- Historic Sites
An Airman’s Sketchbook
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
When I rejoined my squadron, the 40th was escorting transports flying supplies over the hump at Dobodura and Buna. This was pretty much of a milk run except that whenever the transports were unaccompanied, they were attacked by Zeros from Lae or Salamaua up the coast. In the mountains outside Lae the Australian commandos had a spotter with a pedal-operated portable transmitter whose code name was Golden Voice. He kept moving so the Japanese couldn’t get a fix on him, calling in whenever he saw them taking off. He was our warning system until the Japs finally caught him and staked him on top of a rock in the tropical sun and cut his stomach open.
The Australian ground troops were a doughty lot inured to sleeping in the jungle on nothing but groundsheets and enduring the hazards of that inhospitable environment. When I had a recurrence of malaria, I was put in a field hospital briefly next to an Australian infantry lieutenant with athlete’s foot halfway up his legs; he told me of seeing one of our fighters get shot down and going straight into the ground and told me he wouldn’t trade places with me for the world. I was hard put to explain my reciprocal feelings in the matter.
In the next months, the pulse of the war quickened. We flew more missions and longer ones. Buna and Dobodura were old stuff now; we escorted A-20s to Salamaua and Wau, almost to Lae. Every day was the same: long, wet, miserable, and full of dread, with the rain running in rivers through camp, painting the foliage a lurid supernatural green.
The P-39s were a constant worry: “a good Sunday-afternoon airplane,” as Dirty Jim Miller, our operations officer, put it, but a poor match for the Zero. The Japanese fighter was lighter and more maneuverable and could outclimb and outperform the Airacobra in every way except diving speed.
We were visited nightly by Japanese nuisance raids and even underwent an occasional daylight raid. One clear day, when I was off duty, we heard on the shortwave radio in the mess hall that a large fleet of Jap bombers had been picked up on the radar. When we sighted the long black line of planes approaching, we left the mess hall and headed for the slit trenches.
We watched the double V of bombers glinting silver in the sun and counted more than one hundred. They won’t come this way, we said; they’ll turn off toward the main airstrip, where the big stuff is. A flight of nine did break away, but the others came straight on. As the bombers drew closer, we could hear the wailing threnody of the Zeros above them, weaving like slow flies in the autumn. Then the bombs began to fall, walking up the hills toward us. We huddled against one another, cursing, praying, sweating, and clawing at the earth with our hands. When the bomb detonations stopped, we could see the bombers directly overhead and knew we were no longer in range.
A squadron of P-38s had made altitude and jumped one end of the lead V of bombers, which broke formation and veered off in all directions. Then the horde of Zeros descended on the P-38s, which were pitifully few in number, and they started diving in all directions too. The Australian ack-ack guns behind our hill started firing, and we began to hear the whistling sound of shrapnel fragments falling around us. As the air battle moved over us and out of sight, we could still hear the drone of the bombers, the whine of the P-38s winding up in their dives, and the slow, staccato hammering of the Zeros’ 20-millimeter cannon and the swifter burst of machine-gun fire.
We went back to the mess hall to listen to the shortwave. Radio silence had been cast aside, and the air was full of the wild cries of combat: broken phrases excitedly transmitted, someone’s sweating hand forgetting to depress the transmitter button; cries of “There’s one!” and “Three at ten o’clock!,” something about “big silver fleet!,” and “Watch that son of a bitch!” We couldn’t recognize the voices of anyone in the 40th. Someone said they were probably still trying to make altitude. Then a hysterical voice shouted, “My engine’s on fire! I’m going in, I’m going in!” There was a pause, and then another voice, laconic and detached, said one word: “Hardships.” That was the title of a song we sang, with many verses, the chorus of which was “Hardships, you bastards, you don’t know what hardships are.”
That was the last of the big daylight raids. Afterward more and more of our missions were to the north: Salamaua, Guadagasel, Komiatum—long, boring flights into the distant mountains, circling overhead while the C-47s landed on tiny strips and unloaded their cargoes. Crane your neck, sweat your gas gauge and the weather until the transports finally lumber aloft again. Then herd them home, trying to get all you can from your belly tank. There is no silence to compare with that in the cockpit of a single-seat fighter when your belly tank runs dry and your engine quits fourteen thousand feet over the mountains, and you have ten seconds to switch to a wing tank and hope the engine will catch again.