February 1965 Issue
(Written in July, 1945)
The Burma Bridge Busters
490th "Skull and Wings" Squadron
It was a bright sweltering day on the Sind desert just outside of the seaport city of Karachi, India. A handful of officers and enlisted men were shifting uneasily under the beating rays off the sun. These men were newly arrived Air Corps personnel and as yet were not accustomed to the blistering tropical rays of the India sun. An officer standing before these men, reading from a weighty sheaf of papers, gave little indication, that this day in September of 1942 was an important day in the beginning of a new era in bombardment aviation. Today the activation orders for a new squadron were being read to a little group of tired men. The official creation of the 490th Bombardment Squadron, Medium, Army Air Forces. This unit, with the B-25 Billy Mitchell, was to record some remarkable achievements in flying and bombing during the coming months.
A few months later the newly-formed 490th moved to eastern India to take up combat operations against the Japanese. A famous man had just returned from Burma and his words were ringing in the ears of the men who comprised the Allied forces in India. He had said, "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got runout of Burma and it's humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it and go back and retake it." That was "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, Commanding General of American forces in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. The men of the 490th went to work with these words in their minds . . . "find out what caused it ... go back and retake it ... humiliating as hell."
Those first days of combat were humiliating. Humiliating because things were new, men were new, things had to be worked out-the hard way: thru bitter, heartbreaking experience. Those early days of 1943 were tough. There were problems; maintenance problems, food problems, heat and malaria, little mail, few supplies and plenty of headaches. To top it off, the dreaded monsoons were on the way. The story was: "You can't fly during the monsoons-it's darned near impossible, in fact it's suicide".
With the Japs moving toward us, Major James A. Philpott of Pomona, California, the Squadron Commanding Officer, had other ideas.
Those days were tough in other ways too. The squadron was given tough targets. The Japs were well entrenched in Burma. Their troop positions, supply lines, and newly built air fields were heavily fortified strongpoints. The Squadron, under the 341st Bombardment Group of the Tenth Air Force, was getting good results-nothing spectacular-but good. The 490th was young and inexperienced but feeling its way slowly. Slowly only in relation to more experienced squadrons but certainly not slowly in the number of hours worked and number of missions for its ships.
Then, just as things were beginning to improve, the monsoons struck.
The rains came in torrents and sheets. The stifling, tropical humidity was worse. Clothes and equipment molded in barracks bags and foot lockers. Food spoiled quickly and even cigarettes mildewed in their packages. Vital, precious aircraft parts rusted. The men in Tech Supply spent days and nights soaking every intricate engine part in rust preventative compound. When the rust compound ran out they used oil. These monsoons have "dumped" as high as 680 inches of rainfall on parts of India and Assam in four to five months time.
The Squadron had to be ready, monsoon or no monsoon, and it flew. The pilots learned how to handle their Mitchells in treacherous weather . . . how to bomb in overcasts . . . how to strafe in a rainstorm . . . how to hit a Jap ammo dump or air field when they were least expected. By this time the monsoons were over and with the nice weather following and experience received the operation began to smooth out. There was no doubt about it, by the autumn of 1943 the Squadron had grown "battlewise".
After spending months hitting railroad yards, enemy barracks, ammo dumps, supply depots, etc., the "Skull & Wings" had to change their tactics and turn to bombardment of bridges.
Large area targets were fairly easy to hit from medium or low altitude, except, of course, for the trouble caused by ack ack and fighter opposition. There had been plenty of large target areas, among them, the big Mimgaladon Airdrome, Malagon Railroad Yards in Rangoon, storage and communications areas at Prome and Henzada, supply dump and troop concentration at Lashio, Sagaing, Mandalay plus a score of others. Now word was received from the 341st that bridges were to be the prime target. These bridge assignments were tough, probably one of the toughest of targets designed by men. In fact the pilots and bombardiers began to dread the word "bridge" as it usually meant "mission failure" on the reports. This not only applied to the Skull & Wings pilots and crews but also to other airmen in the CBI as well.
The new CO who replaced Major Philpott some months before, Lt. Col. Robert D. MacCarten of Fargo, North Dakota, decided to tackle the new problem of bridges outright. So, for the remaining months of 1943 his crews concentrated on trying to find a method for knocking out bridges and knocking them out to stay.
All of the accepted methods of the day were tried: Medium altitude bombing with a bombsight, low level bombing, "on the deck" bombing at extreme low level (40' to 60' level), dive bombing, skip bombing and a dozen other variations of these and other methods. In Europe, bridges were destroyed by sending vast numbers of planes over and saturating the target area with hundreds of tons of bombs. In India there were neither the planes nor the the 'tons of bombs to do this. Despite every method tried, by the end of 1943, bridges had become the 490th's jinx target.
This was all changed on New Year's day of 1944 when a curious thing happened.
On that day the Squadron was assigned as a target the important Mu River railroad bridge, which connected the Mandalay-Saigning district with the Chindwin River area. Capt. Robert A. Erdin of Patterson, New Jersey, Squadron Operations Officer, who was flying that day, decided to try a new approach to the objective. Instead of coming in on the target diagonally or at right angles as the other planes had done, he decided that he would make his run straight down the rail line and across the bridge lengthwise. Then an accident occurred which changed the course of Squadron history. While making his run on the bridge, Captain Erdin was forced to pull his ship up suddenly to avoid hitting a tree near the rail line, and by the time he had brought his ship down again it was time to release the bombs. Erdin quickly pushed the bomb release switch and trailed a neat string of 500 pounders along the length of the bridge. When Erdin looked around, the Mu River Bridge was lying in a twisted heap in the river.
As soon as Colonel MacCarten heard of this successful accident he realized that Erdin had stumbled on a new bombing technique. MacCarten wasted no time. He ordered an experimental bombing range built near the base and assigned Captain Erdin and Captain Harry A. Suthpen of Bement, Illinois, (later killed in action) the job of perfecting the new technique. After weeks of painstaking experiments with different types of bomb loads, fusings, approaches, speeds, altitudes and simulated targets, it was found that after a low level approach was made to the target, a slight dive before releasing the bombs would prevent them from skipping after they hit the bridge; which was one of the major problems of bridge-busting.
The new technique was taught to other pilots and became standard procedure in the "Skull and Wings" Squadron. Thus, in the early months of 1944 the death knell for enemy supply lines was sounded.
After the destruction of the Mu River Bridge the Squadron's pilots began to knock out bridges one after another. The performance of the 490th was received with amazement and surprise. The 490th was doing something that no other squadron had ever done before, they were smashing bridges systematically and methodically, one by one. General Howard C. Davidson, Commanding General of the Tenth Air Force, sent a telegram to Colonel MacCarten: "To you, your Burma Bridge Busters and all the boys on the ground who keep 'em flying, on their successful accomplishments, my personal congratulations. Your devastating results have been received with glee."
By the middle of May, 1944, the 490th was known thruout the CBI as the "Burma Bridge Busters" and had piled up the impressive score of 36 bridges destroyed and 12 more damaged in five months. On the llth of May the "Bridge Busters" had accounted for six bridges in one day. Among the bridges downed in the five month period were the Myittha, Meza, Budalin, Pyu, Daga, Myingatha, Natmauk, Shweli and Sittang bridges; all important links in the Japanese supply system in Burma.
But the newly-titled "Burma Bridige Busters" had no time to bask in the light of their fast growing reputation. For it was during those first months of success, on March 22, 1944, that the Japanese began their invasion of India.
The Japanese forces in Burma gathered up all their might and made a lightning thrust over the Naga Hills into the little state of Manipur and down onto the great Imphal plain. The Japs meant business. They had spent a year of moving in troops and creating a large stock-pile of supplies in Burma. The invasion of India was now on in earnest.
The Japanese forces succeeded in surrounding the large and important Allied garrison at Imphal. Immediately every available plane in India was mustered to fly supplies to the trapped Allied troops. "Skull & Wings" planes inaugurated a 24-hour, "round the clock" shuttle service to fly food and ammo into the besieged garrison. It was a tough assignment. Combat personnel soon became ex hausted at the pace and ground men volunteered to fly in their places. The additional work of flying, added to the nearly impossible task of keeping the planes in combat condition, soon began to tell on the ground crews also. It was not uncommon for maintenance crews to work all day, do a double engine change during the night and work through the next day with no more than time off for a sandwich or tea.
Squadron armorers, not satisfied with the pay loads of the Mitchells, were striving to develop and install a bomb bay rack which would increase the B-25's cargo limit to 4,000 pounds plus. Soon the 490th's Mitchells. equipped with this new rack, flew in one trip what they had formerly flown in three. It was this same armament section that began the practice of putting extra guns in the nose of the old B-25 "D" and that upped bomb loads to four 1,000 pound bombs or eight 500 pounders by the use of a new loading technique.
For weeks the Squadron's men and planes flew the "Imphal run" in the worst monsoon weather imaginable. Many times the Imphal air strip would be under enemy fire and Jap Zeros would lie in wait for ships flying alone or cargo planes without fighter escort. On one occasion, a small (number of the Squadron's B-25s returning from Imphal were attacked by a large number of Zeros. "Skull & Wings" ships engaged the attacking force in a running air battle which lasted for more than >an hour. More than one-half of the enemy planes were destroyed or damaged. The Squadron lost one aircraft.
Finally those hectic weeks of flying paid off. The Japs pulled out. Imphal was saved. The Jap invasion of India had been turned.
In the early summer of 1944, after the Jap "conquest" of India had been stifled, General Stilwell started to drive back into Burma with a vengeance. American. British, Indian and Chinese forces pushed down the Hukawng Valley in northern Burma and in mid-summer of 1944 laid siege to the big Jap stronghold of Myitkyina. During the Imphal Run and at this time the Squadron was operating out of Kurmatola, India. It was during this time that close low-level air support was being flown to support the famous Merrill's Marauders and other forces pushing their way into the defenses of Myitkyina. All during those monsoon-swept months of Stilwell's drive, the 490th was engaged in carrying out a large scale campaign of destruction against the old targets, bridges and communications lines. One of the favorite pastimes of certain pilots such as Captain Snow, a daredevil, and some of his buddies was to take the B-25s out with the 75 MM cannon in the nose and fly down the rail lines firing into the rail beds or looking for rolling stock. The 75s were deadly on this type of mission. By the first week of August 1944, Myitkyina had fallen to Allied forces and they were driving steadily toward the Irrawaddy River strongpoints of Bhamo and Katha.
From Kurmatola the Squadron moved to Dergaon, Moran, Jorhat. On the 15th of November, 1944 rumors had it that the next move would be up the "Road" into Burma. A little spot carved out of the jungle called Warezup. This would shorten the flying time and allow two or even three missions a day into Jap-held territory7 In fact this brought the bombers to within 40 miles of the lines. By the last week of November these rumors were facts and by October the missions were- being flown from this tiny strip with only 4,000 feet of runway for the overloaded planes. The 100th bridge had been destroyed on Nov. 8 and with stepped-up missions the morale was very high.
Typical of the Squadron's activities during this period was the bombing of the Wuntho Bridge on the rail line from Rangoon to Myitkyina. The bridge was knocked out time and again. As soon as Jap engineers would rebuild the bridge, "Burma Bridge Busters" went in and knocked it down. The bridge finally became famous under the sobriquet "the bridge that won't stay up".
Besides setting records for precisian low level bombing, the "Bridge Busters" set other records. In order to have a first class (bombing outfit, a first class maintenance section is necessary along with top-notch planes and men to fly them. Tech. Sgt. Harry Brisco, in charge of engine change and general maintenance, along with prop men, crew chief's and squadron supply were doing a wonderful job. Tech supply was having trouble at times keeping parts in stock and with each lengthening of the supply line maintenance became more of a problem. A large* number of the planes are credited with reaching the hundred mission mark. "Old 61" known as the "Buzzin" Buzzard," was the first to hit the new mark, and another Mitchell "168" flew 100 consecutive combat missions without mechanical failure of any kind. These records and many more like them are a credit to 490th personnel who worked for many months in the early days without proper tools. Old No. 161, a "C" with 20 months in November off '44, still flying, 370, Charlie Baatz ship, 810, whose crew chief was Sergeant Baye of New Mexico with 600 hours on each engine and special permission from Air Force Headquarters in the U.S. to try for 700. On March 23, No. 810 had 176 missions and running fine. This grand ship was eventually shot down with full crew over the target area.
In December most of the missions were against supply and troop concentrations in and around the fortress cities of In-daw, Katha, Bhamo and Lashio. Close air support was given to hard fighting
ground units like the "Mars Task Force." n December 20, the "Burma Bridge Busters" broke all previous records by destroying eight bridges with mine aircraft in a single day. By the end of the month, the "Bridge Busters" had given a Christmas gift to the retreating Japs-28 bridges demolished and several more damaged in one month. An all time record. Maintenance records on the Squadron's planes also outdid themselves. During this period the percentage of abortive sorties was .0432 per cent of all sorties flown.
Tactically and strategically the Japs were licked. Not a single supply line into upper Burma was left intact. With the lines cut and the Mars and Marauders forces in pursuit the Japs were counting their stay in Burma in weeks and days. Air drops were impossible as fighter squadrons had reduced Jap air power to nothing.
When 1945 rolled around, the 490th had accomplished a lot. Since February of 1943 the Squadron had dropped a total of 8,257,000 pounds of bombs, had flown over 3,000 sorties against all types of targets and had destroyed 133 bridges and damaged 43 more. Its pilots and bombardiers and established records, received many citations and praises for their accomplishments.
The number of planes in the Squadron had been increasing steadily from 16 to the total of 24. Although this is 50 per cent more than normal, it increased mission size and certainly kept ground crews from wondering what to do after the evening meal. Aside from the regular combat missions the 490th was also flying the "Burma Mail". Almost every day the "Mail" was dropped to Burmese people in Jap-occupied territory and propaganda for enemv. troops. This consisted of leaflets, newspapers, and gifts for the jungle villages.
In early spring of 1945 it was decided by the Tenth Air Force that the 490th had completed its mission in Burma. Arrangements were made for the Squadron to be transferred into General Chen-nault's Fourteenth Air Force where it would rejoin its old group, the 341st, which had moved to China many months before.
A few days before the Squadron was scheduled to move over "the hump" into China, General Davidson paid his last visit to the 490th. With the entire Squadron gathered around him, General Davidson thanked the men of the "Skull and Wings" for their outstanding work during the India-Burma campaign and with tears in his eyes, said goodbye to his favorite squadron.
Upon arriving in the China Theater, the Squadron, part of the 341st Bombardment Group, joined Brig. Gen. Russell E. Randall's West China Raiders, a well-known Fourteenth Air Force fighter wing.
The actual move and the setting up of a new base presented many difficulties. Many of the unit's key personnel, both air and ground men, had been returned to the states. In addition to the breaking in of new men on their duties, the terrain over which the 490th was to operate was strange and unfamiliar. These problems and many others faced Captain Edward L. Tengler of Cleveland, Ohio, the new Commanding Officer. China's bridges were more heavily defended and they were usually larger, longer and more sturdily built.
The tension that had accompanied briefing and take-off on the day that the Squadron flew its first mission could be felt over the entire base. Every last man was waiting for the mission results to be radioed in. After weeks of preparation, this was the pay-off. Many in this unit, as in other units, wondered if the old "touch" had been left in Burma or had it accompanied the unit to China.
The radio station had received word from the first plane. The message was terse, leaving nothing to be doubted: "Mission-failure." But then from the next two ships over the target area the message came back: "Mission-successful." On the first mission two heavily-defended railroad bridges had been knocked out on the Tung Pu rail line, one of the most important Jap supply routes in China. Success continued until July 31, 1945, the; week during which this story was written, and if the war should continue it is hoped that this same success will follow this unit. To this date 36 more bridges have been destroyed and 10 damaged in the course of three months of combat operations in China. A citation received from the head official of the province which the unit is based in has also helped to create better feeling among the personnel toward the Chinese. Of the bridges which have been destroyed are the important Yellow River bridge, Lohochai, Sincheng, Sinyang and Anyang bridges on the Peiping-Hankow railroad and the Taiku and Kihsien rail bridges on the Peiping-Tatunig-Punchow rail line.
An example of "Skull and Wings" versatility has been the continued destruction of the Chungmow rail bridge. The Chungmow Bridge is a 2,000-foot spanning the Yellow River. It is strategically one of the biggest and most important supply links in north China. The bridge has been knocked out by the action by the Squadron on four different occasions, once from medium altitude and three times from low level attack.
In 2 1/2 years of combat operations the 490th has hit every type of target under every conceivable condition-in monsoons, over mountains and jungle, thru ack ack and fighters in some of the wildest country in the world. In two years the Squadron has pushed its way up from an obscure organization to one of the distinguished bombardment units of World War II. In 19 months time it has accounted for 187 bridges knocked out and 53 more damaged and has cost the Japanese thousands off casualities, has blasted his supplies, his communications, his fortifications and his hopes of conquest in Southeast Asia.
During its operations in the India-Burma Theater the Squadron received 30 official commendations for outstanding performance in combat. Nine of these commendations came from General Da-vidson of the Tenth Air Force. Lt. Gen. Barney M. Giles, then Deputy Commander, U.S. Army Air Forces and Chief of Air Staff, wrote, "Your Burma Bridge Busters will soon run out of their favorite targets at the rate they are going . . . Please tell them that General Arnold and I are watching them with pride." Among other commendations received were letters from the War Department; Lt. Gen. William J. Slim, Commanding General of the British 14th Army; Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander, Southeast Asia Command; and many others. Perhaps one of the finest tributes of its kind was General Davidson's farewell commendation to the Squadron. He said in part: "..... Your distinguished service as an organization while a member of my command for approximately 2 1/4 years has been truly outstanding. The men and officers of your command have never hesitated to try the untried, and through your conscientious efforts have produced many new and effective bombing techniques which wrought destruction upon the enemy. Your consistent, effective operational records, high moral standards, high standards of maintenance and morale has been a distinct demonstration of courage and leadership. It is with regret that we lose you. We wish you continued success and God-speed in your new assignment."
Exploits were many-humorous, tragic and sad. Many of these forgotten except in the minds of men who lived them.
There was the time when Lt. William E. Cook of Fullerton, California, on a daring night mission, destroyed two spans of the great Sittang Railroad Bridge in southern Burma. The Sittang has often been called the most important bridge in Asia. Cook, after dropping his bombs at low level, hit a Burmese pagoda while trying to evade heavy ground fire, and sheared off four feet of his left wing. In spite of this, Cook succeeded in bringing his badly cripppled Mitchell back to base.
Then there is the sitory of Sgt. Marvin Beckman of Inglewood, California. Sergeant Beckman was the only survivor of a crew of five who bailed out of a B-25 and who were strafed by Zeros while they dangled helplessly in their parachutes. Beckman, after many days in enemy-held jungle, finally reached a forward Allied base, wounded and delirious. Captain Bell of Indiana, who flew his ship and crew in to the target areaj, was shot down and returned after many days in the jungle. Part of Ms crew never returned, as happened many other times. On this flight the Captain had a new ship, number 111, which had been dubbed "The Three Aces" by the ground crew and considered a lucky number.
The story of Staff Sergeant Vernon Cook of Abner, Oklahoma, is well-known. Perhaps you've heard of Sergeant Cook. He was the gunner who, while his and several other sihips were engagad in a running fight with Jap Zeros, removed a fellow gunner who was badly wounded from a blasted turret and took his station. When the turret was put out of action, Cook took up the fight from the waist guns, giving first aid to his wounded crewmates between attacks. His coolness and courage won him the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
Then there is the humorous side - Captain Boutsellis with his 7 1/2" mustache. Waxed and stiff as a Texas long-horn. Speaking of Texas, there was the time when Lt. William C. Gallimore of Abilene, Texas, who after returning with a bomb bay load of beer for the Squadron, "buzzed" the base, breaking the bomb bay rack and raining beer cans all over the Squadron's living quarters. On another occasion, Lt. John M. Schrader, navigator on a B-25 lost in a heavy overcast, led his plane to bomb an enemy airdrome which was unknown to Allied Military Intelligence. The field was named in his honor, "Schrader Field." Then there was Lt. Charles F. Powell of San Diego, who was forced to salvo his bombs before reaching his assigned target due to heavy flak. The next day reconnaissance photos revealed that Powell's bomb load had been dumped by accident squarely on top of a Jap Army Divisional Headquarters.
Other things which make up a combat squadron are days such as Oct. 24, 1944, when 612 crashed. Three men were seen to get clear of the ship before it went into the jungle but were too low for the chutes to open. Oct. 27 Number 882 made a run on the target too close to the pre-ceeding ship and was demolished by delayed action bombs required for low level type bombing. Oct. 31-Number 370 and Number 967 shot up and landed at an advanced base. Two men wounded- this by Zeros. Jan. 18, 1945-Lost Number 493 yesterday on Mail Run. None of crew heard from. Lost one plane today strafing Jap air base. Number 780 came in today with landing gear hit-landed, swerved and hit semi full of 100 octane gas. Blew up immediately but whole crew managed to escape with minor burns. Feb. 1 Number 403 down with full crew over target. Feb. 9 Number 788 went in too low, hit a tree, flipped over on its back and burned. Feb. 15-Number 977 went in low over the target and when last seen was still going away from the base low and fast, no radio contact. Feb. 10 Number 068 went in on target, dropped bombs, climbed, circled for return flight, then crashed with full crew. This is only to say, in summing up these losses, that when men you know and planes you have worked on fail to come back it has a certain way of forming a closer-knit, harder hitting outfit. We believe the 490th to be this type of "Bomb Squadron". -THE END