06 June, 2009

Profile 33: 03 as flown by William "Bill" Creech

"03" is an A-36 Apache, the P-51 Mustang's older, quirky brother. The airplane was given the "A for Attack" appellation, partly because it was fitted with metal grates that would pop out of the wing to control descent in a dive-bombing run. It was also an okay Fighter, but her Allison engine was best at low altitude; good enough because the typical mission of an A-36 was close air support and not swirling dogfights in the stratosphere.

At first, I wanted to do the airplane William "Bill" Creech was flying the fateful day he was knocked down over Japanese-occupied Burma. But government records, pilot memories and photographic evidence were scarce. In the end, I took Bill's blunt advice, "John, just draw one that looks like it'd been ours. Regardless, I flew it."

Up until I met the Dragon Flys, I had an idea that combat aircraft were personalized, lovingly groomed, nursed when ill, mourned when lost. I remember how Bud Anderson openly showed emotion as he described how his crew cared for his famous Mustang, "Old Crow."

Yet the 528th were a world away in a different climate, culture and mission. They had a more workman, utilitarian regard for their tools. Flipping through one of the pilot's photo album, I could see why - jungle heat, rot, rain and dysentery played havoc on plane and pilot. Dingy, dinged, the planes looked like they'd been recovered by archeologists. The Ground Crew were absolutely brilliant in keeping them mechanically ready. But I soon learned Burma was no place to get affectionate about anything.

Crew & pilots alike slept in surplus burlap tents. Cobras and boot-sized centipedes crawled the rotting jungle floor. Monkeys freaked in the trees, malarial mosquitos swarmed over anything warm with blood. The squadron toilet was a log - watch for things that bite before sitting.

It seemed that elsewhere in the world*, the Winged Warriors wielded eagles while the 528th battled with buzzards. And battle, they did, flying close-air support for a group of bad-ass commandos called Merrill's Marauders.

To give you an idea how hard these planes were flown, on one day in Summer of 1944, a record 76 sorties were flown. Considering 4-5 airplanes were out-of-commission at any given time, that meant 20 airplanes flew at least 3 combat sorties a piece. Regardless of your role in the squadron, if you weren't working, you were sleeping...or on that log (everyone had dysentery).

And yet, having spent a fair amount of time with Dragon Fly luminaries, not one has grumbled about their service. Not even a hint. Ground crew are remembered with reverence, Merrill's Marauders with awe and their individual service as a chosen duty. They flew hard, fought hard and kept a soft spot for things that mattered.

I'm working on a more detailed presentation of Bill's "walk out" of the jungle - a feat of independence, confidence and courage. But until that's finished, I hope "03" serves as a totem to memorable sacrifice in a "forgotten" theater.

Oh...just so you know, the 528th received a Presidential Unit Citation for their outstanding combat record. I've held the actual document and it is beautiful.

*Joe Foss painted a pretty rough picture of flying from Guadalcanal, too. Either group of guys would have likely found the other's quarters to be equally interesting.

Photo courtesy Meyer Newell, 528th FS.