OLD BAG OF BOLTS

by Maj BEN H PEARSE
Through special arrangement with Air Force

They don't award medals to airplanes but the Old Bag of Bolts is one ship that might well get a deserved Congressional Medal of Honor.

She was blessed with an assortment of names. To many she was Old '76. Some called her Red Cap and others The Gravy Train because she carried so many important personages to the four corners of the earth. But the name Old Bag of Bolts seemed to fit her best.

Officially she was just AC Serial Number 40-2376, a B-24 airplane with a history all her own, as can be vouched for by the scores of men, women and children whose lives she saved — ferry pilots in the North Atlantic, combat crews and refugees in the South Pacific.

It is anybody's guess what the enemy might have called her. Old Bolts seemed to have a charmed life while she was trucking precious cargo all over the Pacific combat zone in a dangerous game of hide and seek with the Jap aircraft during those first hectic days of war.

Squat and lumbering on the ground, she would waddle up to the head of a runway like a duck out of water. But once her ponderous landing gear was tucked away, she was a creature transformed — maneuvering her big hulk with the lightness of a toe dancer.

When Bolts was turned over to the Ferrying (now Air Transport) Command one day last year, months before Pearl Harbor, she had already cut her eye teeth on dozens of missions. She had reached middle age for a plane of her type, but it was just another case of life beginning at 40.

As a Ferrying Command ship, Bolts had no regular run. Home was any place she plumped her wheels down. And it was here, there and everywhere on short notice. Her crews had uncalled-for laundry all over the globe. Their baggage included fleece-lined clothing and boots for the Arctic, shorts and mosquito boots for the tropics.

Bolts knew what it means to labor along through the heavy fog and mist of the North Atlantic burdened down with tons of ice. On the South Atlantic run her paint blistered under the equatorial sun; her motors choked through dust storms and wallowed through thunder squalls where St Elmo's fire played about the leading edges of her wings and zigzagged eerily across the windshield.

Her crews ate quinine instead of candy as she shuttled back and forth from Washington to Cairo over steaming African jungles and shimmering desert sands. Now and then they would zoom her low and let her chase herds of giraffes to break the monotony. With little more than a wrench and screwdriver to work with, mechanics would jump out almost as her wheels touched the ground, then sweat in the torrid shade of her wings to change a cracked exhaust brace or broken stack, replace an oil valve, change spark plugs, service the oleos and clean the strainers.

So thoroughly did the factory workers who put old Bolts together do their job and so thoroughly did her own mechanics sweat that her pilots were able to report at the end of each leg of each flight, under the heading of "Mechanical Difficulties," the sweet monosyllable "None."

Not that Bolts didn't have her moments. Back before her South Atlantic and South Pacific adventures, for instance, on that transatlantic round trip to the United Kingdom. She held ferry pilots as passengers and the trip was routine until two hours out of Montreal on the return hop.

From landfall on the coast of Labrador there had been intermittent, moderate icing of the rime type. Then things began to happen. Without warning, the rime crystals changed to hard clear ice, formed from large, supercooled rain drops. Bolts was laboring. Second Lieut C W Dean, copilot, turned on the de-icer fluid for her props and the boots on the leading edges of her wings and tail, but the altimeter needle kept sinking. Lieut James W Anderson, pilot, pushed forward the throttles as the needle continued to turn slowly downward. At last, when the throttles were wide open, the needle stopped. Dean and Anderson breathed a sigh of relief.

The coating of ice, visible with a flashlight out the side windows, wasn't getting any thinner. Anderson decided to tum around and try to get out. Bolts reacted sluggishly to the controls. It was like traveling down stream in a heavily loaded canoe, but she made it without losing any of her skimpy altitude. Then, for four hours, Bolts was lost.

Second Lieut A H Anders, navigator, kept looking for a break in the white mist that would give him a chance to get a fix. Staff Sgt James A McVicar, radio operator, listened in vain through the sputtering static for a signal that would give an inkling of their course. The Northern Lights had been acting up; sometimes they interfered with reception, sometimes they didn't. Now, of all times, they made his earphones sputter like a hamburger stand on circus day. He couldn't raise a soul.

The passengers in the bomb bay knew well what was going on. If that first long, gradual turn wasn't enough of a tip off, the crashing of hunks of ice thrown off the propellers against the fuselage behind them left no doubt in their minds. Then the utter blackness of their frigid cell was broken by a shaft of light and a cheerful voice from the pilot compartment forward: "Everybody put on your parachutes."

Staff Sgt D D Greenwalt, engineer, watched the dials on the panel before him for the flicker of a needle that would tell him that Bolts was giving up. The ice built up on the engine cowls until it reached the arc of the props and was knocked back inside, but the carburetor stayed out of the danger zone. The de-icing system worked to perfection. As the ice built up on the tail surfaces, Old Bolts would shake herself all over, but her de-icer would break it loose and all would be smooth for two or three minutes. Meanwhile, her four motors roared on in unison with never a conk or sputter.

Finally, 15 hours after a takeoff that seemed a year away, Lieutenant Anders spied a patch of dark sky and three beautiful stars. He fingered the thumbscrews of his octant, herded the errant bubble between the hairlines of the artificial horizon, and quickly figured on a scratch pad before him until he had a line to draw on his chart. He couldn't tell where he was along that line without a second fix that would give him another line to intersect the first; then X, the intersection would mark the spot, their position. But the break in the clouds was gone now. He waited, eyes glued to that little glass hatch overhead. The door to the bomb bay opened and Sergeant McVicar appeared, climbing over ferry pilots packed in like sardines. There had been a break in the radio fog, too, and he had a bearing. Would it help?

"Will it help? Hell, yes, it will help."

With his protractor, Lieutenant Anders marked off 194° true from — and drew a line that intersected his first line. He measured carefully — 420 miles NNW of LR in Newfoundland —then leaned over and tapped Lieutenant Anderson on the shoulder. "Sir, you are now over Labrador flying straight for the Atlantic Ocean. A course of 169° should get you to LR in about two hours."

Lieutenant Anderson nodded without turning around and bore down heavily on the wheel. The ailerons, elevators and rudders on old Bolts were frozen again, as they had been intermittently for the past four hours, but after some tugging at the controls Bolts slogged around like an obedient dray horse and turned her pug nose toward LR. Pulling back on the controls would not raise her nose an inch, but her four motors chugged on through the darkness until she settled herself gently on the mile-long runway at LR.

No sooner had bolts rolled to a stop than goggle-eyed ground crews began arguing whether her coating of ice — two to three inches broken off by the de-icer boots — weighed one, two or three tons.

But Bolts had tougher flights than that before her. Her instructions, to be exact, came in a re-corrected copy of Operations Order No 163. That was December 5, 1941. She subsequently covered nearly 150,000 miles on the grind — it was really one continuous flight — and her engines hardly ever cooled until the very end. Time for her 25, 50 and 100-hour checks flew past unnoticed, all because of the scribbled note that fluttered in the radio operator's hand as he dashed out to Bolts at Trinidad.

"Pearl Harbor attacked by Japanese at 0728," the note read.

The name of Ambassador William C Bullitt headed the list of passengers as old Bolts roared out over the Caribbean. But famous names were soon to become commonplace with Bolts. At Cairo, on that hop going over, a party of high-ranking officers boarded her for an emergency mission to Australia. Then she was loaded down until her sides were about to pop with ammunition and scores of other items badly needed in a hundred spots in the East Indies.

Maps were scarce, good ones, anyway. Lieut Ben Funk, the pilot, picked up some information from a Dutch pilot at Karachi, but he still wasn't prepared for that short runway at Calcutta. It was marked "1,000 yards" on his map — barely enough for a B-24 loaded until her tires bulged — but actually it was only 760 yards. Somehow, with plenty of brakes, Lieutenant Funk and Old Bolts managed it — with 100 feet to spare. To get off that runway, Bolts had to leave some gas behind.

On to Rangoon, which the Japs were bombing daily, then to Bandoeng in Java, where the Dutch made quite a fuss over Bolts. They had never seen anything like her 28-ton body close up before. In fact, she was such an unfamiliar sight that an Allied plane looking very much like her had been fired on by Dutch antiaircraft less than a half hour before. But Bolts came in without difficulty. (The other ship went on to Singapore.)

At Soerabaya, the next day, Maj Gen Lewis H Brereton and Maj Gen George H Brett were taken aboard old Bolts for a 10,000-mile inspection trip, 3,600 miles of it in a one-day flight from the west coast of Australia to Sumatra.

There was great need in the Indies for maintenance personnel to service the B-17s that had come in. Bolts was ordered to go from Australia up into the Philippines and bring out as many key maintenance personnel as possible. That was late January. The ground crews in the Philippines had been removed from Luzon to a secret airport on Mindanao. Japanese-controlled Davao was only 100 miles away. It was a ticklish job, flying in at night, picking up the crews, and getting out unseen. Bolts had no armor, no self-sealing tanks, and only a few machine guns for protection.

Staff Sgts Leo Zulkowski and Frank Sayko worked all day on Bolts, checking and rechecking for the afternoon takeoff. The motors had long since passed the 400-hour mark. From Australia to Mindanao and back was 3,600 miles, almost all of it over open water. Things had to be right.

Old Bolts made the trip without incident, although Lieutenant Boselli had to change course five times to avoid Jap-controlled areas. During the last lap of the flight, Capt Hewitt T Wheless, who had flown every mile of the coast in his B-17, stood between Lieutenant Funk and Lieut Charles Bowman, copilot, to guide them to the secret airfield. Bolts brought out 25 crack mechanics in her bomb bay.

About a week later Bolts was off for Rangoon with Gen Sir Archibald Wavell aboard. The Japs had raided a field nine miles from Rangoon a half hour before her arrival. Pilot Funk decided to go to a satellite field in Burma to escape a possible followup attack. Luck was with Bolts. That night the Japs raided Rangoon three times. The return to Java with General Wavell was easy.

Singapore fell and the Japs began their first raids on Java. The raids kept Bolts on the alert staying away from her field while the Japs strafed it. When the air raid alarms came, Bolts would lumber out to the runway, take off and fly south over the water and wait for the all clear to be given.

Then Bolts was ordered back to Darwin, departing February 19, the day of the big Jap raid. About two hours out of Darwin, she got radio information warning her not to come in, so she landed a few hundred miles to the south, waited, and then came into Darwin shortly after the attack.

When the Japs went to work in earnest on the invasion of Java, Bolts was called upon for evacuation work. Twice she went back into Java from Darwin, bringing out 20 evacuees each time. Luck continued to ride with Bolts. The day after she left Broome, Australia, with the last lot of passengers she had taken out of Java, Broome suffered a heavy raid. After it was over, she went back to Broome under cover of night to bring out personnel.

Bolts made a second trip to the Philippines. This time she took in sorely needed supplies for the wounded who had escaped fallen Bataan and Corregidor. In addition to her crew of seven, she brought out 30 officers and men from that secret airfield on Mindanao, including Lieut John Bulkeley of Navy PT boat fame.

That was her last trip for the Ferrying Command. Within a few days her crew was called back to the States and Bolts was turned over to the commander of the Southwest Pacific. When Lieutenant Funk and Bolts parted company they had been together nearly 400 hours.

Bolts made one more daring trip after that, back to the Philippines in another rescue attempt. It was her last. The gas load gave Bolts only a few minutes to locate the Mindanao airfield. She circled overhead, trying to get a signal through. The Japs were everywhere; perhaps they had taken the field. Bolts didn't make contact in the darkness. She headed back toward Australia.

But Bolts couldn't make it back with the remaining fuel. She headed toward an island for an emergency landing. Her position was radioed to aid in the rescue of her crew. Then Bolts gave out of gas. She sat down in the water a few hundred feet off shore. After more than 600 hours her motors sputtered for the first — and last — time. And then only because she lacked fuel.

Members of her crew swam to safety and later were rescued by a submarine. Beyond saving was AC Serial Number 40-2376.

They don't hand out awards for airplanes, and we don't mean to get sloppy sentimental over a big hulk of steel, but in our books Old Bag of Bolts went down with a Congressional Medal of Honor pinned to her fat chest.

The ranks of the officers and the grades of the enlisted men mentioned in this story were those held at the time the action took place.

This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Flying magazine, vol 32, no 3, pp 108, 110, 114.
The original article includes a photo of a B-24 seen from 11 o'clock.