Itching to fight
I had been interested in aviation ever since Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. As a kid growing up in Newark, New Jersey, during the Great Depression, all pilots were my heroes. I always looked to the sky to watch military aircraft flying over head, smiled and convinced myself that someday I was going to be a fighter pilot. The beginning of that journey began on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. However, after I joined the Army Air Force, it took me over two years to finally get my hands on a fighter. Then, I barely survived 10 hours at the controls of a P-40 and thought, «What have I gotten myself into?” To me, the P-40 was a small airplane with a tremendous amount of torque—you had to be both right leg and right arm strong to keep it going straight. Shortly after my P-40 checkout 1 was assigned to the 78th Fighter Squadron (The Bushmasters), 15th Fighter Group of the 7th Air force and joined a P-47 unit that was preparing to participate in a large scale invasion of Truk so General MacArthur could return to the Philippines. I found the Jug to be a really nice airplane and an even nicer gun platform. We were told that most of our combat over Truk would be strafing Japanese positions on the ground. I think we would have fared pretty good especially with that big radial engine protecting us up front. By the time I had a couple of hundred hours in the P-47, the Truk invasion was called off and I was sent to get checked out in the P-51 Mustang. To me, transferring out of Thunderbolts into the Mustang was like riding on the back of a gazelle instead of strapped to the back of an elephant!
When I first got into the Mustang in November of 1944,1 was astounded by the responsiveness— you thought «Turn» and it turned quickly. To me, the Mustang was an incredible flying machine— the best one ever built. With a 1,650-horsepow-er, Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Mustang was one of the fastest piston airplanes of its time. The guys in Europe were tearing the Luftwaffe apart with them on a daily basis when they weren’t escorting the bombers all the way to Germany. It was an amazing fighter and as its reputation quickly rose to new levels, the brass in the Pacific Theater of operations took notice of its long-range capabilities and realized that this was the fighter needed to take the B-29s all the way to Japan and back.
Of course, the one thing a Mustang pilot always worried about was getting that little «nick» in the engine—any loss of coolant and it was all over. European Mustang pilots had to worry about becoming POWs in in that situation. We were pretty much guaranteed a swim in the ocean. We got our orders to ship out from Hawaii as our P-5 Is were loaded on a ship. It wasn’t until we were out at sea when we were told of our final destination —Iwo Jima.
Between a rock and a hard place
During our 16-day voyage across the Pacific, we had been briefed that the Marines were going to invade Iwo Jima, and as soon as they took control of the first airstrip, we would fly in and begin combat operations. The taking of Iwo would serve many important purposes and the top two in my mind were these; it was a place where crippled B-29s or those running low on fuel could safely land at while returning from bombing missions over Japan, and more importantly, it was a jumping off place for our fighters to escort the B-29s to the Emperor’s front door. It took 16 days from the initial
Marine landings before it was «safe enough» for our Squadron to land on March 7, 1945. When I was circling to land, I finally realized what hell really looked like.
I had been used to the lush green vegetation of Hawaii, now over Iwo Jima, all I observed on the small six-mile long, two-mile wide postage stampsized island was what resembled the surface of the moon; dark, uneven ground with bomb craters everywhere. We landed on a dirt strip which caused a lot of problems for our carburetors and flaps. With the small rocks everywhere, we had to get the flaps up quickly for fear of damaging them. As I landed that first time and tried to focus on the «Follow Me» Jeep, even though I was still in the airplane, I was overwhelmed by the unbearable stench of death as the Jeep escorted us pass mounds and mounds of dead Japanese soldiers. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, we shut down our Mustangs right next to the Marine Corps mortuary where hundreds of brave Marines were being readied for burial. It didn’t take long to realize that Iwo Jima was not a nice place to be.
While the environment was as hostile as it could be, each of us in the Squadron knew we had a job to do as we fulfilled our role as fighter pilots. The very next day, we lined up our Mustangs on the dirt strip and prepared for our baptism of combat. The Seabees had just finished patching the runway from the dozens of Japanese mortar rounds that fell on it the night before. Distance would not be an issue on this first mission: we lifted off, sucked our gear up and looked for the yellow smoke from a Marine’s hand-thrown smoke grenade to indicate the target below. We dropped down, strafed the Japanese positions, then made another run on the target with either 500-pound bombs or napalm canisters. We did what we could for the next two weeks to help the Marines on the ground where their gains were measured in feet and yards.
Our missions soon changed when we were sent on some short-range missions to Chichi Jima to attack the Japanese airfield there, as we prepared for our very long range missions (VLR) to Japan and back.
A long haul for little friends
The B-29s had been pounding Japan at night and had been doing a pretty good job. The problem was that General LeMay wanted greater accuracy of the targets and the only way to get that was to fly at lower levels during the daylight. The B-29s needed escorts of «little friends» to protect them over Japan. Flying our Mustangs from Iwo Jima to Tokyo was a 760-mile trip one way—meaning most of our missions would exceed eight hours of flying. In order to achieve this, we had to run our Merlins at between 1,750 and l,950rpm and make sure we burned the fuselage tank first, then the 110-gallon drop tanks, leaving us with the wing tanks for the return trip home. I had my own P-51 assigned to me and I named it after a girl I met as a cadet. Her name was Dorris Rose so I named my Mustang Dome R. Although we never married, she kept me alive with her letters from home.
The very first long-range mission to Japan for the Mustangs occurred on April 7. There were over 100 P-51s that lifted off of Iwo Jima that morning, as we made the long slow ride to rally with over 100 B-29 Superfortresses on our way to Japan. The anxiety inside my cockpit was high as I wondered out loud, «Will I make it there and back?» The long trip over water had me more worried than the enemy.
Due to the lack of landmarks on the way to the target area, we had a «mother hen» B-29 that acted as our Seeing Eye dog and we followed it in loose formation towards Japan. There were also a bunch of «Dumbos» -PBY Catalinas and B-17s with a lifeboat strapped to their bellies—staggered every 100 miles or so just in case we had to bail out. Closer to Japan, our destroyers would act as our lifeboats, followed by our submarines that were even closer to the mainland. Thankfully, I never had to use any of these services, but a lot of guys did. About 30 miles off of Tokyo Bay, our B-29 mother ship broke off and began to orbit, waiting for us on the return home. The rest of us overflew the B-29 armada that was at 15,000 feet as they made their bombing run. There were Japanese fighters around and came up to tangle; unfortunately, I drew the short straw with some other Mustangs as I rode shotgun with the B-29s as top cover.
The thing that struck me the most was how the initial flight of B-29s dropped a string of their bombs in almost a perfect square on the target below. Once they exploded, there was a square of fire that made a perfect aiming point for the rest of the B-29s that followed. The fires below became so intense that the smoke went past us, up to 25,000 feet. With the smoke, came the smells and debris of the carnage below. I saw a couple of B-29s get hit, one went in with all crew aboard and I observed three chutes from the other one. I felt helpless, as if I was on a sightseeing tour and could do nothing to assist my fellow airmen. My turn would come soon enough though, as this was the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan.
We were now members of the «Tokyo Club» having survived that first long-range mission in our Mustangs as we returned to Iwo Jima to prepare for the next round. The problem was that once we landed, we had to be physically removed from our cockpits by our ground crews as if we were small children being lifted from a high chair.
Sitting for eight hours in one position was a killer. To remedy that problem, we were placed into a belly tank that had been sliced down the middle and filled with 130-degree sulfur water that had been pumped from the ground. To keep us from overheating, they filled us with cold beer—the Iwo Jima Spa was about the only place you could relax on that island.
Nowhere to hide
The rule of thumb for flying the VLR missions was you flew one and if you survived, you got a day off. This was followed by a short-range mission then another VLR and then the cycle was repeated. During the war, my longest VLR mission occurred on May 30, 1945, and lasted eight hours and 23 minutes. It was also the day I bagged a Zero.
Our squadron was on a B-29 escort to Japan and I was a flight leader with my wingman, Danny Mathis, right beside me. The B-29s were strung out at 15,000 feet nearing the target area when a group of Zeros showed up. The trick for the Japanese at that time was to send the «rookie» pilots after the B-29s while the experienced «old hand» stayed just outside the bomber box directing the younger pilots to a particular B-29. Remember, the Japanese had been fighting for over seven years and didn’t have a lot of experienced fighter pilots left around.
I saw this Zero make a run on a B-29 as he cut right in front of me. I let him have it with my six .50 caliber machine guns and I hit him hard as my rounds began to shred his airplane. As I closed in on him, his Zero was falling apart and I saw his canopy come off. He bailed out and came within a few feet of hitting my wing. It was as if time slowed way down as I could plainly see his startled expression on his face and the disbelief that this was happening to him. For a split second, he floated by me, just above my wing hanging in midair with his Zero breaking apart in flames in the background. I didn’t see his chute open as I was going too fast and really wasn’t concerned. His plane was on fire and that was all that mattered. I didn’t realize it until after we had landed that my wingman Danny was right there next to me the whole time firing away. Danny’s gun camera film showed his hits as well, so I gladly shared a half victory with him. My jubilation was short-lived however, when he was killed while flying my Mustang along with 24 other pilots after they entered a huge Pacific storm that tossed their Mustangs around like little toys.
Down on the deck
As the war progressed into the months of July and August, there was less and less Japanese aerial opposition to contend with. Occasionally, we encountered trainers, seaplanes and floatplanes, and none of them were any match for our Mustangs. When the B-29s turned for home, we were released to drop down and strafe targets of opportunity—and there were plenty of them. On one misson, I spotted a train up ahead and he must have spotted me as well because I saw a great plume of smoke come from his stack as he poured the coal to his engine—there was no way he could outrun a Mustang! As I lined him up in my gunsight, I was just about to pull the trigger when the train came upon a curve in the track—he was moving so fast he jumped the rails and smashed into an embankment!
Our Mustangs went after everything and anything—buildings, railroad stations, boats, parade grounds and airfields. We wanted to inflict as much damage as we could before the invasion of Japan. We strafed, dive-bombed and used rockets on most of our missions and only stopped when the first guy in the flight called, «90 gallons»— that’s when we broke off our attacks and turned for the B-29 navigational escort back home.
I fear the war would have continued on for some time had it not abruptly stopped after the use of two atomic bombs. From April until mid-August of 1945, I flew 19 VLR missions over Japan in my Mustang. Of the 16 fellow pilots I joined the squadron with, five were killed in Hawaii during training while the other 11 were killed in combat. Although it was a long costly war, the victory was worth the effort and I’m certain I was able to survive it only because of the P-51 Mustang.