat you get really tired of the dry-rubber smell of the thing. Ordinarily, it goes all right. Major Hardison reads off the altitude every half-hour and calls each fellow by name to be sure he's getting plenty of oxygen.
After flying up there in sub-zero stratosphere in the Southwest Pacific, or tramping through the bush after we'd bailed out, I knew I was ready for anything knocking down Japs mostly.
What are we fighting for? We're fighting for a better world for everybody in the world, and we're fighting to beat the hell out of the guys that started this.
Now you know how the rest of the crew feel who know Suzy as I know Suzy.
There's little more to tell. Irons brought you up to November when all of us of Suzy-Q's crew, with the exception of gallant Mac, took off from Australia. A few days later, Suzy-Q, battle-worn, weary but indomitable as ever, settled happily on home soil the first Flying Fortress to fly around the world. She's scarred, she rattles and bangs in the air, but if any of us deserve the DFC, it's Suzy-Q.
This article, including the two stories, was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Skyways magazine, vol, 3, no 2, pp 28-29, 80.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 15.6 MiB ] includes eleven thumbnail portraits of crewmembers of Suzy-Q, a photo of the right nose of Suzy-Q, a B-17E, 41-2489, a photo of Capt Nice in the Skyways offices, and drawings of waist-gun and tail-gun stations.
Portraits not credited; photos credited to War Department and Warner Brothers, waist gun drawing credited to Earle B Winslow.