New Guinea. It was the feel of the place. New Guinea
now seems like the beginning of nowhere, remote in the vagaries of
memory and distant in the stream of time. In looking back, nothing
was wrong with New Guinea; understanding was all that it needed. Five
decades ago we tested our skills in the skies over those equatorial
latitudes, were amazed by the fecund rain forest, saw tropical brown
rivers plying their epochal work of reducing New Guinea, particle
by particle, to the level of the sea, contended with weather that
could drench you with rain or with sweat.
As if it had suddenly risen up out of the primordial
soup, New Guinea created in us 41st'ers a distinct feel about the
place. We had a precise sensitivity to it, overarching and deep seated.
And we had to be pliant enough to fit ourselves into the demands of
that long-ago island, demands that were hard and explicit. Plant life,
animal life, topography, climate - all of these things, and more,
built in us a strong sense of where we were. All of us were very much
aware of that vari-textured island. Remember its tapestry? The sweep
of the New Guinea landscape was an artist's trove: dramatic rock formations,
skies at once both threatening and benign, waves of dagger-like kunai
grass, mountains that scarred the heavens, rolling seas, elemental
native villages, and forest, forest, sinister rain forest everywhere,
overwhelming in its mystery. Willa Cather, in My Antonia, said
of the American prairie, "Between that earth and that sky I felt
erased, blotted out." New Guinea could do that to you in the
same way, reduce you to a kind of insignificance.
One of our New Guinea camps, Gusap, was an interesting
place, including its location. Not too far from the Ramu River, our
camp was also not too far from the beginnings of a rain forest area.
On an exploratory hike one time at Gusap, a few of us ventured into
that forest area after oscillating for a while between approach and
avoidance. I can recall going a hundred yards or so into the trees
which soon became very thick with increasingly dense undergrowth.
While it may not have been the real thing yet as true rain forest,
it nevertheless had a kind of mesmerizing animal stillness that gave
one a sense of returning to a prehistoric age. The trees had great
branches spread like sails into the sky and wind, and one could only
imagine how those high tree tops would adversarily cope with violent
weather and how they would flex in a storm dance against their roots.
But on this day all was quiet; movement was replaced by a smell indescribable
because there was no name for it. This bit of New Guinea rain forest
seemed pregnant with mystery, a place of energy rampant, virtually
alive with exotica. Its paradox was that it seemed to be moving and
growing while sinking to mold on the forest floor.
New Guinea. It was the feel of the place. Other than
with awe, there was no way to view the mountains, improbably sudden
in their lift to the skies. In bad weather, the mountains took on
added dimension. More than one pilot, they say, hit a rock at 8000
feet of altitude. Yet the mountains were allies as well as enemies.
They could be landmark guideposts, and they could offer valleys and
cols of gas-saving virtue. Yes, the mountains were part of the "feel"
of New Guinea, and I have often reminisced that the Finisterre Range
offered a sierra of mountain beauty.
Displaying its own kind of beauty, that wildness
of water, the Ramu River, was not exactly the best place to swim but
many of us tried a few strokes there. The water was swift and brown
and, in a few places, narrow enough to cross with just a few fast
flailing crawl strokes - indeed a swimming feat. Or one could go with
the current downstream, scramble ashore, and then make the difficult
hike back upstream along the rock strewn shore. ( A picture stays
with me. In that picture the 41st's Rebel Air Force, or part of it,
is darting downstream with hilarious joy and abandon. Three heads
are bobbing in the Ramu; Rowell, Scotty, and Saunders, in my picture,
are immersed in the river and in their joy/ Unforgettable!) We swimmers
were just too perverse to worry about the cautions against liver-fluke
infections that could follow a swim in the Ramu. As for rivers, I
still hold a sense of foreboding about the Sepik and Sepik River country.
The Sepik stories and warnings made it Death's own country, and they
added to the feel of the place.
I could go on. More details would only add to the
New Guinea aura, an aura that held a beauty of its own. Youthful and
insensitive lout that I was, I neither understood nor appreciated
New Guinea's kind of beauty. It was a place where everything mysteriously
connected to everything else; and it seemed almost impenetrable because
of its size, its lavish plant growth, its prevalence of diseases,
its strange native inhabitants, its weather changes, its lush tropicality,
its inherent dangers. New Guinea was water and sky, horizon, spectacular
vistas, and an arena of war. A day could be tranquil, or it could
have a tropical reek. A night could be blissful for its rest, or it
could be filled with quandary about tomorrow. Much of it unexplored
and untouched, New Guinea was full of startling images and could affect
you , could get inside of your mind. It was the feel of the place.
Talking about it, writing about it, and, most of all, thinking about it uncountable times have given it permanence in my mind. My final mission as a 41st Fighter Squadron pilot has haunted my thoughts and imprinted my being since that memorable day, April 2, 1945. In the spring 1945 the 41st was flying out of Mangalden Airfield. We had been flying support missions for the Army ground forces, strafing and dive bombing. Also, we would take on those more distant flights that took us out on fighter sweeps, bomber cover, and dive bombing missions north'to Formosa. My final mission was a dive bombing flight to Formosa, to where there was a railroad hub that continued as a useful adjunct to enemy operations. The assignment to hit this target devolved upon the 41st; I was to lead a twelve-ship flight to reach the target, bomb it, and return to Mangalden. Simple enough. Some of us who were old hands had some initial misgivings about the mission. Considering all that went into a mission, taking off with two wing tanks and a 280 pound fragmentation belly bomb seemed barely worth the effort. But no matter; a mission was a mission, straight down from Fighter Command.
We took off. A 41st Fighter Squadron flight of twelve ships, proud pilots airborne in planes adorned with blazonry and insignia, was engaged in another mission in the progression of the war. The trip north was smooth; weather CAVU, all aircraft functioning, 10,000 feet of altitude. One hour and forty-five minutes into the flight Formosa rose up like a ship on the horizon. With a small course adjustment to effect a flyover of a small island of the Pescadores group off the west coast of Formosa, we headed for this key point, reached it, and then flew due east to our target. Within minutes we were over Formosa and nearly to the
railroad center. Antiaircraft fire was visible ahead but not tracking us effectively. Then, over the target and first in line, tanks dropped, armament switches on, I began my dive. Things . looked good as I bore down on those tracks while hurling bursts of my fifties to repress Japanese ground fire. Suddenly, things
became squeamishly uncomfortable as tracer fire came at me - - close, over my wings, past my canopy. I was flying down into a malestrom, a concentration of enemy fury. I sensed that I had taken some hits. Although I had felt nothing distinct enough to be sure, there was that evocation of the special relationship which exists between a pilot and his plane that made me sense the taking of hits.
Even so, I safely cleared the area and looked back with satisfaction that all twelve ships had cleared and, importantly, that the bombing had been effective. We formed up quickly for the ride home; my plane seemed to respond normally, and instrumentation readings were on the mark as we gained altitude to 10,000 feet. The weather continued to be favorable, and the homeward leg of the mission was underway. I should have been comfortwith the situation. Pilots should not be concerned with forebodings; premonitions were lunacies to be avoided. But these persisted, lurked in my mind. Even though my twelve-ship flight eventually reached Lingayen Gulf, ten minutes from touch-down, now at 1,000 feet of altitude, a safe conclusion to the mission at last seemed assured. And then it happened!
My cockpit suddenly filled with smoke along with a choking, eye-watering, gagging stench which was quickly alleviated when I put on my oxygen mask. The engine still appeared to be running smoothly, but nothing electrical functioned. My radio was dead. Just minutes from landing, my wingman was able to get my handsignalled message to clear us for touch-down; he called the tower and then gave me the Roger sign to take the squadron on in. Perhaps my worry about premonitions had been baseless. Just another "Jug" landing and all would be well.
This time, however, instead of the usual tight 360 pattern I made a gentle thing of it, a broader, shallower turn. Lining up my approach at about 100 feet, near the end of the runway, flaps set, wheels down, this would be a grease job, simply smooth it in. But it was not to be. A C-47 had pulled out on the runway, a red light and a flare from the tower! The message was clear; pull 'er up and go around, try it a second time. Full throttle, reset the prop pitch, up with the wheels, try again.
Damn! The reality of a certain crash immediately hit me when there was no surge of power. Even so, my training kicked in--the most important being that which was self-imposed, traing wherein I had pictured myself in every possible direful emgency and then mentally reacting in response. This was just such an emergency, and throughout the next few seconds I did what I could in response to my situation. I was able to maintain altitude over the length of the runway, barely above stalling speed, wheels supposedly coming up, trying to "shift gears" by using the manual prop pitch control for the Curtiss electric propeller, attempting to "think" my way to safety. Nothing worked. The inevitable crash was at hand. Then I hit.
I woke up in the hospital, a nearby Army medical instaltion. First, I remember being apprised of my physical condition. I had been amazingly fortunate: nothing broken, no cuts, many bruises and abrasions, a slight concussion. One of the ironies of the crash is that while I was in the crucible of it, I heard none of the sounds of fury - - I was unconscious after one of my shoulder straps broke and I had been wrenched forward striking my head on the gunsite. Then I heard of the accident itself, an incredible thing to live through.
Straight ahead, straight toward the town of Mangalden which was a mile away and directly in line with the airstrip. I had crashed through a schoolhouse (no pupils present), which was on one side of the town square. Momentum had taken me on into the middle of the square stopping in front of a statue of some famous Philippine figure. A wing had been left in the school house, the engine has been wrenched loose, and the plane caught fire. I was told that some heroic GIs had pulled me from the wreckage. As it later developed, I realized that faithful old #172 and I had called it quits together.
To this day, my sense is that it was the "Jug" that saved me. The outfit was in its transition period to the Mustangs at the time. There is no doubt that the P-51 would not have seen me through the crash. How lucky can a guy be!
Do you have photos or additional information to add?