11 October, 2013

Profile 82 - UPDATE: "548" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

Have a look.  I'd say it's maybe... 40% done.   Maybe.  I'm kind of grumpy about it.  I loathe the "middle" of a difficult project as it's too late to turn back and too much left to do—rather ironic considering the story you're about to read.

The next and final post will show Raymond Plank's B-24 in her sex and booze fueled glory. (smirk)  At least a B-24 that Raymond flew.  Once or twice.  Regardless, you'll just have to wait as I'm just not that good at drawing topless women.  (Too distracting).

However, to know anything about WW2 in the Pacific, one of, if not the dominant forces dictating American military strategy was the sheer size of the Arena.  Aside from continental Asia, WW2 was fought over islands sprinkled over the earth's largest ocean.  Look at the map below.  The battlefield was HUGE.  And no one appreciated the expanse below like the airman.

There are no landmarks over open ocean.  Get lost?  The choice is brutal: ditch the airplane and risk being smashed upon impact or bail out and hope the life preserver holds air (by the way, the water was full of teeth and a speck of yellow bobbing in millions of square miles of rolling ocean is nigh impossible to spot).

Thousands of men, airplanes and bombs shuttled their way to and from targets over and over and over.  Being war and all, the efforts of both sides to destroy the other were mighty; it's impossible to tell how many aircraft (Japanese and Allied) were downed over open ocean but it's safe to put that number in the thousands, too.

Frankly, it's impossible for 21st Century folk to fully appreciate what it must have been like for Raymond Plank and his crew of nine to do their work.  To know that the next five to ten hours would be marked by monotony over open water, punctuated by a few fast minutes of terror at the target, only to return home in a potentially damaged machine is jarring.

Yet last week, Raymond attempted to fill me in.

The time was early 1945.  Japan was, of course, losing the war in a big way.  The Japanese Army Air Force was a shred of its former self and the Navy's aircraft had long lost their sea legs due to the decimation of her aircraft carriers.  But, as the Japanese were nowhere near admitting defeat, they defended their targets against the Allied aerial armada with legendary ferocity.  Namely, "Ack Ack" or, anti-aircraft guns.

On this particular mission—the actual date lost for the moment, but we'll get that figured out—the target was a Japanese air field on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).  From the freshly recaptured Clark Air Base in the northern Phillipines, the trip was approximately 1,000 miles round-trip.  In case you're wondering, that's a 6 hour trip.  Half over water.

Ray remembers the approach rather well.  The flak began as the peppering of black smudges in the tropic sky and soon rose to a crescendo of unusual violence.  Though a 30 ton giant, Ray's B-24 still shuddered under the impacts of supersonic shards.  Against the roar of the engines, the delicate "tink!" and "dunk!" of flak pieces were deceptively subtle.

Want to get a feel for it?  Click on the movie below, (it might take a second to load) turn your volume up all the way and imagine small handfuls of rocks being tossed at your window...(I made that little film while riding in a B-24, btw).

"We were taking very heavy flak.  Very heavy." Raymond stated in his distinctive, scholarly drawl.  "And then, a 120mm (guessed) shell perforated our right wing.  The entry hole was about the size of the projectile but the exit blew all to hell.  So much that the rubber seals in our wing tanks were obliterated and gasoline streamed out."

Stop there.  The Japanese 120mm gun fired an explosive round.  In Raymond's case, however, the round did not explode.  It simply passed through the wing like a hot poker through a candle.  Had it exploded, Raymond Plank and crew would have been blown to pieces over the China Sea.

With reflexes honed by repetitive training, Raymond quickly feathered the #1 engine to eliminate the chance of a spark igniting the raw spewing into the atmosphere.  Did they complete their bomb run?  Jettison their bombs?  Raymond doesn't recall.  All he remembers is the gentle, ginger sway out of the formation to get out of the combat area and head for home.

With one dead engine, a dramatic loss of fuel and hundreds of miles to fly, the return flight was, to say the least, nervous.

I tried to capture the moment with my iPad using my brand-new Wacom pen.  It's cheesy, but I think you'll get the gist of what it might have looked like to take a hit in the wing....*

What I couldn't draw is what was happening in the cockpit.  In the fury of the moment, Raymond began to realize that, in addition to the seismic damage to the airplane, three men in his crew were wounded; casualties of the blizzard of metal they'd flown throw.

"Our nose gunner took a piece of metal to his foot.  He was screaming like mad..." Raymond explained.  "Our bombardier pulled him back to behind the flight deck.  He was bleeding a lot, so he decided he needed a tourniquet.  (Once that was applied), he pulled off the boot and worked the jagged metal through the foot.  It had to hurt like mad!   He loaded him up with (morphine) and sulfa powder."

One of the waist gunners took a piece of flak to his head.  Fortunately, he'd put his combat helmet at the first sign; the piece dented the helmet and bruised the soft tissue.  Surely without the helmet, the gunner would have been killed instantly.  The tail gunner too was hit, his specific injury lost to the the passing of seventy years of life...

"We'd made it back to base.  An ambulance, a fire truck and a Chaplain were waiting for us,' Raymond explained. 'But our left tire was in shreds.  It'd been hit by flak.  We couldn't land with only one tire or else we'd ground loop (essentially a high-speed spin-out on the airstrip).  We knew we had to equalize the landing gear somehow so I got out (Raymond was co-pilot on this mission) and went back to the waist gunner's spot where we held one of the crew out the window into the slipstream where he could blow out the tires with a .50 cal."

Yes, I asked.   "Really!?  You hung a guy out with a .50 cal. machine gun to shoot the tire?!"

"Yes." Raymond replied matter of factly.  "I held onto him and someone else was hanging onto me!"

(Note: If the sight of a man trying to manage the explosive power of a Browning .50 heavy machine in the raging slipstream is too fantastic to imagine, please know the crew tried to shoot out the tire with a .45 sidearm pistol.   The taught, reinforced rubber only deflected the big bullets, necessitating the raise in calibre.)

Minutes later, the B-24 ground its way to a halt at Clark, a battered wreck.  With the wounded quickly Jeeped to the base hospital, the crew stood back to appreciate their mount; it was holed 367 times.  Unworthy of repair, a few necessary parts were stripped and the rest of her pulled to the side and tagged for scrap.

Raymond, on the other hand, had no idea that he had inaugurated a charmed life...

And, you'll read about THAT in the next and final post of Raymond's B-24.**

* ** Update:  Just got off the phone with the man (Raymond).  He and I had a miscomm; in the little animation, I drew the #3 taking a hit when instead, it was the #1 (outboard).    Also, Raymond wanted to make sure I got the point across that he flew a number of B-24s; three of which were written off.  The B-24 to follow will be no more "his" than any of the other crews that flew her.