I spent a good part of this Thanksgiving going through more stuff from Mom & Dad’s house. I came across a letter written to my Grandfather sent by a man who had flown with my Dad. It mentioned their bail out. It reminded me of an article that Dad narrated to Mom for the newsletter at the park where they spent winters in their latter years. It is an interesting article and recounts the day Dad had to bail out in China some 70 years ago today. Without further ado . . . here’s Dad’s story:
In 1944, I found myself in China as a radio operator and gunner on a B-24 bombers. I was assigned to the 373rd Bomb Squadron of the 308th Bomb Group. We were part of the 14th Air Force known as the Flying tigers under the command of Claire Chennault. I flew 37 missions which consisted of sea sweeps looking for enemy vessels, mine laying, and crossing the “hump” into India for supplies and fuel. Many missions were memorable, but the one that stands out was the night our crew joined the “caterpillar club”. For those who may not know the “caterpillar club” was open to anyone who had to make an emergency parachute jump from an aircraft.
It was Thanksgiving 1944 and we were scheduled to fly a sea sweep of the South China Sea in search of Japanese shipping and naval vessels. This mission took us as far East as the Philippines and was a long flight. Things went smoothly on the outbound leg, but as we headed back to our base the Chinese version of Murphy’s Law kicked in. First, the weather deteriorated resulting in zero visibility. Then we lost our radar and couldn’t get a fix on the mainland coast and this was complicated by the fact that it was now night.
On American holidays the Japanese made it a point to harass American bases which resulted in a total communications blackout. Because of this and the weather conditions we didn’t know where we were and couldn’t ascertain our position. After flying blind for about two more hours I was finally able to make radio contact and get a three-station fix which showed that we were way off course and did not have enough fuel to reach one of our bases. Our pilot considered trying to land at a fighter base we may have reached, but as those bases had no lights and short runways he decided it was not an option. By now one engine stopped because of lack of fuel and others were threatening to stop. After the second engine quit our pilot said it was time to go. I didn’t have time to think about much as I was busy radioing our position and that we were bailing out. Even though we exited the plane within seconds of each other we were widely scattered when we hit the ground. As I said earlier, it was night and being rural China it was pitch black. What a feeling!
The next morning I made contact with some local Chinese who took me in hand to get me to safety. There were no telephones and no electricity, but the people for miles around knew what was going by way of the “bamboo telegraph”. No westerner understood how it worked but it seemed almost as fast as e-mail. The crew was eventually rounded up and we were taken to an agricultural commune. From there we traveled by foot to a Chinese cavalry unit and then by horse, under the command of a Chinese general, to Ping Pa City which was a provincial capitol.
For the next several days we were the guests of the English-speaking governor and stayed in his palace. We were treated like honored guests and fed royally three meals a day which turned out to be three banquets a day, including wine. When we tried to explain that we were being fed too much the governor said he understood that Americans ate three meals a day and while we were his guests that’s what we would get. We didn’t have much luck trying to tell him we didn’t eat such big meals.
Ping Pa city was on an American supply route to Kunming which passed through our base at Luliang. After several failed attempts by the governor’s messengers to get the truck drivers to come and pick us up, the governor sent his militia. The soldiers stopped a convoy and, not able to make the drivers understand what was wanted, brought them back at bayonet point. I’ll never forget the expressions on the drivers faces when they saw us.
The next morning we left for our base. The journey was a bit of an adventure in itself. The road was winding and hilly and we got behind some Chinese steam-powered trucks which burned charcoal. In order to go up a hill the trucks would stop to make a head of steam, then go as far as possible before having to make more steam. Some locals ran behind the trucks with chocks to put behind the wheels so the trucks would not roll back down the hill. This was a tedious process but after about two-and-a-half days we arrived at our base. Needless to say, it was a sigh of relief.
The letter (see below) was in an envelope (also below) with a different return address from the signer of the letter. I believe the envelope was from a crew mate he and my Mom would go on to be lifelong friends with. The letter is from Staff Sargent Duane Gardner. The key part of the letter says that my Dad was the first one to jump after another crew member hesitated. It also says Dad was one to be proud of. That part I already knew.