Mel Lees

Mel LeesMel served with the “Flying Tigers” during World War 2 in China, and with the 308th Bomb Group in 1943-44.

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We were a primed crew of the “Rose of Juarez,” ten apprehensive young men ready to do the job for which they had been trained. We had loaded the bombs on our B-24 Liberator the night before and sat through a formal briefing early in the morning.

We had been languishing at our favorite base away from home. Quelin was an advanced air base from which we could get to the ocean and have enough fuel to return. It was also playground for crews lucky enough to have some time to spend there. Unfortunately, the ten bomber crews there this time were restricted to the base as the mission was top secret. We were all bored to distraction while waiting for orders to go to work. I managed to sleep most of the time. Some of my friends were busily playing cards, some rereading a dog-eared copy of Damon Reunion. Each hour seemed to spread into over 1oo minutes. Speculation was rampant. We would bomb Japan. We would bomb Shanghai. We would bomb Manila. Security was tight, but one of our Chinese allies decided to go into town for a night of fun. The mission was scrubbed immediately.

The morning briefing cleared the mystery. Our new mission was to sink a Japanese convoy in the China Sea. A piece of cake. We would attack singly from very low level and sink as many ships as we could.

Of course, the brass ignored the fact that not one of us had ever done low level bombing and certainly none of us had even tried to skip bomb. Oh well. We were Air Corps officers and one of each crew of ten men was a bombardier. We knew all about the Norden Bombsight and how we could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. We had trained bombing from 1,000 feet to 15,000 feet. We knew how to adjust the bombsight to accommodate any type and weight of bomb. We were Air Corps Bombardiers and had the wings and bars to prove it.

After the briefing, the complaining came, not to the commanders but among us. Each of us had a different theory as to how to drop the payload. We could do it. After all we were trained bombardiers.

Expect no fighter escort, we were warned. Also, you will each be on your own, as we don’t wish to have a formation of ten planes spotted. Our odds of a successful foray with a safe return kept going lower than those at the B.O.Q. crap games. There was a steady line to the latrines. From the latrine, we lined up at Doc Matson’s paregoric dispensary.

A sober ten boys/men threw their gear aboard the Rose and followed it in. No one sang “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder.” No one sang anything. Our “in case” letters were written. Our valuables left at out bunks and our 45s in our holsters. None of us had any intention of using the automatics. No. They were for trading, not killing.

Each of us settled into our thoughts. Until we flew to enemy territory, there was little for most of us to do. The gunners checked their 50 caliber machine guns. The radio man did whatever it was he did before combat to get ready. I never understood what he could do as he would be busy in the top turret if we saw the enemy.

Mostly, we sat quietly, deep in contemplation. A couple of men prayed softly. One cried. The pilot, co-pilot and navigator were busy. They had the job of getting us to sighting distance of the convoy. When the navigator told us we were over enemy territory, we sprang into action. Each gunner went to his gun fired it and pronounced it O.K. I went into the bomb bay and prepared the bombs for their duty of killing. Today, we were carrying 500-pound eggs loaded with detonators that would explode after the bomb entered the ship. I pulled the safety pin from each bomb. As a matter of habit, I slipped each pin into my pocket as memento.

I realized that I was frightened, but much less than just after the briefing. I made certain, and re-certain, that all the switches to control the dropping of the load were in the down position. I switched the sight on and requested the pilot to fly straight and level while I adjusted the sight’s telescope. Then I capped the scope.

There was really nothing more for me to do until we sighted our target. Instead, I became more and more frightened. I rechecked my work for a second and third time. I put my head into the navigation bubble to look for enemy planes.

“There’s a flight of planes at three o’clock.” Silence in the aircraft. All our eyes scanned the horizon. There they were, but they either didn’t see us or didn’t wish to see us. We flew on. They flew on. Almost no chatter on the intercom.

“There they are,” called Rasberry from the nose turret.

Off, in the distance, something was in the water. It was a bunch of somethings. I became calm. No more fright. We were way too far away to think of a bomb run yet, but I bent over the sight as a matter of routine. I stared from my lower window and the somethings developed into vessels. Splashes rose up in front of us. Puffs of smoke appeared at the same time.

“They shooting at us,” said Zeke, the pilot. “They’re hoping the splashes will knock us down.

“Bombardier, get ready. We’ll make a run.”

The plane nosed down almost to the water. A destroyer escort came steaming up to where we were heading and we peeled off.

“Let’s try another run,” I called to the pilot.

We flew way out to the safety of the ocean space, nosed down and made a run on a stray ship. Just then, another of our planes headed toward us and the same target so we turned away again. Off, at two o’clock, I saw one of our planes raise a wing and dive into the ocean. It was gone. “That was a 373rd.” I phoned to Zeke. “Let’s go again.”

This time, we made a run. We were so low the trailing antenna was knocked off when it banged against the ship. I had to look up to see the top of the vessel.

My expensive Norden Bombsight stayed clamped in place. My new expensive sight was an old 12-inch ruler and a protractor. I measured the angle I wanted and made a mark on the window. When the mark left the water and entered the ship, I dropped the bombs by using a hand switch. Zowie. A hit!

“Let’s go around for a strafing run,” I yelled.

“Look outside,” came from six other phones. The sky was black from flack.

“Let’s go home.” My work was finished.

It has become obvious why young men are sent to fight. Fear becomes a secondary feeling. The responsibility to complete your job, and not be equal to the task, in the eyes of your peers, becomes more powerful than the fear of death. That day, it was sheer stupidity that kept us making deadly bomb runs when we could have salvoed the eggs and flew home. Instead, we did what we were expected to do. Of the ten crews who started out that morning, only four of us got home safely.

Later that day, a squadron of B25 Mitchell medium bombers finished off the fleet. They at least, had the proper equipment.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have survived owe it to the young to keep them from the stupidity of their elders. It is a lesson we must teach our future.

©Copyright March 2009 by Mel Lees