An Airman’s Sketchbook
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
I came to hate the sky itself. Even on clear days its blue was like a malevolent force that could change instantly and strike at you. Sometimes it was almost a relief when the Japanese appeared and we could go after them following the hours and days of waiting.
In late August of 1943 the 40th and 41st squadrons were reassigned to a place called Tsili Tsili, forty miles inland from Lae, right in the Nips’ back yard. Carved out of the jungle and the mountains, the airstrips formed an X; planes taking off simultaneously on the two strips could not see each other until they were airborne and coming at each other at one hundred miles an hour. The 40th was assigned to the shorter runway, which ended in a deep ravine studded with the trunks of decapitated palm trees like sharpened stakes in a tiger trap. There was no control tower between the two strips; in a scramble the object was to get all the planes airborne as fast as possible. We came to an agreement with the pilots of 41st Squadron that if they saw another P-39 approaching from ninety degrees on takeoff, they would pull up and pass over us.
The escort missions with the bully-beef bombers had come to an end. When we had been at Tsili Tsili only a week, it began to rain. Everything turned to mud. Voracious insects seemed to spring from the soaked earth, and the trickling mountain stream that ran through our camp became a torrent. The pond we used for bathing turned murky and became infested with leeches that clung to our bare bodies and could be removed only by holding lighted cigarettes against their blood-swollen backs.
The transports that brought us food, mail, and gasoline could not land on the short runway and stopped coming. The inactivity and incessant downpour began to fray nerves. Rumors bloomed like jungle orchids: The mosquitoes in the valley carried blackwater fever that made you piss blood; one of the natives in the 41st camp had been bitten by a death adder and died instantly; the ammo was running out; there were Japanese commandos in the hills. Men slept with loaded .45s under their mattresses.
On the first night the rain stopped, a pair of Japanese bombers laid a string of daisy cutters across our camp. It caught us by surprise, and we tumbled out of bed pell-mell and into the few slit trenches that had been dug, piling into the ooze at the bottom. In the midst of the raid one of the enlisted men jumped out of his trench and ran through the exploding bombs to another trench. After the bombing stopped, we asked what the hell was the matter with him. “Gimme a flashlight, and I’ll show you,” he said. In the bottom of the trench was a python at least ten feet long. “I hit that sucker with my bare feet,” he said, “and jumped out again without even bending my knees.”
The raid caused little damage but did nothing to improve our morale, which sank even lower when it began to rain again. There was nothing to do but lie under our mosquito nets all day, nothing to read that hadn’t been read, no game that hadn’t been played to the point of fury. The liquor supply was dwindling, and no matter how the food was disguised it turned out to be bully beef.
Finally, in early September of 1943, we covered a big operation, an amphibious assault landing at Lae. After a red alert at 3:00 A.M. we took off at first light into a gray haze and light clouds. In a few minutes we could see flashing lights that I took to be ack-ack bursts, but as we climbed over the mountains, we could see destroyers broadside in the harbor, shelling the airstrip. I had a quick and somewhat idiotic impression of the big gunfire; it reminded me of the electric eyes of a teddy bear belonging to a cousin of mine that winked when its tail was twisted.
The destroyers were circling in the gray water, and behind them ranged the boats of the invasion fleet deployed in perfect formation. As the barges approached the shore, they moved line abreast and blasted their forward guns into the jungle. Whatever opposition awaited them must have fled at the sight of their numbers.
On September 5, 1943, our squadron covered the dropping of fifteen thousand paratroopers at Nadzab, located in a valley halfway to Lae, and later in the month some of us actually landed at Lae and had a look around. From the time we had arrived in New Guinea, Lae had been like Tokyo to us, a fearful place to be avoided. By the time we got there, it was a depressing and desolate scene. Wrecked planes were everywhere, lying in the ruined state that only a piece of machinery as refined and immaculate as an airplane can achieve. Over everything hung a horrible stench that had to come from newly buried bodies. I sat in a Zero and poked into the devastated interior of the officers’ quarters. Everything was in a shambles; clothing, blankets, rice bowls were strewn in the unmistakable signs of a hurried departure, along with a game of Chinese checkers, a broken phonograph record (“Palais Glide”). We picked our way around, afraid to touch anything, feeling very much like scavenging ghouls.