Flightdeck Friday Special — Midway & Marauders: A Shore-Based Strike POV

While Midway was not the combat debut of the B-26 Marauder (that was left to B-26’s of the 22nd Bombardment Group launching attacks against Rabaul two months earlier), Midway was nonetheless the most auspicious of the Marauder’s early actions. Originating from a 1939 Army Air Corps specification for a twin-engined medium bomber (Circular Proposal 39-640), the B-26 went from drawing board to production in less than 2 years in no small part because the demand for medium bombers was substantially growing as the war in Europe grew in scale and geography. Without a doubt, the B-26 was a fast plane with better performance than the contemporary B-25 Mitchell, but its relatively small wing area and resulting high wing loading (the highest of any aircraft used at that time) led to tricky high-speed landings (approach at 140 mph (225 km/h) and stall at 130 mph (210 km/h) indicated airspeed). The R-2800 engines were reliable but the electric pitch change mechanism in the propellers required impeccable maintenance and was prone to failure. Failure of the mechanism placed the propeller blades in flat pitch with instant, total loss of power. Compounding the situation was the need to locate the engines further outboard than its contemporaries (like the B-25) with the unfortunate result that loss of power on one side resulted in a violent snap roll, flipping the aircraft on its back. Early in the program, this led to a high number of accidents during takeoff, earning the nickname “Widowmaker by its pilots (other colorful nicknames included “Martin Murderer, “The Flying Coffin, “B-Dash-Crash, “The Flying Prostitute – because it had no visible means of support, referring to the small wings; and “The Baltimore Whore, a left-handed compliment to the location of manufacture. Nevertheless, the B-26 earned a reputation as an exceptionally tough aircraft in combat with an almost unrealistic ability to absorb damage from fighters and flak.

And one of the first places it would demonstrate that ability was at Midway.

In November 1941, the 38th BG (stood up in January 1941) began accepting Marauders with plans underway to deploy to a South American location to conduct ASW patrols against the growing German U-boat menace. The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December radically altered those plans and the 38th was tabbed to be equipped with the B-26B which had long range tanks with a view towards operations in the Southwest Pacific. As part of the buildup of forces on Midway, two 38th BG aircraft from the 69th Bomb Squadron and two from the 22nd BG (18th Reconnaissance Squadron) were fitted with external torpedo brackets, tested and dispatched to Midway on the eve of battle. What follows is an extract from the diary of Charles Lowe – an aerial photographer and B-26 tail gunner assigned to the 18th Recon Sqdn, 22nd BG. This is a small extract of a larger diary covering many actions, and comes by way and with permission of the B-26 Marauder Historical Society’s website and a member of the Yahoo Group – shatteredsword whose post brought this to my attention, and who is both a member of USNI, associated with Cripple Creek Press and is looking to publish a novel on the Battle of Midway in the near future (h/t Alvin). Finally, a note on context. Remember that as you read the following extract you do so with the perspective of almost 70 years. Those of us involved in actions of one sort or another would do well to recall our “certainty” at claims of BDA etc., that in the cold hard light of day (and post-strike recce), fell somewhat astray of the mark. By no means should this excuse the PA aparatus of the Army Air Corps back in DC and in theater for the exaggerated claims made about winning Midway – rather just a reminder of where and under what circumstances the author wrote. – SJS

Crew of U.S. Army Air Force First Lieutenant James Muri’s B-26, who made a torpedo attack on a Japanese aircraft carrier during the early morning of 4 June 1942. The plane had more than 500 bullet holes when it landed at Midway following this action. 1st. Lt. Muri is second from left, in the front row. (Source: Navy History & Heritage Command files)

Charles Lowe’s Recollections from some of Muri’s group

In the evenings we would visit our next door neighbors who were Frank Melo, Sgt. John Gogoj, & Harry Scholer? who was from Pittsburgh. They, too, were in our ? & were waiting to leave.

It was about the middle of May now. The time seemed to have flown. Our ships (planes) were out or rather two were & we were getting them in shape. We would soon leave.

Lt.’s Mayes, Moore, & Muri just learned that they had made first Lt. To celebrate this & as a farewell to Hawaii we threw a party. It was a stag party I’ll never forget. Mayes, Muri, Moore, Pollock?, Miller, Johnson, Todd, McAllister, Gogoj, Scholer?, Huffsticker, Ashley, Battaglia, Melo, Walters, myself, & some officers I don’t well recall.

All evening we ate & drank, having turkey, salads, lettuce, etc. to eat and whiskey, rum, wine, etc. to drink. We forgot the war; we forgot everything. It was the last time we were all together.

The war had been a distant thing to us but now we fell into its hot breath. Some of us would feel its touch & some of us would be dragged down by it. It happened fast.

We were to put torpedo racks on our ships & report to the navy f0r instruction. The torpedoes looked big and deadly slung onto the belly of our ships.

Finally we had our orders to report to Midway but who was to go? We had 2 ½ crews & 2 airplanes. None of us wanted to be left behind. Mayes’s crew was to go. Muri was head of the second crew. Moore, my pilot, was to be Muri’s co-pilot & to loan Muri, Gogoj, & Melo his engineer & radio man while Muri would take Ashley his own tail gunner. Lultz? & I were to stay here as well as Lt. Miller & Sgt. Scholer who was a cadet.

There were rumors that they would see action but it was hard to believe. We worked hard into the night fitting the planes & loading ammunition.

It was before daylight, Ashley & Walters woke us to say, “Goodbye. We’ll see you in a few weeks, fellows. Have a good time. A wave of the hand & they were gone. It was the 31st of May.

Nothing to do now. We were all on alert here but so far as us doing anything, we were so much dead wood. We went to town everyday.

The morning of the 4th (June) I laid in bed rather late. Scholer had stayed in town overnight. Lultz was still asleep.

At noon I walked up to the Mess Hall to catch a news flash – Midway attacked. I grabbed a sandwich & went back to our quarters where I could be near a phone if we were needed. Lultz would not believe me when I told him. I couldn’t believe it myself. I tried to get Scholer but couldn’t reach him.

Late in the evening I started for the PX to get a sandwich only to get a block & be hailed by someone in a truck. It was Sgt. Long …. Can’t make out the words. They had just returned from Canton Isle where they had been forced down. I was certainly glad to see them and they could hardly express their joy to be back.

We sat long into the night listening to them tell of life on a coral isle in the South Pacific, an island of coral, burning sand, flies, boredom and where nerves were frayed. An attack would have been a Godsend to these men. I thought of the men on Midway. They too must have welcome a fight.

Early the next morning, June 5th, I was up early & went to the hangar. Planes had come in during the night bringing wounded. I met some of the men on the planes who had come back from Midway. He had seen two B-26s when he left. There had been four there, two of ours & two of another squadron in charge of Capt. Sweeney(Colonel?).

I soon learned they had brought two men back from the B-26 crews who were wounded. From their descriptions, I learned it was Gogoj & Ashley. But what about the other of our ships? Had it returned?

I found out that night they were missing. The war had finally come to us. It had not found our men lacking in courage. They had done their job. Months of training, now in a few short minutes they had proved their worth.

A Japanese carrier never to return.

The next few days were a nightmare. The people here were wild with excitement. The moment a plane approached from Midway the apron would be packed, like the home town out to greet the winning team. Officers & men mingled together slapping each other on the back, edging into conversations, trying to talk & hear everything at once. Even the sedate General (Emmons?) went “down on the line, as happy & excited as the lowest private. It was truly a great day. Out here we could think of our great victory. By ourselves we thought of our great loss, our friends who would never come back.

It is true that the Midway victory was given more importance than was due it. However, the fact that the Japs were stopped can not be over emphasized.

The next day the rest of the fellows came back. Lt.’s Pollock, Muri, Johnson, P.L. Moore, W. W. Moore, Sgt.’s Frank Melo & Woods(?) who was attached to us from another outfit as a bombardier. We sat far into the night listening to their story. As told to me by Frank Melo, it goes like this:

June 3 we learned that a Jap task force was approaching Midway. We were briefed that night about a possible flight in the morning. Before daybreak we went out to the ships, warmed them up & checked them over. We then had nothing to do until daylight. Lt. Mayes went into operations for latest reports.

Shortly after daylight he returned & we all climbed into our ships & warmed up the engines. Our radios were not to be used unless necessary & Lt. Mayes had not told us to take off but when his ship taxied out we followed.

In a few minutes we were in the air. I stayed on the radio for a short time & then went to my waist & belly gun. Ashley was already in the tail position & soon Gogoj climbed into the turret. We were all ready.

Lt. Mayes’s ship was on our right & we were slowly passing him. We all waved. Sassy(?) Battaglia was in the turret & Roy Walters was in the tail.

It must have been an hour later when over the interphone we heard Muri say, “Get ready, the fleet is up ahead. We knew what type of ship we wanted to hit as the night before we had all agreed to bag a carrier if we saw one.

Now Lt. Muri & the rest up front had a bird’s eye view of the entire fleet, 4 carriers flanked by battleships, cruisers, & destroyers. We had to cross through all their fire to get that carrier. Not much time to think. Lt. Muri put a fresh cigarette in his mouth. Lt. Moore swung the torpedo sight into position. They were ready.

Down we dropped, careful not to pick up excess speed. It was just then that Lt. Muri got a look at the Marine ships which had made the first torpedo attack. They were most all shot down. No time to worry. The Japs had spotted us now. Flak was coming up. Down closer yet to the water we went. Just then, Ashley & Gogoj both yelled that a Zero was coming in on our tail.

Gogoj in the turret gave it a burst. The Jap was in close now. He let go. All hell broke loose. I heard Ashley yell that he was hit & saw him fall back from his gun. Then I could hear the shells coming into the side of the fuselage and near the turret. Gogoj slid out of his turret next. God what a mess; his face was a mess of blood. He assured me he was not badly hurt, just small cuts from the Plexiglas on the turret which had been blown off. He wrapped a rag around his forehead to keep the blood from his eyes & crawled back into the turret.

By this time, I had hopped across the hatch to Ashley. He was in horrible pain; his leg looked like hamburger. He begged to be thrown out & end the agony. I tried to call Lt. Muri but the interphone system was out. In the meantime, we were almost on the carrier. We were very low, below the flight deck.

Now we were getting all the lead & steel they could throw. Even the big guns on the battleships were leveled at us as they tried to put a shell in the water ahead of us so that we would run into the huge column of water that it would put up.

Now we were close. Lt. Johnson opened up with his gun in the nose. The Japs were running all around on the decks. The smoke from the nose gun was so thick one couldn’t see Johnson there in the nose.

Now Moore was leveling the sight. There he was dead on. Now he squeezed the trigger. Again & again he squeezed & released it to make sure. The carrier was looming up big now. Moore looked at Muri. He was tense. Beads of sweat were on his forehead. His cigarette he had bitten in two. It hung by a slender strip of paper.

“For God’s sake, Jim, pull up! Pull up! (Moore said)

And then at the last second he pulled her up. Up over the flight deck across the carrier and down low over the ocean again.

Our job was done. Would we now be able to get back?

By now I was coming through the bomb bay to get help for Ashley. Lt. Moore crawled back through with me. He looked up into the turret with Gogoj & almost fainted at the sight. From the amount of blood it looked like Gogoj’s face had been shot away. Gogoj waved him away & he went back to Ashley.

Just then a Jap swung up on the tail. Kneeling with Ashley between him and the gun, he reached across & began to fire. As soon as the gun warmed up it jammed. After that he could only fire a few shots at a time. Ashley lay on his side & passed ammunition to Moore as he needed it.

Gogoj was also having trouble. His one gun was destroyed by Jap fire. The other was jamming every few shots & there, one-hundred yards away, a Zero flew abreast of him. He kept his almost useless gun trained on the Jap & let off a burst whenever he could.

Muri had poured the coals to the ship & we slowly pulled away from the Zero on our tail.

Another hour & we were back but we did sweat it out finding the island. I was on the radio sending M. I.’s trying to get a fix but with no luck. W. W. Moore had his nose in his charts the whole way back checking on his position.

We landed on a flat tire & with only half brakes, running off the end of the runway & crashing to a stop against a bank. As we stepped out the marines were there to greet us. In a few seconds they had Ashley & Gogoj out & on the way for first aid. One of the marines that I had been going around with ran up & shook my hand. I later learned that as soon as we took off he had got on his knees & prayed we would return safe.

I got my first look at Midway since we landed. The Japs had hit it & HARD. Jap and Marine planes were scattered all over the place.

We were the first of the B-26s to come back. There had been 2 from our squadron & 2 from another. We were waiting for them to show up. Shortly after, one did landing also on a flat tire. It wasn’t ours. We waited but we had seen the last of our other ship that morning. It was never heard of again.

We had dropped our torpedo but didn’t know if we had hit the carrier but this point was cleared up sometime later by a B-17 pilot who at a higher altitude saw us make our run & our torpedo strike home. Suzy-Q had got herself a Jap carrier.

That is the story that Melo told me of the Midway battle.

Two days later we all went to see Gogoj. He was in good shape. Ashley was pretty bad. Five machine gun shells in his leg & it broken, too. It would be some time before he walked again. All of the men on the B-26s were awarded the D.S.C.