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Finish Forty and Home

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During the early years of World War II in the Pacific theatre, against overwhelming odds, young American airmen flew the longest and most perilous bombing missions of the war. They faced determined Japanese fighters without fighter escort, relentless anti-aircraft fire with no deviations from target, and thousands of miles of over-water flying with no alternative landing sites. Finish Forty and Home is the true story of the men and missions of the 11th Bombardment Group as it fought alone and unheralded in the South Central Pacific, while America had its eyes on the war in Europe. After bombing Nauru, the squadron moves on to bomb Wake Island, Tarawa, and finally Iwo Jima. These missions bring American forces closer and closer to the Japanese home islands and precede the critical American invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The 42nd Squadron's losses through 1943 were staggering: 50 out of 110 airmen killed. "Finish Forty and Home is a treasure: poignant, thrilling, and illuminating."--Laura Hillenbrand, best-selling author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit

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1. Sergeant at Seventeen

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Chapter 1

Sergeant at Seventeen

Herman Scearce was sixteen years old when he lied about his age and joined the Army two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl

Harbor. Herman’s mother had a little brown mantel radio, bought on credit along with everything else in her rented house, and that December when Herman switched the radio on and fine-tuned the local frequency, it buzzed with news about the attack and speculation about what the Japanese might do next.

Scearce had never heard of Pearl Harbor. He couldn’t remember whether he had even heard of Hawaii. Maybe it didn’t matter, because he did understand that Americans had been killed and U.S. Navy ships had been sunk. Geography certainly didn’t seem to matter to the young men forming lines at the U.S. Army enlistment center at the Danville,

Virginia, post office, just a half mile walk from his home.

34

Marvin Marshall was Herman Scearce’s cousin, his mother’s sister’s boy. Both were sixteen, worked dead-end jobs, and they were bored.

One of them, Scearce doesn’t remember who, suggested they should go join the Army, that day, right then.

 

2. Hawaii

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Chapter 2

Hawaii

Six B-24 Liberators approached Hickam Field on the morning of

February 9, 1943, arriving from Hamilton Field, California. Aboard aircraft number 41-24214, Sergeant Herman Scearce got up from the radio operator’s table for a better view.

From the southwest, Hickam Field lay directly ahead. The dark green mountains of the Koolau Range rose in the distance, wispy clouds hanging close to the ridge line. To the left, beside the air base, were dozens of fat, round, fuel storage tanks, and beyond those, Pearl Harbor’s aquamarine water seemed to glow.

“There’s the Arizona,” Deasy said.

On final approach, Scearce and the crew had just a moment to put eyes on the battleship, resting beside Ford Island, its gray structure rising above a shining, luminescent pool of oil.

“Sons o’ bitches,” Sgt. Jack Yankus muttered, from his fold-down jump seat on the flight deck between Deasy, in the left seat, and Catanzarite on the right. Yankus was ready to call out the aircraft’s speed, the flight engineer’s job during landings. His comment resonated for a moment, hanging there, profound. “Okay . . . 130,” he said next.

 

3. First Mission

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Chapter 3

First Mission

The morning of April 17 had a different feel, electric. The squadron’s officers were still in a closed-door briefing while rumors buzzed about a bombing mission, the squadron’s first. All that remained for pilots to tell their crews was when and where. When Joe Deasy met with his crew and gave them the particulars, it was the first time they had heard of Funafuti.

“Funa-who?” Yankus snorted. Twenty-three B-24 Liberators would fly to Canton Island, a porkchop-shaped atoll 1,907 miles southwest of Oahu, refuel, and continue the 737 miles to Funafuti in the Ellice

Islands group, 2600 miles from Hawaii. “That’s halfway to Australia,”

Hess muttered.

Six months before, on October 2, 1942, eleven ships of the United

States Navy had entered Funafuti’s lagoon and landed a Construction

Battalion. The Seabees immediately began construction of an airfield and support facilities while Marines prepared defenses and set up antiaircraft guns. To build the runway, Seabees bulldozed thousands of coconut trees and covered arable land with hard-packed coral. The airfield was completed before the end of the year.1

 

4. Nauru

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Chapter 4

Nauru

Scearce and Yankus unplugged their interphone headsets and moved toward the rear, as they had practiced a hundred times before.

They stepped into the bomb bay, Dogpatch Express’ four massive radial engines howling in unison, much louder than they had seemed from the flight deck. Moving along the narrow catwalk, indifferent to the thousands of pounds of high explosives just inches to their right and left, waist gunners Scearce and Yankus gripped the framework of the bomb racks as they went. The vibrating metal felt cool.

After Scearce and Yankus passed, Bob Lipe took his position in the top turret, just behind the flight deck, and rotated the turret clockwise, then back, out of habit. Ed Hess settled into the nose turret. Elmer

Johnson, already in the aircraft’s rear section with Al Marston, stepped back from the piss pipe and stretched himself before jacking up the belly turret with the hand pump just enough to release its safety hooks.

Johnson opened a hydraulic valve and allowed the turret to slide down into the wind stream beneath the plane. He glanced back at Scearce and

 

5. Air Raid

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Chapter 5

Air Raid

Intelligence information gathered from each aircrew just returned from the Nauru mission was compiled and compared, and photos developed and analyzed, until an accurate accounting of the bombing results was completed. Maj. Gen. Willis Hale endorsed the final report, which was then sent to CincPac, the office of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command.

The report described a highly successful mission:

All bombs dropped hit target except eight . . . Damage to installations and material was heavy. Personnel casualties were extremely heavy. Large fires were observed in all bombed areas . . . a group of approximately twelve buildings in the center of the runway were destroyed . . . Phosphate Plant #3 was completely demolished by at least two direct hits . . . at least three direct hits were made on

Phosphate Plant #2 . . . this plant was completely destroyed. Six bombs destroyed at least three large warehouses, thirteen buildings, eleven small railroad cars, stock storage pile, two water tanks supplying plant . . . Diesel power plant, main plant elevator building, one water tank, five cisterns, seven buildings and water distillation plant badly damaged. A train of six 500-lb bombs burst in residential

 

6. Chance

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Chapter 6

Chance

Chance is defined as something that happens unpredictably, without discernible human intention, a purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings, the fortuitous or incalculable element in existence.1

The role of chance could be depressing to a bomber crewman if he dwelt too much on it. It was better to believe that proper training and good equipment, sound strategy, and smart decisions would keep him alive. Chance played a capricious role, fickle and reckless, and whether its results were good or bad might be entirely a matter of perspective.

Any one of countless, seemingly insignificant variations might have made the difference between men living or dying. Harold Brooks was killed and Clarence Douglas badly injured, but Douglas survived. What if the two men had not traded places? Speculation on such things could go on endlessly and could drive a man to fear making the slightest misstep which might change his destiny. A turn this way or that, an extra step or a short cut? What if Super Man’s take-off time had been a moment later, or a moment earlier?

 

7. May 1943

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Chapter 7

May 1943

There was a different feel to Honolulu now. Oahu was the same, and familiar, but it wasn’t as exciting and novel as it had been in February when the Air Transport Command navigator so capably guided the nameless B-24 number “two one four” to Hickam Field. It was strange to think that it had been just weeks since then, and the island hadn’t changed, except that the men of Dogpatch Express saw how clean and fresh the new arrivals from the States appeared, and it dawned on them that they had looked that way just a couple of months before. New crews, giddy as tourists, stood out until they realized, self consciously, that it wasn’t good to be so obviously inexperienced and untested.

After just one mission, after shooting and being shot at, witnessing death and losing friends, the men of Dogpatch Express were veterans.

They understood that the price of a single combat mission could be quite high, and they knew firsthand that the Japanese were skilled, capable adversaries. They felt the prickling awareness of being spared in a very close brush with their own mortality, realizing that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, they could be less fortunate. Al Marston, veteran of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl, had already been changed by such an experience.

 

8. The Squadron’s Objectives

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Chapter 8

The Squadron’s Objectives

With twenty-four flights in thirty days, June 1943 was the busiest flying month for Sgt. Herman Scearce since he joined the Army.

He had more hours in the air during May, but May had included the long trip to Midway, the Wake mission, and the searches in the vicinity of Palmyra. June’s schedule was full of activity and Scearce liked it that way. Staying busy was the best way for Scearce to shut out the image of the man with the rectangular hole in his head. It was the best way to stop thinking about his friend Harold Brooks, or the loss of The Green Hornet with its entire crew, or the uncertainty of a future with a thirty strike mission requirement. And as May moved into June and July, keeping busy, having something to focus on for tomorrow, and the next day and the next, was the only way to avoid dwelling on tragedy.

The squadron’s primary responsibility was protection of the Hawaiian Islands. They flew patrols and search missions and conducted countless hours of training to maintain combat readiness. The 42nd sent planes into combat during the summer of 1943, occasional sorties from Funafuti to Nauru or the Gilberts, and Midway to Wake, harassing

 

9. The Pacific Preferred

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Chapter 9

The Pacific Preferred

Back in February, Herman Scearce and his buddies had been disappointed when they found out they were headed for the Pacific. Had they known what the future held for B-24 crews going to Europe at that time, they may have been relieved.

If Lt. Joe Deasy and the crew of B-24 number 41-24214 had been ordered to Europe, they would have been assigned to one of the three

Eighth Air Force groups flying Liberators. In June of 1943, these three groups, the 44th, the 93rd, and the 389th, were sent from their bases in England to North Africa.1 From their sand-swept temporary Libyan base, they practiced extreme low-level flying for a unique mission slated for the first day of August.

Every available Liberator participated in the August 1 raid, targeting the strategically vital Romanian oil refinery complex at Ploesti. The three groups from the Eighth, joined by two from the Ninth based in

Libya, took off with 178 bombers and flew in formation below 1000 feet for the seven-hour run to Ploesti. They hurtled across desert, then the

 

10. Softening Tarawa

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Chapter 10

Softening Tarawa

In late 1943, the 42nd Bomb Squadron’s missions were flown against targets in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Strikes against these islands were intended to soften Japanese defenses. If an island was slated for invasion, air strikes would be followed by Navy ships moving in for closerange shelling, and then the Marines would go ashore. The long-range strategy was to gain control of bases close enough to reach Japan while neutralizing or minimizing threats along the flanks as American forces moved forward. Each island group in their control brought American bombers closer, and in the Gilberts, Tarawa was the primary objective.1

Tarawa is a triangular group of islands, altogether about twelve miles wide and eighteen miles long. The bottom of the triangle, running more or less east to west, is anchored in the west by Betio Island and in the east by Buota Island. A coral reef extends from Betio’s western tip northward, enclosing a large lagoon, and ends at Buariki Island on

 

11. Forever Consequences

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Chapter 11

Forever Consequences

The Army Air Forces had a wide range of ordnance available for bombing all kinds of targets. There were armor piercing bombs designed to penetrate the decks of ships and explode inside the hull.

Fragmentation bombs of different types were designed for use against personnel and parked aircraft. Incendiary bombs would scatter over rooftops and into populated areas starting fires. But the bombs used most commonly by the 11th Bomb Group in the Central Pacific were

General Purpose bombs.

General Purpose bombs were painted dull olive drab with a oneinch-wide yellow band around the nose and tail. They carried about half their total weight in high explosive and were armed in the nose and tail with vane fuses, the tiny propellers of the fuses spinning as the bomb was dropped, either unscrewing a long threaded stem to release a spring-loaded detonator in the nose, or screwing down to crush an ampoule of fluid that would dissolve a delay collar to release a detonator in the tail.1

 

12. Losing Altitude Fast

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Chapter 12

Losing Altitude Fast

The difference between an uneventful mission and a terrifying one could be a matter of a few feet, maybe one more or one less degree of elevation or traverse by a Japanese anti-aircraft gunner as he aimed his weapon to fire. It might be just a heartbeat’s difference in the gunner’s hand on the aiming wheels, raising the barrel or sweeping it toward the path of incoming American bombers.

On the December 4, 1943, mission to Nauru, Lt. Robert Kerr’s plane took a shell through the left stabilizer.1 A few feet to the plane’s right and the shell would have hit the tail gunner’s position and would surely have exploded there and blown the tail off the plane. Instead, the round put a jagged hole through the thin vertical section just ahead of the left rudder and exploded above the aircraft, sprinkling spent shrapnel harmlessly down through the big bomber’s wake.

A Navy PB4Y had joined eight B-24s for the December 4 Nauru raid. PB4Y was the Navy’s designation for their version of the Liberator, Patrol Bomber 4, Y the code letter for Consolidated Aircraft, the manufacturer. The standard joke in the Air Corps was that the Navy got Liberators that didn’t pass Army inspection.

 

13. Back to Hawaii

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Chapter 13

Back to Hawaii

The 42nd Bombardment Squadron lost five aircrews between late

May 1943 and the end of the year. A low-level search mission on May

27 claimed Lieutenant Phillips’ Green Hornet, then in July Lieutenant

Cason’s plane and crew took a terrifying final plummet after colliding with a Zero on a mission against Wake Island. Lieutenant Friedrich and his Virginia Belle couldn’t find Funafuti after a Tarawa raid in November, and Lieutenant Dechert was lost on a mission against Mille in early

December. Finally, Lieutenant Smith was shot down trying to get back from Maloelap on the twentieth of the same month. Five complete B-24 crews lost, fifty men, fifty out of 110 airmen in the squadron.

Maloelap also claimed Capt. James Irby’s 98th Squadron crew in

December while the crew flew with a substitute pilot because Irby was hospitalized with pneumonia. Irby’s men were the ones surprised by the

Marine stowaway on a Tarawa mission back in September. Irby’s plane,

Tuffy, with Li’l Abner’s Hairless Joe on its nose, was being flown by the

 

14. Last Flights

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Chapter 14

Last Flights

The radio operator’s table dropped, Sergeant Scearce’s stomach leaped, and he braced his knees against the table to keep from falling into the heaving cockpit floor. Just outside his window, Scearce could see the silver propeller hub of Belle of Texas’ number 3 engine turning so fast it seemed to be standing still. On sunny days the hub spinners were shiny bright enough to blind you, but today they were grubby gray like a well-worn nickel. Rain pelted and spread across the cockpit glass and streaking rivulets raced across the radio operator’s window. Just past number 3 the outboard engine was a ghostly dark shadow and the wingtip beyond wasn’t visible at all.

Lt. Charlie Pratte and co-pilot Lt. Reginald Spence pushed the plane’s nose down to reduce altitude because they had been unable to get above the weather and decided to try downstairs. The long, thin wings of the

Liberator fluttered up and down, an unsettling vision that knotted the stomachs and choked the throats of green airmen the first time they saw a B-24 flex like this, but Yankus, Findle, Scearce, Pratte, Spence, and navigator Ball weren’t green airmen. They weren’t rattled because the wings were flexing; they were rattled because the bomber was on its first flight after major repairs by men who didn’t usually work on

 

15. Ask the Man Who Owns One

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Chapter 15

Ask the Man Who Owns One

The role of the 42nd Squadron as a replacement crew training unit gave the old timers in the squadron the feeling that they were more in business than in combat. New crews came through and went to the front, but the 42nd stayed put, at least for now. The old timers, men who had arrived a full year before, been in combat and returned to Hawaii, understood that the 42nd was also gradually being rebuilt around a core of experience, and as that core they knew that sooner or later they would be called upon to lead the squadron into battle again.

In March 1944, Capt. Joe Deasy got sick. He was feverish, didn’t have much appetite and felt tired all the time. His symptoms were like a mild case of dengue fever, similar to flu symptoms, except that they wouldn’t go away. Dengue fever was spread by mosquitoes in some of the forward areas where the 11th Group operated, and the crew had assumed Deasy would recover from it in a week or two. But on April 10 Deasy was admitted to Oahu’s Tripler General Hospital and diagnosed not with dengue fever but with tuberculosis, and as the next most senior pilot, Capt. Jesse Stay assumed command of the squadron.1 Deasy’s crew was shocked by the news and they were concerned about their pilot’s welfare, but they were also very worried

 

16. The Meaning of Boxes

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Chapter 16

The Meaning of Boxes

In late July 1944, the 42nd Bomb Squadron had been on alert for a return to combat for almost three months. The unusual length of their alert status caused it to be largely forgotten, so for most of the squadron’s men, the arrival of shipping boxes in each squadron section caused quite a buzz.

A letter from Headquarters dated May 1 had placed the ground echelon of the squadron on alert and led to rumor and speculation about their next combat station.1 With no follow-up orders, interest waned until late June when the alert status was modified to include the air echelon. The June orders also relieved the squadron of its training duties, significant because this was an important step toward returning the 42nd to true fighting trim. It wasn’t that they had been idle, but for most of the 42nd’s crews there hadn’t been a combat mission in six months and there is something unquantifiably different about flying strike missions, something which focuses the mind and sharpens skills unlike any training or patrol mission ever could, possibly the awareness that another nation’s fighting men were committed to shooting you down, killing you on the ground, denying you your objective any way they could. Being relieved of training duties meant that the 42nd could focus on preparing themselves for combat, and the knowledge

 

17. Guam

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Chapter 17

Guam

On August 21, 1944, 183 men, the ground echelon of the 42nd Bombardment Squadron, climbed aboard freshly painted green troop trucks and drove across Oahu from Mokuleia to the docks at Honolulu.1 Men breathed the strong smell of the trucks’ new enamel coats and the scent evoked a powerful sense of renewed purpose. The aroma of fresh government paint mixed with rich truck exhaust smelled like readiness for combat.

By 8:00 that morning they were aboard the transport ship Cape

Perpetua, right on schedule, and most of the squadron’s equipment was loaded aboard another ship, the Joseph Priestley.2 The squadron’s ground support was ready to ship out and set up another forward base while the aircrews and planes were left behind, waiting at Mokuleia for the new base to be ready. No one in the squadron knew where that next base would be, though bets were on Saipan, Tinian, or Guam.

Eight months had passed since the 42nd was deployed to a combat zone. Their mission on Oahu made important contributions to the war effort in a strategic sense, reorganizing and rebuilding while training replacement crews for the other three squadrons of the group, but it wasn’t the same as being in action, doing what a bomber outfit is trained and equipped to do. Relieving the 42nd of their training duties back

 

18. Back in Business

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Chapter 18

Back in Business

Thirty miles east of Oahu, a twin-engined B-25 Mitchell bomber towing a gunnery target entered airspace designated A-9 at 4,000 feet. Fifteen minutes later, three 42nd Bomb Squadron B-24s arrived in a V formation with Lt. Keeton Rhoades flying lead. Number two was 2nd Lt. Robert Davis and the third Liberator was piloted by Lt.

Thomas Reale.

Reale was Capt. Jesse Stay’s pick for co-pilot back in June when the new squadron commander decided to keep an aircrew of his own. Sgt.

Herman Scearce was pleased to be on that crew as radio man because he had worried about getting stuck with a green pilot. Scearce was confident in the crew because Lieutenant Reale and the rest of the men were also hand-picked by Captain Stay. Since then, Lieutenant Reale had transitioned from co-pilot to first pilot, so Reale was in the left seat of the number three aircraft when the formation’s gunners opened fire on the target towed by the B-25.

For the next half hour the three B-24 crews practiced formation gunnery on the towed target, but then Reale’s plane began to turn out of formation to the right, away from the other two bombers. Davis saw

 

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