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History Runs Away...
On October 14, 2000, I received a letter from an eighty-two-year-old man with the most distinctive handwriting I'd ever seen. Each stroke, a carved and italic spider line, looked as though it had been painfully chiseled into the page. The writer explained that "as a rural farmboy, I augmented my modest allowance by operating a trap line before catching the school bus. In skinning my catch, i.e., badgers, coyotes and skunk, I froze my fingers. Now, as an octogenarian, I'm paying for it with non-operative finger joints."
The letter was from Harry McCool, the navigator of plane four in the covert operation that became the first U.S. victory of World War II. Harry wrote me in answer to a questionnaire I had sent to every surviving member of his mission almost sixty years after it had taken place. I'd become convinced that their astounding story was one of the greatest moments in American history-a story that, until earlier that year, I'd never heard.
In World War II my father served with the Army Air Forces in New Guinea while my mother was an air traffic controller in Atlanta; later one of my uncles would become a career air force navigator. They filled my childhood with stories of daring raids, secret missions, and the astonishing bravery of what I learned, much later in life, were men barely out of their teens. Then Vietnam happened, and we no longer talked so much about my uncle's job or my parents' service years. It wasn't until I came across the story of Harry and his fellow airmen in an old issue of American History magazine that those tales from my childhood suddenly took on historical significance. That mission was the birth of the U.S. Air Force-a key part of my family's past-and I didn't know a thing about it.
Embarrassed and ashamed about my ignorance, I started asking around. It turned out that almost anyone who had been alive during World War II was as vividly aware of the story as Americans of my generation recall precisely where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated. Yet, with the exception of diehard World War II scholars and buffs, it seems to have completely escaped the attention of most other Americans today. Some areas of national amnesia deserve immediate attention, and I believe this is one of them.
I saw the story as one of ordinary people who became heroes, but in interviews, it became clear soon enough that more than a few of those involved believed otherwise. "None of us thought of ourselves as heroes," insisted copilot Dick Cole, while navigator Nolan Herndon had even stronger feelings: "To tell you the truth, I wish all of that would go away. We were just doing our job." Their job was an assignment many predicted would be a suicide mission, carried out by men with only rudimentary training. It would require, for the first time, the cooperation of thousands of recruits from both the army and the navy, as well as a new, frightening, and exhilarating method of flying bombers that no one had ever attempted before and no one would ever try again. Almost every man on the mission would be forced to abandon his plane as he ran out of gas in the middle of the night in a violent thunderstorm on the far side of the world. The men escaped from enemy-controlled territory by resourcefully managing to communicate with people who couldn't speak, read, or write their language.
Several of these boys, landing in a war zone, were captured, confined to years in solitary, tortured, forced to sign false confessions, tried as war criminals, and executed by firing squad. One flier was starved to death, while the survivors, rescued at war's end, had been reduced to living skeletons. One of them, tortured to the limits of human endurance, found God and subsequently returned to Japan on a campaign of forgiveness. Another was lost in a stateside limbo of army bureaucracy and mental illness. Still others were interned as enemy aliens by the Soviet Union, and had to be smuggled out into what is now Iran. One airman who began his military career on horseback would survive the mission, be captured by the Nazis, become part of the "Great Escape," and end his service years working with NASA and astronauts. Their raid, meanwhile, would lead directly to what every historian now believes was the turning point in the war against Japan.
As a child I was taught that history is made by kings and generals, popes and presidents, leading their secular and spiritual nations ever forward. As an adult I learned that often enough the polar opposite is true-that the big moments just as often depend on the actions of ordinary people in extraordinary times. In the last years of his life, Dwight D. Eisenhower told Stephen Ambrose that "Higgins was the man who won the war for us," Andrew Jackson Higgins being the New Orleans boatbuilder who invented and mass-produced thousands of plywood, flat-bottomed, ramp-fronted barges that floated American soldiers onto the beaches of Italy, Normandy, and the South Pacific. There were plenty of other unheralded men and women Ike could have mentioned, such as Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, the British physicist who developed enemy-aircraft-detecting radar; William M. Friedman of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service and Alan M. Turing of the British Government Code and Cipher School, the American and English decrypters of Japanese and Nazi ciphers; the thousands of stateside Rosie and Ronnie the Riveters who built more tanks, planes, ships, guns, and bombs than any other country could ever hope to produce; and the men of this story, who convinced the American public in the war's first dark days that the Allies might ultimately triumph over what then seemed an invincible enemy. Today the United States is a global superpower, but at the dawn of World War II, the entire American coastline was under assault, and the nation was too weak to do much about it. It was an era when the United States and Britain had lost every single battle they'd entered, and had been beaten from all sides. It was a time when most Americans thought the war was over, that the Axis powers had already won.
In the early days of researching this book, my mother died, and when I came home for her funeral, there was one thing I especially wanted to see-her photo albums. Keeping these books, chronicling seven decades, had been one of her many hobbies, meticulously tipping in official pictures at family ceremonies as well as a barrage of casual snaps. During the war she escaped her hometown in rural Wisconsin to become an air traffic controller in Atlanta (where she found herself surrounded by interested servicemen), and the pictures from that time are astounding. Though the world may have been falling apart, a professional posed her in one of the classic looks of that era, the eyes focused ahead, the smile a determined glow of optimism for the future. Across the album's page were serrated Brownie shots my father had sent from New Guinea-in his khakis, as lean and slouching as Robert Mitchum. The pictures were mystifying. Neither was the mother and father I remembered, but both were people I'd like to know.
Research for the book led me to a newspaper archive and an article listing the survivors of this mission and the towns where they lived. Using an Internet white pages, I started dialing, in the order of what the article had implied was the importance of the men's standing in their Raiders' association. Twelve hundred World War II vets are dying every day, and the men I was trying to reach were no exception.
I called the first name on the list: deceased. The second: dead. The third had advanced Hodgkin's and could no longer talk on the phone. The fourth said it had been so long ago, he couldn't remember a thing. The fifth: dead. On the sixth a daughter answered and very politely explained, "He can't come to the phone right now. He's out getting tested, since next week he's having brain surgery. Could you call back another time?" One airman was so active as a retired senior citizen that it took eleven phone calls to set up an interview. I called a few weeks later to double-check some facts, only to learn he'd suddenly passed away. Others wanted to participate as part of their last testament. These very sick men would recount events from sixty years past in faint, barely there voices, determined to have their stories told.
Around this time I had to make two business trips, one to Massachusetts and another to California. In both Nantucket and Yosemite, at opposite ends of the country and completely by chance, I wandered into local cemeteries. Their tombstones were blank. Though originally carved into marble to last for all eternity, the names and dates of the dead had been fully erased by two hundred years of history. The stones had forgotten, and were now rendered into rock-hard spots of amnesia.
Bill Birch, bombardier of plane eleven, said: "It is my hope that your book will acquaint future generations with the tenacious spirit America's men and women displayed those fifty-odd years ago...the aircraft and shipyard workers who built the necessary planes and ships needed to defeat a savage and ruthless enemy...the farm- and schoolboys who, in a few short weeks, learned to use the products of the factories and shipyards and then manned the ramparts of defense....It was their determination and courage which ensured the final victory. This they did through personal sacrifice and in spite of facing an invader superior not only in numbers but in experience and equipment." It is my hope that The First Heroes has met Bill's challenge, and that it clearly demonstrates how the most ordinary men and women, "just doing their jobs," can change the course of the world.
Liftoff: April 18, 1942
On January 21, 1942, the men of the Seventeenth Bombardment Group were ordered to transfer from their current base, an unnamed and still-under-construction airfield outside Pendleton, Oregon, to Lexington Field near Columbia, South Carolina. Though they were Army Air Corps men who followed orders and did what they were told, they couldn't help but have mixed feelings about this move. On the plus side they'd be getting out of the wet, frigid Northwest, where winter nights meant eighteen below, days were eternally overcast with soup (making landings consistently tough), and runways were clogged in half-melted slush. On the minus they were trading in antisub patrol across the Pacific for similarly worthless efforts over the Atlantic, a job one pilot derided as "stooging around, going from A to B, looking for things that weren't there."
Since the attack on Pearl Harbor six weeks earlier, the men of the Seventeenth had spent every daylight hour of permissible weather circling repeatedly over the same patches of coastline while searching with bare eyes and binoculars through endless coves and inlets for the speck-and-slash of an enemy conning tower or the slight break in the waves of a lurker, for the famed midget two-manners like the one that'd been captured off the coast of Oahu, or for a real prize, the eighty-five-crew giant, the biggest submarine Japan could sail. These airmen were trained and ready for war, but instead, after logging thousands of man-hours flying over their assigned grids, there had been only one engagement that could be considered a success-and it was hushed up by the brass.
"It was Christmas Eve 1941," remembered bombardier George Hammond. "We were on one of our first patrols. I was twenty-two years old. Brick Holstrom, the pilot, and the copilot, Hoss Wilder, were both second lieutenants; our navigator was a corporal; the radio operator, John O. Van Marter, a buck private; and I was a PFC, so we were a very high ranking crew.
"We'd taken off probably near noontime, and we'd been out flying repeatedly back and forth over the grid, approximately sixty-five miles west of the mouth of the Columbia River. We were flying quite low because the weather was not good, and we were staying below the clouds as much as possible."
"We went out over the ocean and went down to make contact with the water at about five hundred feet," said pilot Brick Holstrom, then twenty-five. "Our orders were: If you see an unescorted submarine, attack! Any American sub would be escorted by a surface vessel."
George Hammond: "There must have been several submarines operating out there, because there was a lot of lumber floating in the Pacific-quite a bit of debris bobbing around. We noticed that all day, and we guessed it came from where they had sunk some freighters, and that sort of thing. One or two times, we'd spot something, but they were far enough away they could escape with a quick dive. Suddenly Wilder shouted that he saw a submarine right next to us, and I looked out the right side and there was its nose coming out of the water-they were just surfacing.
"Wilder immediately made a very steep turn around to line up with it, but we were very close on it. At that distance you could set up a drop angle because the bomb, when it leaves the bomb bay of the aircraft and is suddenly out in the air and going forward, the two of you-the plane and the bomb-are going the same speed and the same direction. You'd take into account the wind and the airspeed, and use that to know when to flip the switch.
"As we rolled out, I dropped one bomb on it but it was over-a miss. So he made a quick turn around to come in the opposite direction across it for a second drop, which probably took eighty seconds-he brought it around very sharply. And I dropped two bombs at that time. One hit just by the stern of the submarine, and the second bomb hit right on deck, just forward of the conning tower.
"We got quite a concussion out of that drop; the plane shook like it broke. Holstrom banked so we could get a look. There was a lot of roiled water, the oil slick spreading out, and so forth. We only had four bombs, so we turned around once more and dropped the last bomb on the slick, because they leveled off and started the nose back down into their dive. That was about the extent of that. We circled the area a few times, and sent out a radio message about the strike."
It wouldn't be until August 1942-eight months later-that the five men aboard that B-25 would be awarded Air Medals for sinking the first enemy submarine in American coastal waters, as it took that long for the Army Air Corps to confirm and make public what had happened sixty-five miles off the coast of Washington. George Hammond explained: "We recovered into Boeing Field and were met by someone from the command of the West Coast area, and we were told that we couldn't speak of this at all. And we didn't, and it was kept very secret. The West Coast was in a turmoil anyway because of the attack in Hawaii just three weeks before. They had had sightings of offshore naval vessels and so forth, and it was all very sudden. They didn't want to give the people there more reason to worry, but I'm telling you, there were plenty of reasons."
The entire country was in fact already in a state of panic. As early as the night of December 7 three air-raid alerts had screamed through the streets of San Francisco, and the following morning the commander of defenses for the West Coast told reporters that enemy planes had been spotted overhead, that "they were tracked out to sea. Why bombs were not dropped, I do not know....Death and destruction are likely to come to this city at any moment." Hollywood Hills residents insisted on installing their own battery of antiaircraft guns, while pitchfork-armed farmers walked the beaches of Puget Sound, looking for would-be invaders. Eventually the postattack trauma bloomed into mass hysteria: A Hawaiian dog was reported "barking in Morse code to Japanese subs offshore," and a Honolulu newspaper announced that enemy farmers on the islands were planting tomatoes in a secret method that would direct Axis planes to nearby military installations.
It was only the beginning of the dark days. On December 8 Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish shipped his institution's Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Gutenberg Bible, and Magna Carta to Fort Knox for safekeeping, while the Secret Service arranged for the president to use Al Capone's bulletproof limousine. Marine-manned machine-gun emplacements popped up overnight across the Federal District, and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau urged FDR to have tanks standing by on Pennsylvania Avenue (Roosevelt declined). There were so many accounts of mob violence (both in physical attacks and in ransacking of homes and businesses) against anyone who looked Asian that eventually the first lady felt compelled to point out in her nationally syndicated newspaper column that not every person of Japanese descent living in the United States was a traitor or a spy. The Los Angeles Times replied: "When she starts bemoaning the plight of the treacherous snakes we call Japanese, with apologies to all snakes, she has reached the point where she should be forced to retire from public life." Later that same newspaper's headlines would scream: l.a. area raided! jap planes imperil santa monica, seal beach, el segundo, redondo, long beach, hermosa, signal hill.
"Well, the group had just returned from maneuvers, and the navigators hadn't gone with them, nor had the bombardiers. None of us were familiar with the equipment. None of us knew how to even open the bomb bay doors. Ross Greening got up and explained exactly what we were to do. 'You go in,' and he drew a chart of it, 'and on your right-hand side you will see a toggle switch here, and you do something with that; and then you do this, and then you do that.' This was the degree that we were ready to go and attack this carrier."
Twenty-seven-year-old pilot Davey Jones remembered that moment as well: "We were at March Field in Riverside, California, on a maneuver involving the navy, on December 7. That's when it hit the fan. We all left in our airplanes, and off we went to Sacramento to get guns from the arsenal. The darn place was closed, and they had a hell of a time. Eventually we loaded some guns in the bomb bay, .50 caliber. Then off we went to Pendleton at night, and there must have been fifty or sixty of us. None of us were much at flying in formation at night.
"Some people were running around trying to load up with 250-pound bombs to repel the invasion. They were coming from Alaska, going to hit Seattle, and all that sort of business. During the night, two guys-two pilots-went in and said, 'Sir, I can't do it.' Colonel Otto Peck, our commander, said, 'If you are on this base at daybreak, I'll kill you.' I don't know whatever happened to those two guys. It was real, you know; we were all shaking in our boots."
At dawn we slept. The decade's first army recruits were armed with Springfield rifles designed in 1903 and outfitted in uniforms left over from 1917-tin hats and puttees (canvas strips for wrapping around the tops of shoes to keep them dry) and woolen pants reeking of mothballs. These novices were trained with cardboard weapons that fired flour instead of shells, and since the service didn't have enough tanks, it gave its new inductees trucks and told them to pretend. Recruits outfitted with American state-of-the-art had nothing to crow about, either-the U.S. Army Air Corps P-39 Airacobra fighters were notorious for suddenly tumbling out of the skies, their pilots completely losing control of the planes, the crew having to "get out or get dead." The P-38 Lightning, meanwhile, was designed to be used at high altitudes, but at those heights its oil would freeze, blowing out the engine, and its crew's hands and feet would get frostbitten.
Even the B-25s flown by the men of the Seventeenth Bomb Group were not exactly combat ready. Manufactured by North American Aviation and powered by twin Wright (as in brothers) R-2600-9 Double Cyclone fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radials (each rated at 1,700 horses for takeoff), the B-25 had a maximum speed of 300 mph at 15,000 feet, with a service ceiling of 27,000 feet and a range of 1,350 miles with a 3,000-pound load. Eventually North American would revise this model through a series culminating in the B-25J; it would become the world's most popular midrange bomber, selling tens of thousands of units to air forces domestic and foreign. The B-25Bs assigned to the Seventeenth were such a new design, however, that they were handed over in prototype for the men to test and work out any kinks. As the airmen found out soon enough, engine fires were so common that it became standard air corps procedure to have ground crew standing by with extinguishers every time the planes were started up, and the Wright Cyclones failed so often in the middle of cruising that cadets were taught to land on one engine before they learned how to do it on two.
The most glaring flaw of these early models was a profound lack of defense. While such big brothers as the B-17 Flying Fortress came with thirteen machine guns, the B-25B had only three. "These planes had absolutely nothing compared to what came later," ball gunner Chick Berger said. "These guys were flying on pure guts." In the nose the bombardier had to awkwardly slide a .30 caliber gun in and out of various ports to aim, but by the time he managed to get from one port to the next to repel any attacking fighters, it was too late. In Plexiglas bubbles at the aft, Bendix power-operated turrets housed twin .50 calibers armed by a full nine yards of ammo belt. The hydraulics powering these turrets, however, failed repeatedly, and the settings on the dorsal guns were such that low firing would tear the skin off the aircraft's fuselage. Even the targeting system didn't work past the first few seconds, as gunner Bert Jordan (a twenty-two-year-old from Oklahoma) found out: "Once you fired your guns, the sighting system would fog over. It was all mirrors and stuff in there....After that you would just have to trace-every fifth bullet there was a tracer, and that was what you more or less aimed by, your tracer bullets."
It was the B-25 belly gunner, though, who found himself especially cursed. Cramped up and forced to his knees, he had to sight through a periscope of lenses and mirrors while using a dual hand control. He couldn't see either what his hands were doing or his barrels through the periscope, and the disjointed mechanism made most recruits too dizzy to fire. "The bottom turret was very complicated and worked 'backwards' to what was normal," their mission commander would complain. "It would have taken more time than we had available to master it; a man could learn to play the violin good enough for Carnegie Hall before he could learn to fire this thing."
In a B-25 the pilot and copilot sat side by side in a cockpit just barely big enough for two grown men; behind them, in a lowered cubbyhole, sat the navigator with a table full of charts and an array of instruments: a B-3 drift meter, A-12 and A-8 octants, and an aperiodic compass. Beneath the flight deck, crawlways led to the bombardier's station in the plane's ribbed, clear Plexiglas nose, and to the radioman-gunner's roof bubble and the engineer-gunner's belly ball. In an emergency the flight deck and tail gunners could pop out their own escape hatches, while the noseman would be forced to make his way back to the deck. Through that mullioned Plexiglas, he at least had the greatest view in the history of aviation-a real magic carpet ride. Since aerial combat often included enemy fighter and flak attacks, however, this amenity wasn't always appreciated.
Despite its flaws the B-25, which North American also named the "Billy Mitchell" in honor of the visionary brigadier general who had championed the combat use of air power, was such a dramatic improvement over the depression-impoverished air corps' prior craft that the men of the Seventeenth were thrilled to have them. "The B-25 was a really superior airplane, right on the cutting edge of technology for medium bombardment," said twenty-four-year-old pilot Trav Hoover. "We kind of fell in love with it." "You just had to stand there and look at them and breathe heavily," said another flier, also twenty-four at the time, Ted Lawson. "It's a grand ship, fast, hard-hitting, and full of fight. It is so much more than an inanimate mass of material, intricately geared and wired and riveted into a tight package. It's a good, trustworthy friend."
—Reprinted from The First Heroes by Craig Nelson by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003, Craig Nelson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
Excerpted from "The First Heroes"
Copyright © 2003 Craig Nelson.
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Table of ContentsThe First Heroes
What People are Saying About This
"If you want to read one book to understand how a humbled America rose to defeat mighty Japan, you hold that book in your hands." (James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers)