38BG Stories From The Front

Walt Krell's account of the early 822nd BS

The 822nd had it's share of operators (Big Time)

17 Mile, Port Moresby - 75MM gun in the B-25"
22nd Bomb Group
By Walter Krell
Computer transcription by his daughter, Michelle Krell Malone
Mr. Larry Hickey, President IRPC
Boulder, Colorado
Dear Larry
To continue to answer your questions in your letter of April 22, 1988.
An actual ground location was selected with [Col. Brian] Shanty O'Neill's approval a short distance westerly from the existing 38th group squadron areas at 17 Mile in New Guinea. A rolling terrain consisting mostly of grass and a little brush, dominated by one precipitous high hill which I was fool enough to have my pyramidal tent put on top of. Every playful buzz artist worked the thing over coming and going. Good thing there were still a couple of trees left up there to protect the tent.
     During the summer of 1943, this 822 Squadron area was built up bit by bit. Taxiways and aircraft dispersal bays were extended out toward the new development, as well as roads into the area. Tent sites, mess hall, latrines, and showers were placed, and construction was started. Water mains were extended into the area. Dispersal of the various sections was also carefully planned, such as armaments, supply, transportation, operations, medical, and headquarters.
     Although the roads and earth moving was done by the Army Engineers and their equipment, the labor of settling the installations and their construction was accomplished by the cadre of personnel furnished by the two existing squadrons. It's an old Army game that when asked to supply a cadre, it is your chance to get rid of every bum, yardbird, and AWOL artist that's been messing up right along. Barney Johnson, who had the 823, and who was a longtime 38th man, knew these guys and refused to accept them...so you-know-who got the works. This bunch all held high non-combat rank and their presence in the older squadrons blocked promotions for younger, more eager guys. They were older men: seasoned, wise, and crafty in the ways of the Army. They knew just how far to go short of landing in the stockade.
     Fortunately, I had been an Infantry officer on active duty before becoming a Flying Cadet. Familiar with the type, and having glanced over their records, I called together about nine of them and had them sit around in a circle. I sat down on top of one of those Army safes that opened at the top and I simply told them that I didn't want to read their records and didn't want anyone else to read them either. They would all be given a fresh start with no holdover from previous black marks.
I went on about regarding them as the very best men available to do a top job in getting this new outfit off to a good start, and I would always feel this way until they did something to change my mind. Having said this, and with a dramatic flourish, I dumped all their records into the safe, slammed the lid, locked it, and threw the key as far as I could down into an overgrown ravine.
And now, would the men on departing kindly remove the safe, stow it where it wouldn't be in the way, and requisition another one? They were crooks, but they were my crooks, and who was I to overlook talent?
     In the ensuing weeks, their performance was outstanding. New recruits arrived steadily to bring ground personnel up to strength.
      These old sergeants could turn civilians into soldiers fast. It must have been September, 1943, that I went back to Australia, Charters Towers, with Shanty, Barney Johnson, and the flight cadres to start receiving and training for the air work. By this time, the ground organization was pretty well put together. My parting shot to the young lieutenants left in charge was, "Don't mess with these old sergeants; they'll eat you alive with a smile on their face." I think Bill Rourk was left in command.
      Here's a story you can take or leave, Larry. Word had it that the Moresby area was getting safe enough for old "Dugout" Doug MacArthur to venture up. The building supplies for His Royal Highness' palace were being assembled and stockpiled. This select material was somewhere fenced and guarded. All these choice materials--cement, roofing tin, lumber, nails, rebar, and screening--were hard to come by, as we discovered in trying to build the squadron area. However, we were still short of what we needed: a non-com club and an officers club.
     It was well past midnight the night that four of my old tough sergeants climbed the hill to my tent and woke me up. They pulled the old humble, subservient act and asked if the Major would kindly give permission for a few of the men to use one or two of the vehicles for a short while on behalf of bettering the squadron. They were much too considerate to ask to use the vehicles in the daytime for fear of interrupting routine.
      I stepped out of the tent into beautiful bright moonlight and looked down to the roadway below. Clearly visible was a line of some 18 or 20 vehicles, from weapon carriers and jeeps, to two-and-a-half-ton trucks. In the vehicles and standing around nearby, there must have been all the non-coms in the unit. Turning to the sergeants, I said, "I'm not going to ask any questions, you haven't got my permission but I'm not going to stop you. Whatever you're going to do, you'd better do it right because if you get this outfit in a jam you'll wish you'd thought it over."
"Oh, we've thought it over, Sir," they assured me.
"Good night gentlemen," I said, stepping back into the tent.
"What was that all about?" wondered Dr. Ellington, our flight surgeon who was bunking up there with me.
     I didn't want to know, I thought, lighting a cigarette and stepping back out of the tent in time to watch the entire procession of trucks move silently out, not a single light to be seen.
The next morning, all was normal. I had to make a trip to Bomber Command, General Roger Ramey's place, to talk to the material people about supplies. They were in an uproar. Nearly all of the building supplies intended for General MacArthurÕs dwelling had been stolen. The guards had been given a lot of liquor. They'd gotten drunk, had landed in the stockade, and couldn't remember anything. The culprits would surely be found and heads would roll.
     During the ensuing weeks there emerged two very nice buildings: clubs for the non-coms and officers. Bit by bit, there appeared a few two-by-fours here, a few sacks of cement there. I was always grateful to think we had the right people on our side.
     Charter's Towers was a nice place. The vegetation suggested an arid semi-desert environment sufficiently inland to be relieved of some of the coastal weather influence. I think I had been told that it had been an old mining town. The villagers were pleasant; the town was small and ancient. A smattering of new merchants had moved in to do business with the GIs--a tailor did a nice job with a new suntan military suit for me, though Shanty wasnÕt happy with his.
The runways were well laid out and construction had been good. There was a large hangar we used for meetings, ground school, and instruction. Base buildings were temporary- construction, dispersed, and adequate for the climate and purpose. I liked the place and its openness for our training needs.
     One major drawback--the base commander resented the intrusion of these undisciplined flying tramps into his bailiwick. His attitude was directed toward his entire personnel, who were uncooperative, rude, and downright nasty. My attitude was that the only people that counted were these combat kids and the only job for the paddlefeet was to help them out. Every day it seemed to me that the old buzzard would run me down in his staff car (with driver of course), and shake his swagger stick out the window to complain about our behavior. I finally had had enough and got word to Shanty to come and see what was going on. I knew he'd know how to handle this old SOB. And he did.
I think I was given four sets of pilots (pilot and co-pilot), as flying cadre to train the new crews. I assigned each set to train a flight of three to four new crews in the new B-25s. Whereas Barney Johnson with the 823rd wound up with pilots like Brandon and Mondelli because he knew the guys in the 38th, I wound up with cornmeal mush. There wasn't an inkling of a hard driving, step-out-in-front disciplinarian in the bunch.
      I made it clear time and time again what was expected. These new kids had gone only as far as becoming pilots. They needed to be trained in everything from formation discipline, gunnery, bombardment, and ground level flying. I preached endlessly that the war was in a lull, and the Japanese were beginning to think they weren't invincible. There was a lot of hard work ahead and every precious moment should be spent preparing. Of course these new kids didn't believe it. I was so unimpressed with their performance that the only name I can remember is Jack J. Tuohy. He later showed up at Headquarters 3rd Air Force in Tampa, Florida, where I was assigned to operations and we were able to keep Tuohy there. He is now a New York lawyer, I've found his address. If I can reach him for more names, I'll let you know.
      I'm not sure either how the crews and planes got there. I remember making a trip to Brisbane to inventory the aircraft that had arrived. I think the crews that ferried them in were the same ones that stayed on and that either we or 38th Headquarters dispatched crews to escort the new ones back.
These were the first B-25s in the Pacific with the 75 millimeter gun. This was installed in the companionway leading to the bombardier's compartment. The navigator was required to load the gun which was fired by the pilot by means of an electrical spring-loaded button switch. There was an old weather-beaten, raunchy, renegade of a flyer who had emerged from Indonesia with the legend of having flown somebody's crown jewels somewhere. The one thing that made this guy dangerous was the fact that he was the apple of General Kenney's eye. He had been commissioned in the Air Corps very recently, was a Lieutenant Colonel, and a military disgrace. He was known only as Pappy Gunn.
     Pappy Gunn argued that the 75 mm gun should be used to lay down a barrage ahead of our attacking aircraft, and that the big gun should be fired as rapidly as the navigator could reload. I agreed that this might work during certain strafing attacks, but that it was a precision instrument. With the aircraft equipped as it was with a pursuit-type of gunsight, I argued that the gun should be aimed and fired as the artillery piece it was intended. As if there wasn't enough to accomplish in insufficient time, this new weapon added another dimension to our training. Each day for about two weeks, after the morning briefing and the crews had started out to their aircraft, I'd take an airplane and a crew I had selected and fly to certain islands offshore north of Townsville which were designated for target practice, in order to work and learn that 75 mm gun.
     The first step was to learn to estimate distance from the target. We selected 10,000 feet, roughly two miles from the target, as a beginning point. Then at each successive 1,000-foot increment while closing in on the target, the gun would be fired. The interval allowed ample time for the navigator to reload. The co-pilot held the stopwatch and, knowing ground speed by adjusting airspeed and windage, we soon surprised ourselves in developing reasonable accuracy. A certain rhythm and coordination developed with pilot, co-pilot, and navigator.
     There was a major drawback, however. Because of the trajectory of the missile at distances greater than 5,000 feet, the nose of the aircraft had to be elevated so high that it obscured the target momentarily. The shell was explosive and several were usually fired before the first one exploded at the target.
     This kicking the nose up to fire would play havoc with formation discipline. Worse yet, in approaching a target in successive waves of aircraft, and the aircraft needed to fire over, under, and through the guys out in front. However, I still felt there was a place for this weapon, particularly in situations where we sank the supply barges that were camouflaged under tree canopy up the tidal rivers along the coastal swamplands. The Japanese would travel by darkness, hide by daylight, and often stretch cables across streams to snare the low flying attackers.
     I do not have this information as a result of first hand observation. Aircraft downed during these attacks may have been shot or may have struck low tree limbs. In any event the 75 mm gun could be effective toward this type of target. I decided not to push this, since the trainees had a ways to go just to come up to par in ordinary air skills. I don't know what eventually happened with this maneuver.
It was intended that our cannon B-25s be equipped with blisters of two 50 caliber guns on either side of the fuselage similar to the aircraft already so equipped in New Guinea along with the four 50 caliber guns in the nose. The modification was to be done by the 4th Air Depot in Townsville. Col. Vic Bertrandas was in charge. No guns for us in the nose; the placement of the cannon wouldn't permit it. I flew the first aircraft over to the depot as the prototype, and made it clear to the depot people that the crew chief of that airplane would remain with it at all times, to see what went on. I trusted nobody when it came to our ships.
      There was an outstanding man at the depot by the name of Duncan. There was another very outstanding man by the name of Jake Schuster, sent over from Patterson-Wright as trouble-shooter. Jake had my total admiration; we'd flown together at Patterson while pulling the accelerated service tests on the B-26s during the summer of 1941. They seemed to be having trouble mounting the blister guns, and I couldn't understand why, since we had been able to modify all the previous aircraft so successfully.
The day came when the aircraft with its new guns was taken out to the firing pit for boresighting and testing. For hours, they made endless adjustments. The crew chief was there, as well as Duncan, Schuster, about four other officers, and some non-com mechanics. I had been making a nuisance of myself asking questions, and I finally said something like, "If she's set to go, let's go fly her."
They said, "We'll do it after lunch, first thing this afternoon."
      There were a couple of guys with me, so we left to go eat lunch. When we returned about an hour later, the B-25 was gone. The firing pit was off to the southeast corner of Garbutt Field and, thinking that the plane had been taxied up to the ramp in front of the tower, we drove up there. The plane was nowhere in sight, but as we arrived in the tower area, an older tail dragger like a Lodestar was taxiing out of the Depot area. Colonel Bertrandas was at the controls. I swung the jeep around, stopped him, crawled up on the wing, and talked to him through his open window on the left side of his cockpit. He said that the B-25 had taken off with Maj. Duncan, Col. Schuster, and two or three others about an hour ago to test fire the new guns over the water off Townsville. They were supposed to have been back by now; but radio contact had been lost. Now Bertrandas was afraid they had gone down and he was on his way out to look for them.
     I then went over to one of our B-25s parked on the field. Sergeant Sardom was near the plane--he was our line chief and the one really good man the 38th Headquarters allowed me to have, maybe because it was a step up from crew chief for him. Anyway, none of the men with me there that day were pilots, so they got aboard as observers, and with Sardom in the co-pilot's seat, we took off.
We searched until close to dark, checking from time to time by radio to see if the missing plane checked in. After landing, I found Bertrandas, and the conclusion was that the plane had gone down.
     About two days later, it was mentioned to me that some floating debris had been picked up by a boat and was now piled in the corner of one of the offices in Bert's headquarters. I barged in asking to see the stuff, but though no one seemed eager to talk to me, I found where it was anyhow. There wasn't much material, but what there was appeared to be items from the cockpit. An intact parachute, papers, maps, manuals, and a cushion. The one startling thing was that all this stuff was badly charred as if it had been exposed to an intense fire.
     I reasoned that one or more of the pistol flares had been ignited. These I believed to be a magnesium type with their intense heat and awful fumes. If this had happened in the cockpit, there wasn't a chance for the crew. Flying as low as they must have been to work the guns, it was probably over fast. Somebody must have been able to kick open the hatches over the pilot's cockpit, which allowed the burned remains I saw to float free. I didn't attribute the mishap as having anything to do with the new guns, but I could imagine that if they had played with the cannon, a hot shell casing may have been ejected and kicked something off.
     A day later, somebody caught up with me and told me that I was wanted at Depot Headquarters. When I arrived, I was taken right in to what appeared to be a hearing--a long table with about eight or nine ranking officers seated around it, with General Ennis Whitehead glaring across the table from the center seat, and Bertrandas sitting on my right at the end of the table.
      The questions started: what kind of poor maintenance did my men perform on these aircraft?
I replied that the plane was new, fresh from the States, and had never been beaten up in combat. It was running like a jewel when delivered to this place, and we always kept our own men with the planes while they went through this place to make sure nothing happened we didn't like.
Then they queried me as to what I thought may have gone wrong. When I mentioned fire, Bertrandas went nuts, hollering, "What fire?"
      I told him that I had seen the stuff dumped in the corner of a room in that same building and the material was well burned, as anyone could easily see. Bert was suddenly very quiet. He was clearly worried that his gun installations were suspect for having wrecked the plane. I went on to explain my theory--and this seemed plausible to them. Afterward, Whitehead asked me to wait outside for him. We rode around in the back of his staff car for an hour or so and talked about the war. He was in good spirits and friendly, which surprised me because over a year earlier at 7 Mile, I had refused to obey his orders by keeping four or more flights of aircraft on the ground. That episode is a story in itself and involved the 22nd Group.
     I never kept a diary or bothered with any forms in the 22nd Group once overseas. Norton claims he kept a record of each flight. But all his records were destroyed in the crack up and fire that happened later.
     The 19th Squadron went to a place south of Sydney called Nowra to learn how to use torpedoes around August of 1942, I believe. The only picture of old 1433 I've got is a ratty photo of the ship parked with a torpedo hanging under it. The project was soon abandoned as unworkable and when the squadron left for Woodstock, I went south to Melbourne to get a new set of engines. This was a mistake. The people down there didn't know what they were doing, took much too long, and Divine was unhappy that I'd been away so long.
      On the outstanding pilot question with regards the 19th Group: we can assume that most B-26 pilots were probably better than average stick and rudder artists. There were rated pilots we just couldn't check out and turn loose in the airplane. It is true that some B-26 pilots knew more tricks than others, that is, they were clever on cross wind landings, steadier in formation, relaxed when on instruments, and smoother on landing and takeoffs. My comments are directed toward the military pilot, the flying soldier.
     The bomber pilot has a much greater responsibility than a fighter pilot: whereas the fighter pilot is on his own, the bomber pilot is responsible for the whole crew and formation. The bomber pilot must be a positive leader of his crew and constantly be on the lookout for anyone who doesn't like the job as crewman and isn't doing his job. For example, we found that some of the pilots who repeatedly aborted missions with generator problems turned out to have a turret gunner who was buzzing that turret around on takeoff. The electric turret dragged too much power from the huge four-bladed electric props on takeoff.
      The pilot is responsible for checking all the electrical circuits. How many times did bombs hang up over a target because some electrical circuit hadn't been checked? How well informed was the pilot regarding each and every function of his aircraft, and how closely did he check with each crew member about his particular job? How willing was a pilot to repeatedly expose himself to the enemy? I would rate Herron, Stanwood, Kersting, Ray, Hatch, and Greer as among our top warriors in the early days when we were playing tag with those crafty Navy Zero pilots.
      Larry, this is the longest letter I've ever written in my life. There isn't two percent of it that will do you any good. The snow is a foot deep outside, the equipment idle, I sold my airplane last month, my son is off at his condo in Maui, and here in the peace and quiet of this 100-year-old farmhouse I am running off at the mouth on this typewriter. I've always wanted to put some of this down, but didn't mean to bore you like this. Maybe no one would agree with any of this anyhow. There were some missions early on that may interest you, but I'll wait until you ask. My check for the prints is enclosed.
Sincerely yours,
Walt Krell