There have been many movies and a few television series informing the public of the great achievements and sacrifices made by the Army Air Corps and their B-29s and B-24s of WWII. Less has been told about the OTHER bomber squadrons, the Navy’s B-24s Liberators and Privateers.
In a local newspaper dated June 3, 1943 an article called “July Draft Call”, it listed “Youths becoming 18 years of age who registered during the month of May included:…” and in that list was my father’s name and address, just like all the other local boys. So began my father’s wartime involvement with the PBY-4 116th Squadron known as the Blue Raiders. I would like to tell you more about these brave young men and their amazing aircraft.
“LISTEN TO THE JINGLE, THE RUMBLE AND THE ROAR,
AS WE GO DOWN THE RUNWAY IN OUR OL B-24
OVER THE MIGHTY ROAR OF THE ENGINES,
YOU CAN HEAR THE PILOTS BAWL,
IF WE DON’T GET UP SOME AIR SPEED-
WE WONT GET OFF AT ALL… “
(from “the Blue Raiders Hymn” by Robert E. Rosati from VPB-116. )
The Blue Raiders and Iwo Jima:
This past Memorial Day I watched a TV special on the battle for Iwo Jima. There was no mention of the Patrol Bombers. I couldn’t help but think how frustrated my Dad must have been when his squadron the VPB-116 Blue Raiders was never mentioned in these specials. They were the guys who decreased the enemy resistance and communications before the marines or other units would move in to fight locally. His squadron island hopped. This brought them to Tinian, Iwo Jima and Peleliu to name a few.
With regards to Iwo Jima, they patrolled around that island ahead of the invasion, then when the men on the ground managed to capture one of the airfields, the Blue Raiders began landing DURING the battle.
My Dad said the conditions were pretty bad on Iwo Jima and the ground very hard. They also had to watch out for snipers all the time. It wasn’t until I read other accounts did I find out how bad it was, including rationing drinking water. He never discussed the fine details.
And he never told me which actual plane he flew in. He mentioned a couple times that crews sometimes were shuffled about to make up for missing men or planes. Missing, what a sad word. Did he mean injured, or they didn’t survive a ditching?
Unlike the bombers flown over Europe, the Navy Patrol Bombers if damaged, did not afford their crews a safe escape. A crew could only wish for a controlled ditch where they could gather their rafts and prepare to try and survive in the water. They could only wish for friendly planes or ships to spot them. My father spoke of many men lost to sharks and enemy fire. Going down meant almost certain death. Then if you were on one of the frequent solo plane missions and went down, your fate may never be known. They just never returned.
I believe a lot of veterans suffered a level of “Survivor Guilt”. My Dad spoke of looking out and seeing planes go down. He thought of the men that were not injured, but maybe their pilot was, or it was just the plane was too badly damaged, so those men were all forced to go down with it. Ten to twelve healthy young men, unable to defend themselves, new friends made, now gone. If by rare chance the crew survived a bail-out over land they felt they would face torture and death. It has been rumored they got their name from “Tokyo Rose”, the English speaking Japanese radio personality, who mentioned their exploits. This notoriety only increased their chances of death if captured. And they all knew that. Such brave young men every one.
The Amazing Planes
In 1942 the Navy needed long-range aircraft that could cover the many miles of the Pacific Ocean. The Army gave them B-24 Liberators which the Navy re-named to PB4Y-1 (Patrol Bombers with 4 engines). These planes could fly for almost three thousand miles with maximum speed of 279mph. They could carry eight thousand pounds of bombs, and were armed with ten .50 caliber guns. The Liberators can be recognized by their distinct tail shape.
The next year the Navy wanted a plane they didn’t have to modify for their unique needs. This design would have a single fin, be longer, and two more guns were added. This plane was called the Privateer PB4Y-2. Their range was a little less than the Liberator, and a little slower, but their bomb load capability was almost doubled. The Privateers would go on being used after the war in other countries and as civilian fire bombers.
If you search the internet you can see some vintage footage of these planes in action.
The planes were simple and rudimentary compared to today’s military planes that can fly themselves. They were also amazingly resilient like their crews. They could take quite a bit of damage and still limp home, or the crew could improvise repairs while flying. Because of this “take a lickin’ and keep tickin’” ability, they were most beloved by their young crews.
I had the chance to tour a restored B-24 and saw how it was just skin and bones. There are no creature comforts, and to move from the front to the tail section is to take your life in your hands getting around the bombs/bay doors, and the skeletal supports.
The Gunners had only the thickness of the planes hull to protect them, which was next to nothing. Bullets did go straight through them. Seeing that plane was a very moving experience for me. I paused to think of my Dad sitting in the seat behind the pilots as their Radioman and top turret Gunner. From this vantage point he could pretty much see what the pilots saw and heard what they had to deal with. Pilots that were just in their mid twenties responsible for an eleven man crew usually of guys younger than them: boys plucked out of the Midwestern farmlands like my Dad at age eighteen, or maybe an inner city, or from a small town down south. Boys who may have never seen an ocean and now flew daily over them, putting all their faith in those young men in the cockpit to get them safely back home.
These planes were given the title of VB, then in 1944 VPB, for Navy Patrol Bomber. The word Patrol in their name had two meanings. Theses crews were skilled at flying search missions for downed planes and would fly low and mark their position and drop rafts if needed. The other part of their name, Patrol Bomber, meant just that. They would attack targets of opportunity, any ship or boat that might be bringing supplies to the enemy, or might provide communication about American military operations. They usually flew in pairs, with one plane circling the target shooting at it, while the other prepared for the bombing run. If one was damaged, then the surviving plane would have to do it all.
In completing their missions, the young pilots pressed their planes to do things their designers never dreamed of. Of course they could fly at higher altitudes, that was expected, but these pilots also flew them very low to the water to avoid enemy radar, for the element of surprise, to accomplish precision bombing, and to keep enemy fighters from getting under them. My Dad said they often “licked the waves.“ and would buzz fishing boats, that is how low they went.
The way B-24s dropped their bombs was not like today’s planes where their target is marked and the bombs hit spot on. The technology was simpler back then, and getting that bomb to hit its mark depended on human skill, perfect wind/weather conditions, and machinery working perfectly. Crews were lucky if on the first attempt everything went as planned and the bomb was dropped and they could fly off unscathed. If not, they had to reset and try again, and again, and again. This was more common than not. Each time they had to turn around and try again they risked being shot up or shot down. Another risk they faced being that close to the target was from the exploding bombs that could knock their plane around or send up shrapnel. I can’t imagine the stress these guys went through on a constant basis.
“Hours of boredom, followed by minutes of sheer terror.” (My Dad’s summation of each mission)
A big threat the Patrol Bomber crews faced was from enemy single engine fighter planes. They were the swift, easily maneuverable, nasty little things attacking what looked like a big lumbering giant. The Americans, in their Liberators and Privateers, biggest defense against them were the ten or twelve guns and the young men who manned them. Having these guns mounted at different areas of the plane, they could defend themselves pretty good. Add a skilled pilot who could maneuver his plane to capitalize on the spray of his guns and the crew’s survival increased dramatically .
My Dad’s take on being a top gunner: His face took on that famous teasing grimace and he said, “Most of the time you just fired like hell and hoped you got lucky. It all happened so fast!”
The talents of these pilots and crews actually forced the Navy to change their “Ace” distinction from the classic single engine Fighter Pilot’s accomplishment to recognizing the whole bomber crews as Aces.
A well documented case of these bombers thinking like fighter planes was the air battle involving two from his VPB-116 squadron, nicknamed Dazy May and Tyn Yan Ty Foon. Alan C. Carey’s book “Above an Angry Sea” details the incident. They were attacked near Iwo Jima by seven Japanese Fighter Planes. The two American Patrol Bombers were credited with shooting down six of the seven attacking Fighters with only slight damage to one of their planes. A more personal account can be found on line at YourHoustonNews. They posted on 11/21/2010 on the passing of WWII Veteran Robert “Bob” Otto and wrote about his experience in the air-battle as a member of the Dazy May crew when he was only eighteen years old. He spoke of the phosphorus bombs the Japanese Fighters tried to drop on the American planes. He stated the chemicals released from the bombs could eat through the aluminum and cause the fuel stored in the wings to explode. The article included this quote, “It was miraculous, “ said Otto about the battle. “We were under fire for 45 minutes. My pilot was only 24 years old. The pilots were outstanding and knew their work. That’s why we lived.” . There is another mention of this air battle in the Los Angeles Times on-line 10/1/1999. They were reporting on the closing of Chuck Bresler’s restaurant and he mentioned he was a waist gunner with VP-116 during WWII and he retold the story about his squadron.
Written on the back;
Crew 10: Back Row L-R, Prindle, Mato, Berridge, Stephen, (Fred) Hunter, Piercey. Front Row L-R, Gilmartinn, Ens.Forbush, Lt. Teague, Ens White, Seiple
Sadly, in Carey’s book “Above An Angry Sea: United States Navy B-24 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer: Operations in the Pacific: October 1944-August 1945” the plane Tyn Yan Ty Foon is listed as lost in action five months later. Those boys won that battle, but perished in another. My Dad kept a copy of a painting showing that battle for the longest time. It was the type of view he probably saw often from his own plane. I do recall him mentioned the phosphorus bombs. Did he witness this air battle? It was his squadron.
When I was a young adult I found a box in my parents home of my Dad’s WWII memorabilia. I pulled out these photos of different crews posing in front of planes and asked my Dad who they were. Dad easily told me their names. I naively asked him if he was still in touch with them. He quietly responded, “They all died over there.” and walked out of the room, not returning to give me details of any of the other photos. I was so stunned as I looked at all those young faces, near my age at the time, I didn’t make note of which crew he was referring to, or was he referring to all of them? Now many years later, I relook at these photos and these “boys” are the ages of my sons and from a parent point of view, just gives me chills.
On this photo Dad wrote on the back: “Crew 4: Front row l-r; Bruno, Shorty, Jona, Abbot. Back row; Chis, Blackie, Rosie, Joe.” I looked up the plane number in the book “Above an Angry Sea”. If this plane was a member of the VPB-116 and was recorded as 38922, then it is listed as a loss on 7/28/1945, along with planes 38858, 38868, 38915, 38855.
How does one cope with horrid conditions, harrowing missions, loss of comrades?
One way was a few days of fun on Tinian for the 116th and other crews.
Once the island of Tinian was secured, it grew to be a large community with planes coming and going. One man who was there in a support role, became a favorite “nose art” artist and the guys of the 116th took advantage of his skills. They would pool their money together, offer Pin- up Gal picture ideas to Hal Olsen and he would decorate their beloved planes.
I love the story of how the crews tried to hide the nude paintings when commanding officers went to inspect them. They would rub mud on, or used water based paint to make a bathing suit. Officer gone, the plane and the modesty washed away!
The Easy Maid was one of several of the 116th Blue Raider planes painted by Hal Olsen. The actual nose art survived and is part of an exhibit at “The American Air Power Heritage Museum.”
Sometimes a break and fun came to them: I found this picture of what looks like guys relaxing.
Dad wrote on the back of this photo that a Dutch ship was torpedoed off their island and cases of beer washed up. When he and I looked at this picture together, he could not help but chuckle at the memory. He said they all got roaring drunk and even tossed a few Officers into the water. I am glad he had some good memories.
“WE’RE FAR FROM BEING EAGER, AND TO GIVE TO YOU STRAIGHT,
WE’LL ALL BE GOOD AND HAPPY TO SEE THE GOLDEN GATE.
WHEN YOU SEE A 4-Y COMING, ITS ENGINES CREAK AND GROAN,
BREAK OUT THE BEER AND WOMEN, A BLUE RAIDER IS COMING HOME….”
(from the Blue Raiders Hymn”)
WWII Vets are a tough group. When they came home they wanted to put the war behind them. They developed coping mechanisms to deal with traumatic memories, some good, some not so good. They usually never spoke of their wartime experiences to family, only to fellow Vets in private. They didn’t want to stir up the memories. Often during the war they were made to vow to keep what their missions were about secret, and they took that information to the grave. My Dad was like that. It wasn’t until he was well into his late seventies and eighties that he began to share with me some information. Some is the key word. I let him tell me what he felt comfortable telling me. Sadly after he died from cancer, I am left with so many artifacts and photos of handsome young men I have no idea who they are or their stories. Just that each one caused a reaction in him, bringing him back to those three years he shared with them. Dad was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, yet he would not talk about that mission. He was proud of his service, but private. I will respect his desire to remain private. He would want me to focus this article on all of the young men who flew in the Patrol Bombers and those that vanished into the sea.
I can only hope that everyone will learn more about the courageous Navy Patrol Bomber squadrons of WWII. I hope to assist in that by deciphering more of my Dad’s artifacts and hopefully find out more about the men in the photos. We can not forget them. They spent their tender years hopping from island to island, clearing a safe path for those coming behind them, and when not on missions, looking for downed pilots and crews. Many did not come home, and those who did, were forever changed. As the saying goes, “Freedom is never Free”
Atwood…. looking to the skies and giving thanks to those wonderful planes that brought my Dad home, and to the brave crews of the 116th Blue Raiders. Thank you to all for your service and sacrifice.
The original “Blue Raider Hymn” was written by Robert E. Rosati from VPB-116. He wrote a sequel for their 1992 reunion I found in the handout my Dad saved. It ends with these fitting stanzas.
“ALL THOSE YOUNG MEN NOW ARE OLD MEN,
THEIR WEAPONS ANTIQUATED
BY TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE 47 YEARS OUTDATED.
BUT TO THOSE OF US WHO KNEW HER
STILL CAN HEAR HER ENGINES ROAR
KNOW THEY’LL NEVER BUILD AN EQUAL
TO OUR OLD B-24.
SO REMEMBER THE JINGLE, THE RUMBLE AND THE ROARr
AS WE ROLLED DOWN THE RUNWAY IN THAT OLD B-24
SHE GAVE US SOMETHING SPECIAL
THAT NO ONE CAN TAKE AWAY
A PRIDE, A COMRADERY, THAT BRINGS US BACK TODAY.
A TOAST TO ALL WHO KNEW HER,
THOSE STILL HERE AND THOSE WHO’VE GONE,
THOSE WHO TOOK HER INTO BATTLE
AND THOSE THAT SHE BROUGHT HOME.
AND TO THAT VERY SPECIAL MOMENT
IN THE PRIVATE OF OUR MIND
WHEN WE PULL THE CHOCKS AND CLIMB ABOARD
TO FLY HER ONE LAST TIME.”
For this article the book “Above an Angry Sea: United States Navy B-24 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer: Operations in the Pacific: October 1944-August 1945” By Alan C. Carey was referenced along with documented first person accounts, on-line resources, and the artifacts and memories of my Father. Photos are from his collection.
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Added July 18, 2016 : Here are two Youtube links I found interesting;
This one is the B-24 Liberator in vintage footage.
And here is the later version PB4Y-2 Privateer that is still in use now.
For more information on the Blue Raiders and other Patrol Bomber Squadrons, go to www.vpnavy.com
Updated 5/27/2018: The following photos are from my Dad’s collection. No names are attached, but I do see they were crewmen serving with him from other photos and the above crew shot. I am going to post them here in case someone should recognize them.
Please continue on and read the follow-up article: “The Nose Art of the WWII Navy Patrol Bomber Squadrons”: September 2016